The 30: Rangers hurting, Dodgers strong through first week
Welcome to the season premiere of The 30! Every week, I’ll rank all 30 major league teams, profiling one notable club from each of our four tiers, as well as hand out one superlative for the week that was.
If you’re looking for straight rankings based solely on where teams place in the standings, you’ve come to the wrong place. While wins and losses do factor into the column, so too does run differential, hit clustering, injuries, strength of schedule and overall roster quality. Call it an objective exercise, laced with snippets of subjectivity. So come along, friends, for six months of bat-flip GIFs, terrible-to-half-decent puns, trenchant analysis and lots of fun. It’s Week 1 of The 30.
Best Willie Mays Impression of the Week: Bartolo Colon
He’s a fifth starter, a PED user once caught and suspended for his actions and the owner of one of the slowest fastballs in the big leagues for a righthanded pitcher. On paper, Bartolo Colon is either ordinary, or worse. Ah, but the 42-year-old Colon is so much more than just the product of velocity readings and rotation pecking order. He’s a human GIF and pic machine. He’s also a terrific athlete—able to pull off spectacular fielding plays, then flash a huge grin afterward.
Last Saturday night against the Phillies, Big Sexy even managed to evoke memories of Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series. In the top of the sixth, Freddy Galvis tried to bunt his way aboard against the stingy Colon. Instead, he got stymied in spectacular fashion, resulting in some in-depth statistical analysis for this amazing feat.
Colon being the darling of #BaseballTwitter meant countless angles, sub-angles and memes sprung up within minutes of his Say Hey Kid performance. But we’re going with SI.com colleague Kenny Ducey’s version here, because the musical accompaniment is just perfect.
A dominant performance by Colon’s mound opponent, Aaron Nola (more on him shortly), prevented a Mets win. Still, the next W by the 285-pound Colon will be the 219th of his career, tying him for second all-time among Dominican pitchers with Pedro Martinez, behind only Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, who won 243. Not bad for our favorite heavy-set ballerina in spikes.
The Phillies’ rebuilding efforts are slowly starting to bear fruit.
30. Atlanta Braves (0–5 record, minus-21 run differential)
29. Philadelphia Phillies (2–4, minus-10)
28. Minnesota Twins (0–6, minus-14)
27. San Diego Padres (2–4, minus-8)
26. Miami Marlins (1–3, minus-5)
25. Los Angeles Angels (2–4, minus-18)
24. Milwaukee Brewers (3–3, minus-8)
23. Colorado Rockies (3–3, minus-16)
When you’re a rebuilding team, your primary goal is to stockpile as many good young players as possible, even if it takes years to collect enough talent to become a contender. The hope then is to master both the amateur draft and the international free-agent market. And when the time comes to trade whatever useful major league assets you might have, landing a bounty for them helps a lot.
The Ken Giles trade might end up being one of the most bountiful in recent Phillies history. On Dec. 12, the Astros acquired Giles and teenage infield prospect Jonathan Arauz from Philadelphia for five young players. You can understand Houston’s desire to get a good, young relief pitcher given the meltdown its bullpen suffered in last year’s playoffs. Still, even the best relievers can fall victim to the kind of volatility that inevitably infects bullpens, and the 25-year-old Giles failed to win the Astros' closer job.
Meanwhile, the Phillies could reap the rewards for years to come. At the bottom end of the deal are Brett Oberholtzer, a passable lefthander who can at least soak up innings while Philadelphia develops its top young arms in the minors; Thomas Eshelman, a second-round pick out of Cal State Fullerton last summer with great control but only so-so stuff; and minor league reliever Harold Arauz (no relation to the younger and more talented Jonathan). It’s the two pieces at the top, though, that could make this trade a big winner for Philly. One is Mark Appel, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft; he hasn’t pitched as well in the minors as his draft status might suggest, but he still has the potential to be a quality major league starter. The other is Vincent Velasquez.
Velasquez, a 23-year-old righthander, made a great first impression as a Phillie, firing six shutout innings and striking out nine to outduel Colon last Saturday. Velasquez wields a mid-90s fastball and an exciting changeup that scouts say he needs to throw more, given how tough it is to square up. He’s struggled with injuries that have limited him to 152 1/3 combined innings pitched in the minors and majors across 2014 and '15, but he has an electric arm and six years of club control, meaning he could be a hugely valuable asset.
