MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Central divisions shaping up as toughest in bigs

Central divisions shaping up as toughest in bigs

Say this about baseball, 2016. It's hot in the middle. The middle of the country, that is.

As April heads toward a close, a look at the competition within divisions shows that we're right back where we were when the 2015 season ended.

While the Mets would sweep the Cubs in the National League Championship Series, it was the NL Central that gave us the three winningest teams in the Majors last season. While the order of those teams has been slightly rearranged, it's the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates that are once again making this the best division.

The second-toughest division? So far, that's the American League Central by a slight margin over the AL East, thanks to the White Sox fast start and a solid break out of the gate from the Indians.

Let's take a look at the divisions, ranked in order of their combined run differentials:

1. NL Central
Between them, the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs were a combined 295-191 last season. You wouldn't have thought they could duplicate that .607 winning percentage, but look at them now.

Through Sunday, they were 34-22, and that's a .607 winning percentage. It dropped to .603 on Monday night, when the Bucs won and the Cards and Reds lost.

Joyce's three-run home run

The Cubs are America's most popular World Series pick after adding Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey during the offseason, and they've certainly justified the faith in their first three weeks. Jake Arrieta's no-hitter in Cincinnati extended his winning streak to 15 games over the past two seasons -- he has more no-hitters (two) than losses (one) in his past 24 regular-season starts.

The Cubs have outscored their opponents by a Major League-best 68 runs, but they better not slow down. The Cardinals are second at +35 and second to them in scoring, with an average of 6.2 runs per game. Chicago took two of three in St. Louis last week and head to Pittsburgh in a week. That should be interesting. In the meantime, the Cubs have a chance to beat up on the Brewers and the Braves.

They've certainly done that against the Reds, going 6-1 in two series, with the margin of victory at least five in all six wins. But here's something you might not suspect. Cincinnati has gone 8-5 against everyone except the Cubs.

2. AL Central
Like the Cubs in the NL, the Royals are a popular World Series pick that has justified its standing with a fast start. While Kansas City's lineup isn't scoring runs like it did last season, it is still keeping scores low and finding ways to win games. Wade Davis remains a beast at the end of the games, as you'd expect.

The Royals ran and hid in the AL Central last season, winning by 12 games over the second-place Twins. It doesn't look like that is going to happen this year, with the White Sox riding their starting rotation (and an unforeseen fast start from newcomer Mat Latos) to a start that is more like 2012, Robin Ventura's first season, than any of the past three.

The White Sox revamped their lineup with a focus on adding two-way players, and so far that has played a huge role defensively. Adam Eaton's move from center field to right field (and the health of his surgically repaired left arm) and the addition of Austin Jackson in center, along with Todd Frazier's play at third base, have been huge factors.

White Sox score five runs in 7th

The Tribe and Tigers could both be dangerous over the long haul. Detroit has rebounded well from last year's 87-loss nightmare, but it just got swept at home by Cleveland. The Indians will be without Carlos Carrasco (left hamstring) for awhile, but they are getting outfielder Michael Brantley back from the disabled list.

The Twins? Sheesh. Just when you think they've got to turn it around, they suffer one of the worst losses in franchise history on Sunday in Washington. They sent down both Byron Buxton and Max Kepler on Monday, so if nothing else, the games at Triple-A Rochester should be more entertaining.

3. AL East
You hang 'em, the Orioles will bang 'em. They've outhomered the opposition 27-12, which has helped them lead to get off to a 7-0 start and lead the AL East all season. It's fair to say few saw this coming in Spring Training, when they signed Yovani Gallardo and failed to work out a deal with Dexter Fowler.

Manny Machado and Chris Davis have been as good as expected, but what about Mark Trumbo? He's been as impactful as any newcomer in the Majors, hitting .366 with five homers, 16 RBIs and a 1.020 OPS in his first 18 games in Baltimore.

Imagine the Orioles if they had signed Fowler, who re-signed with the Cubs and has a .506 on-base percentage in 18 games. They've been very good as it is, although they did lose two of three at Kansas City last weekend.

Trumbo's RBI single

Most see the Blue Jays as the class of the division, pointing to the loaded lineup built around reigning AL MVP Award winner Josh Donaldson and thumpers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They haven't put a whole lot of together and still must answer some questions about a rotation, but Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ look plenty solid.

The Red Sox are doing enough right that you have to consider them dangerous, even if they haven't gotten what they'd expected from Craig Kimbrel and David Price. The Rays started 3-7 but got going last week, winning series against the White Sox and Red Sox. The Yankees have that terrific bullpen -- which will only get better once Aroldis Chapman has served his suspension -- but haven't built any momentum.

4. NL West
Remember all that angst about Kenta Maeda? The criticism of Yasiel Puig? Both looks like yesterday's news as Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen have helped Dave Roberts get off to a great start as a manager. These guys probably should have been the team to beat all along, but lots of analysts got hung up on the Giants and D-backs over the offseason.

Maeda off to a hot start in LA

The Giants killed the ball coming out of Arizona, but they have cooled off, with no multihomer games since April 12. Newcomers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija have looked like good additions to the rotation behind Madison Bumgarner. The Diamondbacks were 4-8 on April 16, but they won six of seven to show that they should have staying power. Catcher Welington Castillo, acquired from the Mariners last season, is adding production to help make up for the loss of A.J. Pollock on the eve of the season.

Behind Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story, the Rockies have been a major surprise. They'll need more pitching to stay in the race, but Chad Bettis and Tyler Chatwood have been solid. The Padres buried themselves with a 3-8 start, but they won a series last week against the Pirates. Andrew Cashner has been good in his past two starts. He bears watching as he could wind up changing uniforms at midseason.

5. NL East
If there's a race in the NL East, it sure looks like a two-team race. The question is whether the Mets can hang close to the Nationals, who are the one team challenging the Cubs as the best team in the Majors. Bryce Harper has been ridiculous. You probably heard.

Honestly, Dusty Baker has to feel like the luckiest man in baseball to take over this roster. He's doing his part -- in particular figuring out the situations in left field and center field -- but has to love what a complete team that has become. The Mets started 2-5, but they got it together in a stretch against the Indians, Phillies and Braves.

Baker on 16-inning win

The Marlins are the one team in the NL East that could go either way. Christian Yelich has been a force, but both Dee Gordon and Giancarlo Stanton got off slowly, contributing to a 5-11 start. The Phillies have been competitive early. We'll see if it lasts. The Braves are going to play better than they have so far. It's inevitable.

6. AL West
Major League Baseball has never had a sub-500 playoff team, but so far history is about the only thing that the five AL West teams have on their side. The Astros were projected to be the NL's version of the Cubs, but they are the only team that has yet to win back-to-back games.

With them and the defending champ Rangers sputtering, the five AL West teams have combined for a run differential of -31. That makes this division the anti-NL Central, with differentials as alarming as the ones in the NL Central are impressive.

Walker strikes out 11 in win

Based on run differential, the Mariners are the best team in the division. But there are no conclusions to be drawn at this point. The Rangers may have an advantage because they expect to have Yu Darvish pitching behind Cole Hamels by July 1, if not before. A healthy Darvish could be a difference-maker, especially in a division as balanced as this.

We've only just begun. But in baseball, like life, we learn a lot of what we need to know early.

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