How quickly a quarter of an MLB season passes. It seems like just yesterday we were examining Rob Manfred’s golf swing and watching games get postponed, and now here we are. April’s rejuvenating scent of fresh-cut grass has given way to May’s potpourri of sunscreen and sweat, and 29 of the 30 big league teams came out of the weekend having played at least 40 games. That’s not enough of a sample size to draw definitive conclusions, but it’s enough to evaluate based on initial impressions. So here we go.
1. New York Yankees (29-13)
At the start of the season, Yankees GM Brian Cashman said they’d offered Aaron Judge a seven-year, $213.5 million contract extension, and that the three-time All-Star had turned it down. I found myself in the minority at the time in thinking that Cashman was unwise to offer Judge a deal of that size and that Judge was even less wise to reject it. Judge has had only two healthy seasons in his career, and he’d turn 31 just as the extension was kicking in. The Yankees, meanwhile, are one of the very few MLB teams I’d trust to reinvest the money into the big league roster, which is the only acceptable course for a team that declines to re-sign a homegrown star of Judge’s stature.
Through 39 games, though, Judge has made his doubters look foolish. He’s hitting .318/.389/.676 and leads the league in home runs. Last Tuesday, the normally guarded Judge got Big Mad when the new left-field wall at Camden Yards denied him a third home run of the night. There’s hot, and then there’s pissed-I-only-hit-two-dingers-tonight hot.
Everything is clicking for the Yankees. Not only are Judge and Giancarlo Stanton grinding opponents’ pitchers to make their bread, but the rotation—which I think got a little underrated after a few messy outings at the end of 2021—has been among the best in baseball. The Rays are playing close to .600 baseball, and the Yankees still have a five-game lead in the division. Imagine that.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (28-13)
The Dodgers are on pace for about 109 wins, which is more or less the level we’ve come to expect from this team for the past five years. The natural assumption, therefore, would be that the Dodgers are firing on all cylinders. But they aren’t. Clayton Kershaw is hurt, Cody Bellinger isn’t all the way back to MVP form, and even Mookie Betts took until the end of April to really get going. And still, the Dodgers have the best record in the NL and the best run differential in all of MLB.
3. Houston Astros (27-16)
It was tough to know what to expect from Justin Verlander heading into 2022. Sure, he was pitching lights out when last we saw him for more than a single game, but that was back in 2019. He entered this season at 39 years old, coming off Tommy John surgery and having made one MLB start since the pandemic. Suffice it to say, the new elbow ligament suits him well; in eight starts, Verlander has allowed zero runs four times, one run twice, two runs once, and three runs once. He’s holding opponents to a .161 batting average, which shakes out to half a hit per inning. The old man hasn’t lost a step. The Astros are 6-2 when Verlander starts, but even their 21-14 record when anyone else is on the mound would be the best in the AL West.
4. New York Mets (29-15)
This is why you gobble up pitching depth. Make Cleveland throw Carlos Carrasco into the Francisco Lindor trade; go get Chris Bassitt; sign Taijuan Walker. Because Max Scherzer is out for six to eight weeks (maybe more after accounting for the Mets injury estimate exchange rate) with a strained oblique, Jacob deGrom’s scapula isn’t fully healed, and Tylor Megill is on the IL as well with biceps tendonitis. And New York is still way out in front in the NL East. It helps that their competition—Atlanta, Philadelphia, and to a certain extent, Miami—have spent all spring stuck in neutral, but a quarter of the way through the season, the Mets have banked a huge head start.
5. San Diego Padres (28-14)
How different the mood must be in San Diego now versus eight months ago. The Padres aren’t quite the Dodger killers they hoped to be, but once again, they’re credible Dodger pursuers. Adding Sean Manaea to the rotation has helped, but the real star has been the white-hot Joe Musgrove, who’s 5-0 with a 1.90 ERA in five starts. As an added bonus, top pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore has apparently unbroken himself, and new closer Taylor Rogers has 16 saves and just one earned run allowed in 18 appearances.
On the offensive side, an offseason of trade rumors seems to have lit a fire under Eric Hosmer (.319/.376/.458); Ha-Seong Kim is holding down the fort while Fernando Tatis Jr. recovers from a fractured wrist; and Manny Machado (.374/.446/.619) looks like what you’d get if Mike Schmidt ate Brooks Robinson. Take a look at the lettuce Jorge Alfaro is rocking these days. Life is good in Southern California.
