In this week's edition of The 30, Jonah Keri looks at four teams struggling to stay afloat after a wave of injuries at crucial positions.
You hear it every summer. A probing reporter asks the manager how his team’s frequent trips to the disabled list have affected the roster. Every team has injuries, the skipper will reply without missing a beat; we can’t use them as an excuse.
While there’s certainly truth and honor in not using injuries as a crutch, it’s also true that some teams get hit harder than others, leaving those clubs searching for answers. With their best hitter and best fielder out, the Rays have plunged in the standings. Injuries have turned the Yankees’ first-base situation into a disaster. The Royals have surged into first but remain vulnerable without two valuable corner men. The Mets might face the toughest obstacle of all, with three key starters out—and one of them possibly nearing the end of a storied career.
Just a flesh wound! It’s Week 9 of The 30.
Best Madduxian Performance of the Week: Christian Bethancourt
Blowout losses can be ugly affairs, with one team piling on so many runs that the outcome of a game gets decided after just a few innings. But there is a silver lining: Lopsided games sometimes enable a position player to pitch, as a way to save an overworked bullpen and also to have some fun.
Padres catcher Christian Bethancourt offered some of that fun—and also an impressive arsenal of pitches—during Tuesday’s 16–4 loss to the Mariners. Entering in the seventh inning, Bethancourt was predictably wild, walking two of the four batters he faced and throwing just 11 of his 26 pitches for strikes. But he also flashed some electric stuff, dialing his fastball up to 96 mph and escaping the seventh inning without allowing a run.
The highlight of Betancourt’s outing? How about a 53-mph eephus pitch right on the outside black for a called strike?
The Devil Inside
Injuries and other disappointments have Tampa Bay on pace for its worst season since the Devil Rays days.
30. Minnesota Twins (16–40 record, minus-87 run differential, last week: 30)
29. Atlanta Braves (16–40, minus-93, LW: 29)
28. Cincinnati Reds (21–36, minus-91, LW: 28)
27. San Diego Padres (23–35, minus-51, LW: 27)
26. Oakland A’s (25–32, minus-56, LW: 26)
25. Arizona Diamondbacks (25–34, minus-37, LW: 24)
24. Milwaukee Brewers (26–31, minus-44, LW: 25)
23. Colorado Rockies (25–31, minus-19, LW: 21)
22. Tampa Bay Rays (25–30, minus-3, LW: 20)
It started with a bullpen setback, with closer Brad Boxberger hitting the disabled list at the start of the season with an abdominal injury. The Rays immediately found a replacement closer in Alex Colome who could fill the hole left by Boxberger’s injury. In fact, Colome has been a major upgrade over the 2015 version of Boxberger, striking out 34 batters in 25 innings, flashing a tiny 1.08 ERA and saving 15 games in 15 tries.
The problem is the rest of the bullpen. Erasmo Ramirez, an incredibly valuable fireman/Swiss-army knife just a few weeks ago, has now given up runs in seven of his last nine appearances. At least Ramirez looked really good for a while; the Rays have gone to the likes of Steve Geltz, Dana Eveland and Enny Romero with lousy results again and again. So when Boxberger came off the DL last week, only to get hurt again (this time an oblique injury), the Rays didn’t need to sweat their ninth-inning role. It’s every other bullpen inning that they now need to worry about.
Then Logan Forsythe went down. The Rays’ best hitter this season, the righty-swinging veteran was batting a terrific .308/.392/.523 when he hit the DL on May 10 with a hairline fracture in his shoulder. Combine that performance with better-than-average defense at second base, and the Rays lost one of the best all-around players in the league for at least a month. That injury hasn’t hurt as much: Forsythe’s replacement at second, Steve Pearce, has been raking. Evan Longoria smashed five homers in four games against the Twins over the weekend and looks like he’s getting close to vintage Longoria form. Even horrid-starting Logan Morrison has become a hitting machine lately. When Forsythe returns from the DL (possibly within the next week or two), he’ll rejoin a surprising Rays offense that ranks among the 10 best in baseball, after adjusting for Tropicana Field’s pitcher-friendly environment.
