Two Contenders, Two Pretenders

Contender- Boston Red Sox (14-9) 5.65 RPG 

Boston didn’t have high expectations this season.  The AL East was considered the deepest division in the American League. The Blue Jays, Yankees and Rays all had high expectations coming into 2021 but it has been the Red Sox that have been the most impressive team standing on top of the league, led by their stout offense. 

The Red Sox are the #1 in slugging percentage (.468), 6th in ISO (.180), 1st in hits per game (9.75), third in runs per game (5.17).  The offense has excelled despite the fact that offseason additions Hunter Renfroe, Marwin Gonzalez and Kike Hernandez have given them basically nothing to this point of the season.  Last year’s standout Bobby Dalbec just hit his first homer last night against the mets.  With all of these guys not performing, how is the offense so good?? Simple answer is the return to form of one of the best hitters in baseball over the last five years, JD Martinez.  Martinez has erased the memory of 2020 and begun to return to dominance with a slash line that seems almost inconceivable, .370/.446/.753.  Martinez also has a new co-host to his barrel party, the often forgotten piece of the Mookie Betts trade, Alex Verdugo.  The long-time Dodger top prospect has finally found his swing and together, he and Martinez are running through the league.  

The Red Sox offense has prevailed in an AL East that has suddenly become very winnable with the struggles of the Yankees and the injuries to the Blue Jays.  The Sox will be around for awhile because they rebuilt their bullpen and found the offense that was never seen in 2020 

Pretender- Seattle Mariners (13-9)

Seattle is a town known for their rainy weather but the future of their baseball team is very bright.  The sunshine has begun to peak through the clouds at the start of the 2021 season.  The Mariners are still waiting for their star prospects to make their way to the bigs.  Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez are both going to be in the bigs sooner rather than later but for now the Mariners are showing signs of life with their current crop of rising stars.  Ty France has looked like the diamond of the deal made last year with San Diego, Taylor Trammell has gotten some big hits and is showing major power and Marco Gonzalez seems like a steal.  

The Mariners have come out of the gates on fire.  They are pulling out victories that they would not have a year prior.  Their bullpen has been great for Seattle but their lack of depth in the rotation is already starting to show.  Outside of Chris Flexen the rotation has a cumulative ERA of over 4.5.  As a staff they are bottom ten in walks per game, they give up a ton of free bases and it has come back to haunt them.  Seattle has given their fnabse some hope for the future but it would be the best situation for them to move on from veterans like Kyle Seager and Mitch Haniger at the deadline to try and continue to build up the pitching staff.  As the Astors get healthy and the Angels find their consistency on offense, Seattle will be fighting to stay out of the cellar of their own division. 

Contender- Milwaukee Brewers (13-8)

The Brewers stink on offense, like historically. As a team Milwaukee is hitting just .208, good for 27th in baseball and they strike out 28% of their at bats.  This is a team that for half of the season actually had Christian Yelich in their lineup. Despite their abysmal offense the Brewers still find themselves on top of the NL Central.  

The offense is putrid but Manager Craig Counsell finds ways to get just enough from his bats to back up his elite level pitching.  Corbine Burnes leads a staff that has been lights out from the start of the season and shows no signs of slowing down.  Along with Burnes is ace 1A Brandon Woodruff, who has allowed just five runs in 29 innings pitched this year.  On most teams that would make him the “top guy”, in this rotation, he is just another guy.  Milwaukee is more than just a top two, 25-year old Freddy Peralta looks to finally be healthy enough to show off the potential the organization has always seen in him.  Peralta has announced himself to the league and makes for a filthy #3 starte .  

The Brewers will eventually get their star Christian Yelich back.  His time away has allowed other players to get more at-bats and find their way at the plate. Long time prospect Billy McKinney has shown some pop and veteran slugger Travis Shaw has seemed to be reborn in his return to the Brewers after a season away in Toronto.  The Brew Crew will never be a potent offense but they have enough power to put themselves up at any moment and feature some of the nastiest arms out of the bullpen as you will ever see.  The NL Central is currently up for grabs and this team can pitch themselves into the playoffs.  

Pretender- San Francisco Giants (14-8)

The Giants currently sit in second place in the NL West and first place in the very early wild card rankings.  The Giants have leaned on their pitching staff in 2021, currently as a team they have the third lowest ERA (2.94) sitting just behind division powerhouses the Dodger and Padres.  San Francisco has accumulated this pitching staff by taking a lot of risks on veterans in free agency.  Their rotation consists of Aaron Sanchez, Alex Wood, Anthony DeScalfani, Johnny Cueto, Kevin Gausman and Logan Webb.  Only Cueto could conceivable consider himself ever to be a team’s #1 starter, the rest were talented guys that have never panned out on the major league level consistently but they have found a home with the Giants. They are a staff that doesn’t give up free passes, they force teams to put the ball in play and it has worked out so far. 

