Rolling right along from the National League to the American League as May ends, summer sets in, and the halfway point of the season looms in the distance. We're about a third of the way through the season now. This is roughly the point at which someone's hot start will be remembered, even if it goes catastrophically south. Meanwhile, the difference between the teams heading to the top and the teams headed directly the other way seems to be shaking itself out quite well.
American League West
Not much has changed on the face of things for the AL West since April 30, but save for the Texas Rangers still leading the division and the Houston Astros digging down ever deeper into the cellar, there was actually significant placement variation in the middle spots over the course of the month. Take the tragic, doomed, fourth-place Seattle Mariners, for instance: before everything went completely wrong starting on May 17 and continuing on to the present day, they actually spent a couple days in second. Now, they spent a couple days in second with records of 19-21 and 20-21 respectively, so that probably says more about the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Oakland Athletics than it does them, but facts are facts.
The Mariners are in the process of wholesale punting on a bunch of their youth, sending players back to the minors who either have disappointed with the big-league squad (Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley) or were never ready to face major league competition to begin with (Brandon Maurer). Seattle's been left with a bizarre mish-mash of an outfield situation that gives Endy Chavez significant playing time and relies on Michael Saunders to patrol center, and has recalled Alex Liddi of Team Italy World Baseball Classic fame to fill holes left in the infield. They've also promoted second baseman Nick Franklin, who put on a bunch of weight this offseason without the Mariners' knowledge to try to become a power hitter; results are promising so far, but that's against Padres pitching. The good news for the Mariners is that Kendrys Morales is starting to hit a little bit (they should probably deal him at the deadline) and Hisashi Iwakuma continues to be extremely impressive, though he had a few more rockier starts in May than in April (they should probably at least test the market on him, too). Felix remains Felix, of course.
Here are the names of all the guys who have started games for the Angels this year: Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton, Jerome Williams, Michael Roth, Barry Enright, Billy Buckner (no, not that one). As starters that group of gentlemen has thrown 313 innings of 4.51 ERA baseball. They're one of the few teams in baseball where, when you add in the relief pitchers' work, the club ERA actually goes down … to 4.42. This is the most glaring explanation for why the team I picked to win the West and many others picked to at least contend for a Wild Card berth is currently sitting in a rather distant third place. Giving J.B. Shuck everyday playing time in left field due to Peter Bourjos's leg injury isn't helping either.
Then again, as soon as Mike Trout took over as the everyday centerfielder -- a position he'd agitated for in the offseason with the Angels' brass - he … well, here are his numbers: 98 PA of .247/.327/.412 (.738) as a left fielder, which is a decent line for any MLB left fielder, but leaves something to be desired from Mike Trout; and 147 PA of .331/.401/.654 (1.055) as a center fielder, which is more like it. I'm not saying players happy with their defensive responsibilities hit better as a rule (check out Mark Reynolds' career hitting as a 3B against his career hitting as a 1B, for instance), but it doesn't hurt, especially not when the player can handle the position. Of course it's always possible that Mike Trout's hitting was going to correct itself back up into the .920-.950 OPS range anyway, because that's the kind of hitter he's going to be for the next 12-15 years, barring serious injury or something else weird happening. Now that Josh Hamilton's started hitting again, all the Angels need is for Albert Pujols to figure out a way to play around his plantar fasciitis and Los Angeles (of Anaheim) should start making up some ground on the second place Athletics.
The Athletics continue to win games on the back of solid pitching and good hitting from places people weren't exactly expecting. Josh Donaldson, for instance, had an extremely bizarre Jeckyll-and-Hyde 2012. Here are his month-by-month OPS numbers from last year: .188, .487, .516, 1.033 (!!), .736. That big number near the end is August, when the Athletics started their wild, rumbling ride to dethrone the Rangers, but the only sample size there over 100 PA is the final OPS, .736, for September and whatever regular season games bled over into October. Donaldson used to be a catcher who took days off at the infield corners, and there's a decent argument to be made that after sending him down in the middle of 2012 and transitioning him full-time to third base it helped him find his offensive rhythm. Generally, though, that sort of "help" isn't a Jose Bautista-like transformation into one of the top hitters in baseball, which Donaldson is so far in 2013: .332/.404/.556 in 223 plate appearances. Donaldson will probably slow down a little, but we've seen enough of him playing at a high enough level that it's safe to say he won't completely crater. If the Athletics staff-specifically Jarrod Parker-could figure things out, the A's might be able to mount another challenge to the Rangers. We'll see how things shake out moving forward.
