Going into Tuesday night's action, 19 of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball had a winning percentage between .450 and .550 [edit note: going into Thursday, the number of teams that fit this criteria is still at 19, but the Orioles have joined the pack, while the Phillies have fallen off the bottom end of the spectrum; this article was written before the record changes]. Given that the majority of the league is barely breaking even at the moment, these aren't completely arbitrary cutoffs: The Nationals went into Tuesday challenging the Braves for first place, while the Padres are in the basement in their division.
This cannot go on forever, of course; usually around 12-14 teams finish in the .450-.550 winning percentage range, not 19. That means that the divisional races around baseball -- which kind of look like the grouped-up beginnings of a horse race -- are more than likely to sort themselves out, with some of the teams muddling around .500 establishing themselves as winners and others doing the opposite. With the exception of the Rockies (whose resurgence I wrote about just last week), we'll take a quick look at each team in the pack's uncommonly popular middle and whether or not they'll pull ahead, hold steady or fall behind.
Washington Nationals -- Hold Steady
The rotation has been extremely concerning for Washington so far, and not just because Doug Fister's long-awaited Nationals debut on May 9 fell about as flat as it possibly could. A Nationals team with a mediocre rotation is not a Nationals team making the playoffs in the current NL East. It's a Nationals team sitting at home again in October after vastly underperforming the talent on the roster.
Seattle Mariners -- Fall Behind
When I picked the Mariners' rotation as a dark horse for best in the league, I did so with the assumption that Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma would be mainstays in it. Walker is hurt, and Paxton and Iwakuma have combined for only four (promising) starts so far. King Felix, rookie Roenis Elias and the pitching Chris Young have been fantastic in their stead, but they can only do so much given Seattle's position-player woes. Robinson Cano has been unable to hit for power since coming to Seattle, the team's outfield is a confusing disaster and shortstop Brad Miller is playing himself out of the starting lineup while Abraham Almonte has already been demoted back to Triple-A.
Los Angeles Dodgers -- Pull Ahead
The Dodgers have the sixth-best team OPS+ in the league while scoring only the 17th most runs per game. Regardless what your feelings are about Dee Gordon legitimately contending for the NL batting title, even without him the Dodgers offense is legit and will start turning that production into runs sooner rather than later. It helps that Clayton Kershaw is back after missing all of April with upper back soreness, because Kershaw is the best pitcher in MLB until proven otherwise.
Boston Red Sox -- Pull Ahead
Like the Dodgers, the Red Sox are going to pull away from this pack as the season stretches on into summer. Unlike the Dodgers, the Red Sox have been hitting poorly. It's not the most shocking thing in the world that Daniel Nava, Mike Carp and Shane Victorino haven't been able to sustain last year's production, but the Sox pitching staff is both excellent and healthy, while the rest of the AL East isn't looking too mighty themselves. The Sox have the additional advantage of a bunch of high-level near-MLB ready arms to test out in the back of the rotation if Doubront and Buchholz continue to falter; having the top farm system in MLB has its perks.
New York Yankees -- Hold Steady
The Yankees' stock has fallen a bit recently thanks to injuries and unexpectedly-lackluster performance by key players. This is hardly surprising, considering Yankees batters in 2014 average 32.9 years in age (oldest in MLB) while their pitchers average 29.6 (eighth oldest in MLB). With Sabathia on the DL, Nova gone for the year, and Kuroda finally looking like a 39-year-old on the mound -- and planned utility man Yangervis Solarte the most reliable hitter on the team with over 100 PA -- New York could be in for another year of just staying afloat. But the Yankees have made starting slow and heating up in the middle of the year into almost an annual ritual, so we'll see.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim -- Hold Steady
Albert Pujols looks like Albert Pujols again -- as did Josh Hamilton before his ill-advised headfirst base-running adventure -- while Chris Iannetta and Howie Kendrick are quietly having great seasons too. There's also that Trout guy in the outfield. Much like last year, however, the Angels will live or die by their pitching, and both of the new arms acquired for the rotation over the offseason -- Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs -- have underperformed the teams' hopes so far (especially Santiago with 5.09 ERA in 35.1 IP). Watching Skaggs's starts, you get the feeling he's pretty close to putting it all together, but who knows if that will happen in time to help the Angels in 2014 -- or if it'll happen at all.
Texas Rangers -- Hold Steady
Prince Fielder has been clawing his way back out of the pit he dug for himself in April, but the main problem with the Rangers so far is that their rotation is Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison (who has only been back with the team for three starts, albeit good ones) and a roller-coaster ride. After only allowing six runs in his first five starts, Martin Perez has allowed 19 in his last three -- and after Perez*, the rotation is currently an uninspiring combination of post-injury Colby Lewis and Robbie Ross. [Edit note: This was written before the injury news to Perez and Harrison.] This would be easier to stomach if anyone other than Shin-Soo Choo had hit the ball with authority across a meaningful number of plate appearances this season. It's hard to pick against a Jon Daniels team, but it gets easier when Choo is the only everyday player on the team with an OPS over .800.
