Memorial Day milepost: Re-ranking 6 races

May 27th, 2021

The arrival of Memorial Day weekend means we are officially allowed to look at the standings ... although I get the sense some of you have peeked at them prematurely.

History tells us that there is a decent correlation between a team’s Memorial Day winning percentage and its final winning percentage. Then again, history also tells us that the 2019 Nationals were 22-32 at the conclusion of play on Memorial Day, so ... don’t go printing those playoff brackets just yet.

Now that it’s (somewhat) safe to seek out the standings, let’s revisit our rankings of the six division races to see what has changed from our original rankings from late January. Once again, they are ranked from most to least compelling.

1) National League West
January ranking: 3

Back in January, I put this third on the list, because the Dodgers-Padres dynamic, while promising, had not yet proved to be a real race and the rest of the division looked weak. The Dodgers beat the Padres by six games in the shortened 2020 season and, despite San Diego’s obvious offseason improvement, were still projected by FanGraphs and PECOTA to be the superior club by a similar margin.

What has changed? Well, for one, the Giants, behind a rejuvenated Buster Posey and an underrated starting staff, jumped out to an unexpected 28-16 start. It was built against what rated as the easiest schedule in MLB and was followed by a sweep at the hands of the Dodgers last weekend. So their staying power is questionable. But at least they have made this look like more than a two-team race for now.

Secondly -- and more importantly -- the Padres have overcome an array of injury and COVID-19 issues to very much assert themselves as a superpower capable of taking down the Dodgers. The two series these clubs staged in April were up there with the most compelling early season games any of us have witnessed. They had everything -- game-changing defensive gems, clutch homers, colossal comebacks, Fernando Tatis Jr. trolling Trevor Bauer, David Price hitting a sacrifice fly to fellow pitcher Joe Musgrove, and, naturally, some benches-clearing drama.

We’ve still got 12 more meetings between the Padres and Dodgers, including the final series of the season. These are two of only three teams in MLB that FanGraphs currently gives a double-digit percent chance of winning the World Series (the Yankees are the third), and only one of them will avoid the potentially one-and-done Wild Card Game. They’ll want to avoid it even more if the Giants are somehow the team waiting in that round.

2) American League East
January ranking: 2

Boston’s better-than-expected rotation, J.D. Martinez’s return to prominence and Alex Cora’s apparent magic touch have vaulted the Red Sox back into contention. And now that the Yankees have turned things around after a sluggish (and slug-less) 9-13 start, that age-old rivalry is resuscitated.

But unlike that rivalry’s mid-2000s apex, the East has layers of relevance beyond Boston and the Bronx. It has the defending AL champions in the Rays, who, with a recent 11-game winning streak, have proved -- once again – that they are to be judged not by their constant roster churn but by the consistency of their clout. It also has the Blue Jays, who, despite a slow start, have a ton of talent on their roster (especially when/if George Springer is finally ready to contribute on the regular) and 19 games against the last-place Orioles on their remaining schedule.

So this could get really good. The only thing holding the East back from the top spot on this list is this writer’s belief that the Yankees remain a clear favorite to rise above the rest. This is backed by those aforementioned FanGraphs odds, which as of this writing project the Yanks to edge both the Red Sox and the Rays by five games.

3) National League East
January ranking: 1

Um, what happened here? And what are we to make of it? Is the NL East still, as stated here in January, baseball’s most compelling division because every team is very much in it? Or is it baseball’s least compelling race because every team is, um, not especially great so far?

Let’s just split the difference and put the NL East in the middle (upper-middle, but still middle). This division is a mess. Maybe a beautiful mess, depending on how you look at it. But a mess, all the same.

The Mets have not only gotten bupkis from big-ticket acquisition Francisco Lindor but are down to their backup backups, with darn near half the 40-man roster on the injured list. The Braves lost ace Mike Soroka to continued Achilles troubles, then lost unexpected replacement ace Huascar Ynoa to a broken hand when he punched a bench in frustration. The Phillies’ offense has underperformed, and their defense is abominable. The Nationals had major COVID and injury complications at the start of the year and have struggled to attain real traction. All things considered, the Marlins, while not the best team of the bunch, have probably had the most stable roster.

I double-checked and have been assured at least one of these five teams is going to make the playoffs, which is interesting.

4) American League West
January ranking: 5

This was supposed to be the Angels’ moment to take advantage of some roster changes in Oakland and Houston and finally get Mike Trout back to the top of the division standings for the first time since 2014. Instead, Trout is hurt, and the Angels are doing what they do best -- i.e. fielding one of the worst-performing pitching staffs in baseball.

With the Mariners and Rangers still in transition mode, that leaves the A’s and Astros once again vying to be best in the West.

Much like the Rays, the A’s are never to be taken lightly no matter who leaves (or perhaps even if the team itself leaves). Really, the A's make no sense. They rebuilt their bullpen around the acquisition of veterans Trevor Rosenthal and Sergio Romo, only to see Rosenthal get hurt and Romo post an ERA north of 7. They brought in Elvis Andrus to replace Marcus Semien, and he’s posted a .440 OPS. Their supposedly burgeoning rotation has just two guys (Chris Bassitt and Cole Irvin) with an ERA+ even slightly better than league average. And their best player, Matt Chapman, has an OPS south of .700. So of course they’ve been in first place almost every day since mid-April. Go figure.

Then you have the Astros, who can basically out-hit any and all warts. Now that their starting pitching is getting healthier with the impending returns of Framber Valdez and Jake Odorizzi, they might be the division favorites from this point. But you’d be hard-pressed to call this an especially dynamic division.

5) National League Central
January ranking: 6

Yes, you’ve got several clubs bunched close together here, but as of now none looks like a viable threat to go all the way. The Cardinals have gotten good returns from Nolan Arenado, and with Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina doing their best Phil Mickelson impersonations in fending off Father Time, they’re off to a winning start. But their bullpen is a walk dispensary, and their depth is questionable.

So the Cubs, with Kris Bryant playing like an MVP again, are very much still in it. But after the Yu Darvish trade last winter, everyone in the industry is waiting to see how they handle the Trade Deadline and their impending free agents, Bryant included.

The Brewers have two early Cy Young candidates in Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes and another fantastic starter in Freddy Peralta, but the offense has really labored, in part because Christian Yelich missed much of April with back woes. Then you have the talented but snake-bitten Reds, who have had to navigate the puzzling putridity of Eugenio Suárez and Luis Castillo, two of their central figures.

Again, any of those four teams could win the Central, but none is bowling us over just yet.

6) American League Central
January ranking: 4

Simply put, this is the White Sox division to lose. That’s somewhat incredible considering they have lost two of their best hitters in Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert to months-long injuries and Tony La Russa can’t seem to get out of his own way. But the South Siders have a supremely talented roster and are now the overwhelming favorites to seize the Central title. FanGraphs puts their odds of that division title at 71.8% as of this writing -- the highest division odds of any team in baseball by far.

This is because the Twins have been, just, really, shockingly bad. A lot of that is related to injuries, but a disastrous bullpen hasn’t helped, either. Perhaps there’s a Minnesota Miracle in the offing, but, until or unless that happens, a good deal of air has been taken out of the Central balloon. The saving graces are the Royals’ awesome April and a plucky Cleveland team that keeps winning behind good pitching. But the Royals faded in May and the Tribe just lost Franmil Reyes and Zach Plesac to injury (the latter fractured his thumb while “aggressively ripping off his shirt,” which has happened to all of us at one point or another).

So, we repeat: It’s the White Sox division to lose.