The standings have their usual assortment of surprise squads -- the Brewers, Twins and Yankees contending ahead of schedule, the Rockies and D-backs pushing the Dodgers in the National League West and a good Rays team getting overlooked in the American League East.But those are surprises relative to our preseason
The standings have their usual assortment of surprise squads -- the Brewers, Twins and Yankees contending ahead of schedule, the Rockies and D-backs pushing the Dodgers in the National League West and a good Rays team getting overlooked in the American League East.
But those are surprises relative to our preseason expectations, which, we know too well, are always deeply flawed.
Equally interesting are the clubs that overcome not expectations, but basic reality -- a terrible early-season record and/or a devastating injury. Though the National League currently has a lot of separation between the clubs in playoff positions and the rest of the pack, the AL is a lot of fun right now, because there are five teams that looked to be toast at one point this year, but they are still ... ahem ... ALive.
Perceived date of death: May 3, when they lost, 10-1, to the rival Astros, fell to 11-17 and put Cole Hamels on the disabled list
Since then? 22-16 -- the third best AL record in that span
The 22-16 mark is augmented by a 10-game winning streak. In many ways, the Rangers are still living off the fumes of that streak, but that's better than not living at all. And having just won five of six on the road against two of the best teams in the Majors (Astros and Nationals), the Rangers still have legit AL Wild Card hopes.
The rotation picture is getting interesting, with Tyson Ross looking solid in his Rangers debut Friday after recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, and Hamels pitching three innings in his first rehab start Friday.
President of baseball operations Jon Daniels will take a realistic assessment of this club at midseason and, for all we know, might value the upgrade in young talent that would come in dangling Yu Darvish vs. chasing Wild Card dreams. But the Rangers' recent play has made that a difficult decision.
Perceived date of death: May 7, when they fell to 10-20 with a 1-0 loss to the Indians
Since then? 22-14, including six straight wins
This will be a fascinating club these next few weeks, because the wealth of expiring assets, and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement terms that limit compensation for lost free agents, will force general manager Dayton Moore to make a big non-waiver Trade Deadline decision. He's going to give his 2015 World Series championship core the opportunity to stop him from selling, and right now, the Royals are responding.
The pending return of ace Danny Duffy, and the recent offensive turnarounds for Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon to support a great season from a healthy Mike Moustakas, make the Royals a potentially dangerous club in an AL Central in which the Indians have simply not played as prescribed.
Perceived date of death: April 28, when they fell to 6-17 with a 7-4 loss to the Rays
Since then? 26-17 -- the second best winning percentage (.605) in the AL in that span
Toronto avoided its worst April record in franchise history with two wins to end the month, and the club has been clawing its way back to coherence since then. Health has betrayed a rotation that posted the best ERA in the AL last season. However, if the Blue Jays can manage the blister issues of Aaron Sanchez, who has started throwing off a mound again, that would be a huge in-season upgrade.
The question is whether the Blue Jays, who just can't seem to get to .500 (they missed another opportunity Friday night), can get the help they need in left field and at second base (right now, Devon Travis' knee surgery looms large). But with the second-best attendance in the AL, and at least a Wild Card spot in sight, the Blue Jays could possibly make another run, as opposed to blowing it up at the Trade Deadline, as had been speculated early in the year.
Perceived date of death: May 28, when they were 26-27 after a 9-2 loss to the Marlins and Michael Trout hit the DL
Since then? 9-9
No, the Angels aren't blowing people away with their post-Trout record. But the fact that they haven't totally nose-dived qualifies as a surprise. When Trout suffered a thumb injury that required surgery, he was batting .337 with 16 homers. The rest of the Angels combined were batting .226 with just 39. Their record wasn't totally lousy. But two months without Trout? C'mon.
But this club found its Angels in the outfield in veteran Eric Young -- who arrived from a productive stint at Triple-A and shockingly slashed .316/.409/.526 in his first 17 games -- and Cameron Maybin, who began an on-base tear when Trout tore his thumb ligament. Now, Trout's talking about getting back by the All-Star break. And though the Angels will still have a lot of work to do if they're going to secure a Wild Card spot, it no longer appears their playoff hopes went out with Trout.
Perceived date of death: May 27, when they fell to an AL-worst 21-29 with a 6-0 loss to the Red Sox
Since then? An AL-best 12-7
Things looked bleak in late May, when the Mariners lost 12 of 16 (averaging just 2.3 runs per game in that span) with their April rookie sensation (Mitch Haniger) and three-fifths of their rotation (Felix Hernandez, James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma) on the shelf. Things didn't get any better on the health front when Jean Segura suffered a high ankle sprain earlier this month. But while the Mariners still have yet to get convincingly over the .500 hump, they're getting healthier and playing better.
This is a club that will probably value a Wild Card opportunity more than others, because the Mariners have the double whammy of an aging core and the longest October drought in the Majors. So, while the sample size of improved play is small, it's more meaningful than it might be in many other markets.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.