One month into the season and the American League is not, perhaps, quite so topsy-turvy as its more traditionalist brother, at least not on the surface. Two division leaders are the usual contenders -- Boston in the East and Texas in the West -- with a trendy (but misguided) hopeful on top of the Central. Below the hood, however, the AL has played host to some of the more bizarre and yet entirely predestined and fitting Aprils to be had in the game, especially as it concerns one particular coven of pinstriped, clean-shaven baseball warlocks. A more detailed breakdown of all the league's various witchcraft follows.
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American League West
The AL West, as readers who have visited a baseball website in the past six months are aware, performed subtraction by addition this offseason when they gained the Houston Astros from the National League Central. It was not a case of soccer-style relegation -- in that case they'd have been sent to AAA -- but instead another one of Bud Selig's great balancing acts, whereby the Office of the Commissioner talks about the importance of history and tradition to the modern game and then lists all the changes being made to said game more or less for the hell of it. As an American League team the Astros now have the option to designate a batter to hit for their pitcher, which seems a bit of a cruel joke considering how few batters they have to fill the other eight spots in the lineup.
The Seattle Mariners, however, aren't laughing. The Mariners have played the Astros, losers of 107 games last year and surely many more to come, six times so far in this young season; they are 2-4 and have been outscored by 11 runs. In fact, of the 98 runs Houston has scored in their 25 games so far, a full 38 of them came in those six. This just highlights the rather sorry state of Seattle's major league squad this April, a team whose infield (save Kyle Seager) has been embarrassing so far and whose most prominent fixtures in the outfield at the moment are Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay. However, Mariners fans will always have Felix Hernandez (that monstrous contract guarantees it) and, for the time being at least, a surprisingly effective Hisashi Iwakuma. It's doubtful either man will continue to put up an ERA under 2 (though Hernandez has much higher odds than most) and the back of the rotation is a mess, but both bear watching as the season rolls along. King Felix and Iwakuma had very strong recent outings against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, whose pitching has been even less impressive than advertised and whose hitting has been mystifyingly bad.
Keep in mind, though, that the Angels had a poor start to last season as well, and when Jered Weaver is back they should at least be able to stop the bleeding. CJ Wilson, to the unabashed delight of Rangers fans, is beginning to look like a poor investment - and Josh Hamilton is in danger of following his example. Texas, of course, is sitting pretty in first place behind an extremely strong month from ace Yu Darvish, who leads the majors in strikeouts and had a perfect game broken up by the very last batter against Houston. The Oakland Athletics sit between the Rangers and Angels in second. Since their white-hot start, they've foundered a bit, recently dropping three of four to the Baltimore Orioles. Just about everybody in that Oakland lineup except right fielder Josh Reddick has been hitting the cover off the ball, which explains why Reddick finally -- and mercifully -- shaved. Hopefully he'll be rewarded with a better May at the plate if only to reinforce the virtues of proper grooming.
American League Central
The Kansas City Royals have sadly failed to live up to the early promise of Spring Training and will not go undefeated, to the surprise of no one. They are, however, in first place -- which is nice, considering they dealt the best hitting prospect left in the minors after Mike Trout and Bryce Harper graduated to try and get there. So far, the Royals' rotation has been a strong one, with James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Wade Davis, and Ervin Santana all having ERAs below 3.20. Bruce Chen, now working out of the bullpen, hasn't even allowed a run in 7.1 IP. I would not put too much money down on any of this continuing, of course, especially not as the weather gets warmer and the ball starts to carry further in the air -- Guthrie and especially Santana are flyball pitchers, to put it delicately. It's also worth noting that the Royals, like many of the teams in the Central, have had to postpone or delay a number of their April games due to April generally being a simply hideous month for trying to do anything outdoors, especially in the Midwest. None of the teams in the AL Central even have a retractable roof -- not even the Twins' new facility, Target Field, which is in only its fourth year of operation. Makes sense because when has it ever snowed in Minnesota in April? (That would be about a week ago, on the 22nd.)
Of course, a team that plays 20 games in April is perhaps even more prone to weird sample size variances than a team that plays 25, which brings us to Kevin Correia, the Twins' staff "ace" so far in 2013. Correia pitched poorly enough during his tenure with the Pittsburgh Pirates that, when it ended, they moved on from the 32 year old righthander, taking their chances on whatever the bargain bin had in store for them (which turned out to be Jonathan Sanchez, meaning they made a horrible mistake). Correia signed a cheap deal with Minnesota and, so far, has deadballed his way through five starts that would make Aaron Cook proud: 15 strikeouts and 5 walks in 36.1 innings pitched, with a 2.23 ERA and a 3-1 record to show for it. He's doing it mostly through luck, of course; balls aren't falling in for hits often behind him, and when they do, he's usually able to get out of it with double plays. He's not inducing an unusually high percentage of balls in play on the ground, but whereas last season Correia only had 12 GIDPs turned behind him all season in 171 IP, he's had 5 this month alone. Once the sequencing becomes less favorable and the weak grounders all stop happening with men on base, he'll start to look a lot more like the guy the Pirates let walk.
