(Photo Credit: REUTERS/SHANNA LOCKWOOD)
Almost two months have already passed, and MLB’s division races have been wilder than ever. Ever since the Wild Card round was implemented into the postseason, more teams feel like they can make the playoffs every year. The extended Wild Card has also given leeway to teams who don’t end up winning the division to make up for it by doing everything they can to earn one of the two Wild Card spots.
The good news is for these six division-leading teams is that they lead the division and would qualify for the postseason if it were to start tomorrow. Some of these clubs would be perfectly content with that, while others would hold their breath and bite their nails while hoping for a miracle. Thankfully, the season doesn’t end for another four months, meaning these teams have a long time to improve on what’s already been a successful start or a mediocre stretch early in the year. School may be out for the summer, but that stops no one from handing out a report card on overall performance.
1 AL East: New York Yankees (30-13)
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It wasn’t an easy start to the season for the Yankees under a new skipper in Aaron Boone, but things have looked better than ever for a lineup full of young talent and a pitching staff full of veterans who still have potential to dominate every night. They’re tied with their biggest foe in the Boston Red Sox in first place at this point but with a .698 win percentage versus the Red Sox's .681, the Yankees clearly get the edge.
It feels like April was a month for the young roster to get its feet in the water and figure out how the game works. Ever since their brawl with the Red Sox on April 10, the Yankees have been one of the best teams in baseball, posting a 24-7 record and winning eight straight series in that span.
Didi Gregorius was the best hitter in the league in April and won the AL Player of the Month Award to add to his accomplishments. Gregorius has struggled in May, but rookies Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar have made their presence known in the lineup since getting called up. Torres is hitting .309 with four home runs while Andujar is hitting .286. What’s even better for the Yankees is Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez are heating up at the plate after dismal Aprils, with Stanton hitting .328 and Sanchez hitting .279 in May.
On the pitching side, closer Aroldis Chapman has found himself once again and is posting a 1.42 ERA and converting nine of his ten save opportunities this season. CC Sabathia and Luis Severino have dazzled in the rotation early in the year, with both guys posting ERA’s below 2.40 and going a combined 9-2 this season. The bullpen hasn’t been the greatest part of their play though, with key pieces like Dellin Betances and David Robertson posting ERA’s over 4.30 in the early goings of the year. Other than those two, everyone else has produced consistently for the Yankees, making their struggles look unnoticeable for a club 17 games over .500.
2 AL East: Cleveland Indians (22-23)
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If the Indians were in any other division, they wouldn’t have a postseason spot, which says a lot about how competitive the AL Central has been this year. With two teams in the midst of a rebuilding stage and another team getting ready to rebuild, the only competition the Indians have is the Minnesota Twins, who sit four games under .500 at this point in the season.
The biggest issue for the Indians was slow starts offensively for key players like Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Lindor’s April was rocky, going from a .150 batting average to hitting .241 and going back down to .205 at one point. He finished April with a .257 batting average but has made his struggles in April seem like they never happened, posting a .372 clip in May up to this point in the season. Ramirez was in a similar boat, starting the season 3 for 35 but then ending April with a .289 batting average. He’s hitting .295 but is helping the rest of the Indians offense find its groove.
Jason Kipnis has been a different story. After being sent on three separate trips to the disabled list last season, Kipnis is working his way back to playing every day and helping the Indians win their third straight AL Central. It appears, though, that he’s lost all sense of ability to hit, posting a .176 average. His struggles wouldn’t be so bad if Yonder Alonso and Edwin Encarnacion weren’t in the same boat as well, but another problem facing Kipnis is that he has one home run all season.
The pitching hasn’t been up to standard either, with Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer seeming to be the only pitchers who can get deep into a game this season. They’ve been picking up the slack for guys like Josh Tomlin and Carlos Carrasco, but it takes at least four starters for a club to make noise down the stretch and not two. It’s great seeing Kluber and Bauer dominate early in the year but it won’t be enough to get the Indians back to the playoffs if the offense doesn’t get into a groove and the pitching staff and bullpen continue giving up runs.
3 AL West: Houston Astros (30-18)
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The defending world champs haven’t been lights out in 2018, but they’ve been much better than the Chicago Cubs were last season at this point. Jose Altuve and George Springer have lead the way offensively while catcher Brian McCann has found life with his bat for the first time since leaving the Atlanta Braves in 2014.
Houston's pitching has been the driving force of this team, with the club boasting the top three pitchers in league ERA with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton, all with ERA’s under two. In fact, Dallas Keuchel, with a 3.43 ERA, has the worst ERA of all the starting pitchers. The bullpen has also been fantastic to start the season, minus veteran Joe Smith's 7.43 ERA on the year. Ken Giles is continuing to show manager AJ Hinch why he deserves the closer's role as he has converted all eight of his save chances this year and newly signed Hector Rondon has found life once again with the Astros after a forgettable 2017 with the Cubs.
