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The 30: The Blue Period

The Dodgers, Red Sox, Pirates, and Padres may span these rankings, but they share two commonalities: underperforming so far, and the promise of better days ahead

Every week my rankings manage to piss off readers, who have various questions for me, such as: How can you put this team so high? Are you ignoring this squad’s record and run differential? Have you failed to account for the gravitational pull of Saturn’s 62 moons, you idiot? 

While I provided my rationale for how I approach The 30 in this column’s season premiere, I also understand that as we get deeper into the season and records start to matter more, big deviations between a team’s place in the MLB standings and its place in these rankings can rankle and annoy.

As such, here’s a quick explainer for this week’s file: While I’m weighing records, run differentials, and trends more now than in Week 1, I’m still putting ample weight on roster quality. And now, for your reading and/or fist-shaking enjoyment, here are four teams that have looked mediocre to awful at various points this season, but still bring great optimism going forward.

It’s Week 5 of The 30.

Not Great, Bob

At least not right now. For a couple of these teams, however, it’s bound to get better.

30. Houston Astros (10-21 record, -55 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Chicago Cubs (11-18, -6, LW: 29)
28. Arizona Diamondbacks (11-23, -60, LW: 28)
27. Minnesota Twins (14-15, +2, LW: 23)
26. Philadelphia Phillies (15-14, -11, LW: 26)
25. San Diego Padres (14-18, -28, LW: 25)

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There are no World Series contenders down in these depths, and the Padres are no exception. They’re also not as bad as their -28 run differential seems to indicate.

San Diego ranks dead last in the majors with 84 runs scored in 32 games. The Braves, who currently have baseball’s second most anemic offense, have scored 99 runs in two fewer games. The Friars rank last in the majors in batting average (.216), last in on-base percentage (.268), and last in slugging (.325). While Petco Park doesn’t help, this is still the worst offense in baseball by a wide margin after adjusting for park effects.

To try to figure out what’s going on, let’s take a player-by-player look at the Padres’ current starting lineup:

SS Everth Cabrera: 2014 stats: .258/.280/.336, 74 wRC+; career stats: .253/.326/.341, 90 wRC+. It’s early, but his numbers are way down following his 2013 PED suspension.

CF Cameron Maybin: 2014 stats: .348/.400/.522, 163 wRC+; career stats: .249/.313/.372, 91 wRC+. He’s been ravaged by injuries since the start of last season, and his 2014 numbers reflect just 25 plate appearances.

C Yasmani Grandal: 2014 stats: .254/.333/.433, 119 wRC+; career stats: .268/.372/.429, 128 wRC+. He’s also coming off a 2013 PED suspension, though his minor league numbers, pedigree, and age (25) suggest that his skill and upside are still present.

LF Seth Smith: 2014 stats: .269/.363/.423, 127 wRC+; career stats: .265/.343/.455, 109 wRC+. He’s a very good hitter against righties (career .279/.357/.485), but is punchless versus lefties, which isn’t a great thing for the cleanup guy.

1B Yonder Alonso: 2014 stats: .163/.193/.221, 14 wRC+; career stats: .268/.333/.379, 100 wRC+. Simply put, he’s been the worst hitter in baseball this year.

2B Jedd Gyorko: 2014 stats: .162/.224/.248, 31 wRC+; career stats: .234/.287/.409, 96 wRC+. The power-hitting second baseman recently got a six-year, $35 million contract extension (plus a club option), but he’s not far behind Alonso in terms of poor productivity, ranking as the third-worst hitter in the majors so far this year.

RF Will Venable: 2014 stats: .194/.245/.262, 45 wRC+; career stats: .254/.318/.423, 106 wRC+. One of only nine players to go 20/20 last year, Venable is currently the fifth-worst hitter in the majors.

3B Alexi Amarista: 2014 stats: .164/.271/.279, 62 wRC+; career stats: .226/.275/.344, 73 wRC+. If Amarista qualified, his .164 batting average would rank as the sixth-lowest in the National League.

Yes, I’m now going to say some nice things about this unholy mess.

No team in baseball has seen so many hitters perform so far below their expected outputs. Gyorko, Venable, Alonso, and Amarista simply aren’t this bad. The question is whether they’ll get the time to turn it around. Chris Denorfia, one of the most underrated players in the league and a fourth outfielder entering the year, is already seeing increased playing time, and there’s some risk that manager Bud Black won’t stay patient long enough for his struggling regulars to stay in the lineup and improve. Whether the Padres stick with the incumbents or summon new bodies, however, there’s just no way they’re going to play like the 1899 Cleveland Spiders much longer.