The Tigers, meanwhile, are the Tigers, and so far this April they've gone about their business like they usually have these past few years. Everyone wonders why designated hitters aren't hitting as well as they used to. My personal theory is that it's because the Tigers are hoarding them all and making them play the field. Jose Valverde's triumphant return to the majors and to the closer's job is funny, but ultimately won't mean much until (or, more precisely, unless) the Tigers make the postseason, at which point it will once again mean everything. They will likely be the primary beneficiaries when the Royals start to slide. Neither the Indians nor the White Sox are making much noise at the moment, but then, they've been getting lots of days off as well.
American League East
Which brings us to an AL East currently led by none other than the Boston Red Sox. The Sox are probably the least surprising of the hot-start teams outside of the Rangers and perhaps the Braves, but Boston finishing last in the East in 2012 was always destined to be the exception that tested the rule, not a new rule. Boston's start seems most sustainable because, outside of the contributions of Mike Carp and Daniel Nava, the production is coming from people who have been successful in the past: Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia. It would help Boston's cause more if any of the other regulars besides Pedroia and Napoli would start hitting, but David Ortiz is back now and seems to be aging in reverse. Critically acclaimed spot starter/anarchist highwayman Alfredo Aceves finally got the demotion to AAA that he so richly deserved last week, saddening a number of fans of other teams -- the Red Sox bullpen won't be the same without him (that is to say, it will be better).
Returning the vast majority of last year's 93 win team, the Baltimore Orioles continue to win baseball games in a convincing fashion, a statement that seems eminently reasonable until you reread it and realize it is completely insane. Gone is the reliance on one-run wins (the team is 4-5 so far in one-run games) or extra innings (1-2). This April, the Orioles are instead seeing what it would look like if Nate McLouth, Chris Davis, and Adam Jones all hit like Hall of Famers in their prime. While I'm going to go out on a limb and say that's not going to continue -- especially not with McLouth -- it's worth noting that I have been exceptionally wrong on just about everything Orioles-related for going on two calendar years now, and much happier for it.
Early season struggles have beset the Rays thanks to whatever it is that's beguiled ace David Price (a couple of poor starts and absolutely atrocious run support, at least until Sunday) and their lineup (the fact that outside of Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria, and James Loney -- because of course, James Loney -- no one's hitting the ball and no one can really be expected to). Meanwhile, the Yankees have a disabled list with a larger payroll than half the league. New York has found a novel way to continue scoring runs without Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson, however: just have Vernon Wells (146 OPS+) and Francisco Cervelli (139 OPS+) hit better than they ever have in a season, have Travis Hafner remain healthy (!) for a full month of baseball while absolutely raking (200 OPS+), let Robby Cano do his thing (165 OPS+) and keep on rolling along. Of course, fate has upped the ante a bit by hurting Cervelli and Yankee fifth starter Ivan Nova too, but I expect New York's response will just be to call up Austin Romine had have him hit for an OPS over 1.000 for the next month and a half.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays, the Blue Jays, the Blue Jays. This April is a fine cautionary tale for why one generally doesn't bring a sign reading "Alex Anthopoulos: Offseason MVP" to the home opener, just in case the baseball gods see it and decide to toss it back in your face. The good news is that the Jays can only get better, because the bad news is it's almost inconceivable they could get worse. I'm not counting them out of the division hunt yet -- after all, it is April -- but one of the major stipulations of my faith in them competing was that they stay healthy, and so far every major piece they've acquired, from Jose Reyes to RA Dickey to Josh Johnson, has suffered some sort of injury within the first few weeks of the season. For Reyes, it was the grotesque ankle sprain that's sidelined him until perhaps the All Star Break, while for Dickey and Johnson the injuries are things they can pitch through -- neck and back pain for Dickey, triceps/upper arm soreness for Johnson -- but not pitch through effectively. Early indications are that Edwin Encarnacion is not Jose Bautista Part 2, but then again, it was somewhat nutty to think he would be in the first place.
Obviously all the usual small sample size caveats apply to the above. There's no real reason to even humor the possibility that Francisco Cervelli is actually a 139 OPS+ hitter now, and there wouldn't have been even if he hadn't gotten hurt. This time next month, we could theoretically be talking about the first place Chicago White Sox if things break right and someone on that team remembers how to hit the ball. That's the beauty and the tragedy of baseball. More importantly, it's also what leads to ulcers.