The 30: Champs on top but three AL teams in top five as new season, format debuts

1:38 | MLB
It's now more expensive to be a Cubs fan since they won the World Series last year
Monday April 10th, 2017

Welcome to the season premiere of The 30! Throughout the year at SI.com, I’ll break down the biggest stories in baseball, while ranking all 30 teams.

Fair warning: These are not your typical rankings. If you want a simple accounting of wins and losses, consult MLB’s standings page. Instead, The 30 considers a wide array of factors, including run differential, hit sequencing, team health, strength of schedule and a broader, objective overview of the overall quality of a team. Actual wins and losses make up just one piece of the puzzle.

Things get even more complicated this early in the season. At this stage, I’ll lean much more heavily on roster quality and season-long projections, rather than a random three-game winning streak or losing streak. As the season goes on, actual on-field results will of course play an increasingly important role.

Finally, there's been a change to our format: Instead of running every week during the regular season (as it did last year at SI.com), The 30 will instead run every two weeks in 2017. But wait, there’s good news! In lieu of highlighting four teams per week, I’ll feature every team in the American League, followed by every team in the National League (and so on) every two weeks until the start of the playoffs. So you’ll get to read about your favorite team more often, and you’ll get to scream at me about how biased and terrible I am more often!

Today, it’s The 30, AL edition. Enjoy.

30. San Diego Padres (3–4 record, minus-17 run differential)

29. Atlanta Braves (1–5, minus-12)

28. Milwaukee Brewers (2–5, minus-6)

27. Chicago White Sox (2–3, plus-5)

Is this the worst team in the American League? And if you’re a White Sox fan, would that be so bad?

The latest setback happened last week, when the White Sox announced that talented left-hander Carlos Rodon would miss five to six weeks with biceps tendinitis. That injury, combined with previous concerns about Rodon’s sometimes violent delivery, and the usual concerns that come with young pitchers, make you a little antsy about what comes next. Given that Jose Quintana was discussed in multiple trade scenarios over the winter and will likely go back on the block this summer, the immediate future of the Sox rotation looks grim.

Still, the bigger picture suggests a cohesive plan, one that’s worked brilliantly in other markets. By trading away Chris Sale and Adam Eaton over the winter, the Pale Hose turbocharged a farm system that lacked impact talent, luring promising right-handers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Michael Kopech, as well as elite hitting prospect Yoan Moncada. After three years of retooling efforts, it’s clear that GM Rick Hahn is now eyeing something closer to a total teardown. Teams like the Cubs and Astros followed similar paths in recent years, fielding 100-loss teams, and in Houston’s case registering multiple 0.0(!) local TV ratings as fan interest bottomed out. If the White Sox come out of their own blow-it-up effort with anything close to the results at Wrigley and Minute Maid, South Siders will have every reason to be overjoyed. But things are likely to get ugly between now and that hypothetical later.

26. Oakland A’s (3–4, minus-7)

The easiest thing to do when something extraordinary happens in the first week of the season is to dismiss it as a product of small sample size. If a player suddenly goes from meh to marvelous, odds are he’s going to crash back to Earth as soon as he’s exposed by a few more games.

Then there’s the curious case of Kendall Graveman. A thoroughly unremarkably pitcher for the first two-plus seasons of his major league career, Graveman came into this year with a 4.08 ERA (which looks even worse when considering that the A’s home park favors pitchers) and a weak strikeout rate of just 14.5% (5.6 per 9 innings pitched). Graveman drawing Oakland’s Opening Day assignment had far more to do with a lack of healthy and qualified alternatives than anything else.

A week later, Graveman sits at 2-0, with a 2.08 ERA. The even bigger surprise might be his strikeout rate: After starting his career as one of the least likely pitchers in the game to miss bats, he’s punched out 12 batters in his first 13 innings pitched of the season. So what gives?

Simply put, no pitcher has changed his approach more in these first few days of the season than Graveman. In 2016, the right-hander threw his sinker 56% of the time, but still mixed in plenty of other offerings. This year, he’s doing something you’ll almost never see in a starting pitcher: Throw one pitch almost every time. Through his first two starts of 2017, a jarring 87.8% of Graveman’s pitches have been sinkers. Even that figure doesn’t tell the whole story though. All but 1% of his pitches have been sinkers...or four-seam fastballs and cutters. The sinker and four-seamer both check in between 94-95, while the cutter clocks just shy of 91. And there’s more. Not only is Graveman throwing some variant of a fastball virtually every time...the vast majority of his pitches are pounding the bottom of the strike zone, or lower.

