Columnists, Sports

Between the Lines: Baseball’s best are struggling, and some should worry more than others

Kyle Hendricks is one of the Chicago Cubs’ dominant pitchers early in the 2018 season. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

We aren’t even one month into the Major League Baseball season. So while there is plenty of baseball left to be played, the 2018 season is proving that we don’t know as much as we think we do.

The Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees in the American League and Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs in the National League entered the season as the big six, clear-cut division favorites that most baseball followers believed would walk away with division titles easily. But so far, our preseason favorites are struggling out of the gate.

None of those six teams currently lead their division and only one, the Indians, is in second place. For most, that shouldn’t be cause for concern just yet.

Instead, we have the Los Angeles Angels, Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks, Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets all sitting atop their respective divisions and hurting the playoff odds for the big six.

In the AL, the Indians and Astros are playing just fine, with positive-run differentials on top of deep pitching staffs and World Series experience on their side. The Yankees are also starting to hit Bronx bombs again.

It is hard for me to believe that the Twins and Angels will be able to maintain the division lead over these powerhouse teams in the course of 162 games, and the Red Sox-Yankees renewed rivalry will be too close to call. There are only really six teams with enough firepower to make a playoff push in the AL, so these teams are all relatively safe.

But then there is the NL, where there are really more than 10 playoff contenders.

The Nationals will get Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton back soon. Oh, and they have Bryce Harper who hits broken-bat homers, so Washington will be fine.

But then there are the Dodgers and the Cubs.

Los Angeles’ Corey Seager, Chris Taylor, Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig couldn’t have all forgotten how to hit at the same time — or could they? And for the Cubs, they have one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball. The only pitcher whose hasn’t been awful is Kyle Hendricks, and losing Anthony Rizzo to injury hasn’t helped their cause. Getting Rizzo and Justin Turner back will definitely help, but by the time they get back in the lineup with a hot bat, it might be too late for Chicago.

Though it is early and the teams trailing in the standings might actually be better than the team at the top of the standings, every game counts and now they have to make up several of them.

They will have to deal with the Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, who played for the final Wild Card spot last season and were expected to hover around the Wild Card this season.

Then there are the Pirates, who have proven to be okay without Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, the Milwaukee Brewers who are injury-riddled and the St. Louis Cardinals who always seem to stay in the division until the end of the season.

Not to mention the other teams in the NL. The Mets’ nine-game winning streak ended Saturday, but their five aces rotation particularly big bats Michael Conforto and Yoenis Céspedes are healthy and playing well. Additionally, both the Phillies and the Braves are young and have jumped out to hot starts.

Before you say that it’s way too early to decide the fate of any of these teams, you’re right. We can’t know for sure yet, and technically every team can still win its own division, but realistically the AL is just a waiting game to see which team might fall behind in the Wild Card race while the NL is wide open.

In my mind, it’s a lot like the NFL conferences, where the AFC has the elite, great teams we know will be there in the end with the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the NFC is a group of battle-tested good teams who fight it out just to make the playoffs because the conference is better top to bottom.

If anything, this has provided the regular season excitement we gained in the NBA this season. Everyone, including me, just wrote in the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in the Finals, but the Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers all showed that they could compete in their conferences and that not everything is set in stone in the preseason.

So even though we thought this was the year of the baseball super team and that we could start breaking down the playoff matchups already, maybe we should hit the brakes a bit and enjoy the exciting season of baseball that we are getting. Or perhaps we still don’t know anything, and our favorites will prove us right despite all of this.

 

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