June check-in: 3 observations from each division

With more than a third of the 2019 season over and the amateur draft in the rearview mirror, Jonah Birenbaum, theScore’s senior MLB writer, offers up three observations for each division in the big leagues …

AL East

  • Luis Severino hasn’t thrown a pitch this season. Didi Gregorius has yet to debut. Giancarlo Stanton hasn’t played since March. Aaron Judge appeared in just 20 games before landing on the injured list. The Yankees‘ injury woes, it seems, go in perpetuity. Yet they sit comfortably atop the division (1 1/2-game lead) with the fourth-best run differential in the AL, thanks in part to outsized contributions from the likes of Luke Voit, DJ LeMahieu, Domingo German, and Gio Urshela. When their marquee names return, they’re going to be virtually unstoppable.
  • No team better illustrates how foolish it is to freak out over three weeks’ worth of data than the Red Sox, who have played at a .628 clip (27-16) since stumbling out of the gate to a 6-13 start. No, the team that won 108 games en route to a World Series title last year and had virtually no roster turnover this past offseason didn’t just turn into a pumpkin. It’s even possible this year’s roster is better than last year’s: Michael Chavis is a massive upgrade at second base and Rafael Devers is breaking out in his third season at the big-league level. Their odds of winning the division are admittedly not awesome because of their lousy start. FanGraphs currently gives them just a 20 percent chance, but it’s still early.
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  • Say what you will about the Rays‘ unconventional ways of doing … uh, everything, but there’s no denying their major- and minor-league scouts are killing it lately. When they acquired Tommy Pham last July, he had a .730 OPS through 98 games with St. Louis. With the Rays, he’s hit .313/.423/.533. Both prospects they landed in the Chris Archer deal, meanwhile, have emerged as potential superstars: Austin Meadows ranks third in the majors (minimum 150 plate appearances) with a 183 wRC+ mark, and Tyler Glasnow put up a 1.86 ERA (2.24 FIP) before straining his elbow. Charlie Morton, the 35-year-old right-hander they unexpectedly signed this offseason, is currently out-ace-ing Blake Snell. While the club’s early success can be partially attributed to its pioneering bullpen-usage strategies and defensive shifts, solid scouting has been just as central to Tampa’s highly impressive 37-23 start.

AL Central

  • A revamped offense has been a driving force behind Minnesota’s success in 2019 – the Twins currently lead the majors in homers and isolated power – but don’t overlook the contributions of a rotation that was widely considered a weakness coming into the season. Jake Odorizzi, previously a nondescript, mid-rotation innings-eater, is threatening Jose Berrios’ ace status with a league-leading 1.96 ERA (2.81 FIP) through a dozen starts thanks to a rejigged repertoire. Veteran left-hander Martin Perez is throwing harder than ever and has a career-best 120 ERA+ to show for it.
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  • Having done nothing of consequence to fill very obvious roster holes this past offseason, the Indians front office deserves most of the blame for the club’s current predicament. Their playoffs odds, according to FanGraphs, sit at just 30 percent, and they’ve got virtually no shot at winning the division. Still, even the most cynical executive couldn’t have anticipated that Jose Ramirez would be this bad: he’s been the fourth-worst qualified hitter in the majors by wRC+ (60) and his regression – he finished third in AL MVP voting in the previous two seasons – has had an outsized impact on Cleveland’s putrid offense.
  • Watching Miguel Cabrera, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, decompose is no fun at all. The 36-year-old is now physically incapable of playing the field – he was recently relegated to full-time DH duties due to “chronic changes” in his knee – and his offensive skills have eroded as a result. Through 56 games in 2019, the two-time American League MVP has managed a .733 OPS (96 OPS+) with only three home runs – fewer than teammates Christin Stewart, Grayson Greiner, and JaCoby Jones. He’s barely a replacement-level player at this point, frittering away on a painfully irrelevant Tigers club, and it’s sad.

AL West

  • The Astros have an elite offense. You already knew that. They also have a superb pitching staff. You knew that, too. But did you know the Astros are also arguably the best defensive team in MLB? They lead the majors in defensive efficiency rating (.749), they’re second to only the Dodgers in defensive runs saved (58), and, for all you boomers out there, they rank third in fielding percentage (.989), too. A third straight 100-win season is all but guaranteed at this point.
  • It’s downright impressive how reliably mediocre the Angels are. Once again, they’re receiving an MVP-calibre campaign from Mike Trout, who leads the American League in WAR (4.1) for the trillionth season in a row, and their offense, as a whole, is actually good this year (108 wRC+). And yet they’re three games below .500 with a negative run differential and decidedly bleak playoffs odds. It’s always something with this team.
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  • Many pundits – myself included – chided the Rangers for not making a meaningful offseason effort to compete in 2019. Consider this a mea culpa. The club’s spate of seemingly inconsequential acquisitions, from Lance Lynn to Logan Forsythe to Hunter Pence, has paid off handsomely, while increased or continued productivity from core pieces such as Joey Gallo, Shin-Soo Choo, and Elvis Andrus has put the Rangers squarely in the wild-card hunt. They’re a good team as currently constituted, and the front office deserves credit for believing in its core even in the wake of last year’s disastrous 95-loss campaign.

