Before the season began, there were question marks surrounding two specific American League Central teams – the Tigers and the Royals. The Royals were coming off of a World Series appearance, but they had lost both James Shields and Billy Butler. The Tigers are the defending division champions, but Justin Verlander was forced to start the season on the DL and there have been health concerns for both Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. When spring training wrapped up, the door seemed to be wide open for a team like the Indians or the White Sox to make an impression in the division. That hasn’t happened.
Scorching Start for Both
All the Tigers and Royals have done to start the season is go a combined 21-5 while outscoring their opponents by a total of 68 runs combined. Each team has thoroughly dominated their competition, and none of the other teams in the division are above .500 in the early going. Where it appeared that the division would be wide open heading into the summer, it now looks like it might be a two-horse race all season long.
Incredible Pitching by the Tigers
Even with Justin Verlander on the DL, the Tigers lead the American League having allowed just 36 total runs in 13 games. As would be expected, their offense has done the rest, already scoring 70 times in those 13 games while going 11-2. Cabrera has looked like the star that he is, and Victor Martinez has mostly picked up where he left off last season. Should Verlander be able to make a healthy and effective return to the rotation, the Tigers just may be the best team in the American League after all.
Surprising Royals Offense
Even during their run to the American League Pennant last season, the Royals were never a team that was intimidating at the plate. They used mostly speed and small ball to score a few runs, and then would turn a lead over to their dominant bullpen for the win. That recipe was a success last October, but so far this April, they have turned the offense up to a new level. Leading the league with 75 runs scored, the Royals have managed to combine excellent hitting with their reliable pitching. Just when everyone was ready to assume that the Royals playoff run was a one-year experience, they appear to be right back in contention for the 2015 campaign.
One of the top off-season story lines wasn’t actually a story at all – it was the non-trade of Cole Hamels. Despite constant speculation and rumors throughout the winter, Hamels was not traded and remains a member of the Philadelphia Phillies. Considering the low expectations for the 2015 Phillies, most expected that they would move Hamels to a contending team in order to acquire some young talent. That has not yet happened, but there is a long way to go in 2015.
Phillies Off to a Predictable Start
There have been plenty of surprised in the early 2015 season, but the Phillies have not been one of them. They are 4-9 after 13 games of the 2015 season, and have been outscored by 24 runs already. The expectation that they would be one of the worst teams in the National League appears well on its way to becoming reality. That means that by the trading deadline at the end of July, the Phillies should be safely in the ‘sellers’ camp.
Hamels Not Helping
The big gamble that the Phillies are taking is that Hamels will maintain his value throughout the season until the trade deadline rolls around. So far, that hasn’t necessarily been the case. After three starts, Hamels is carrying an ERA of 5.00 and has already walked nine batters. His total of 18 strikeouts is impressive, but the seven home runs that he has surrendered could be a potential warning sign to any possible trade partners. Certainly three starts won’t undo all of the good that Hamels has done in his career, but the Phillies are hoping for the maximum return trade value from their top asset – and his start to the season has not helped toward that end.
Boston Playing Well
One of the likely trade targets for Cole Hamels is Boston, as they have assembled a team that appears to have a strong lineup with a questionable starting rotation. However, the Red Sox have started 8-5 on the young season, and the rotation hasn’t been quite as bad as some were predicting. If the Red Sox don’t need to send young talent to Philly for Hamels, the market for their ace will suddenly get smaller. While there is always a need for quality pitchers, the package that Philadelphia is able to receive in return will be directly related to the size and competitiveness of the market as July draws to a close.
During the offseason, the Seattle Mariners signed Nelson Cruz to a lucrative four-year contract after his excellent season in Baltimore in 2014. Cruz is among the leading right handed power hitters in baseball – something that Seattle has been sorely missing for a long time. The Mariners fell just a game short of the playoffs in 2014, and they were counting on Cruz to be the added punch in the middle of the lineup that they needed to put between All-Stars Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. So far, Cruz has delivered on those expectations, and then some.
Early Home Run Surge
In just 13 games, Cruz has already logged eight home runs for the Mariners. There was some concern that the expansive Safeco Field would put a damper on the home run totals that Cruz could post, but that simply hasn’t been the case so far. He has been homering both at home and on the road, and already has 16 RBI to his credit. It has only been two weeks, but the Mariners have to be thrilled with the early returns on their investment.
Not Just Power
While Cruz will always be known mainly for his power, the early season hot start has included more than just homers. He is hitting .358 currently, and getting on base at better than 40%. Perhaps even better news for the Mariners is the reasonable strikeout numbers found on his stat line – just 10 k’s in 57 plate appearances. Cruz is never going to be a contact hitter, but keeping that strikeout rate at a reasonable level will be key to maintaining his productivity.
An Intimidating Trio
Just as it was imagined in the offseason, the 3-4-5 combination of Cano, Cruz, and Seager is already causing problems for opponents. In a game against the Rangers, Cano came to the plate with first base open and the winning run standing on third. Rather than giving Cano a chance to win the game, the Rangers chose to walk him and pitch to Cruz with the bases loaded. Cruz singled to left, and the Mariners won in walk-off fashion. There was no great option available to Texas in that scenario, because of the middle of the order quality that the Mariners now have to offer.
As a team, the Mariners aren’t off to a great start – due mostly to sub-par starting pitching. However, Nelson Cruz has certainly been doing his part to boost the offense of a team that has long struggled to score runs. If the starting pitching in Seattle can return to its form from previous years, the Mariners may be the team to beat in the West.