Heading into this season, there was a general understanding of how each division was going to shuffle out. The NL East would be a dogfight between the Mets and Braves, the NL Central would be a scrum (with the Cardinals and Brewers slightly atop it), the NL West was a Dodgers-Padres party, the Yankees were the clear favorites in the AL East, the White Sox and Twins would be battling it out in the AL Central and the AL West would have the A’s and Astros trading blows all year like they always do. There was plenty of room for surprise contenders in there, but the contending tiers were rather clear. It felt like you knew where this was going.
But here we are, more than two weeks into the season, and we have four incredibly unlikely first-place teams. And they’re not just unlikely: They’re all exciting — four emergent teams that are fun to cheer for and eager to establish their place as legitimate contenders, both this year and moving forward. (Sorry, Mets and Dodgers, you don’t count: No one’s surprised to see you atop your divisions.)
Can they stay in first place? What’s going right for them? How truly surprising is this? Let’s rank the four teams, by the likelihood they’re able to stay in first place by season’s end.
Record: 9-6, half-game lead on second-place Milwaukee
Last playoff victory: Oct. 7, 2012, Game 2, NLDS — Reds 9, Giants 0
What they’re doing right: Remember when the Reds were shut out in both games of their Wild Card Series against the Braves last year? They are hitting like a team that wants to wipe that memory out of everyone’s brains. The Reds are second in the National League in runs and are slugging .470 as a team, which means they’re essentially hitting like Dave Parker and Dale Murphy, as a team. Tyler Naquin has had the most eye-popping start, but essentially every player but Nick Senzel and Eugenio Suárez is hitting right now; Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos are finally doing what they were supposed to last year. Also, the pitching is holding up: There are three Reds pitchers with three starts and ERAs under 3.00 right now … and none of them are Sonny Gray or Luis Castillo.
What could go wrong: The defense has been a wreck so far, as you might have expected, and if there’s something up with Castillo or Gray, well, they’re probably counting too much on Tyler Mahle, we’ll say that. The bullpen is rather wobbly right now as well. Also, Naquin is probably not Barry Bonds.
Can they pull this off? The best thing the Reds have going for them is their division: The Brewers have pitching but their lineup is imploding, the Cardinals have looked wildly inconsistent early, the Cubs are a total mess and the Pirates are the Pirates. Will 86 victories win this division? This sure looks like an 86-win team, at the very least.
Record: 11-6, two-game lead on second-place Tampa Bay
Last playoff victory: Oct. 28, 2018, Game 5, World Series — Red Sox 5, Dodgers 1
What they’re doing right: J.D. Martinez is launching the ball again, and Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers look like the franchise pillars they were supposed to be. But the major Red Sox surprise has been their pitching, which was such a nightmare last year that it was honestly difficult to look at them. But this year, the rotation, from Nathan Eovaldi to Nick Pivetta to the inspiring Eduardo Rodriguez, has been a strength. And the bullpen, including the suddenly unhittable Matt Barnes, is shutting everyone down. This team, all told, looks nothing like last year’s team at all.
What could go wrong: The pitching seems to be performing a little over its head right now, though it’d be handy if Eovaldi keeps tossing like a Cy Young winner. But the major issue for the Red Sox is that, as good as they look, they can’t expect the monsters in this division to continue to struggle as much as they have to this point. They better build up this lead as much as they can right now. Because the Rays, Blue Jays and, yes, the Yankees, they are coming.
Can they pull this off? Projection systems were never as down on the Red Sox as most prognosticators were, and those systems look smart at this point: This is definitely not a team that’s finishing in last place again. But the Sox cannot count on the field staying wide open for much longer.
Record: 9-6, one-game lead on second-place Cleveland
Last playoff victory: Nov. 1, 2015, Game 5, World Series — Royals 7, Mets 2
What they’re doing right: The Royals claimed to everyone who would listen that they planned on competing in 2021, and they’re sure backing that up right now. They added some key offensive pieces — Andrew Benintendi, Michael A. Taylor, Carlos Santana — but the stars have been the guys who were already there, namely Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield. But it sure feels like 2015 again when you look at that bullpen, which has Greg Holland and Wade Davis looking (kind of) like their old selves, as well as dominance from Kyle Zimmer, Jake Brentz and Josh Staumont. And hey: Look at Danny Duffy! Bury him a Royal!
What could go wrong: The White Sox and the Twins are spinning their wheels a little bit, but they’re still packed with talent. And it is far from clear — just as it was before the season started — where the Royals are going to get all the innings from their rotation they’re going to need. They’re gonna be able to hit, though.
Can they pull this off? There’s plenty of reasons to be skeptical, but seriously, this is the sort of we’re-going-for-it team that’s very easy to root for. If the Twins, White Sox and Indians leave the window cracked for them, they’ll go through it.
Record: 11-6, 1 1/2-game lead on second-place Angels
Last playoff victory: Oct. 20, 2001, Game 3, ALCS — Mariners 14, Yankees 3
What they’re doing right: Yeah, you don’t need to be reminded when the Mariners last won a playoff game. It’s fair to say the Mariners are doing this with a bit of smoke and mirrors: They’ve been outscored on the season, and their lineup only has three above-average hitters in it right now. But what hitters they are! Welcome back Mitch Haniger! And hi there, Ty France! (Although France exited Monday night’s win over the Dodgers after being hit by a pitch.) Add that to some clutch hitting and some timely bullpen work, and the Mariners are hanging around.
What could go wrong: A lot. Let’s not kid ourselves: The Mariners aren’t really in a position to win the division this year, and it’s probably a mistake to try too hard to. But this is exactly the shot of optimism this franchise needed after a rough offseason, and it’s something it might be able to carry into the next era, one led by Kyle Lewis, Jarred Kelenic, Taylor Trammell and Julio Rodríguez. It’s always fun to cheer for Seattle. Mariners fans are going to be able to do a lot of it in the coming years.
Can they pull this off? Naw, not really. But their day is coming. And soon.