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The 30: Trouble’s Brewing

The Rays, Mariners, and Twins are trying to survive a rash of injuries, the Giants are repairing a glaring 2013 weakness, and the red-hot Brewers are playing a scintillating game of “real or not real?”

If you were hoping for increased clarity on baseball’s pecking order two weeks into the season … keep hoping. Injuries continue to plague some of the best players on the best teams; several clubs that looked like playoff locks have stumbled out of the gate; and one presumed pretender has surged to a blazing start. It’s too early to overreact either way, so for now, I’ll lend more credence to talent and pedigree than to record and run differential.

It’s Week 2 of The 30.

Eight Teams Out

There’s not much to like about these struggling clubs right now.

30. Houston Astros (5-8 record, -21 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Minnesota Twins (6-6, +3, LW: 29)
28. Chicago Cubs (4-8, -8, LW: 28)
27. Miami Marlins (5-8, +2, LW: 22)
26. New York Mets (5-7, -16, LW: 27)
25. Arizona Diamondbacks (4-11, -32, LW: 25)
24. San Diego Padres (5-7, -9, LW: 24)
23. Philadelphia Phillies (6-6, -6, LW: 23)

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When it comes to the already lousy 2014 Twins, the baseball gods seemingly can’t leave bad enough alone. Now that starting outfielders Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia have hit the disabled list with wrist injuries, here’s the current state of the Twins’ lineup, with each player’s career slash line listed in parentheses:

1. 2B Brian Dozier (.238/.299/.389)
2. 1B Joe Mauer (.323/.405/.468)
3. 3B Trevor Plouffe (.243/.306/.411)
4. RF Chris Colabello (.211/.294/.368)
5. LF Jason Kubel (.266/.332/.457)
6. DH Josmil Pinto (.314/.381/.569)
7. C Kurt Suzuki (.253/.310/.375)
8. CF Aaron Hicks (.193/.268/.327)
9. SS Pedro Florimon (.211/.273/.310)

Aside from Mauer, who remains one of the best players in the game despite local media’s pathological tendency to blame him for the Twins’ recent woes,1 that’s a truly lamentable starting nine. Kubel’s career line isn’t awful, but he’s coming off a .216/.293/.317 season. Pinto’s slash looks impressive, but he has only 113 career plate appearances to his name, and he’s hitting .231 so far this year. And while Colabello is apparently a Words With Friends force, he’s played in just 67 MLB games even though he’s 30.

If you want to know why there’s no point getting too worked up over the season’s first two weeks, consider this: Despite everything I just said, the Twins have scored more runs this season than any American League team other than the White Sox and Angels, and they’re tied with the Angels at 67.

When this ragtag lineup stops performing above its head, the Twins will be left with a team that can’t hit, and that attempted to improve the worst starting rotation in the majors by spending $84 million on Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, and Mike Pelfrey. So far, those three aces have combined for a 6.85 ERA and nine home runs allowed in nearly 40 innings. And before you get too excited about Kyle Gibson’s 2-0 start and 1.59 ERA, Twins fans, keep in mind he’s dealt with command issues since his major league debut last season, and has walked eight batters against six strikeouts through his first 11⅓ innings pitched this year.

The Twins have a long, long way to go before they’re ready to contend, and they’ll need a lot more than über-prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton to get there.

Frisky Dingoes

Is a surprise playoff team lurking in this tier?