Can he keep this pace up, throwing everything hard, everything down, and getting everyone out with that one pitch? It’ll be tough. Graveman is essentially doing a Zach Britton imitation right now. But Britton doesn’t need to deceive opposing batters nearly as much in 12-15 pitches as Graveman must throwing 100. Bartolo Colon is the only other active starter who leans anywhere near this heavily on one pitch, and Colon is basically a unicorn. Graveman’s also given up a ton of hard contact in his two starts, while giving up two long balls, and stranding 97.6% of the runners he’s put on base.

So, yeah. As fun a story as Graveman’s been so far, I’ll take the under.

25. Philadelphia Phillies (3–3, plus-10)

24. Cincinnati Reds (4–2, plus-8)

23. Kansas City Royals (2–4, minus-9)

When the Royals charged to consecutive AL pennants in 2014 and '15, they did so largely on the strength of an impenetrable bullpen. While nearly every other team dealt with the usual volatility and heartbreak that comes with using failed starting pitchers in huge spots, Kansas City kept winning close games. Fall behind the Royals after six innings, and you were doomed to fail. Tie them after six, and you were still in deep trouble.

No bullpen can beat the odds forever, though: So far this season, K.C.'s 'pen has been a disaster. On Opening Day in Minnesota, the Royals came into the seventh inning tied 1-1 . . . only to cough up six runs in the seventh and lose 7-1. In their second game, they trailed 3-1 heading into the seventh . . . only to give up six more and lose 9-1. In the final game of the opening series against the Twins last Thursday, Kansas City entered the seventh tied 3-3 . . . and surrendered two runs to lose 5-3. The coup de grâce came Sunday against the Astros. After winning the first two games of the series, the Royals had a 3-1 lead and were nine outs from a series sweep when (stop me if you’ve heard this one) . . . they rolled out the red carpet of runs. The first two scored in another disastrous seventh inning. K.C. scored one in the top of the ninth to take the lead but Houston stormed right back to tie it in the bottom of the inning. The final insult came in the 12th, when the Royals 'pen blew the game on, of all things, a walkoff walk.

Multiple culprits share the blame. Matt Strahm got blasted for four runs in ⅓ of an inning on Opening Day and another two runs in ⅓ of an inning in game two of the season, before walking three batters in losing Sunday’s game. Travis Wood allowed two runs in ⅓ of an inning on Opening Day, recorded two combined outs in his next two outings, then yielded a two-out, game-tying homer on Sunday. Meanwhile, a few disenchanted Kansas City fans are already calling for Kelvin Herrera to lose the closer job after blowing Sunday’s game, particularly with former-Royals-closer-turned-current-K.C.-setup-man Joakim Soria one of the few relievers to hold up through that first nightmarish first week.

But the main takeaway here is much simpler than that: Neither the Royals nor any other team can outrun the bullpen regression monster for long. Which means they’ll likely need to find other ways to win. With a shaky rotation made worse by the death of Yordano Ventura over the winter, finding those alternate paths to success could be awfully tough.

22. New York Yankees (2–4, plus-0)

The Yankees have no such bullpen problems. Here are their relievers’ combined numbers through six games: 22 ⅔ IP, 12 H, 4 BB, 27 K, 1.19 ERA.

The problem here is the team's health. Catcher Gary Sanchez hit the 10-day disabled list Sunday with a right biceps strain, while first baseman Greg Bird is day-to-day, after encountering early ankle problems and now battling a nasty flu. Those are likely just short-term setbacks, but the combination of injuries and slow starts offensively have severely hampered New York in the first week of the season: No team has scored fewer runs from the seventh inning on than the Bombers.

21. Miami Marlins (3-3, plus-6)

20. Minnesota Twins (5–1, plus-17)

The last time the Twins started a season 5-1 was 2010, which also happens to be the last time they made the playoffs. That’ll happen when your team leads the majors with a 2.04 ERA. And that in turn will happen when your pitchers strand baserunners at a higher rate than any other AL team and a pace that has basically no chance of lasting much longer.

Still, this Minnesota team is going to be a lot better than the 2016 edition, one that overcorrected for a fortunate '15 season of hit-clustering by losing 103 games, the most in baseball. While the common refrain among rebuilding teams is to not bother building a strong bullpen, new GM Thad Levine and his staff took some steps to avoid duplicating last year’s misery.

Underrated veteran righthander Matt Belisle looked dominant in his first three appearances as a Twin (before walking two and allowing his first run of the season Sunday in a 4-1 win against the the White Sox). Keep an eye on rookie lefty Taylor Rogers too. As a lightly regarded prospect, Rogers smoked lefthanded hitters. Problem was, he spent much of his minor league career as a starter, meaning he still had to contend with righthanded hitters the vast majority of the time. Slotted into a bullpen role this year with the big club, don’t be surprised if Rogers quietly becomes one of the more effective lefty specialists in the league.

