Just yesterday, we checked in on the Yankees’ divisional rivals as the first quarter of the season comes to a close. But they’re not the only teams that the Yankees need to worry about. Assessing how other contenders are performing is just as important to the Yankees as the Red Sox and the Rays.
We’re going to take a look around at some the other American League teams that have shown early signs of contention. Due to the nature of this sort of exercise at this early point in the year, aside from the bonafide superteams like the Astros, it’s difficult to decide which teams are pretenders and which teams are contenders in the extremely top-heavy Junior Circuit. For this reason, we’re going to broaden our net, and take a look at, in addition to the division-leading Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins, the Cleveland Indians, the Seattle Mariners, and the Los Angeles Angels.
Seattle Mariners (20-24)
It truly has been a tale of two seasons for the Seattle Mariners. After starting the year 13-3 — including a decisive series win over the Boston Red Sox to start the latter’s season — the Mariners have floundered, going 7-21, including decisive series losses to both the Yankees and Red Sox.
Their lineup, led by Edwin Encarnacion and Daniel Vogelbach, remains one of the best in the league, leading the American League in home runs, doubles, and runs scored. Seattle’s lineup consists of only one player with an OPS+ under 100 — Mallex Smith, whose 42 OPS+ has seen him sent down to the minors, with Jay Bruce’s 108 OPS+ now starting in his place.
Their pitching staff, however, aside from Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi, has been nothing short of a disaster. Former ace Felix Hernandez has failed to reinvent himself without the electric stuff he had earlier in his career. Even after trading Edwin Diaz, the bullpen has remained solid, headed by closer Roenis Elias, but the starting pitching has not given them any leads to protect, especially lately — in the last two weeks, the Mariners have lost by more than ten runs four times.
If the Mariners can get their pitching staff together, they can be dangerous in the AL West. Otherwise, they will continue their downward slide.
Los Angeles Angels (20-21)
The name of the game for the Angels this year has been inconsistency, as they have had both a six-game winning streak and a six-game losing streak in the span of two weeks. Their outfield of Brian Goodwin, Kole Calhoun, and Mike Trout leads a lineup that is dominant at the top of the order, but weak at the bottom. Two-way sensation player Shohei Ohtani looks to lengthen the lineup, although he has yet to find his stroke following Tommy John surgery in the fall.
Much like with the Mariners, the pitching staff has been the Angels’ downfall; four of their five starters have ERA marks over 4, and no matter what metric you use — ERA, FIP, ERA+ — they rank in the bottom five of the American League.
Cleveland Indians (21-19)
As expected, Cleveland boasts one of the top rotations in the American League, headed by Trevor Bauer, Shane Bieber, and Carlos Carrasco, whose 3.51 FIP suggests that he his 4.96 ERA has been propelled a little by bad luck. That said, the recent injury to Corey Kluber — he’s not expected back until August — leaves the back of the rotation, which already missed Mike Clevinger and Danny Salazar, with numerous question marks. The bullpen continues to be a strength for them, despite the immense turnover in recent years, with closer Brad Hand and relievers Nick Wittgren and Tyler Clippard (yes, seriously) leading the way.
The Cleveland offense, however, leaves plenty to be desired. Thanks to rough starts from Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, the Indians have exactly one player with an OPS+ of more than 100: Carlos Santana. This creates the perfect formula for one of the worst lineups in baseball, one that is bottom-five in runs scored and bests only the Miami Marlins in OPS+. If the Indians want to compete for the division with the surging Twins, they will need to bolster their lineup, particularly with their pitching depth being tested by injuries; relying on Lindor and Ramirez to return to their career norms will simply not be enough.
Minnesota Twins (25-15)
The Twins are arguably the surprise of the season, as one year after finishing with a 78-84 record, they have quickly become one of the top teams in the American League through the first part of the season, and are both top five in the AL in runs scored and runs against. Led by breakout campaigns by Mitch Garver and Jorge Polanco and a return to form by Byron Buxton, as well as strong performances by free agent signings Nelson Cruz and Jonathan Schoop, Minnesota boasts a lineup with only one below average bat so far this season — “big” free-agent acquisition Marwin Gonzalez.
On the mound, ace-like campaigns from Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, and Martin Perez form a three-headed monster at the top of the rotation that, combined with an elite bullpen in front of their closer, former Yankee Blake Parker, gives them one of the strongest pitching staffs in the league, despite the fact that they rely on Michael Pineda at the back of their rotation.
Houston Astros (27-15)
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Houston Astros continue to play like one of the top teams in the league, a veritable superteam. They boast a lineup that contains, one through nine, a batter with an OPS+ of more than 107, and the only below-average bat they give regular at-bats to is Tyler White in the DH slot — a guy with a career 109 OPS+. They boast two aces in Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, and an elite back-of-the-bullpen duo of Robert Osuna and Will Harris. These combine for a team that, once again, has both a top-five offense and pitching staff.
Unlike previous years, however, these Astros do not have the same depth on the mound, as the loss of Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton to free agency forces them to give major innings to Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock; out of the bullpen, after Osuna, Harris, and Hector Rondon, Houston lacks depth. While these shortfalls should not affect the team’s chances of winning the division, expect them to try and address some of them at the trade deadline, in order to bolster their chances in a short playoff series.