6. Milwaukee Brewers (26-16)
If you were building a franchise from scratch, which building block would you want to start with? The Dodgers’ financial resources? Tampa Bay’s innovative front office? Maybe you just pick Shohei Ohtani or Mike Trout?
Or how about the ray gun the Brewers are hiding in Miller Park that they use to zap strike throwers and turn them into Pedro Martínez?
Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and now Eric Lauer, whose previous career high in K% was 23.9, are all striking out at least 28 percent of batters. And through seven starts in 2022, Lauer is punching out 32.9 percent of opponents, fourth best among qualified starters.
Milwaukee’s offense also seems much more well-rounded this year than last, when the Willy Adames-and-hope-we-don’t-need-more-than-three runs approach hit a brick wall in the first round of the playoffs. The Brewers are tied fourth in the NL in OPS+ and fifth in runs scored per game, which is more than enough to cut it with a stellar pitching staff in a weak division.
7. Los Angeles Angels (26-17)
Mike Trout: Come on, just run up and kick the football.
Charlie Brown: No, we’ve done this so many times and you keep pulling it away.
Trout: But I’m having the best season of my career. Shohei’s healthy. Our pitchers don’t suck anymore. We’re gonna make the playoffs this time. Taylor Ward is slugging .700!
Charlie Brown: You mean Tyler Wade?
Trout: No, Taylor Ward. Seriously, just run up and kick the football.
Charlie Brown: It’s been 10 years, I can’t trust you after 40 games.
Trout: But it’ll be different this year.
Charlie Brown: Good grief.
8. Minnesota Twins (26-16)
The first quarter of the season has gone about as well as the Twins could have hoped. Byron Buxton is (relatively) healthy, Joe Ryan looks like he has the goods, and Carlos Correa is so eager to please that it sometimes seems like he’s running for governor of Minnesota and not playing out a one-year deal. It’d be nice if Chris Paddack had lasted more than five starts before blowing out his elbow, but other than that, you can’t complain. When both teams are at their best, I still think the White Sox are the class of the AL Central, but the difference is slim enough that the Twins’ 4.5-game lead could easily last until the end of the season.
9. Toronto Blue Jays (22-20)
I have mixed feelings about my preseason no. 1 team. On one hand, they’re still in playoff position thanks to the new expanded postseason format. The Santiago Espinal breakout is in progress, and Alek Manoah looks like the humongous Floridian ace Toronto hoped Nate Pearson would be. The Blue Jays are on pace for 85 wins, and half their lineup—Bo Bichette, Matt Chapman, Teoscar Hernández, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.—hasn’t woken up yet.
On the other hand, half their lineup hasn’t woken up yet, and they’re already seven games behind the Yankees. What Toronto has produced so far has been fine, but it’s disappointing—particularly considering how well New York is playing—that the Blue Jays haven’t been better.
10. Tampa Bay Rays (24-17)
If ever a team was built for today’s high-spin-rate, soggy-balled, anemic-offensive environment, it’s the Rays. My Shane McClanahan Cy Young pick is looking pretty inspired right now, the bullpen is as good as ever, and while Kevin Kiermaier hitting .245/.286/.434 is pedestrian, that’s actually good for a 116 wRC+ in this day and age. (In 2019, Kiermaier hit .228/.278/.398, and was credited with a wRC+ of 79.) Tampa Bay’s run differential is just plus-12, which flashes alarm bells for a club that’s seven games over .500, but the Rays were built to win close games. They’d be at worst cofavorites in four of the six divisions.
11. San Francisco Giants (22-19)
I’d like to stop having to rank the Giants. Looking up and down the roster, Mike Yastrzemski and Carlos Rodón have been absolutely sick this year, and everyone else has been merely pretty good. They’re in third place, but in a tough division and with a good run differential. In various drafts of this list I’ve had the Giants as high as sixth and as low as 13th, and their current five-game losing streak was enough to knock them toward the bottom of that range. They’ll probably make the playoffs. Beyond that, who knows?
12. Chicago White Sox (21-20)
If the Twins should be thrilled that they’re 4.5 games up on Chicago, the White Sox should be relieved they’re only four games behind given how much has gone wrong so far this season. Injuries to Lance Lynn, Garrett Crochet, Eloy Jiménez, Yoán Moncada, and A.J. Pollock have tested this team’s depth, and of the 14 White Sox hitters with at least 30 plate appearances, only three have an OPS+ higher than 95.