Add Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, and the Phillies have three talented righthanders 25 or younger already in the major league rotation, with more pitching talent starting to germinate in the minors. If Jeremy Hellickson’s successful first two starts with his new team are even a little more than fool’s gold, Philadelphia could be more competitive this season than we might expect.
King’s Court: Short?
Felix Hernandez has been stingy to start the season, but he’ll need help from an up-and-down offense and a creatively used bullpen to make the Mariners thrive.
22. Cincinnati Reds (5–1, plus-13)
21. Arizona Diamondbacks (2–5, minus-14)
20. Tampa Bay Rays (2–4, minus-8)
19. Oakland A’s (4–3, plus-1)
18. Seattle Mariners (2–4, plus-4)
17. Cleveland Indians (2–2, minus-1)
He’s lost a few ticks off his fastball compared to its peak a few years ago, he struggles with command from time to time, and he occasionally gets himself into trouble by putting multiple base runners on in the same inning. But as his devastating performance on Sunday reminded us, Felix Hernandez and his changeup of death remain alive and well.
In seven innings of work against the Athletics, King Felix allowed just three hits, walked two and struck out 10. Of his 99 pitches, a mind-boggling 45 were changeups. He repeatedly spiked them in the dirt and generated an impressive 10 swings-and-misses on that pitch alone. Though Hernandez doesn’t flash as big a velocity gap between his fastball and change as he used to, a lower arm angle on the change has made that pitch, at times, even more vexing to opposing hitters. In a fair universe, he’d earn his team a W, avert a sweep and put the M’s on the right track heading into this week’s matchup against Texas.
Instead, Seattle offered just one run of support, the A’s tied the game as soon as Felix left, and the Mariners got broomed at home by a team that finished dead last in the West last season. As old pal Dave Schoenfield noted, that marked the 45th time in Hernandez’s career that he’d allowed one run or less in a game and failed to get the win, tying him with Zack Greinke for the lead among active pitchers in that dubious category.
On Sunday, both the offense and the bullpen let Felix down. The one run scored by the M’s in the final game of the series gave them a total of just two in their past 23 innings. It’s not like Oakland trotted out a bunch of Cy Young winners over the weekend, either: The starters for the series were the legendary trio of Eric Surkamp, Rich Hill and Chris Bassitt, with not a single Sonny Gray sighting. Meanwhile, Seattle's bullpen surrendered two runs in three innings of work Sunday, as off-season additions Joel Peralta and Nick Vincent both failed to come through. Given how disappointing last year’s drop from 87 to 76 wins was, how shaky the Mariners' lineup was last year beyond the likes of Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz and how poorly the 'pen performed in 2015, these ugly early tidings can’t be fun to watch for M’s fans.
Here’s why I’m not worried ... at least not yet. First, new general manager Jerry Dipoto wisely dumped most of last season’s worst performers, or at least wrested playing time away from them. Offensive black holes such as Jesus Montero, Logan Morrison, Jesus Sucre and Mike Zunino are nowhere to be found on this year’s roster, with Nori Aoki, Adam Lind and others offering sizable potential upgrades. Cano getting past the health and emotional pitfalls that wrecked the first half of his 2015 campaign should also help; his four first-week homers were a big team highlight.
Second, the Mariners figure to be stronger in both personnel and strategy when it comes to relief work this year. Peralta’s ability to keep going on smoke and mirrors at age 40 aside, Vincent put up solid numbers in four years with the Padres, Joaquin Benoit remains a capable setup man and Steve Cishek is a righty-killing strikeout artist who could provide a big lift if he can rediscover the elite ground-ball rates he flashed for most of his 4 1/2-year stint with the Marlins. And while Cishek took the loss for Seattle last Friday night, new manager Scott Servais’s willingness to go with his best-suited relievers for big spots—without worrying too much about the save rule—is a positive sign too.
Facing two significant injuries, the Rangers make a high-profile promotion, and could pursue a big trade, too.
16. Texas Rangers (3–4, minus-7)
15. Chicago White Sox (4–2, plus-4)
14. Detroit Tigers (3–1, plus-5)
13. New York Yankees (3–2, plus-11)
12. Houston Astros (2–4, minus-12)
11. St. Louis Cardinals (3–3, plus-10)
10. Baltimore Orioles (5–0, plus-12)
Though the season-ending injuries to the Diamondbacks' A.J. Pollock and the Cubs' Kyle Schwarber made bigger recent headlines, the Rangers had a lost weekend of their own. On Sunday, the Rangers placed Shin-soo Choo on the 15-day disabled list with a calf injury, and the team now expects to be without its starting rightfielder for the next four to six weeks. The good news here is that Texas might not see much of a downgrade with Choo’s replacement—if they see any downgrade at all.
