Memorial Day weekend is always the unofficial start to summer. The day itself is one of BBQs, outdoorsy things, baseball, and most importantly, remembering the troops and heroes that gave us the privilege to do the above-mentioned things.
The day is also an unofficial checkpoint in the baseball season. It’s the point where fans can start to get a sense of which teams are contenders and which are heading to the cellar. Granted, last year the Philadelphia Phillies were 21-28 and a mess on Memorial Day and we know how their season ended. However, most teams are either starting to find their footing or starting to watch their season slip away.
There are a handful of winners and losers at this point in the season. Some teams in particular have been pleasant surprises and have not only exceeded expectations but have an avenue to the World Series. With every team just about completing one-third of the season, who stands out?
Winner One: Baltimore Orioles
It might be a surprise to have the Baltimore Orioles, who aren’t first in their division as the top surprise. They’ve been good to start the season but good enough to warrant the first mention. Despite the second-best record in the American League East Division, the Orioles at 34-20 are also the second-best team in the American League (tough division some might say). They’ve looked good but what makes them stand out?
The Orioles entered the season with hopes of leaping into the postseason conversation. They’ve rebuilt this team from the ground up and this year would be the one where they’d enter the contending conversation. They’ve not only exceeded expectations early on but have impressed in a variety of ways.
They have one of the best lineups in baseball, averaging 5.00 runs per game. The Orioles are carried by a lineup that not only has power at the top but depth. Austin Hays and Adley Rutschman are fueling the heart of the lineup while six everyday hitters have an OPS+ over 100. The outsider’s perspective on the Orioles is that they outhit or outslug their opponents and are carried by a dominant lineup but they have been more than that. The starting pitching has stepped up with Tyler Wells and Kyle Gibson leading the rotation while Kyle Bradish and Dean Kremer have added depth to the rotation. The bullpen meanwhile has been a strength. Yennier Cano looks like one of the best relievers in baseball while Felix Bautista is still the reliable closer in the ninth inning.
The one area where the Orioles have room to improve is in the rotation and they’ll be in the market for an ace. Ironically, at the trade deadline, it’s the one need that a contending team would like to have. The Orioles can be in the hunt for the division title and then make a push by adding an elite starter to not only win the division but look like the team to beat in the American League.
Loser One: Oakland A’s
The worst. There aren’t enough words to describe the disgrace that the Oakland A’s have become. At this point, you feel bad for the fans, the ones that fell in love with this team in the 1980s (when they were great) and the early 2000s (when they were good) but are now stuck in a mess. The A’s have been bad on the field, at the ballpark, off the field, and in the national eye (fans see a sad team in an empty ballpark that looks poised to relocate because of an awful ownership group).
Sticking to the on-field stuff, they’ve been one of the worst teams in baseball history and could finish this season as far and beyond the worst team in the game’s history. They score 3.44 runs per game which is second-worst in baseball and they allow a league-worst 7.05 runs per game. The A’s have had losing streaks of six games, seven games, and a current losing streak of 11 games. They are 10-45 putting them on pace for a 30-win season. It’s hard to lose that many games even if a team tries but they are in a league of their own.
There’s no telling how this ends and if at the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky. maybe the A’s eventually move to Las Vegas and with that move, they somehow become a better, more watchable team. Maybe the A’s are sold to an owner that is willing to invest in the team and the city and put together a competitive team (something that happened in the 80s). It’s one of those situations where the fans have suffered the most and there doesn’t seem like a good ending anytime soon for this historically bad team.
Winner Two: Tampa Bay Rays
The class of baseball at the start of the season. The Tampa Bay Rays have a 39-17 record which is the best in baseball but have been dominant in all facets of the game as well.
They have a remarkable rotation led by Cy Young candidate Shane McClanahan who has allowed only 14 runs in 64 innings while tossing 75 strikeouts. Best yet, the rotation is clicking with Tyler Glasnow, who might have the best stuff on the staff, having yet to pitch a game. The bullpen continues to win by committee with multiple relievers stepping up for any situation to close out games (their save leader for what it’s worth is Jason Adam, which might surprise you as much as it surprised me).
Then there’s the lineup, which is scoring 6.09 runs per game which is second-best in baseball. Yandy Diaz is slashing .327/.429/.612 with 12 home runs and 101 total bases, making him one of the best power hitters in the game. Wander Franco, Randy Arozarena, and Josh Lowe have all been able to make contact and put the ball in play to keep the line moving. A mind-boggling 10 (yes 10!) batters in the lineup have an OPS+ over 100, making every out a tough one. The sky is the limit with this Rays team and led by their lineup, they can easily win the World Series this year.
Loser Two: Central Divisions (Both of Them)
Does anyone want to win here my God? Of the 10 teams in the AL and NL Central, only three of them are at or above .500 at the time of this typing. The Milwaukee Brewers have the best record of the bunch, they are 28-25.
The AL Central has seen the Minnesota Twins on rare occasions look like a team that can compete with the rest of the league but they’ve failed to string together enough wins to run away with the division. They are 28-26 and have left the window open for the 25-27 Detriot Tigers to step up and take over the division lead. At the bottom, the Chicago White Sox are 22-33, and one of the great disappointments of the 2023 season while the Kansas City Royals are 17-38 and would be baseball’s worst team if not for the historically bad A’s.
