We’re far enough into the season that the early results can start to inform our opinions of how good teams are, but not so far in that the standings tell the whole story. That puts fans of all 30 teams in the enviable position of being able to either pay attention to the standings or hold on to preseason expectations, depending on which one better validates their chosen view of the world. This is particularly true for the middle third or so of the league, which is a confusing scramble of moderate overachievers, teams undone by injury, and would-be contenders that might be able to overcome a sub-.500 April. What you think of those teams depends mostly on what you value.
1. Washington Nationals
Two years ago, Bryce Harper put up Ted Williams’s 1941 season, adjusted for park and era, and after struggling through the final four months of 2016 with what looks more and more like a shoulder injury he refuses to acknowledge, he’s hitting even better now than he was two years ago. Meanwhile, Ryan Zimmerman, after four years in the woods with a shoulder injury of his own, is having an even better year than Harper. We all thought this team would be really good, and now Washington has the game’s best record and overall run differential.
Placing the Nationals first acknowledges a great April, but Adam Eaton’s season-ending knee injury will cost Washington a key on-base guy in front of Harper, Zimmerman, and Anthony Rendon. Center field was such a huge issue last year that the Nationals gave up Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez to fix it, and now they’re back to where they started.
2. Chicago Cubs
Given how far the Cubs are from having the best record in the league, placing them this high might seem weird, but they’re in first place in the NL Central and still on an 88-win pace after playing six more games on the road than at home. And apart from Kyle Hendricks getting knocked around in his first three starts (he threw six shutout innings in his fourth), the Cubs haven’t really given us any reason to worry. The expectation of a cakewalk to the division title remains unchanged.
3. Houston Astros
The lineup’s clicking, despite José Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer all missing time with minor injuries, and Dallas Keuchel has a 1.21 ERA. (It would’ve been 1.01 if Luke Gregerson hadn’t let an inherited runner score from first with two outs on Sunday.) Chris Devenski’s struck out 32 batters in 16.2 innings, and they’ve opened a Shake Shack and a Torchy’s Tacos at Minute Maid Park. Meanwhile, their biggest competitors in the division, the Mariners and Rangers, both had to weather crises in April, and the Astros currently sit three games up in the division with what looks like the best team. Life is good.
4. Cleveland Indians
Just like the Cubs, the Indians aren’t making headlines, but they’re in first place — and that’s despite Trevor Bauer’s 6.26 ERA and Jason Kipnis only just returning from injury. There’s no reason to alter this team’s high preseason expectations.
5. Boston Red Sox
At the end of April, we know just enough to get ourselves in trouble. So when it comes to ranking the Yankees and Red Sox, the question is which order these two teams will finish in if they play up to their potential. That question has two components: How much have the Yankees, with their 15–8 record and AL-leading plus-43 run differential, changed our perception of what that potential is? And have they built up enough of a lead in the division to overcome Boston’s status as the preseason favorite?
The answers: "A little," and "No, but it’s closer than I’d have expected." Boston’s had more players start slow than come out of the gate on fire, and it’s still missing David Price. A 2.5-game deficit isn’t trivial, even this early, but when all the streaks and injuries shake out, I still think Boston’s the better team.
6. New York Yankees
But if this were a literal power ranking, the Yankees would be ahead just based on Aaron Judge’s performance.
7. Los Angeles Dodgers
Having witnessed last year’s Dodgers, I know how dangerous it is to say that their injury luck has to get better, but their injury luck has to get better. Los Angeles doesn’t have an awesome farm system, but it’s skimmed off the top in the past week to call up mammoth first baseman/left fielder Cody Bellinger and lefty Julio Urías as injury replacements.
Speaking of Urías, there’s been a lot of talk in the past year about how he was the first teenager to debut as a starting pitcher since Félix Hernández — and for good reason. Age alone is a good enough reason to get excited about a pitcher performing at a high level. But maybe because the Dodgers have been so careful with his workload, it’s almost gone unnoticed that Urías, in his age-19 season in 2016, struck out better than a batter an inning and posted a 116 ERA+ in 15 big league starts. Not only did he play in the majors at a preposterously young age, he played well. He’s going to be really good.
8. Arizona Diamondbacks
This team might be a little underrated just because of how many of the national headlines about it have involved Fernando Rodney (eight earned runs and two blown saves in his past two appearances) and Shelby Miller (bound for Tommy John surgery after a 6.15 ERA in 2016). But every pitcher to start a game for Arizona so far this year, including the now-injured Miller, has an ERA+ of 113 or better. The Diamondbacks are also outhitting the league average at six of eight defensive positions; the exceptions, catcher and shortstop, demonstrate the hazard of employing Jeff Mathis and Nick Ahmed. Nobody’s perfect.
