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.
American League Central
The beasts: 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.
Those 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 spot.
The leasts: 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.
American League West
The beasts: 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.
Those 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.
The leasts: 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.
National League East
The beasts: 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 teams.
Those 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.
The leasts: 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.
National League Central
The beasts: 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.
Those 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.
The leasts: 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.
National League West
The beasts: 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.
Those 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.
The leasts: 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.
Posted by Michael Seff.