Nothing but winners, not mediocrity, in East
Surprise clubs join perennial contenders to make for elite divisions
There is nothing like the race in the National League East, unless, of course, it is the race in the American League East.
Two months into the 2012 season, competitive balance has reached new heights in these Eastern neighborhoods. In the NL East, at the close of business on Draft night, five teams were separated by four games. No team was playing under .500.
That might be unparalleled success for parity, but for the example being set in the AL East. There, five teams were separated by three games. Every team was playing above .500. How did this happen?
There could have been four-way races predicted in both divisions before the season. The pleasant surprises are the Orioles and the Mets, who were previously thought to be likely occupants not of a contending position, but of fifth place. They have, instead, been two of the best teams in either league over the first third of the season.
Can they last, especially in this kind of tough company? Their offenses are sound, the Mets ranking ninth in the Majors in runs scored, the Orioles 10th. The Orioles' pitching, 11th in the Majors in team ERA, has held up well. The Mets' ranking in this category, 23rd in the Majors, might be more of a cause for concern. But they've had the magic so far, as the world saw in the franchise's first no-hitter, spun by the ever-worthy Johan Santana. Maybe the no-hitter will also serve as an occasion for more demands for widened instant replay, but it's still going in the books, as Mets No. 1.
Elsewhere in these two divisions, the competition figured to be close, although maybe not quite this congested. The AL East has been regarded as the best of the best, particularly since the Yankees and the Red Sox were joined at the top by the Rays. With the Rays reaching the postseason three times in the past four seasons, the verb there is looking more like displaced rather than joined in the case of the Red Sox.
The Blue Jays are highly regarded for the job they are doing in establishing an impressive base of talent. It just didn't seem that there was much room for upward mobility in this crowd. And that was before the Orioles joined the fun. This was baseball's most difficult division prior to 2012 and room at the top just became even more difficult to find.
For the purposes of competitive balance, though, the AL East is currently rivaled by its NL counterpart. Again, there was reason to believe coming into this season that there could be as many as four clubs in the race.
In the NL East, the Phillies have been the sturdiest divisional factor in recent baseball history, with five division titles in a row. Their current standing, fifth place, last place, may be explained by a spate of injuries and may also be temporary. But they'll have more company/competition than ever this season.
The Braves would have been the NL Wild Card last season were it not for a September swoon. The depth of their pitching and some offensive improvements could be enough to keep them afloat for six months this season, rather than five. The new Miami Marlins made obvious roster improvements in the offseason is all facets of the game. After a slow start they have moved into contention and there is no hint that they'll be dropping out of the picture.
The Nationals were known to have improved, as well, but the level of that improvement may not have been fully appreciated. But people are getting the picture now. The Nationals have had more than their share of injuries, but their top-shelf pitching has not allowed them to slip in the standings.
"They have five guys that have established themselves as the best starting staff in the game," Atlanta's Chipper Jones said of the Nationals. "They have the best starting five in the game -- no doubt.
"Their bullpen is nothing to sneeze at. They have some good quality lefty/righty arms. The reason they have been able to sustain their level of play through all their injuries to their everyday players is the fact their pitchers keep them in the game, night in and night out. That's the right formula."
The numbers bear out Chipper's analysis. The Nationals are 26th in runs scored, but first in team ERA.
And so, these two divisions are parity's showcases. This is not a triumph of collective mediocrity. The two teams that emerge as winners of these divisions -- and any other from these divisions that survives as a Wild card entry -- is going to have to be exceptionally good.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.