10 takeaways at quarter mark of 2016 MLB season

Courtesy of Kamil Krzaczynski, USA Today Sports

There’s still a lot of baseball left to be played in 2016. But considering the Major League Baseball season is a quarter complete now, we’re at a point where we can’t completely dismiss what’s happened. It’s a small sample size, but not that small.

It’s certainly too early to crown anyone. While we can bury a few teams, most still have at least some semblance of hope.

Still, we’ve played a significant portion of the 2016 MLB season, meaning that we can generate some legitimate takeaways.

What are the top-10 takeaways at the quarter mark of the 2016 MLB season?

1. The Chicago Cubs are really good

Given what happened last season, there’s nothing really surprising about the Cubs being MLB’s best team a quarter of the way through the 2016 campaign. What is a little surprising is just how they are doing it.

Chicago simply isn’t striking out at the plate, something it did more than any other team in the league in 2015. As good as the team was, it’s hard to win in the playoffs when you strike out a lot.

The best proof of that is our last 10 World Series champions. Eight of those 10 teams were among the best in the game at making contact.

Chicago has struck out the sixth-fewest times of any team in baseball. It’s not a coincidence that it boasts the best record in the game.

In the regular season, teams use five-man starting rotations because the schedule calls for them to play every day. This means that they are forced to used their bottom-rung bullpen arms.

In the playoffs, off days allow teams to throw four-man starting rotations together. They also get to rely heavily on their top-end relief pitchers.

To beat good pitchers, you have to be able to put the ball in play. That’s what the last 10 World Series champions have done so well.

So far, the Cubs have done just this. They already had a team with many of the other necessary ingredients to win in October, they now have another key thing in their favor. If you’re a fan of this Chicago squad, it’s a very good sign.

2. The Chicago White Sox are really good

Chicago’s American League team being this good is a little more surprising. And much like the Cubs, it’s interesting how they are winning.

We knew that the White Sox could hit, but their offense has been far from overwhelming. They’re 13th in runs scored, tied for 22nd in home runs, 13th in batting average, 10th in OBP, 19th in slugging and 16th in OPS. If we’re really generous, we can call that an average offense.

What Chicago does have is MLB’s fourth-best overall ERA and ninth-best WHIP. What makes this even better is the fact that those rankings are not simply because Chris Sale is pitching out of his mind. While Chicago’s ace has been stellar, the team’s bullpen boasts the fifth-best ERA and seventh-best WHIP in the Majors.

Chicago already leads the American League Central and has one of the best records on the Junior Circuit. When its offense really starts to click, things will get even better.

It’s a good time to be a baseball fan in the windy city.

3. Young teams can’t always be depended on

Carlos Gomez

The Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros headed into 2016 as likely contenders. Both had winning seasons in 2015 with the Astros making the playoffs. Given the young core’s boasted by each team, 2016 seemed like a pretty good year to step forward as elite squads in the American League.

That has not happened. Each team sits in last place of their respective division. The Twins are tied with the hapless Atlanta Braves (hold that thought) for the worst record in all of baseball.

In terms of the average age of their 25-man rosters, these are two of the six youngest teams in baseball. We shouldn’t be surprised they are struggling.

Talented young players tend to take the league by storm early on. Eventually, the league adjusts, which is the period we’re in now. If these players really are good, they’ll adjust back.

We should start to see more of this happening in the coming weeks and certainly into the second half.

If it happens for the Astros, they can still contend. The American League West is very cluttered. Houston is in last place, but it’s only six back of the first-place Seattle Mariners. The Twins may not be as fortunate, as they’re 13.5 out of first.

For now, just remember that teams relying a lot on young players will deal with some inconsistencies. Fans in Houston and Minnesota are finding that out the hard way.

4. The Atlanta Braves are a mess

The Braves aren’t just a mess because of their record. They’re not just a mess because the season isn’t even two months old and Fredi Gonzalez has already been fired as the manager. Actually, both of those were pretty expected.

But the way that Gonzalez was fired (via David O’Brien, Atlanta Journal Constitution) speaks to the disarray that this team is in.

Per David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution: 

“An hour or so after the Braves’ 8-5 series-opening loss to the Pirates, a person familiar with the situation said Gonzalez received an email notifying him of his scheduled flight to Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon.

The Braves had made the decision to fire him and booked his commercial flight home Tuesday, but didn’t plan to tell him he’d been fired until Tuesday morning, after president of baseball operations John Hart flew to Pittsburgh to join general manager John Coppolella.”

Courtesy of USA Today ImagesAdditionally, if they wanted to fire Gonzalez, they should have done so after 2015. The team was 67-95, so it would have been easily justifiable.

Instead, they traded players like Shelby Miller and Andrelton Simmons. These were two of only a few good players on an already bad team.

So the idea of firing the manager when the team turned out to be as bad as it was expected to be made little sense.

Bad talent is one thing but a bad front office is really hard to overcome.