NL East

  • The loss of Andrew McCutchen, who tore his ACL earlier this week, is a massive blow for the Phillies. Jay Bruce has done a more-than-admirable job picking up the slack so far – he’s 6-for-11 (.545) with three homers since arriving from Seattle – but they’ll need to acquire another impact player to fill that void if they don’t want to be relegated to mere wild-card contention.
  • Despite last year’s success, the Braves were perhaps the least sexy preseason pick to win the NL East title following the transformative offseasons engineered by two division rivals. So far, however, the Braves have quieted their detractors, with several highly touted youngsters (such as Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Austin Riley, Dansby Swanson) stepping up amid regression, modest or otherwise, from some of last year’s breakout stars (Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Mike Foltynewicz). Still, it’s curious they didn’t outbid the Cubs for Craig Kimbrel; their bullpen remains their one glaring weakness, and with so much of their success attributable to cheap labor, they surely could afford him. As a consolation, they added free-agent starter Dallas Keuchel this week.
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  • Don’t sleep on the Nationals. Yes, the got off to an abysmal start, but they’re healthy again – namely, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon are both back in the lineup – and they’re 9-3 in their 12 last games, outscoring their opponents 78-53 over that span. Moreover, while they’re still six games under .500, their playoff odds – 42.4 percent, according to FanGraphs – aren’t that far off from the division-leading Phillies.

NL Central

  • With the division-leading Cubs newly fortified (more on that below), every win is now crucial for the Brewers and it’s imperative they field the best lineup every night. Thus, the recent decision to option star rookie Keston Hiura back to the minors to make room for a now-healthy Travis Shaw doesn’t quite compute. Hiura, a former first-round pick and one of baseball’s most gifted offensive prospects, accrued an .865 OPS (121 OPS+) in 17 games while the slumping Shaw was injured. It’s clear Hiura can be an impact hitter at the major-league level already. He needs to be playing every day for Milwaukee, and it’s incumbent on the front office to find a way to make that happen.
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  • After spending the offseason crying poverty, the Cubs ponied up this week and signed Craig Kimbrel to a reported three-year, $43-million deal in an effort to extinguish the dumpster fire that has been their bullpen thus far. Heading into Friday’s action, the Cubs’ relief corps has endured 40 “meltdowns,” which is eighth worst in the majors while posting the fourth-lowest save conversion rate. Kimbrel, a seven-time All-Star and the greater reliever ever through age 30, ought to help in that regard, and his presence will allow the Cubs’ previous ninth-inning options to slide back into more suitable roles.
  • They’re still very much in contention for the division title and their plus-18 run differential certainly isn’t discouraging, but the Cardinals can’t be feeling great about their medium-term future right now. Paul Goldschmidt, acquired to wrest the Cardinals from their three-year playoff drought, is in the midst of the worst season (115 OPS+) of his career. Same goes for Matt Carpenter, who’s essentially been a league-average hitter in 2019. Yadier Molina has regressed both at the plate and behind it. Miles Mikolas’ smoke-and-mirrors act isn’t working like it did last year. Each of those players is part of the Cardinals’ core – they’re all under contract through at least 2021, save for Molina – and they’re all starting to look, well, kind of old. That’s not to say the Cardinals are doomed or anything, but the excitement that colored their offseason has definitely dimmed a bit.

NL West

  • A seventh straight division title was all but preordained for the Dodgers, but the fact they’ve just about locked up the NL West by early June has a lot to do with the historic year Cody Bellinger is currently navigating. Bellinger, essentially a platoon player in the 2018 World Series, has already accrued more WAR this season than Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, and Joey Votto did all of last year. Bellinger currently leads the majors in batting average (.370) and trails only Christian Yelich in homers (20) and slugging percentage (.721); if he sustains his numbers for the entire season, he’d be the first qualified hitter to finish with an OPS+ of at least 200 since Barry Bonds did it four years in a row from 2001-04.
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  • The Rockies run differential in 2018 hinted that they were more of a .500 team than their 91-72 finish suggested. After no especially consequential additions to the roster this past offseason, their performance through the first 10 weeks of 2019 – their recent eight-game winning streak notwithstanding – has more or less confirmed it. They’re a below-average offense team, despite the efforts of Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and Trevor Story. After adjusting for the offense-inflating effects of Coors Field, they’re pretty much average in terms of run prevention, too. Given the improvements made throughout the National League, it’ll be much harder for a club this pedestrian to sneak into the wild-card game again.
  • Even if they don’t end up making the postseason, the Padres can hold their heads high come October. They could’ve easily continued rebuilding in 2019. They could’ve eschewed any big free-agent deals this past winter and returned their top prospects to the minors for further conditioning this season. But they didn’t. They signed Manny Machado, called up the kids, and have thus far treated their fans to the most entertaining and enjoyable season in San Diego in nearly a decade.