MLB: Contenders and Pretenders at the Season's 1st Checkpoint
Happy Memorial Day everyone! On the baseball calendar, today marks one of the important milestones in the long season.
Once pitchers and catchers report, baseball fans look forward to Opening Day, the games of April and early May and then, finally Memorial Day. It is today that we truly examine where our teams stand, who is jelling together and which teams should make a run at their division or the Wild Card.
And as some fans will know, today marks the beginning of the end: For the rest of the summer, they will root for a team that has no chance to make the playoffs and continue the season beyond Game 162.
Here is a look at every team, what the start of the season has brought them and where we can expect them to go considering their issues. A verdict of “Contenders” or “Pretenders” will be assigned to each team, and I’m sure I’ll get more wrong than I do right. But I hope you enjoy the read.
The Diamondbacks have gotten off to a good start this year and are in second place in the NL West. Ian Kennedy and JJ Putz have been better than advertised, and the young nucleus on offense has been performing well.
However, the NL West is a tough division with battle-tested teams. The Diamondbacks are at least a year away from fully contending.
In the offseason, the Braves' priority was revamping their offense and they landed premier slugging second baseman Dan Uggla, who has been a failure thus far. With Jayson Heyward hurting and the inevitable Chipper Jones DL-stint coming at some point, they could be in trouble.
However, their starting staff is deep, the bullpen is lights-out and Dan Uggla will hit sooner or later. The Braves will be a team to be reckoned with all year long.
The lovable losers are in a transition stage with new ownership and an old/young team with a lot of players caught in the middle. Alfonso Soriano’s shown he’s still got some pop left in his tank, but it’s running empty on most everything else. Carlos Pena’s hitting above .200—and I guess that’s an improvement. Starlin Castro looks like a star in the making and will be a fixture at Wrigley for years to come.
The pitching staff is decent, Zambrano is controlling himself for now and their bullpen is solid. In a competitive NL Central, the Cubs look to be behind the eight ball, but with a strong effort by their pitching staff they could make a play for division.
The Reds have a dynamic offense led by MVP Joey Votto and youngster Jay Bruce. They can score runs with anybody. Their defense is not too shabby either, but it’s pitching that wins championships and so far this year, the Reds are lacking that big-time stopper in the rotation.
The back end of the bullpen is electric, but how much can Francisco Cordero be trusted down the stretch? They need another starter to be fully counted on as contenders.
Wasn’t this the year the Rockies were supposed to start with a bang and not need a big late-season push to make the postseason?
MVP candidate Troy Tulowitzki got off to a hot start, Todd Helton is hitting as well as he has in years (albeit, not for power—at least not as much as before the humidor was installed at Coors Field) and most of the team is healthy.
But Ubaldo Jimenez is struggling—he hasn’t won a game yet and the Rockies have got to be very thankful they re-signed Jorge de la Rosa. However, we can’t write off Colorado just yet. They’re a deep, resourceful and proven team.
Come September, they’ll be very much in the thick of things.
The Marlins are a good young team with exciting players and potentially dominant pitchers. Gabby Sanchez is looking good and Mike Stanton’s on his way to being a superstar.
Josh Johnson might be the best pitcher in the National League not named Roy Halladay, but if his shoulder inflammation is worse than they hope, it could spell trouble in Florida. This team could go either way but for now I'll pass the buck and declare them...
The Astros were swept to start the season and lost seven of their first eight games. Their offense doesn’t scare anyone, the pitching staff has a lot of question marks and the biggest news stories surrounding the Astros are about who they’ll trade and who they’ll keep while expunging the roster of veteran players.
Oh yeah, and as soon as it’s approved by MLB and the other owners, the Astros will have a new owner who likely will clean house—both in the front office and in the field. See you in a few years, Houston.
Los Angeles Dodgers
With everything going on in LA, it’s a testament to Don Mattingly and the players on the Dodgers that they haven’t completely fallen off the map. Some players are struggling—free-agent signee Juan Uribe, James Loney and some youngsters—but Matt Kemp is having a bounce-back year and showing his talent and Clayton Kershaw is showing his maturity and is truly becoming an ace.
Jonathan Broxton, after a miserable second half to 2010, is showing some flashes—of what, I don’t know.
With everything going on with the Dodgers—the ownership and MLB’s involvement—it’s difficult to imagine much success this season. But LA has the talent to turn things around quickly. Maybe 2012 will be better.
The Brewers did not get off to the start they expected—especially when Zack Greinke went down with an injury before the season even started. However, Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo have been holding down the fort and pitching as well as could be expected.
Their offense has All-Stars up and down the lineup and will be a force to be reckoned with. The only question is whether or not they hold onto Prince Fielder—my gut says they do, but if they get the right offer they could move him, regardless of whether they’re in contention. (And I don’t necessarily believe moving Fielder would end their season.)
