The 30: Nationals grab the top spot, Giants plummet toward the abyss

0:34 | MLB
Madison Bumgarner headed to DL after dirt bike accident
Monday April 24th, 2017

Three years removed from their third World Series title in five tries, the Giants are mired in dead last. Seven years removed from their last better-than-.500 season, the Rockies are in first. Also in the news: a jolting 80-game PED suspension, a 2016 doormat taunting the defending champs, and a KBO import hitting like Barry Bonds.

It’s the NL edition of The 30. Enjoy.

Note: “Last Time” reflects the rankings from the most recent edition of The 30, two weeks ago. We’ll be running The 30 every two weeks all season long, alternating between profiles of all American League teams, and all National League teams.​

30. Atlanta Braves (6–12 record, minus-20 run differential, last time: 29)

At the start of every baseball season, we wring our hands trying to predict the next young pitching star. So far in the early going, the touts who liked Mariners left-hander James Paxton look good. Those predicting big things for Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman? Not so much.

Then there’s Braves right-hander Mike Foltynewicz. At 6' 4", 220 pounds, Folty wields one of the most explosive fastballs in the game, an offering that hits triple digits and is viewed by scouts as a potential 80 pitch on the 20-to-80 scale. Despite that devastating heater, the knocks on the big righty were his lack of reliable secondary stuff and inconsistent command. Coming into this season, the prevailing wisdom was, if he could somehow solve those two issues, he could explode on the league.

The first three outings of Foltynewicz’s 2017 season dug up those same concerns. In his opening start against the Pirates, he allowed nine baserunners (including three walks), and failed to make it out of the fourth inning, needing 91 pitches to record just 11 outs. A patch of days off allowed the Braves to use Folty out of the bullpen in his next outing. In a two-inning stint against Miami, he struck out four batters and walked none ... but still struggled to locate his pitches where he wanted them, serving up a two-run homer to Marcell Ozuna. On April 18 against the Nationals he looked better, firing seven innings. But Folty was lucky to get away with only two runs allowed, after walking four batters and striking out just three.

Everything finally came together Sunday afternoon. Foltynewicz breezed through the first six innings without allowing a run, finishing the day with seven innings pitched, just four hits, two walks, and one run allowed, and an impressive nine punchouts. The best news? He didn’t merely blow away hitters with heat. He threw 27 sliders on the afternoon, getting whiffs on 10 of them. Granting that Foltynewicz tends to throw his slider when ahead in the count and seeking a strikeout, but hitters have had no chance against that pitch so far this young season. For a Braves team that’s going to ride out some rough times during their rebuild, that’s a welcome sign of optimism.

29. San Diego Padres (8–12, minus-33, LT: 30)

I could tell you about the perils of high expectations, as the Padres collapsed following their shopping spree for the ages at the 2014 winter meetings. I could highlight the growing pains that inevitably come with playing kids, and how youngsters like Hunter Renfroe and Austin Hedges will deliver some highlights, but also a whole lot of whiffs, both literal and figurative. But sometimes, the answer to a team’s struggles is so blatantly obvious, you wonder why it can’t immediately get fixed.

They’ve lost twice since that Tweet went up.

28. Toronto Blue Jays (5–13, minus-17, LT: 18)

27. Los Angeles Angels (8–12, minus-20, LT: 17)

26. Chicago White Sox (8–9, minus-6, LT: 27)

25. San Francisco Giants (6–13, minus-20, LT: 15)

Let’s shut down the hot-take machine first: Professional athletes are grown adults who can make their own decisions. If the Giants wanted to prohibit Madison Bumgarner from specific activities, that was their right to do so when they negotiated their ace lefty’s multi-year contract. Monday morning quarterbacking and moralizing about what an athlete should and should not be able to do smacks of know-it-all paternalism. It’s a bad look.

The injuries suffered by Bumgarner during a dirt-bike ride in Denver, however, will hurt. The Giants rank 22nd in the majors so far this year in park-adjusted offense. Left field has been a black hole. Denard Span and Eduardo Nunez can barely hit balls out of the infield. And the bench has been catastrophically awful.

That shifts the onus onto San Francisco’s starting rotation. Which is terrible news, because Giants starters rank dead last in MLB this season in park-adjusted ERA. Only one Giants starter boasts a fielding-independent pitching number under 4.00 ... and that’s Bumgarner, whose ribs-and-shoulder setback could keep him out until mid-June. Throw in one of the oldest rosters in the league and a lack of high-impact prospects in the high minors, and it’s already time to get nervous.

