What do we know as Memorial Day nears?
Aside from Rangers, contenders all have question marks
We know, barring plague or pestilence, that the Texas Rangers are going to play in the postseason.
Many have written the assumption that the Orioles' first-place standing at the season's one-quarter mark will never hold, and it may well be correct to assume that the Twins, Royals, Padres and Rockies are already in too deep -- the fact that the Padres have already used 41 players, including the five Minor League free-agent pitchers currently on their pitching staff, makes their active roster worth less than $30 million.
But otherwise, what do we know? The lead story in last Sunday's Boston Globe was about the embarrassment of the "last-place Red Sox," the morning after they won a gut-wrenching game in Philadelphia against the similarly last-place Phillies.
When the Red Sox finished a three-city road trip (and 20 games in 20 days), Boston was a game in the loss column behind that day's final Wild Card team, the Toronto Blue Jays. The Red Sox had nearly $70 million invested in players who were on the disabled list, which they've used 15 times, while the American League East-leading Orioles and Rays had 10 players on the DL.
"Most of us have no idea what we're going to look like until the middle of July," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "I know we don't."
"Other than the Rangers, who does know what they have or what they're eventually going to need?" asked Indians general manager Chris Antonetti.
"I don't ever remember a season in which so little was clear a quarter of the way into the season," said the Reds' esteemed veteran GM, Walt Jocketty."
It is a very good year to have the postseason expanded, since nearly halfway to the Trade Deadline, at least two-thirds of the teams in the two leagues can justifiably argue that the final playoff position could be visible on the horizon on Labor Day, which could mean that only 7-10 teams will be able to justify to their fans selling at the Deadline.
"Those who are sellers will likely be able to extract more than usual, because there will be less on the market and more teams trying to improve," said one National League general manager. "This year, we've seen the importance of keeping players healthy. Look, the Rangers are really good, but when Neftali Feliz hurt his elbow this week, the Rangers had only had to use 25 players and had never had to use the disabled list."
Several general managers believe that health, Triple-A depth, deep pockets and returning players may determine more in the final two weeks than the usual Deadline acquisitions.
Much was made of the Indians' collapse last season after their strong start, but whether one prefers Wins Above Replacement, Value Above Replacement Player or whatever, the fact is that the team Cleveland put on the field the last 3 1/2 months was worth several fewer wins than the lineup that, when healthy, was leading the AL Central.
Do we yet have any real sense of what the Yankees and Red Sox are, as they hover around the .500 mark? Are the Yankees aging, or are they simply in a team funk? Will they get David Robertson back healthy, and what will Andy Pettitte turn out to be?
Now that Alfredo Aceves is up to fourth in the league in saves (with three four-plus-out saves, thrice the number of the runner up), how does anyone know what the Red Sox will be come midseason -- when they have Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford and Ryan Kalish healthy, rather than the Che-Hsuan Lin/Marlon Byrd/Daniel Nava outfield they ran out this week? And what will they be if Clay Buchholz figures it out?
We may know that the Blue Jays will always be good and competitive, but what if they get the left-handed bats of Colby Rasmus and Adam Lind going, and Sergio Santos is healthy and closing?
As for the Orioles, Showalter went to see Brian Roberts play in a rehab game Wednesday night. What if Brian Matusz is close to what he was on Tuesday and Zach Britton comes back?
So what happens in the AL Central if the Indians, already third in the league in quality starts, get more consistency out of Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, and Grady Sizemore contributes?
Chris Perez has become an elite closer, perhaps better than what the Tigers have closing, and asking Masterson and Jimenez for consistency may not be asking for more than what the Tigers are asking of Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer. Porcello's stuff Tuesday was several ticks up from last season, and Scherzer is coming off a 15 swing-and-miss strikeout performance, so there is hope. By the way, the White Sox were the only team in the Central to begin the day with a positive run differential and have the pitching -- watch Addison Reed -- to hang.
Oh, yes. There is no way Albert Pujols won't hit -- short of a serious injury -- and that the Angels won't get hot. How hot will depend on defining the bullpen, getting Dan Haren rolling, getting Torii Hunter back and keeping Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo in the lineup every day.
It's the same with the NL. We won't know who and what the Phillies are until they get Chase Utley and Ryan Howard back, and Jimmy Rollins jumps back to being a lot more than a .295 on-base percentage guy.
Not only did the Marlins win 16 of their first 21 games in May, as Giancarlo Stanton's knee started getting healthy, but one now wonders what they will be if Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Hanley Ramirez, Logan Morrison, Gaby Sanchez and Chris Coghlan all play as they can.
The Braves' Brian McCann and Jason Heyward are capable of monster finishes. What are the Nationals if they have Ryan Zimmerman healthy, get Jayson Werth back in August and both Drew Storen and Brad Lidge are healthy for three months? And with the way Terry Collins has molded the Mets, what happens if Johan Santana has a 15-start run and Jason Bay and Ike Davis hit for three months? The Mets are better than anyone thought in March and are capable of getting better.
We've seen the Reds start to move, with Homer Bailey and Mike Leake getting going. They have to see if Todd Frazier can hit and play third base, or whether future Hall of Famer Scott Rolen can play again. But if Nick Masset and Bill Bray return to what could be a tremendous bullpen, then manager Dusty Baker can decide whether or not Aroldis Chapman can close the entire season, or whether they want to put him in the rotation the final six weeks.
Can the Dodgers continue at this rate without an acquisition or two? Arizona may have been 11 1/2 games out on the morning of May 23, but where will the D-backs be if they get Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson on a roll, with Wade Miley and Joe Saunders, and Justin Upton puts up a four-month Most Valuable Player surge?
Honestly, we know very little right now.
"The Rangers are the best team in baseball, we know that," said a GM. "They're in. If the Giants and Rockies keep struggling, the Dodgers are probably in. I think everyone in the game believes the Rays will get into the postseason because of their pitching and the culture Joe Maddon has built. But I will make the argument that if Ellsbury, Crawford, [Kevin] Youkilis and Buchholz come back, that the Red Sox could be the second-best team in the American League. Or that the Nationals, Reds or Marlins could go into September the three best teams in the National League."
This is more like a "Perry Mason" rerun. We don't need to know whodunit -- or will do it -- before Memorial Day.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.