Playing Contender or Pretender with MLB's Playoff Hopefuls After 1 Month

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2014

Playing Contender or Pretender with MLB's Playoff Hopefuls After 1 Month

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    USA TODAY Sports

    At the end of April, 14 MLB teams had a winning record, and outside of a streaking Milwaukee Brewers team, no squad had really separated itself from the pack yet.

    Obviously a lot can change over the course of a season, but we also have a big enough sample size to get a feel for what the strengths and weaknesses of each team are going to be and how their season might shape up.

    What follows is a closer look at those aforementioned 14 teams, along with my take on whether they are a contender or pretender moving forward.

    Let me clarify that some teams with losing records certainly have a chance to contend as well. This was simply a look at the teams that posted winning records over the first month, though, so those clubs were not part of the conversation here.

St. Louis Cardinals (15-14, .517 Winning Percentage)

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    Contender or Pretender?

    Contender

     

    Why They're Contenders

    Despite the fact their offense could only muster a .246/.314/.368 line and 3.62 runs per game (27th in the MLB) over the first month of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals still have a winning record heading into May.

    The starting pitching is largely to thank for that, as they turned in 17 quality starts in 29 games. The one-two punch of Adam Wainwright (5-1, 1.20 ERA, 8.4 K/9) and Michael Wacha (2-2, 2.48 ERA, 10.9 K/9) has been great. While they have had to deal with an injury to Joe Kelly, they have tremendous depth, and both Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn have been solid behind the two aces.

    Offensively, Allen Craig (.220 BA, .239 BABIP) and Jhonny Peralta (.196 BA, .178 BABIP) have both fallen victim to some bad luck, and outside of Yadier Molina and Matt Adams, no one is hitting up to his potential.

    This looked like the team to beat heading into the season, and when the offense inevitably gets on track, there is no reason to think the Cardinals can't still be one of the front-runners to claim the NL pennant.

Los Angeles Angels (14-13, .519 Winning Percentage)

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Contender or Pretender?

    Pretender

     

    Why They're Pretenders

    Expected to be contenders each of the past two seasons, the Los Angeles Angels finished 89-73 in 2012 and missed the playoffs before falling off to 78-84 last season and finishing 18 games behind the division-winning Oakland Athletics.

    While they did not make a flashy signing this past winter—after adding Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton in back-to-back offseasons—it may have been the team's best offseason in years.

    Left-handers Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago were added to shore up the rotation, and the results have been great so far. The team's starters have a 3.46 ERA, ranking fourth in the American League.

    Meanwhile, the offense is scoring 5.52 runs per game, the highest mark in baseball. That may not hold up though, as there are several areas of concern offensively and the injury to Josh Hamilton is no doubt  a major blow.

    The biggest issue is the bullpen, which has a 4.37 ERA and has already yanked Ernesto Frieri from the closer's role in favor of Joe Smith. If the Angels can shore that up and avoid injury to the rotation, they would be in much better shape, but in an ultra-competitive AL West it's enough for me to hold off on calling them contenders just yet.

Texas Rangers (15-13, .536 Winning Percentage)

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    Contender or Pretender?

    Contender

     

    Why They're Contenders

    After seeing their offense fall off a bit last season following the loss of Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and a handful of others, the Texas Rangers reloaded in a big way this offseason with the additions of Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder.

    Injuries hit hard in spring training though, as starters Derek Holland and Matt Harrison started the year on the disabled list, along with second baseman Jurickson Profar and catcher Geovany Soto.

    The starting rotation was a mess to kick off the season, with Tanner Scheppers becoming the most unlikely Opening Day starter when Yu Darvish was not ready to go. The pitching staff has rounded into form of late though, and with Harrison healthy, Colby Lewis making a comeback and Martin Perez emerging as a star, the team looks to be in good shape.

    The Rangers have gotten off to a better start than expected, and their best baseball looks like it is still to come, considering the rotation is just now getting healthy, Adrian Beltre has missed time and Fielder (.206 BA, .644 OPS) has yet to do much of anything offensively.

