It’s Memorial Day, which means one extra little thing for MLB fans: You’re now officially free to look at the MLB standings.
The old adage among baseball fans is that you should avoid checking the standings until Memorial Day. Allowing two months of the season to play out first gives time for small sample-size blips for enough games to add meaning to what we see in every division. And while where your team sits in the standings today may not serve as a guarantee to where it will finish the season, there is some truth to the concept: According to Elias Sports Bureau, 59% of teams (84 of 143) that were in sole possession of first place on the morning of June 1 have gone on to win their division in the wild-card era (since 1995 and excluding 2020).
With that in mind, we asked ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Buster Olney and David Schoenfield to take a good look at the standings right now to help us make sense of where things stand in the 2021 MLB season so far.
What’s the first thing that jumps out at you when you look at the standings right now?
Olney: The NL East — the division that generally was thought to be the best and most competitive — is an absolute mess. It looks like a NASCAR race after a 25-car pileup in Lap 15, and it appears a significant chunk of time will be required for the teams to sort through their respective issues, through injuries, through problem-solving regarding lineup and roster holes.
Doolittle: The division could hardly be more clustered. You can’t help but notice that it’s the Marlins who have generally held the best run differential in the division even though Starling Marte has been out for weeks and Sixto Sanchez has missed the entire campaign. Losing Brian Anderson hurts, but Miami still appears to be on a trajectory of getting healthier, while the supposed top four in the NL East do not.
Schoenfield: Yeah, the NL East stands out, especially now that the Dodgers are starting to roll again after going through that 4-14 stretch. At one point a few days ago the Mets had 16 players on the injured list. They’ve been running a lineup that might not fare well in Triple-A, especially given Francisco Lindor‘s early struggles at the plate. The rest of the division should be kicking themselves that they didn’t create a little separation from the Mets under these circumstances — except, of course, they’ve all had some significant injuries as well. Could we be headed to our first sub-.500 division champion? (Not including the 1994 AL West, when all four teams were under .500 when the strike ended the season in August.)
Which team is headed for a big rise or drop in the standings in the future?
Doolittle: I’ll give two related teams: I think Cleveland and Minnesota will eventually flip spots in the AL Central. Cleveland has too many holes in its lineup, and the rotation hasn’t been that great, either. Too much of the weight there is carried by Jose Ramirez and the bullpen. Also: So far, Cleveland has played one of MLB’s easiest schedules. Meanwhile, the Twins have way too much talent and depth to have played as poorly as they have over the last few weeks. They are already snapping back into form.
Schoenfield: I agree with Brad. I think the Twins can still mimic the 2019 Nationals, a team that was 19-31 before turning things out, winning a wild card and then running the table in the postseason. They need to figure out the closer situation, maybe trading for Seattle’s Kendall Graveman or the Rangers’ Ian Kennedy. I also wonder a bit about the Brewers. They’re hovering around .500 even though Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta entered the weekend with a combined 2.03 ERA. You have to expect SOME regression there from that outstanding trio. I just don’t know if they have enough offense, even if Christian Yelich overcomes his back problems and starts slugging again. The pitching is too good for a complete free fall, but the Cardinals and Cubs may start pulling away.
Olney: This is like plucking low-hanging fruit, but the Dodgers will continue to gather momentum, with Cody Bellinger and others returning from the injured list, and with whomever L.A. adds leading up to the trade deadline.
Which team’s place in the standings right now is the most disappointing?
Olney: It’s got to be the Angels, right? Shohei Ohtani has been the most valuable player in the sport this year with the value he’s providing. Before Mike Trout got hurt, he was having the best season of his career. Yet the Angels still are apparently not close to contending. The starting pitching around Ohtani has been shockingly bad.
Doolittle: Since I’ve already touched on the Twins, I’ll go with the Angels. You figure that one of these seasons they’d at least run into a luck of good pitching, but maybe not. It’s a shame, because a postseason that featured Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani would be really fun to see.
Schoenfield: The Twins and Angels are the answer here. You can throw in the entire NL East if you want, but I’ll mention the Royals. After starting 14-7, there was hope that this team could challenge the AL Central, but they quickly squandered that hot start with an 11-game losing streak. The thing is, this isn’t really a young team. Using Baseball-Reference’s average age, which is weighted for playing time, the Royals have the fourth-oldest lineup in the majors. They are younger on the pitching side — 10th — but the young rotation hasn’t stepped up as of yet. In a sense, this is a team that is built to win now with 30-somethings Salvador Perez, Carlos Santana and Whit Merrifield carrying the offense, but right now the Royals look like a .500 team at best.
Which team’s place in the standings is the biggest surprise in a good way?
