Buying or Selling If Every MLB Division Leader Will Finish in 1st Place

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 24, 2021

Buying or Selling If Every MLB Division Leader Will Finish in 1st Place

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    Can the Padres hang on in a top-heavy NL West race?
    Can the Padres hang on in a top-heavy NL West race?Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    The 2021 Major League Baseball season may be a quarter of the way done, but it's still a long way from finished. How things are now almost certainly won't be how they end up after 162 games.

    Today's question: Which of the league's division leaders should consider that a warning?

    To this end, we've played a game of buy or sell based on what said leaders in the American and National League do and don't have going for them, as well as what kind of threats are posed by their primary competitors.

    In the case of the one two-team tie for first place, our determination was based on whether either one will ultimately finish as the division champion.

    Let's get to it.

American League East: Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays

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    Mike Carlson/Associated Press

    Record: 29-19

    Main Competition: New York Yankees (28-19, 0.5 GB)

    After a last-place finish in 2020, the Boston Red Sox began this season as something like an afterthought in the AL East. Yet they've beaten expectations thanks mainly to three things.

    For one, a truly excellent offense that's thrived on a 165 wRC+ from J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. For two, Matt Barnes' utterly dominant work in the ninth inning. And three, a starting rotation that's survived with a 4.10 ERA in Chris Sale's (Tommy John surgery) absence.

    The Tampa Bay Rays, however, have caught up to Boston through a 10-game win streak in which they've found their offense in a big way. With plenty of help from a defense that leads the AL with 20 defensive runs saved, the Rays also specialize in run prevention.

    This is to say that both Boston and Tampa Bay are on solid ground, which means the real mystery here is whether the Yankees can take them down.

    Particularly thanks to their ascendant starting rotation, the Yankees are strong on the mound even as Luis Severino (Tommy John) and Zack Britton (elbow) work their way back. What they really need is more offense around Aaron Judge. In spite of injuries to Giancarlo Stanton (quad) and Aaron Hicks (wrist), that's where the club's recent track record and strong peripherals bode well.

    Verdict: Sell

American League Central: Chicago White Sox

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Record: 26-19

    Main Competition: Cleveland (24-20, 1.5 GB)

    Remember when the Minnesota Twins were seen as having a strong likelihood of winning a third straight AL Central title in 2021?

    Well, now they're in last place at 17-29. And without a healthy Byron Buxton (hip)—the very concept of which is basically Minnesota's white whale—and better returns from a pitching staff with a 4.70 ERA, the Twins are going to have a hard time rescuing their season.

    As for Cleveland, the team is still as lopsided in 2021 as it was in 2020. Shane Bieber and friends can definitely pitch, but the club's offense is one of the American League's worst.

    Therefore, the question here is how the Chicago White Sox might come undone. This is where one could point to Eloy Jimenez's (chest) and Luis Robert's (hip) long-term injuries, or perhaps manager Tony La Russa's all-too-frequent embarrassments.

    Yet the White Sox have the AL's best run differential for good reasons, including an offense that's thriving and a pitching staff with a 3.33 ERA. Once the former starts getting more power and the latter starts getting better returns from aces Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, watch out.

    Verdict: Buy

American League West: Oakland Athletics

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Record: 28-20

    Main Competition: Houston Astros (26-21, 1.5 GB)

    The Oakland Athletics have allowed 11 more runs than they've scored, so perhaps there's something to the notion that they're the luckiest team in either league.

    However, Oakland's negative run differential stems largely from its awful 1-7 start. The A's have since outscored their opponents by a sturdy 29-run margin.

    Though the A's have gotten 12 home runs from Matt Olson and 11 from Ramon Laureano, plenty of other players have also contributed to the club's AL-high 68 long balls. Olson, Laureano and Matt Chapman are also at the forefront of a defense that's racked up four outs above average.

    Areas of concern for the A's include a pitching staff that can be fairly called a mixed bag and a 3-7 record against the rival Astros. And while Houston has pitching issues of its own, its offense is up there with Boston and Chicago among the AL's best.

