A Month to Remember: Major League Baseball April Recap and May Preview

Ross Zelen@@RZelenCorrespondent IIMay 3, 2011

A Month to Remember: Major League Baseball April Recap and May Preview

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    CLEVELAND - APRIL 30:  Members of the Cleveland Indians mob their teammate Orlando Cabrera #20 after he hit a walk-off game winning single in the 13th inning against the Detroit Tigers during the game on April 30, 2011 at Progressive Field in Cleveland, O
    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Spring is in full force now, hopefully driving more people to the ballpark as summer rolls around. The first month of the baseball schedule has been a mixed bag of baseball nuts, with wonderful stories and some tragic occurrences. April in the major leagues has led to some fantastic finishes and massive celebrations.

    So far, 2011 has been full of controversy, such as the ownership troubles of Frank McCourt of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets and their daily struggle to keep an infringing lawsuit away.

    Some of the more poignant moments of April included a touching ceremony to honor the late Bob Feller, the dramatic return of pitcher Bartolo Colon to the New York Yankees and a return to prominence of the Cleveland Indians (pictured above).

    Going forward, it has been difficult to determine many standout teams from mediocre teams and teams trying to get guys healthy. It will take more than one month to separate the contenders from the pretenders of this year's season, and the good thing is that we are only 30 games into the 162-game full-season slate.

    Let's take a quick look at what has transpired this season...

American League East: A Troubling Start for Predicted Contenders

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    Carl Crawford has struggled mightily even after signing a huge off-season contract.
    Carl Crawford has struggled mightily even after signing a huge off-season contract.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    After the first week of the season, most baseball analysts had their heads in their hands wondering what they didn't see. The two favorites for the division, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox, started out the season with a string of losses, causing chaos to break out in the streets of Beantown.

    The mighty Red Sox, who spent $161 million this year, including $15 million to outfielder Carl Crawford (pictured left), began the year 2-10. Everything seemed to be doomed until a road trip out west proved to be the perfect medicine for the Bo Sox, winning five of six against the A's and Angels.

    The Rays started off the season 1-8 before proving they were not the worst team in the division by beating up on the Red Sox.

    Since that fateful series with the Red Sox, manager Joe Maddon's Rays have been red-hot, beating up on other underperforming teams such as the Minnesota Twins by taking seven of eight games from them. The Rays currently stand in second place behind the consistently solid New York Yankees at 16-9.

    The Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles have lived up to the mediocre hype, both hovering around .500, while the Red Sox struggle to pull their way up. 

    The Blue Jays have a solid squad this year with an extremely talented young pitching staff. By young I mean that none of their starting pitchers are above 30 years old, a rarity in the majors, but they also have dominated thus far behind 23-year-old phenom Kyle Drabek and 26-year-old flamethrower Ricky Romero.

    The Orioles also have an extremely young and unproven rotation that has excelled past expectations this spring. Highly touted prospect Zach Britton is 5-1 and as a 23-year-old has solidified being the ace of the rotation over the likes of talented Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman. The Orioles have struggled at the plate though, tallying up a combined team batting average of .234, which has contributed to the team's struggles.

    Expect the Red Sox to overtake the Jays and O's, but until the Red Sox offense gets going (.248 team batting average, only 22 home runs for the entire team), expect it to be a two-horse race between the Rays and Yankees.

    The Yankees pitching staff is weaker than it has been in decades, filled with the likes of unproven starter Ivan Nova and Bartolo Colon attempting to make a revival of his career. The Yankees still seem like the safe bet for the division crown, but watch out for a summer run by the BoSox or ever-looming Rays.

AL Central: Surprising Tribe Surges While Twinkies Fade Fast

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    SEATTLE - APRIL 08:  Travis Hafner #48 (R) of the Cleveland Indians is congratulated by Carlos Santana #41 and Shin-Soo Choo #17 after hitting a three run homer against the Seattle Mariners during the Mariners' home opener at Safeco Field on April 8, 2011
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    In what is normally one of the most competitive and equally distributed divisions in the major leagues, a typical bottom feeder has risen from the cellar and made a dramatic impression on the baseball world after the first month.