22. Colorado Rockies (6-7, +1, LW: 20)
21. Chicago White Sox (7-6, +4, LW: 26)
20. Cincinnati Reds (4-8, +2, LW: 15)
19. Toronto Blue Jays (7-6, +5, LW: 21)
18. Baltimore Orioles (5-7, -10, LW: 17)
17. Seattle Mariners (6-5, +13, LW: 16)
16. Los Angeles Angels (6-6, +13, LW: 18)

My interpretation of the Mariners’ rotation right now:

The M’s are holding their rotation together with tweezers and bomb-diffusing paper clips, much like our Canadian action hero pal would. Felix Hernandez is as steady as an ace can be, but behind him is a mess of inexperienced youngsters and reclamation projects. Consider this: When the team recalls 25-year-old Blake Beavan to take the hill Tuesday against Texas, it will actually increase the total number of starts Seattle’s current nos. 2-5 pitchers have made since the beginning of last season to 21. Now, 21 starts over 170-plus games would be cause for concern for a no. 2 starter alone, but as a total for all four guys pitching behind King Felix at the moment, it’s downright alarming.

While relying on young arms isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the real rub is that these aren’t the young arms on which the Mariners intended to lean. The injury bug has claimed 25-year-old James Paxton and 21-year-old Taijuan Walker, which is a damn shame given their promise. In two starts against the Angels this season, Paxton allowed three runs over 12 innings while walking two and striking out 13. He was electric in the first of those starts, inducing 13 swinging strikes on 99 pitches while firing a fastball that sat at 94 mph and peaked at 96, and a hammer curve that gave the Halos fits. Paxton was a default no. 2, but the former top-100 prospect looked capable of keeping the M’s in games while they waited for last year’s terrific Felix Hernandez sidekick, Hisashi Iwakuma, to return from a torn finger tendon and assume that rotation spot.

Instead, Paxton strained a lat muscle and hit the DL, where he joined Walker, who’s been there since spring training. Walker, the Mariners’ top pitching prospect, appears to be nearing a return. After striking out 10 in a five-inning rehab stint at Double-A Jackson last week, the big right-hander said: “I feel like I’m ready now, but that’s not up to me.” His next rehab start will come on Tuesday for Triple-A Tacoma, and if he pitches well again, it’s tough to see the M’s keeping him down much longer.

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Despite the injuries, Hernandez’s supporting cast has somehow found a way to hold down the fort. Erasmo Ramirez has the most experience of the bunch since 2013, but he’s been the least effective so far, posting a 5.63 ERA in three outings this year. Rookie Roenis Elias has been extremely fortunate to allow just three earned runs in his two starts, as he totaled as many walks and hit batters (five) as strikeouts, but saw 82 percent of balls put into play against him result in outs.

That’s nothing compared to the Houdini act Chris Young pulled Sunday against the A’s, however. Making his first major league start since 2012,2 the 6-foot-10, 34-year-old slop thrower was at his vintage, batter-infuriating best, going six scoreless innings and recording 12 of his 18 outs in the air, generating 10 A’s fly outs and two popups. Young’s fastball topped out at 89 mph, yet the A’s couldn’t get anything going. This third-inning sequence perfectly illustrates Young’s living-on-the-edge approach: A’s catcher John Jaso launched a ball high and deep down the right-field line to lead off the inning … but it went a section or two foul. Jaso went on to walk. The next batter, Josh Donaldson, smashed a screaming line drive deep down the left-field line … but that one also sailed foul. After that, Donaldson flied out to left, the wind killed Brandon Moss’s well-hit ball just short of the warning track, and Yoenis Cespedes flied out to center to end the inning.

Young’s MacGyver-esque start ultimately went for naught, as Seattle’s bats took a nine-inning nap and Oakland earned the win. The Mariners have gone 3-5 since opening the season with a three-game annihilation of the Angels, and they’re facing the uncertainty of starting Beavan, plus the prospect of Elias and Young turning into pumpkins very soon. Ramirez has potential, Iwakuma threw 45 pitches in a bullpen session on Saturday, and Walker and Paxton could be ready by month’s end, but the Mariners’ walking wounded can’t get back soon enough. In the tough AL West, no team can wait long for the cavalry to arrive.

Talent, and Question Marks

On the one hand: exciting players. On the other: lineup black holes, early slumps, and a couple of infuriating managers. Oh, and the Brewers.

