So the first month of the season is in the books and through the first 26 games -- about 16% of the season -- most of the divisional races look completely different than many writers and fans envisioned them. Of course they do: Less than a fifth of the season's games have been played. JP Arencibia and John Buck are tied for third in the majors in home runs, and A.J. Burnett leads the National League in strikeouts. The first month of the season is always crazy.
Here, division by division, is a more exact diagnosis of the National League. The American League follows tomorrow.
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The Colorado Rockies will end the month either atop the National League West or close to it; they started April by kicking around the Brewers on the road and the Padres at home, got swept by the Giants, then went on a tear through the Padres (again), Mets, and Diamondbacks, taking 8 of 9 games. Now they seem to be on another downswing, winning only 2 of their last 7. It shouldn't come as a surprise that they're generally beating up on bad teams and getting toasted by good ones, though who knows which of those two categories the Giants will fall in by the end of the year. As Colorado starts playing more games outside their division -- and sees the Padres less -- I'd expect they'll fall more quickly back to earth.
Nipping at their heels are the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are missing the power of Justin Upton in their injury-plagued outfield but seem more than pleased with the amount of grit with which they've replaced them. Arizona's getting by on their pitching at the moment, with Wade Miley and Patrick Corbin leading the way. Brandon McCarthy, twitter sensation and free agent acquisition, has had a rough start to the year, along with Ian Kennedy, but both those guys should turn it around. The question with McCarthy, as it's always been, is his health; not his head -- the freak line drive he took to the skull last year was just that, a freak incident, and he's fully recovered -- but his consistent shoulder issues. It's possible that they've returned once again and could be contributing to his poor performance … or it could just be a few bad outings. Didi Gregorius, the young shortstop with the amazing name the Diamondbacks acquired over the offseason, was off to a roaring start for Arizona at the plate before taking a Josh Outman fastball to the head last Friday and leaving the game. Luckily the CT scan came back negative for any major harm, though he may spend time on the 7-day concussion-related injury DL just in case. It's unlikely this will be anything more than a minor bump in the road for him, as the Diamondbacks are committed to seeing what they have out of the young middle infielder, and with Aaron Hill's injury have a chance to play him every day.
The Dodgers and Giants have both had miserable starts to their seasons. Between the two of them, they pretty much have two effective starting pitchers: Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgardner. Everyone else -- Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, Tim Lincecum, Chad Billingsley -- has either been ineffective or gotten hurt, though Hyun-Jin Ryu, who came over from the South Korean professional leagues this offseason, is looking promising for Los Angeles. I also wouldn't bank on Cain having an ERA north of 6.50 for much longer, unless his woes are injury-related, in which case it's going to be a long summer for the defending world champions.
The Central is currently giving Pirates fans their yearly taste of hope. I expect that'll be yanked away in July as it usually is, because regardless of how well their bullpen is throwing the ball right now, Pittsburgh really doesn't have the pitching to compete -- unless Wandy Rodriguez and AJ Burnett both have career years at ages 34 and 36 respectively, and they find reliable 4th and 5th starters. One hopes that given his suspension for headhunting and his over-12 ERA, Jonathan Sanchez has lost his spot in the rotation for good, but the fact that they put him out there in the first place speaks to how little major league ready pitching the organization has at the moment, and prospect Gerrit Cole's struggles in the high minors aren't helping.
The Cardinals lead the division, of course, partially because they're the Cardinals and they won't go away and leave the rest of us in peace, but mainly due to the amazing performances of their entire starting rotation so far, especially veteran Jake Westbrook and rookie Shelby Miller. The entire rotation's ERA is 2.08, which begs the question "how is a team getting Cy Young numbers from the entire staff only 14-9?" The answer is "because their bullpen is, at the moment, a tire fire." The Cardinal pen has a 5.52 ERA, and their ineffectiveness has only been made more obvious by manager Mike Matheny's poor handling of them. However, much as the St. Louis starters are unlikely to keep up their current elite level of pitching, the Cardinals pen should ascend towards the mean, especially once Jason Motte returns from the DL.
Cincinnati's had some early season struggles as well -- Johnny Cueto's injury, for one -- but while they'll end the month in either third or fourth place by winning percentage, they're still around .500 and stand the best chance of any of the teams in the Central to see their record improve, instead of heading the other way. The Reds are also responsible for "Going into Sunday's games, Shin-Soo Choo led all MLB centerfielders in OPS" being a thing that's true in the real world, and I thank Choo and Cincinnati for it.
The two biggest stories in the East are arguably Atlanta's Justin Upton and the futility of the Philadelphia Phillies rotation. Many writers, if not most, thought that the Upton trade was a silly move done for questionable reasons related more to performance in the locker room than on the baseball diamond, but no one thought Upton would prove them right so quickly. Upton leads baseball with 12 home runs and is in a dogfight with Washington's Bryce Harper for National League Player of the Month (Harper's second in the league with 9 HR going into Sunday's action, and has a higher overall OPS); meanwhile, the Diamondbacks continue to get by, but Martin Prado has looked pedestrian at best for Arizona and the big prospect that came back in the trade, pitcher Randall Delgado, lost the 5thstarter's job in camp and is currently putting up an ERA north of 9 in AAA. There's the argument that Upton wouldn't be doing this in Arizona, but even if that's true (and we can never know, of course, but Arizona's a friendlier hitting park than Turner Field), I find it hard to see that as a criticism of Upton and not of the Diamondbacks organization.
Meanwhile, in Philly, everything is terrible except Kyle Kendrick, and there's nothing more "early season small sample size" than that. Specifically, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay have been totally ineffective on the mound -- Halladay in such a fashion that the team has to be considering a phantom injury trip to the DL so he can work out his obvious mechanical problems -- and manager Charlie Manuel has been compounding the problem by insisting that Chad Durbin is the guy who should be getting the ball in a crisis. Going into Sunday Durbin had made eight appearances for the Phillies, five of which were as a mid-inning replacement for a struggling pitcher with men on base. Every single one of those five times, Durbin allowed at least one inherited runner to score, because Chad Durbin isn't really the kind of guy you want pitching if you have to avoid hard contact and a couple guys getting on base. Unfortunately, the common thread for most of these crises is that they occurred in the sixth and seventh inning, which means that of the three guys in the Philly pen who actually should be bailing the team out, two of them -- Mike Adams and Jonathan Papelbon --are unavailable due to their roles as set-up man and closer and the third, Antonio Bastardo, hasn't been on the roster a long enough arbitrary period of time to earn Charlie Manuel's trust. The Phillies started Sunday in fourth and ended it in third, and I expect they and the Mets will be swapping places there frequently this year.
Meanwhile, in fifth, the Miami Marlins are on pace to score 411 runs this year and allow 735. For a frame of reference, the 107-loss 2012 Houston Astros scored 583 and allowed 794. But hey, Giancarlo Stanton is finally hitting dingers again!
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I expect a number of these things to have changed significantly by the end of May -- for instance the Marlins are bad, yes, but not that bad -- but the games do count; poor performances out of the gate can have longreaching impacts in divisional and wild card races down the line, and hot starts can help cover up a lot of a team's flaws that will get exposed later in the season. It'll be interesting to see what things look like in the National League in the last few days of May.