By: Matt Horn
Now just over 50 games into the season, it is the time of the year when Major League Baseball takes center stage in the sporting world. With the NBA and NHL playoffs wrapping up, all eyes are on baseball headed into the heat of summer.
This year’s surprise teams are headlined by the first place Houston Astros and neighbor Texas Rangers, while the Minnesota Twins are scrapping for the top spot in the AL Central and the New York Mets are more competitive than anyone would have thought in the National League standings. But underdogs beware as history has not been kind to early season shockers.
This time last year the Oakland Athletics, Toronto Blue Jays, and Detroit Tigers held the top three spots in the American League while the San Francisco Giants, Milwaukee Brewers, and Atlanta Braves had the best records in the NL. By the time October rolled around, only the Tigers and Giants had lasted to the divisional round of the playoffs, and Toronto, Milwaukee, and Atlanta finished at the bottom of their respective divisions.
So who of this year’s surprise teams will be able to compete down the stretch?
Houston Astros: Contenders
After preseason predictions had the Astros finishing at the bottom of the American League once again, Houston is at the opposite end of the spectrum two months into the season. Pitcher Dallas Keuchel has been the surprise ace of the year and the driving force behind Houston’s success. Keuchel leads the American League in ERA (1.76), but there is not much talent behind him in the rotation.
The Astros bullpen has been quite the contrary. Led by an All Star campaign from Will Harris, Houston’s relievers have held opponents to a league low .181 batting average this season.
Offensively, the Astros play big bat baseball; they are a team that will live and die by the long ball. Houston leads the AL in home runs but ranks 27th in batting average. With the exclusion of last year’s AL batting champion 2B Jose Altuve, the Astros do not have a guy who can bat above .290 consistently, making them reliant on guys like DH Evan Gattis and 3B Luis Valbuena to connect on swings for the fences.
The Astros will need more consistency at the plate to be able to stay ahead of the surging Los Angeles Angels. Houston’s fast start should carry over down the stretch, and with more productivity out of their rotation, the Astros could be a defensive nightmare for teams late in the summer.
Texas Rangers: Pretenders
Two spots below the Astros in the AL West sit their neighbor Texas Rangers. In spring training, three time All-Star SP Yu Darvish went down for the season in need of Tommy John surgery, setting the tone for the Rangers’ season.
Texas has been crippled with injuries, now with nine players on the 60-day disabled list. Even so, the Rangers have maintained a high powered offense, ranking second in MLB in runs.
DH Prince Fielder leads the AL with a .355 batting average, the return of LF Josh Hamilton has been nothing but a success thus far, and the team just called up 3B Joey Gallo, one of the most highly touted prospects in the nation.
Where Texas falls short is with their pitching staff. SP Nick Martinez is having an excellent second season, however the Rangers do not have much depth in their rotation and little talent in the bullpen. With holes in the roster coupled with the talent of division rivals Astros and Angels, it is going to be hard for the Rangers make a return to the playoffs.
Minnesota Twins: Pretenders
As competitive as the AL has been this year, locking up a Wild Card spot could be just as difficult as winning the division. Unfortunately for the Twins, the Detroit Tigers have found a way to win the AL Central four years in a row, while the Kansas City Royals are playing at the level they did in October of last year.
While the Twins do deserve a lot of credit for their first place standing in the division, their success must be taken with a grain of salt. Minnesota has only played two AL teams with winning records thus far (Tigers and Royals) and have combined for a 5-10 record against the division rivals.
Set aside subpar pitching and the lack of a top-tier batter, the Twins will end up a victim to divisional misfortune. The AL Central could be the most competitive division in baseball this season, and the Twins simply do not have the talent needed to compete down the road this season.
New York Mets: Contenders
For the first two weeks of the season, the Mets had the country in awe at the first place success of “the other” New York baseball team. While everyone picked the Washington Nationals to run away with the NL East, the Mets continue to battle for the top spot in the division.
It is impossible to speak of the Mets without mention of 42 year-old pitcher Bartolo Colon, who in his 17th major league season is leading the the NL in wins. New York has a legion of pitchers behind him, featuring Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and emerging stars like Noah Syndergaard. The Mets pitching staff has so much talent that manager Terry Collins announced this month that the team will move to a six-man starting rotation for the summer months into August.
While New York has had its share of struggles at the plate this year, much of their lineup is young and still developing. As the hitters get more experienced, the six-man rotation allows for pitchers to stay well throughout the summer months and sets up a push to the playoffs at the end of the season.
Look for the Nationals to lock up the division, but a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 seems well within the sights of the surging New York Mets.