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What the chaotic, upside-down start to MLB season means for the way it will finish

MLB

Just past the quarter mark of the MLB season, the three defending division champs in the American League — all considered favorites entering the season — have spent a combined total of two days in sole possession of first place and none since April 10.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, on the other hand, spent 18 days in first place and entering Thursday had a better record than half of the teams that made the playoffs last year.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals are in second-to-last place, despite a resurgence over the past week (that’s how bad their first month was), and both teams that played in the National League Championship Series have losing records — as do the two teams with the highest payrolls in MLB (the San Diego Padres make the loser list on both counts).

What does it all mean at this mile post that marks the first decent sample size to evaluate?

For one, it looks like the more balanced schedule — every team plays all 29 others for the first time in history — is showing us a couple things we thought we already knew: The AL East is really, really good; and both MLB Central divisions have a lot of holes/mediocrity.

As for the rest of it, we have all the answers of what to expect the next 4 1/2 months based on the first 1 1/2 months, breaking down what we’ve seen into three categories:

MLB contenders who tried to fool us

los angeles dodgers

Los Angeles Dodgers: They had a losing record later into the season on April 21, fergawdsake! That’s the first time they’ve had a losing record after April 10 in five years! Then they finished off a three games to one series win over the Cubs in Chicago launching them on an 18-6 run through Thursday that put them back on top of the NL West and that included series sweeps along the way of both NLCS teams from last fall — the Padres and Philadelphia Phillies. And, oh, by the way, after losing $300 million free agent shortstops each of the last two years, they got a little seven-game boost at the position from another $300 million superstar: Mookie “I love the infield” Betts, who also has 10 games at second to go with his usual right field duties.

New York Yankees: Nobody has had more superstars and sheer payroll spend time on the injured list this year, and that includes offseason prize Carlos Rodón, the $162 million left-hander who has yet to throw a pitch this year because of a pair of injuries. Maybe July? Meanwhile, after spending the first 12 days of May in last place, they went on a 7-2 surge (until the Blue Jays walked off in the 10th Wednesday night after a nine-inning pitcher’s duel). Make no mistake: Whatever the standings — or the IL — might look like on Memorial Day, these are still the New York freaking Yankees. As GM Brian Cashman said last week, “Don’t count us out.”

St. Louis Cardinals: The team with the second-worst record in the National League? But Nolan Arenado’s bat is starting to show signs of life, and the brain trust survived what could have been a disastrous scapegoating of their $87.5 million catcher — mostly because of how well Willson Contreras handled the slapstick-looking optics of the team brass moving him off his catching position (for what turned out to be eight days). All of a sudden, they’ve won nine of 11, including a road sweep of the Boston Red Sox and a series win over the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers. They’re still in last place in the NL Central, but only six games separated the top team from the bottom team. You don’t have to be Secretariat to come from behind in this division of nags.

MLB pretenders who can’t fool us

MLB

Pittsburgh Pirates: With all due respect to emerging ace Mitch Keller, who’s next in line for a long-term extension offer, this talented group of upstarts isn’t ready for prime time just yet, especially with a lineup that can’t hang with the big boys in the league. It was a hell of a run while it lasted, the Pirates reaching 20 wins before anyone else in the NL. Maybe next year.

Chicago Cubs: Apparently, $300 million doesn’t buy what it used to. That’s what the Cubs spent in the offseason to essentially assemble a representative roster after two years of payroll-slashing that gutted the roster of most veterans. Despite a good April, a couple of injuries have exposed a lack of depth that still plagues the Cubs. Success is likely to be measured this year in greater part by individual player development (Christopher Morel, Matt Mervis, Hayden Wesneski, Ben Brown, et al) than sheer wins.

Boston Red Sox: The worst team to pay the MLB luxury tax last year didn’t improve its roster from the outside during the offseason — especially at the all-important, post-shifts middle infield, where they lost $280 million free agent Xander Bogaerts and conspicuously back-filled with out-of-position Kiké Hernandez. The boys can rake, with Japanese free agent Masataka Yoshida and young outfielder Jarren Duran in particular helping set the pace. But they predictably aren’t very good at catching the ball, and the starting pitchers are among the worst performing rotations in the majors, even with Chris Sale making all his starts. Their winning record early is mostly a function of the more balanced schedule.

They are who we thought they were

texas rangers

Texas Rangers: They may not be able to hold off the Houston Astros in the AL West over the entire season, but a team that loaded up on big-time free agents each of the last two seasons finally has the depth to return to the playoffs for the first time since it last had a winning record in 2016 — not to mention finally has its $325 million shortstop, Corey Seager, back in the lineup this week after a hamstring injury. The telltale for this team right now is that they’re continuing to play well despite the absence of big-money ace Jacob deGrom (elbow) since April 29. He just started throwing again and might not be back for another month or so. If he’s healthy after that, this team’s 2023 plans just got Texas Big again.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Young talents Zac Gallen and Corbin Carroll are doing exactly what many thought they would when the D-Backs became a chic preseason playoff pick. And the rest of the team looks competitive with the better teams in the league in almost every facet of the game. The big early sign that they might be able to sustain this start that has them pushing the first-place Dodgers: They’ve played every team in their mostly formidable division and have a 12-10 record. That includes a winning mark (5-3) against the Dodgers.


Gordon Wittenmyer, MLB expert and former beat writer for NBC Sports Chicago and the Chicago Sun-Times. Get Gordon’s latest Sportsnaut Exclusive today!


Atlanta Braves: Lose All-Star shortstop Dansby Swanson to free agency? Plug in journeyman Orlando Arcia — and then back him up with a rookie when he goes on the IL? That’s why you signed almost everybody else to multiyear extensions. The defending NL East champs have the best record in the NL and are showing no signs of doing anything but running away with a division that was supposed to be a lot more competitive.

Oakland Athletics: This stripped down, vacant lot of a ballclub is on pace for the worst record in MLB history, by design. Owner John Fisher should be forced to sell and be banned from the game for life. Not joking even a little bit.

Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.

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