15. Kansas City Royals (4-7, -14, LW: 11)
14. Cleveland Indians (6-7, -2, LW: 14)
13. New York Yankees (7-6, -5, LW: 13)
12. Texas Rangers (6-6, -9, LW: 10)
11. Pittsburgh Pirates (6-6, +1, LW: 9)
10. Milwaukee Brewers (10-2, +28, LW: 19)

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Twelve games into the season, here’s what we know about the Brewers:

• Their pitching staff owns the lowest ERA in the majors, at 1.80.

• Opponents are batting just .199 against them.

• Brewers starters have allowed three earned runs or fewer in all 12 starts.

• The bullpen has allowed three earned runs in 33 innings pitched, good for a major league–leading 0.82 ERA.

• The Brewers lead the majors in a very important stat: WHO’S A GOOD BOY?! YOU’RE A GOOD BOY!

• They’re off to the second-best start in franchise history.

I talked about the gambler’s fallacy last week, but here’s a quick refresher on why you should avoid falling into that trap by overreacting to early starts: If you thought the Brewers looked like an 81-win team entering the season, their 10-2 start shouldn’t automatically cause you to reconsider their worth. Instead, that fast start means you should now view the Brewers as an 85-win team, since that’s where a .500 record from this point on would put them at season’s end.

But are the Brewers a .500 team? To attempt to answer that, we need to look for nuggets that indicate whether this fast start is real or a mirage.

We can find some guidance from Russell Carleton, the excellent Baseball Prospectus writer, who examined statistical thresholds back in 2007. I summarized Carleton’s findings on what we can glean from fast starts in this 2012 post, and though both of our pieces focused on individual performance more than team performance, they outlined the steep sample sizes typically required for observers to feel confident in a given performance. For example, we shouldn’t trust a player’s on-base percentage and slugging average until he’s racked up 500 plate appearances, and should avoid getting too excited about a pitcher’s strikeout-to-walk rate until he’s faced 500 batters. So we should probably calm down a bit about Carlos Gomez, a very good player who nonetheless isn’t Ted Williams, and who has a track record but has yet to consistently produce over a 500-PA span.3 Likewise, let’s scale back the enthusiasm for Francisco Rodriguez, who’s still a quality relief pitcher when healthy, but not someone who, in his 13th major league season, is likely to keep striking out nearly two batters an inning the way he has so far this year.

So, what’s left?

Ron Shandler, the fantasy baseball guru whose work has also come to inform the broader baseball analytics movement, had a saying about player performance: Once you display a skill, you own it. This motto could easily apply to Yovani Gallardo. The 28-year-old right-hander didn’t allow an earned run through his first two starts this season, and ultimately cobbled together a scoreless-innings streak that was the fifth-longest in franchise history to start a season.4 If you track Gallardo’s numbers from his excellent 2009 to his mediocre 2013, you might think his early-2014 returns are merely a fluke. If you’re a student of Shandler’s, however, you would say that because Gallardo once displayed elite skills (most notably striking out more than a batter an inning), he might still own those skills. Well, so far this year, Gallardo’s underlying indicators don’t suggest that kind of dominance. Of the nearly 100 qualified pitchers in this early-season sample, Gallardo’s swinging-strike rate checked in near the bottom.

Of course, you could flip that logic around and argue that Jean Segura’s .238/.289/.310 start is an aberration, and that the player who made the All-Star Game last year after hitting .325 with 11 homers, 11 doubles, eight triples, and 27 steals in the first half can’t possibly stay down for long. Maybe … though Segura hit just .241/.268/.315 after last year’s All-Star break, and never showed much hitting talent in the minors.

