Believe it or not, the 2018 major league season is already four weeks old. Now, that might not be enough time to completely put to bed cries of 'small sample size!' about every trend (or fluke) of the early season, but it's enough to take a dive in to see how much has changed since Opening Day. We asked ESPN.com's Bradford Doolittle, Sam Miller and David Schoenfield to weigh in on some of April's most interesting baseball topics.
The Dodgers, Nats and Cubs have all started slower than expected. Which team are you most concerned about?
Schoenfield: The Nationals have played some lackluster baseball to start the season, and the early return feels like they're missing something. Maybe they miss Dusty Baker. Anyway, they've had injuries, but the bullpen has been terrible (1-6, 5.50 ERA), and they need somebody besides Bryce Harper to produce on offense. The biggest concern, however, is that the Mets, Phillies and Braves all look much better than in 2017.
Doolittle: I'm not really concerned about the Dodgers or Cubs, so it's the Nationals by default. They are like Carl Lewis trying to stave off Michael Johnson and Mike Powell in about 1991 -- still the best, but probably not for long. Washington can hope for better health, but their lackluster start has illustrated a general lack of organizational depth. With the Mets' pitching and the rapid ascension of Philadelphia and Atlanta, the NL East is shaping up as a dogfight.
Miller: Their records are lagging, but all three teams have actually played pretty well: By Baseball Prospectus' third-order winning percentage, which estimates what a team's record "should" be based on offensive and pitching performances, the Nats have played like an 88-win team, the Cubs like a 90-win team, and the Dodgers a 96-win team. That said, the Nationals' miserable health problems are a much more permanent concern than, say, Yasiel Puig's slump or Yu Darvish's blow-up innings, and three NL East teams above Washington have been banking wins. The Nationals' playoff odds have taken a huge hit.
Will the Mets make the playoffs?
Miller: Most likely, but very narrowly most likely. The NL East could be very competitive, especially if the Phillies are in it at the trade deadline and make a real push now. And the way the standings are starting to shake out, it looks like it could take 90-plus wins just to get the second wild card. It's a lot of pressure riding on two very important right elbows.
Doolittle: It's about 50-50. Few teams can match a top two of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, but with Matt Harvey in the bullpen and Steven Matz still searching, the Mets need more from Jason Vargas than you would have expected at the beginning of the season. Hopefully, better numbers from Yoenis Cespedes and Jay Bruce can cover likely regression from Asdrubal Cabrera and Todd Frazier, but New York may still need to add a bat later in the season.
Schoenfield: It's still too early to change from original predictions for now: Nationals take the East and the Cardinals and Diamondbacks win the wild cards. The Mets have played well, no doubt, but Matt Harvey has already been pushed to the bullpen, and let's see if the other starters can stay healthy before we declare them playoff-bound.
How many games will the Red Sox win?
Miller: Oh, 94 or so. [Checks Rick Porcello's numbers so far.] Oh, 97 or so. I wouldn't say it's a team that looks radically better than it did a month ago, and they're probably not one of the superteams, but Porcello's bounce back and Price's revival make them a very interesting October threat.
Schoenfield: My original prediction had the Yankees at 99 wins and the Red Sox at 95. I'm ready to flip that based on what I've seen from the Red Sox rotation and the Yankees rotation. So, Red Sox with 99 wins and the division title.
Doolittle: I would go with 97, which is lower than they currently are getting in my simulations, where they average 102.5 wins. However, I think at a certain point, the Red Sox will want to ease up on their starting pitchers to keep them sharp for October. That's especially true of Chris Sale. Plus, as good as Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts are, it's unlikely they'll keep their numbers where they are at the moment.
How many home runs will Giancarlo Stanton finish the season with?
Miller: The answer to that is intertwined with the question of whether the leaguewide home run boom is ebbing, whether the ball is a little deader this year. Early April data suggest that it might be. Stanton will hit 44 home runs.
Schoenfield: I'll go with 48.
Doolittle: Let's go with 46. He's been good for 44 homers per 162 games for his career, and we'll bump him up a couple for Yankee Stadium. He's no Teoscar Hernandez, but his exit velocity remains among the elite. With Stanton, the only questions have been about health. He seems healthy, which means lots and lots of dingers to come.
