It’s Memorial Day, MLB fans! And that means you are free to officially look at the MLB standings.
The saying goes, among baseball fans, that you should avoid checking the standings until Memorial Day, which puts us two months into the season. That gives teams time to play enough games to add meaning to what we’re seeing happen in every division.
In theory, the small-sample-size blips should start regressing to the mean, and what you see at this point should start to reflect what you might see come October.
And while your team’s position in the standings today might not guarantee it will end the season there, there is some truth to the concept: According to Elias Sports Bureau data, 58% of teams (90 of 155) 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).
We asked ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Joon Lee, Buster Olney and David Schoenfield to take a good look at the standings and weigh in on what stands out most to them so far.
What’s the first thing that jumps out to you when you look at the standings?
Schoenfield: The Rays started off 13-0 or 20-3 or 29-7 or whatever stretch you want to use and yet the ORIOLES ARE RIGHT THERE. It’s not like the Rays collapsed in May, either; they’re over .500. The Orioles have simply been great as well — even though their rotation ERA ranks in the bottom third of the majors (the Rays are first). The bullpen has been terrific, the lineup has scored runs and has hit particularly well in big moments (close to .300 in high-leverage situations) and Adley Rutschman and Cedric Mullins have been two of the best players in the league.
Doolittle: It’s hard not to notice that both Central divisions are pretty bad. Is this what the balanced schedule hath wrought? I think the Cardinals, Brewers and Twins are all capable of being good, and the Cubs, Guardians and White Sox could get there as well. But it’s also possible that we get a sub-.500 division champ. I mean, as a group, the American League Central is a combined 32 games under .500 (35-67) against the other two AL divisions.
Olney: I’ve got two thoughts: First, it’s apparent that one or two of the best teams in the AL is not going to make the playoffs because of the relative strength of the East. Because of the format, at least one and probably two of the AL East teams are not going to reach the postseason. And the other thing that jumps out is how many strong favorites from the preseason have struggled — the Padres, Cardinals, Phillies, Mets, even the Guardians.
Lee: The overall strength of the AL East cannot be overstated. Through much of the season so far, the last-place team in the division would have been in first place in the AL Central. Yankees outfielder Harrison Bader recently told me that the intensity of the division race forces him to lock in to a degree he’s never felt before. There’s also some bad blood brewing between some of the teams, especially the Yankees with both the Rays and the Blue Jays. Getting some old-school division tension is something that always excites me.
Of the six NL teams currently in the playoff field, how many will be there in October?
Schoenfield: The National League appears to have infinite playoff possibilities at the moment, and we could see three or even four teams with fewer than 90 wins make the postseason. The only two locks appear to be the Braves and Dodgers — even though the Dodgers currently have five starting pitchers on the injured list. After that, it’s a logjam. The Cardinals have finally started playing well and have the position players and prospects to trade for pitching help if desired. The Mets, Phillies and Padres have all disappointed and aren’t sure bets to turn things around. I’ll go with three current teams — with either the Brewers or Diamondbacks joining the Braves and Dodgers (OK, the Diamondbacks).
Doolittle: Four. The Pirates will fade, and while I’m a big believer in Arizona, right now the Mets are teetering on the edge and the Phillies, Cardinals and Padres are all on the outside looking in. I have to think at least two of those teams will nudge their way in. And it could be three if the Cardinals continue their rebound and overtake Milwaukee, and the NL Central doesn’t get a wild-card slot.
Olney: I’ll say five, and agree with others that the Pirates are the most likely to drift back to the pack. The great unknown in the NL playoff race is what the Brewers will do at the deadline — we saw them move Josh Hader last summer, even while in first place, and if they follow the analytics, they should probably do the same thing this July with Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Willy Adames, players who have peak value this summer. And if they did move them, that would help open the door for the Cardinals, who will still win the Central despite their awful start.
Lee: The Braves and Dodgers appear to be the only locks so far. After that, it might be just as effective to put the rest of the teams in a hat and pull them out at random. I’m typically of the belief that the strength of a roster usually wins out over the course of a long season, but the Mets, Phillies and Padres cannot escape the disappointment of the season so far given how much all three teams invested in their rosters. Of those three teams, I believe the most in the strength of the Padres, especially with some of the most talented players on that roster (*stares at Juan Soto*) underperforming, but then again, San Diego tops the majors in winning offseasons but falling short when the games are actually played.
Of the six AL teams currently in the playoff field, how many will be there in October?
Schoenfield: I’m going with … all six. Yuck. Boring. But the Rangers absolutely look like they are for real with the best offense so far in the majors and a rotation that has pitched well even without Jacob deGrom. The Astros have survived injuries and some terrible individual starts (Jose Abreu, Alex Bregman) and are still in a playoff spot — oh, and they have 10 games remaining against the A’s. The Twins are the best of the awful AL Central, although they’ve allowed Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago to hang around. I suppose either or both of the Guardians and White Sox could figure things out and make a run, but I’ll stick with the Twins. That leaves three teams in the AL East and I’m going with the Rays, Orioles and Yankees, which leaves the Blue Jays and Red Sox outside the postseason.
