1. Kansas City Royals: For all of the predictions that the Royals wouldn't repeat (again, as Jayson Stark looked at in April), here they are, back on top. A big factor, again, has been the bullpen, which has been cashing in a win on almost every lead after the fifth -- only one team in the league is better than the Royals' 23-2 record when leading after five innings. They're plus-3 in the win column over their expected wins total, with last weekend's sweep of the White Sox -- earned by beating up on Chicago's bullpen -- big part of the reason why. Eric Hosmer is putting up a huge year in his age-26 season -- yes, he's still that young. His .927 OPS might be the stuff voters decide an All-Star Game start is made of.
Less happily, losing Mike Moustakas for the season and Alex Gordon until the end of June in one collision May 22 could cripple the offense for the balance of the season. Designated hitter Kendrys Morales has gotten off to a horrifically slow start, with his .594 OPS ranking 173rd among 179 MLB qualifiers. There are still big question marks in Kansas City's rotation, which ranks last in the league in quality starts while seeing Kris Medlen and Chris Young getting hurt and struggling. At the front end, Edinson Volquez has been steady and Ian Kennedy has delivered on the team's expectations (although a 4.46 xFIP is a big warning light), but Yordano Ventura hasn't put up a really strong start in five weeks.
Why they'll win: That bullpen. Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain deliver huge seasons, Morales finally gets his bat going and Gordon makes an impact once he returns. Whit Merrifield nails down the second-base job and launches a stealth campaign to steal the AL Rookie of the Year award from Nomar Mazara. And that bullpen.
Why they won't: Losing Moustakas all year and Gordon for a month costs the Royals too many runs on offense to break away from the pack early enough to keep the rotation questions from mattering. The American League catches up to Kennedy and the rotation problem never gets sorted out. One more major injury in the lineup could critically weaken their shot.
2. Chicago White Sox: So all those Windy City World Series fantasies got blown away after the Sox took an 11-17 tumble in May. But that doesn't mean they're done. With Chris Sale still looking like the league's best starter, Jose Quintana delivering as their No. 2, and Todd Frazier providing a league-leading 17 home runs, you've got identifiable quality. Add in the expectation that Jose Abreu should bust out at some point from his slow start, plus Adam Eaton's value as a leadoff man, and you've got pieces with which to win.
Unfortunately, there's the team's power outage outside of Frazier. The Cell is a great place to put up big-time power numbers, but even with that in their favor, the Sox are just 13th in the AL in home runs. A big part of the problem is that White Sox outfielders are slugging a collective .366, and none of the four guys in the outfield/designated-hitter mix ever projected to have big-time power. The bullpen has also been an issue, effectively losing the entirety of that weekend series against the Royals. Matt Albers and Zach Duke have combined to allow 15 of 34 inherited runners to score, and that's a formula for frustration and failure.
Why they'll win: If they let it ride, you could see a finish a little above .500 and a nice little season that keeps them around the Royals and Indians. Settling might be hard to swallow, though, putting general manager Rick Hahn on the spot to give this team another assist. So say they add a left-handed bat to that outfield/DH mix by the trade deadline to help shake up the lineup, and ideally a reliever with a bit more deception in his mix to safely hand off more leads to David Robertson. All that plus a breakthrough second half from Carlos Rodon in the rotation would put the White Sox back into the contention conversation.
Why they won't: If Rodon doesn't turn the corner and become the quality No. 3 people thought he could already be, the rotation isn't the overpowering asset you might have hoped. The bullpen's essential mediocrity could continue to cost the White Sox in close games. Unless or until Abreu really gets going, where is that power going to come from in this lineup outside of Frazier?
Odds: Through Thursday, FiveThirtyEight has them at 26 percent to win the division, and Chalk has them at 10-1 to win the AL pennant.
