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Two Months In

You can’t say the first two months of the season haven’t brought us fascinating division races. In the AL Central, the Twins have played outstanding baseball at their new home and are on a 98-win pace, threatening to blow out the Tigers, who are just plodding along in their Tigerish fashion. Despite this, with their current starting rotation they have almost zero chance of advancing too far into the playoffs. This is a team that desperately needs a David Cone to complete its mission.

At season’s outset, the AL West seemed to be the kind of division where you could toss the teams in a hat and pick out a realistic set of standings and that seems to be the case right now. The biggest surprise has been the Mariners, who many picked to win the division. Instead, they are on a pace for 100 losses. The issue for the M’s was always how they would score runs, but at .240/.313/.348 and 3.7 runs per game they’ve actually been far worse than expected. They’ve had subpar production from all but two players (Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez), but they’re really being killed by positions that should be the easiest to fill in terms of offense—first base, left field, designated hitter. Seattle first basemen have hit .200/.289/.339, left fielders .194/.297/.331, and DHs .205/.262/318.

The Angels seemed to be a pitcher acquisition away from making a run at this soft division until Kendry Morales’ bizarre, possibly season-ending injury. They could still boost their offense by moving Mike Napoli to first base (as they have done, with terrific results) and calling up prospect Hank Conger to catch (Jeff Mathis is out with a broken wrist) instead of playing the light-hitting Bobby Wilson; Conger, the team’s first-round pick in 2006, is presently hitting .280/.375/.441 for Salt Lake of the Pacific Coast League. He’s not a great hitting prospect, but he’s far more likely to provide some added punch behind the plate than is Wilson.

In the NL East, the Braves just leaped past the struggling Phillies into first place, and it seems as if any of the teams except perhaps the Mets could actually win a division with a good deal of parity. Yes, that includes the Nationals, who have overachieved at .500 thus far—they haven’t hit or pitched that well, and I’m pretty sure that Jim Riggeleman will have burned out their best relievers by the All-Star break. Thing is, a week from now they’re going to promote Stephen Strasburg. Maybe Strasburg won’t instantly be an ace-level pitcher—as I emphasized with Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain and other prospective Yankees over the years, pitchers generally require some time to adjust to the Majors—but if he’s not at least better than Craig Flippin’ Stammen it’s going to be a major disappointment. In a weak division, a change like that could have major ripples.

It seemed as if the Cardinals would run away with the NL Central, with their terrific pitching staff rendering them bulletproof, but then their bats went cold at the same time that the Reds’ hitters got hot—the latter hit .299/.366/.507 as a team in May. Combine that with a staff ERA of 3.84 in the same month and you have a recipe for a charge at first place. It helped that the Reds spent a good deal of the month playing within the division, which means that except for the Cards they were playing very bad teams, including nine games against the Pirates and six against the Astros. They also played 10 games against the Cards and went 4-6. The Reds may also soon change their outlook by adding prospect Aroldis Chapman, a move which could also bolster their middle relief by bumping a starter to the bullpen.

All I can say about the NL West is that the Padres will not be winning it. The offense just isn’t there, even if Bud Black has put together a legitimately solid pitching staff. You can make an argument for the Dodgers, Giants, or Rockies, and if forced to guess I would go with the Dodgers, who seem to have stabilized their rotation with the substitution of John Ely for various has-beens and never-weres and also are starting to get their lineup healthy.

As for the AL East, well, the Yankees spend June spending 17 games against teams at or below .500, nine against teams with winning records, whereas the Rays play 22 games against teams with winning records, three (the Diamondbacks) against teams below .500. That seems fairly promising regardless of what else is going on.

AND HERE COME THE O’S!
Just when you thought you might never see Corey Patterson again, the Orioles bring him back for another go-‘round of easy out action. Already trailing the AL in walks, the Orioles have done their best to keep game times down by adding a career .290 OBP hitter and batting him in the leadoff spot. Oddly enough, the Orioles have hit so poorly that Patterson has been an improvement. The Orioles are currently on a pace for 114 losses. The Yankees will see two pitchers with ERAs nearing 6.00 and another, Kevin Millwood, who hasn’t gotten enough run support to earn a win. If Javier Vazquez can’t shut down this lineup, well… he’ll probably keep getting chances, but you’d have to say the odds are stacked in his favor.

I was going to qualify the foregoing by pointing out that the hitters on the Orioles were better than they currently appear and could break out at any time, but I’m not going to because in most cases I don’t think it’s true.

MORE FROM ME
• I had a Memorial Day piece up at BP in which I imagine Yogi Berra taking on the Axis, comic book style—which he actually did.

Wholesome Reading doth merrily roll along, with more updates coming as the day progresses.