MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Division leaders out to build off hot April starts

Division leaders out to build off hot April starts

April, on the baseball landscape, is the coolest month. The air is crisp and crisper, if a little too wet for some tastes, and the optimism of spring is still alive and crackling in the vast majority of locales.

Think of April baseball as one nice slice of a large pizza, with a whole lot of tasty pie left in that box. April represents roughly one-sixth of the long season, meaning it's never wise to overreact to the euphoria or the disappointment produced by fewer than 30 games.

On the other hand, very recent history tells us it would be unwise to dismiss events of April.

Four of the six 2013 division champions were leading the pack entering May, and the Athletics were only two games behind the Rangers in the American League West. The Dodgers were at .500 and would still be there (47-47) at the All-Star break en route to the National League West crown, giving hope to all clubs lagging behind with fewer than 70 games left to play.

Reach deeper, however, and the meaning of the opening month clouds. Only four of 12 division champs in 2012 and '13 were on top heading into May.

Baseball's best record through April 2013 belonged to the AL East-leading Red Sox at 18-8. That turned out pretty well.

Brew Town, flaunting the game's best record at 20-8, would love to emulate Beantown.

While expectations for international newcomers Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka were skyscraper-high in Chicago and New York, respectively, nobody saw the Brewers coming out of the shadows. But here stands Milwaukee, seizing a commanding early lead in the NL Central with a blend of power, pitching and first-class leather work.

The Braves, patching together a rotation with an MLB-best ERA after losing three starters to injury, have soared to the front in the NL East on the wings of Julio Teheran and newcomers Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang and an athletic lineup featuring powerhouses Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton.

And here again, to industry-wide amazement, are those contrarian A's. Losing starters Jarrod Parker and now A.J. Griffin for the season, manager Bob Melvin's crew has forged the AL's best record. Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir front a rotation that leads the AL in ERA, an achievement shared by the bullpen. Only Angels superstar Mike Trout has a higher AL WAR than Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson.

It's too early to determine the best, most competitive of the six divisions. The NL Central, with three playoff teams winning at least 90 games, earned the nod last year over the deeper AL East and its four clubs with 85 or more wins.

It's rare that the AL East has a negative run differential, but it does now. The AL Central is formidable, led by the Tigers, and the always underrated AL West could stake claim to the best of the six-pack at the moment.

The A's and Rangers are typically competitive and the bashing Angels are surpassed in MLB run differential only by Oakland while getting quality pitching from youthful Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs. The Mariners are showing signs of revival with Robinson Cano, and a top-shelf rotation featuring Felix Hernandez is enhanced by the towering presence of Chris Young in an impressive comeback.

In the NL, the Central surprisingly is the least formidable division entering May. The East and West have exceptional depth, with only the desert D-backs struggling for air.

Abreu (AL-high 10 homers, 32 RBIs) and Tanaka (3-0, 2.27 ERA, 46 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings) are much more than dueling AL Rookie of the Year Award candidates. They're prospective AL Most Valuable Player Award contenders, with Tanaka gunning for an AL Cy Young Award as well.

The Marlins have had answers to both Abreu and Tanaka in power plant Giancarlo Stanton (eight homers, 31 RBIs) and dominant Jose Fernandez (MLB-best 55 strikeouts, 4-1, 1.59 ERA).

The Yankees have soared to the head of the AL East class behind Tanaka and fellow imports Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, while the White Sox -- chasing the Tigers in a loaded Central -- are hoping to approach their newcomer's performance level.

Visiting the Milwaukee clubhouse in Arizona this spring, you might have come away convinced there were winning elements in place here.

The lineup looked stacked with run producers Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Jonathan Lucroy coming behind the blazing speed of Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura. Manager Ron Roenicke liked his depth, loved the idea of Gomez's thunder in the leadoff spot and talked about how the ball jumped off Khris Davis' bat.

The pitching was promising, proven arms everywhere, and the defense, so strong up the middle, appeared first-rate.

Francisco Rodriguez, who collected a Major League-record 62 saves for the 2008 Angels while leading the AL three times in four years, greeted a familiar face one morning in Phoenix. Asked if he knew what his role would be, K-Rod responded with a chilly "no." Serious as always, he added, "I'll be ready for whatever happens. You know me."

Rodriguez was ready, all right. No closer in the game has been as good as the hard-nosed Venezuelan: 13-for-13 in saves, 11 baserunners, 23 punchouts in 16 innings. Only two MLB teams have better bullpens and rotations than the Brewers, whose team ERA is surpassed only by the Braves.

The Brew Crew had that stunning incident last weekend with Braun's wheeling warmup bat damaging Segura's face at the dugout steps, but these guys don't seem to let anything bother them. An 11-2 road record speaks to their mental toughness and chemistry on and off the field.

There's a quiet confidence with this troupe wholly apart from the visible swagger of Gomez and Braun. It comes from the highly underrated Roenicke and Lucroy, a catcher of rare two-way quality, and a veteran-rich pitching staff.

It is no accident the Brewers come to May with the best record in the Majors. They've earned it.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.