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The 30: Early Returns

Are the Marlins really world-beaters? Are the Reds really a disaster? It’s too soon to tell … except when it isn’t.

Welcome to the 2014 season premiere of The 30! Each week, I’ll use a wide array of criteria to rank all 30 major league teams, grouping them into tiers with similar squads and taking an in-depth look at one team per tier. Early in the season, I’ll focus on factors like overall roster strength and team health. As the season wears on, however, I’ll give more weight to specific elements such as run differential and recent play. At no point will I rank teams based solely on record; if that’s what you want, here you go.

With that out of the way, let’s dive in. It’s Week 1 of The 30.

Bottom Feeders

Some are struggling, some are soaring; either way, it’s too soon to amend preseason expectations.

30. Houston Astros (3-3 record, -7 run differential)
29. Minnesota Twins (3-3, 0)
28. Chicago Cubs (2-4, -3)
27. New York Mets (2-4, -9)
26. Chicago White Sox (3-3, +3)
25. Arizona Diamondbacks (2-7, -22)
24. San Diego Padres (2-4, -12)
23. Philadelphia Phillies (3-3, +4)
22. Miami Marlins (5-2, +21)

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Getty Images

The Fish are tied with the Giants for the best record in the National League, and they’ve posted the most runs scored (42) and best run differential (plus-21) in the majors. Not a bad first week for the team many thought would be the NL’s worst this year.

There are two ways to look at the Marlins’ fast start. The first is to continue to buy into the preseason consensus, but count these first five wins. So, if you entered the season thinking the Marlins were going to be a 67-95 team, you should tack a couple more wins onto their season total, but only a couple more wins. You don’t want to adjust too severely, since you still think this is a true-talent 67-win team, but you also can’t ignore these five wins, because assuming that the Marlins’ fast start is bound to result in more losses down the road would be falling victim to the gambler’s fallacy.1

The second is to reconsider how we’re evaluating the 2014 Marlins. When teams blow past projections and expectations, it’s often because young players are ascending more quickly than expected. Maybe this is the year that soon-to-be 25-year-old Adeiny Hechavarria goes from being a talented defensive shortstop with good hands, impressive range, and a strong arm to being an all-around threat who can also beat teams with his bat. Maybe this is the year toolsy 23-year-old outfielder Marcell Ozuna gets over his tendency to chase breaking pitches out of the zone and parlays his plus raw power into a breakout campaign. And then of course there’s 22-year-old outfielder Christian Yelich, who struggled in his debut last year but remains a blue-chip prospect, and 24-year-old slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who’s the Marlins’ offensive leader, a potential MVP-caliber hitter if he stays healthy, and a man capable of inflicting extreme punishment on baseballs:

Now, even if you believe in Miami’s kiddie corps, some healthy skepticism remains in order. The Marlins are hitting .365 on balls in play through their first seven games, well ahead of the second-place Twins (.346) and miles ahead of last year’s league-average .297 BABIP rate. Hechavarria, in particular, has one of those hilarious stat lines that can only occur in a very small sample, leveraging his usual lack of interest in walks into a higher batting average than on-base percentage. And aside from world-beater/Cy Young candidate/GIF machine Jose Fernandez2 and no. 2 starter Nate Eovaldi,3 the pitching staff comes with lots of potential but also lots of question marks.

Regardless, the Marlins have given their fans some small reason to get excited. And given the way things have gone for this franchise over the past few years, even a week’s worth of hope is better than nothing.

The Highly Variant

It might take a few months to figure out these teams.

21. Toronto Blue Jays (3-4, -9)
20. Colorado Rockies (3-4, +1)
19. Milwaukee Brewers (4-2, +7)
18. Los Angeles Angels (2-4, -7)
17. Baltimore Orioles (2-4, -9)
16. Seattle Mariners (4-2, +16)

Get ready for the above scene to play out a bunch more times this year: mediocre Orioles starting pitcher gives up scorching line drive; Orioles fielder makes spectacular play; Orioles escape potentially serious jam.

The O’s were already one of the best defensive teams in baseball last year thanks largely to Grantland baseball editor Mallory Rubin’s begloved hero, Manny Machado; new addition David Lough will make an already excellent defense even better.

