Mid-Month Divisional Report

It’s mid-April, so obviously, it’s
time to put the teams with baseball’s best records in the World
Series. (In case you were wondering, had we done the same thing last
April 16, it would have projected to a Rangers-Dodgers Fall Classic,
two teams that combined to win zero playoff games in 2012.) This year, it would be the Athletics and Braves. But even
at this juncture, the eye test tells us that the winds of change are
blowing; some of last year’s also-rans are in the running, and some
projected contenders have us scratching our collective heads. So
let’s take a look at how the six divisions have shaken out through
the first of a dozen half-month segments of the 2013 campaign:

American League East

The beasts: Red Sox. Everybody
but this guy had the Red Sox finishing fourth or worse. Everybody but
this guy would have felt crazy picking Clay Buchholz to win Cy Young.
So far, so good for this guy. The Red Sox have clearly put last
season’s 93-loss mess behind them, and I say look no further than
what I call “The John Farrell Effect.” It’s no secret the
pitching staff suffered mightily when Farrell left after 2010, and
they have rounded back into shape in 2013. Some nice additions on
offense have added depth to a lineup that will soon have its big
bopper back in David Ortiz.

Those in between: Yankees, Orioles.
The two teams that duked it out
for divisional supremacy last September will be in the hunt all year,
but both have some weak spots that could be exposed. For the Yankees,
it’s an injury- and age-riddled offense missing a number of star
players. The starting rotation has holes in the back end, but should
hold up fine with CC, Hiroki, and Andy. For the upstart Orioles,
continued production from the offense and starting pitching will
determine whether last year’s 93-69 record was a fluke or a sign of
things to come.

The leasts: Blue Jays and Rays. It’s
hard to put either of these teams on a list called “the leasts.”
Remember, this is based on two weeks of baseball. But the eye test
has been a little disturbing with these two clubs. The Jays now have
a big hole to fill with Jose Reyes out at least two months, and their
rotation suddenly looks shaky with the early-season struggles of R.A.
Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle. A mediocre bullpen doesn’t
help matters, either. For Tampa Bay, an American League-worst
offensive output through half a month is alarming considering what it
has on paper. The Rays have always been about pitching, but have won
because their offense has always been able to manufacture runs. Not
this year, as they have scored an AL-worst 35 runs. If the bats don’t
wake up, it could be a long year in the AL East.

League Central

Tigers. A
no-brainer here. The Tigers may be baseball’s most talented team on
paper, and the likelihood is that will play out that way over the
course of the season, at least enough so to win a soft division like
the AL Central. One of the game’s deepest rotations resides in
Detroit, and the Tigers’ lineup is as good as anyone’s. Their bullpen
is a major problem right now, especially not having a bona fide
closer, but expect GM Dave Dombrowski to address the issue at some
point in the near future.

in between:
Royals. Kansas
City looks like an improved bunch (stop me if you’ve heard that one
before). The lineup has been a steady force, with Alex Gordon and
Billy Butler leading the way. A rotation led by former Rays James
Shields and Wade Davis gives them some credibility, especially with a
strong bullpen, meaning the Royals could make a run at a wild card

Indians, Twins, White Sox. Cleveland’s
heavy purchases in the outfield can’t help a porous pitching staff,
so what figured to be a long year should play out as such. Justin
Masterson has been nothing short of dominant, but even his brilliance
can’t offset the woes of the offense and the rest of the rotation
(side bar: anyone remember when Ubaldo Jimenez was baseball’s best
pitcher for a time? He’s now lucky to have a job in the big leagues).
The Twins have shown some fight and some offensive punch, but there
is no pitching depth whatsoever. The only team that may have a case
against being on this list is the White Sox, who feature some lineup
thunder and a few weapons in their pitching arsenal in Chris Sale and
Jake Peavy. But with players like Adam Dunn and Gavin Floyd dragging
the team down, it’s hard to envision Chicago even finishing at .500.

