Time for these division favorites to wake up

April 20th, 2018

This was going to be the season of inevitability. Everybody thought so … and was depressed by the realization. One of the wonderful things about baseball is that it resists predictability. No team has repeated as champion in almost two decades. Surprising and disappointing teams always come along to give the season some buzz.
This year, though, was going to end all that.
We all knew, before it ever began, that the Yankees would win the American League East, Cleveland would win the AL Central, Houston would win the AL West, Washington would win the National League East, the Cubs would win the NL Central and the Dodgers would win the NL West. We all knew it.
• MLB standings
The season has barely begun -- we are only three weeks in. Making judgments now would be absurd.
Still, it's a bit striking that at this moment, not one of those teams leads its division.
It's a nice reminder of baseball's temperamental nature. Yes, maybe the mathematical density of 162 games will bring order to the world and all those sure-thing teams will rise to the top, while all those early season surprises -- the Pirates, Angels, Mets, Braves, Phillies and Blue Jays -- will melt away.
But maybe not. Let's take a look at where are our favorites are now … and what the future looks like after only a few weeks.
AL East favorites: New York Yankees (9-8)
Unlike the other five divisions, the Yankees were not prohibitive favorites. Most people expected the Red Sox to be a sturdy challenger. All right, nobody expected Boston to get off to a 16-2 start -- the best in baseball since the 1987 Brewers -- but there were some who thought the Red Sox could beat out the Yanks.
More picked the Yankees though. It's tempting to pin New York's sluggish start on the early season slumps of (.203 average with 29 strikeouts in 17 games) and (.219 on-base percentage) but the Yanks' real problem has been pitching. The rotation was viewed as a potential Achilles' heel, and so far that has been true; even with the excellence of , the starters' ERA is 4.47.

But it's the bullpen that has been the bigger disappointment. Coming into the season, people were talking about the Yankees' bullpen being the best in baseball history, but they've been a bit vulnerable in the early going. , and Tommy Kahnle have all been startlingly hittable.
Key player going forward: . He has a 6.92 ERA through three starts, but he has pitched much better than that. Gray has not allowed a home run yet, and he has 15 strikeouts in 13 innings, but he has been absurdly unlucky. His FIP is 2.65, more than four runs better than his ERA, which is freakish. This is what happens when you give up a .409 average on balls in play. Put it this way: Hitters are batting .310 against Gray; Statcast™ has his his expected batting average against at .260. That's one of the biggest gaps in baseball. If you're a Yanks fan, you would expect that to even out.
Chances of still winning the division: Moderate. Stanton will heat up. The bullpen is too overpowering to be mediocre. But we can say this: This division is no longer in their control. The Red Sox are playing otherworldly baseball. One point in the Yankees' favor: Yes, the 1987 Brewers started 17-1 (and 20-3) and then promptly lost 12 in a row and 18 of 20 to fall into fourth place; they were never heard from again in the pennant race.
AL Central favorites: Cleveland (9-7)
Cleveland isn't scoring runs. The Tribe came into 2018 expecting to have the best rotation in the AL, and that rotation has delivered. is in the midst of a legendary pitching stretch, is healthy, seems to have figured things out and Mike Clevinger looks pretty darned good.
In the bullpen, and have pitched 16 1/3 innings without giving up a run.

But where will the runs come from? Cleveland's Infield is hitting .174. The whole infield. And that's supposed to be the strength of this lineup, with and at the heart of the order.
Here's the thing, though: You expect that to turn around -- Statcast™ numbers show that Cleveland has been by far the unluckiest team in baseball, underperforming by .36 points in batting average (highest in baseball), by .100 in slugging (highest in baseball) and by .054 in weighted on-base average (highest in baseball).
Key player going forward: Lindor. He is the Tribe's beating heart.
Chances of still winning the division: They're only a half-game back of Minnesota; the Tribe is still the heavy favorite to take the Central.
AL West favorites: Houston (13-7)
The Astros do not fit in with the other five favorites -- they are playing extremely well. Still, for the moment, they find themselves a half-game behind the crazy mojo of the Los Angeles Angels.