There's not too much new to say for either the Rangers or the Astros. The Rangers continue getting it done on the mound without Matt Harrison or Colby Lewis; if Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, and Alexi Ogando can continue to sustain ERAs around 3.0 while playing half their games at Arlington I'll be very impressed, though more so with the last two -- Darvish is at 105 strikeouts already and it's not even June. Designated hitter Lance Berkman, third baseman Adrian Beltre, and first baseman Mitch Moreland continue to drive the offense, but second baseman Ian Kinsler, who spent the backend of the month on the 15-day disabled list for an intercostal strain, looks like he'll be out longer than expected. Whether that will change anything in Ron Washington's calculus on when to start Jurickson Profar and when to sit him remains to be seen. Must be nice to be able to bench the best prospect in baseball and keep on winning.
As for the Astros, I've got nothing except my sincerest condolences for their fans. At least Brandon Barnes and Carlos Corporan are hitting a little bit.
American League Central
The biggest story for the first place Detroit Tigers right now is last year's Triple Crown winner and American League MVP Miguel Cabrera picking continuing to punish the ball nightly, in comfortable control of two of the three categories needed to repeat as a Triple Crown winner (BA, RBI) and gaining steadily in the third (HR). Cabrera's prolonged assault on the American League is overshadowing a slightly more interesting story: Justin Verlander doesn't look like the same guy he's been the past few years. It's early yet, but Verlander's allowing more solid contact over the first few months of the season than he has in recent seasons, and in a league where offense continues to decrease year over year, his ERA in 2013 so far is a run worse than it was last season. However, Verlander's peripherals seem to be fine and he's not hurt, so it's likely this is just a bad stretch he'll get over. It's useful to remember, though, that before he turned on God Mode in 2011, Verlander was a top second-tier pitcher, good for an ERA in the mid-3's over a lot of innings. It's not exactly a bad thing for the Tigers if that's the sort of guy he eventually turns back into --though it's also not the kind of performance they paid for when they handed him $140 million over five years.
I'm impressed with how the second-place Indians are playing so far, if not surprised -- I did pick them to finish second in the Central, after all -- and they're doing it mostly on the bats of their free agent signings: Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and Mark Reynolds (Carlos Santana's white-hot start to the season has been very helpful to their cause as well). If the Indians are going to keep this up, however, they'll need the pitching to solidify a little bit. Justin Masterson (3.07 ERA, 82 IP) and Zach McAllister (3.08 ERA, 61.1 IP) have been admirable so far, and kudos to them if they've turned a corner, but neither man really profiles to be a top of the rotation starter. Ubaldo Jimenez's mechanics are still a hot mess, Scott Kazmir and Corey Kluber are holding on for dear life, and though Trevor Bauer's 2.76 ERA is very shiny, it's only over 16.1 innings so far and he's still walking more guys than he strikes out, not a good sign. Here again is where I mention that a guy like Kyle Lohse would really be helping the Indians out right now, but that ship has sailed. Unless things fall completely apart for them over the next month and a half, I'd expect them to be in the conversation once teams out of contention start putting their starting pitchers on the trade block. Who knows? Maybe even Cliff Lee might be available.
The White Sox couldn't hit a lick in April and they still can't in May --CF Alex Rios is the only hitter with an OPS over .780 on the entire roster -- but due partially to the AL Central being a historically weak, muddled division and partially to their outstanding starting rotation, they're still in the race as much as anyone. The way they're pitching right now, should the White Sox manage to sneak into the Wild Card game somehow (say, via their hitters remembering how to hit a baseball with a bat), Chris Sale, Jake Peavy, and Jose Quintana would make for a formidable playoff rotation, with long relief help if necessary from Hector Santiago (3.14 ERA in 43 IP). Reliever Jesse Crain and closer Addison Reed are both having elite years out of the pen as well. Of course, every other team will also be throwing their best pitchers, and sadly I'll take whoever those guys are over this year's White Sox hitters just about every time.