But the biggest blow, and the one that might end up derailing the Rays’ already slim playoff hopes, is Kevin Kiermaier’s broken left hand. Tampa Bay’s centerfielder suffered the injury on May 21 while trying to make one of his trademark circus catches. Tampa has gone just 5–11 since, and three of those wins have come in the past three games against Minnesota, because the Twins are terrible. Kiermaier isn’t an elite hitter by any stretch. What he is, though, is arguably the single most valuable defensive player in all of baseball.
Kiermaier’s incredible instincts and range made the Rays' outfield a place where balls in the air went to die. But without him, Rays pitchers’ heavy fly-ball tendencies have come back to bite them. This is a staff full of pitchers who throw lots of high fastballs, a strategy that’s resulted in lots of strikeouts and harmless flyouts when the Rays’ arms are going well. Lately, those pitchers have been awful. To name just the most daunting example: Drew Smyly owned a 2.72 ERA over his first six starts; it hit 7.76 in his next six. Related: The young lefthander is the most extreme fly-ball pitcher in the majors among starters.
Throw in terribly disappointing seasons for Chris Archer and Matt Moore, and the team that looked like it might trot out the best starting rotation in the American League hasn’t done anything close. That leaves the second-winningest team in baseball from 2008 to '13 at risk of suffering its third straight sub-.500 season, with a big assist from the injury bug.
Who’s On First?
For the Yankees, no one you’d actually want there, thanks to two costly injuries.
21. New York Yankees (26–30, minus-31, LW: 17)
20. Philadelphia Phillies (28–29, minus-49, LW: 18)
19. Los Angeles Angels (26–30, minus-11, LW: 23)
18. Houston Astros (28–30, minus-10, LW: 22)
17. Detroit Tigers (28–28, minus-4, LW: 19)
16. Miami Marlins (30–27, minus-16, LW: 16)
This is what I wrote about the Yankees back in February, for the preseason edition of The 30:
Confession time: I was all set to pick the Yankees to return to the playoffs ... then news of Greg Bird’s season-scuttling shoulder injury hit. Bird batted a robust .261/.343/.529 in his rookie campaign, but in only 178 plate appearances. Still, he represented a badly needed insurance policy in the event that one or more old guys break down. You have to take the under on Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira hitting 64 homers again. Meanwhile, Carlos Beltran’s defense is so bad in rightfield that he shouldn’t be playing anywhere other than DH, a position that A-Rod currently occupies. The addition of Aroldis Chapman gives the Yanks a ludicrously great bullpen, and the young quartet of Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi and Luis Severino is highly underrated. But even with the addition of second baseman Starlin Castro, the lineup could be Swiss cheese by the All-Star break.
There are some misfires here of course, including Pineda and Severino being terrible this season, and CC Sabathia suddenly pitching like vintage CC Sabathia. But the overarching problem is the same one you could see coming four months: The Yankees can’t hit at all. Bird’s injury, meanwhile, has proven to be even more painful than anyone could have expected.
The big problem has been Teixeira's fall from last year's heights. After mashing at a better-than-40-homer pace over a full season in 2015, the veteran first baseman managed just three long balls in 48 games this year before hitting the DL with a right knee articular cartilage tear. His season line? A brutal .180/.271/.263, the second-worst mark among all qualified AL hitters. This wasn’t a case of regression; it was a full-blown crash. Even if Teixeira makes it back sooner than some of the grim prognoses have suggested, it’s not clear that he could return as a competent hitter, let alone a productive one.
With Teixeira out, first base now belongs to Rob Refsnyder. A utility infielder, Refsnyder has never played first base regularly and hasn’t even played it occasionally since his 2010–12 stretch at the University of Arizona. That’s leaving aside his merely semi-decent track record with the bat, which suggests he’s unlikely to hit well enough to approach even league-average production for an AL first baseman. That’s yet another problem for a team that can’t afford anymore problems—one that ranks a lousy 27th in park-adjusted offense, with little upside on either the major league roster or the minor league system to suggest big improvement is coming soon.