24. Pittsburgh Pirates (8–10, minus-16, LT: 12)

As with Bumgarner and the Giants, move past the broader implications of an 80-game PED ban for Starling Marte, and you’re left with a painful truth: A team is going to suffer greatly. In this case, that team is the Pirates, another flawed ballclub that could hardly afford a loss this severe.

Like the Giants, Pittsburgh also ranks among the worst teams in baseball in park-adjusted offense. Unlike the Giants, the Pirates are a team built for future success. Gregory Polanco and Josh Bell, as well as Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl, and top outfield prospect Austin Meadows, are all 25 or younger.

That youth and upside, combined with Marte’s suspension, creates an opportunity of sorts. The Pirates aren’t the kind of team that can afford to pay for the decline phase of a player’s career. That makes re-signing Andrew McCutchen an extreme long shot. A slow start, combined with multiple offensive holes and the loss of the team’s best player for half a season, thus gives GM Neal Huntington an opportunity to make the move that would be impossible to justify in a contending season: Shop an all-time Pirates great to the highest bidder, and bolster Pittsburgh’s young core so that the next half-decade could produce a sustainable winner.

23. Kansas City Royals (7–11, minus-14, LT: 23)

22. Milwaukee Brewers (9–11, minus-1, LT: 28)

Eric Thames at a glance:

MLB Rank

HR: 1st (8)

SLG: 1st (.828)

Pull: 4th (60.9%)

Chris Bosio and John Lackey can make whatever accusations they want. The bottom line is that Thames has always been one of the most muscular players in baseball history—before going to Korea, during his time demolishing the KBO, and now too. He was also tested for drug use multiple times while in Korea, and passed every test. The difference is that in addition to a Barry Bonds body, Thames has authored a Bonds-like improvement in his batting eye. The drop in Thames’ swing rate on out-of-zone pitches ranks among the biggest ever seen since we started tracking those kinds of data.

An enormously strong slugger without plate discipline becomes Wily Mo Pena. An enormously strong slugger with Thames’ excellent-so-far plate discipline has MVP potential.

21. Philadelphia Phillies (9–9, plus-7, LT: 25)

Cesar Hernandez, 2013-2016: .281/.350/.361, 4.3% HR/FB rate (39th among 43 qualified 2B)

Cesar Hernandez, 2017: .338/.376/.563, 26.7% HR/FB rate (1st among 27 qualified 2B)

Other than a sky-high (and incredibly fluky) .434 batting average on balls in play that’s partly driven by so many flyballs sailing over the fence, there’s little in Hernandez’s batted-ball profile to suggest he’s suddenly destined to be a masher. If anything, a steep drop in his walk rate (to a career-low 5.9%) and big climb in his strikeout rate (to a career-high 27.1%) suggests that regression is coming, and it’s going to hit hard when it arrives.

20. Seattle Mariners (8–12, plus-5, LT: 19)

19. Minnesota Twins (8–10, plus-3, LT: 20)

18. Cincinnati Reds (10–9, plus-15, LT: 24)

Facing the defending World Series champions, Bronson Arroyo tossed six sparkling innings, allowing just two runs on three runs, walking one and striking out seven in the Reds' 7–5 win over the Cubs. What made that outing all the more remarkable was Arroyo’s track record. A capable starting pitcher with seven seasons of league-average or better performance for the first decade and a half of his career, Arroyo didn’t pitch in the majors for two-and-a-half years thanks to Tommy John surgery and other setbacks. After getting crushed in his first two appearances of the year, he’s now won his last two starts, capped by Sunday’s gem.

The Reds’ hot start notwithstanding, they likely won’t hover above .500 for much longer, as the team’s youth movement apace. So if you’re a Reds fan, might as well smoke ‘em while you’ve got ‘em. Enjoy the incredible comeback story pulled off by one of the game’s biggest characters. And while you’re at it, savor this masterpiece of trolling:

17. New York Mets (8–11, minus-3, LT: 6)

Oy.

Several of those injuries should heal soon; Yoenis Cespedes picked up a bat at the end of Sunday night’s loss, but was left in the on-deck circle after a game-ending Jose Reyes flyout. Still, the Mets barely squeaked into the postseason last season amid an avalanche of injuries. With the oldest group of position players in the National League accompanying a Tin Man pitching staff, the margin for error this year will be awfully thin.