The only concern for the defending champs is the offense being unproductive during the year. Carlos Correa has been in a funk all of May, hitting just .180 after hitting .315 in April and utility man Marwin Gonzalez has yet to get his bat going this season after posting a career best in home runs, RBI and batting average last season. It’s fair to say a World Series hangover might loom over the Astros, but superb pitching can overlook an average offense any day of the week.
4 NL East: Atlanta Braves (28-17)
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The Braves have had an incredible year. The club looks oddly similar to last year's Milwaukee Brewers, who were a year ahead of the rebuild schedule and fighting for a postseason berth up to the end of the year. After four mediocre and forgettable seasons of baseball in Atlanta, it’s suddenly become fun watching this club nightly.
The biggest reason for the Braves early success has been the production from all of their rookies and players playing their first full seasons. Second baseman Ozzie Albies has looked like an MVP all year, leading the club in home runs with 13 and extra base hits with 30. Rookie outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. has made his presence known ever since his debut on April 25. Though Acuna has shown signs of struggles in Ma,y the 20-year-old has nothing to worry about at this point.
It’s also good to note that the Braves haven’t had to rely on Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis to provide offense for the club this year, which is another reason Atlanta sits a game and a half ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies for first place.
The Braves also have two of the best pitchers in the league in their rotation in Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz. They’ve both given up their share of walks, each with 24 through nine starts, but they’ve also combined to strike out 115 batters this year, with Newcomb leading by one over Foltynewicz. The club has been bitten by the injury bug on the pitching side though, meaning they’ve had to experiment with different options from the farm system, but there are still four months left in the year and if the Braves can keep this up, the chances are good they could land a starter before the midseason trade deadline.
5 NL Central: Milwaukee Brewers (28-19)
(Photo Credit: REUTERS/BRAD REMPEL)
The Brewers are hungry to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011 after missing the playoffs by one game last year. May has gone much better for the Brew Crew than April did, when the club struggled to win games in the division, going 7-11 against division opponents. The club hasn’t faced a division rival since facing the Pittsburgh Pirates May 4-6 but since that series, they’ve been one of the best teams in the game, which is why they sit in first place.
The Brewers went 7-3 on their latest road trip, which featured three teams in the postseason last year in Colorado, Arizona, and Minnesota. The offense was led by Jesus Aguilar, who’s been getting more playing time with injuries to Eric Thames and Ryan Braun this year, and newcomers Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain have wasted little time in helping their club win games day in and day out.
While the offense has been consistently performing for the Brewers, the starting rotation has had issues. Their starting pitchers have walked 96 batters up to this point in the season and a BABIP of .268 against them hasn’t helped their cause either. The starters have only averaged 1.03 HR/9 IP, though, and have also stranded 76.8% of baserunners. Milwaukee's pitchers don’t have great command, but they’ve been able to get out of jams when needed but that can only last so long before it bites them.
6 NL West: Arizona Diamondbacks (25-21)
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After an incredible 21-8 start to the season, the Diamondbacks have fallen off the face of the earth by going 4-13 in May. Yet somehow, thanks to the help of the rest of the division, they still sit in first place. In all honesty, though, the schedule for May has been tough for the Diamondbacks, who’ve had to face three of the best rotations in baseball this month in the Astros, Nationals, and Mets, and they’ve also been hit by the injury bug more than they’d like to admit.
NL Player of the Month of April AJ Pollock has landed on the disabled list again with a broken thumb suffered on May 14 against the Brewers and it looks as if Steven Souza is headed back to the DL after restraining his pectoral against the Mets over the weekend. Paul Goldschmidt continues to struggle at the plate and David Peralta has also cooled off after a hot start to the year. The club got third baseman Jake Lamb back this weekend, but facing Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom didn’t help the offense get out of their prolonged funk.
Losing Pollock has done more than hurt the club, it's obliterated them, and good pitching from the starters has been overlooked by their inability to score and the struggles the bullpen has endured this month. Archie Bradley has struggled to hold leads or keeping the score tied the last two times he’s gone out in those situations and Fernando Salas is making a case for why the team needs to release him after boosting his ERA above five last week.
For an offense hitting a league-worst .219 but a defense that has committed the fewest amount of errors in baseball with 14, the Diamondbacks have found at some point the offense will have to break through in order for their postseason hopes to stay alive down the stretch. The only reason they’re still in first place is that the rest of the division hasn’t pulled through either, but someone has to at some point and for Arizona, a strong finish to May will be key if they expect to win the division.
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