Doolittle: My projection system didn’t love the Giants, yet when I commented on them in the preseason, I was always careful to mention that they were a likely candidate to outplay the forecasts. It’s just a really well run club with a smart manager and a core of players who have been a part of a lot of winning. Can they keep hanging with the Padres and Dodgers? That’s a hard road, but so far, the Giants have been on a great ride.
Olney: The Red Sox. Chaim Bloom spent last year building the infrastructure within the organization’s talent, and between that progress and the return of Alex Cora as manager, Boston has stepped back into the AL East race. Now the question will be how much ownership will bet on the team’s playoff chances and is willing to spend before the trade deadline.
Schoenfield: I might go with the Mets here, actually. Let’s see: Lindor struggling, Dom Smith struggling, James McCann struggling — and those are the three hitters who have been healthy. Jacob deGrom missed a few starts. Carlos Carrasco hasn’t pitched yet, and Taijuan Walker was pitching great before landing on the IL. David Peterson and Joey Lucchesi are a combined 2-7. Cameron Maybin went 0-for-26, and Michael Conforto has two home runs. And yet, they’re in first place. Did we mention the NL East is bad?
Which team should go into sell mode between now and the trade deadline?
Olney: The Angels absolutely should be sellers, given how many players have free agency looming — and they should be thinking right now about a looming contract quandary. It’s very difficult for big-market teams to carry three $30 million-a-year deals. Mike Trout will be an Angel for life, of course, and Anthony Rendon is also making huge dollars. With Shohei Ohtani now a couple of years from free agency, it’s possible he could be a $30 million-a-year player — and if he continues to play this well, with this much attention, the Angels are going to want to keep him. So the team should be thinking about proactively looking for opportunities to move as much of Rendon’s contract as possible to put it in a better position to retain Ohtani.
Doolittle: The Rockies had better be lining up the suitors for Trevor Story, because that team isn’t going anywhere. They are winning at a .143 clip on the road and have darn near been doubled up in run differential away from home. It’s time to tear this thing down to the studs and have another go at it with a fresh front office.
Schoenfield: It will be interesting to see what Farhan Zaidi ultimately decides to do with the Giants. Even if they fall six or seven games behind the Dodgers and Padres, the second wild-card could still be in play. Kevin Gausman, a pending free agent, would be one of the most attractive pitchers on the market if he’s made available — but he’s also a pitcher capable of winning that wild-card game.
Jerry Dipoto, on the other hand, has an easier decision. The Mariners aren’t good, can’t hit and are still building up. Kendall Graveman hasn’t allowed a run and would be a late-game option for contenders. Mitch Haniger is having an outstanding season, and while he’s under team control for another season, Jarred Kelenic is in the majors, and Julio Rodriguez could arrive next season. Given the need for offense across the league, Haniger should bring back a nice prospect or two in return (but could also help the team next year).
Who will finish the season with the most wins in the AL, and how many?
Doolittle: The Rays will top the league with 96 wins. Everyone else has injuries or roster holes to steer around, while Tampa Bay is already humming along with all sorts of replacement parts at the ready if any one cog breaks down.
Olney: The Rays, 98 victories.
Schoenfield: The Rays are a damn miracle, aren’t they? They just find a way. But I’m going with the White Sox with … 95 wins. An easier division than the AL East, a strong rotation and bullpen that should prevent any extended losing stretches and a good lineup even without Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert. Plus, they’ve only played the Tigers three times so far, so that’s 16 more games against them.
Who will finish the season with the most wins in the NL, and how many?
Doolittle: The Dodgers will win 104 games, two more than the Padres. The presence of the latter accounts for the win total of the former. These teams will push each other all season to avoid the wild-card game, and it’ll be glorious.
Olney: The Dodgers are due for a long winning streak, and they’ll finish with 102 wins.
Schoenfield: They won’t get to my 110 preseason prediction, but I’ll also go with the Dodgers at 102. Finishing one game ahead of the 101-win Padres.
Which team will lose the most games and get next year’s No. 1 overall draft pick?
Olney: The Orioles, who will be beaten up the rest of this season by four AL East organizations that are actually trying to win.
Doolittle: The Orioles have the early lead, and they’ve proved over the past few years that there is no useful veteran that they aren’t willing to unload if it’ll net them a few more ticks under the “L” column.
Schoenfield: This will be one of the most intriguing storylines the final two months because super-prospect Elijah Green is the jewel of the 2022 draft, a high school outfielder who could end up as the top amateur draft prospect since Bryce Harper.
This looks like a heated four-team race between the Orioles, Tigers, Pirates and Rockies. The Orioles have the “advantage” of playing in a division with four other good teams. The Rockies still have 13 games against the Padres and 12 against the Dodgers and will probably trade Story right after the All-Star Game (which, remember, is now in Denver this year). The Pirates are terrible. The Tigers at least have a little pitching. I’ll go with the Orioles as well, although John Means may single-handedly keep them the worst record.