That’s because Texas will now roll with Nomar Mazara. Rated the No. 9 prospect in baseball by ESPN.com’s Keith Law and No. 21 by Baseball America, Mazara is a precocious slugger with a great batting eye, possessing the kind of advanced profile that could play well even though he's still a couple weeks shy of his 21st birthday. Baseball Prospectus describes Mazara as having an easy swing, one that could generate lots of hits, and lots of long balls.
Mazara is a lefthanded hitter who could help keep the Rangers’ strong lineup balance intact and even offers a plus throwing arm in rightfield. His impressive major league debut on Sunday included three hits, highlighted by a home run. It’s entirely possible that Mazara could rake for a month and a half, then present Texas with a pleasant dilemma: Send its top prospect back to the minors, or keep him in the majors and have him snatch playing time from Ian Desmond or Mitch Moreland, thus making a strong lineup even stronger.
The Rangers do have a clear weak link in their lineup, though, thanks to another injury. Catcher Robinson Chirinos fractured his right forearm last Saturday and could be out until July. Team brass, not satisfied with the backup plan of Bryan Holaday and Brett Nicholas, have started pursuing trade options. Given the combination of the organization’s impressive storehouse of young talent and the Brewers being very aggressive in trading veterans for prospects since new GM David Stearns took over last fall, a deal for Milwaukee backstop Jonathan Lucroy could make a lot of sense for all parties involved.
As evidenced by last summer’s Cole Hamels blockbuster, GM Jon Daniels and the rest of the front office have shown they play to do what it takes to give this team a chance at getting to October. Don’t expect them to lay up now.
Racked with injuries, the Dodgers lean on new blood to power their rotation.
9. Toronto Blue Jays (3–4, minus-1)
8. Boston Red Sox (3–2, plus-5)
7. New York Mets (2–3, plus-2)
6. Washington Nationals (3–1, plus-3)
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (4–2, plus-4)
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (4–3, plus-16)
3. San Francisco Giants (5–2, plus-18)
2. Kansas City Royals (4–1, plus-8)
1. Chicago Cubs (5–1, plus-27)
Given a chance last off-season to re-sign Zack Greinke, sign David Price or otherwise invest a ton of money in star wingmen for Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers opted to go the depth route instead. By making multiple smaller acquisitions, management believed it could provide contingency plans should things go wrong this year and also avoid the kind of enormous, long-term deals that could become roster albatrosses by blocking younger talent and clogging up money that would be better used for other needs. With five position players and six pitchers on the disabled list, that plan is being severely tested so far. And the early results have been ... pretty good, actually.
The good tidings started with Kenta Maeda’s major league debut last Wednesday. After Kershaw, Scott Kazmir and the Dodgers' bullpen teamed up to shut out the Padres over the first two games of the season, Maeda followed with another scoreless performance. The Japanese righthander cruised through six innings in San Diego, allowing just five singles to go with four strikeouts and no walks, needing just 84 pitches to keep the Padres' hitters at bay. True to his reputation, Maeda delivered mostly sinkers and sliders, and reaped excellent results from both, including seven swings-and-misses out of 24 sliders thrown.
San Diego might be on its way to 100 losses, so it’s possible that Maeda will face choppier seas in his next start against Arizona on Tuesday. Still, with Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-jin Ryu and others on the DL, Los Angeles will take any sign of optimism it can get.
Ross Stripling offered yet another positive sign last Friday. No wait, not just positive; stupefying and shocking. Making his major league debut, Stripling plowed through the Giants lineup by firing 7 1/3 no-hit innings, making the 26-year-old righthander the first pitcher to take a no-hit bid that deep into his debut start in 49 years. The controversy over pulling him grew when San Francisco catcher Trevor Brown greeter reliever Chris Hatcher with a game-tying home run in what became a 3-2 Giants win, but that debate was mostly just white noise: Stripling was about to hit 100 pitches in his first sniff of the big leagues, he’d walked four batters, including his last hitter of the night, and the Dodgers should’ve had enough bullpen strength to close out his dazzling debut.
The more relevant question is whether Stripling can build on his impressive beginning. Lacking Maeda’s pre-MLB resume of success, that’s likely a long shot. Still, if L.A. can nab even decent results every fifth day, that could be enough to stem the tide until the team's DL brigade gets healthy enough to return.