Kansas City Royals (14-12, .538 Winning Percentage)

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    Contender or Pretender?

    Pretender

     

    Why They're Pretenders

    This was by far the toughest call of the 14 teams listed here, as the Kansas City Royals are right on the fringe of contender and pretender at this point. They have a shot with the AL East looking weaker than expected and the Cleveland Indians scuffling, but we'll still call them pretenders at this point.

    They posted a winning record for the first time since 2003 last year, and if not for their first-half offensive woes, they likely would have been in position to contend for a wild-card spot.

    There are still some offensive concerns, namely the ongoing struggles of Mike Moustakas (.149 BA, .552 OPS) and slow starts from Billy Butler and Salvador Perez, but they are averaging a respectable 4.00 runs per game so far.

    Pitching is their strength, and the trio of James Shields, Yordano Ventura and Jason Vargas have been very good. However, they are incredibly thin across the board as far as organizational depth is concerned, so a key injury could really hurt.

Colorado Rockies (16-13, .552 Winning Percentage)

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Contender or Pretender?

    Pretender

     

    Why They're Pretenders

    New season, same story for the Colorado Rockies, as they have one of the most potent offenses in all of baseball but are at the mercy of a subpar pitching staff.

    In the season's first month, they hit .293/.343/.480 as a team and averaged an NL-best 5.47 runs per game. Troy Tulowitzki (.370 BA), Charlie Blackmon (.369 BA) and Justin Morneau (.340 BA) currently rank first, second and sixth in the NL batting title race, and their 39 home runs as a team lead all of baseball.

    Their pitching is no doubt improved from last year, as the starters carry a 4.11 ERA, but they still lack that true staff ace. In addition, the bullpen has been shaky with a 4.30 ERA and six blown saves.

    Getting Jhoulys Chacin healthy is big, as he's the one guy who has a chance of being a legitimate ace, but at this point, their pitching still does not look strong enough for them to be playing in October.

Los Angeles Dodgers (15-12, .556 Winning Percentage)

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Contender or Pretender?

    Contender

     

    Why They're Contenders

    Even with the game's best pitcher in Clayton Kershaw making just one start over the first month of the season, the Los Angeles Dodgers managed to walk away with a winning record. That's not a loss many teams could overcome, but their roster is just so talented.

    The starting rotation still managed a cumulative 2.74 ERA, good for third in the National League, behind Zack Greinke (5-0, 2.04 ERA), Dan Haren (4-0, 2.39 ERA) and a rejuvenated Josh Beckett (2.45 ERA).

    There are still some questions offensively, namely the lack of production from the outfield trio of Matt Kemp (.207 BA, .745 OPS), Andre Ether (.241 BA, .644 OPS) and Carl Crawford (.195 BA, .495 OPS). Again, despite that, they've been able to overcome thanks to hot starts from guys like Juan Uribe and Dee Gordon.

    This is another team that looks like its best baseball is still ahead, and once the starting rotation is fully healthy, L.A. has a chance to have the best staff in baseball. The San Francisco Giants are looking strong, but the Dodgers remain the team to beat in the NL West.

Washington Nationals (16-12, .571 Winning Percentage)

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    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    Contender or Pretender?

    Pretender

     

    Why They're Pretenders

    After a disappointing 2013 season that saw them enter the year as many analysts' pick to win the NL pennant and instead fall short of reaching the playoffs, the Washington Nationals were pegged by many as the most overrated team in baseball heading into 2014.

    On paper, they still looked like one of the game's most complete teams, and thanks to the addition of Doug Fister, their already terrific rotation looked to be that much better.

    Fast-forward a month, and the team is now without star Bryce Harper until July following thumb surgery and Fister has yet to throw a pitch. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Wilson Ramos are also on the disabled list, while shortstop Ian Desmond is off to a terrible start offensively (.231 BA, 36 K) and defensively (eight errors).

    If they can tread water until Harper and the others return, they could be in a good position for another second-half push, but at this point it's reason enough to call them pretenders. Their inability to beat division-rival Atlanta could also be a major factor down the stretch if things are close for the NL East crown.

