Tigers, A's likely to keep their division leads
Memorial Day has come and gone but the significance of Monday's standings remain. The teams that lead their division on the spring holiday have announced their presence, if not assured themselves of anything.
Since 1995, 64 of the 121 teams that held at least a share of first place on Memorial Day have gone on to win their divisions. That's a little better than 50 percent, which suggests that -- Wild Cards included -- four of the six Memorial Day leaders are likely to play on into October, with a chance to win the World Series.
Here's how I rank the survival chances for the six leaders:
They're not the best team in the majors. You'd have to look to the Bay Area to find the two teams currently in that discussion. But even though Detroit has lost eight of its last 10 games, including the nightmare finish in Oakland on Wednesday night, there's no reason to think it will lose its hold on the AL Central.
The Tigers have a real shot to go wire-to-wire this season, as none of their division opponents seem strong enough to deny them a fourth straight division title. Justin Verlander (5-4, 4.04) hasn't been as good as the can be but Rick Porcello has offset his slow start. Ian Kinsler is getting on base in front of Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera. And did you notice Cabrera's totals in May? He's got a slash line of .367/.409/.663 -- and Martinez has been even better (.376/.442/.703).
The White Sox, Royals and Indians feel like they should take a run at the Tigers but it's hard to imagine a lot of concern in the Tigers' clubhouse. Until further notice, they remain Major League Baseball's answer to the Miami Heat. They'll be judged in the playoffs, not the regular season.
Here's the best team going, and there shouldn't even be an argument. Oakland won 94 games in 2012, 96 in '13 and is on track to win 98 in '14. Billy Beane and Bob Melvin have put together a powerhouse with as much balance on the roster as swagger in the clubhouse. The signing of Yoenis Cespedes started the ball rolling but the development of Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss have been just as important, maybe more.
It's stunning that they're as strong as they are without Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, who were keys to the teams that won the West the last two years. Jesse Chavez, Scott Kazmir and Drew Pomeranz have contributed to the AL-best 2.83 ERA by the rotation, providing so much depth than Dan Straily can remain in the wings at Triple-A.
The Angels are capable of taking a run at the West but need to improve their rotation. The Rangers shouldn't ever be discounted but they've been decimated by injuries, with Prince Fielder unlikely to return.
A lot of people think the 2014 Giants are better than the teams that Bruce Bochy guided to championships in 2012 and '10, and there's little question they are better built for the regular season. Like the team across the bay, the one in San Francisco is balanced. It doesn't have a weakness.
The Giants are fourth in the NL in scoring and second in fewest runs allowed. Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval might be the biggest names in the lineup but the entire outfield -- Michael Morse, Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence -- is contributing more, as measured by WAR. Tim Hudson and Morse look like two of the best off-season acquisitions, and Ryan Vogelsong is starting to look like he did two years ago. The Dodgers are a scary bunch, with the best rotation in baseball, so this could be a great race.
4. Blue Jays
They didn't take over first place exclusively until May 22, when they broke the tie they had with the Yankees. They've used a thunderous lineup built around Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera and newcomer Juan Francisco to win nine in a row, including a sweep of the A's.
Mark Buehrle is setting the tone for the pitching staff, which has been better since J.A. Happ came off the disabled list. Drew Hutchison has won his last three starts.
The Orioles and Yankees are best positioned to overtake Toronto but you're being naive if you write off Tampa Bay or Boston. Joe Maddon and John Farrell provide the strength to ride out tough times. The Rays seem poised to improve as they haven't gotten nearly what you'd expect from Evan Longoria and Wil Myers so far.
They might not even hang onto their lead through the night, as the Marlins have made up 2 1/2 games since last Friday, closing within one-half game. The Nationals continue to lurk, under .500 for now but with terrific upward mobility.
While the Braves have been gutted by pitching injuries, their bigger question is whether the lineup is long enough to consistently produce runs for the next 110 games. Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman and Evan Gattis need some help. At least Craig Kimbrel will be rested. He's had only six save opportunities in May.
When you have Yovani Gallardo (pitcher or pinch hitter), you have a chance. Milwaukee has been one of baseball's best stories but won only four of its last 12 games, allowing the Cardinals to smell first place. That's a dangerous thing to do.
Kyle Lohse and the bullpen have been huge for Ron Roenicke, helped along by an improved defense that no longer has a void at first base. But the key for long-term viability is whether Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun, Khris Davis and Jonathan Lucroy keep banging the ball. That was the key to the 19-5 stretch in April that put Milwaukee in first place. It has gone 11-16 since that run ended.