League West

Athletics, Rangers. The
A’s are proving that 2012 was no accident. A lineup of no-names
always seems to find a new hero and come up big in the clutch. The
pitching staff is loaded with talented young arms, and the bullpen is
deep and dependable. They are not the most talented team, but one of
the most resilient, and should vie for another division crown. The
Rangers are off to a good start in life after Josh Hamilton, thanks
to grizzled veterans like Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski and Yu
Darvish’s dominance. Texas didn’t make two straight World Series
appearances because of one player alone.

in between:
Angels. People
might argue that it’s crazy to not include the Angels as top dogs in
the division, but my gut feeling is that their 4-9 start isn’t quite
the aberration everyone thinks it is. This is a team that has
continued to fall short of expectations, yet was presumed to make the
big leap with the addition of one player in Hamilton. Jered Weaver’s
injury is a huge blow to a rotation that already had viable concerns,
and Hamilton’s early-season struggles have highlighted the fact that
the Angels’ lineup may have star power, but it isn’t all that great
one through nine. Factor in an average bullpen, and 2013 could be
another uphill battle for Mike Scoscia’s bunch.

Astros, Mariners. The
Astros’ rookie year in the AL isn’t going so swimmingly despite their
opening-night win over Texas. There are a few pieces in place for the
future, but they are a long way off. When Bud Norris is your ace and
Jose Veras is your closer, you aren’t winning more than 60 games. The
Mariners were throttled by the Astros two out of three in the teams’
recent series, an embarrassing revelation for a team expected to
improve in 2013. Seattle still has King Felix and an early-season
power surge by Michael Morse is nice, but in a tough division, the
Mariners’ roster simply doesn’t measure up.

League East

Braves, Nationals. We
all know an 11-1 start is a stretch, especially given the Braves’
recent penchant for late-season collapses. Credit Atlanta, however,
for winning without several key players, as catcher Brian McCann,
first baseman Freddie Freeman and setup man Johnny Venters are all on
the shelf. Justin Upton has been quite a force, even if his brother
has been dead weight. And it’s impossible not to mention Paul Maholm,
who is 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA (yes, you read that correctly). The Braves
may not have a true ace, but it’s worked so far. Craig Kimbrel’s not
too shabby as a closer, either. The Nationals learned all of this
last weekend in being swept at home, but they will most certainly
bounce back. They have the better rotation of the two, and at least
an equal lineup. The bullpen has been a bit shaky, as it’s clear no
one fear’s the late-inning 1-2 punch of Tyler Clippard and Rafael
Soriano right now. But the division should come down to these two

in between:
Phillies, Mets. Philadelphia’s
window isn’t closed, as some have suggested, but the opportunity
doesn’t seem as grand as it once was for the Phightins. As much as
Cole Hamels (0-2, 7.56 ERA) and Roy Halladay (1-2, 7.63) may
struggle, it’s hard to argue they don’t have one of, if not the best,
rotations in the game. But that may be where it ends for the
Phillies. The offense just doesn’t score runs like it used to, even
with Chase Utley, Dominic Brown and Michael Young swinging hot bats
in the early goings. The bullpen is solid at the back end with Mike
Adams and Jonathan Papelbon, but getting to them has been a problem
when the starters haven’t gone deep. Ultimately, that’s the key for
the Phillies, as they will go where their starting pitching takes
them. For the Mets, say what you want about the rest of the rotation,
but Matt Harvey is pitching lights out and could very well be your NL
Rookie of the Year. The lineup has been on something of a tear (you’d
figure it’d have to be when John Buck has 11 RBI through 10 games),
meaning the onus is on the rest of the starters and a very
questionable bullpen to perform if the Mets are to make any impact
this year. Still, they will make life tough for the contenders of
this division all year.

Marlins. The
Marlins really aren’t even worth writing much. 23 runs scored in 13
games? There simply aren’t enough adjectives to describe such
futility. All one can say is, you just feel for the pitchers, who
actually haven’t been that bad, all things considered (4.21 ERA).
Miami will be a punching bag for the rest of the league all year, and
I for one am already thinking one thing – 2003 Tigers? Could Miami
do what that team came oh-so-close to doing and lose 120 games?
That’s probably a stretch, but considering how good the rest of their
division is, they will easily eclipse triple-digits in losses.

