2011 MLB Playoffs: Separating the Contenders from the Pretenders
Two months into the 2011 Major League Baseball season, there are currently 17 teams with a record of either .500 or better and also a total of 17 teams either in first place of their respective division or within four games or less of their division leader.
Perhaps more than any other year in recent memory, parity has reigned supreme in 2011.
It is no longer "early" either, as most teams have already played well over 50 games, which is a big enough sample size to examine what each team is really about.
With that being said, let's take a look and try and separate the contenders from the pretenders.
Contender: Toronto Blue Jays
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the usual suspects, are once again atop the American League East, followed closely by the Tampa Bay Rays.
The East is a division that many people pegged as a three-team race before the season started, but it may be time to make room for another contender in baseball's most difficult division.
That's because the Toronto Blue Jays are for real.
Led by MVP-candidate Jose Bautista, who sports a ridiculous 20 home runs, .360 batting average and .502 on-base percentage, this team from up north can really rake.
To this point, the Jays have piled up a team batting average of .264 and scored 272 runs, both of which ranks fourth in all of baseball.
Not only do they have power, but they also have a very versatile lineup. Led by Corey Patterson and Rajai Davis, Toronto also has 51 stolen bases, which is also good for fourth in baseball.
Their pitching is suspect, but with ace Ricky Romero, strikeout specialist Brandon Morrow and young-gun Kyle Drabek, their staff does have some potential.
If they can hold their own, and Toronto's bullpen gets their problems straightened out, the Blue Jays should hang around deep into the summer, and maybe early into the fall as well.
Pretender: Arizona Diamondbacks
The D'Backs currently sit in first place in the National League West with a record of 31-25, and have exceeded everyone's expectations to this point in the season.
But I'm not ready to buy them—yet.
Arizona has been on fire as of late, winning eight of their past 10 ball games.
The Diamondbacks are a youthful group, led by Stephen Drew, Justin Upton and Chris Young. While they do rank sixth in baseball in runs scored, their lineup is prone to inconsistency at times.
Their high run total can be attributed to the fact that they have hit 65 home runs this season, which trails only the New York Yankees.
Their bullpen has been very good, but their starting rotation continues to be a major question mark. Of the five pitchers who have made six starts or more for Arizona this season, only Ian Kennedy has an ERA under 4.00.
Once the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants heat up, it should spell the end of the Diamondbacks this season.
Contender: Milwaukee Brewers
The Brew Crew boast two elite hitters as well as two elite pitchers, and that reason alone will allow this team to continue to be a contender.
Offensively, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder have been on a tear this year. They have combined for 23 home runs and 83 RBI already, and are the two biggest reasons why the Brewers are 30-26 and just two and a half games out in the National League Central.
Their pitching has been decent, but it will only continue to improve as Zack Greinke continues to get healthy and round into form. Milwaukee's other ace, Yovani Gallardo, struggled to begin the season but has really picked it up as of late. In his last five starts, Gallardo has allowed a total of just five runs.
If their role players continue to produce, Milwaukee can contend with anybody.
However, they do need to do a better job of winning on the road. At 9-19, they have the second worst road record in all of baseball.
Pretender: Cleveland Indians
The Indians continue to amaze, and at 33-20, they currently have the best record in baseball.
But I'm sorry—I'm just not a believer.
Not when Asdrubal Cabrera leads the team in batting average, home runs and RBI. Not when Josh Tomlin leads the team with seven wins, and Justin Masterson has an ERA of 3.07. Not when Travis Buck is your cleanup hitter.
To me, the Indians' offense is playing way over their heads and their pitching scares me. It seems like their staff might break down at any moment.
However, they do have one thing going in their favor: the American League Central is pathetic. So if there was ever a division the Indians could win, it's this year's AL Central.
For the record, I hope I'm wrong about Cleveland, but I just don't see it.
Contender: Florida Marlins
Baseball is a funny game.
Despite the fact that the Marlins best hitter is currently hitting .210 with just four home runs, and their best pitcher is on the disabled list, Florida has managed to climb into second place in the National League East with a record of 31-23.
In just his first full season, Mike Stanton has been everything the Marlins could have expected from their young phenom and more. He leads the team with 12 home runs, and also has piled up 32 RBI. They are also getting very good production from players such as Gaby Sanchez and Logan Morrison.
Their pitching is solid, and will only get better when they get Johnson back.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the young Marlins is their road record of 17-11, showing just how mature this team is.
Still, they could really use Ramirez to show up this year.
Pretender: Seattle Mariners
Let's not waste any time here talking about the Mariners offense—they can't hit a lick. As a team, they are hitting just .230 which is the worst average in baseball, and aside from Justin Smoak, they have no real power threats to speak of.
Still, they are somehow 28-27 and in second place in a wide-open American League West.
And how have they done it? With pitching.
They have two of the best pitchers in the game in Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, and they have received solid contributions from a number of other pitchers, as well.
The real question, in my opinion, comes down to this: How long will Pineda continue to pitch the way he is now? He already has six wins, 73 strikeouts and a 2.30 ERA in 70.1 innings, but he could soon hit a wall.
That is because Pineda, 22, is in his first major league season, meaning this is all new to him. Additionally, even if the young right-hander doesn't hit a wall, the Mariners will almost certainly begin to monitor his innings, wanting to protect their young flame-thrower.
Hernandez will continue to pitch stellar all season long—he is one of the best in the game. But they need a number of pitchers, including Pineda, to continue to pitch the way they are now.
And I just don't see that happening.