Lough’s play on Austin Jackson in the third inning of Baltimore’s Friday game against Detroit showed off the ace left fielder’s full arsenal of skills. First, he took an efficient route to cut off Jackson’s sharp liner. Then Lough planted, wheeled, and fired, using an athletic move to make a tough play for a lefty-throwing outfielder look easy. Finally, he delivered a missile that took one hop before landing safely in Steve Lombardozzi’s waiting glove, throwing Jackson out at second base. Jackson made an aggressive play by trying to stretch the hit into a double, but he had his reasons: Few other left fielders make the play Lough made, let alone as smoothly.

You know who definitely wouldn’t make that play? Nelson Cruz. The 33-year-old, 230-pound (yeah, right) lumbering slugger is a perfectly fine roster upgrade when the O’s use him as their starting DH. He’s a disaster when he plays the field, however, turning popups into hits, and doing so with impressive comedic ability:

Buck Showalter has penciled Cruz into the lineup as a starting outfielder in three of Baltimore’s first six games, which is a spectacularly awful idea. Since backup outfielder Delmon Young is equally awful defensively, the O’s would be better off putting Lombardozzi out there when one of the three starters needs a breather.

The Orioles have contended in each of the past two seasons, and could again in 2014 thanks in part to late acquisitions Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez. If, however, they hope to vie for the playoffs instead of settling for another 80-something-win, middle-of-the-road campaign, they absolutely have to make smart decisions. While Jimenez should help the rotation, we’re still talking about a passel of no. 4 starter types who will frequently be outgunned by the starting five in Boston, Tampa Bay, and New York.4 Getting Machado back soon, putting Lough out in left as often as possible, and never ever asking Cruz to wear a glove are all necessary ingredients for repeating last year’s defensive excellence and hoping to compete in the brutal AL East. That said, even with Lough’s outstanding play on Friday night, the Tigers smoked the O’s 10-4. So, yeah.

The Cincinnati Reds

Who said no team is an island?

15. Cincinnati Reds (2-4, -4)

I ranked Cincinnati 10th in my offseason edition of The 30, but the decision gave me tsuris, and I began the entry with this big, honking caveat: “I already hate this ranking.”

Why? I looked at Cincinnati’s offense and saw only two hitters who projected to be clearly above average: Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. After that, who knew? There was Brandon Phillips, the All-Star second baseman whose numbers dropped for a second consecutive season in 2013.5 There were young players like Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco, hoping to take the next step after disappointing 2013 campaigns. And then there was Billy Hamilton, the player who threatened to channel Vince Coleman’s spirit, both with his base-stealing prowess and his inability to hit big league pitching.6 None of them looked like sure things.

Spring training brought more bad news for the Reds. Injuries decimated the bullpen, with setup men Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton hitting the disabled list and all-world closer Aroldis Chapman felled for six to eight weeks by a wicked line drive to the face. After top starter Mat Latos hit the DL while recovering from knee surgery, it seemed the question might be less whether the Reds could make the postseason for the third year in a row, and more whether projecting a .500 finish might be too kind.

Sure enough, the early returns have been pretty lousy. Hamilton has gone 0-for-12 to start the season, and was thrown out on his only stolen base attempt. Shortstop Zack Cozart is 0-for-19, solidifying his reputation as one of the worst hitters in the league with a starting job. Through six games, only the Padres have scored fewer runs than have the punchless Reds.

There are glimmers of hope, though. Tony Cingrani’s first start was a gem, he’s throwing his promising slider more often as a complement to his excellent fastball, and he has a chance to join Sonny Gray, Michael Wacha, Danny Salazar, and Gerrit Cole as starters who could do big things in their first full major league seasons. Mesoraco and Broxton are both slated to come off the DL this week, which could fortify both the lineup7 and the bullpen. Meanwhile, Frazier has opened the season on fire, hitting .381/.480/.667, launching long balls, and raking pitches off the dirt for hits:

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If I had to pick one player capable of rising up and providing the Reds with a third legitimate lineup threat (plus badly needed pop from the right side), it would be the 28-year-old Frazier.

Battling the upstart Pirates and the loaded Cardinals will likely be just as tough this year as it was last year. If the Reds can get healthy quickly and get a big year from Frazier, however, they’ll flip their share of middle fingers to the competition this year.

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Flawed Contenders

Better than some, worse than others, but good enough to contend.