That’s to say nothing of the bullpen, which has been pretty bad this year: 24th in ERA-, 19th in WPA. Given how heavily Chicago invested in that part of the roster—Liam Hendriks, Kendall Graveman, and Joe Kelly are making $29.33 million this year between them—that performance just won’t cut it.
13. St. Louis Cardinals (24-18)
The Cardinals’ record says they’re about the same team they’ve been since 2016: on pace for a high-80s win total and a second-place finish in the division. But this iteration feels a little scarier than normal. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado are both playing their best ball since people still got excited for Star Wars movies. Tommy Edman’s on fire. And the rotation has been good enough that the Cardinals haven’t missed Jack Flaherty.
Flaherty’s on his way back now, and St. Louis promoted two of its top prospects over the weekend: infielder Nolan Gorman and pitcher Matthew Liberatore, hitherto best known as the guy on the other end of the Randy Arozarena trade. The Cardinals are still within striking distance of first place in the division despite getting zilch out of Tyler O’Neill (shoulder injury) and Paul DeJong (so bad they just sent him to Triple-A). This smells a little like a group that’s hanging around .500 at the All-Star break but goes 23-6 in August and surfs into the playoffs.
14. Atlanta Braves (19-23)
This team is a Rorschach test. You could look at the defending World Series winners, having finally gotten Ronald Acuña Jr. back and with Kyle Wright absolutely shoving, and say they’re a threat to kick it into gear and chase down the Mets. Or you could look at their 19-23 record, with a minus-15 run differential and a lineup full of guys whose wRC+ is about 15 or 20 points below what you’d expect—plus Eddie Rosario, who’s 3-for-44 on the season when he’s been able to play—and say they’ve got a post-title hangover and are already out of the race.
I lean toward the former viewpoint, particularly because there are three NL wild-card spots now. Let’s say the Padres and Giants continue playing as well as they have; that still leaves a spot for one of St. Louis, Atlanta, or Philadelphia. Or, what the hell, Arizona or Miami. Of the teams in that group, I think the Braves have the most talent. But a .291 OBP from Ozzie Albies isn’t gonna fly much longer.
15. Philadelphia Phillies (20-22)
The Phillies were set up to be one of the most fun teams in baseball this year with a lineup full of guys who not only beat the hell out of the ball, but also aren’t shy about crowing about their successes. Unfortunately, things haven’t gone to plan. The deadened baseball came at the worst time for a team built around the home run. Bryce Harper can’t throw. Kyle Schwarber’s been solid on aggregate, but streaky. And the bullpen, despite Dave Dombrowski and Sam Fuld bringing in reinforcements, is at it again. Like the Blue Jays, Braves, Cardinals, and White Sox, there’s more in the tank here. But the Phillies have been so snakebit over the past decade that it’s fair to wonder whether they can upshift back into playoff contention.
16. Boston Red Sox (19-22)
The Red Sox were 10-19 through May 8, and top free-agent signing Trevor Story was hitting .194/.276/.269. Since then, the Sox are 9-3, and Story is hitting .296/.377/.796 with seven home runs and four stolen bases. It’s a reminder that an MLB team can dig a big hole in 30 or 40 games—and make no mistake, 9.5 games out of first place with three teams to crawl over is a huge gap—but there’s still time to climb out.
17. Arizona Diamondbacks (22-22)
For my money, the Diamondbacks are the pleasant surprise of the first quarter of the season. I was extremely pessimistic about them in April, as they’d come off a 110-game losing season and seemed primed for a long rebuild while the kids figured things out. But it turns out the kids are pretty good. Daulton Varsho’s reinvention as a mild-mannered catcher by day, star center fielder by night has been a resounding success. And the rotation, under the tutelage of longtime Astros coach Brent Strom, has been excellent, particularly Zac Gallen, who’s allowed five earned runs total in seven starts.
I still think Arizona will fall off the pace in the next few months. But even if the Diamondbacks win 70 games, Varsho and Gallen make big strides forward, and maybe someone like Alek Thomas establishes himself as a big league regular, that’s a positive step for a club that looked like it was nowhere just two months ago.