The biggest reason for optimism is the Padres’ performance with runners in scoring position. San Diego is hitting a microscopic .184 in those situations this year, the worst mark in all of baseball. As I mentioned last week, the 2013 Cubs posted the worst batting average with runners in scoring position this century, at .218, so the law of averages suggests the Pads will start doing something at some point to improve in those spots.1 The Padres are also grounding into more double plays than any other team, which could also improve with some better luck.

What’s more, the Padres are going to get healthier. Usual starting third baseman Chase Headley is expected to return from a calf injury late this week, which will push Amarista to the bench. While it’s probably asking too much to expect Headley to replicate his monstrous 2012 season, he’s still arguably the best all-around player on the team. Carlos Quentin, meanwhile, is one of the league’s most injury-prone players, so we should take his supposedly imminent return with a grain of salt. Still, he’s an excellent hitter when upright, and he’ll give the lineup a big lift if he returns early this month as hoped.

No one in San Diego is making October plans.2 With a decent starting rotation headed by Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, and Tyson Ross plus legitimate hope for improvement up and down the lineup, this might be a .500 team by season’s end, and maybe even a smidge better if the karma gods will finally cooperate.

Try Again Later

If you’re looking for teams that could see big swings in either direction from here on out, you’ve come to the right place.

24. Toronto Blue Jays (14-17, 0, LW: 22)
23. Pittsburgh Pirates (12-19, -15, LW: 18)
22. Chicago White Sox (15-17, −4, LW: 21)
21. Cleveland Indians (13-18, −18, LW: 16)
20. Seattle Mariners (14-15, −2, LW: 24)
19. New York Mets (16-14, -2, LW: 20)
18. Miami Marlins (16-15, +24, LW: 27)
17. Cincinnati Reds (15-16, +17, LW: 17)

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The 2013 Pirates were one of the biggest surprises in baseball. After missing the playoffs and finishing below .500 for two decades, the Buccos suddenly delivered a 94-68 campaign, winning six more games than their runs scored–versus–runs allowed totals suggested they should have. They got masterful performances from a bullpen that produced a 2.89 ERA, the third-lowest mark in baseball, and their best players stayed remarkably healthy. While these were perfectly valid explanations for an out-of-nowhere playoff run, they weren’t necessarily factors the Pirates could expect to last. Vegas confirmed this, pegging the team to win 84-85 games in 2014, depending on where you looked.

And indeed, things have gone considerably worse for the Pirates this year, as they sit in fourth place in their division and have the third-worst record in the National League.

As with the Padres, it’s tempting to pin the Pirates’ woes on a lack of offense. The Bucs are tied for 10th in the NL in runs scored and recently went through their ugliest stretch of the year, a seven-game run in which they lost six while scoring 11 total runs, tallying one run or fewer in five of those contests. The bulk of that slump came during important divisional games against the Reds and Cardinals, making it all the more painful. But here’s the thing: Adjust for PNC Park’s pitcher-friendly confines, and this becomes a semi-respectable, middle-of-the-pack offense.3

Run prevention is the area in which the Pirates have truly regressed compared with last year, though. Part of that stems from a drop in pitching quality. A.J. Burnett pitched well for the Pirates last year, logging 30 starts and ranking among the league leaders in both strikeout and ground-ball rates, and losing him to the Phillies via free agency4 quietly ranked as one of the biggest setbacks for any team this offseason. Burnett’s replacement, Wandy Rodriguez, gave Pittsburgh four starts and a 7.65 ERA this year before hitting the disabled list. The rest of the rotation hasn’t been particularly good at picking up the slack: Charlie Morton is generating his usual share of fly balls, but owns a 4.21 ERA and iffy peripheral stats, while Francisco Liriano has been worse across the board than in his resurgent 2013 campaign. Edinson Volquez’s surprise early showing, in which he allowed just six earned runs over his first four starts, has provided a huge and extremely unexpected lift.

The team’s defense has been the bigger letdown, however. Much of Pittsburgh’s 2013 success stemmed from magic glove work, specifically solid outfield play and a shift-happy infield that helped choke out countless rallies. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Pirates ranked third in the majors last season in Defensive Runs Saved; while the Pirates rank solidly above average in team defense this year, they trail five NL clubs, including their NL Central rivals in St. Louis and Milwaukee. There’s more: Per BIS, the Pirates saved nine runs with typical shifts last year, the fourth-highest total in the majors; this year, they’ve saved zero runs that way. The Pirates haven’t stopped shifting, but they’re not getting the same results this season as last.