9. Baltimore Orioles
I was down on the Orioles to start the year, and now they’re 15–8, but not on the strength of Manny Machado and the bullpen, like normal. Dylan Bundy has a 1.65 ERA, Wade Miley 2.32, and I’m reaching a point where I’m starting to accept that not only is whatever I think about the Orioles going to be wrong, it’s going to be wrong in a way I didn’t anticipate.
10. Colorado Rockies
Something on this team is going to break sooner or later and the Dodgers are going to catch them. But 16–10 is 16–10 no matter the run differential, and Ian Desmond just came back, so maybe that date is a little further off than it first looked.
11. St. Louis Cardinals
Here’s Adam Wainwright, year-by-year:
- 2013: 19–9, 2.94 ERA, 241.2 IP (led league), second in Cy Young voting
- 2014: 20–9, 2.38 ERA, third in Cy Young voting
- 2015: Made only four starts after Achilles injury
- 2016: 13–9, 4.62 ERA, 220 hits allowed (led league), 102 earned runs allowed (led league)
- 2017: 2–3, 6.12 ERA, 39 hits allowed (tied for fourth)
The Cardinals, particularly with Mike Leake, Lance Lynn, and Michael Wacha pitching so well, and Carlos Martínez striking out 12.2 batters per nine innings (despite his 4.71 ERA), need to start thinking about what to do with the franchise’s best pitcher since … well, let’s put it this way: Since 1900, four pitchers have thrown 1,500 or more innings for the Cardinals with an ERA+ of 120 or better: Bob Gibson, Harry Brecheen, Dizzy Dean, and Wainwright. I’m not sure how exactly you tell someone like that that he’s going to the bullpen, but I’m also not Mike Matheny or John Mozeliak.
12. Texas Rangers
Even though the Astros raced out to a 16–9 start, the Rangers’ periodically ugly April doesn’t put them into too big a hole, because so many other would-be wild-card contenders ran just as hot and cold. The rotation, which looked brutal behind Cole Hamels and dog lover Yu Darvish, has actually been quite good: six pitchers have started for the Rangers this year, and only Martin Perez (99) has an ERA+ below 100. I still see a lot of upside with this team.
On the other hand: [cautiously tries to hug Sam Dyson]
13. Chicago White Sox
I told you they were going to be good. Although I did not expect the White Sox to be in first place on April 29 with a 5.22 ERA out of José Quintana and absolutely nothing out of Carlos Rodón. Nor did I expect Tommy Kahnle to strike out 19 guys (against one walk) in his first nine innings of the season — that’s a minus-0.87 FIP. NEGATIVE FIP!
14. Tampa Bay Rays
Steven Souza (.330/.411/.543) is causing a steep decline in the number of "Wait, who did the Rays get in the Wil Myers–for–Trea Turner–and–Joe Ross trade again?" takes. Tim Beckham — the guy the Rays took no. 1 overall instead of Buster Posey — has a 125 OPS+, but on a brutal-looking 29–4 K/BB ratio. Chris Archer’s been average, Derek Norris has been bad, but the Rays on the whole have been fine. Not particularly exciting — just fine. Someone’s got to finish middle of the pack.
15. New York Mets
This is the midway point between where I’d put them if Yoenis Céspedes and Noah Syndergaard both come back in a couple of weeks and where I’d put them if Céspedes’s hamstring dogs him all year and Syndergaard has major elbow or shoulder surgery that causes him to miss the next 12 to 18 months. They also just gave up 23 runs to the Nationals on Sunday, which certainly must feel like it counts as more than one loss.
But hey, Jay Bruce is slugging .584, so not everything’s bad.
16. Minnesota Twins
Byron Buxton (.147/.256/.176) has to start hitting at some point, right?
Also of note: Closer Brandon Kintzler has six strikeouts and four walks over 11.1 innings, but somehow made it all the way to April 30 before he allowed a run.
17. Milwaukee Brewers
I don’t understand what MLB’s angle is here. For starters, I’m not sure what makes whoever defines "random" believe that if there wasn’t something in Eric Thames’s system a week ago that something would pop up on a drug screening now. And let’s say Thames is hitting .345/.466/.810 not because the Braves and Reds popped up on the schedule 10 times in April, but because Eufemiano Fuentes is sleeping on his couch: What purpose does it serve to test Thames three times in 10 days, other than to lend credence to baseless rumors that he’s dirty?
MLB has reached the point where it can credibly say Thames is clean and then some. If MLB didn’t keep looking for a reason to doubt that the best story of the 2017 season is genuine, nobody worth talking about — except John Lackey, who’d probably rather believe Thames is on the Captain America serum than contemplate how much of a meatball the cutter Thames hit out off of him was — would have a reason to think it wasn’t.
