MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Contenders abound in stacked Central divisions

Contenders abound in stacked Central divisions

When observers of the game added up the preseason parity in Major League Baseball's two Central divisions, it appeared that nine out of 10 teams were legitimate postseason contenders.

Based on the early returns, that estimate may have been slightly high. With roughly 5.6 percent of the 162 precincts reporting, it is way too early to call this election. But a few early trends can be spotted.

In the American League Central, the reasonable expectation was for a four-way, start-to-finish race among these clubs: the Tigers, Royals, Indians and White Sox. There are valid reasons to believe that this still can happen. But for the moment, what stands out here is that the Tigers and the Royals may be even better than most people expected.

The Tigers, after all, have won this division four seasons in a row. OK, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello are no longer in the rotation, and Justin Verlander is on the disabled list. But David Price is on board for a full season and suitable replacements have been found, such as Shane Greene, who has not allowed an earned run in two starts.

Greene's scoreless outing

The Tigers won't maintain their world-beating 1.91 team ERA, but there is no reason to suspect that their offense is going to evaporate over time. If the Tigers can patch together a bullpen solution, they could be exceptionally good.

The only place the Royals were beaten was in preseason prognostications that had them losing 90 or even 90-plus games. This did not particularly bother the Royals.

"That is National Enquirer stuff, as far as I'm concerned," manager Ned Yost said.

Anybody who watched the Royals go 8-0 against the best competition the league had to offer in the 2014 AL postseason might have believed that this club was not the Major League equivalent of a one-hit wonder. In any case, the Royals opened the season excelling in all facets of the game, winning their first seven and generally acting as though they were still in the 2014 AL postseason.

Dyson's sliding catch

The Royals did lose a couple to the Twins this week. Thursday's loss was notable because it was the first game in which anybody had scored a run that was charged against the Kansas City bullpen.

On the other side of the coin, the Royals were last in the AL in home runs last season. This year, they have hit 11 home runs in nine games. But they don't need power to win consistently. If the starting pitching stays healthy, the Royals don't look like a team capable of a long fade.

The Senior Circuit has Central held, in theory at least, the possibility of an actual five-team race, based on a combination of solid pedigrees and fondest hopes. So far, form has held in that no team has demonstrated anything like dominant tendencies, although the Cardinals and the Cubs have been the best of the lot, with the Reds nearby.

And if it's a two-team race between the Chicago and St. Louis entries, that in itself would be worth watching. With the Cubs working their way back to good, this rivalry could be truly revived, and intensity would soar on both sides of the Mississippi.

Rizzo's two-run homer

In the context of small-sample sizes, the surprises in this neighborhood have been the slow starts of the Pirates and the Brewers.

The Pirates didn't burn up the league early last year, either, but at the end they were postseason qualifiers for the second straight season. They're talented, they're directed, and they've been around this block before. They're getting a bad patch out of the way early. They'll be around all season.

The Brewers, in case they haven't told you personally, were in first place for 150 games last season. So perhaps a 2-7 start should not be cause for concern. But their offense has started where it left off last season, which was essentially a gear that combined elements of both neutral and reverse.

Segura's fantastic fielding

The Crew finished the 2014 season losing 22 of its last 31 games due to a widespread slump. That was considered an aberration, but the '15 Brewers have scored just 23 runs in their first nine games. The recent record for these hitters is extremely discouraging, but their long-term track records say that this club should once again be an offensive force. A good time to get back to that level would be any day now.

Here's the one thing most nearly resembling a certainty: Whether or not these divisions eventually are comprehensive advertisements for competitive balance, the storylines will remain completely compelling.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.