The Twins are in fourth place now, something that has more to do with the futility going on in Kansas City than any independent merit of the Minnesota ball club. They're on a brief three-game winning streak right now thanks to the tireless efforts of the Milwaukee Brewers to make every other team feel better about their own pitchers, but the Twins spent most of May backsliding from second place in late April to third, then fourth, then fifth, thanks mostly to a 3-12 streak between May 10 and 26. So it goes. As far as bright spots go, Joe Mauer is still a fantastic baseball player and, well, P.J. Walters had a very nice first start of 2013 for the Twins on May 25, going 6 IP, 2 ER, 3K, 1BB in 81 pitches for the win. That gives him an ERA of 3.0, the lowest ERA by a pitcher who has started a game for the Twins this year by almost a full run (Kevin Correia, 3.96 ERA).
Which brings us to the Royals. The Royals aren't the worst team in baseball on the field (Astros) or on the whole (Marlins), nor are they the most comically inept (Mets), nor are they even the longest-suffering (Pirates, though this is probably the closest point of contention), but they're the only team that manages to combine all of four distinct flavors in one delicious baseball-ish product --assuming, of course, you're not actually a Royals fan. Why would you do that to yourself?
The Royals, who traded one of the best hitting prospects in baseball, Wil Myers, and one of their own top pitching prospects, Jake Odorizzi, for not-really-a-starting-pitcher Wade Davis and two years of James Shields (unless Dayton Moore is fired, come hell or high water he's picking up that $12 million team option, and it's not particularly a bad idea to do so now that the damage has already been done). It's all well and good to point out that both Myers and Odorizzi are struggling this season for Tampa Bay, but that doesn't make the Royals hit any better or move them out of last place. The hitting has been putrid, but there's been troubling signs with the pitching staff as well -- Ervin Santana ended the month giving up seven home runs across his last two starts, an ominous portent considering how giving up the long ball made him one of the worst pitchers in baseball last year, and Jeremy Guthrie has given up 17 runs in his last three outings.
The Royals just fired their hitting coach for saying silly things about not wanting to hit home runs and replaced him with George Brett, so the pressure is clearly building -- going by the script, now the general manager has to deliver the field manager's head to the team president, and the team president has to deliver the general manager's head to the owner; we'll see how long that progression takes. Moore should stick around until the end of the year, but executives who hastily put together exclusive interviews the Monday after a bad trade to insist their jobs are totally not in danger generally have less time than usual.
American League East
The standings at the end of May in the East look much like they did in the beginning. Boston lost control of first place for a few days there in the middle --once falling even so far as third place as the Yankees held the top spot for much of the middle of the month -- but now they're back at the top of the division with a two-game lead over New York.
I have a bad history with the Red Sox and Manager of the Year picks -- going into last year I thought Bobby Valentine would walk into the Boston clubhouse, the team would cruise to 90 wins and he'd be the near-unanimous choice for the AL honor -- but I feel comfortable saying that so far the race in the American league is between the manager of Boston Present, John Farrell, and the manager of Boston Past, Terry Francona, currently of the Cleveland Indians. Farrell will probably get the nod if this keeps up just because of the night and day effect he's had not only the team as a whole, but specifically Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester.
That's not to say that there isn't trouble brewing, however. After a stellar first two months, Buchholz's last start of May had to be pushed back again into June (Alfredo Aceves took his last scheduled start and threw a gem against the bat-challenged Phillies), and if he's not ready to go then, Franklin Morales may be pressed into a starting role once more. Of course, the priority for Boston is that Buchholz get healthy rather than pitch through soreness. Even without him, both Lester and the resurging John Lackey can make things work for the Red Sox rotation for a little while. If the Sox are going to really do this thing, though, at some point someone other than David Ortiz, Daniel Nava, and Dustin Pedroia is going to have to turn it on at the plate. Mike Napoli's been good but has cooled off a bit since his hot start, and most of the other guys never got started in the first place.
The New York Yankees remain a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in $228 million. The team will likely end the month in sole control of second place in the East while missing the majority of its star power for the second straight month, with Hiroki Kuroda being the only real stalwart in their rotation and with Robinson Cano and Travis Hafner the only guys tagging the ball with regularity at the moment. If they did it in April with weird power resurgences from Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay, the Yankees kept themselves alive in May with out-of-the-blue pitching dominance from with names like "Vidal Nuno" (1.93 ERA, 14 IP) and "Preston Claiborne" (0.61 ERA, 14.2 IP) in addition to usual suspects David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Mariano Rivera. I still think third place is about the right spot for the Yankees to eventually end up, but if they're going to go there, they'll go fighting. Insufferably fighting.
