10 Biggest Takeaways from the First 2 Months of MLB Action

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor IMay 31, 2014

10 Biggest Takeaways from the First 2 Months of MLB Action

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    Over the course of this weekend, almost every team in baseball will have played 54 games of the 2014 schedule. With one-third of the season nearly complete, it's a perfect time to assess the season thus far.

    Since a season-opening tilt between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks in Australia, baseball has been back, offering new narratives and breakout performances on a weekly basis. Since the second week of play, Bleacher Report has been providing weekly analysis, with a combination of short-term reaction and long-term perspective. 

    When this column series began seven weeks ago, rises from the Milwaukee Brewers, Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu dominated the early-season takeaways. Before long, pitching dominance in Atlanta and Albert Pujols' return to form headlined the week.

    One month ago, Pujols' 500th homer, Troy Tulowitzki's special talent and Cliff Lee's path to Cooperstown took center stage. Four weeks ago, it was time for an appreciation of the Oakland A's AL West dominance, Francisco Rodriguez's revival and Jayson Werth's value.

    Finally, the last few weeks highlighted the Detroit Tigers' road to October, the red-hot San Francisco Giants, Jose Bautista's talent, the parity evident around the sport and Edwin Encarnacion's power surge.

    Now, with roughly 66 percent of the season to go, it's time to dissect and chew on two full months of the 2014 season.

    Here are the biggest takeaways from the first two months of the 2014 MLB season.

Bay Area Excellence: A's, Giants Look Like Best Teams in MLB

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    It's a good time to be a fan of teams in the California Bay Area. With two months of results to use as evidence, it's clear that baseball's best teams reside within 12 miles of each other.

    Yes, folks, the Athletics and Giants have been baseball's best in 2014.

    As the only two teams with run differentials of more than plus-45, both Oakland and San Francisco have paced their divisions, without luck playing a major role. When factoring in injury issues to players like Matt Cain, Brandon Belt, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, both teams have actually thrived in the face of adversity.

    On May 19, Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News began to recognize the Bay Area stalwarts in his weekly power rankings column, placing the Athletics and Giants in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots, respectively.

    Not only are these teams really good, but both have excelled despite the presence of perceived titans among divisional rivals. 

    In the AL West, Oakland watched the Texas Rangers import both Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, the Seattle Mariners hand Robinson Cano $240 million to flee New York and the Los Angeles Angels remake their pitching staff to support the brilliance of Mike Trout. Months later, the Athletics entered play on May 30 with an 81.8 percent chance to qualify for October, per Baseball Prospectus via MLB.com's standings.

    In the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers entered the season with a $235 million payroll, more than $80 million more than the Giants. Despite the salaries and perceived talented gap between the teams, San Francisco sat 6.5 games up on last year's division champs when play began on May 30.

Blue Jays, Brewers Are for Real

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    While the A's and Giants have profiled as the best teams in baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers have been the most surprising contenders in 2014. As June approaches, many fans will naturally expect one or both of the upstarts to fade away from postseason races.

    Don't hold your breath on that happening.

    Ironically, Toronto and Milwaukee are similar. In 2013, the pair owned identical 74-88 records, featured run-differential totals of striking similarity (minus-44 for Toronto, minus-47 for Milwaukee) and sat near the bottom of divisions that sent multiple teams to the postseason.

    One year later, the similarities are of a different variety. Both the Blue Jays and Brewers are led by MVP-caliber offensive performers—Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista in Toronto, Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez in Milwaukee—and starting rotations that have undergone radical performance changes since last season.

    On the path to losing seasons in 2013, the Blue Jays (4.81) and Brewers (4.20) owned rotations with ERA marks among the worst in baseball. Through the first two months of 2014, the returns look drastically different. Heading into play on May 30, Toronto starters had posted a 3.83 ERA through 55 games—nearly a full run better than last season. In Milwaukee (3.42 ERA), the improvement was nearly as massive.

    Over the next four months, assume offensive production from both upstarts. As long as deep, powerful lineups stay healthy, high-volume run outputs will follow. For both teams, pitching is the key to sustained success.

    Due to regression from teams like the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East and Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central, the blueprint is there for the Blue Jays and Brewers to stick around in the races all summer long.

George Springer Is a Franchise-Changing Talent

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    Heading into the Civil Rights Game on May 30, the Houston Astros had a reason to be proud to showcase baseball's annual event. After back-to-back-to-back 100-plus-loss seasons, baseball's worst team turned a corner in May, winning 14 of 27 games. 

    The biggest reason for that turnaround: rookie outfielder George Springer.

    After getting off to a sluggish start following a promotion to the majors in April, the Houston phenom has come into his own. Across his first 61 plate appearances, the 24-year-old looked overwhelmed and posted just a .480 OPS with a staggering 19 strikeouts. Since then, however, things have changed considerably.

