The 2012 season is off and running. At this early point in the season, I think a look at the standings shows us some surprises and some things we expected. So let’s see how the AL teams are shaping up after the first month of the season.
Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles may be the surprise success story of the season at 19-9 and first in the AL East. Buck Showalter had them winning games when he took over, but that success didn’t translate over a full season in 2011. But his hitters are young and talented, and he’s finally getting good production from his young pitchers. I always thought that if these young guys could learn to pitch at an average to slightly above average level the Orioles would have the offense to compete. They are proving that to be the case, even with slugger Mark Reynolds struggling and homerless after the first month of the season. But Adam Jones is hitting well and showing plus power so far this season, and Matt Wieters has found his power stroke leading the team in HR and RBI. Chris Davis is also playing well and they are supporting a solid pitching staff led by Jason Hammel’s 3 Wins and 1.97 ERA. I don’t know if they can keep up this level of production, but even a drop in pitching production could be offset if the rest of their hitters catch up a bit. The Orioles are off to a strong start and this April has shown what this talented young team is capable of.
Tampa Bay Rays: At 19-10, the Rays have one of the best records in baseball and an incredible pitching staff leading them. The big surprise is that their offense is clicking so far this season, though the loss of Evan Longoria to the DL is going to hurt them. But Carlos Pena has returned and not missed a beat, and Matt Joyce, Jeff Keppinger and even B.J. Upton are off to good starts. The only thing the Rays aren’t doing is selling tickets, but that’s nothing new. I picked them to make it to the playoffs in one of the wildcard slots this year, and over a month into the season they are playing well and leading the toughest division in baseball.
Toronto Blue Jays: The Blue Jays have long been one of the most underrated teams in the major leagues in my opinion. They play the best teams in the toughest division in baseball. And they are still able to at least turn in 500 ball, while excelling against opponents from other divisions. I love the Blue Jays and what Adam Anthopoulos and John Farell have put together there. They built a strong offensive core and then Farell was able to help those young pitchers reach their potential. This is a dangerous club that no one wants to face. Jose Bautista is the best slugger in baseball right now, their middle infield of Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar is multi-talented and has experience playing in the field together, Brett Lawrie is a talented young stud and they have an outfield with tons of potential in Rajai Davis, Colby Rasmus and Eric Thames. Not only is this team good, but also they are young and have plenty of players reaching their primes. I think they will continue to play well this season, and while they may not reach the playoffs this year, their time isn’t far off, and we could start seeing playoff baseball in Canada as soon as 2013.
New York Yankees: At 15-13 the Yankees aren’t having the kind of start they envisioned. Tex is struggling, Cano is struggling and they won’t be getting anything out of Michael Pineda this season, or possibly ever. (Though I think he’s young enough to bounce back from his surgery and has had so little mileage on that arm that he can build it back up and pitch effectively again soon). Freddy Garcia is moving to the bullpen with his issues, and with the saddest news of the year Mariano Rivera tore a knee ligament in BP and will miss the rest of the season, and possibly be done forever. But they have Petite coming up, Sabathia, Nova and Hughes are healthy and Jeter is playing fantastic baseball right now. I think they will get things back on track and move up in the standings. They are too talented to do otherwise, and as sad as the loss of Mo is, they have two capable options to take his spot in Rafael Soriano and David Robertson. Tex is always slow, but his power numbers will be there, and hopefully his AVG as well. Swisher is playing well, Cano will turn it around and the Yankees will be back in the division hunt by the All Star Break.
Boston Red Sox: And in last place we have one of the biggest disappointments of the season. The Boston Red Sox are 11-16, 7.5 games back of first and 3.5 games back of the Yankees in 4th place. Visions of that September collapse are still haunting them and Bobby V isn’t making himself any friends in a volatile Red Sox clubhouse or with a frustrated fan base. Their pitching has been atrocious with Josh Beckett’s 4.45 the best among the starters. The bullpen has been even worse with big free agent Mark Melancon the owner of a 49.50 ERA and Andrew Bailey done for the year. Kevin Youkilis is hurting and off to a bad start, Carl Crawford isn’t anywhere near coming off the DL and Jacoby Ellsbury went down with an injury early on. Other than David Ortiz, these Red Sox aren’t really producing. And it’s hard to imagine them threatening for a division title with Mike Aviles leading off, Nick Punto playing every day and Cody Ross hitting 5th. The Red Sox were supposed to have better pitchers than the Yankees and better hitters than the Rays. That would put them in the running for a top 3 spot in this division. Instead they are last behind both of those teams, the shockingly good Orioles and the not-so-shockingly good Jays. Their starters need to make some improvements, their bullpen needs to make massive improvements, and they need to get healthy. It’s too early to say they are finished as they were one of the best teams in baseball from May to August last year. But after the way last season ended (and started), this is not how they scripted their first month.