On July 30, 2011, the Texas Rangers traded 1B Chris Davis and SP Tommy Hunter to the Baltimore Orioles for reliever Koji Uehara. As things stand today, Hunter is no longer a starter, but has provided 30 innings of 1.80 ERA relief for Baltimore while striking guys out at the highest rate of his career, and Chris Davis is, well: .359/.447/.766, 19 HR, 18 2B, 29 BB in 219 PA. Simply put, and with the caveat that it's only the end of May, Chris Davis is the only current obstacle to Miguel Cabrera's bid for back-to-back Triple Crowns -- and Miguel Cabrera is the only current obstacle to Chris Davis's bid for his own. If these guys were in separate leagues, Cabrera would be leading all three categories and Davis would be a single point of batting average behind Jean Segura. (Koji Uehara ended up in Boston, where he's an elite reliever, and the Texas Rangers are in first place, so happy endings all around).
Davis, alongside CF Adam Jones, who is showing that last year wasn't a fluke, and 3B Manny Machado, who is on pace to hit 73 doubles, are driving a surprisingly effective Orioles offense that's making up for the shortcomings of the rotation --with Wei-Yin Chen sidelined by injury, the most reliable pitcher of the bunch so far has been Miguel Gonzalez (3.94 ERA, 48 IP), who has been dealing with blister issues of his own. The state of the rotation has reached the point that the Orioles have been giving top prospect Kevin Gausman every opportunity to prove he's ready for the big league level, and so far (11.00 ERA, 9 IP, 4HR, 3BB, 5K) he's done the opposite. That's not even getting into the Baltimore bullpen, which, Hunter aside, seems to be suffering a luck hangover from last year's historic run. There's no way they're as good as they were last year, but they're probably not as bad as this.
The Tampa Bay Rays have one of baseball's most impressive starters in lefty Matt Moore (2.21 ERA, 61 IP), and are scoring runs at a high rate now that they're running their offense through Evan Longoria (.911 OPS), Kelly Johnson (.920 OPS?!), and James Loney (.874 OPS?!?). Vernon Wells' hot start has finally fallen off, but not James Loney's. Outside of Moore, however, the Rays pitching continues to be an issue early in the year, as Jeremy Hellickson and now-hurt David Price have severely underperformed to start the season. It's hard to feel too bad about it, though, considering the Rays are the sort of feel-good team that employs a relief pitcher who pled guilty to "false imprisonment" to avoid a rape charge (Josh Lueke) and a minor league prospect who threw a handful of change at a stripper and bragged about it afterwards (Josh Sale). I can understand "makeup issues" being a market inefficiency, and I can understand the Rays wanting to exploit it (they've done this to a lesser extent with shortstop Yunel Escobar and DH Luke Scott), but that doesn't mean I'm not going to hope every one of those guys gets DFA'd.
The Blue Jays hardly need any more kicking while they're down -- they are, at the very least, back within 10 games of first place after a slightly less-disastrous May -- but at this point I'm willing to admit I made the wrong call on the Jays and their rotation. Josh Johnson hasn't been able to stay healthy, R.A. Dickey's knuckleball has left him once again probably due to back and neck issues, Brandon Morrow was inconsistent at best before leaving his last start with arm soreness and Ricky Romero might be done, kaput, as a major league pitcher. Toronto's staff is just as injury-plagued this year as they were last year, and it's to the point where guys like Sean Nolin (40.50 ERA, 1.1 IP) are getting brought up to the slaughter just to see if something will stick. As I type this, Chad Jenkins has probably gotten the best results of any of their starters. He's gone 10 innings across 2 starts and allowed 2 runs in each, good for a 3.60 ERA. It would help if anyone on the team besides Bautista, Encarnacion, and Adam Lind was hitting the ball, but it probably wouldn't help all that much.
And tomorrow, it's June -- the All-Star Break is distant, sure, but not unimaginably so. Soon, I'll even be able to end one of these things without the "it's still early" caveat. But not yet. Because it's still early.