The Astros' roster is so absurdly loaded -- especially if and decide to be unhittable all year -- that you can't imagine the Angels keeping pace. But let's not discount the factor. Everybody knows the Halos have the best player in baseball in . They have numerous other interesting players: a future Hall of Famer in , the best defensive shortstop of our time in , a bunch of very good veteran hitters, a fascinating pitcher if he could ever stay healthy in , etc.
But the sheer dynamism of Ohtani -- his power pitching, his power hitting, his rather absurd speed, his extraordinary charisma -- can have a huge impact. Remember what a sensation Ichiro was when he came to America in 2001? Full ballparks … crowded press boxes … the nation watched. And that Mariners team (even after losing their best player in Alex Rodriguez) played out of their minds all season and won 116 games with basically 90-win talent.
Key player going forward: . The Astros don't really have a single key player; this roster is so loaded that I suspect they could overcome just about any setback. But Altuve means so much to the team and the city that he remains their key.
Chances of still winning the division: I'd be shocked if they didn't win the division, even with the Ohtani factor.
NL East favorites: Washington (9-10)
The firing of Dusty Baker made no sense to me. I get that the Nationals had another monumental playoff collapse, and Baker's unfortunate postseasons are well known. But this Nats team won 97 games last year, they are a locked-and-loaded veteran team nearing the end of their window, this just seemed an odd decision to break away from a manager who, for all his faults, has won 1,863 big league games and go with a bright but entirely untested new manager in Dave Martinez.
The switch might have nothing at all to do with the Nationals' listless start, but, yes, they do look listless. The bullpen is a raging forest fire. The offense doesn't seem cohesive at all, even with crushing every good pitch he sees. Injuries have taken an early season toll. There's just a feel of blah in Washington.

Meanwhile, the Mets, Braves and Phillies are all off to what you would have to call thought-provoking starts -- Atlanta and Philadelphia in particular are young and promising, and just maybe one of them will arrive earlier than expected.
Key player going forward: Harper. Nobody pitches to him. He has 22 unintentional walks in 19 games, which is a ludicrous pace. The most unintentional walks in a season (since they started keeping tabs of intentional/unintentional) is 142. Harper could break that if pitchers keep staying away from him. And they will keep staying away from him. How will Harper deal with the frustration?
Chances of still winning the division: They still have the best talent, and the younger teams should wear down eventually. But three weeks ago, I thought the Nationals would run away with things. I'm more dubious now.
NL Central favorites: Chicago Cubs (8-8)
The record might be a little fluky: They are 0-4 in games decided by one or two runs. The bad weather has also had an effect. But here's what you can say: The Cubs played languid baseball for the first half last year before kicking it into gear. And early signs are they doing it again.
The rotation has been … not good. was supposed to have a huge impact, but he has been getting knocked around. So has . The offense has somewhat bizarrely underachieved: The Cubs are second in the NL in OPS, but ninth in runs, which is strange. A .213 batting average and a .300 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position isn't helping.

Key player going forward: . He has been hurt and struggling, but he had three hits Thursday night against the Cardinals. When Rizzo hits, the Cubs score.
Chances of still winning the division: It's shaping up to be a good race, maybe the best in baseball. The Pirates seem to be coming back to earth after their hot start, but they have some young pitching. The Cardinals and Brewers are both quite good. The Cubs remain the most talented group, but they need to kick into gear; I don't think they can wait around until the All-Star Game like last year and still win this division.
NL West favorites: Dodgers (8-9)
What the heck has happened to ? No, seriously: What? Jansen's consistent dominance the past few years has been one of baseball's sure things. Yes, this is only a few innings, but that's the point: He never had bad stretches before, not even for a few innings. Then you see that Jansen's cutter velocity is down, his slider velocity is down, he has given up three home runs (he gave up only five all of last year) … it's troubling.

Then everything about the Dodgers' start has been troubling. is out with a left wrist injury. and have a combined for one home run. Chris Taylor has fallen back to earth after an amazing season. Rich Hill has struggled, and now he's out with a cracked fingernail. And Jansen. It's a problem. If the Dodgers had not gotten unexpectedly fantastic starts from veterans Matt Kemp and , there would be even more panic in Los Angeles.
Key player going forward: Seager. I mean, sure, it's easy to say Jansen, but that will work itself out one way or another. The Dodgers need for Seager to play like Seager again. He had a terrible September, a trying postseason, and now he's struggling to hit with authority.
Chances to still win the division: You would expect the Dodgers to right things -- Turner will be back soon, some of the early slumping players should turn things around, etc. But it should be said: The D-backs are off to a 13-5 start, and that team is for real. Early signs say: Look for this to be competitive all year long.