Separating True MLB Contenders from the Early-Season Pretenders
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True or false: The Colorado Rockies are a first-place team.
Sorry, trick question.
You see, the Rockies are in first place—they're 13-7, best in the National League West—but that doesn't mean they're a first-place team.
April can be a wonky month, full of surprises based on results that often are too early and too small in sample size to take all that seriously just yet.
One three-game losing streak can knock a team from first to fourth in a single weekend, while a couple of April showers-infused rainouts can prevent another team from winning two more contests and returning to the warm, dry safe haven that is a .500 record.
That doesn't mean, though, we can't start separating the contenders from the pretenders now that we're getting closer to May.
Think of this as spring cleaning, and it's time to weed out the wannabes.
For each team that is currently at or above .500, we'll support the club's claim to being a contender...while also providing proof that it may be merely a pretender. And even though it's still early, we'll use what we know so far to decide: contender or pretender?
Boston Red Sox (13-7)
Contender Claim: Their plus-34 run differential is the best in baseball, their 2.62 rotation ERA is No. 2 in the majors (after being fourth-worst at 5.19 in 2012), and they just got their most dangerous hitter (David Ortiz) back from injury over the weekend.
Pretender Proof: If Andrew Bailey, now closing in place of injured Joel Hanrahan, makes his annual trip to the DL, the bullpen could become a bigger problem than it looks.
Ruling: Contender, especially if they keep pitching like this.
Baltimore Orioles (12-8)
Which AL East club is most likely a pretender?
Contender Claim: Chris Davis and his MLB-high 1.302 OPS spearheads a powerhouse offense that ranks in the top 10 in runs scored, doubles, home runs, batting average and OPS.
Pretender Proof: The rotation's 4.74 ERA is in the bottom 10 in baseball, there's no legitimate No. 1 starter, and phenom prospect Dylan Bundy may not be able to be counted on as a reinforcement if he gets bad news from his visit with Dr. James Andrews.
Ruling: Contender, but they'll need an arm or two to improve—and soon—to avoid switching labels.
New York Yankees (11-8)
Contender Claim: Just being competitive sans Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and that other guy is a testament to the hot starts from castoffs Travis Hafner (.319-5-10), Vernon Wells (.296-5-9) and Kevin Youkilis (.796 OPS).
Pretender Proof: CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte have a combined ERA of 2.69. The other two starters, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova? Try 5.55.
Ruling: Contender, but they need Granderson and Teixeira back before the pixie dust supply runs out.
Kansas City Royals (10-7)
Contender Claim: The remade rotation—James Shields, Ervin Santana, Wade Davis and Jeremy Guthrie were not on the team at this time last year—has helped the team to a 3.31 ERA, fifth-best in MLB and a full run better than the 4.31 from 2012.
Pretender Proof: Among the young hitters, only Lorenzo Cain (.940 OPS) is taking that much-needed step forward, while the likes Eric Hosmer (.629), Sal Perez (.617) and especially Mike Moustakas (.419 OPS) struggle.
Ruling: Pretender, until one or two from the hitter trio above starts providing some punch.
Minnesota Twins (9-8)
Which AL Central club is the real contender?
Contender Claim: The relief corps, lead by unknown closer Glen Perkins (2.35 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 6-for-6 in saves), has MLB's fourth-best ERA at 2.15, and Joe Mauer is doing Joe Mauer things: .366/.438/.521.
Pretender Proof: Of all teams above .500, they're the only one with a negative run differential at negative-7, in large part because their rotation has tallied just 77.2 innings and has struck out just 4.5 per nine, both worst in the majors.
Ruling: Pretender, because no team can overcome pitching that bad.
Detroit Tigers (9-9)
Contender Claim: Torii Hunter (AL-best .391 average), Prince Fielder (.333-5-21) and, of course, Miguel Cabrera (.355-2-18) on offense; Anibal Sanchez (1.75 ERA), Doug Fister (2.00), Max Scherzer (2.84) and, of course, Justin Verlander (2.13) on the mound.