19. Seattle Mariners (1–6, minus-10)

Look past the trauma of their seven-run ninth-inning meltdown in Sunday's 10-9 loss to the Angels, and the bigger question for the Mariners becomes something much simpler: Can general manager Jerry Dipoto’s gambit of starting three natural centerfielders boost the team’s defense enough to offset what could be a lagging trio of hitters?

Mitch Haniger has started the season on fire, clubbing three homers and slugging .571 in his first seven games, lending early credence to the industry theory that he could be the steal of the off-season trade in which he and shortstop Jean Segura went from Arizona to Seattle. The problem is, his running mates have been even worse than their meager preseason offensive expectations: Jarrod Dyson’s hitting a brutal .136/.208/.182, while Leonys Martin has somehow been worse, going 1 for his first 20, with eight strikeouts, just one walk, and zero extra-base hits.

Acknowledging the season’s microscopically tiny sample size given the vagaries of defensive metrics, the Mariners outfield still ranks among the stingiest in baseball thanks to their three fleet-footed glovemen. But there’s an offensive nadir at which even elite defense isn’t enough. Dyson and Martin are at that point now, and given their weak offensive track records, it’s possible that both will test the limits of Dipoto’s leather-first outfield strategy.

 

18. Toronto Blue Jays (1–5, minus-8)

With a .201/.279/.297 team batting line, the Blue Jays are off to their second-weakest offensive start in team history; only the 1981 Jays fared worse at this point in the season.

Much of that won’t last. Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Steve Pearce, and Devon Travis won’t all rank among the dregs of AL hitters for much longer. But Toronto, coming off consecutive ALCS berths, has a limited margin for error as it tries to reconcile being the oldest team in Major League Baseball with a desire to bolster its farm system and compete long-term. Edwin Encarnacion isn’t around anymore to ride shotgun with Josh Donaldson and drive in infinity runs, and whichever high-offense position Pearce doesn’t play this year is going to result in either Justin Smoak or Ezequiel Carrera weighing down the bottom of the lineup. A steady drip of early injuries could deepen the Jays’ hole too: Roberto Osuna could rejoin the club and reclaim his closer role by Tuesday’s home opener, but now Toronto is missing fellow reliever J.P. Howell (DL, sore shoulder) and possibly star third baseman Donaldson (day-to-day, right calf tightness).

If the Jays hope to make it back to the postseason for the third straight year, a lot of things will need to go right, from a possible Marcus Stroman breakout to better health to every one of the team’s capable hitters performing near career-best levels.

 

17. Los Angeles Angels (5–2, plus-6)

Seven runs in the ninth, with the final blows coming against filthy closer Edwin Diaz, is a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. Considering some of the names who contributed during Sunday's game-winning rally against the Mariners—Cliff Pennington drew a walk and had the walk-off single to cap the 11-batter inning while C.J. Cron hit a single and Ben Revere also walked—it’s best for Los Angeles to just enjoy the win now and forget about it in a hurry.

The Angels are still a stars-and-scrubs roster, with Mike Trout, the modern-day Willie Mays, anchoring the lineup, followed by a woeful lack of talent on the rest of the roster. Trout will continue to crush planets. Kole Calhoun will continue to be an underrated running mate. A pitcher or two will fare a little better than expected. And shortstop Andrelton Simmons will continue to be a damn wizard.

Beyond that, celebrate this joyous hot start while you can. It’s not going to last.

16. Tampa Bay Rays (5–2, plus-7)

From the first time he toed the rubber in the big leagues back in 2012, Chris Archer has always wielded a devastating slider and it has always been his best pitch. No American League pitcher generated more value from their slidepiece in 2015 and '16 than Archer did, and no AL pitcher threw one more often.

The problem is that this huge reliance on the slider also stems from another reason: His fastball can be incredibly erratic. When Archer threw a league-average fastball in 2015, that combined with his unhittable slider was enough to make him one of the best pitchers in baseball (he ranked sixth in the AL that year in park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching). Last season, Archer tossed the seventh-least effective fastball in the AL . . . and both his ERA and fielding-independent numbers jumped by nearly a full run.

So far, so better in 2017. Archer’s strikeouts are down a bit in his first two starts of the season, but he’s made for it by hiking his groundball rate to a career-high 52.5%, with less hard contact against him than ever before. And in the incredibly early going, Archer has stifled opponents’ batting average more effectively with his heater than his slider. That’s a great sign for a bounceback season, both for the Rays ace, and for his team.   

15. San Francisco Giants (2-5, minus-5)

14. St. Louis Cardinals (2-4, minus-6)

13. Detroit Tigers (3–2, minus-4)

Ignore the Justin Verlander of 2014 and much of '15. As the Tigers ace told me in podcast form last year, injuries sapped his velocity and messed with his mechanics for a solid year and a half. The Verlander of 2016—the guy who pumped his average fastball velocity back above 94 mph, led the AL in strikeouts and finished second in the league's Cy Young voting—is much closer to the Real McCoy.