    The Cleveland Indians, who finished with a 69-93 record in 2010, are off to a phenomenal start this year at 19-8. The Indians have been beating up on American League teams Fight Club style, as in the fact they leave their opponent bloody, bruised and confused to why there is not another soul watching.

    The "Jake," as Progressive Field is lovingly referred to, has failed miserably to draw fans, as the Indians rank last in attendance so far in 2011 with a meager 14,275 a game. In fact, the only AL Central team drawing above 25,000 a game is the Twins, limping to their worst start in almost a decade. This is not a good sign for baseball, but for the Indians, as long as they keep winning, they hope people will come.

    With budding ace Justin Masterson, 5-0 with a 2.25 ERA; solid closer Chris Perez, who is 7-for 7-in save opportunities; and the revival of offensive powerhouses Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, the Indians are a force to be reckoned with. Not to mention the production of beloved star Shin-Soo Choo and developing All-Star catcher Carlos Santana, pictured above.

    The Kansas City Royals have proved to be the Indians' early competition, looking much improved with new faces such as Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur. The Royals pitching staff of wily veteran Bruce Chen and budding star Luke Hochevar has also helped dig the Royals out of the cellar. Expect highly touted prospect Mike Moustakas to make an impact on the 2011 season, as he can help supplant utility expert Wilson Betemit at third base.

    The Minnesota Twins have been downright dreadful this season, meandering to a 9-18 start not reminiscent of any year in recent Minnesota memory. A normally reliable pitching staff has escaped the Twins in the early going, as they post the second-worst ERA in the league at 5.04. The Chicago White Sox at 10-19 have not fared much better, posting a 4.56 ERA and a disappointing .240 team batting average.

    Expect the Tribe to really prove doubters wrong this year as they romp through their schedule. I foresee the Royals fading into the darkness quickly, while the Detroit Tigers are never quite out of it with their talent level.

AL West: A's & Mariners Will Have a Nice Summer Watching the Angels & Rangers

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    ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 10:  Jered Weaver #36 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim throws a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 10, 2011 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California. The Angels won 3-1.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    In preparation for what looks to be one of the most heated races in baseball this summer, both the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Texas Rangers made life easier on themselves by jumping out to solid starts. Both clubs find themselves at 16-12 currently, and both have had ups and downs so far this season.

    For the Angels, it has been the Jered Weaver show (picture to left). Weaver has set major-league records with a 6-0 mark, a 0.99 ERA and 49 strikeouts before his first May start. Weaver has been absolutely dominant with two complete games and one shutout already, and although he has yet to receive more than five runs of support, his opponent has failed to even make it look close.

    Other than Weaver, the Angels have not found a ton of support from any of their regulars. Well-kept secrets such as Erick AybarAlberto Callaspo and Howie Kendrick have picked up the slack for struggling veterans Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells.

    The Rangers have continued to do what they do best under manager Ron Washington. So far this season, the Lone Star sluggers have an overall team batting average of .269 and already 36 home runs.

    Behind the pitching of C.J. Wilson, last postseason's unsung hero, and converted reliever-to-starter Alexi Ogando, who is 3-0 with a 2.30 ERA, the pitching staff has held strong too. Colby Lewis and Derek Holland need to turn it around quickly, as both post ERAs over 5.00, but after only six starts statistics can be skewed. 

    The Oakland A's have held strong, going 14-14 in the early going behind the stellar pitching of another Cy Young candidate, Trevor Cahill. Cahill, 4-0 with a 1.88 ERA, has headed the best rotation in the major leagues so far, with Gio Gonzalez, Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden also getting off to fantastic starts. Hitting has been a problem for the Athletics, however.

    The A's overall team ERA is an incredible 2.76, an entire run lower than that of the Seattle Mariners, who have started their 2011 slate with a 13-16 record. Michael Pineda has lived up to his billing as a top ace, providing support to current ace Felix Hernandez.

    Expect the West to be a two-team race with the Angels and Rangers jockeying for top position all summer long.

National League East: A Division Lost in the Swirling Vortex of Chaos

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    MIAMI GARDENS, FL - APRIL 21:  Mike Stanton #27 of the Florida Marlins is congratulated by Hanley Ramirez #2 and Gaby Sanchez #15 after hitting  his first home run of the year during a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Sun Life Stadium on April 21, 2
    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    The NL East has been a season-long train wreck, aside from the Philadelphia Phillies and Florida Marlins jumping out to excellent starts.

