Division Leaders, Division Winners?

Most teams have played around 10 games so far, or about 6% of their season. Yet struggling fanbases in New York and Los Angeles are already fearing the worst, and fans in Boston and Pittsburgh are already seeing visions of October in their dreams.

Wins are wins, but early season form isn’t the best indicator of final success. At this time last year, the Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds, and New York Mets all led their divisions. None made the playoffs.

Which teams that are off to hot starts have the best chance to hang a pennant at the end of the season? Read on to find out.

Boston Red Sox (8-1)

Xander Bogaerts Fortnite

Why they’ll win the AL East: That rotation we all raved about last year finally looks capable of putting up big numbers. Chris Sale is a perennial Cy Young contender. David Price is healthy, and has the ability to put up ace-quality numbers; he has yet to give up a run this season. Rick Porcello may not win the Cy Young like he did in 2016, but he’s better than the numbers he put up last year. He’s off to a good start this year, allowing 4 runs through 13 innings while striking out 12. Add Drew Pomeranz (once he gets healthy) and another season of growth from Eduardo Rodriguez, and the Red Sox might have the best rotation in baseball.

Why they won’t win: The offense has been driven by Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, and the latter is headed to the DL after sliding into the dugout on Sunday. The power-drain from last season is still in effect; Boston has only hit 7 home runs, putting them in 22nd. JD Martinez will get it going, won’t he? More importantly, Boston has gone 8-1…against the Marlins and the Rays. Check back in a few weeks when they’ve played some real MLB competition and see where they’re at in the standings.

Minnesota Twins (4-4)

Minnesota Twins

Why they’ll win the AL Central: Minnesota might quietly have the best 1-2-3 batting lineup in the bigs. Brian Dozier has already hit 4 home runs from the leadoff spot, with only 4 strikeouts. Joe Mauer is slashing .375/.500/.542. Miguel Sano strikes out more than you’d like, but makes up for it with elite power. The Twins built around the starting rotation this offseason by adding Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn, but don’t sleep on their offense.

Why they won’t: The Twins were a surprising playoff team last year thanks to key role players like Eduardo Escobar and Jorge Polanco, and big seasons from veterans like Ervin Santana. Escobar is out for half the season due to a PED suspension, and Santana is on the shelf while he recovers from finger surgery. Was last year the ceiling for the Twins, or the first step towards a successful rebuild?

Editor’s note: The Cleveland Indians are also 5-5; a forthcoming article will look at their start in more depth.

Houston Astros (9-2)

Astros ring ceremony

Why they’ll win the AL West: They’re the best team in baseball.

What, you want more? Okay, the defending World Series champs barely lost anyone from their roster, and they added a top-of-the-line starter in Gerrit Cole. Their pitching staff leads the league with a 1.82 ERA. Jose Altuve has picked up where he left off from last year’s MVP campaign with a .357 average and an OBP over .400, though he has yet to send a ball over the fence. There are no yawning holes on this roster, and thus far they’ve avoided major injury. They’re simply too talented not to win this division.

Why they won’t: You want to nitpick? Alex Bregman has gotten off to a slow start, but he’ll likely turn it around. On paper the bullpen looks a bit thin, though they’ve performed well thus far. One stat to follow for the Astros is strikeouts. Last season they focused on making contact at the plate; they struck out less than every other Major League team. This season, they’re second in the majors with 109 strikeouts. Maybe that number comes down over the coming weeks, but it would be quite the reversal for the Astros to keep striking out at such a prolific rate.

New York Mets (8-1)

Mets Rotation

Why they’ll win the NL East: We’ve fantasized for years about the potential of a healthy, productive Mets starting rotation. Finally, our dreams may be coming true. Noah Syndergaard is throwing hard (22 strikeouts in 16 innings), but doesn’t look like he’s overworking himself. Jacob deGrom has only allowed two runs. Matt Harvey and Steven Matz have work to do, but their raw talent is undeniable. Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman have thus far dominated as relievers (combined 12 innings pitched, just one run allowed). The offense might not be dominant, but with a such a strong pitching staff an above-average offense might be all the Mets need to take the East.

Why they won’t: As I was writing this, someone probably slipped on a puddle and landed on the DL with an MRI sprain.

In all seriousness, the Mets have had a problem with injuries. Every team suffers injuries during the season; how bad will the injury bug strike the Mets? There’s not much depth in the farm system should any major pieces spend time on the DL. If one of their big pieces go down, it could still be a long year in Flushing.

Pittsburgh Pirates (7-2)

Jameson Taillon

Why they’ll win the NL Central: 7 of their 9 starters are currently batting above .300. No, that pace isn’t sustainable, but the offense is better than expected. Corey Dickerson was a huge add off of the scrap heap of Tampa Bay; he’s slashing .303/.324/.576. Gregory Polanco may have finally turned a corner with the bat after years of average production. And Josh Bell shows no early signs of a sophomore slump. The offense won’t be this good for 162 games, but they’re a lot better than most analysts gave them credit for.

Why they won’t: The Cubs. The Brewers. The Cardinals. The Reds–wait, scratch that last one. The NL Central is the strongest division in the majors this season, and the Pirates will be hard-pressed to hold off all their divisional rivals. The pitching staff has immense potential, but it’s also young and could be prone to occasional blow-ups over the long season. And really, how long can Colin Moran keep hitting at this rate? The Pirates have all the makings of a streaky team that got started on the right note, but won’t be this consistently good over the long haul.

Arizona Diamondbacks (8-2)

Patrick Corbin.jpg

 

Why they’ll win the NL West: Can the rotation keep it up? Even though Zack Greinke has struggled thus far (10 2/3 innings, 6 earned runs), Zack Godley, Patrick Corbin, and Taijuan Walker have picked him up. Corbin has looked especially strong, racking up 20 strikeouts over 13 innings–and against strong competition in the Rockies and Dodgers. And I haven’t even gotten to Robbie Ray. At their best, the D-Backs rotation is the best in the division, and could have a claim to be the best in the National League.

Why they won’t: At their worst, though, the rotation can be a lodestone. Walker and Ray have great swing-and-miss stuff, but they’re also good for a number of clunkers over the course of a season. The main concern is the offense. Even though Paul Goldschmidt has struggled you figure he’ll turn it on sooner or later. Beyond Goldy and outfielder AJ Pollock, does Arizona have enough impact bats across the lineup? Chris Owings, Ketel Marte, and Nick Ahmed are all solid major leaguers, but they’ll need to step up if the D-Backs can bring home the pennant this year.

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