    Since May 2—particularly over the last two weeks—Springer's talent has emerged. With 10 home runs and an OPS of 1.115, the AL Rookie of the Year candidate has burst on the scene, helped to turn around a listless franchise and brought about lofty comparisons from Astros manager Bo Porter, per Brian McTaggart of MLB.com.

    "I was in Washington when [Bryce] Harper broke in, I witnessed a young Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez [with the Marlins]," Porter said. "It's pretty impressive what it is he's able to do."

    Those players emerged as franchise-changing stars due to immense talent. Over the last two weeks, FanGraphs has credited Springer with 1.2 WAR, solidifying what the numbers and highlights have asserted: A star has arrived to help resurrect the Astros.

Adam Wainwright Is in Special Company

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    In an era of dominant starting pitching, it's easy to forget the brilliance of St. Louis Cardinals star Adam Wainwright. Despite lacking a fastball that reaches triple digits or any career NL Cy Young Awards, the 32-year-old ace has quietly put together one of the most impressive runs in baseball history.

    Since becoming a full-time starter in 2007, he has pitched to a 3.01 ERA, won 105 decisions and posted an ERA-plus of 132. Across the history of baseball, only 21 starting pitchers have matched those numbers from the ages of 25 through 32, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).

    Remarkably, two of the seasons included in that ledger are incomplete. First, Wainwright missed the entire 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery. Now, total dominance and win totals for the 2014 season have not been completed.

    If Wainwright had been afforded a full and healthy 2011—coupled with what he can accomplish during the remainder of the 2014 season—baseball fans would be able to compare his statistics to pitchers like Pedro Martinez and Sandy Koufax.

    Through the first two months of 2014, Wainwright—11 GS, 81.0 IP, 1.67 ERA, 2.26 FIP, 4.81 SO/BB—has been one of baseball's best pitchers again, leading to high praise from former Cardinals great Bob Gibson, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today.

    "I love watching Wainwright pitch," Gibson said. "You want to see a true pitcher? Watch this guy."

Right Field Stars on the Rise

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    The history of baseball is littered with special players who manned right field. From Henry Aaron to Roberto Clemente to Babe Ruth to Dave Winfield, some of the finest athletes in the sport were patrolling the No. 9 position on scorecards for years.

    During the 2014 season, the current crop of right fielders has emerged to form the most dynamic and valuable position group in baseball. While it's not quite a list of Hall of Famers, the position currently fields some of the best players in the world.

    According to FanGraphs' version of WAR, four right fielders—the Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton (3.4), the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig (3.2), Toronto's Jose Bautista (2.6) and the Atlanta Braves' Jason Heyward (2.0)—entered played on May 30 with at least 2.0 WAR for the season. To put that in perspective, only 17 position players had reached 2.0 WAR. Almost one quarter of baseball's most valuable players have been right fielders in 2014. 

    Amazingly, that group doesn't include the Colorado Rockies' Charlie Blackmon (.513 SLG), San Francisco's Hunter Pence (40 runs scored), Texas' Alex Rios (.356 OBP) or the Washington Nationals' Jayson Werth (.369 OBP)—a breakout star and three accomplished veterans. 

    Positional strength is cyclical and relative every year, so don't assume this crop of right fielders will reign supreme for the next decade. Yet, right now, Stanton, Puig and Bautista represent the position as three of the best players in the sport and legitimate MVP candidates.

Kansas City at a Franchise Crossroads

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    When the Kansas City Royals traded top prospect Wil Myers in a package for James Shields prior to the 2013 season, the deal felt more like a calculated risk than potential disaster. Although Myers' talent was destined for future All-Star Game nods, the Royals were seemingly an ace away from taking the final step in a long, arduous rebuilding process.

    Acquiring Shields—with two years left on his contract—gave Kansas City two cracks at October before the veteran pitcher hit the open market. After an 86-win campaign in 2013, the onus was on the Royals to win in 2014 before fully paying the tab on the Myers-Shields swap, especially if the 32-year-old star eventually departs.

    Heading into June, the Royals are a losing team. As the fight for relevance continues, the franchise may soon have to consider moving Shields at the deadline in order to recoup some value on what could go down as a franchise-changing deal. That notion was asserted by Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, citing the Blue Jays as a team that could jump into a potential sweepstakes if Shields hits the trade market this summer.

    In an AL that is dominated by parity, especially in a wide-open wild-card chase, the next two months are crucial in Kansas City. With Shields (80.1 IP, 3.36 ERA, 4.60 SO/BB) spearheading a solid starting rotation and young, high-ceiling bats likely to hit better as the season moves along, the Royals can challenge or surpass 86 wins this summer and make a run to October.

    If that doesn't occur, however, the team could be forced to hit the reset button less than 24 months after signaling a desire to turn the corner. For the 2014 Royals, wins and losses over the next six weeks could have a long-lasting effect.

