With the first series of the season in the books, here are some quick, small-sample impressions of every team in the majors based on what we've seen them do in actual game action thus far:
Gerrardo Parra is going to be hard to take out of the lineup.
Two years ago, Parra hit .292/.357/.427, stole 15 bases in 16 attempts, and won a Gold Glove. Last year, he was producing at the same rate until he was hit on the left wrist with a pitch in late July, after which his performance cratered.
This year, he was supposed to ride pine behind Jason Kubel, Cody Ross and Adam Eaton, but with the latter two on the disabled list, Parra went 8-for-16 in Arizona's opening series against the Cardinals, delivering three doubles in the opener and falling a double shy of the cycle on Wednesday night.
In January, before the Justin Upton trade, I wrote that I'd start Parra over Kubel or Ross this season. Given that Kubel and Ross would fit nicely into a platoon in leftfield, that's exactly what the Diamondbacks should do when Eaton returns in May.
Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton are going to have big years.
Upton, like Parra, had his production sapped by a hand injury in 2012, in his case a strained thumb ligament suffered in the third game of the season. As evidenced by his two home runs against the Phillies, he's healthy again, which is a very encouraging sign for the Braves.
Freeman's first two major league seasons, meanwhile, were very similar on the surface, but there were subtle improvements in his strikeout and walk rates last year. Freeman hit seven home runs in spring training and enters the season's first weekend as Atlanta's leading hitter.
Also, thanks to his 58-mile-per-hour eephus curve, with which he struck out Chase Utley on Wednesday night, Paul Maholm's starts are now essential viewing.
The Orioles can hit.
Facing one of the best-pitching teams in the majors, the Rays, in that team's pitching-friendly ballpark, Baltimore scored a major league leading 20 runs in three games and hit .300/.358/.527 as a team. This after they ranked second in the majors in home runs last season. I'm still not sold on the O's starting pitching, and Pedro Strop picked up where he left off last season in giving up three runs and blowing a save in his only inning of work, but at least the offense shouldn't be a problem.
Boston Red Sox
Clay Buchholz might be Boston's best starter this season.
In 2010, he went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA, making the All-Star team, leading the majors in ERA+ (187) and finishing sixth in the Cy Young voting, but a back problem cost him half of 2011, and he wasn't the same last year. This spring, however, he allowed just two runs in 22 2/3 innings with strong peripherals, and in his regular season debut on Tuesday, he held the admittedly diminished Yankee lineup to one run over seven frames.
Chicago won't get anything for Carlos Marmol.
Entering the season, the Cubs hoped a hot start from their closer would yield some value at the trading deadline, but in his first appearance, Marmol lasted just four batters before getting the hook, and in his second, he came 90 feet away from blowing a 3-0 lead, with two runs in and runners on the corners before he recorded a single out.
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox' catching situation might just work out.
This offseason, the White Sox opted not spend their money on a 36-year-old A.J. Pierzynski coming off a career year, and instead handed the starting job to Tyler Flowers. Flowers was once a big-time hitting prospect with the Braves, but his star faded after coming over in the Javier Vazquez trade prior to the 2009 season.
Now 27, Flowers, a career .275/.391/.484 hitter in the minor leagues, is getting what's likely to be his last best shot at a career as a major league regular. So far, he's running with it. His solo homer on Monday was the Sox' only run in their 1-0 win over the Royals on Opening Day, he added another on Wednesday and reached base in all four plate appearances on Thursday (single, two walks and a hit-by-pitch).
It's pretty handy to have a leadoff hitter who gets on base.
Shin-Soo Choo leads the Reds with a .467 on-base percentage and has scored four of their 11 runs thus far this season. The most significant of those came in the bottom of the ninth on Wednesday. With the game tied 4-4, Choo was hit by a pitch, was bunted to second and scored on a single by Joey Votto.
Before you complain that getting hit by a pitch isn't evidence of an ability to get on base, Choo has been in double-digits in HBPs in each of his three full seasons in the majors, averaging 13 per 162 games on his career and currently leads the majors having been hit twice in Cincinnati's opening series against the Angels.
Making Brett Myers a starter again was a bad idea.
In 2011, Myers' last season as a starter, he went 7-14 with a 4.46 ERA (85 ERA+) and allowed 31 home runs. In his return to the role against the Blue Jays on Thursday, he gave up seven runs, all of which scored on his watch, in five innings (plus one batter) without striking anyone out and surrendered four home runs. That came after he posted a 9.00 ERA and 2.10 WHIP in spring training.