14. Cleveland Indians (3-3, -3)
13. New York Yankees (3-3, -2)
12. Atlanta Braves (4-2, +6)
11. Kansas City Royals (2-3, -3)
10. Texas Rangers (3-3, -7)
9. Pittsburgh Pirates (4-2, +7)
8. San Francisco Giants (5-2, +10)
7. Oakland A’s (3-3, +3)

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Sure, the Braves won 96 games and ran away with the NL East crown last year. And yes, they did so while getting Little League–level contributions from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, indicating they could get better in 2014 with merely passable contributions from those two human strikeout machines.8 Still, with Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy out for the year following Tommy John surgery and Mike Minor starting the season on the DL with shoulder tendinitis, it was fair to wonder if the Braves had enough starting pitching to contend for another division title, or even a wild card.

So far, it looks like they do: Through six games, the Braves have given up just nine runs, making them the stingiest team in baseball by a wide margin. And it’s a good thing, too: An 0-for-4 on Sunday yanked Upton’s season line down to .120/.120/.160, with 11 strikeouts and no walks in 25 at-bats, while Uggla is hitting .217/.208/.304.

Julio Teheran, the 23-year-old right-hander who’s entering just his second full major league season, was the Braves’ Opening Day starter; he outdueled Stephen Strasburg and the loaded Nats on Saturday. Alex Wood, who’d made just 11 starts and tossed just 77⅔ big league innings entering this season, earned the no. 2 role; his excellent second-start line of seven innings, four hits, two runs, and no walks actually raised his season ERA to 1.93. David Hale, who’d thrown exactly 11 innings in the majors before this season, earned a spot amid the injuries; he fired five shutout innings against the Nats on Friday night.

We shouldn’t get drunk off results from a tiny sample of games; hell, during the Braves’ first-week run, Aaron Freaking Harang actually flirted with a no-hitter. But remember, these games are banked. And reinforcements are on the way, with Minor due back by April 25 and March signee Ervin Santana slated to make his first start on Wednesday.

Armed with a stout defense led by arguably the best defensive shortstop in baseball and yet another seemingly bottomless well of young pitching talent — a team hallmark pretty much straight through the past quarter-century — the Braves don’t look like they’re going away anytime soon.

The Elite

The best of the best … at least for now.

6. Boston Red Sox (2-4, -5)
5. Tampa Bay Rays (4-3, +12)
4. St. Louis Cardinals (3-3, -5)
3. Detroit Tigers (4-1, +7)
2. Washington Nationals (4-2, +8)
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (5-3, +2)

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The Tigers had a confusing offseason, but they’re still loaded, and they’ve maneuvered their way through a tight first week to jump out to an early lead in the AL Central.

Miguel Cabrera leads an offense that has plenty of bite, especially if rookie Nick Castellanos can live up to his minor league résumé and Austin Jackson’s gap power and so-so batting eye continue to work in the middle of the order (instead of the leadoff spot). And Doug Fister or no Doug Fister, Detroit’s rotation remains ridiculously loaded and could in fact be the best in the league.

The Tigers have been so tough in the early going that they even managed to pull off a feat of mind control. With two on and two out in the 10th inning of Wednesday’s game against the Royals, the Tigers somehow hypnotized Ned Yost into sticking with Tim Collins with the game on the line. Collins is a fine reliever who might’ve been a smart choice under normal circumstances, but not after he’d struggled to find the strike zone all inning long, and not going against lefty-masher Ian Kinsler, and not with righty closer Greg Holland, one of the five best relief pitchers on the planet, available. The result was a Tigers win, and a KC giveaway.9

The Tigers are going to need to fix their bullpen, though, and preferably a good bit ahead of the July 31 trade deadline. With Drew Smyly taking over the fifth starter’s spot, the Tigers’ setup corps now consists of Joba Chamberlain, who hasn’t been healthy and trustworthy over a full season since 2008 (2010 if you want to go by advanced stats); Al Alburquerque, who owns one of the nastiest sliders in the game, but often has no idea where his pitches are going;10 and Ian Krol, a 22-year-old rookie with 28⅓ innings pitched in the majors.

If a contender is going to have a roster deficiency, however, this is the one to have, considering how abundant relievers tend to be around the trade deadline, especially compared to quality bats or reliable starting pitchers. The Tigers might experience some shaky moments between now and then … but they might also be good enough to Yost some other opponents.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, Power Rankings, Miami Marlins, Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers, Jonah Keri

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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