16. St. Louis Cardinals (9–10, minus-13, LT: 14)

Winning six out of seven against NL Central opponents over the past week cured a lot of early ills. Moreover, you know this talented offense isn’t going to be this horrific for long: Every member of the starting lineup except Jedd Gyorko is performing below career norms (in the case of players like Dexter Fowler, way worse than career norms), and the Cardinals have been more atrocious with runners in scoring position than any other team in baseball that’s not the Royals.

With that dose of optimism in tow, read St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Derrick Goold’s fascinating feature on the Cardinals’ efforts to improve performance through biomedical research and other innovative methods. We are so far past the days of not-selling-jeans-here analysis, it’s positively jarring to think that the Moneyball era once counted as the cutting edge of baseball.

15. Oakland A’s (10–9, minus-12, LT: 26)

14. Tampa Bay Rays (10-10, plus-6, LT: 16)

13. Miami Marlins (10–8, plus-12, T: 21)

He’s going to get hurt again, because that’s what he does. So let’s enjoy Giancarlo Stanton while we can, because he’s a damn force of nature.

Think about it: When’s the last time you watched a player who hit the ball so terrifyingly hard, so often? In 2015, three of the five hardest balls hit by any player this season were smashed by Stanton. Also five of the hardest eight, eight out of 12, and 14 out of 26. In 2016, he belted five of the nine hardest-hit balls of the season. He hasn’t been quite as prolific this year. But Stanton still ranks among the league leaders in hard smashes, and his huge .300/.367/.614 batting line has Miami in the thick of the (very) early playoff hunt.

The best part about Stanton might be this: When he does connect, you don’t even need to watch. The sound of bat crashing into ball says it all.

12. Detroit Tigers (10–8, minus-14, LT: 13)

11. Texas Rangers (9–10, plus-8, LT: 9)

 

10. Los Angeles Dodgers (9–10, plus-12, LT:2)

Last spring, Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi laid out his plan for the team’s present and future in crystal-clear terms. To win now, and later, the Dodgers would need to lean on a blend of youth, data, and depth.

The youth movement is well underway. After employing the 2016 NL Rookie of the Year winner in Corey Seager, the Dodgers now appear on the verge of calling up lefty phenom Julio Urias from the minors, promoting him to the big league rotation, and hopefully keeping him there. Lefty swingman Alex Wood is currently slated to start for L.A. on Wednesday against the Giants, but manager Dave Roberts’ hint that Urias could be up soon, combined with a Wednesday start keeping Urias on schedule and in sync with his year-to-date minor league slate, could prompt Wood to slide to the bullpen and clear the way for the kid.

After that, keep an eye on Cody Bellinger. The 21-year-old first baseman has obliterated Pacific Coast League pitching so far this season, batting .339/.414/.645 at Triple-A Oklahoma City. Incumbent first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has zero home runs so far in 2017 and is showing his age as he approaches his 35th birthday. If the Dodgers opt to defer to Gonzalez’s esteemed track record anyway, light-hitting left fielder Andrew Toles could be the one who gives way to Bellinger—especially with L.A.’s next potential star seeing a couple games of Triple-A reps in the outfield, with more likely on the way.

9. New York Yankees (11–7, plus-30, LT: 22)

8. Colorado Rockies (13–6, plus-10, LT: 10)

You might have noticed the frequent use of park-adjusted stats in this column. It’s a way to level the playing field, so that a hitter or pitcher toiling in the most hitter-friendly ballparks can be evaluated on the same level as a hitter or pitcher who calls a pitcher-friendly stadium home. Now get this: The National League team with the lowest team bullpen ERA ... is the Colorado Rockies. And that’s without adjusting for Coors Field, which remains a terrifying and dangerous place to pitch.  

Greg Holland is getting most of the ink, and rightfully so. A bargain at one-year, $7 million coming off Tommy John surgery, Holland has rediscovered the lights-out form he showed in Kansas City, leading the majors with nine lightning-quick saves, while striking out 11 batters and allowing no home runs in his first nine innings as a Rockie. But let’s tip our caps for some other key contributors too. Mike Dunn has thus far been a big upgrade over Boone Logan as the team’s token veteran lefty on a three-year contract, punching out 10 batters and allowing just seven baserunners in 7 2/3 innings. Chris Rusin, a 2014 waiver claim from the Cubs, has allowed just a single run in his first 7 2/3 innings of the season. Homegrown 15th-round Scott Oberg has punched out a batter an inning while ranking as one of four Rockies relievers with groundball rates above 55%—a welcome development at hitter-happy Coors Field. Even right-hander Adam Ottavino, the pitcher expected to close for the Rockies who instead got bumped to setup work by Holland, has been a plus: He leads the pen with a gaudy 12 strikeouts (in just 8 1/3 innings pitched).