    “Slowly, we’ll get a team that we thought we were going to have in spring training at the same time,” general manager Mike Rizzo told Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post. “When we do that, I think we’ll start playing more consistently and getting on a roll. I haven’t mentioned it [injuries], because it’s not relevant. Everybody gets them. It’s time to strap it on and win some games.”

New York Mets (15-11, .577 Winning Percentage)

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Contender or Pretender?

    Pretender

     

    Why They're Pretenders

    On the strength of their terrific starting pitching, which ranks seventh in the National League with a collective 3.65 ERA, the New York Mets managed to walk away with a winning April and on a 10-4 run to close out the month.

    Every starter outside of Bartolo Colon (5.65 ERA) has an ERA less than 4.00, and even he has four quality starts in six outings. He has, however, allowed 21 hits and 16 runs in 9.2 innings of work in those other two starts.

    The bullpen has somehow managed a respectable 3.83 ERA, despite losing closer Bobby Parnell for the year and relying heavily on bargain-bin veterans like Kyle Farnsworth and Jose Valverde. How long that group holds up is a legitimate question at this point, and the pen could turn into a serious issue before too long.

    The starting rotation will be enough to keep them relevant, but with a shaky bullpen and an offense that still has a number of holes and underperforming players led by Curtis Granderson (.141 BA, .470 OPS), this team still looks like a pretender to me. Look out in 2015 and beyond though, as the future is very bright for the Mets.

New York Yankees (15-11, .577 Winning Percentage)

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Contender or Pretender?

    Contender

     

    Why They're Contenders

    An offseason spending spree left the New York Yankees with more talent on their roster than a year ago, when they still managed to win 85 games despite a patchwork roster that was decimated by injuries over the course of the season.

    A number of concerns still surround this team, including the fragile health of the starting infield and a shaky starting rotation that is currently down two members with Ivan Nova lost for the season and Michael Pineda gone for a month.

    However, with the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox both off to slow starts and looking worse off than last year, the Yankees are the class of the AL East at this point. To put it simply, this franchise knows how to win.

    New York may not have the pitching to make a World Series run once it reaches the playoffs, although Masahiro Tanaka has been as good as advertised—if not betterbut the Yankees do look to be in a good position to at least reach the playoffs.

San Francisco Giants (17-11, .607 Winning Percentage)

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Contender or Pretender?

    Contender

     

    Why They're Contenders

    With essentially the same team returning that had just won the World Series, the San Francisco Giants had looked to be in a good position to make another playoff run last year. Instead, their pitching faltered, the offense was unable to pick up the slack, and they finished a disappointing 76-86.

    The focus of the offseason was once again on retaining in-house talent, with two major exceptions in the additions of Tim Hudson (4-1, 2.17 ERA) and Michael Morse (.932 OPS, 6 HR, 20 RBI), who have both made huge contributions so far.

    With the addition of Morse, a healthy Angel Pagan (.340 BA, .850 OPS) and an improving Brandon Belt, the offense is perhaps the best it has been since the days of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent. The Giants have been without second baseman Marco Scutaro, but Brandon Hicks has stepped up big in his absence.

    On the pitching side of things, it's still a mixed bag as far as what you're going to get from Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong at the back of the rotation, but the top of the staff is strong, and the bullpen (2.05 ERA) has been one of the best around. The Giants should give the Los Angeles Dodgers all they can handle in the NL West this year.

Detroit Tigers (14-9, .609 Winning Percentage)

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Contender or Pretender?

    Contender

     

    Why They're Contenders

    Not many teams in a position to make a run to the World Series trade the likes of Prince Fielder and Doug Fister right in the middle of their window of contention, but the Tigers did what they had to do to make a run at extending both Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer.

    With the reigning AL Cy Young winner Scherzer (3-1, 2.08 ERA), Justin Verlander (3-1, 2.48 ERA) and Anibal Sanchez (3.13 ERA), the team may have the best starting trio in baseball. Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly have been solid as well, and the rotation is no doubt the strength of this team.