Doolittle: Six. The seedings might change, but I think we’ve got our field. There’s a long way to go, obviously, but if you believe in the Rangers — and I do — then one of our preseason playoff favorites is going to lose its spot. Right now, it’s Toronto, and while the Blue Jays have playoff talent, there are just more good teams than playoff slots in the AL. There are also far more flat-out terrible teams in the circuit than in the NL, which is relevant because in the AL, the middle class has been hollowed out. It is now mostly just haves and have-nots, which means wins flow to the haves and in turn that raises the bar to get into the bracket.
Olney: Seattle’s rotation is absurdly great, and as we saw this week, the Mariners have an advantage that the East teams do not — playing a really bad team in their division and feasting. That’s a chit that the Yankees or the Orioles would love to have. And I’m going to climb onto the bonkers bandwagon here and say that with Carlos Correa down and the Guardians starved for run production, the White Sox will wind up winning this division. Michael Kopech is the difference-maker.
Lee: There are two switches I could potentially see happening: the Mariners overtaking the Rangers and the Blue Jays passing the Orioles. We have yet to see Julio Rodriguez heat up, and there’s no chance he plays this way the entire season. When you factor that in with the type of season Jarred Kelenic is having, it’s easy to imagine this Mariners offense going to another level. With the Blue Jays, it’s hard for me to imagine that this is just who Alek Manoah is now, especially given how strong he looked the past two seasons. If Manoah can just find a middle ground between his horrific start and his track record, Toronto will be able to combine a dynamic offense with a strong rotation.
Which team is the biggest disappointment?
Schoenfield: I thought the Padres were overhyped before the season, but nobody expected them to be mediocre AND just kind of uninteresting. Yes, the lack of lineup depth has been an issue, the catching situation has been a disaster and Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell haven’t pitched well, but also the Big Four haven’t exactly clicked and Manny Machado is now on the IL following a slow start. At least Soto is heating up and there’s still plenty of talent and time to make a run — but nothing we’ve seen so far suggests the Padres are a playoff team (including their 1-5 record against the Dodgers).
Doolittle: The Padres. It’s another lesson telling us that winning the offseason is just that — winning the offseason. All of that superstar talent in the lineup — Fernando Tatis Jr., Soto, Machado, Xander Bogaerts — and the offense has still been awful. They have time to get rolling, of course, but if they continue on this trajectory and have all that money on the books in the years to come … it’s not going to be a good situation.
Olney: Well, I picked the Padres to win the World Series this year, so I cannot credibly pick any other team. San Diego is starting to remind me of the 2011 Red Sox, who looked like a monster team on paper after the signing of Carl Crawford and the trade for Adrian Gonzalez and wound up missing the playoffs. For a team with so many great players, they are wildly inconsistent.
Lee: It’s hard to choose anyone other than San Diego. When a team trades for Soto at the deadline, then has Tatis Jr. return from PED suspension and signs Bogaerts, you’d expect its offense to set the world on fire and it just hasn’t. As much as I appreciate Ha-Seong Kim, the fact that he’s the team’s leader in bWAR among position players through this point in the season shows how much the rest of the team has underperformed expectations.
Which team will finish the season with the most wins in MLB — and how many games will it win?
Schoenfield: I still think the AL East teams are going to beat up on each other. The Rays, for example, have played 21 of their 52 division games, so still have 33 to go. They do have such a great record already that 100 wins is definitely in the picture. The Rangers have blitzed through these first two months and have an impressive run differential and perhaps a Cy Young contender — Nathan Eovaldi, not deGrom. But I’ll go with the Braves. The NL East doesn’t look so tough with the Mets and Phillies scrambling, Michael Harris II and Austin Riley will step it up, and they’ll get Max Fried back. I’ll say 102 wins.
Doolittle: The Rays still seem like the best bet, even if they have moved a bit back toward the pack and have had some major pitching injuries. They have just been so consistent and are so deep and are strong across the board, ranking in the top five in hitting, pitching and defense alike. They look like a 105-to-110 win team and that’s going to be hard for anyone else to beat.
Olney: The Rays started the season without Tyler Glasnow, and they got off to a record start. They lost Jeffrey Springs and then Drew Rasmussen, and they continued to win; their offense is so dynamic. As long as Wander Franco and Randy Arozarena continue to play well, the offense will be a force that should drive them through some of the inevitable dip in performance. They’re on pace to win about 110 games, which is why I wrote last month that they’ll go wire to wire — and I’ll stick with that.
Lee: I’m going to go with the Rays — with the caveat that Wander Franco must stay healthy the entire season. Their rotation has definitely taken some hits with Jeffrey Spring and Drew Rasmussen on the injured list, but Shane McClanahan continues his reign as one of the game’s best pitchers. But it’s hard to overstate the impact of Franco on this lineup. The way opposing teams approach Tampa Bay’s lineup has changed dramatically due to the star shortstop’s presence in the middle of the lineup forcing them to pitch to everyone else around him — Randy Arozarena, Yandy Diaz, Brandon Lowe, Taylor Walls — completely differently.