A month of the 2014 season is in the rearview mirror, though not enough May days have pushed April, and let us not forget about the March 31 season openers, out of sight.
Memories of the first month are still fresh, and several things happened that will affect teams and playoff races over the course of the next few weeks and months.
April injuries will have an impact on how several division races will shape out. Unexpected early-season performances from players who will fade into oblivion also have left their mark.
Here is a look at 10 of the noteworthy teams and players from the first 25-or-so games:
Best team: Key injuries to the Atlanta Braves’ starting rotation threatened to sink their season, but after one month the Braves have outpitched everybody. Their pitching was so good, allowing a league-best 76 runs in 26 games, that it carried an offense that outscored only two others. The bats should be better. The pitching won’t be as good, but it’ll be good enough to keep the Braves contending all season.
Worst team: The Houston Astros entered the weekend with some company in the win column at nine, a dubious spot they shared with the Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks. A case can be made that the Astros aren’t the worst team. They split four games a week ago against Oakland, and they’ve played well against the New York Yankees and Rangers. But the Astros make the same mistakes as last year, have had the same bullpen meltdowns and strike out way too much.
Biggest surprise, team: No one had the Milwaukee Brewers winning the National League Central, and not many had them finishing higher than fourth. But the Brewers posted baseball’s best record in March/April. Ryan Braun has performed like he did when on the Biogenesis juice, and Carlos Gomez has again been a terrific player who continues to irk opposing teams. The star of the pitching staff has been closer Francisco Rodriguez, who looks like he did in 2009.
Biggest surprise, individual: Aaron Harang didn’t have a job until the final week of spring training, when the injury-depleted Braves signed him and sprinkled their magical pitching pixie dust on him. Harang took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of his debut and finished April with a 3-2 record and a 2.97 ERA. He went 5-12 with a 5.40 ERA last year.
Biggest disappointment, team: At 13 games under .500 entering the weekend, no team has stubbed its toes harder than the Diamondbacks, who had lofty expectations. They were dealt a blow in spring training when Patrick Corbin was lost for the season. But Trevor Cahill, the former Rangers killer, is no good. Wade Miley and Brandon McCarthy haven’t been very good. Manager Kirk Gibson said he would understand if he got fired, but the guy who put this mess together, general manager Kevin Towers, needs to be held accountable, too.
Biggest disappointment, player: Prince Fielder was supposed to solve the Rangers’ six-season drought of meaningful production at first base. Maybe he will, and the offense-starved Rangers will relish it. In April, though, he had more infield hits (three) than homers (two). Teams are shifting four infielders to the right side, and he hasn’t been able to lift the ball over them.
Key injuries: Proponents of the feet-first slide are feeling pretty good about themselves, though no one who likes baseball wants to see Bryce Harper and Josh Hamilton injured. Each talented outfielder was lost to thumb injuries after snagging their digits on the base they had just dived hands-first into. At least Harper was going into third. Hamilton was hurt diving into first base. The Angels have stayed afloat despite Hamilton’s absence. Washington is at the beginning of a two-month Harper-less journey.
Best American League rookie: More candidates for Rookie of the Year have emerged than for any other award. Topping them all was Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, whose 10 homers and 32 RBIs led baseball. He got hot in the second half of the month, beginning with a splendid April 20 in a 16-2 rout of the Rangers. The latest sensation from Cuba was better than the latest sensation from Japan, Masahiro Tanaka, as well as Royals righty Yordano Ventura, Mariners lefty Roenis Elias, Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts and Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos.
Best hitter: Another crowded field here, but no one was better than Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. History suggests that A) playing at elevation elevated his numbers and that B) he’s probably due for an injury. But his .370 average, .478 on-base percentage and .728 slugging percentage would have been spectacular if his home ballpark was at 10,000 feet instead of the 5,280 in downtown Denver. Adrian Gonzalez of the Dodgers, Mike Trout of the Angels, Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays, Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies and Justin Upton of the Braves were among the other plate stars.
Best pitcher: The most surprising thing about Adam Wainwright’s opening six starts is that he actually lost one of them. The right-hander allowed two runs in 71/3 innings April 6 at Pittsburgh and was hit with a loss. But the Cardinals’ ace recovered, winning his last four starts and recording 25 consecutive scoreless innings. He entered May at 5-1 with a 1.20 ERA, second to Cincinnati righty Johnny Cueto. He posted a 1.15 ERA, and at 2-2 served as Exhibit A for the crowd that wants to abolish wins as a meaningful stat.
1. Braves: If offense gets going, watch out for this team.
2. Brewers: Check back in September, but enjoy this ride.
3. A’s: They can pitch and they score. That’s a good formula.
4. Tigers: As AL Central sorts out, Detroit back on top.
5. Giants: It’s an even year, which means they’ll be good.
1. Astros: Better be nice or Bo Porter will come way inside.
2. Cubs: Top prospect Javier Baez batting just .167 at Triple A.
3. Diamondbacks: Heat Kirk Gibson is feeling isn’t the desert.
4. Pirates: Clint Hurdle’s bunch won’t be on this list long.
5. Indians: Ditto for Terry Francona’s bunch.