Cleveland Indians: This is another big surprise for the beginning of the 2012 season. Many considered the Indians the second best team in the Central Division, but still light years behind the mighty Tigers. But, similar to last year, the Indians are off to a hot start and playing well in April. On the mound Derek Lowe, is the leader with a 4-1 record in 6 games and a 2.39 ERA. The numbers likely won’t stay there as hitters are hitting 295 against him and his 1.49 WHIP isn’t very good. But he’s been able to avoid giving up runs as he leads the Indians in IP, ERA and Wins. The other surprise success on the mound is young Jeanmar Gomez, who sports a 2-1 record in 4 starts with a 2.82 ERA. If Ubaldo Jiminez and Justin Masterson can turn things around this pitching staff gets very formidable. And the Indian offense is making some noise as well. Asdrubal Cabrera is following up an All Star 2011 campaign with a strong start this season hitting 333 with 3 HR and 9 RBI. Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner are slugging well and Jason Kipnis is also turning in a strong start. If Shin Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore can contribute, then this team will stay in the running for the division all year.
Detroit Tigers: The Tigers were supposed to run away with this division. But at 14-13 they are in second, 2 games back of the Indians. That’s not bad, but based on the expectations heaped upon them, nowhere near where they should be to start the season. Their hitters are playing well. Miguel Cabrera is hitting 290 and leading the team with 7 HR and 22 RBI. Fielder is playing well, though he only has 3 HR so far. And Austin Jackson is off to a great start leading off for Detroit, hitting 303 with 4 SB and 18 R. But it’s their pitching that has failed them so far. No pitcher has more than 2 Wins on this club. Verlander isn’t pitching badly at 2-1 with a 2.38 ERA. But he only has 2 Wins in 6 starts, and one of those came off a Complete Game. Fister got hurt in the 4th inning of his first game and the other 3 starters (Porcello, Wilk and Scherzer) have ERAs of 5.64 and up. Jose Valverde has blown 2 Saves and sports a 6.17 ERA and there are 4 guys in the Tiger bullpen with ERAs north of 8. This team is too good to play like this. Their offense is fantastic, and they have some great pitchers. Verlander will start winning more games, because you have to get wins when you pitch like he does (0.86 WHIP, 184 BAA and 42 Ks in 45 IP). Fister should get healthy and the other starters will turn it around. I still think they will win the division, but they need to get moving in the right direction.
Chicago White Sox: The White Sox are 13-16, 4 games back of first. This is pretty much where we expected them to be. They are somewhere between contending and re-building, but no one expected them to be running away with the division, and they certainly are not. Dunn has found his power stroke and leads the team with 9 HR and 23 RBI, after hitting only 11 HR last season. Paul Konerko continues to defy the Gods of Time with a 347 AVG, 6 HR and 17 RBI. Alex Rios is hitting 276 and Pierzynski has a 278 AVG with 5 HR. They aren’t the Rangers, but they are okay with the bats, finishing towards the middle (17th) in both team AVG and R. The one area where the Sox seem to be overachieving is in the starting pitching department. Former Cy Young Winner Jake Peavy, who has been written off by many in the baseball world as all but done, leads the staff. He’s 3-1 in 6 games with a 1.99 ERA, a team leading 39 Ks and 2 Complete Games and 1 Shutout. Chicago was hoping he could be their ace ever since they traded for him, and they may finally be getting some of what they hoped for now that he’s healthy. I don’t know that he can keep it up, but a 0.75 WHIP and 171 BAA seems to support the idea that he’s found a way to be dominant again. After Peavy, Gavin Floyd has a 3.03 ERA with a 0.96 WHIP and 191 BAA in his 6 starts, Chris Sale has a 2.81 ERA in his 5 starts (1.00 WHIP and 205 BAA), and Philip Humber has a solid 4.62 ERA to go along with a perfect game. 4 of their 5 starters are playing very well, and with better offensive support, this group of talented starters could be leading this division. And their bullpen is solid with the closer by committee ending in Hector Santiago getting the 9th inning job and 5 pitchers with an ERA under 3 in that pen. The White Sox are a solid team. They likely won’t win the division, and their pitchers are unlikely to keep this up. But if they do, this is a team that might try to make some offensive moves at the deadline to make a run in this division that doesn’t have a lot of contenders.