As this excellent article by James Santelli notes, Pittsburgh does a lot more than simply overload the right side of the infield against bruising, lefty sluggers; the Pirates move fielders all over based on everything from spray charts to pitch selection to ball-strike counts, and that mishmash of defensive moves played a huge role in last year’s success. While we should soon know much more about players’ true defensive value, these factors remain unpredictable for now, especially when dealing with five weeks’ worth of games. Thanks to Dan Fox, his analytics group, and the team’s advanced scouts, the Pirates likely still hold a competitive edge in this area even though many other teams are becoming shift-happy. It’s possible that luck simply hasn’t been on their side, and that if the Pirates’ computers say a hitter will knock the ball to a certain area 70 percent of the time, that hitter is nailing the other 30 percent of the field more often than anyone would expect.

If last year is any indication, there’s reason to expect the Bucs to fare a little better relative to their peers as this season progresses. As they did last year with Gerrit Cole, they could get a big lift from a top prospect when wunderkind Gregory Polanco vanquishes the service time demons and mysteriously shows up in late June or so. GM Neal Huntington has proven he’s willing and able to mine the trade market at the deadline if his team is even remotely in the race. Add Russell Martin and Jason Grilli getting healthy sometime soon, some better hitting from the underperforming shortstop tandem of Jordy Mercer and Clint Barmes, and a few other breaks, and the Pirates could still win at their anticipated preseason pace.

A Cut Below

Six sub-elite teams dancing around .500 … plus the upstart Rockies.

16. Tampa Bay Rays (15-17, −7, LW: 19)
15. Kansas City Royals (14-16, −13, LW: 13)
14. Los Angeles Angels (15-15, +28, LW: 14)
13. Boston Red Sox (15-17, −6, LW: 11)
12. Baltimore Orioles (15-14, −6, LW: 12)
11. New York Yankees (16-14, −16, LW: 10)
10. Colorado Rockies (19-14, +31, LW: 15)

Like the Padres, the Red Sox have also been terrible with runners in scoring position. Boston is hitting a woeful .222 in those situations this year, ranking ahead of only the listless Astros in the American League. That’s a massive drop from last year, when the Sox batted .278 in those spots, second only to the Tigers among AL squads.

Some of the fault lies with a Red Sox offense that’s been uncharacteristically mediocre overall. GM Ben Cherington didn’t come right out and say he took his foot off the gas after Boston’s worst-to-first World Series run, but he certainly implied it when we spoke in March. The Sox let Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew leave, and youngsters Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, and Jackie Bradley Jr. have gotten more playing time this year as a result. Bogaerts has fared well in the early going, showing uncommon patience at the plate while ranking among the league leaders in on-base percentage.

Middlebrooks has shown the expected combination of good pop and poor strikeouts. Bradley, meanwhile, has been as good as advertised defensively, though he’s batting just .215/.324/.333 this year. Unfortunately for the Sox, Bradley’s early offensive struggles have been par for the course for an outfield that’s been the AL’s third-weakest offensively.

Shane Victorino has posted a respectable .257/.325/.400 line, though he has struggled with injuries yet again this year. Jonny Gomes’s numbers are down slightly from 2013, but he’s still posting a 102 wRC+. It gets ugly after that: Grady Sizemore’s return is a nice story, but he’s hitting just .224/.302/.376, and Daniel Nava looked so lost at the plate while hitting .149/.240/.269 that the Red Sox were forced to send him down. Right now, the Red Sox don’t have a single outfielder they can rely on to be a lineup regular, stay healthy, and deliver an above-average performance.

Luckily for the Sox, they can dip into their vast resources and seemingly endless pool of quality prospects to reel in outfield help via trade. Just among players who will become free agents at year’s end, there are Smith and Denorfia in San Diego; Michael Cuddyer in Colorado; Nori Aoki in Kansas City; and, depending on how their teams fare this year and whether their general managers would feel comfortable trading within the same division, possibly Colby Rasmus and Melky Cabrera in Toronto and Nelson Cruz in Baltimore.5

There’s also reason to expect better things from the team’s veterans, as Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are both hitting well below career norms. In fact, Pedroia might prove to be the wild card for Boston’s 2014 chances. After Boston’s 7-4 loss at Yankee Stadium on April 12, Pedroia was hitting .236 with no walks and just three extra-base hits. He got a cortisone shot for his injured hand and didn’t return to the lineup until April 16. The veteran second baseman has been on fire since, hitting .303/.404/.447, drawing 13 walks in 18 games, and looking like the patient, pesky Pedroia of old. His power’s still a question mark, with a Friday-night grand slam against the A’s marking his first home run since September 17, a stretch of 164 at-bats. At his best, Pedroia is more of a walks, doubles, and elite defense guy than a true power hitter. If the outfield is going to keep struggling, though, the Sox could sorely use another power source.