18. Seattle Mariners (18-25)
Seattle is one bad breakfast from last place in the division, so maybe I’m overthinking things, but I think the Mariners are better than their record shows. Marco Gonzales, Logan Gilbert, and George Kirby (in a small sample): good. Ty France and J.P. Crawford: very good. Julio Rodríguez: good, considering he’s a 21-year-old who went through a weird streak of called strikes against him early in the year. But when the Mariners have been bad, they’ve been really bad.
Cal Raleigh: literally hitting .087. Jarred Kelenic: literally hitting .140 before he got demoted. Robbie Ray: good most of the time, but bizarrely prone to giving up big innings. The bullpen is second worst in the league in ERA, and would probably be down there in WPA if they were given more leads to work with. (What happened, Diego Castillo? I believed in you!)
The good thing about a team built like this is that it’s easy to upgrade from terrible to bad (via trade or minor league promotion). Plus, Kyle Lewis might finally be healthy. Knocking off the Astros was probably always a pipe dream for this team, but Seattle can get back to .500 by the break, and we’ll see where things go from there.
19. Cleveland Guardians (18-20)
Cleveland finishes the first quarter of the season having lost six of nine, most within the division, which has allowed the Twins (and to a lesser extent, the White Sox) to build a solid lead. Holding on to José Ramírez, who’s currently rocking an OPS+ of 182, has certainly helped keep them competitive. And while Shane Bieber has looked fallible, the Guardians’ pitching assembly line has produced enough depth to keep runs off the board. I dunno, third place seems fine. Could be better, could be worse.
20. Miami Marlins (18-22)
What a classic Marlins team this is—huge holes in the lineup, but enough young talent to allow the second-fewest runs in the National League and keep pace with the Phillies and Braves. There’s a chance for Miami to get into the thick of the wild-card race in the next two weeks with series against Atlanta, Colorado, and San Francisco all on the board. But after that, things get tough; the Marlins go to Houston in mid-June before encountering the first-place Mets for the first time this season.
21. Colorado Rockies (19-22)
You have to feel for the Rockies, who are nestled up against .500 despite an injury to Kris Bryant and some really appalling results from co-aces Kyle Freeland and Germán Márquez, and yet sit in fifth place because they play in a division with the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres.
Shout-out to C.J. Cron, who was a slightly below-average first baseman until he turned 30, and then upon returning to the greater Rocky Mountain area (he played his college ball at the University of Utah, just roll with it) has turned into Jimmie Foxx. It’s Cron, not Bryant or Charlie Blackmon, who’s driven Colorado’s offense this year, with 11 home runs and a .619 slugging percentage, both tops in the NL.
22. Texas Rangers (18-22)
The Rangers were supposed to have gotten a lot better after adding Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Jon Gray in the offseason. But Semien has been awful and Gray, while his peripherals are solid, has an ERA over 5.00. It helps that Martín Pérez, who’s struck out about six batters in his entire career, has allowed nine earned runs and zero home runs in eight starts. But let’s check back in with this group in a few weeks when things are less weird.
23. Chicago Cubs (17-24)
International free-agent hitters can be risky signings. There’s only one way to find out how a player will fare against MLB pitching—as opposed to NPB, KBO, or Cuban pitching—and Seiya Suzuki is having a rough second trip around the league. The 27-year-old outfielder was the hottest hitter on the planet through about three weeks of the season, but since April 28, he’s batting just .174/.230/.290. Comparable free-agent corner bats—including former Cubs Schwarber and Nick Castellanos—have had their ups and downs as well, but it’s been a bummer to see Suzuki’s rapid ascent to cult hero status slow down in May.
24. Detroit Tigers (14-27)
Of the teams I expected to be good at the start of the season, the Tigers have been the most disappointing. Miguel Cabrera got his 3,000th hit in late April, and it feels like that’s about all Detroit’s offense has been able to produce. Spencer Torkelson has struggled, as has Javy Báez. Jonathan Schoop has dropped almost 300 points off his OPS from last year. The young pitchers, especially lefty Tarik Skubal, have been more promising but suffice it to say this is not the start A.J. Hinch envisioned.
25. Oakland Athletics (17-27)
You probably know the joke about the two men being chased by a bear. One of the men stops to put on his running shoes. The other says, “What are you doing? You’ll never outrun the bear even with those shoes!” To which the man with the running shoes replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”
A’s owner John Fisher should be down on his knees every night thanking God that Phil Castellini exists.