18. Seattle Mariners
Taylor Motter is slugging .535 and has played five positions in 22 appearances, which means a guy nobody had heard of five weeks ago, who came to Seattle in a my-garbage-for-your-trash trade this past offseason, is now Ben Zobrist in the body of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. With Félix Hernández and Mitch Haniger hurt, Jean Segura on and off the DL, and Mike Zunino slugging .234, this team could be a lot worse than 11–15, and Motter is a huge reason.
19. Los Angeles Angels
Bad news: The Angels had a legitimate shot at the playoffs at the start of the year, but they needed a lot of things to go right. Instead, Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs are both on the DL, and Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons are the only regular position players with an OPS+ over 100 (over 200 in Trout’s case). The good news: They’re still a game over .500 somehow, even if they might not be able to do much better in the long run.
20. Pittsburgh Pirates
Since joining the Pirates last year, Iván Nova has five complete games and four walks in 16 starts. That’s a fun bright spot for a club that’s lost its best position player to suspension, is getting very little out of Gregory Polanco, and doesn’t look like it’s going to be able to run down the Cubs.
21. Detroit Tigers
The Justin Upton contract looks great for Detroit after April (.290/.402/.565). The Jordan Zimmermann contract (6.18 ERA, 5.2 K/9) less so. The AL Central is pretty much a one-team division right now, but the Tigers don’t look like they’ll be able to capitalize if the Indians falter, and with each passing year, the specter of a hard reset looms larger.
22. Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies lost Saturday night when closer Hector Neris gave up three straight ninth-inning homers to the Dodgers, which feels like the kind of thing that would send a team into a state of panic, particularly considering that Neris is Philadelphia’s third closer of the first month.
I think it’s a positive sign for the Phillies that they’re good enough to have a closer controversy, but they’re still not good enough that it matters a whole lot. The team’s biggest concerns are still whether Maikel Franco can get on base and hack it at third defensively, whether Vince Velasquez can throw strikes, and how J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro develop at Triple-A. They’re still a year or two from the occasional Neris meltdown actually impacting the pennant race.
23. Oakland Athletics
If you’re trying to convince people you’re a baseball fan who’s hip and with it, you’ll go on and on about Javy Báez or Aaron Judge. If you’re actually hip and with it — well, first, you’ll never actually say "hip and with it." But you’ll also be all over Oakland’s rotation, which is not only good, even in Sonny Gray’s absence, but between Jharel Cotton’s screwball/changeup, Kendall Graveman’s all-sinker diet, and Andrew Triggs’s bizarre sidearm action, weird and fun. The A’s are Wolf Parade when everyone was into Arcade Fire.
24. San Francisco Giants
Johnny Cueto, Matt Moore, and Jeff Samardzija all started slow, Buster Posey missed a week with a concussion, and the Giants have gotten precious little from the rest of their lineup. San Francisco’s left fielders are hitting a collective .140/.213/.213, and its center fielders .168/.233/.218. Meanwhile the Rockies and Diamondbacks are both off to good starts, and all of a sudden a team with playoff ambitions is dead last in a division that includes the San Diego Padres.
For reasons of taste, I am refraining from making a joke about Madison Bumgarner’s dirt bike.
25. Atlanta Braves
Could someone please ask Matt Kemp (.321/.345/.732) how he managed to travel back in time to 2010? I’d like to go back and correct some mistakes.
26. Toronto Blue Jays
And the 2016 Astros Memorial Trophy for Responding to "You Can’t Fall Out of the Pennant Race in April" with "Wanna Bet?" goes to the Toronto Blue Jays. On the plus side, Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews hit a ball out of the Rogers Centre on his first try, so maybe they’ve found someone to spell the struggling José Bautista.
27. Miami Marlins
At what point does having Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton stop being fun and start being sad because Miami’s wasting a great outfield and there’s no end in sight?
28. Cincinnati Reds
I’m just going to punch out on this team and come back when Zack Cozart (career .249/.294/.391 slash line) isn’t hitting .352/.447/.606 anymore. In draft news: If the Michael Lorenzen–as-pinch-hitter experiment works out (so far he’s only 1-for-4 but that one hit was a home run), the Reds might be interested in Brendan McKay with the no. 2 overall pick next month. McKay, who plays across the river at the University of Louisville, is hitting .394/.514/.739 in 142 at-bats as a first baseman/DH and has 95 strikeouts in 67 innings as the team’s Friday night starter.
29. Kansas City Royals
However annoying a 7–16 start is, breaking a 29-year playoff drought with back-to-back pennants and a World Series title is worth whatever pain comes while the roster turns over, right?
30. San Diego Padres
The Christian Bethancourt Experiment has relocated to Triple-A El Paso. Please, Fox, renew Pitch.