That doesn’t mean this is all a mirage, however. In fact, there’s plenty to support the argument that this is legit. In the lineup, Ryan Braun’s three-homer game last week and .568 overall slugging average could mean he’s still an elite player after serving his PED suspension; Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado again look like good strike stealers; and Mark Reynolds has long shown he can smash left-handed pitching. In the rotation, Marco Estrada has always been a big strikeout guy; Matt Garza is still pretty good when he’s not on the DL; and Kyle Lohse can be tough when he’s commanding the strike zone. In the bullpen, a talented, hard thrower like Tyler Thornburg sees better results when allowed to fire at will for 15 pitches than when needing to carefully navigate through a batting order three times as a starter, and lefty reliever Will Smith has a very good slider that’s so tough to hit when he’s burying it on the outside corner that only one of the 31 he’s thrown this year has been put in play.5

None of those observations or occurrences is that surprising in isolation. It’s just that we rarely see nearly every player on a roster perform at the peak of his abilities for two weeks, let alone for an entire season.

But it does happen on occasion, like it did for the 2013 Red Sox and the other teams that have blown past preseason expectations. And it’s possible that, hidden nuggets or not, Milwaukee is on its way to one of those seasons. In the bottom of the sixth inning on Sunday, with the Brewers leading 2-1 and runners on second and third with one out, second baseman Scooter Gennett waved at strike three in the dirt. Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez scooped up the ball, looked the runner back toward third, had all the time in the world … and launched the ball into right field, letting two runs score. Those are the kinds of plays that go in a surprise team’s favor over the course of a season. There’s enough talent on the Brewers’ roster to combine with luck and portend big things. Big, big things.

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Paging Dr. Andrews

The Rays might’ve finally run out of pitchers.

9. Tampa Bay Rays (7-6, +1, LW: 5)

I wrote about the Rays’ remarkable track record of pitching health on Friday, noting that only one pitcher in the entire organization had Tommy John surgery from late 2005 to mid-2009, and that Scott Kazmir was the only big league starter to spend a day on the disabled list between May 2008 and August 2010. Unfortunately, I dispensed those bits of trivia while discussing Matt Moore in a longer article detailing the rash of Tommy John surgeries plaguing baseball. Moore, the Rays’ talented no. 3 starter, is still hoping to rehab the partial UCL tear in his left elbow, but season-ending surgery remains a very real possibility.

And now the Rays have lost their no. 2 starter as well. Right-hander Alex Cobb, one of the best and most underrated pitchers in the game when healthy, destroyed Reds hitters on Saturday, tossing seven shutout innings while allowing just four hits and no walks. A day later, the bad news hit: Cobb, who was seen pacing the mound and repeatedly trying to stretch during Saturday’s excellent start, will miss four to six weeks while rehabbing a mild oblique strain.

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So, to review: The Rays will be without their no. 2 starter until mid-May, their no. 3 starter for an as-yet-undetermined amount of time, and their initially projected no. 5 starter, Jeremy Hellickson,6 until June. Alex Colome, one of their top pitching prospects and candidates to fill any rotation void, is out until late May while serving a 50-game PED suspension.

The Rays have won more games since Opening Day 2008 than all but one other team (the Yankees), thanks largely to their enviable pitching depth, but this looks like their biggest challenge yet. Jake Odorizzi, the 24-year-old rookie right-hander who earned the fifth spot out of camp, squirmed out of trouble well enough to deliver six shutout innings in his first start of the year, but got creamed for seven runs his second time out. Cesar Ramos got torched for four runs in two innings against a weak Reds lineup on Sunday. Erik Bedard, who struggled mightily to find the plate with the Pirates and Astros the past two seasons and will likely be under an innings limit for his first few starts, will now enter the rotation to replace Cobb.

By the time you read this, the Rays will probably have made two or more Monday moves; Jeff Beliveau got called up to pitch on Sunday, then immediately got sent down, and neither Brandon Gomes nor Josh Lueke deserves a spot in a major league bullpen. Expect at least one reliever to come up in an effort to fortify the bullpen. As for the rotation, the guess here is that Nate Karns, who was acquired this offseason from the Nats for Jose Lobaton, will start in Ramos’s spot on Friday against the Yankees; Karns looks like the most major league–ready option, and he started on Sunday for Durham, meaning he’d be ready to go on normal rest come Friday. Other candidates to slide into the rotation include 23-year-old lefty Enny Romero, 24-year-old righty Matt Andriese, or possibly Ramos for another spin.