The Brewers have the talent and should win their division and make things difficult for the competition in October.
New York Mets
The Mets have shown flashes of being able to contend with the group they have and they just might, but it’s a long shot. Even if they’re in contention come July 31st, it’s doubtful ownership can or will hold onto the veteran players with expiring contracts.
With David Wright ailing—a stress fracture in the back sounds awfully painful—and Jason Bay hitting like a backup shortstop, the team is in trouble. Carlos Beltran is performing well, Ike Davis continues to improve and Jose Reyes is showing he just might be the best shortstop in the game. But even when (if) Johan Santana returns to the rotation, the Mets do not have enough pitching or hitting to truly contend.
Perhaps the change at the top—the injection of Wall Street guru David Einhorn to ownership—will guide the Mets in the right direction. It’s just not this season.
The Phillies offense has been inconsistent at best, horrible at worst this year. And the injuries just keep coming. However, they have the best starting rotation in baseball, a core that knows what it takes to win over the course of a long season and a front office willing to get whatever piece the team needs come July.
With Chase Utley back—struggling to find his own offensive way—the Phillies seem to have their swagger back. With Ryan Madson stepping into the closer's role with efficiency and their starting rotation in tact, the Phillies will hit enough to reach October without a problem.
The Pirates are currently in year 19 of their everlasting rebuilding of the franchise since losing Game 7 of the NLCS to the Atlanta Braves and then watching Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek exit the Steel City for greener pastures in 1992. Ownership has changed hands a few times, the front office has been shaken up and hundreds of players have come and gone at PNC Park (and previously at Three Rivers Stadium).
However, are we finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel? Pittsburgh has spent a lot and drafted well the last few years. Pedro Alvarez should be the real deal and Andrew McCutchen is the most exciting player they’ve had since Bonds. The question is: Will they be able to keep him until other pieces arrive from the lower levels?
Hovering around .500 later than any season in recent memory, the Pirates are improving—but have a long way to go before they’re contenders.
San Diego Padres
The biggest noise the Padres have made since just missing the playoffs last year was dealing away their best player in Adrian Gonzales to the Boston Red Sox. It was basically ownership throwing in the towel on the 2011 season despite what they almost accomplished last year. It was the wrong move for this season but the right one for the future of the franchise.
The players San Diego received will do more for the club in the long term than Gonzales would have for one season. Heath Bell will be moved next, and probably followed by other veterans as well as the trade deadline nears. The Padres will more than likely lose 100-plus games this year but they’re looking to the future anyhow.
San Francisco Giants
Losing Buster Posey—most likely for the season, and perhaps forever as their catcher—is a huge blow. His offense has been down slightly this year but they’re a different team when he plays. They were a much better team in 2010 after he was brought up and look where it got him.
The Giants need another bat, and maybe two, to get where they were last year. Madison Bumgarner hasn’t struggled as much as his 1-6 record will indicate and with a staff led by Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez—none of whom seem to have residual effects from their extra-long 2010 campaign—they should be fine and easily win the NL West.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are in first place and it doesn’t make any sense. It seems Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman should have the other's statistics, and one of the Kyle’s—either Lohse or McClellan—has morphed into Chris Carpenter, who has struggled.
With Adam Wainwright gone for the year, their closing situation questionable at best and players you wouldn’t think would struggle fighting for every ounce of production, it seems impossible the Cardinals keep it up—especially with the dynamic teams behind them in the division.
The Nationals have made a lot of splashes in recent years—Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth—but they haven’t produced much winning on the field, nor should it be expected just yet. They’ve had some injuries to players—most notably Ryan Zimmerman, who never seems to make it through the season—and watched others struggle.
Neither their pitching staff nor offense is deep enough to contend in a competitive NL East—and that’s with or without Strasburg pitching. In a few years, the team in the nation’s capital will be much more exciting, but for 2011 it’s a battle for the basement with the Mets.
The Orioles tried rebuilding into a formidable offense over the winter and Buck Showalter has gotten them to believe they can win. They have some dynamic players in Baltimore, but even pitching and hitting to their best capabilities, the Orioles just do not have enough firepower to match the rest of the division.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox got off to a dreadful start and were written off by a lot of people. But they’ve shown the talent they acquired is good enough to crawl off the mat. Carl Crawford has struggled massively but is starting to show signs of breaking out, and other newcomer Adrian Gonzales has been playing like an MVP.
There are still question marks at catcher, in the rotation and in the bullpen, but with Josh Beckett and Jon Lester pitching lights-out, now that the Red Sox have finally wrestled away the division lead, it’s unlikely they’ll surrender it again.
Chicago White Sox
What is going on in the South Side? GM Kenny Williams and owner Jerry Reinsdorf declared this season was “all-in” and anything but a championship would be a failure. Now, simply reaching .500 might be an accomplishment.