    The Phillies, clear favorites to win not only the division but the National League as well, have ridden their starting rotation to a 19-8 April. The rotation of Roy "Doc" Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels has anchored a pitching staff with the lowest WHIP in baseball and the fourth-lowest ERA. Fifth starter Joe Blanton has struggled mightily and might be replaced in the rotation soon enough by budding all-name team selection Vance Worley.

    The Marlins, never picked by baseball analysts to succeed because of a low payroll, actually increased payroll this season and have reaped the benefits. All-Star pitcher Josh Johnson has dominated thus far with a 3-0 record and a minuscule 0.88 ERA. Even with the struggle of Hanley Ramirez, the normally electrifying shortstop currently floundering at the Mendoza line, slugging prodigy Mike Stanton has provided the power for the lineup.

    The Washington Nationals are currently standing at 13-14; expect them to stay around .500 for the better part of the season before tipping down below that mark. Much improved with free-agent signing Jayson Werth and a revival from Jason Marquis, the Nats have surprised some teams. New Nats closer Drew Storen is as good as advertised, with a 0.60 ERA and a .167 batting average against.

    In terms of the train wreck referred to before, the New York Mets have been absolutely dreadful on the field, and with a hostile ownership situation, chaos is brewing in Queens.

    The Mets stand at 12-16, last place in the East, and with a rotation featuring mediocre Mike Pelfrey as the ace, they do not look to improve any time soon. Jose Reyes and David Wright continue to produce offensively, along with first baseman Ike Davis, who straight-up mashes, but overall the product on the field has been sloppy, and the seats at new Citi Field have been empty.

    The Atlanta Braves have a different dilemma on their hands, with not one but two PR nightmares. Pitching coach Roger McDowell has been suspended two weeks because of a homophobic tirade towards fans, and pitcher Derek Lowe was arrested in Atlanta for not only driving drunk but trying to illegally race cars as well.

    The media nightmare has descended on Atlanta and contributed to the demise of the Braves in their first season without old manager Bobby Cox. At a still respectable 14-15 and with the hope that young stars outfielder Jason Heyward and pitcher Tommy Hanson bring, the season is not lost yet.

    Expect the Phillies to run away with this one and breeze in September while the Fish and Braves battle out for the wild-card spot.

NL Central: Usual Suspects of Cards and Reds Holding Firm to Lead

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    Lance Berkman has a lot to be smiling about so far this season.
    Lance Berkman has a lot to be smiling about so far this season.Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Mediocrity is the name of the game in the Central this year, with no team making a major early move. The St. Louis Cardinals currently lead the division behind the strong hitting of free-agent signing Lance Berkman, who has returned to the outfield after years playing first base.

    Of course, Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday are also hitting well, with Holliday posting a .418 batting average and Pujols having seven big flies thus far. However, the real story is Berkman, coming over and batting .398 with eight home runs and 23 RBI. Berkman is leading the MVP race for many voters.

    The Cards overall are smacking the ball around, leading the NL in batting average and runs scored, bringing relief to their somewhat patchwork starting rotation. Kyle Lohse (1.64 ERA and 4-1 record) and Jaime Garcia (2.45 ERA and 3-0 record) have been stellar so far, distracting fans from the constant disappointment of closer Ryan Franklin, who blew four of his five save opportunities before being removed as closer. Free-agent pickup Jake Westbrook has also struggled dearly so far, posting a 6.53 ERA in the starting rotation.

    The Cincinnati Reds, off to a 14-14 start, occupy second place in the Central behind the excellent efforts of Hall of Fame quality slugger Joey Votto. Votto, off to a .357 batting average this year and another chance at a Triple Crown, has had help this year from outfielders Jonny Gomes, Drew Stubbs and second baseman Brandon Phillips.

    Behind anchor of the rotation and all-around California boy Bronson Arroyo, young guns Edinson Volquez and Mike Leake have begun to mature on the mound (although Leake has had some off-the-field setbacks). With closer Francisco Cordero and flamethrower Aroldis Chapman at the back of the bullpen, the Reds look poised to challenge the Cards again and look to win their second NL Central title in a row.