The NL Central meanwhile is the division where expectations didn’t match up with reality. The Chicago Cubs were expected to take a big leap this year while the St. Louis Cardinals were just expected to run away with the division. The Cubs are in last place while the Cardinals have turned a corner after losing 11 of 12 but are still struggling. The Pittsburgh Pirates looked like a sleeper team but the lineup eventually gave out and at this point, the Brewers might crawl away with the division by default (or maybe the Cincinnati Reds conjure some magic).
The last time a team from the NL Central won the World Series was in 2016 (the Cubs). The last time the AL Central won the World Series was in 2015 (the Royals). Those two divisional droughts are the longest in baseball and by the looks of it, they look to remain that way.
Winner Three: Braves & Dodgers
Going with chalk for preseason predictions felt like a bold move at the start of the season. Everyone was picking teams to unseat the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers in their division as if they were a thing of the past.
Well, they remain the teams to beat in the National League. They have the two best records and again, look like the teams to beat. The everyday players on both teams were overlooked and stars like Mookie Betts, Austin Riley, Freddie Freeman, and Ronald Acuna Jr. were overlooked. The Braves and Dodgers have some team biting at their heels in their divisions but they both have shown little sign of slowing down.
Loser Three: San Diego Padres
What is going happening with the San Diego Padres? They entered the season as World Series favorites, the hot pick to win it all by many fans and experts. At 24-29, they are in fourth play in their division. Their lineup, which was supposed to be a strength, is scoring only 4.04 runs per game, the sixth-worst in baseball.
Let’s start with how the lineup has struggled. Juan Soto, the prize addition at last year’s trade deadline has been a big disappointment. He’s great at drawing walks but has become too passive at the plate, waiting for his pitch to come but not swinging enough to make an impact. Just when he turned things around, Manny Machado, the other star in the lineup who wasn’t having a great year, to begin with, went down to an injury. A top-heavy lineup that relies heavily on its elite hitter isn’t getting that production and it’s showing.
To make matters worse, the pitching staff has been a disaster as well. Blake Snell and Yu Darvish have underperformed while Michael Wacha, a 31-year-old journeyman, has become their best starter (go figure). The bright spot has been Josh Hader who has turned to being a dominant closer but the Padres, who rarely have leads in games, rarely give him the ball (he’s only pitched in 22 games this year). The Padres are entering the desperate time of the years when they have to turn things around and start to make a push in the division and the National League.
Winner Four: Wild AL West (Aside From the A’s)
Ok, this division has been fun to watch. The Houston Astros are the team to beat and are the reigning World Series champs. They’ve struggled at times but remain on course to compete for the World Series again with a 31-22 record. They can win the division for the third year in a row and sixth time in seven years but the competition is tough this time around.
The Texas Rangers lead the division at 34-19 and have looked like a dominant team early on. It’s surprising how many of their signings have worked out but Nathan Eovaldi and Jacob deGrom have carried the rotation while holdovers from last year’s roster, Adolis Garcia, Jonah Heim, and Marcus Semien fuel the best lineup in baseball. It’s a long season but the Rangers have fired on all cylinders so far.
The Seattle Mariners have won seven of their last 10 games to jump above the .500 mark and they are led by a great rotation. Luis Castillo is having a Cy Young-caliber season while George Kirby and Logan Gilbert have rounded out the rotation to make the Mariners a formidable team for the rest of the summer. Even the Los Angeles Angels, a team everyone anticipates will fail by season’s end, have been playing .500 ball. Maybe this is the year they get Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani into the postseason and snap a nine-year drought.
Games aren’t going as late with the rule changes but the West Coast games are once again keeping avid baseball fans in the Eastern time awake late.
Loser Four: New York Mets
With all the money the New York Mets spent, they’ve only played .500 ball. It’s been a chaotic start to the season with Edwin Diaz getting hurt during the World Baseball Classic, Justin Verlander getting hurt at the start of the season, and Max Scherzer dealing with a whole lotta things. The Mets also weren’t getting power from a lineup that is carried by it, making the team a middling one.
The Mets have improved recently with the addition of young talent and their rotation finally returning to full strength. However, they have a tough hill to climb to get back into the divisional race and if they can’t catch the Braves by season’s end, it could be a tough winter ahead.
Honorable Mention: MLB Rule Changes
There was a lot of uncertainty and skepticism about the rule changes and understandably so. MLB has managed to anger fans for years and why would these new rules but any different? At the Memorial Day weekend, it’s safe to say that Commissioner Rob Manfred got it right (some might say that a broken clock is right twice a day).
The pitch clock has made a three-hour game a two-and-a-half-hour one. Baseball is more action-packed and the games have trimmed down the fat. Baseball is played the way it was played in the 1910s but with more skill and power. That is to say, the pitcher gets the ball, throws the ball, and the batter hits it without much interruption in between.
The shift ban has brought with it mixed results but overall, it’s brought baseball back to the future. Now a hard-hit ball can more often be a base hit and not an easy out with teams shifting to the exact spot where it’s hit. That said, this is a rule that favors a hitter, as most rule changes do. If you don’t like the shift, you can bunt. The other gripe with this rule change is that the shortstop, by definition, was a shift since teams used to play with four outfielders and three fielders by each base (until teams realized it’s not worth it to have four outfielders).
Then there is the baserunning addition. The pick-off rule forces the pitcher to throw the ball at the plate while the slightly bigger bases, make base-stealing easier. Finally, speed is a big factor in the game.
It’s a long season and a lot can change. On Memorial Day, we can look back at what the season has been and what is in store. So far, 2023 has been a fun year for those that watch on a daily basis.
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