    On the plus side, the A's only have nine games left against the Astros. Their remaining schedule otherwise features 54 games against the Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels, each of whom is likely to finish below .500. If the A's beat up on them, they'll be fine.

    Verdict: Buy

National League East: New York Mets

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Record: 21-19

    Main Competition: Atlanta (23-24, 1.5 GB), Philadelphia Phillies (23-24, 1.5 GB), Miami Marlins (22-24, 2.0 GB), Washington Nationals (20-23, 2.5 GB)

    There is no first-place team that's a bigger mess than the New York Mets.

    Francisco Lindor's slow start is a microcosm for how badly the entire Mets offense has struggled, as it has posted an MLB-low .341 slugging percentage. And while two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom (side) is the headliner, it would take less time to list who's not on New York's injured list.

    Yet the silver linings for the Mets are twofold: They should eventually get healthy and collect on some bad luck in the power department, and there is no clear candidate to leapfrog them for the NL East lead.

    Atlanta's fortunes are being undercut by inconsistent pitching and an offense that's overly reliant on the home run ball. The Phillies lack depth in both their rotation and especially in their bullpen. The Marlins can't hit. Lastly, the Nationals have all sorts of issues underneath Max Scherzer in their rotation.

    To be fair, any one of these teams could get hot and take down the Mets. But it's ultimately a good look for the Mets that they're the division's best team even though they likely haven't peaked yet.

    Verdict: Buy

National League Central: St. Louis Cardinals

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Record: 26-20

    Main Competition: Chicago Cubs (24-22, 2.0 GB), Milwaukee Brewers (23-23, 3.0 GB), Cincinnati Reds (20-25, 5.5 GB)

    Save for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the NL Central initially had the look of a division that could be won by anyone. Yet it's no accident that the St. Louis Cardinals have taken the lead.

    Nolan Arenado has been everything the Cardinals hoped for when they traded for him in February. After he flopped in 2020, they've also seen Jack Flaherty return to form with a 2.53 ERA. Lastly, their bullpen is led by an excellent late-inning trio of Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos and Genesis Cabrera.

    With Miles Mikolas (forearm) rejoining Dakota Hudson (Tommy John) and Jordan Hicks (elbow) on the injured list, there is a question as to whether the Cardinals have enough impact arms. But even despite that, there's also a question of whether they have any real competition for the NL Central title.

    The Cubs have come around offensively in recent weeks, but there are no clear solutions for a rotation with a 4.77 ERA. The Brewers and Reds, meanwhile, are opposites. The former can pitch but can't hit. The latter can hit but can't pitch.

    In any other division, the Cards would be on thin ice. But in this one, they might as well be standing on a glacier.

    Verdict: Buy

National League West: San Diego Padres

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Record: 30-17

    Main Competition: Los Angeles Dodgers (29-18, 1.0 GB), San Francisco Giants (28-19, 2.0 GB)

    The San Diego Padres have only recently taken over first place in the NL West, as the spot had previously been held by the Dodgers and Giants for 22 days apiece.

    What bodes well for the Padres is that they've actually underachieved relative to their plus-75 run differential. The credit for that is largely owed to a pitching staff that, even in spite of a long list of injuries, has the majors' best ERA at 2.59.

    Granted, a defense that leads MLB with 31 defensive runs saved has also helped. And even if it isn't getting much power from hitters not named Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego has had perhaps the most balanced offense in baseball.

    Because their strong start is built upon a powerful offense and a solid rotation, the Giants aren't going away. Nor are the Dodgers. They endured a 4-14 skid between April 18 and May 7, but their 25-4 record on either side of that captures that they're both a run production and run prevention juggernaut. 

    At this point, the only certainty here is that the NL West won't be won by the Arizona Diamondbacks or Colorado Rockies. But if we must order the other three teams as favorites, we'll go: Dodgers, Padres and then Giants.

    Verdict: Sell


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.