Biggest questions as season hits quarter mark

Every division has an unexpected storyline worth exploring

May 14th, 2018

The majority of MLB teams have reached the 40-game mark, which means the 2018 season is somehow already roughly 25-percent complete, which means our lives are inexorably speeding by at a rate we can't truly process or comprehend, and our youth is but a distant memory and ... wait, sorry, where was I going with this?

Ah, right, baseball's quarter mark is upon us. It hasn't taken long for some unforeseen storylines to develop across the big league landscape, so here's a look at a key question that has sprouted in each division.

AL East: Can the Blue Jays hang around the American League playoff picture?

Not that it was a foregone conclusion that the Yankees and Red Sox would hit the 40-game mark with the two best records in baseball, but we went into the season reasonably certain that rivalry was about to be ratcheted back up. And it's hard to be caught off guard by the sub-.500 starts of the Rays and Orioles, the latter of whom is going to be one of this summer's signature sellers.

The Blue Jays' relatively solid start (21-20) isn't some big shock, either, but Can(ada) it last? The supposed dual-ace setup in the rotation has resulted in a combined 5.49 ERA for and -- and now Stroman is on the shelf indefinitely with a recurrence of the shoulder issues that hampered his spring. The bullpen that has been a surprise strength is now without closer , who is on administrative leave after being arrested and charged with assault. The slow starts of Josh Donaldson, and others seems to have caught up with the offense at large, as the Blue Jays have averaged fewer than three runs per game while dropping seven of their last 10. If these trends continue, Donaldson is likely to join Manny Machado in the trade market.

AL Central: Will the Indians' bullpen make this a legit division race?

A Twins team viewed as the Tribe's only realistic threat in the Central got off to a 9-16 start. But hurt his hamstring on April 25 and missed 14 games, and, in that brief period, the Indians went from having the seventh-best relief ERA in baseball to the third-worst. Miller is back now, but enough relief warts were revealed during that horrendous stretch to create curiosity over whether -- or simply when -- the Indians will have to make significant upgrades externally to not only improve their odds of advancing to October, but to fend off a Twins club that's played much better ball of late.

One thing to keep in mind: The Indians have pushed their starting pitchers to 110 pitches or more 10 times already this season. No other team in baseball has done so more than five times. A lack of faith in the middle-inning options could wind up fatiguing a great rotation, so it's imperative the Indians find arms they can trust beyond Miller and closer .

AL West: Can keep this up?

If the Astros are going to greedily insist on maintaining the best rotation ERA in baseball by half a run, they're going to be hard to keep up with. But a healthy and more-than-living-up-to-expectations Ohtani, paired with a typically magnificent , at least gives the Angels a puncher's chance in the division race and a legitimate pulse in the playoff picture. The Halos have won 18 of the 26 games Ohtani has played in this season, losing eight of 14 without him. A simplistic split, especially at this still-early stage? Perhaps. But c'mon. Dude's got a 1.044 OPS at the plate and, if you take away one sideways start against the Red Sox when he had a blister issue, a 2.93 ERA on the hill. He's a difference-maker, plain and simple.

Now that Ohtani's answered the questions about whether his skills would translate to the states, the biggest remaining question is whether the unique dual nature of his role will wear him out. Ohtani so far has been athletic enough to make all our hand-wringing about the fatiguing nature of pitcher prep look silly, but, you know, he's 23 and it's a long season. If Ohtani can last, so, too, can the Angels.

NL East: Are the Braves and Phillies for real?

Injuries frayed the lineup of a conceivably great Nationals team ( and have a combined 29 at-bats, and it's unclear when, exactly, either guy will be back) and helped create a condition in which other upstart clubs could threaten Washington's ownership of the East. First, there was the hot start of the Mets, who have, unfortunately, become a bit Metsy in recent weeks. Lately, though, it's these young and frisky Braves and Phillies squads that have looked as though they might create a more dynamic division race than advertised.

The Phillies have the youngest roster (average age: 26.5) in baseball, and the Braves are powered in part by the game's three youngest players (, and ). To repeat what we said above about Ohtani, where there's youth, there's inevitable uncertainty with regard to second-half staying power. Plus, water seems to be finding its level where the Nats are concerned -- at least if a winning weekend against a good D-backs club is any indication. But it's not like the Braves and Phils are totally reliant on prepubescent players, what with Freddie Freeman and mashing in that deep Atlanta lineup and looking reborn in Philly. So, this could be fun.

NL Central: Have the Pirates created a four-team race?

The Cubs' plus-54 run differential fits with the narrative of their best-on-paper presence in the Central, but their offensive inconsistency, in particular, has them butting heads with the Brewers and Cardinals clubs that we knew had the potential to keep the Cubbies honest.

The shock in the Central is the presence of the Pirates in the early division race, because usually teams that trade away their signature star () and their young ace () don't, you know, improve. But the Pirates, who had a winning record on just two of the 182 days of the 2017 season, have not spent a single day below .500 so far this season. Most notably, they're 10-3 against the NL Central. And it's not just beating up on the lowly Reds … they're a combined 7-1 against the Cubs, Cards and Brew Crew. Their power production has improved drastically, despite fielding six of last year's eight regulars. Beginning May 25, the Pirates will play 29 of 32 games against the Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, Dodgers, D-backs and Mets. If they survive that, they're legit.

NL West: Whither the Dodgers?

Simply put: If the Dodgers' early issues -- and there are too many of them to even delve deeply into here -- are too much to overcome, that changes everything, not only in the NL West that they've dominated the last five years, but in the National League, in general.

The Dodgers, at 16-24, are off to their worst 40-game start since their inaugural season in Los Angeles in 1958 (15-25). They just lost series against the Marlins, Padres and Reds, and are just 10-15 against sub-.500 teams. is hurt (and there were some shaky peripherals behind his 2.86 ERA), Corey Seager is done for the season, the bullpen's gone backward, and the lineup doesn't slug. World Series hangover? Evidently it can apply to the loser as much -- if not more than -- the winner. The good news is that is coming back, and the 2013 team was eight games under .500 as late as June 26 before rallying to the division title. So don't bury the Dodgers, yet. But this division's a lot more dynamic than it was in 2013, and, as of this moment, FanGraphs is giving the Dodgers just a 43 percent chance of making the playoffs -- a remarkable 51 percent drop from the start of the season.