After first month, it's anyone's game
From usual suspects to surprise contenders, competitive balance reigns
Raise your hand if you had the Brewers flying through this opening month with the best record in baseball. Here's the point. They have re-enforced the notion that baseball's pennant races are almost impossible to figure out. Granted, it's a small sample size, but this is what competitive balance looks like.
On this Wednesday morning, 26 of 30 teams are within three games of a postseason berth. The Yankees and Red Sox are in the mix, but so are the Marlins and Padres. Only seven teams are more than two games below .500. The Mets and Rockies are above .500. The Cardinals are right at .500; the Reds are two below.
This means your favorite team -- be it the Mets, Marlins, Padres, Rockies, Royals or Twins -- has hope. These first weeks of a season are important to teams that aren't exactly sure how good they're going to be.
So far, so good. Pick out any of those teams and make a case for it staying competitive. It's not that difficult to do.
The Rockies? Gulp. Their rotation has not been good. Neither has their bullpen. But they've scored 34 more runs than any other National League team. If the season ended today, Troy Tulowitzki and Charlie Blackmon might finish first and second in the NL Most Valuable Player Award balloting. If Colorado can go 16-12 with so little pitching, think what the Rockies could do with just a little help. Meanwhile, confidence builds in the clubhouse.
That's probably what the Giants are thinking, too. Pitching led the way when they won the World Series in 2010 and '12. Home runs? Not so much. They were 16th in home runs in the NL in 2012, sixth in '10. This season, San Francisco is second in the NL in home runs and third in walks, and that's a pretty efficient way to score runs.
It hasn't been easy, as manager Bruce Bochy confronts an assortment of issues, from Brandon Belt's slump to Matt Cain cutting his finger just before his start against the Padres on Tuesday.
Maybe Bochy will end up seeing this season as another of his finest hours. Despite the issues, his club has spent 17 days in first place. With Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit coming off solid starts, maybe the rotation will take shape. With a great bullpen and all those home runs, the Giants may not need their rotation to be as dominant as it was in the championship years. So why not?
The Padres? They've scored 14 fewer runs than any other NL team. But they've got a top five pitching staff, and once Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin get back on the field, the offense should pick up.
See? There's a case to be made up and down the food chain. The Braves are in first place, thanks to the best rotation in baseball. This simply wasn't supposed to happen after Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy went down for the season and Mike Minor spent most of the first month on the disabled list.
But Atlanta's staff is pitching under stress, because only the Astros and Padres have scored fewer runs than the Braves. Can Atlanta win with B.J. Upton hitting .211, with Jason Heyward hitting .194? The Braves would point out that they're on a pace to win 110 games, so there's that.
On the other hand …
The Yankees have had at least a share of first place in the American League East for the last 18 days. How can they stay there? CC Sabathia's new normal is a 5.11 ERA. Ivan Nova is gone for the season. Michael Pineda is hurt. So the Yanks may have to lean on David Phelps and Vidal Nuno.
Baseball's two most complete teams this opening month have been the Brewers and A's. Milwaukee's rotation has the third-best ERA in the NL. So does its bullpen. Even with Ryan Braun hurting, the Brewers seem to be capable of hanging in there for the long run.
You didn't guess the A's would have the AL's best record this month, either, did you? Maybe you did in February or March, but not after both A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker went down.
To do what Oakland has done after suffering those two injuries is impressive. After one month, the A's have the AL's best bullpen and its best rotation.
Only the White Sox and Angels have scored more runs in the AL than the A's. You can't have a discussion of baseball's best players without including Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson.
So, yes, the good news is that this could be a fascinating summer of baseball. That means little things could decide the 10 postseason berths.
For instance, depth in the farm system. Or the general manager's ability to tweak the roster. Or big players playing big when the lights are brightest.
If we're really lucky -- and we have been a few times in recent years -- we could have six months of chaos. Chaos is not great for all those managers fighting their guts out inning by inning. But it's the best thing in the world for the rest of us.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.