This brings up a potential path that the Yankees haven’t pursued at any point since they became perennial playoff contenders more than two decades ago: becoming sellers. Conveniently, two of the team’s most productive players also happen to be free-agents-to-be.
In Chapman, the Yanks have an elite relief pitcher who’s less than four months away from free agency. On a contending team, a three-headed relief monster like the one formed by Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances could be a huge asset (see also: the 2015 Royals). But with the Yankees fighting just to stay out of the cellar and badly lacking ready-made position-player talent, their chances of storming back into the race are slim. That makes Chapman a prime trade chip, one who could help New York beef up its farm system. Meanwhile, the 39-year-old Beltran has been the team’s best power hitter, slugging .525. The Yankees have seen first-hand how standout performances by aging stars can evaporate, as we’ve seen from the 2016 comedowns by Teixeira and A-Rod. Shopping Beltran while he’s still healthy and raking could net another batch of needed young talent.
Shopping Chapman and Beltran and holding the line on most (if not all) of the rest of the roster would accomplish the dual goals of addressing the future without waving a full-on white flag. Barring a big winning streak happening soon, that’s a course of action that seems likely to happen.
Working the Phones
With two key contributors down, the Royals could replicate last season’s aggressive deadline deals.
15. Chicago White Sox (29–28, plus-10, LW: 14)
14. Kansas City Royals (30–26, minus-9, LW: 12)
13. Pittsburgh Pirates (30–26, plus-25, LW: 7)
12. St. Louis Cardinals (30–27, plus-54, LW: 10)
11. Los Angeles Dodgers (31–27, plus-42, LW: 11)
10. Toronto Blue Jays (31–27, plus-17, LW: 15)
9. Seattle Mariners (31–25, plus-49, LW: 9)
8. Cleveland Indians (31–24, plus-46, LW: 13)
The Royals' brief hold on first place ended over the weekend, as Kansas City was swept in a four-game series for the first time in more than three years. Credit the surging Indians and their dominant rotation for stymieing the Royals' lineup. But save some blame for one of the worst offenses in the league—one that’s been depleted by injuries and could jeopardize the defending world champions’ playoff chances if reinforcements don’t arrive.
On May 23, Kansas City lost two of the mainstays from its pennant-winning roster, as Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon both hit the DL. In Moustakas, the Royals lost a player who was so blazing hot to start the season, it looked like he might even challenge the franchise’s single-season home-run record. Even after cooling off, Moustakas remained one of the team’s best power threats, slugging .500—until a torn ACL knocked him out for the season. Gordon’s injury, though, might’ve been more indicative of the Royals’ deeper problems. GM Dayton Moore got plenty of praise for bringing Gordon back last off-season on a four-year, $72 million contract, on the theory that his great defense and strong batting eye made him a player who’d age well as he progressed deeper into his 30s. Instead, Gordon has struck out more than three times more often than he walked, batted just .211/.319/.331 and (in an admittedly small sample of games) seen his defense slip from historical levels.
Gordon was one of several Royals starters who ranked among the worst offensive players in the majors at their respective positions. So while Kansas City hopes to get him back by month’s end, that alone might not be enough to make this team a World Series contender again. The club that boldly traded for stars like Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto at last year’s deadline would thus do well to explore the trade market again over the next few weeks.
Replacing Moustakas is the most pressing need, given how long he’ll be out and the lack of suitable alternatives. Cheslor Cuthbert is hitting an empty .261/.284/.359 and lacks the kind of minor league track record that would lead you to expect much improvement. The good news is that plenty of options should become available in the next few weeks, especially once more teams embrace the Padres’ 2016 mantra and start selling aggressively. Trevor Plouffe has been awful this season, but he did crack 22 homers just a year ago. His teammate Eduardo Nunez hasn’t played a ton of third base in the big leagues, but he’s also hitting a cool .335/.363/.516 and figures to be readily available. The Athletics' Jed Lowrie and the Brewers’ Aaron Hill could be good fits and inexpensive pickups. Meanwhile, the Cardinals will soon have a surplus of infielders when Jhonny Peralta returns this week, making him or Jedd Gyorko intriguing possibilities.