5. The National League East will be a fun follow

The Braves record might get even worse as the season progresses as the unbalanced schedule gives them more games against the Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, and Miami Marlins.

No other division in baseball has four 20-win teams. Heck, not other division has four teams with winning records. The primary reason for this is just how well the National League East contenders have played outside of the division.

As you can see, these teams aren’t just beating up on Atlanta. Through the first quarter of the season, this division has been a forced to be reckoned with throughout the entire league.

6. The Diamondbacks would probably like a mulligan

Given that it sits at 19-24, Arizona would probably not say no to a redo of the first quarter of the season.

But in that regard, the D’backs could be worse. If they shared a division with a team like the Cubs, they’d be staring at a long summer. But as neither the San Francisco Giants or Los Angeles Dodgers have been especially great, Arizona is sitting only 5.5 games out of the top spot.

What they might really like a mulligan on are the two biggest moves made during the offseason — the signing of Zack Greinke and trade for Shelby Miller.

Miller is particularly problematic. Ugly stats at this time of the year aren’t that rare for a pitcher, but he’s showing little progress. There’s a lot of baseball left to be played, but it’s already way too late in the year to have a 27-to-25 strikeout to walk ratio.

For a No. 2 pitcher on a team that’s built to contend, that’s not good enough.

7. PED issue not going away

It’s not even June yet and seven players have already been suspended for the use of performance enhancing drugs.

We won’t be seeing Mets reliever Jenrry Mejía in the Majors again, as he tested positive in February for the third time in a year. Three positive tests in any time span is a lifetime ban, so good riddance.

From Abraham Almonte of the Cleveland Indians to Raul A. Mondesi of the Kansas City Royals, the PED issue has really started to impact young players. It’s really been a black eye for the future of the game.

So is the process itself working?

An 80-game suspension is nothing to sneeze at. That’s half of a season, and obviously, half of a season’s pay. That’s a stiffer punishment than the NFL has. We certainly can’t say that there is no deterrent.

The problem is that despite the suspensions, the players are obviously still trying to game the system. The season is roughly one-quarter done. Seven players getting busted already is not an insignificant amount.

8. Does David Ortiz really want to retire?

We’ve known for some time that Big Papi has a flare for the dramatic. That has not changed.

But Ortiz has been a pure terror on pitchers at all times this year. He’s hitting .312 with a .391 on-base percentage and a .652 OPS. More than this, the future Hall of Fame designated hitter has nailed 10 homers and driven in 34 runs thus far. These are absurd numbers.

So does Ortiz still want to retire? The answer at this question has to be a yes, but who knows what might happen should he sustain this pace?

Ortiz has been a big part of a great Red Sox season. Boston sits in second place in the AL East behind the Baltimore Orioles, but boasts the second-best record in the Junior Circuit. They are also second to only the Cubs in run differential.

All of that points to even more Big Papi. Boston’s last regular season game is on Sunday, Oct. 2 against the Toronto Blue Jays. At this rate, though, it will have more meaningful games to play after that.

9. The Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers don’t like each other

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMH-MUsUVSI

We can’t look back at the first quarter of the season without spending a little bit of time on its most famous (or infamous) moment.

It’s not terribly rare to see the benches clear in a baseball game. It seems to happen in several Madison Bumgarner starts every year. A genuine fight, however, is pretty rare. And we got a good one between the Rangers and Blue Jays.

The rivalry might be on hiatus for now with the teams not set to meet for the remainder of the year, but what kind of backlash might each side face when they do meet?

Former players have weighed in on baseball’s biggest controversy of the young season. The recently retired Torii Hunter seemed to side against Rougned Odor while Chipper Jones strongly implied that Jose Bautista is not well liked.

Will fallout from this brawl go beyond these two teams? Doubtful, but it’s certainly possible.

At the very least, let’s not forget about this one if both teams are alive when the playoffs come around. If not, this is something to keep on the back burner for the 2017 season.

10. Championship hangover in Kansas City?

We close with the defending champs. Unfortunately, through 40 games of their season, the Royals don’t really resemble the defending champs or a team that’s been to the World Series two years in a row.

A natural question, of course, is how does this team stack up compared to what the last two Kansas City teams were at this point of the season?

They’re obviously well behind last year’s pace. The numbers look a lot closer to 2014, but that run differential is troubling. Kansas City is just not looking very good.

It could just be a matter of a sample size that’s still relatively small. Plenty of teams have had iffy 40-game starts and gone onto have great seasons.

But the Royals have played a lot of baseball over the last two years. Remember, even the Giants, who have won three World Series since 2010, have failed to make consecutive playoff appearances in their run.

That coupled with the struggles of the Royals make things like the continued excellence of the St. Louis Cardinals look even more impressive.

It’s hard to be good year in and year out without an off season or two mixed in. The Royals may have just had a mediocre 40-game stretch. But it’s also possible that they may just be worn down from a fantastic two-year run.