For Marlins and Twins, are cold starts bad luck or sign of worse to come?
Yesterday, I examined the surprising teams with the best records in baseball at this early stage of the season: the Royals and Braves. Today, we head to the other end of the standings to look at the teams off to the worst starts. Let’s take them in order of their projected 2015 finish.
Miami Marlins (1–6)
Having improved by 15 wins last year and boasting MVP favorite Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins were expected to take another step forward to produce their first winning season since 2009. Their poor start, however, has increased their degree of difficulty for accomplishing that: Miami would have to go 81–74 the rest of the way, a .522 winning percentage, to finish with 82 wins.
Casual observation would suggest the Marlins' biggest problem has been their rotation. Opening Day starter Henderson Alvarez is on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation after a poor second start, new addition Mat Latos failed to make it out of the first inning in his debut, and ace Jose Fernandez isn't due to return from Tommy John rehabilitation until midseason. But surprisingly, and perhaps distressingly for Miami and its fans, the rotation has not been the weakest link. Tom Koehler, Dan Haren, and Jarred Cosart each turned in quality starts in their season debuts, as did Alvarez on Opening Day, and Latos rebounded in his second outing on Monday, striking out five Braves and allowing just one unearned run through his first four innings of work before receiving a quick hook in the fifth.
Far more problematic have been the performances of the bullpen and the lineup. The Marlins failed to score more than two runs for the fifth time in seven games last night, and the offense's performance overall has been particularly troubling given the expectations for improvement coming into the season. Of the 20 runs Miami has scored thus far, six came in a single inning against Rays reliever Erasmo Ramirez on Friday in what remains the Marlins’ only win this season. Take away that inning, and Miami has averaged 2.0 runs scored per nine innings this season.
Outside of leadoff man Dee Gordon, who is batting .345, no one on the team is hitting well. Leftfielder Christian Yelich is getting on base (.355 OBP), but he’s slugging just .296. Gordon and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia are the only Marlins with multiple extra-base hits, and the latter has produced the team's only home run while hitting just .118 overall. Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria’s OPS+ currently sits at -1. And Stanton has a slash line of .130/.310/.174, as the lineup around him has provided opposing pitchers little reason to give him much to hit.
As for the bullpen, Miami's relievers have combined to post a 5.72 ERA, last in the National League by more than three-quarters of a run. And while the pathetic performance of the offense hasn't resulted in many leads to protect, the bullpen has blown its few opportunities. In the Marlins' only win, the relievers were handed an 8–1 lead in the seventh inning, then promptly gave up seven runs in one frame to tie the game. When Miami took another lead in the bottom of the eighth, the ‘pen gave away that one, too, with closer Steve Cishek flubbing what remains his only save opportunity of the season. Among the principle offenders have been Sam Dyson, who has walked six men in six innings (five unintentionally); Cishek, who has allowed five runs in a mere 1 1/3 innings of work; and David Phelps, who has allowed four runs in one inning over two appearances.
In summary, the Marlins’ season has been a total disaster thus far. One can expect the offense—which was league-average last year before adding Gordon, Michael Morse and Martin Prado in the off-season—to perk up eventually, but things seem likely to get worse before they get better in the rotation, with Phelps replacing Alvarez and Latos still lacking his pre-2014 velocity. Miami's hopes for success were always predicated on a strong finish aided by Fernandez’s return. Given this brutal start, that might be the Marlins' only chance to deliver that winning season.
Minnesota Twins (1–6)
One of the reasons small samples can be misleading is lack of diversity of opportunity. For example, the Twins have played three of their seven games against the Tigers, who are off to a stellar 6–1 start. It seems that the opening series in Detroit was a perfect storm of teams of diametrically opposed quality. The result of that series was that Minnesota became the first team in major league history to fail to score an earned run in its first three games and the Tigers became just the 16th club since 1900 to outscore their opponents by more than 20 runs in their first three games.
Since then, Detroit has gone 3–1, suffering its first loss in Pittsburgh Monday afternoon. The Twins, meanwhile, have gone 1–3, with their lone win coming against the White Sox on Friday. Minnesota hasn't been nearly as bad over that stretch as it was against Detroit, but the Twins have not given any reason for optimism, either, getting outscored 23-9 in their past three games.
With Ricky Nolasco hitting the disabled list with elbow inflammation, Minnesota has had six men start its first seven games. Tommy Milone—who threw 7 2/3 scoreless innings to pick up the team's sole win—is the only one with an ERA below 5.25. The Twins' only other quality start was a bare-minimum effort (6 IP, 3 R) by Phil Hughes on Sunday. Minnesota's bullpen ERA is even worse than Miami’s, and is tied with the Rays for the second-worst in baseball at 5.91, just three points better than the White Sox's 5.94. New additions Blaine Boyer (18.00) and Tim Stauffer (8.10) and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham (4.91) have done the most harm there.
Offensively, the Twins have just two home runs and 12 extra-base hits, both worst in the AL. Their 51 OPS+ is dead last in the majors by a significant margin. Their best hitter by that measure (minimum six plate appearances) has been Joe Mauer, who has a 99 OPS+ but no extra-base hits. The lone off-season addition to the lineup, 39-year-old prodigal son Torii Hunter, has a -16 OPS+ thus far.
These are extreme small-sample results dominated by that Tigers series, but there is no foundation for optimism here. Yes, Minnesota will get better, but it only seems likely to improve to the point of being unspectacularly terrible, at least for the first half of the season. In the second half, the team could be bolstered by the return of starting pitcher Ervin Santana from his PED suspension and possibly by the promotions of top pitching prospects Alex Meyer and Jose Berrios as well as third baseman Miguel Sano and perhaps even outfielder Byron Buxton in the lineup. Right now, however, those reinforcements seem very far away.