    The Milwaukee Brewers have struggled under first-year manager Ron Roenicke but look to bolster their pitching staff when ace Zack Greinke returns in a few days. The Brewers have a .270 team batting average, good enough for third in the National League; however, the struggles of usually reliable pitchers Yovani Gallardo and John Axford have contributed to their slow start.

    The Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros have all struggled in the early going, which is not to be unexpected considering the Pirates and Astros continue to be in rebuilding mode.

    The Pirates have stars in the making with Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata, but all have been in season-long funks. The Cubbies of the North Side have some good young players too, such as electric Starlin Castro, but big-money free agents like Carlos Pena have failed to pan out, continuing the Cubs' streak of bad luck. The Astros are the face of bad luck, stuck in the cellar without much to look forward to.

    Look for the Cardinals and Reds to once again duke it out for the NL Central title with the runner-up scrambling to win that last wild-card spot.

NL West: Looking Up at the Rockies; Calling All Reserves

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    MIAMI GARDENS, FL - APRIL 26: Juan Uribe #5 of the Los Angeles Dodgers looks on during a game against the Florida Marlins at Sun Life Stadium on April 26, 2011 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    The defending world champion San Francisco Giants got off to a rocky start with numerous impact players on the disabled list. The Giants have been snakebitten with injuries to center fielder Andres Torres, second baseman Mark DeRosa, infielder Pablo Sandoval and pitchers Barry Zito and Santiago Casilla.

    In their place, the Giants got a lift from touted prospect Brandon Belt before he was sent down, and so far Pat "the bat" Burrell and Buster Posey have been hot at the plate.

    As usual, the Giants' starting pitching has been fantastic with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez, but the bullpen and closer Brian Wilson have been a subject of concern after Wilson's slow return from injury.

    The Giants stand at 13-14 and are in third place, 4.5 games behind the fiery Colorado Rockies, who jumped out to the best record in baseball for the first couple weeks. Behind slugging shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the Rockies have been destroying pitchers far and wide. Tulo has seven home runs and 17 RBI so far and had an incredible 10 games where he hit all seven of his home runs.

    Behind Jorge De La Rosa (4-0 record) and Jhoulys Chacin (2.92 ERA), the Rockies pitching staff has picked up the slack for struggling Ubaldo Jimenez. Closer Huston Street has been a perfect 10-for-10 this season, shortening games for opponents.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers have been mired in controversy but have actually managed to hold their own this season. 14-15 this season, the Dodgers have been propelled by the phenomenal play of Andre Ethier (he of the 27-game hit streak and .378 batting average) and Matt Kemp (six home runs, 19 RBI, .373 average, .609 slugging percentage), who both look like locks for the All-Star team and perhaps MVP candidates.

    Injuries have plagued the Dodgers as well, but with Jamey Carroll batting .296 in replacement of Rafael Furcal and Aaron Miles providing a spark in place of Casey Blake, the Dodgers have not flopped as many expected. Still, the Dodgers are struggling mightily offensively, as James Loney continues to lack confidence at the plate.

    Loney's fall from grace prompted the call-up of Jerry Sands, who has played both left field and first base since his call-up. Sands' power potential has led to Dodgers manager Don Mattingly putting him in the lineup every day even as Sands finds his way.

    Clayton Kershaw has proved why he is an ace in some of his performances but has lacked the consistency needed, as his 2-3 record indicates.The Dodgers are still waiting on players to turn it on, such as how free-agent pickup Juan Uribe (shown left) started out the season with six hits in his first 54 at-bats before raising his average to almost .250 in a couple weeks.

    The San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks make up the bottom of the NL West, failing to get the needed combination of pitching and hitting. Ian Kennedy of the D-Backs has molded himself into an ace, and Stephen Drew has 22 RBI.

    The Padres recently took two of three from the Dodgers and have improved of late behind solid pitching from Dustin Moseley, Mat Latos and Aaron Harang. Offensively, Ryan Ludwick and Nick Hundley have been propping up the fort.

    The West will obviously be won by the team that can play the most consistently over the entire course of the summer. Unlike some clear contenders in other divisions, it is going to take quite a long time to see which one can realistically achieve its goal of a division crown.