Dellin Betances Impersonating a Young Mariano Rivera

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    Mariano Rivera's list of career accolades is likely long enough to fill nearly all of the server space that Bleacher Report owns. When taking a minute to sort through the future Hall of Famer's Baseball-Reference page, an underrated season in a sterling career stands out: 1996.

    Before he became a legendary closer, Rivera was a multiple-inning weapon out of Joe Torre's bullpen for a gritty, underdog Yankees team. In perhaps the most dominant season of a 19-year career, the then 26-year-old pitched to a 2.09 ERA and struck out 130 batters across 107.2 innings, racking up a mind-boggling 5.0 WAR.

    Nearly two decades later, David Robertson has assumed Rivera's role as Yankees closer, but another young arm has become something even more important. In a role that is eerily reminiscent to Rivera's in 1996, Dellin Betances has become a weapon out of Joe Girardi's excellent bullpen. 

    Through the first two months of the season, the numbers—22 G, 30.2 IP, 1.47 ERA, 51 SO, 1.2 WARare staggering. According to ESPN's projections, the 26-year-old is on pace for a relief-pitching campaign that could generate AL MVP votes by season's end. 

    After he failed as a starter due to command issues, the Yankees have found a star. Using the combination of a high-end fastball and breaking pitch—classified as a combination between a slider, curve, slurve or knuckle-curve—a star has been born, per Ken Davidoff of the New York Post.

    "This is a dream come true," Betances said. "I always wanted to be here. I always wanted to come and help the team in any way possible."

Washington Is a Disappointment

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    If the Nationals win back-to-back games over the Rangers to start a weekend series, Washington will enter June at .500 through 54 games. Considering the injuries suffered to key playersBryce Harper, Adam LaRoche, Wilson Ramos, Doug Fister, Denard Span and Gio Gonzalez—a case could be made in praise of Washington.

    Yet, in the wake of a slow start that ultimately doomed the team in 2013, the 2014 Nationals needed to shake the cobwebs that have seemingly been bothering this roster since Stephen Strasbug's shutdown in 2012 and the crippling NLDS loss to the St. Louis Cardinals one month later.

    In a flawed NL East, a healthy Nationals team could begin to soar in July and run away with a division crown. If that occurs, a pitching quartet of Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gonzalez and Fister is talented enough to lead a charge through October.

    However, it's time to take a wait-and-see approach with Washington. For two straight seasons, this group has been given the benefit of the doubt. While much of the talent still remains from the 98-win team of 2012, the Nationals are just 124-114 since the day Strasburg's season officially ended two years ago.

    As James Wagner of The Washington Post recently pointed out, mediocrity would have landed Washington in fourth place in other divisions. Thanks to the NL East, hope remains for a successful summer at Nationals Park.

Parity Will Lead to Great Races

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    Parity has become a negative word in association with the 2014 season. Due to a slew of factors—from injuries to early-season results to mid-market teams keeping stars off the open market—baseball's division and wild-card races have never seemed closer.

    Even the best team in the sport right now, Oakland, is doing it without name-brand stars and an overwhelming payroll. If the Athletics are profiling as David, expect Goliaths to line up over the next four months.

    Instead of critiquing how many teams look mediocre—including 18 teams with a negative run differential for the season—embrace the competition. With so few teams looking awful and only a handful with the potential to win 95-plus games, the pennant chases could be exhilarating, especially in September.

    Over the past decade, baseball has too willingly allowed the NFL to become a dominant force when the calendar flipped to September. With so many division and wild-card races being virtually decided by Labor Day, fans were allowed to focus on football with the hope that excitement would return in October.

    Often, that didn't occur. Now, fans in need of constant stimulation can have it all summer and autumn long. With only two teams—the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs—being more than six games out of a postseason spot, almost every team can enter June with a dream.

    Buckle up, baseball fans.

Samardzija Sweepstakes Could Decide AL East

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    PAUL BEATY/Associated Press

    Jeff Samardzija's exit from Chicago feels inevitable. As the Cubs slog through another miserable year, it's clear that more high-end pieces are needed to expedite their current rebuilding process.

    Through 11 starts, he has done his best to become a value commodity. With an ERA of 1.68, the 29-year-old strikeout artist looks like a difference-making arm for a contending team. As noted, parity has overtaken the sport. Any team adding him will instantly become a trendy pick to reach October.

    As rumors circulate, it's becoming a likelihood that Samardzija lands in the AL East, potentially tipping the balance of power between Toronto, New York, Baltimore, Boston and Tampa Bay. As Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune opines, the Blue Jays have the best young pitching to offer.

    Scrolling through the 40-man rosters of the five AL East contenders will result in a combination of strengths, weaknesses and confusion. Yet, if one of those teams adds a pitcher who is capable of winning on a start-by-start basis, the story can change quickly.

    Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted and are valid through the start of play on May 30. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts

    What was your biggest takeaway from the first two months of the MLB season?

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