    The bullpen, on the other hand, has been an adventure, and while closer Joe Nathan seems to be over the dead arm that plagued him early on, the Tigers still sit 29th in the MLB with a 5.37 ERA as a group.

    Offensively, they may not be the same club they were a year ago without Fielder and Jhonny Peralta, but they still have some firepower and have managed to put up 4.52 runs per game, and that's with Cabrera getting off to a slow start and virtually no production coming from catcher or shortstop. They look like the class of the AL Central once again, and given that rotation, they will be awfully dangerous come October.

Oakland Athletics (18-10, .642 Winning Percentage)

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Contender or Pretender?

    Contender

     

    Why They're Contenders

    Another year, another set of obstacles for the small-market Oakland Athletics to overcome, and so far they have been able to do that and then some.

    Despite losing Bartolo Colon in free agency and both Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin to season-ending injuries in the spring, the A's have the best starters' ERA in the American League at 2.85 with 21 quality starts in 28 games. Scott Kazmir has been a great signing, Jesse Chavez has been a revelation, and Sonny Gray looks every bit the part of staff ace.

    The offense is once again a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Josh Donaldson has caught fire after a slow start, and Jed Lowrie is off to a nice start in a contract year, but there is not much star power here. Still, the Athletics are averaging 5.29 runs per game and should regularly pile up runs once again.

    At this point, they are not going to surprise anyone, having won back-to-back AL West titles, and they look like the team to beat in that division once again. The Angels and Rangers are both looking solid, so it won't be a cakewalk by any means, but as long as the pitching holds up, Oakland should be in good shape.

Atlanta Braves (17-9, .654 Winning Percentage)

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Contender or Pretender?

    Contender

     

    Why They're Contenders

    Count me among the analysts who expected the Atlanta Braves to limp through the first month of the season after losing three-fifths of their projected starting rotation before the season even started.

    Instead they were one of the best teams in baseball, and their patchwork rotation was statistically the best around. Guys like Aaron Harang (3-2, 2.97 ERA) and David Hale (1-0, 2.10 ERA) came out of nowhere, and the one-two punch of Julio Teheran and Ervin Santana atop the staff has been terrific.

    Some regression is to be expected from guys like Harang and Hale, but the team will soon have a healthy Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd to work into the mix, so the Braves look to be in great shape as far as pitching goes. The bullpen is strong once again as well, though not quite as dominant as it was last season.

    Offensively, they remain one of the streakier teams in the league, and the high-priced duo of Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton continue to provide next to nothing as far as production is concerned. The trio of Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis has been great though, and they should score plenty of runs. The Washington Nationals will no doubt make things harder on them this time around, but the Braves are still the team to beat in the NL East.

Milwaukee Brewers (20-8, .714 Winning Percentage)

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Contender or Pretender?

    Contender

     

    Why They're Contenders

    Before the season started, I pointed to the Milwaukee Brewers as a potential dark horse that had an outside chance at contending. Suffice to say, I did not expect them to have the best record in baseball at the end of April.

    Their bullpen has been lights out, led by the foursome of Francisco Rodriguez (13-of-13 SV, 0.00 ERA), Tyler Thornburg (14.2 IP, 0.61 ERA), Will Smith (11.1 IP, 0.79 ERA) and Zach Duke (13.1 IP, 1.35 ERA), and much like the Pittsburgh Pirates, it's a strength that could carry them far.

    The starting rotation has also been terrific, as four of the five starters have an ERA less than 3.00, with the lone outlier being newcomer Matt Garza (1-3, 5.00 ERA). If he can get on track, this has a chance to be one of the best rotations in all of baseball from No. 1 to No. 5.

    The offense may not be as good as the group that led the NL in scoring in 2012, but the Brewers are much better than they were last year. If Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez can avoid missing significant time, they should be able to score more than enough to back their pitching.

    The season is still young, and it's hard to put too much stock in one month of baseball, but I'm sold on the Brewers being serious contenders this season, especially with the Pirates and Reds scuffling early.

     

    *The records and winning percentage included reflect their record at the end of April. All stats courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

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