Publish date:

Breaking Down the National League's Three Surprising Division Leaders

The Marlins, Cubs and Rockies are the three National League division leaders entering the third full week of the season. Just as we all expected.

Heading into the season, the Marlins were the only NL East team that didn’t have a prayer to win the division after a 105-loss season in 2019. The Rockies had so underperformed last year that Nolan Arenado already wanted out of the eight-year extension he signed with Colorado in February 2019. The state of the Cubs was about as promising as that of Rome after the death of Marcus Aurelius.

You won’t find this chaos in the American League, where the Yankees, Twins and A’s hold the top three playoff spots. Talk about a snoozefest.

Need some excitement in your life? Turn to the senior circuit, where 11 of the 15 teams have at least a 40% chance to make the postseason, according to Fangraphs—Miami is not one of them.

Make no mistake, the Marlins are not a good team, but perhaps their early success should not be that surprising. They were fairly active this offseason, buying low on veterans Jesús Aguilar, Corey Dickerson and Brandon Kintzler after down years and trading for Jonathan Villar.

Aguilar, who hit 35 home runs with the Brewers in 2018, is slashing .306/.341/.694 with four homers in 41 plate appearances. Kintzler, an All-Star in 2017, has three saves in five games and has helped stabilize the bullpen. Third baseman and outfielder Brian Anderson has a 173 wRC+, meaning he’s 73% better on offense than league average.

For the first time since they traded away Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, the Marlins are competitive. But this team is not yet ready to make a run, even in a 60-game season.

Only two NL teams have a better ERA than Miami: the Dodgers and Rockies. It’s the pitching staff that’s anchoring Colorado’s Rocktober push.

SI Recommends

When the Rockies extended Arenado, they promised him they would field a competitive team around him. That seemed reasonable, after they had made the playoffs in both 2017-18, until they finished 71-91. Their lineup was loaded, led by Arenado, Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon—as always, pitching was the great concern.

Instead of tearing it down, trading Arenado and entering a long rebuild, Colorado stayed the course. The starting rotation is four deep. German Márquez, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela all have ERAs under 3, while the lone slacker in the quartet, Jon Gray, has a 3.31 mark.

The Rockies will be a playoff team, though it’s hard to imagine they win their first division title in 2020. The Dodgers are just too good.

Meanwhile, the Cubs are the least surprising of the three NL first-place teams. Their talent is not in question. One of the reasons they hired David Ross as their manager was to revive a franchise that not too long ago was expected to be baseball’s next great dynasty. Their starting rotation—with ace Kyle Hendricks, veteran Jon Lester and a healthy Yu Darvish leading the way—has helped compensate for their bullpen woes (though right-handed reliever Jeremy Jeffress, whom they signed this offseason, has been excellent in six games).

The Cubs have not won the NL Central since 2017. Their window of contention with this group of players is closing. Rome lasted another three centuries after the death of Marcus Aurelius; there’s still enough time for the Cubs to fulfill their promise before the empire falls.

QUICK HITS

• Oakland A’s center fielder Ramón Laureano started a brawl with the Astros after getting hit by a pitch for the second time in Sunday’s game. At first base in the seventh inning, Laureano got into a shouting match with Houston’s hitting coach Alex Cintrón, who provoked Laureano to come fight him. Laureano obliged, charged Cintrón and was mauled by those on the Astros bench. Laureano and Houston manager Dusty Baker were ejected in Oakland’s eventual 7-2 win.

• Rays starting pitcher Charlie Morton exited Sunday’s start against the Yankees with right shoulder inflammation. Tampa Bay does not expect him to be out long, and he could be ready to make his next scheduled start in Boston on Thursday.

• Cleveland sent home right-handed starting pitcher Zach Plesac on Sunday after he left the team’s hotel and went out with friends in Chicago on Saturday night, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Zack Meisel. The 25-year-old Plesac has a 1.29 ERA in three starts this season. He threw six scoreless innings in Cleveland’s 7-1 win over the White Sox Saturday. He will be isolated from his team for at least 72 hours and will be tested daily for COVID-19.