By Dan Schlossberg
For generations, big-league ballclubs have considered Memorial Day a major milepost.
It is not only the date to start planning major moves — such as firing a manager or promoting a prospect — but also to consider whether the first third of the seaspm has been a boon or a bust.
Trade talk will pick up too as teams evaluate the depth of their rosters, the impact of their injuries, and their progress in the pennant (aka divisional) races.
As we prepare to tear off another page in the 162-game calendar, the Atlanta Braves have the biggest lead in any of the six divisions. But their season is more a byproduct of other teams’ failures than Atlanta’s abilities.
Seeking their sixth straight division crown — the longest active title streak in the majors — the Braves have staggered lately. Trying to stay afloat without ace pitchers Max Fried and Kyle Wright has been trying at best, especially considering the recent struggles of 40-year-old Charlie Morton and erratic strikeout machine Spencer Strider.
In addition, reigning NL Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II, who hit .297 with 19 homers after his Memorial Day promotion last season, has been a disaster, hitting more than 100 points less and producing fewer long balls than Orlando Arcia.
If not for MVP favorite Ronald Acuna, Jr., the Braves might be closer to last place than first. But the aging New York Mets and defensively-challenged Philadelphia Phillies have had trouble staying above the .500 mark all season.
In the NL West, the San Diego Padres have gotten little bang for their buck after spending wildly in the free-agent market last winter. Heavy favorites of the forecasters, the Padres have fallen back to the pack as the Los Angeles Dodgers have ridden young players back to their traditional spot at the top of the heap.
We all knew Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts who be MVP contenders but who knew James Outman — a great name for baseball, by the way — would become one of their most productive teammates?
Nobody expected much from San Francisco, hardly Giants so far, after the team sought Aaron Judge and Xander Bogaerts but settled for Michael Conforto.
On the other hand, Arizona’s Diamondbacks are shining like gems in a prospector’s pan. After cutting ties with free-agent bust Madison Bumgarner, the D’backs are actually on track for a playoff berth (since a dozen teams now qualify in the foolishly-expanded postseason).
Like Arizona, Pittsburgh has gone from pathetic to promising — even after the devastating long-term injury to rising star Oneill Cruz. The Pirates won’t win the Central title but might just squeeze into the postseason picture with its team of untested unknowns.
The stumbling start of the St. Louis Cardinals, who lack pitching, and their indecision over where Willson Contreras should play could make Oli Marmol the first managerial casualty of the campaign. But David Ross of the Cubs could beat him to it, even though Cody Bellinger is the favorite for the Comeback of the Year award (with ex-Cub Jason Heyward, now a Dodger, also in the running).
Another Contreras — William — has thrived since arriving in Milwaukee, where his bat and guidance of an injury-riddled pitching staff have made the Brewers surprise contenders. Suffice to say, however, that no NL Central team is likely to advance past the Division Series.
The American League also has a lethargic Central Division, perhaps compensating for the beasts of the East and West.
All five teams in the loaded Eastern division have won more than they lost but all seem toothless when matched against the surprise front-runners from Tampa Bay. All the Rays have done is parlayed pitching and power into a juggernaut that started 35-15, thanks to a record-tying 13-0 streak at the start.
The youthful Baltimore Orioles, ripening on the vine at the big-league level, could be this year’s Cinderella club though its pitching still looks like a likely a Achilles heel. Don’t be surprised if somebody like Adley Rutschman or Rookie of the Year contender Gunnar Henderson challenges Shohei Ohtani for American League MVP honors.
Aaron Judge won’t hit 62 homers again but still spearheads a strong Yankees attack that hopes to generate more runs than its pitchers allow. The return of oft-injured Luis Severino should help, though Gerit Cole is staking a strong claim on his first Cy Young Award.
Toronto, like New York, has been on a roller-coaster ride all season, sweeping Atlanta in a three-game set but otherwise looking mostly mortal. And the Boston Red Sox, seeking to escape the cellar, miss Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez, both of whom are tearing up the National League after riding free agency across league lines.
Both the Jays and the Sox need better pitching. Kenley Jansen isn’t the answer, Boston.
In the West, all eyes are on Ohtani, whose pending free agency could prompt a July trade — perhaps by a contender willing to surrender a fortune for a two-month rental.
The two-way star has another MVP in his sights and perhaps his first Cy Young too, though Cole could have something to say about that. In the meantime, Ohtani’s future could be determined by the future of Mike Trout and the rest of the Angels. If they win, he just might stay, though Dodger dollars could be enticing.
Jacob deGrom won’t win a third Cy Young — he has to stay healthy for that — but the Texas Rangers under future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy entered Memorial Day weekend as best of the West. Their heavy-hitting lineup was the main reason.
Dusty Baker, whose next stop will also be Cooperstown, is trying to defend a world championship — his first as a manager — but also to ward off an injury bug that has claimed starting pitchers Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers, Jr., among others. At least he got former MVP and batting champ Jose Altuve back after a long IL stint with a fractured thumb.
The Seattle Mariners, who remain the only team that has never won a pennant, would like to end that drought that season. Jarred Kelenic is doing his best to help but the season-long loss of lefty Robbie Ray, the AL’s Cy Young Award winner in 2021, was a major setback. The M’s should be better when Julio Rodriguez recaptures last year’s Rookie of the Year form (see also Michael Harris II, another victim of the Sophomore Jinx).
Only one thing’s for sure about the AL West: the Athletics are not only out of the running but also out of their long-time home. When they move to Las Vegas, perhaps as early as next season, the penny-pinching A’s will become the first club to represent four different cities. It may be a worthwhile gamble, however.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is signing his latest book, Baseball’s Memorable Misses, at the Flemington (NJ) Book Fair all day Sunday, at a SABR meeting in N. Attleboro MA June 10, and at the Baseball Hall of Fame July 6. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.