Dexter Fowler has arrived (and he owns John Axford).
Fowler quietly hit .300/.389/.474 last year while more than doubling his previous career high in home runs with 13 to go with his usual double-digit triples total. This year he already has two taters, both of them coming against the Brewers' John Axford. Given that Fowler's power dropped off in the second half of last season due to a variety of nagging injuries, I wouldn't be surprised to see him hit 20 homers this year, which, combined with the return of Troy Tulowitzki, a full season of Wilin Rosario and the usual from Carlos Gonzalez, could make the Rockies lineup quite a handful for opposing pitchers.
We might have been expecting too much from Victor Martinez.
Martinez, 34, missed all of 2012 due to a knee injury. His bat will come around eventually but thus far, in 95 plate appearances between spring training and the regular season, he is hitting a mere .244/.316/.314, including a 2-for-11 performance, with both hits being singles, in the opening series against the Twins.
The Astros are going to strike out a bajillion times this season.
Not only do they already lead the majors with almost 20 percent more strikeouts than the second-place Angels, but there are five hitters in their lineup who have struck out five or more times after just three games. Those are Brett Wallace (8), Chris Carter (7), Carlos Peña (6), Justin Maxwell (5) and Rick Ankiel (5).
Those aren't five random hitters, they're the Astros' two- through six-hitters, the heart of their lineup, and it's not a fluke performance. Peña struck out 182 times last year. Since reemerging as an outfielder, Ankiel has struck out 138 times per 162 games. Wallace has struck out 153 times per 162 games in his young career. Carter has 131 strikeouts in 109 major league games, a 195 K/162 pace, and Maxwell struck out 114 times in 353 plate appearances last year.
Kansas City Royals
Jeremy Guthrie loves being a Royal.
Last year, Guthrie went 3-9 with a 6.35 ERA for the Rockies, then was traded to Kansas City for Jonathan Sanchez, found his control and his ability to keep balls in the park, and went 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA for the Royals. The assumption when a pitcher has a split season like that is that the combination of the two halves, for Guthrie a 4.76 ERA (94 ERA+) is the best representation of what to expect going forward. In his first start of 2013, however, Guthrie showed no trace of his Colorado self, as he held the White Sox to one run over six innings while walking just one against nine strikeouts.
Los Angeles Angels
Slow starts are becoming commonplace for Albert Pujols.
Over the last two Aprils, Pujols has hit .232/.287/.384. This year, he's 1-for-11 after the season's first series. That doesn't mean he won't hit for the remainder of the month, but given how rarely Pujols is anything less than spectacular that the plate, the fact that he followed two poor Aprils with a no-show against the Reds to start this season seems a lot like at trend.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Clayton Kershaw will challenge Justin Verlander for the title of best pitcher in baseball this season.
Not that Kershaw isn't already in that discussion -- he's led the majors in ERA each of the last two seasons, won the 2011 NL Cy Young and was the runner up last year -- but Verlander was clearly better both seasons.
This year, that could change. All Kershaw did to start the season was shut out the Giants, the first time the defending World Series champions had been blanked on Opening Day since 1988, and he did so without walking a batter, allowing an extra-base hit or allowing a runner past first base after the first inning. The home run he hit in the eighth inning was a fluke. The shutout wasn't.
Their futility thus far had more to do with the Nationals pitching than their own, well, futility.
Don't get me wrong, the Marlins are going to be terrible this year, rivaling the Astros for the worst record in baseball, but the fact that they only scored one run in their opening series against the Nationals is not a sufficient indicator of that.
To begin with, the Cubs and Pirates, despite each scoring six runs this week, both had lower across-the-board slash stats as a team than Miami. Secondly, though no team has been held to just one run in its first three games since the 1979 Braves, such early struggles are not a strong indicator of ensuing failure, as, of the other six teams since 1916 to score just one run in their first three games, three avoided a losing record on the season (the 1933 Braves, who finished 83-71, 1937 Boston Bees, 79-73, and 1969 Astros, 81-81).
Jim Henderson is going to be closing games in short order.
In his first appearance this season, John Axford blew a save by giving up a game-tying, two-out solo home run to Dexter Fowler. Those things happen. Axford struck out the two batters he faced before Fowler and got the next man after him. However, when he next appeared on Wednesday, this time with the Brewers trailing by a run in the ninth, he was lit up, giving up five hits, two of them home runs, over the course of seven batters, and one of the outs was a line drive to leftfield. Axford lost the closer job in the middle of last season for a spell, and, like Marmol, his early work this season suggests he should never have gotten it back.