Kansas City Royals: The Royals sit at 9-18, 7 games back of first. No one really thought they’d win the division, but there was a lot of hope for this team that has been re-building for years, and seems to finally have their team put together and ready to play in the majors. But this Kansas City squad seems to be struggling as much as past teams have, except this time management can’t say, “Just wait till we get our young guys up here”. The fans of this team are incredibly frustrated, especially with their 2-12 record at home. The Royals need to see better production at the plate. They have the ability with the 10th best team average in the majors. But they are 22nd out of 30 teams in runs scored, as they aren’t getting their guys across the plate. There is production there as Billy Butler is playing well with a 298 AVG, 5 HR and leading the team with 19 RBI. Alcides Escobar is hitting 274 with 7 SB. And Mike Moustakas is hitting 304 with 4 HR and 15 RBI. But Eric Hosmer is struggling despite his team leading 5 HR with a 192 AVG. Escobar only has 9 R. Francoeur is playing poorly and Alex Gordon has also had a drop in production from last year. But as much as their bats are struggling, it’s the starting pitching that is really letting them down. The best ERA among the starters is 4.98 from Bruce Chen. No pitcher on the team has more than 2 Wins. Felipe Paulino gave them 6 shutout innings in one start and Danny Duffy has a 3.57 ERA over 4 starts. But their regular starters all have ERAs in or around 5 and that’s not good. After the injury to Soria, Jonathan Broxton is being asked to close again and has really stepped up going 5/6 in Save chances with a 1.86 ERA. The rest of the bullpen is okay, but they are coming into games in losing situations after the starters have struggled. The Royals have a great group of young hitters who aren’t performing. Their pitchers aren’t fantastic and are pitching the way we expected. I think they can play better than this, but don’t expect them to be contending in the Central division this year.
Minnesota Twins: Wow. Hard to believe that a few years ago this team was consistently a top 3 finisher in the division. We blamed the issues last year on the loss of Mauer and Morneau. And while that’s still likely the case, we all now know how much we undervalued Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. With them gone, Morneau back to the DL, and Mauer just playing okay, this team is 7-20 with the worst record in the AL. They are 8.5 games back of first, and not likely to move to far up the division this season. They were no-hit by Jered Weaver last weak, they’ve lost their first baseman again, and Jamey Carroll is their starting shortstop. Things are looking bleak in Minneapolis. There are a few positive signs. Denard Span is off to a good start hitting 309 with 3 SB. Josh Willingham was an invaluable pick up for them hitting 291 with a team leading 5 HR and 15 RBI. And Mauer is hitting 278. But the rest of the offense is underperforming, and you’d like to see more power from the catcher. And with the pitching staff being as bad as it has been, they desperately need more from their hitters. Carl Pavano’s 4.62 ERA is the best among the starters. 2 of the 6 guys they’ve used as starters have ERAs over 9. 4 of their 6 starters have BAAs of 300 or higher. And none of them have more than 2 Wins. Matt Capps has 5 Saves, but a 4.50 ERA, which is extremely high for a closer. The rest of the bullpen is okay, but they can’t win games when the starters give up a ton of runs that the offense can’t match. There’s not much going right in Minnesota this season, and I’d be shocked if they moved out of the basement by the All Star break.
Texas Rangers: The Texas Rangers are off to a terrific start. After winning the pennant back-to-back years, they were not okay with the Angels being projected to run away with this division and have made a statement. Their 18-10 record is one of the best in baseball and their 3.5 game lead over the rest of the division is the second highest margin in baseball. It starts with their dynamic offense, which continues to be among the best in baseball. Josh Hamilton leads the team with a 381 AVG and also leads the AL with 9 HR and 26 RBI. Ian Kinsler leads the team with 28 R to go with his 284 AVG and 5 HR while Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Michael Young are hitting over 300 and Mitch Moreland, Craig Gentry and David Murphy are all hitting over 270. And even Mike Napoli is heating up with 7 HR this season. Almost every hitter on this team is off to a good start and looks like they can play like this all year. But that was never in doubt. The question was, how would these pitchers play after moving Neftali Feliz to the rotation, bringing in a new closer in Joe Nathan and seeing ace C.J. Wilson move to the rival Angels. And the answer is they would be just fine. Colby Lewis is off to a great start with a 2.97 ERA and a 3-1 record. Yu Darvish has stepped up to be the ace with a 4-1 record and a 2.54 ERA (the best among the starters) and a team leading 44 Ks. Neftali Feliz is fitting well in the starting rotation with a 3.81 ERA and fantastic 191 BAA. And the bullpen continues to flourish with Nathan going 7 for 8 in Save chances, Alexi Ogando holding down a 0.61 ERA and 5 bullpen guys with sub-3 ERAs. This team was expected to contend even with the Angels being so strong, and with them struggling they are looking to extend their lead and keep a stranglehold on this division that it will be difficult for anyone, even the mighty Angels, to overcome.