By runs scored and runs allowed, the Rockies seem to have lucked out a bit in the early going, winning more games than you’d expect given their run differential. But good fortune aside, the best way to beat the system when it comes to outperforming your expected record is to shut your opponents down in the late innings, so your offense can scrape together the run or two needed to win some close games. For a Rockies team that’s rarely been known for fielding a strong bullpen or pulling out close games, 2017 has offered a welcome change of pace.

7. Arizona Diamondbacks (12–8, plus-22, LT: 11)

After years of lagging the rest of the league analytically under the old-school duo of Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa, the Mike Hazen-led Diamondbacks are now trying new things just a about every day. One of the most impactful moves has been to hire recently retired pitchers Dan Haren and Burke Badenhop to augment the work of defensive whiz Mike Fitzgerald and improve the team’s run prevention. So far, so great: The D-backs rank among the 10 best teams in baseball in both park-adjusted ERA and park-adjusted fielding-independent pitching...after ranking second-to-last and third-to-last by those measures last year.

Arizona’s offense has been unusually lucky in the way it’s clustered hits together at the plate this season, and those types of random hot streaks tend to regress over time. But an attack led by Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock, and Jake Lamb, complemented by a pitching augmented through better health, the arrival of young right-hander Taijuan Walker, and a group of baseball minds that actually know what they’re doing, could make the Snakes one of the biggest surprises in baseball in 2017.

6. Baltimore Orioles (12-5, plus-7, LT: 8)

5. Boston Red Sox (11-8, plus-3, LT: 4)

4. Cleveland Indians (10–8, plus-9, LT: 5)

3. Chicago Cubs (10–8, plus-9, LT: 1)

Last season, the Cubs had not one, not two, but three starting pitchers who performed like aces for much of the season, with Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks actually outperforming 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. Cubs management gambled that the trio could up for an unsettled back of the rotation, with Jason Hammel leaving via free agency and John Lackey coming off a solid year but also entering his age-38 campaign.

So far, the returns have been iffy. Lackey’s striking out more batters than ever before, but he’s also leaving too many pitches over the meat of the plate and getting drilled as a result, with five homers allowed in 24 innings. Brett Anderson has been semi-functional as Hammel fifth-starter replacement, but he’s taxed the Cubs bullpen by soaking up just 14 1/3 innings in his first three starts as a Cub. More puzzling of all, Hendricks has been torched, posting a 6.19 ERA through his first three starts thanks largely to a walk rate that’s nearly twice as high as last year’s, and a ludicrous 26.7% home run-per-flyball rate that’s mercifully won’t last much longer. After getting by with a rotation that worked out great sans the many homegrown stars that you’d find in the lineup, that makeshift approach might be starting to show some cracks.

Just as they did with Ben Zobrist, Aroldis Chapman, Lester, and other veteran acquisitions, the Cubs will do what they have to do to plug holes as needed. A solid mid-rotation starter could end up at the top of the shopping list.

2. Houston Astros (13–6, plus-14, LT: 3)

1. Washington Nationals (13–5, plus-17, LT: 7)

They’ve won seven in a row and own the best record in baseball. Bryce Harper’s crushing at a level that even exceeds his 2015 form, when he did a mean Ted Williams impression for an entire season. Stephen Strasburg is healthy and riding a simplified approach to a terrific start. And they’ve gotten off to this roaring start despite their young star Trea Turner missing a week and a half to the disabled list (he’s now back).

At this point the loaded Nationals have one and only one major Achilles heel: the bullpen. The good news is that the commodity that costs the least to acquire in trades is relief pitching. It might take a few weeks, but GM Mike Rizzo’s going to hit the trade market and reel in at least a couple of top-flight bullpen arms.

After that, this might become the Nationals team with the best chance to finally make that prolonged playoff run. For a team that’s had far too much heartbreak in its 12 seasons in D.C., and a city that hasn’t celebrated a World Series title in 93 years, bring it on.

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