3. Cleveland Indians The No. 3 offense in the AL just lost Marlon Byrd to a season-ending PEDs suspension, and with Michael Brantley still on the shelf, you might wonder where they're going to keep getting runs from. The good news is that they're getting good stuff from Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor, with Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana both enjoying big bounce-back seasons. In the rotation, Danny Salazar looks as if he's the latest Indians breakthrough starter, posting a 2.39 ERA and a league-leading 29.2 percent strikeout rate, and staff ace Corey Kluber is pitching into tough luck again, posting a 4.15 ERA (and a 4-6 record) despite a 3.33 xFIP.
Oh, and who's the one team in the league with a better won-loss record than Kansas City when leading after five? The Indians, because their bullpen ain't too shabby, either, and manager Terry Francona has consistently shown a deft touch with his underrated relief corps.
Why they'll win: They're doing this well without Brantley in the heart of the order and after losing Carrasco for more than a month before Thursday's return to action. Give them Carrasco, Kluber and Salazar all dealing, and you once again have the makings of the best rotation in baseball. Put Brantley back in the mix as well, and scoring 4.7 runs per game might be where this team can stay offensively.
Why they won't: Say Brantley never gets right, and the Indians never find a way to replace him. Kluber never really gets on track, Salazar's hot start dissipates and Carrasco is merely mortal instead of all-world awesome in his return. Speaking as someone who pegged the Indians to win the AL Central, I'm thinking all of those things don't happen and the Indians win the division. But the bad stuff? All still possible.
Odds: Through Thursday, FiveThirtyEight has them at 38 percent to win the division, and Chalk's at 6-1.
4. Detroit Tigers: If you've been following Katie Strang's coverage, you know how frustrating the Tigers' rotation can be, but the breakthrough of rookie Michael Fulmer is almost as big a deal as Jordan Zimmermann's hot start. Add that to an offense that is slowly starting to fire on all cylinders now that J.D. Martinez is heating up and Cameron Maybin is back in action, on top of four regulars cranking out OPS marks around .900, and you can see the positives for a Tigers team that is barely two weeks removed from speculation that skipper Brad Ausmus was on the outs.
Why they'll win: Justin Verlander finally gets what he's got working well enough to retain his ace label. After five good turns (marred only by bad bullpen work and Ausmus' slow hook), there's reason to believe he's already there. Add that to Fulmer and ZNN, and you've got a solid front three.
Why they won't: Thanks to the inconsistency in the rotation, a shallow bullpen and one of the worst defensive assemblages in the AL, this is a team that is less than the sum of its parts and needs that offense to crank out even more than the 4.5 runs per game it's already getting. And what if Verlander goes back to being inconsistent? Or if Justin Upton never ends up getting going, instead entering the nine-figure-salary Hall of Shame while the other Tigers cool off? Or if an already weak bullpen gets worse?
Odds: FiveThirtyEight has them at 7 percent, and Chalk has seen them drop to 20-1 after starting the season at 10-1.
5. Minnesota Twins: Just about nothing has gone right for them. Byron Buxton earned an April demotion, disappointing those expecting he'd be the next big thing. Equally touted pitching prospect Jose Berrios was equally terrible in an initial cameo. Miguel Sano just landed on the DL for a bad hamstring, where he joined rotation regular Kyle Gibson and closer Glen Perkins. Picking a token Twins All-Star might be the hardest decision AL skipper Ned Yost has to make all season. Defensively, they're next-to-last in plus/minus, and that's deadly to a contact-minded pitching staff. With the worst record in baseball, you can stick a fork in the Twins if you can't see the one that's already there.
Why they'll win: The other four teams wind up transported to the Cenozoic Era in a Doctor Who episode to be named later, and commissioner Rob Manfred awards the Twins the division title instead of relegating them to the International League.
Why they won't: The Doctor Who thing doesn't happen, leaving them instead with a great opportunity to stay below the Braves and secure the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft.
Odds: FiveThirtyEight has them at less than 1 percent, and Westgate has them at 1,000-1 odds to win the pennant.