League Central

Cardinals, Reds. I
always marvel at the Cardinals. I highly doubt many people thought
they could make such a smooth transition from the Albert Pujols and
Tony LaRussa eras, the same way people thought they would be done in
by a season-ending injury to Adam Wainwright prior to the 2011
season. Chris Carpenter and Jason Motte were lost before this season,
and something tells me they will be just fine. The Cardinals are once
again on track for a stellar season not just because of the usual
suspects (Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Wainwright) but because
players like Matt Adams (.611 avg, 3 HR, 8 RBI) and rookie Shelby
Miller (2-0, 1.46 ERA) help form their “supporting cast.” There
is plenty of depth and enough pitching, even if the bullpen is a
concern. After replacing LaRussa, Mike Matheny left no doubt that
this is his team and only his team, and the players have bought into
that message. The Reds, meanwhile, hate the Cardinals. This much we
know. What else do we know? That Cardinals fans hate Brandon
Phillips? Well, yes. But all that rivalry nonsense aside, Cincinnati
needs to ignore its 6-7 start and remember it has plenty of pop in
its lineup and talented starting pitching to carry it to another
division title. Johnny Cueto being on the disabled list is
concerning, but Homer Bailey, Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo can
shoulder the loud in the interim. And few people will be hitting
Aroldis Chapman’s 100-plus-mph fastball.

in between:
Pirates. It’s
tempting to drop the Pirates to the “leasts.” They got off to a
poor start, and the talent level just doesn’t measure up with the
Cardinals and Reds. But the scrappy Pirates have hung around for the
first half of the last couple of seasons and figure to do the same
this year. Their ultimate undoing will be their pitching staff, an
untrustworthy rotation and equally shaky bullpen.

Brewers, Cubs. Kyle
Lohse was a nice pickup, but he will soon be longing for his
Cardinals days. The Brewers are not much more than Ryan Braun, and
it’s hard to imagine that this team was in the NLCS just two years
ago. The Cubs are making progress very slowly, but for a franchise
that has gone over 100 years without a World Series title, that just
won’t fly with the Wrigley faithful.

League West

Giants, Dodgers. Before
we start with the bitter rivals, let me put a disclaimer here that it
was tempting to put the Diamondbacks on this list, but they’re not
quite there. The Giants are the champs for a reason. When a team can
bring a two-time Cy Young award winner out of the bullpen and boast
Ryan Vogelsong as its number three starter, you know it’s in good
shape. Offensively it will be more of the same for the Giants,
something of a grind to score runs, but Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval
and Angel Pagan and company should pick up the slack. The Dodgers,
meanwhile, could give the Dodgers a run, but losing Zack Greinke for
two months hurts. The offense looks good on paper but has yet to kick
it into high gear. The bullpen has its moments, but needs the “other
guys” (Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett, Ryu Hyun-jin) to step it up
to keep things afloat.

in between:
Diamondbacks. Arizona
has plenty of talent, but their lineup is what has me hesitant to put
them in the “beasts” category. The rotation is young and
promising, with Patrick Corbin (2-0, 1.50 ERA) and Wade Miley (2-0,
2.13) off to great starts to complement veterans Ian Kennedy and
Trevor Cahill. No Diamondback has more than two home runs through 13
games, with Paul Goldschmidt leading the team with 10 RBI. New
addition Cody Ross is off to a slow start, and with Aaron Hill
shelved for 4-6 weeks, others like Miguel Montero and Martin Prado
need to pick up the slack.

Rockies, Padres. One
thing you can’t say about the Rockies is that they aren’t fun to
watch. Coors Field always delivers entertaining, high-scoring games
and Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are legitimate stars in the
NL. Still, the pitching is so far off that winning 75 games seems
like a stretch. I won’t discount Jhoulys Chacin’s 2-0 record and 1.96
ERA, but when he’s your ace… Anyways, the Padres aren’t in much
better shape. Their ace is a tossup between Jason Marquis, Clayton
Richard, Edinson Volquez and Eric Stults. Take your pick – it’s not
pretty. Bud Black may want to recruit Tony Gwynn out of retirement,
especially with Chase Headley sidelined and Carlos Quentin briefly
suspended, essentially leaving Yonder Alonso as the team’s thumper.
Frightening – if you’re playing a Triple-A team. The Padres are
just a slight step better.

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