Whatever the Rays do, there’s no way to sugarcoat a rotation that has David Price, Chris Archer, and a combination of veteran flotsam and half-decent rookies in the other three spots. If Wil Myers is ever going to go on a huge run that dwarfs last year’s Rookie of the Year performance and carries Tampa Bay to a month’s worth of 7-6 wins, this would be a great time to start.

The Elite

The best of the best … at least for now.

8. San Francisco Giants (8-5, +10, LW: 8)
7. Boston Red Sox (5-8, -7, LW: 6)
6. Washington Nationals (7-5, +10, LW: 2)
5. Atlanta Braves (8-4, +13, LW: 12)
4. Oakland A’s (8-4, +19, LW: 7)
3. St. Louis Cardinals (7-5, 0, LW: 4)
2. Detroit Tigers (6-4, +1, LW: 3)
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (9-4, +13, LW: 1)

Madison Bumgarner’s weekend grand slam was just the second one hit by a Giants pitcher in the past 56 years. Of course, it’s fitting that the Giants are pulling off great feats, since this is an even-numbered year, and that means … World Series!

Though that theory might seem too facile on its face, think about everything that went wrong for the bottom of the Giants’ rotation last year, and all the opportunities those failures present for relative success this year. Ryan Vogelsong went from being one of the stingiest starters in the league in 2011 and 2012 to one of the worst last year. Barry Zito celebrated the final year of his $126 million contract by setting fire to any chances San Francisco might’ve had of making another playoff run. Throw in six disastrous starts for Guillermo Moscoso, Mike Kickham, and Eric Surkamp, and the Giants got 50 starts that yielded a 6.24 ERA, the worst mark for any National League team’s back of the rotation.

That’s why it’s so great to see Tim Hudson starting this season as well as he has. Hudson has averaged 7⅔ innings per start through his first three outings without issuing a single walk. He’s also produced a 54.5 percent ground ball rate that ranks 10th among qualified NL starters and proves particularly handy with one of the league’s best defensive shortstops, Brandon Crawford, manning the position for the Giants. Replacing a crappy pitcher like Zito with an average pitcher like Hudson can make as big a difference as replacing an average pitcher with a star. In a way, the Giants gave themselves an opportunity in 2014 by being as bad as they were in those 50 starts in 2013, and the difference between Zito last year and even the 38-year-old version of Hudson this year could amount to something like three more wins for the Giants right off the top. Even Vogelsong’s early struggles are a bit of a stealth blessing, since they might prompt Brian Sabean to make an aggressive move soon if Vogelsong can’t get batters out. Top pitching prospect Kyle Crick has huge strikeout potential and is now toiling at Double-A, and a trade for a capable fifth starter remains a possibility.

Of course, the Giants might simply mash their way back to contender status this year. The Rockies are the only NL team to score more runs in 2014, and San Francisco plays in one of the least friendly parks for hitters in the league, as opposed to the best. Mike Morse already qualifies as a huge power upgrade in left field, and Brandon Belt’s hot start suggests a potential power breakout of his own at age 26. Combine those encouraging signs with a defense that was airtight last year7 and won’t lose much this year other than downgrading from Gregor Blanco to Morse, and the Giants look like the kind of balanced team that could make noise in a weak NL wild-card field.

ESPN Stats & Info provided many of the stats that appear in this article.  

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, Power Rankings, Minnesota Twins, Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee Brewers, Tampa Bay Rays, San Francisco Giants, Yovani Gallardo, Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun, Taijuan Walker, Hisashi Iwakuma, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Tim Hudson, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri