2.) Texas Rangers (1st Place AL West, 17-6 Overall, 9-4 v. Contenders)
Not only does Texas own the best record and the best run differential in either league, they managed to accumulate those totals during what will be the second-toughest stretch in their 2012 schedule. The only Big Seven team they didn’t play in April was their division rival, the Angels. They won every series except the one against Tampa Bay. Once their current series with the Jays ends, they will basically play nothing but patsies until the middle of July, by which point their divisional lead may be nearly insurmountable. The Rangers’ biggest flaw is probably their lineups susceptibility to injury, they mitigated that somewhat by jumping out to a big lead during this tough stretch. Even if/when Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz succumb to the inevitable tweaked hammy, Texas probably still has enough firepower to handle the lowly Athletics and Mariners.
Highlight: The enigmatic offseason addition, Yu Darvish, shrugged off the control issues which dogged him in his first two starts and dominated the Yankees, striking out ten in 8 1/3 shutout innings on April 24th. Of course, besting the Yankees lineup is always impressive, but this start also felt like a coming out party for Darvish. In his first two outings, he seemed tentative, working slowly and nibbling, drawing the inevitable Dice-K comparisons. Against New York, he pitched quickly and with confidence, and he followed it up by dominating the Jays (7 IP, 1 ER, 9 K) in Toronto. It now appears Darvish is worthy of the Ace expectations bestowed upon him before he ever threw a pitch in the major leagues.
MVP: Darvish went 4-0. Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, and Colby Lewis were also magnificent. But Josh Hamilton seems like the inevitable AL Player of the Month, as he put together one of his characteristic hot streaks, blasting 9 homers and posting a .395/.438/.744 line. He was so good, Buster Olney started making Triple Crown predictions. Seriously, it’s only April.
3.) New York Yankees (3rd Place AL East, 13-9 Overall, 7-7 v. Contenders)
When the season began, William urged us to be content with a .500 record in April, considering New York would have to visit Tampa, Boston, and Texas, while hosting the Angels and Tigers. The Yankees managed that and more, despite the fact that, as both Gabe and Brien have pointed out, the starters were extremely unfortunate. As the Yankees pitching regresses to the mean (in a good way) and they enter a less daunting portion of the schedule, they will likely fare even better.
Highlight: The Yankees frequently had to pull themselves out of early deficits, but erasing a 9-0 lead against the Red Sox in Boston by scoring 15 runs in three innings has to top the list. Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira drove in six runs each, as the Fenway faithful looked on in horror.
MVP: Retro Jeter. The Captain, who got off to a dreadful start in 2011, flipped the switch this spring. This was Jeter’s best month (according to OPS and several other measures) since April 2006, when he was a sprightly 31-year-old MVP candidate. He posted a .389/.433/.579 split and hit four homers. Last year, Derek Jeter‘s fourth homerun came on July 25th.
4.) Detroit Tigers (2nd Place AL Central, 11-11 Overall, 7-6 v. Contenders)
Detroit started strong, sweeping the Red Sox and taking two of three from Tampa Bay, but their recent skid (losing 8 of 10) combined with Delmon Young‘s Mel Gibson impression put a real damper on the month. Like many of the teams on this list, however, Detroit faced an April schedule that will not be rivaled for the rest of the season. And, like the Yankees, their starters have been a bit unfortunate (4.48 ERA, 3.79 xFIP). So, it seems likely the prohibitive AL Central favorites will be able to overcome the Indians, who have not faced a winning team since they lost two out of three to the Jays on Opening Weekend.
Highlight: Stop me when this sounds familiar. The Red Sox lineup puts up double digits. Bobby Valentine places a call to the pen holding a comfortable lead. Red Sox fans start frantically looking at their scorecards, trying to figure out who the heck the new pitcher is. Cut to postgame interview: some snide Boston beat writer asks Valentine, “Aren’t you supposed to win when you score 12 runs?”
MVP: Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera have done pretty much what everybody expected them to do. Justin Verlander keeps on rolling. Choosing any one of them would be easy and accurate. So I’ll go with Drew Smyly, who didn’t make the rotation until the final week of Spring Training. As Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello struggle mightily, Smyly has held the pitching staff together, allowing only three earned runs in 22 innings of work (1.23 ERA) and posting quality starts against tough opponents like New York and Texas.
5.) Toronto Blue Jays (4th Place AL East, 12-11 Overall, 3-4 v. Contenders)
The good news for the Baby Jays is that they’re very much in the thick of the race. Their young rotation has posted the third best ERA in the league (3.41). Their faith in Edwin Encarnacion is finally paying off. The bad news is that that there’s reason to believe that rotation has been a little lucky (5.08 FIP). Jose Bautista is slumping for the first time in three years. And the team is about to face it’s first major test, playing 20 games against the Big Six over the coming month.
Highlight: Ricky Romero outdueled Jon Lester to take the rubber game of their series against the Red Sox on April 11. Romero, now expected to perform like a full-fledged Ace, went 8 1/3 and allowed only three hits against the best offense in baseball.
MVP: Finally made a DH, Encarnacion went crazy in the way many have been expecting since he entered the league in 2005. Only Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton hit more dingers in April, as Encarnacion went .322/.376/.678 and even stole four bases.
6.) Boston Red Sox (5th Place AL East, 11-11 Overall, 4-10 v. Contenders)
I’ve mentioned several of the Boston lowlights already, but the truth is, things aren’t that bad. The Red Sox got to a .500 record, despite playing as many games against contenders as any team except Tampa Bay. They scored more runs than any team in baseball. They’ve won seven of their last eight and are embarking on a two-week run that features Oakland, Baltimore, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Seattle. In short, it looks a lot like last year. Lots of hand-wringing and hair-pulling over a few tough losses in the early weeks, followed by a relatively quick ascension of the top of the AL pile. Hopefully, the ending will also be familiar.
Highlight: Jake Peavy, who had arguably the best month of any pitcher, went the full nine against the BoSox on April 28, allowing just one run, but was beaten by Jon Lester and the frequently maligned Boston pen, to extend their winning streak to six games.
MVP: Retro Papi. Like Jeter, David Ortiz has had some famously slow starts in his mid-thirties, but this season he’s been raking from the outset, leading the vaunted Boston lineup is basically every meaningful offensive category, while leading the league in hitting (.405).
7.) Los Angeles Angels (4th Place AL West, 8-15 Overall, 1-5 v. Contenders)
Like last year, the team who made the most offseason noise and was thus regarded as an impending powerhouse, has gotten off to a very slow start, and the biggest offseason addition – in this case, Albert Pujols – is having the worst slump of his career. Making matters worse for the Angels is the fact that they had by far the softest schedule of any of the AL contenders in April, but have squandered it. Only Kansas City and Minnesota have worse records at this point.
Lowlight: Getting blanked by Bartolo Colon at home on April 18th.
LVP: Pujols struggles have been well documented, but the Angels in the outfield have been the biggest problem. Bobby Abreu was so dismal, the Angels released him, effectively eating about $8 Million. Peter Bourjos has been even worse (.481 OPS). In an effort to cut down on automatic outs, the Angels have been forced to promote Mike Trout earlier than they would’ve liked, more or less ensuring that he will be Super Two eligible.