Pretender Proof: So their answer to this year's bullpen problem is...last year's bullpen problem?
Ruling: Contender, and one that even the return of Jose Valverde can't mess up.
Texas Rangers (13-7)
Contender Claim: For the first time in, like, forever, the biggest star and best player on the Rangers is a pitcher. Yu Darvish—he of the 2.03 ERA and 38-to-13 strikeout-to-hit ratio (in 26.2 innings)—is the heart of this club's new strength: pitching, as evidenced by the 2.86 team ERA, No. 2 in MLB.
Pretender Proof: Great as the arms have been so far, the Rangers need stability after Darvish, especially now that 2012 All-Star Matt Harrison is out until the second half, so it's time for Derek Holland (career 4.65 ERA) and Alexi Ogando (career-high 169 innings in 2011) to step up so a pair of rookies (Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm) don't have to.
Ruling: Contender, especially once the still-potent offense gets going as the weather warms.
Oakland Athletics (13-8)
In the AL West, the Angels aren't even at .500, but are they a contender?
Contender Claim: This ain't your older brother's A's. Long a dormant offense, this team is first in the sport with 119 runs scored (5.7 per game), doubles (48) and walks (95). OK, maybe that last part is something your older brother would expect.
Pretender Proof: Something's not right with the top two starters: Jarrod Parker is getting pummeled (29 hits, 10 walks, nine whiffs in 18 innings), and Brett Anderson is struggling (5.95 ERA, 1.63 WHIP) and battling through injury. Again.
Ruling: Contender, whose hitters may actually have to carry the pitchers in a role reversal.
Atlanta Braves (15-5)
Contender Claim: Baseball's most powerful club—No. 1 with 35 homers—is thriving on the sticks of new Braves Justin Upton (11 homers) and Evan Gattis (six), but the Braves staff is proving just as strong with the best ERA (2.38) and WHIP (1.09) around. That's called balance, folks.
Pretender Proof: All those big swings are racking up strikeouts (175, fifth-most), and when they don't connect for long balls, the offense has just 30 other extra-base hits (all doubles), which is actually third-fewest. While Brian McCann, Jonny Venters and recently injured Jason Heyward seem to be on the mend, any setbacks could be costly.
Ruling: Contender, one that looks incredibly legit at the moment.
Washington Nationals (10-10)
Which NL East club is the real contender?
Contender Claim: Their vaunted trio of aces, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman, is becoming a quarter, as former first-rounder Ross Detwiler, a 27-year-old lefty, has the best ERA (1.38) on his own team—and sixth-best in the game. Also? Bryce Harper has a .366 average and 1.156 OPS.
Pretender Proof: They own the worst run differential (negative-15) among all teams .500 or better, and an offense that was supposed to be one of MLB's best is scoring just 3.7 runs per game so far. Also? This is the most error-prone club so far, with 18 total, seven of which come from shortstop Ian Desmond.
Ruling: Contender, but Harper can't do it all by himself on offense.
New York Mets (9-9)
Contender Claim: Have you seen Matt Harvey? Dude is keeping the Mets afloat practically by himself. Well, OK, David Wright (.313-2-15) and new catcher John Buck (.277-7-22) are helping prop the rest of the group up.
Pretender Proof: Take away Harvey and his sparkling 0.93 ERA—best in the NL—and the rest of the pitching staff is sporting a 5.21 ERA, which would rank only slightly ahead of the Astros for worst in baseball.
Ruling: Pretender, because a few stars can only shine so bright for so long.
St. Louis Cardinals (12-8)
Contender Claim: Thanks to an offense that has scored the fifth-most runs (98) and a staff, bolstered by early NL Rookie of the Year fave Shelby Miller, that owns the fourth-best ERA (3.19), the Cardinals are clicking.
Pretender Proof: Where's the power? Just 16 homers, including zero from David Freese and Allen Craig. And with closer Jason Motte likely out for the season, the ninth inning could be an adventure all year.