The veteran talent they brought in—i.e., Adam Dunn—has failed miserably. Their offense and pitching staff have been atrocious and Williams might be forced to start cleaning house before they have the chance to turn it around.
Anyone see this coming? The lowly Cleveland Indians leading their division and with one of the best records in MLB? I still don’t see how they're doing it, as no one on their roster immediately jumps out at me as wow-type player, at least not yet in their careers.
It just seems like the Indians are having a lot of fun playing together and winning, and sometimes that can be more important than the dominating offense or pitching. Typically, I’d argue that a team like the Indians could not keep this up all year and will fall back to the pack. But with the rest of the division struggling and the overall makeup of the club, I’d say they have a real chance to make this surge stick and will be playing meaningful games in September.
Will Jim Leyland’s managerial career end after the 2011 season? Will Dave Dombrowski’s tenure in Detroit end as well? Perhaps yes to both, but they’d each like to end with a bang.
Detroit has the talent to take the division. Miguel Cabrera is one of the game’s best offensive forces and Justin Verlander is as dominant a right-hander as the AL has. Their pitching staff is not too deep behind him, however, and the bullpen is questionable. They need to add another piece or two to the puzzle but they should be able to get whatever they need.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals have surprised a number of people so far this year. Their young talent is slowly starting to trickle in and in a couple of years, they’ll be a very good team. The window might be short—just like Tampa Bay’s was with their young talent—but it’s there for the taking.
Kansas City would be wise to hold onto their young players rather than grasp at straws and try to contend in 2011.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels do not look like the team we’ve all come to know over the previous few years. Their offensive numbers aren’t what was expected, they’re missing Kendry Morales and the deal for Vernon Wells looks like a huge mistake.
The Halos struck out in the offseason on several players and have a number of holes to fill. The starting pitching is good enough to contend but they could use some help in the lineup and back end of the bullpen. Arte Moreno’s an aggressive, driven owner and wants to compete. Come September, they’ll be around.
What the heck is going on at Target Field? The Twins have the highest payroll in their history, been contenders nearly every year for the last decade and have stars up and down the lineup.
The problem? Franchise player Joe Mauer is on the DL, Delmon Young and Justin Morneau are not playing up to their capabilities and the pitching staff—especially the bullpen, which was gutted in free agency—has been atrocious.
The Twins have great management and scouting in place. They’ve shown they can compete with restricted budgets in the past, and maybe the bloated payroll is giving someone hives. Either way, the Twins are struggling and someone’s going to pay. It’s probably just a one-year hiatus in any event.
New York Yankees
While the Red Sox and Rays got off to horrendous starts, the Yankees played well early on and led the division most of the way. They’ve since fallen behind Boston in the standings—and probably will fall farther.
Their offense is holding the fort and the pitching staff is doing just enough but there are cracks in the armor. The Jorge Posada saga is painful to watch and Derek Jeter just isn’t playing like Derek Jeter anymore. (It’s been a year and a half—it’s not fluke.)
If Bartolo Colon is their No. 3 starter, they’re in trouble, regardless of how well he’s pitched at times. They would love to get their hands on Felix Hernandez—who wouldn’t?—but without breaking the bank in prospects (at least FOUR), Seattle has no reason to give him to the Yankees. Rarely is this heard of on Memorial Day but...
The AL West is probably the only division in baseball where a legitimate case can be made for any team winning the division, even the Seattle Mariners. Oakland can use another hitter or two and a more reliable ninth-inning guy, but their rotation is one of the best in baseball.
And while Billy Beane gets way too much credit in my opinion, he often seems to pull a rabbit out of his hat when needed.
The Mariners may have baseball’s best one-two punch in the rotation in Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, but following them are question marks and the offense isn’t good enough. Justin Smoak is the real deal and will be a tremendous player for the Mariners but behind him and Ichiro, there isn’t much there to contend with.
Even playing around .500 ball right now and being in the thick of things, the Mariners aren’t ready yet.
The Rangers may have lost Cliff Lee and had their issues with Michael Young, but this is a talented, deep team that will contend for the division title this year. There are questions surrounding Neftali Feliz as the closer—the Rangers reportedly have been shopping for a replacement—and they could use another starter.
However, the offense can be dynamic and ownership has shown a willingness to be aggressive in the past.
Toronto Blue Jays
Where on Earth did Jose Bautista come from? He’s showing his 50-plus home run season of a year ago was no fluke and has become baseball’s best power hitter.
Adam Lind is having a decent season and it seems anybody they put behind the plate at SkyDome (I know it’s the Rogers Center these days but I like SkyDome better) becomes a run producer. Rickey Romero and Kyle Drabek are good young starters but neither is an ace—yet.
Like most teams, they could use another starter and the bullpen needs help. The Blue Jays could be contenders, but they play in the wrong division.