That’s not the end of it, though. The Whit Merrifield Magical Unicorn Ride likely won’t end well once his .417 batting average on balls in play disappears, leaving second base as a problem. Ditto for Paulo Orlando and his .427 BABIP and punchless Jarrod Dyson. Kendrys Morales the designated hitter has been outhit by several pitchers. The Royals have gotten by the past two years with subpar starting pitching in the past thanks to a great bullpen, great defense and a deep lineup. But that lineup being this suspect makes Chris Young’s 6.37 ERA and Yordano Ventura’s walk-every-batter-in-sight season a problem that needs addressing too; Kansas City was reportedly in on James Shields before the White Sox outbid them.
The AL Central is one of baseball’s weakest divisions, with no dominant team likely to storm to a 95-win season. That gives the deeply flawed Royals a chance to pull out another winning season with Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and some off-the-charts numbers in high-leverage situations. Still, those unlikely late-inning rallies might not last all season, and this is the weakest Royals roster of the past three seasons. Relying on magic isn’t the soundest plan. The time to move is, if not now, soon.
Meet The Mets
Seriously, who are these dudes in the lineup right now?
7. New York Mets (31–24, plus-25, LW: 5)
6. Baltimore Orioles (32–23, plus-18, LW: 6)
5. Texas Rangers (34–22, plus-35, LW: 7)
4. San Francisco Giants (35–24, plus-26, LW: 4)
3. Washington Nationals (34–23, plus-54, LW: 3)
2. Boston Red Sox (33–24, plus-69, LW: 2)
1. Chicago Cubs (39–16, plus-141, LW: 1)
If you’re a Mets fan, Sunday’s game was a case of good news-bad news. The good news? Matt Harvey is back. The Dark Knight fired seven sparkling innings against the Marlins, making it just one run and six hits allowed over his past two starts, covering 14 innings. The bad news? The Mets lost anyway, their fifth in their past eight games—a stretch in which they’ve scored just 21 runs. Thanks to injuries, what was once one of the most powerful offenses in the game is now screaming out for help.
With injuries to Lucas Duda, Travis d’Arnaud and David Wright, the Mets' lineup is loaded with interlopers. James Loney is next up to bat at first, following failed dalliances with Eric Campbell and other subpar options, and while he's off to a roaring start, he’s also had only one above-average offensive season as a first baseman in the past nine years and is a long shot to keep hitting at age 32. Rene Rivera has clicked as Harvey’s new designated catcher, but if he hits above the Mendoza line, it’ll be a minor upset. At third, the Mets do have a familiar face, but Wilmer Flores has always been better suited for a utility role than to play every day.
The catching situation could resolve itself if d’Arnaud can make it back by month’s end as hoped. On the other hand, d’Arnaud has gained a (justified) reputation as an injury-prone player, making three straight months of regular starts far from a sure thing. Duda has a stress fracture in his back, which theoretically sets up a possible return after the All-Star break but also places his ability to come back at full strength into doubt, given the severity of the injury. Meanwhile, the herniated disk in Wright’s neck starts with an August timeline for his return, but could very well knock him out for considerably longer.
Which brings us to the trade market. The same options that would make sense for the Royals’ hole at third base could work for the Mets. Players like the Rockies' Mark Reynolds, the Brewers' Jonathan Lucroy and others will be shopped by their teams. But with former top prospect Michael Fulmer and others traded at last year’s deadline for the sake of upgrades and a run at a pennant, the Mets might no longer have the prospect quality or depth to make anything beyond Loney-like incremental moves that might end up not helping at all.
As currently constituted, the Mets might still have enough to get back to the playoffs anyway. If prime Harvey is back, this is still a phenomenal rotation. Yoenis Cespedes is still an MVP candidate, Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera offer solid up-the-middle support, and Curtis Granderson and Michael Conforto are offensive assets in their own right who are good bets to improve as the season goes on.
As things stand, however, the healthier Nationals are the likely favorites to win the NL East, pushing the Mets into the lion’s den that will be the wild-card race. Such is the power of attrition.