Then again, with the Rays’ rotation decimated, the Orioles running out their usual collection of fourth starters, the Jays looking shaky again, and the Yankees starting to show the pitfalls of a stars-and-scrubs roster, the Sox might not need another season for the ages to return to the postseason. But they will need something more than what we’ve seen so far.

The Prime Nine

Our list of top teams remains the same, though a couple of leaders are threatening to fall down the rankings.

9. St. Louis Cardinals (16-16, +11, LW: 8)
8. Texas Rangers (17-14, -9, LW: 5)
7. Washington Nationals (17-14, +14, LW: 9)
6. Atlanta Braves (17-13, +9, LW: 1)
5. Oakland A’s (19-12, +51, LW: 6)
4. Milwaukee Brewers (21-11, +11, LW: 3)
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (18-14, +9, LW: 2)
2. San Francisco Giants (20-11, +24, LW: 7)
1. Detroit Tigers (17-9, +27, LW: 4)

The Dodgers looked like they might be the best team in baseball coming into this season. Their first 32 games haven’t always played out according to plan, however — the team has been exhilarating, confusing, and even maddening at times. Five regulars will play a major role in steering them from here:

Yasiel Puig: Matt Kemp’s return left the Dodgers with a problem 29 other teams would love to have: four outfielders capable of playing every day. It’s a good thing they have that extra body, because Puig might miss some time. The right fielder had been on fire lately, going 11-for-23 during a five-game rampage last week, including six hits in a doubleheader sweep of the Twins. His fortunes took a turn on Sunday, however. With the score tied in the ninth inning at Miami, Puig nearly pulled off a spectacular, game-saving catch. Instead, he smashed into the right-field wall, the Marlins walked off with the win, and Dodgers fans were left wondering whether the brightest star on a team filthy rich with them will be able to stay healthy. Though Puig passed his concussion test and is currently day-to-day, and though it helps a lot to have Kemp, Carl Crawford, and Andre Ethier ready to step in, Puig’s playing style means this likely won’t be the last time he gets dinged up this season. The Dodgers can’t afford to lose him — not while playing in a top-heavy NL West that’s seeing the Giants flash some of their 2012 form and the Rockies play better than expected, and not when we might all be deprived of one of the sexiest beasts in the game.

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Dee Gordon: It’s not going to last. Gordon’s video-game numbers (including a .353 batting average and league-leading 19 steals) notwithstanding, his core skills look only slightly better this year than last, when he hit .234 and barely played. He’s delivering a few more line drives this season, he’s swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone and making slightly better contact, and he’s hitting the ball with a bit more authority after some offseason weight gain, cracking a still modest eight extra-base hits in 29 games. The biggest change is that Gordon now realizes what he’s not: someone who can hit the ball in the air and hope to achieve positive results. He’s banged out more than three ground balls for every fly ball this year, putting him among the league leaders. Still, even with the blazing speed to turn some of those grounders into infield hits, his league-leading .417 batting average on balls in play will evaporate sooner or later. When it does, the Dodgers will need to find other offensive boosts to make up for it. This is one of the rare instances where one of this week’s featured teams should expect something to get significantly worse instead of better.

Adrian Gonzalez: Mike Petriello was on the 2014 Gonzalez transformation train early: Gonzalez is swinging at more pitches and missing more often, but he’s also blasting more long balls than we’ve seen since his San Diego days. This is still tough to assess, as the erosion in Gonzalez’s power the past couple of years has been linked to everything from a slightly slowing bat to the lingering effects of 2010 shoulder surgery. If the power bounce back is real, though, the Dodgers might finally have the superstar they envisioned when they pulled off the blockbuster to end all blockbusters.

Hyun-Jin Ryu: He just hit the disabled list with shoulder inflammation and is slated to have the injury examined by surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache today. The Dodgers’ rotation has been terrific even without ace Clayton Kershaw, though, as Zack Greinke has looked like he’s worth every bit of his $147 million contract, Dan Haren has appeared to be one of the best signings of the winter, and even Josh Beckett has shown flashes of his old self. Still, if Ryu’s injury proves to be more serious than anticipated, don’t be surprised if the Dodgers go after even more starting pitching in July. If the injury-riddled Rays can’t climb back into the race, a David Price blockbuster deal could make all kinds of sense for both teams. The Dodgers will welcome a healthy Ryu back with open arms, but they’ll be prepared to make a move if his injury forces them to act.

Clayton Kershaw: The best pitcher on Earth6 is expected to return on Tuesday to face the Nationals. If Kershaw shows no ill effects from the injury that forced him to miss the last month, no move any team makes between now and the end of the season will match the impact of Kershaw’s return to the Dodgers. That, more than anything, is why the Dodgers are still breathing this rarefied rankings air. 

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, San Diego Padres, Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw, MLB Trades, MLB Stats, 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.

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