Ruling: Contender, and one that should improve once Freese and Allen get in on the act.
Milwaukee Brewers (11-8)
Which club in the surprisingly-competitive NL Central is just pretending?
Contender Claim: Simply put, they're holding up despite injuries to Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart, two of the team's top three bats. New shortstop Jean Segura has been an especially pleasant surprise, hitting .377 with 10 runs and six steals. And the staff has walked just 2.47 per game.
Pretender Proof: That remade rotation remains an issue, though, as only Kyle Lohse (2.52) has an ERA south of 4.50 among the regular starters.
Ruling: Pretender, but check back when the bats get healthy to see if the pitching is still holding up.
Cincinnati Reds (12-9)
Contender Claim: No. 2 in both runs scored (113) and walks (93), even without Ryan Ludwick, and they haven't lost a step by using hotshot rookie Tony Cingrani in place of injured Johnny Cueto, who was their best starter a year ago. A talented and deep roster.
Pretender Proof: There's plenty of swing-and-miss (117 K's, second-most) and defense could be an issue, particularly in center field and at third base.
Ruling: Contender, all the way.
Pittsburgh Pirates (11-9)
Contender Claim: The arms have—somehow—been fantastic, posting a 3.14 ERA to date, good for third-best in baseball. Meanwhile, team MVP Andrew McCutchen (.243/.296/.432) hasn't gotten close to hot yet, but he will.
Pretender Proof: The offense is off to another anemic start, with a .231 average and 3.6 runs per game, and as good as the pitchers have been, they've also walked the most (80) and have the lowest BABIP (.256)—not a good combination.
Ruling: Pretender, because, hey, we gotta see it to believe it first, right?
Colorado Rockies (13-7)
Are the Rockies for real?
Contender Claim: As you might expect, the offense is killing it: 109 runs scored (No. 3), 28 homers (No. 2) and tops in both OPS (.809) and steals (19). That's what we call diversification, people. And Dexter Fowler? Who knew?
Pretender Proof: The 4.18 ERA ain't half bad for now—for them—but a five-man that is striking out fewer than six per nine ain't gonna cut it, as opponents will start treating Coors Field like a pinball machine. That might start sooner than later, now that arguably their top starter, Jhoulys Chacin, just hit the DL.
Ruling: Pretender, albeit they've been the biggest surprise team so far, which counts for something.
San Francisco Giants (13-8)
Contender Claim: Pitching continues to win the day in San Francisco, especially Madison Bumgarner (2.05 ERA, 0.91 WHIP) and the bullpen (2.64 ERA, 1.04 WHIP). Meanwhile, Pablo Sandoval (.827 OPS, 18 RBI) and out-of-nowhere Brandon Crawford (.882 OPS, eight extra-base hits) are tiding things over until reigning NL MVP Buster Posey (.250-2-11) busts out.
Pretender Proof: There's at least some concern over Matt Cain (6.59 ERA), and despite a respectable 3.97 ERA, Tim Lincecum still looks lost and won't be effective unless he gets that ghastly 5.6 walks per nine rate down. Like, a lot.
Ruling: Contender, but can the offense pick up the slack if those cracks in that vaunted staff are real?
Arizona Diamondbacks (11-9)
Contender Claim: Managing to get it done without Daniel Hudson, Adam Eaton, a still-not-fully-healthy Jason Kubel and a just-injured Aaron Hill, thanks mainly to a deep roster with capable, young fill-ins, such as lefty Patrick Corbin (1.71 ERA, 0.99 WHIP), Gerardo Parra (.291 average, .782 OPS) and rookies A.J. Pollock (.283, 11 extra-base hits) and Didi Gregorius (two homers in first five games).
Pretender Proof: What happens when everyone gets healthy, though? Will there be too many options for manager Kirk Gibson to tinker with? And if things start to go south, will they be haunted and distracted if Justin Upton continues to mash in Atlanta?
Ruling: Contender, but this one still could go either way, so TBD might be the best answer for now.
After all, it's still only April.
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