Minnesota's lineup isn't as bad as you think.
That's not to say the Twins are going to be among the league leaders in runs scored or that they're even going to be above average in that category, but the team has been so bad the last two years, totaling 195 losses, and its pitching is so undistinguished that it's easy to forget that their lineup has some real weapons.
Joe Mauer is still one of the best hitters in the majors. Justin Morneau made a successful comeback last season, albeit not to his pre-concussion level of production. Josh Willingham quietly had a monster season last year (35 HR, 110 RBIs, 144 OPS+). Trevor Plouffe has real power (24 homers in 119 games last year). Ryan Doumit is a solid contributor. Rookie centerfielder Aaron Hicks has star potential and a sharp batting eye worth roughly 80 walks a year.
That leaves just three other spots in the lineup for the dregs, and there's even some potential there in rightfielder Chris Parmelee, who hit .273/.365/.455 in the minor leagues.
New York Mets
Matt Harvey is one of the best young pitchers in baseball.
Harvey seems to be slipping through the cracks. He didn't come to the Mets as part of a big trade like fellow rotation prospect Zach Wheeler, and he wasn't on prospect lists this spring and won't be in the Rookie of the Year conversation this year because he lost his rookie status last year by throwing 59 1/3 major league innings. He also struck out 70 men in those 59 1/3 major league innings and in his 2013 debut on Wednesday, he struck out 10 in seven frames, allowed just one hit and didn't allow a single San Diego runner past first base.
New York Yankees
Mariano Rivera's farewell tour is going to overshadow everything else about this team.
Whether you love or hate the Yankees, seeing them run out this odd collection of castoffs and replacement players is strange and hard to root for or against. However, baseball fans of all stripes can unite in the desire to see Mariano Rivera baffle hitters one more time, even if they're on your favorite team. That was evident when Rivera saved the Yankees first win of the season on Thursday. A Rivera appearance, of which there may only be 60 or so remaining, is a must-see event, while almost everything else New York does this season can be rather easily ignored.
It may be awhile before we know much about this team.
Splitting four games with the Mariners doesn't tell us much, and facing the Astros this weekend is unlikely to help. It won't be until the A's take on the Angels starting Tuesday that we'll get a real look at the quality of this team. In the meantime, it's worth tuning in for Yoenis Cespedes' at-bats and trying to parse exactly how Bob Melvin is deciding when to play Chris Young.
Last year made us forget how good Cliff Lee is.
In the first two games of their series against the Phillies, the Braves hit five home runs against Philadelphia starters Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay. In the third game they managed just two singles against Lee. Those were the only two baserunners Lee allowed in eight innings against Atlanta, a span during which he also struck out eight.
Because Roy Halladay has become such a compelling disaster and because Cole Hamels appeared to take over as the team ace last year while Lee didn't win a game until Independence Day, we all sort of forgot about Lee. In his final 10 starts last season, all of them quality, Lee posted a 1.78 ERA, struck out 77 men in 70 2/3 innings and walked four. Four! He hasn't walked multiple men in a game since last June, and hasn't had an ERA over 3.22 (or an ERA+ below 130) in a season since 2007, and has a 5.95 strikeout-to-walk ratio over that span.
Oh yeah, Cliff Lee! Now I remember.
Andrew McCutchen is going to set a career high in steals this year.
He has a major league-best four already without being caught. If he steals just four per month over the rest of the season, he'll surpass his 2012 total of 20. If he steals six a month, he'll surpass his career high of 33 set in 2010. McCutchen's basestealing has been regressing since he set that personal best, with his total steals declining without a similar trend in his times caught stealing, but this spring he went back to sliding head-first in order to get to the bag quicker and thus far in the young season, it's paying off.
St. Louis Cardinals
Maybe Pete Kozma can actually hit.
Kozma hit .236/.308/.344 in parts of six minor league seasons, including a .223/.286/.324 performance in Triple A the last two seasons. Those are big samples and lousy numbers, but since being called up at the end of August last year, he has done nothing but hit: .333/.383/.569 in 82 regular season plate appearances, .359/.406/.578 in 69 PA in spring training and 4-for-13 with a double, a homer, and a walk thus far this season, which works out to .308/.357/.615.