His first start of this season was just as overpowering. A full two-thirds of the pitches Verlander fired in his season-opening start against the White Sox last Tuesday were fastballs. Using that thoroughly unsubtle approach, he fanned 10 batters in 6 ⅔ innings, throwing first-pitch strikes more than 73% of the time. At that rate, Kate Upton might not have to rail against BBWAA awards voters seven months from now.

12. Pittsburgh Pirates (3-2, minus-1)

11. Arizona Diamondbacks (6-1, plus-19)

10. Colorado Rockies (5-2, minus-2)

9. Texas Rangers (2–4, plus-0)

In 2015, Neftali Feliz started the season as the Rangers closer, lost his job to Shawn Tolleson in May, and Texas went on to win the AL West. In 2016, Tolleson started the season as the Rangers closer, lost his job to Sam Dyson in May, and Texas went on to win the AL West.

Manager Jeff Banister said he’s not ready to remove Dyson from the closer's role despite two apocalyptically bad outings to start the season in which he allowed eight runs while getting only three outs against the Indians. But the larger point is this: The Rangers do such a good job of finding and developing talent, with a manager completely unafraid to tweak roles as needed, that it’s hard to imagine Texas slipping if Matt Bush or someone else takes over for the sinkerball-happy Dyson. This is perennially one of the deepest teams in baseball, and thus also one of the best. No number of (admittedly solid) memes is going to change that.

8. Baltimore Orioles (4–1, plus-1)

Sometimes, a GIF says everything that needs to be said.

7. Washington Nationals (3-3, minus-11)

6. New York Mets (3-3, minus-1)

5. Cleveland Indians (3–3, minus-7)

It’s easy to forget now, but the Indians made their magical run to Game 7 of the World Series last season while woefully short-handed. Starting pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco both missed significant chunks of the regular season due to injury, then were unable to take the ball as starters in the postseason. Leftfielder Michael Brantley and starting catcher Yan Gomes also missed huge stretches.

All four are now back, and Cleveland figures to be better for it. Or at least it will be with its pitching. We wouldn’t make a big deal about Brantley’s slow start this season, but the All-Star still has to show he’s completely over the shoulder injury that blew up his 2016 campaign—he’s hitting .235 with no extra-base hits and one walk through the first week. Meanwhile, Gomes went from bad in 2015 to impossibly atrocious at the plate in '16, and he’s batting just .071 with no extra-base hits to start this year. The good news? Fortified by Salazar and Carrasco, Indians starters lead all AL rotations in strikeout-to-walk rate . . . by a lot.

4. Boston Red Sox (3–2, plus-3)

Here’s your early-season leader for most snakebit team. Rightfielder Mookie Betts and designated hitter Hanley Ramirez have already missed three games each due to the flu, and reliever Robbie Ross remains out with the same illness. Centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. is out with a sprained ligament in his knee, and no one’s sure exactly when he’ll return. Southpaw David Price continues to sit with an elbow injury that may or may not be serious. Key righthanded reliever Tyler Thornburg is sidelined with a shoulder injury. Drew Pomeranz, another lefty, is slated to finally make his first start of the season on Tuesday (probably). Meanwhile, Boston hopes shortstop Xander Bogaerts can make his return from the bereavement list on Monday.

While we shouldn’t try to intuit too much from five games, if any team was going to withstand all those setbacks and still hold up well, it’s the Red Sox—who might have more talent 1 through 25 than any other team in the American League.

3. Houston Astros (4–3, minus-3)

The off-season acquisitions of DH Carlos Beltran, catcher Brian McCann and outfielder Josh Reddick—added to a talented core of second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa, outfielder George Springer and others—created something of a consensus in analytical circles: The Astros might quietly boast the best lineup in baseball. Combine that lineup with a very deep bullpen, and Houston appeared to have an excellent chance to make a deep playoff run this season.

The X-factor was the rotation. Could 2015 AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel even come close to matching his form from two years ago? And could hugely gifted but oft-injured young righty Lance McCullers Jr. finally string together 30 starts in a season? Keuchel and McCullers, year to date: 27 IP, 25 K, 15 H, 4 BB, 1.67 ERA. Keuchel’s riding a completely unsustainable hit rate, and McCullers still need to hold up for six more months. But those hot starts have been impressive, and much-needed.

Add GM Jeff Luhnow’s newfound hunger to make impact deals and thus potentially further reinforce that rotation at the deadline, and the Astros could be legitimately terrifying this year.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers (4-3, plus-18)

1. Chicago Cubs (4-2, plus-9)

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