26. Kansas City Royals (14-27)
The Royals made an early season splash by replacing hitting coach Terry Bradshaw (as an aside, it feels like we didn’t talk enough, when we had the chance, about how Kansas City’s hitting coach was named Terry Bradshaw) with player development guru and sometime superscout Alec Zumwalt. Which is all well and good, because the Royals’ offense was 27th in the league in wRC+ when they made the change.
But the Royals have basically always been bad at hitting. They haven’t ranked higher than 20th in leaguewide wRC+ since 2015, the year they won the World Series, and they haven’t had a team wRC+ of better than 100—league average—since 2011. That’s basically the Bronze Age. Melky Cabrera led the team in plate appearances that year.
27. Washington Nationals (14-29)
The sharks—i.e., fans of the other teams with access to talk radio and the internet—are starting to circle. “Juan Soto for [insert mildly disappointing veteran], two B prospects, and draft picks,” they whisper loudly enough that both Buster Olney and Ken Rosenthal have had to pour water on the fire in the past week. Just sign the man. Sure, it’ll be expensive. Sure, he’s represented by Scott Boras, the man who MLB owners ask their mothers to check under the bed for when they go to sleep at night. Don’t care. Give him $500 million. Whatever it takes.
28. Pittsburgh Pirates (17-24)
The Pirates have been bad so far this year, but in an amusing way. Their run differential is the worst in the majors, and their roster reflects that performance. Their pitching staff is—José Quintana’s renaissance notwithstanding—one of the worst in the league. Their best position player who doesn’t have “Bryan” in his first name is … Ben Gamel? Against the Cubs alone they’ve lost games by scores of 7-0, 9-0, and 21-0.
And yet they’re 17-24, in third place, and about as far out of the division lead as the Braves, Phillies, and Mariners. They’re tied with the Cubs in the standings; those two teams have played nine times so far, with the Cubs winning four games by a combined score of 39-1 and the Pirates winning the other five. They went up against the Dodgers in a three-game series, lost the middle game 11-1, but won the other two. They got no-hit and won, which is a hell of a metaphor. If you can’t be good, be entertaining. And if you can’t be entertaining, be weird.
29. Baltimore Orioles (18-25)
Two things about Adley Rutschman’s major league debut.
First: He should’ve been up on opening day 2021 at the latest, maybe opening day 2020. That’s how polished he was coming out of Oregon State and how thin the Orioles have been on talent at the major league level. By delaying his call-up until now, the O’s cost Rutschman at least a year and change of big league experience and pay. They’ve potentially pushed his earliest arbitration date back at least one year, maybe two if he ends up missing the Super Two cutoff, which usually falls in early June.
If Rutschman had debuted last April, he’d be on course to hit free agency after the 2026 season, before his age-29 season. Now, he’ll be a free agent after 2028, heading into his age-31 season. Between the lost years of arbitration, lack of big league pay, and the diminished earning potential of a 31-year-old catcher, the Orioles have taken tens of millions of dollars out of Rutschman’s pocket over the past two years. It’s appalling behavior (from Baltimore and other franchises that have made similar decisions), and we really can’t continue to tolerate it. Particularly from a team that’s done so little to earn the benefit of the doubt.
With all that said, the second point on Rutschman is this: I am trying really, really hard not to get out over my skis on this kid. Part of why I’m so annoyed that Baltimore kept him in the minors so long is that he could legitimately be a two-way superstar, an absolute slam-dunk franchise cornerstone. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a 24-year-old rookie with a weekend’s worth of big league experience, but everything about Rutschman’s skills and performance in college and the minors says that if the Orioles are still operating in 25 years, they will have taken the no. 35 out of circulation. He’s that good.
30. Cincinnati Reds (12-29)
Back to Castellini, who infamously wondered where else Reds fans would go if they didn’t want to spend their hard-earned money to watch a team that wasn’t even pretending to try to win. The answer: anywhere but Great American Ball Park. Cincinnati drew more than 43,000 fans to its home opener, but after a 3-22 start, the Reds have had fewer than 12,000 fans at seven of their past nine home games.
Not even Hunter Greene, the team’s most exciting young pitcher in years and certainly the hardest-throwing pitcher named after a color from the L.L. Bean catalog, can stem the tide. Eventually, the owners will so thoroughly abuse fan loyalty that it will start to cost them money. Eventually.
All stats current through Sunday’s games.
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