The Giants know how to take advantage of a matchup. You will likely never see Darin Ruf or Austin Slater both in the lineup against a righty and the same goes for Alex Dickerson against a lefty. The Giants play their advantage and do what they can to get the most out of their hitters.  Their offseason addition of Tommy LaStella added another veteran to a lineup that is loaded with quality hitters.  Evan Longoria has had a resurgence to begin the season, leading the team with a .972 OPS, while future hall of famer Buster Posey has also picked up his old form with a .911 OPS.  The Giants rely on matchups and 

The NL West is very top heavy so the Giants could find themselves with a chance to make a run for a wild card spot by beating up the bottom dwellers Arizona and Colorado but they lack the depth in the rotation to make a long run.  What San Fran has done to start the season has impressed but they are yet to have a single matchup against the elite in the national league.  When they get their matchups with the Dodgers and Padres reality will set in and that reality is that they are rebuilding.  They have some solid major league talent but to compete in the loaded NL West they need more firepower  If their veteran rotation continues to impress they will have solid trade chips to improve their top ten ranked farm system.  Joey Bart and Mario Luciano will be on their way to the bigs leagues soon and this team will be ready to make a run, but not this year.

3 Reasons Mariners are Winning without Cano

The Seattle Mariners currently sit atop of the ultra competitive American League West.  One game up on the reigning world champion Houston Astros.  Seattle being in first at this point in the season is surprising. The fact that they sit on top with their best player Robinson Cano on the DL (or suspended list) is inconceivable.

Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto, known for his aggressive style, has made the moves necessary to cover for the 8 time All- Star.  These are the reasons why the Mariners are winning without their star

1.Soft Schedule

Winning is winning.  I will be the first to agree that it really shouldn’t matter who you play your team still has to show up and execute.  Still it is hard to ignore that the Mariners schedule is been very favorable over the past few series.  The Mariners have still not played the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and have also not had to travel to division foes Los Angeles Angels and Houston Astros.

Seattle has won 13 of 16 over their last five series playing only one team with a record above .500, that team being the Oakland Athletics (25-23).  Seattle has feasted on struggling teams during this span.  Beating up the lesser competition in the American League will be vital as they wait for Robinson Cano to return to the lineup.

2.Bullpen Pieces stepping up

Jerry Dipoto made the first move of the 2018 season grabbing Rays Closer Alex Colome for a few mid level prospects.  Colome was another piece added to a bullpen that has begun to fill out their roles to perfection.  Offseason signee Juan Nicasio has begun to get back to his 2017 form, allowing the Mariners to have a 3 headed monster of power pitchers at the back end of the game.  Seattle’s bullpen sits at 8th in the league statistically allowing opposing hitters to hit just .228 against them.

Closer Edwin Diaz has made the conversion to top ten closer with an astounding .85WHIP during the 2018 season. Emerging arms Chasen Bradford, James Pazos and Ryan Cook have emerged as impact arms early in games.  Pazos has been especially nasty. Pazos has substantially decreased his home run rate. The 6’2” 235-lb hurler sports a career 15.6% HR/FB rate, which is thrown a bit out of whack by the 50% figure from his 3.1 innings in 2016. Pazos has given up a total of one run in his last 20 appearances.

3. James Paxton and Mitch Haniger

I put Paxton and Haniger together because they have both taken huge steps in their career during the early portion of the season.  Both highly touted prospects in the Mariners system have reformed themselves into team leaders both on the mound and at the plate.

Paxton the third round pick back in 2010 has emerged as the ace of the staff in 2018. Long time ace Felix Hernandez has not been the dominant force that he has been over the last ten years in Seattle. Paxton has emerged to dethrone the king in Seattle becoming more dominant at ever turn.  Paxton 5-1, 2.95ERA, has struck out an astounding 101 batters over 82.1 innings.  His dominance culminating in a no hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 9th.  Still just 29 years old Paxton is entering what could be the prime of his career at a time where the team needs him most.

Mitch Haniger is struggling right now for the Mariners.  Over his last 15 games he is just hitting .185.  The reason I have him on this list is because he has still been a force in the Mariners order.  For the season Haniger is has 12HR 43RBI this season.  Haniger has improved his advanced analytics across the board as well.  Picking up the production lost by the suspended Cano.  Haniger has stepped into the role as run producers for a team that lacked consistency through the order in 2017.

Haniger Advanced Stats (MLBSavant.com)

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 1.41.43 PM.png

The Mariners will eventually get back their star.  But if they are able to make it to the playoffs Cano will not be eligible to play.  This time without him will prepare them for that situation.  They have the pieces to contend but the upcoming months will provide us with a true idea of what this team is.  I see the playoffs in 2018….maybe.