5/23/2014 10:30 A.M. ET
Bay Area teams setting pace at Memorial Day marker
Nearly two months in, A's, Giants have staying power; East divisions up for grabs
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
We've passed the first quarter of the season and are headed into Memorial Day weekend, which means it is getting late to call this stage of the season "early."
Here are 10 takeaways from 2014 to date.
1. Oakland is unstoppable
I'll admit that as much as I love the A's and their culture and their unique construction, I simply did not foresee this kind of start from them after losing Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin in Spring Training. They have a strong argument as the best team in baseball, supported by a plus-99 run differential that is at least double that of any other team in the bigs. The key question is whether they stay the course this summer or perhaps make a bold bid (as of now, shortstop prospect Addison Russell is deemed untouchable) for another starter to increase their chances of a World Series run.
2. AL East deep, but weak
For all their faults and frustrations, the Rays, whose rotation has been ravaged, and the Red Sox, who have shown the hangover effects typical of defending champs, are not counted out of the East. They enter the weekend six and five games back, respectively.
That's because the East has been only a shadow of its beastly reputation. The Blue Jays -- a team many saw as the division's weakest link -- are the only division member with a positive run differential. The Yankees have shown their age but remained coherent. The Orioles have had subpar starting pitching and seen both Chris Davis and Matt Wieters hit the DL but are right in the thick of things.
There is really no telling which of these clubs has the capability to go on a summer surge. For what it's worth, Baseball Prospectus' simulations currently favor the Blue Jays (32.9 percent chance of winning the division), with the Yankees (30.4) close behind.
3. Other East also up for grabs
The Braves were ravaged by rotation injuries in Spring Training, while the Nationals have seen Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche and Gio Gonzalez hit the DL in the past month. All these injuries have taken some air out of this expected dogfight, and the young Marlins have surprisingly snuck into the mix. The Phillies and Mets sit just five back of a first-place Braves team that has proven the quality of its depth.
We'd feel better about the Marlins' chances had Jose Fernandez not went down, but they still have a talented staff and are getting a monster year out of Giancarlo Stanton. The Nats are given BP's best chance of claiming the division, and that statistical stance is supported by the fact that they've hung tough at less than full strength.
4. Welcome back, Giants
Hey, we were just kidding when we said the Giants will thrive in 2014 simply because it's an even-numbered year. But they sure seem to take that stuff seriously.
Surprisingly, the Giants' success has been based more on power than pitching (and now Matt Cain is hurt), but the basic result holds: They have reclaimed their standing as the top team in the NL West, despite the threat of the perpetually hot-hitting Rockies and the sleeping giant that is the Dodgers. Bay Bridge World Series, anyone?
5. Replay a work in progress, but working
We knew going into the season that the application of the instant replay review system would come with quirks. Good on MLB for addressing the biggest and most frustrating of these -- the stricter interpretation of the transfer rule -- in a timely manner with a clarified definition.
By and large, replay has served its stated purpose of correcting the most egregiously incorrect calls. If anything, it has become more a part of baseball's daily rituals than imagined. Through Wednesday, we had already seen 336 replay reviews in 687 games, so basically one every other game. Of those reviews, 160 (or 47.6 percent) led to an overturned call. So umpires have been proven wrong once every 4.3 games or so. That's slightly more frequent than the preseason estimate of once every 6.5 games, but the sample is still on the small side.
6. Tigers still triumphant
They're having a miserable week, but the Tigers have nonetheless staked an early claim to what would be their fourth straight division crown. They've done it with Victor Martinez supporting Miguel Cabrera even better than Prince Fielder ever did. The Tigers might need a shortstop and bullpen help, but they're still a force.
As for the Central's other perceived contenders, it's the same old story for the Royals: They simply need to start hitting, because young guns Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy have allowed their rotation to remain steady, and their bullpen and defense are both strong. The Indians need Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher to come to life and need to stop giving away outs on the defensive end.
The Twins are winning in spite of their rotation, and Jose Abreu, before he got hurt, helped make the White Sox more fun to watch. But right now, the Tigers still sit in their familiar spot atop the Central.
7. Injury bug bites hard
Stop me if you've heard this before, but we've had an abnormal number of arm injuries in the early going. The Tommy John count (on Major League rosters), dating back to Spring Training, is 19. Per Baseballheatmaps.com, that's the same number we had all of last year. The guess is that the count will go up as the innings pile up. In 2012, there were 36 such surgeries, so what we're seeing here does not appear to be a one-time blip.
Speaking of injuries, in general, it's hard to remember a team beat up as bad as the Rangers. Now it's neck surgery for Fielder. Brutal.
8. The Cards have more company
To some, it's unexpected company, as the Brewers got off to a scorching start to jump out to an early advantage. May has been less kind to them, and some stat heads think their lack of walks is going to be an issue for the offense. But their pitching staff is strong, top to bottom, and their lineup's aggressive tendencies have worked. Will injuries to Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez hold them back?
Personally, I still think the Cardinals are the team to beat in the Central. Their results in the clutch have been drastically different than a year ago, and Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal have not been the forces of nature they were in their rookie campaign. But no club can counter the Cards' overall depth.
As for the Central's other postseason clubs from '13, the Reds have been ravaged by injuries in Bryan Price's rookie managerial campaign, and the Pirates' quiet winter appears to be coming back to bite them.
9. Turnaround teams
In all but one year under the Wild Card format, at least one playoff entrant had been a sub-.500 club the season before. Last year we had three of them -- the Indians, Pirates and the world champion Red Sox.
No surprise, then, that eight teams with losing records at the end of '13 are .500 or better so far: the Blue Jays, Twins, Angels, Mariners, Marlins, Brewers, Giants and Rockies.
As far as staying power, the Brewers and Giants seem to be decent bets. The Blue Jays, with an ample offense, are much more like the team we expected them to be in '13, but they need bullpen help. The Angels have made great strides in their rotation (thanks in large measure to Garrett Richards' emergence) and soon they'll get Josh Hamilton back. They're for real. The Rockies, Twins and Marlins might need rotation help. The Mariners might need to bring back Kendrys Morales with Corey Hart hurt.
10. Awards watch
Troy Tulowitzki (.378/.481/.736) is, hands down, your early NL MVP. The AL field is more complex. I'd say Jose Bautista (.297/.435/.552) so far, but Martinez (.327/.380/.606) and Brandon Moss (.291/.383/.576) have been offensive forces, and Josh Donaldson, much like Mike Trout, provides ample defensive value to go with his offense.
The continuing might of pitching (even amid the injuries) means there's a crowded early Cy Young field. In the NL, you can't go wrong with Adam Wainwright (7-2, 1.85 ERA) or Johnny Cueto (4-3, 1.86 ERA), but Jeff Samardzija (1.46 ERA) begs the question: Can a guy win the Cy Young without winning any games?
In the AL, I like either the ageless Mark Buehrle (8-1, 2.16 ERA) or Masahiro Tanaka (6-1, 2.39 ERA). Tanaka is also a Rookie of the Year candidate, though I'd personally give the nod right now to Abreu (15 homers, 42 RBI) in the AL and D-backs shortstop Chris Owings in the NL.
But hey, it's still (somewhat) early.