The 2013 season has produced an unusual number of surprise contenders no one expected to be topping their respective divisions through the first month.
Teams like the Colorado Rockies and Pittsburgh Pirates ended last season below .500 and made little noise this offseason. The Kansas City Royals perennially find themselves in the basement of the AL Central, but so far they’ve done enough to keep pace with the AL champion Detroit Tigers.
Then there are the Arizona Diamondbacks, who made a few moves this offseason but supposedly had little chance of competing with the competitive Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants squads.
While it’s unusual to see four unexpected teams come out of the gate swinging and pitching, it’s hardly taboo. Each year there’s at least one small-market team that makes a little noise in the beginning of the season, and then lags off towards the All-Star break.
So, will Arizona, Colorado, Pittsburgh and Kansas City be able to hang on for the remainder of the season, or will they succumb to the typical All-Star break woes and collapse?
Arizona Diamondbacks, 15-10
After losing their star and current major league home run leader Justin Upton this offseason, the Diamondbacks looked like a team without a catalyst on paper.
However, top to bottom, this is a relatively complete team that ranks in the top 10 in pitching, hitting and fielding. A bullpen that includes names like J.J. Putz, Heath Bell and Brad Ziegler has been able to maintain a minuscule 2.44 ERA, good for third best in baseball.
Their bullpen has enough arms to stay consistent for most of the season, but their rotation is a different story. Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy have all shared their struggles and have been bailed out by the offense and bullpen on a few occasions.
It’s been the bottom of the rotation, led by the young arms of Patrick Corbin and Wade Miley, that has really kept the Diamondbacks afloat in the first month. Corbin is proving to be one of the better pitchers in baseball with a 3-0 record and 1.91 ERA in five starts. He has the stuff to stay dominant in the big leagues.
Wade Miley, who’s posted a 2-0 record with a 2.37 ERA in his five starts, has more confidence in his changeup and slider than he did last season.
If Arizona can get the top half of its rotation in order, this is going to be an extremely dangerous team down the stretch. It starts by looking at who it has played to this point.
In my opinion, no team has had a harder month than the Arizona Diamondbacks. They’ve faced the Cardinals, Brewers, Pirates, Dodgers, Yankees, Giants and Rockies (two series), and start another series with the Giants today. Each one of those squads has a .500 record or better.
Even without the big bat of Justin Upton, the Diamondbacks are getting it done. When everything is said and done, I see them taking a wild-card spot out of the NL West.
Colorado Rockies, 15-10
The Rockies had a disastrous, injured-plagued season in 2012, posting a record of 64-98.
This is a team I predicted to come out of the gate swinging and make a run at a division title, even after making virtually no notable moves this offseason. However, I’m tempted to retract that statement after yesterday’s injury to All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
After attempting to score from second on a single to left, Tulo was gunned at home by Jason Kubel. Shortly after, manager Walt Weiss yanked his star shortstop in the third inning with a likely shoulder injury.
Tulowitzki is currently batting .308 with six home runs and 22 RBI. Regardless of whether or not this injury has Tulo out for an extended period of time, it proves one thing: that his body is made of glass.
It seems like every at bat, every time he takes the field, Tulowitzki is prone to some freak injury. He’s going to be an important part moving forward if this team wants to make a run at a playoff berth.
Starting pitching is always a factor in Colorado, and for the most part it’s been pretty good to this point. But do I think it’ll last?
Colorado’s rotation and bullpen ERA has been on a steady slide since Opening Day, and with the Jhoulys Chacin injury, it’s not going to get any better.
As usual, Jeff Francis hasn’t been able to get it done, and young guns Tyler Chatwood and Juan Nicasio haven’t looked as flush as Weiss would like.
This is an impressive start for the Rockies that, after a 98-loss season, few expected. Chemistry is what gives this team the upper hand moving forward, but don’t expect them to by playing in October.
Pittsburgh Pirates, 15-10
This team reminds me a lot of the Diamondbacks if you look at the big picture.
Andrew McCutchen should be—and eventually will be—that catalyst that Arizona is missing, but so far he’s batting just .216 with two homers and 14 RBI.
Pedro Alvarez is batting an abysmal .198 and Neil Walker has yet to get it going offensively. So how is this team winning games in a highly competitive NL Central?
Pittsburgh has the second-best bullpen ERA in baseball at 2.42 and a shutdown closer in 36-year-old Jason Grilli. Grilli has notched a league-best 10 saves through the first month of this season.
In the rotation, A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and even James McDonald at times have been good. With Jeff Karstens close to starting his rehab assignment, this rotation can only improve.
The question of whether or not this team will be successful down the stretch lies in the offense. We know production isn’t going to come from guys like Clint Barmes and Russell Martin. Manager Clint Hurdle is relying upon McCutchen to step up and guys like Starling Marte, who’s batting .323, and Garrett Jones, who’s hitting a .324, to maintain their hot bats.
The Pirates have been bad for a very long time. In fact, they haven’t had a winning record or a playoff berth since 1992, when they were in the NL East.
If the pitching can stay strong and the offense can pick it up, the Pirates have all the pieces laid out in front of them to be successful. However, the division is just too good this year for them to stay consistent in the wins column.
Kansas City Royals, 13-9
The Kansas City Royals could beat out the AL champion Detroit Tigers and secure their first playoff berth since 1985. That’s highly unlikely, but if there’s any year for the Royals to make a run, it’s this one.
Other than the Tigers, the AL Central is unarguably one of the weaker divisions in baseball. No one really expects the Twins to stay above .500, and the Indians' and White Sox's offseason moves have yet to pay dividends.
The Royals' offseason moves are paying off. James Shields’ skill set hasn’t changed since the trade, and Ervin Santana is off to one of the hottest starts of his career, owning a 3-1 record with a 2.00 ERA and 31 strikeouts.
Even Jeremy Guthrie is out-pitching expectations through his first five starts. The bullpen, led by makeshift closer Greg Holland, has a combined 2.73 ERA and is keeping the Royals alive late in ballgames, something they seriously lacked last season.
Offensively, this team is lacking and has lost some close games through the first month. Alex Gordon is batting .337 with three homers and 17 RBI and is finally shaping into the player the Royals organization thought he would be after drafting him second overall in the 2005 amateur draft.
The surprise on offense for the Royals is Lorenzo Cain, who’s batting .324 with one homer and 11 RBI. He’s begun to tail off recently, going three for his last 17, but is playing a flawless center field.
The Royals have a legitimate shot a securing a wild-card spot if they can boost their offense. A division title is likely out of reach since they share a division with Detroit, but this could finally be the year in which the Royals make a statement.