Miami Marlins -- Fall Behind
This team was a lot more intriguing before Jose Fernandez suffered a sprain in his throwing elbow that might end his season. Without Fernandez, the rotation is two possible mirages in Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez; an almost certain mirage in Tom Koehler; and some combination of Kevin Slowey and prospects at the back end. The Marlins offense has been pretty decent this year, but the team as a whole was already over-performing -- and now they've just lost a Cy Young candidate.
St. Louis Cardinals -- Pull Ahead
The Cardinals don't look like the Cardinals this year, which is what happens when a team's MVP-finalist second baseman morphs into a singles-hitting third baseman and their All-Star first baseman moonlighting in right field begins hitting like a glove-first shortstop. Given the past history of everyone involved -- this team was in the National League Championship Series last year with most of these same regulars -- it seems safe to bet the Cards will turn it around at the plate. A more pressing concern is the bullpen, where only Pat Neshek seems capable of throwing a shutdown inning this year.
Kansas City Royals -- Hold Steady
The Royals have not fielded a team that was a credible threat at the plate since Dayton Moore took over in 2006, and there's no particular reason to believe this year is going to be any different. Kansas City looks like it'll once again noodle around .500 in the AL Central -- on the outside of the Wild Card hunt looking in -- and at this point, the onus is on the Royals to prove otherwise. Ending the Mike Moustakas experiment would be a good start.
Toronto Blue Jays -- Fall Behind
Someone has to lose the AL East, and smart money is on the team with the worst pitching in any given year. For a long time, that was unquestionably the Orioles; now it's unquestionably the Blue Jays, despite the front office's sweeping attempts to change that in the trade market. Mark Buehrle won't keep doing this all season -- or if he does, he'll be doing it somewhere else come late July.
New York Mets -- Fall Behind
The Mets' one-two punch of being unable to hit for power and unable to find a reliever who can throw a clean inning to save his life has put a damper on any enthusiasm there might have been surrounding the club out of the gate. The Mets have a couple neat pitching prospects on the way, to be sure. Rafael Montero and Jacob deGrom were just called up, while Noah Syndergaard -- one of the best starting prospects in baseball -- won't be too far behind. But the only thing they're going to be able to do about the fact that the Mets are slugging .350 as a team through Monday's games is maybe help lower it to .349.
Chicago White Sox -- Hold Steady
Despite promising beginnings to the year, their fortunes have been clouded by their ace pitcher going down with an elbow injury. Chris Sale is just now being scheduled for rehab starts in the minor leagues, almost a month after being put on the 15-day Disabled List for elbow soreness. The White Sox certainly have more going for them than just Sale -- Jose Abreu continues to lead the MLB in home runs -- but until he gets back, the Chicago rotation is one of the least-inspiring units in the game. And unfortunately, this probably isn't the last we've heard of Sale's elbow soreness.
Cleveland Indians -- Hold Steady
Last season was fairly magical for the Cleveland Indians for a number of reasons: breakout offensive stars like Jason Kipnis, feel-good stories like Scott Kazmir and that whole weird thing with Ryan Raburn putting up an OPS over .900. Unfortunately the White Sox seem to have that magic bottled at the moment -- at least at the plate -- and the Indians rotation is once again a collection of uninspiring back-of-the-rotation types, with some half-hearted attempts to pretend Justin Masterson is an actual staff ace. Michael Brantley's hot start is worth watching, though.
Cincinnati Reds -- Hold Steady
The Reds welcome back closer Aroldis Chapman this week, but the real story in Cincinnati is that ace Johnny Cueto has quietly thrown the most innings (63.0 IP) at the lowest ERA (1.43) in MLB this season. If the Reds could keep all their guys healthy -- starter Mat Latos still hasn't returned from the disabled list, while outfielder Jay Bruce will miss at least the next month thanks to knee surgery -- maybe the Brewers wouldn't be stepping quite so hard on the NL Central's collective throat. As it is, they're at least a .500 team.
Minnesota Twins -- Fall Behind
Minnesota spent over $80 million on starting pitching this offseason, and their best starter so far is Phil Hughes. Brian Dozier's been a hero for the team so far this year with nine home runs through May 12, but the Twins' record stands a good chance of catching up with their performance (and general talent level) fairly shortly, and it won't be pretty when it does. At least someone's giving Sam Fuld playing time.
Philadelphia Phillies -- Hold Steady
The Phillies are in the middle of their contention window's one last hurrah before slamming shut. Veterans Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and Marlon Byrd are putting up great offensive numbers, but they're still mucking around below .500 thanks to a disastrous beginning to the season from Cole Hamels, the back of the Philly rotation and the bullpen. Hamels will probably get his business sorted, and it's hard to imagine the bullpen could remain this bad for an entire season, but the team will likely hold steady around or just under .500.
San Diego Padres -- Hold Steady
It hasn't been a great year for the Padres so far. The entire starting infield -- which contains two previously-exciting young players with promise (Jedd Gyorko and Yonder Alonso), a guy who appeared to turn a corner last season (Everth Cabrera) and the face of the franchise (Chase Headley) -- has an OPS somewhere south of .550. The outfield is hitting the cover off the ball when they get up to bat, and both Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross are giving reasons for cautious optimism, but without the infield getting its act together, San Diego will be stuck in a holding pattern for fourth all year long.