Oakland Athletics: We figured the Rangers would be one of the top 2 teams in the West. We didn’t think the Athletics would be the other team. Right now Oakland sits at 15-14, 3.5 games back of first. They aren’t blowing anyone out of the water, but with the 11th best ERA in baseball, they are led by a solid pitching staff that keeps the team in games and has put the A’s one game over 500. Bartolo Colon leads the staff with a 2.83 ERA. Brandon McCarthy is right behind him at 2.86. And Tommy Milone is the team leader in Wins with 4 and a deceptively high 4.42 ERA which belies his effectiveness (226 BAA). Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz they are not, but this group of starters is solid and keeping an anemic offense in enough games that they are in second in their division and have more Wins than losses after the first month of the season. And they have a winning record with essentially the worst offensive output possible, ranking 26th in R and dead last with a 213 team batting average. I don’t know if they’ll stay in second and I certainly don’t think they will compete in this division, especially with that offensive output. But if you were to tell the A’s they’d play 500 ball or slightly better at the beginning of the season, they’d have probably accepted that and been pretty happy with themselves.
Seattle Mariners: At 13-17 the Mariners sit 6 games back of first. This isn’t too much of a surprise, as we weren’t expecting this team to be fantastic on either side of the ball. Kyle Seager, in his first full season with the team, leads them in AVG hitting 298. Tied with him is Ichiro, who has moved to third in the order and after one month has 1 HR and 12 RBI. That puts him on pace for 6 HR and 72 RBI, which isn’t what they were hoping to get from him. Jesus Montero is off to a good start hitting 287 with 4 HR and 15 RBI. But after those guys, everyone else is struggling with the team ranking 24th in AVG. And while their pitching is a little better, it really drops off after Felix Hernandez. Hernandez leads the team with a 3-1 record, 1.89 ERA and 51 Ks. He really is dominant with a 0.94 WHIP and 189 BAA. Jason Vargas is also off to a good start with a 3-2 record and 3.09 ERA (1.03 WHIP/201 BAA). But their other 3 starters (Blake Beavan, Kevin Millwood and Hector Noesi) all have ERAs of 4.45 or higher and losing records. And with the anemic offense this team has had the past few years, they have to do better on the mound, and until they do they will continue to struggle. They are third in this division right now, and that’s where I had them finishing the season in my preseason rankings. But this start may have banished them to the basement for the year as the Angels are too good to stay with them, and Oakland is outpitching them so far.
Los Angeles Angels: And this is one of the other major surprises of the season. This team was picked by many to make the World Series and by most to win the AL West. Instead they sit at 12-17, 6.5 games back of the Rangers, currently in first. The pitching was strong last year, and has continued to play at a high level, Ervin Santana not withstanding. C.J. Wilson is looking like a solid pickup going 4-2 with a 2.61 ERA in his 6 starts. Dan Haren and Jerome Williams are solid with ERAs in the mid-3s. But Jered Weaver is still the ace here. He’s 4-0 with a 1.61 ERA so far. He’s got a no-hitter and a team leading 45 Ks to his name. He’s leading this fantastic starting group as they are keeping their team in games. The main issue this team is facing is the one they struggled with all last season, and thought they had fixed in their aggressive offseason. And that is offense. Some guys are playing well. Kendrys Morales has come back from injury to put together a strong April with a 318 AVG, which leads the team. Mark Trumbo is playing okay at third but is hitting very well at 313 with part of the team lead in HR with 4. He shares that lead with Torrii Hunter (294) and Howie Kendrick (275). But this offense was supposed to revolve around Albert Pujols. And Pujols is hitting an abysmal 196 at this point in the season. He got his first homer of the year recently, but nothing seems to be going right for him. After getting a tremendous contract that has been panned by many, he has come out of the gates ice cold, and it’s killing the Angels. Trumbo has great power but is very young. Morales is a wildcard after his injury, and Kendrick has nice pop but isn’t expected to be a slugger. Pujols has to step it up, especially with Ianetta, Aybar, Bourjous and Wells struggling with him and Bobby Abreu being cut after his slow start. Mike Trout should inject some life into this team, but he’s not the answer. The answer stands at first, criminally underperforming and making the Angels look overmatched on the diamond. I don’t think they’ll stay last, and I think they still have a chance to contend for the division title. But as bad as this start is, it’s made worse when you look at the way the Rangers started, and may have the Angels chasing a wildcard at the end of the year instead of a division crown.