Kozma had less impressive results in the postseason, but he did hit a single amid the Cardinals improbable ninth-inning comeback in Game 5 of the Division Series and he homered earlier in that series. Leave out the impressive spring training and add in the postseason and his lousy cup of coffee in 2011, and Kozma is still a .261/.347/.438 career hitter in 169 major league plate appearances. That may be a level of production he can maintain.
San Diego Padres
Padres pitching may be as awful as first feared.
I don't believe the Mets' lineup is as dangerous as it looked against the Padres this week, which means San Diego's pitchers might be that bad. Edinson Volquez and Clayton Richard turned in two of the worst starts in the majors this week, Volquez's three-inning start was the earliest exit not caused by an injury and Richard gave up seven runs and three home runs in just 4 1/3 innings while striking out one. As a team, their 6.84 ERA is dead last in the majors and their 1.56 WHIP is third-worst. The best start they've received thus far was from Eric Stults and now they turn to Jason Marquis (8-11, 5.22 ERA last year) and Tyson Ross (2-11, 6.50). Oof.
San Francisco Giants
Madison Bumgarner's velocity is back and he's ready to make the leap.
Bumgarner was 14-7 with a 2.83 ERA late last August when his season took a downturn turn associated with a drop in velocity. In his first start this year, however, his fastball was back up, averaging 92 miles per hour, and he flat-out dominated the Dodgers, allowing just two doubles in eight scoreless innings and retiring 18 in a row at one point.
Mike Morse is going to supply the power the Mariners wanted.
Morse hit four home runs against the A's in Seattle's opening series despite facing good pitchers in a good pitchers' park. With the fences having moved in at Safeco, look for Morse, who always hit better outside of Nationals Park than in it, to have a big year with the stick.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are going to be hit hard by regression in their bullpen.
After three games, Tampa Bay's relievers have allowed nine runs in eight innings while striking out just four, though they did strand all three runners they inherited from the Rays' starters.
On Tuesday, a brutal outing from lefty Jake McGee turned a 3-2 seventh-inning lead into a 7-4 loss. On Wednesday, Joel Peralta allowed the Orioles to cut the Rays' lead in half in the eighth and Fernando Rodney blew his first save opportunity of the season in the ninth only to vulture the win on a walk-off homer by Matt Joyce. On Wednesday, the Rays were already trailing 4-2 in the eighth, but Cesar Ramos giving up a two-run home run made a comeback all the less likely.
Those performances aren't suggesting in and of themselves, but the Rays' pen was likely to regress coming into the season, and that showing only strengthened that expectation.
Yu Darvish is very good at pitching.
Yes, the Astros have a lineup that's going to get dominated a lot this season, but the sign of a great player is when you expect greatness and they deliver. Going into Darvish's Tuesday start against the Astros, he was expected to dominate, and he then exceeded those expectations by cruising through the first 26 batters with 14 strikeouts along the way.
A year ago, Darvish was struggling with his control, but in his five seasons in Japan he averaged 1.9 walks per nine innings, in his last seven starts last year he walked just 10 men, and it says a lot that he was working on not just a no-hitter but a perfect game on Tuesday. He's going to be a lot of fun to watch this season.
Toronto Blue Jays
Big names are not a guarantee of great performance.
So far this season, Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera are a combined 4-for-23 without an extra-base hit and R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle allowed a combined 10 runs (nine earned) in 11 1/3 innings against the Indians. The Blue Jays will still be much improved this season, but there's a clear downside to each of the big-name players they brought over during the offseason. Josh Johnson will make his Toronto debut against the Red Sox Friday night.
The Nationals are as good as everyone thinks, and it's because of their pitching.
The Nationals are the only team to have swept their opening series. Yes, they did it against the lowly Marlins, but they also allowed just one run. Stephen Strasburg retired 19 in a row after allowing a leadoff single on Monday. Gio Gonzalez allowed just two hits on Thursday. The bullpen has allowed just two hits and a trio of walks in eight scoreless innings innings while striking out eight, besting both Strasburg and Gonzalez. Jordan Zimmermann gave up the lone run on Wednesday on a solo home run by Justin Ruggiano. Zimmermann, who worked six innings in that game, turned in what was clearly the worst performance by a Washington pitcher this season.
Also worth noting, of the nine Nats pitchers to appear in a game this season, only closer Rafael Soriano has reached his 30th birthday.