Shohei Ohtani has a 4.43 ERA and .997 OPS. How close to those two numbers will he finish the season?
Doolittle: They will both go down, which for ERA means improvement. At the plate, while Ohtani's exit velocities are even better so far than Stanton's, his actual WOBA is out-performing his xWOBA by a larger margin than all but 12 qualifying hitters. The mound improvement is based more on eyeballing him than the numbers. His deserved run average and xWOBA both suggest the ERA is about right. But that stuff is so filthy that when he becomes more consistent with his command, it's hard to see him staying in the mid-4s.
Schoenfield: We've seen the inconsistency on the mound, but the stuff is too good to finish with an ERA that high. I think he gets it under 4.00, maybe into the 3.50 range. I'd be shocked if he hits .300, although he's made some early adjustments -- such as dropping the leg kick he had in Japan -- and has shown he'll go to the opposite field, so it's hard to shift on him. But he's going to strike out, which will drop the average. I'll say .277.
Miller: The ERA will get better -- mid- to high-3s seems about right -- and the OPS will get worse, but I've got absolutely no idea whether he's ultimately a .750 guy or a .900-plus guy. We've already seen the league's hitters start to adjust against him (spitting on the splitter, especially), and it'll now be interesting to see the league's pitchers try. He's still fantastic.
Which under-the-radar player off to a hot start should fans keep an eye on?
Schoenfield: Hey, my NL MVP pick was Tommy Pham, and he's hitting .348/.477/.522. The MVP odds are long, but that's a guy doubling down on his excellent 2017 season and proving he's one of the best all-around players in the game.
Miller: Nick Pivetta is throwing harder and gone from 63 percent strikes last year to 68 percent this year. He was already an under-the-radar player fans should keep an eye on. Now he's off to a hot start.
Doolittle: I'm not sure how many people outside of Baltimore realize just how good Dylan Bundy has been. He's got a 1.42 ERA, 2.00 FIP and ranks in the top 20 in xWOBA. He's been terrific every time out. Given Bundy's injury history and the Orioles' level of suckiness, it seems like Baltimore should seize the opportunity to turn him into a nice prospect haul once we get near the trade deadline. Given his performance and the fact that he's still in his last pre-arb year, it seems this is their best chance to do so.
Which team has surprised you the most -- for good or bad -- so far?
Miller: It's a long way and a hard road to the playoffs in that division, but the A's have looked great. They have had the best offense in the American League (after adjusting for ballpark), and Sean Manaea, Daniel Mengden and Andrew Triggs are all fascinating starting pitchers to watch in different ways. I don't think they're going to win 90 games or anything, but for a month they've played like they could.
Schoenfield: I didn't expect the Orioles to be a .500 team, but their abysmal start and tough division means they could be headed for 100 losses. This is a bad, bad team, which we should have realized when they still had Chris Tillman in the rotation. Free Manny Machado.
Doolittle: It's not like I thought the Reds would contend, but I am shocked they are '62 Mets-level awful. Eugenio Suarez is tied for the team lead in WAR and he hasn't played since April 8. The closer, Raisel Iglesias, is dynamic, and as Cincinnati tries to sort through this mess, hopefully he can be moved to a team that can leverage his talents. Then again, you have to wonder at this point just how likely it would be for the Reds to successfully develop the prospects he'd bring back. A strong rookie run by Nick Senzel is about the best thing you can hope for at this point if you're a Reds fan.
Which of your preseason predictions are you kicking yourself for making?
Doolittle: I'm not punting on any of them after one month. Picking the second wild cards was my tender spot last year, and this year I picked the Phillies and Blue Jays. Sure, it can change fast, but I feel pretty good about those picks right now. I guess the worst-looking choice so far is tabbing Miami's Lewis Brinson as my NL Rookie of the Year. Luckily, with that team, he'll have plenty of chances to right the ship.
Schoenfield: Well, this wasn't a prediction, but when Ohtani was struggling in spring training, I suggested it would make sense to give him a few weeks in the minors to start the season. Oops.
Miller: All of them. It's an act of extreme foolishness and hubris to predict baseball. Never predict baseball.