Breaking Down The MLB Divisional Races

With summer quickly approaching and ballparks warming across America, baseball is officially entering a crucial stretch of its season. The first two months of the season has seen some favorites surge ahead out of the gate, while others (the Dodgers) are just now finding their footing. The NBA and NHL seasons are almost complete, leaving the MLB to claim the spotlight. So, after 60 games, let's take a look at where things stand, and how the divisional races might play out over the next few months.

AL East

This much is known regarding the AL East, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are making the playoffs barring a complete collapse. Heading into the season, both teams were seen as clear favorites to make a deep run into the postseason. Boston has blitzed the league en route to a 41-19 record, due in large part to the blistering starts by Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez. Betts currently boasts a .359 BA in addition to 17 HR. Martinez has added an MLB-best 19 HR to go with a .315 BA.

The Yankees possess the second best record in baseball, entering June 5 at 38-18, one game behind Boston. Aaron Judge has followed up his phenomenal rookie season with a great start to 2018. Judge leads the Yankees in HR (16), RBI (41), OBP (.402), and hits (59). Luis Severino has been incredible fronting the Yankees rotation thus far. Through 13 starts, Severino has a record of 9-1 with a 2.20 ERA.

The Red Sox and Yankees already have a double-digit lead on the Rays, Blue Jays, and Orioles, setting up a four month battle between the storied rivals. Both teams will make the playoffs, but the Yankees' slight edge in pitching should carry them to the AL East crown.

AL Central

What a difference a year makes. Last year, the Cleveland Indians finished 102-60 and sported the league's highest run differential at +254. Through 58 games, the Indians sit at 30-28, 2.5 games ahead of the Detroit Tigers and 3.5 in front of the Minnesota Twins. In what might be the most pedestrian division in baseball, the Royals and White Sox should be counted out, sitting 10 and 11 games back, respectively.

Although things haven't been easy for Cleveland, they have the ability to run away with the division once again. Their rotation is led by one of the top pitchers in baseball, Corey Kluber, a strikeout machine in Trevor Bauer, and the talented Carlos Carrasco. A bullpen featuring Andrew Miller and Cody Allen can be enough to stymie lineups late in games. The Indians' offense is starting to click on all cylinders, which should scare the rest of the AL.

Michael Brantley is having a great comeback season, batting .323. Stud shortstop Francisco Lindor has 14 HR and a .305 BA. Jose Ramirez is scorching the earth lately, hitting 11 of his 18 homers in May, while raising his average to .299. A weak division and potentially stress-free race could bode well for Cleveland come October.

AL West

As bad as the AL Central is, the AL West is doing its best to provide some entertaining baseball for the fans. The surprising Seattle Mariners are finally fulfilling their role as the dark horses of the AL. Fresh off the franchise's first World Series title, the Houston Astros look every bit as dangerous as last year, currently outscoring the opposition by a league leading 122 runs. Carried by the best player in baseball, Mike Trout, and the most exciting player in baseball, Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels are a dangerous club. Add in the Oakland Athletics and their 31-29 record, and the AL West may be the most compelling division in baseball.

After losing Robinson Cano to an 80-game suspension, the Mariners have rattled off 14 wins in their past 19 games to claim first place. Jean Segura, Dee Gordon, and Mitch Haniger have sparked an offense that is doing just enough to support their pitching staff led by James Paxton. For the Angels, it has been all about Trout, Ohtani, and Andrelton Simmons. Trout has been the best player in baseball alongside Betts thus far, while Ohtani has more than lived up to the hype both as a pitcher, and a hitter.

However, for as good as the Mariners and Angels have been, the class of the AL West is still the Houston Astros. The Astros have the best rotation in baseball, and it's not close. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole look like Cy Young front-runners, while Charlie Morton is staking a claim as the best No. 3 pitcher in the league today. Until they are dethroned, the Astros should be the favorites in not only the AL West, but throughout the MLB.

NL East

Two of the most surprising teams of the young season reside in the NL East. Both the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies entered the year as teams of the future. As it stands, the Braves lead the division and have the National League's second best record at 35-25. The Phillies sit 2.5 games back, and the perennially favored Washington Nationals are sandwiched between the two, currently one game behind Atlanta.

Atlanta has been carried by the most productive offense in the NL. The offense has been spearheaded by a resurgent Nick Markakis (.331 BA), All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman (.328), and their two most prized prospects, Ozzie Albies (14 HR), and Ronald Acuna Jr. While the offense has been getting most of the attention, pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb have been stellar thus far.

Just as the young Phillies have begun to slide a bit, losing 7 of 10, the Nationals have started to roll by winning 7 of 10. At the moment, the Braves look to be legitimate. However, it wouldn't be wise to bet against the Nationals as long as they have Bryce Harper and a pitching staff comprised of baseball's best pitcher, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg. Better luck next year, Mr. Met and Billy the Marlin.

NL Central

Over in the NL Central, things are starting to play out the way most expected. After a surprisingly strong start to the season, the Pirates have started to slip back in the standings, losing 12 of their last 16. St. Louis, even without Yadier Molina, has played well as of late and currently resides in 3rd with a 32-25 record. The Milwaukee Brewers currently own the NL's best record, and carry a two game lead over the Chicago Cubs in the division.

The Brewers' two big winter additions have provided depth and consistency to the lineup. Christian Yelich is batting .298 and Lorenzo Cain has contributed 7 homers. Jesus Aguilar has been a welcomed surprise, hitting 10 HR with a .309 BA. Milwaukee starters have been steady, but the biggest storyline has to be the dynamo in the bullpen, Josh Hader. Hader has struck out 69 batters in 34.1 innings.

Chicago looks to be Milwaukee's main threat in the Central, as Javier Baez has led an offense that has underachieved thus far. Kris Bryant has been good but not great, while Anthony Rizzo hasn't provided the power he has shown in previous years. Jon Lester has been the best pitcher in a starting rotation that has been solid, even with Yu Darvish's continued struggles. Despite mediocre play from some of their best players, the Cubs are still 10 games over .500 and seem poised to make a run. That being said, Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis should all factor into the playoff picture.

NL West

Much like the AL Central, the NL West has featured a lot of mediocre baseball and one seemingly bored favorite. The division is only separated by 4.5 games, with the Diamondbacks leading the way. The Rockies are one game back but reeling after a home sweep at the hands of the suddenly-hot Dodgers. The Giants have won five straight to climb within 1.5 games of Arizona, as the Padres sit in last, 4.5 back.

Arizona has cooled dramatically after a great start to the season. The team is sorely in need of their star, Paul Goldschmidt, to start rolling. Goldschmidt is hitting a miserable .210 with 8 homers so far. The Rockies are hoping the return of DJ LeMahieu will spark a struggling team, despite the best efforts of their sensational third baseman, Nolan Arenado. A third NL West team is also banking on the return of a star to propel them forward. Madison Bumgarner makes his season debut for the Giants Tuesday night against Arizona.

And then there are the Dodgers. After a horrendous start to the year, the Dodgers have rattled off 13 out of 17 to pull within 2 games of Arizona. The biggest question facing the Dodgers, yet again, is their health. Clayton Kershaw is on the DL for the second time this year, Corey Seager's season is over, and pitchers Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu have no timetable for their returns. The weirdest part of the Dodgers' year so far? Matt Kemp leads them in batting (.344), HR (9), RBI (33), OBP (.376), and hits (62).

If the Dodgers can continue to right the ship and play the type of ball that has been their standard, the division is theirs. If not, the division is anybody's guess. One thing is for sure, the NL West doesn't look prepared to send three teams back into the playoffs for the second straight year.

Image Source: Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports, Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

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