- Despite all the rainouts, we've made it 25% of the way through the baseball season. So what lessons can we take from the beginning of the season?
While it felt like the entire season might be rained out at one point, all of baseball has made it past the quarter mark of the 2018 season. So what have we learned now that we're midway through May? Our expert panel weighs in.
Which team is in legitimate trouble?
Tom Verducci: The Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw is a question until he’s actually back throwing competitive pitches. Corey Seager is gone for the year. Yasiel Puig has been awful. The bullpen is the third worst in the league. And the hidden trouble with this team is its defense. The Dodgers have gone from the best defensive team last year to one of the worst this year. They need to play about .600 baseball to get to 88 wins—not happening the way they look now.
Ben Reiter: The Mariners. A club that is 23–17 might be a funny answer, but the Mariners had issues even before their three-hole hitter, Robinson Canó, both broke his hand and received an 80-game PED suspension. Their pitching staff is 23rd in ERA, but worse is the competition they’re facing in the AL. The Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and Astros are all mortal locks to make the playoffs, meaning they’ll probably have to beat out the Angels for a Wild Card spot—a club that now has two of the world’s best players. A league’s sixth-best team is a terrible thing to be.
Emma Baccellieri: The Dodgers are such an obvious choice here, but man, it’s hard to overstate just how bad they’ve been so far. There’s been plenty of tough luck built in there with so many injuries, but there are problems beyond that, too—chiefly, the bullpen, though there’s also the dreadful performance of Yasiel Puig and a team-wide struggle to hit for power. That’s all bad in a vacuum, but add in the fact that they’re in a division with several other viable contenders? Yeesh.
Jon Tayler: There’s no other answer but the Dodgers here, is there? They’re last in the NL West and trailing the Diamondbacks by 8 ½ games. They’ve lost six in a row, including a four-game sweep at the hands of the lowly Reds, and nine of their last 10. They have a negative run differential on the season. Corey Seager is done for the season. Clayton Kershaw is out indefinitely. Half the lineup isn’t hitting, their vaunted rotation depth has already been depleted, and the bullpen can’t hold leads to save Dave Roberts’ life. On a 100-loss pace for the year and tied with the Marlins (!) record-wise, Los Angeles should be in full-blown panic mode right now.
Jack Dickey: Some of us (OK, one of us) made the mistake of picking the Texas Rangers to win a wild-card spot, and their trouble is nothing if not legitimate. Man, they stink. But I’d look also at the Indians, who entered Thursday 21–21, just a game and a half ahead of Minnesota. Emma covered their bullpen woes pretty thoroughly on Tuesday, but their offense has struggled nearly as much. Their AL-leading homer total masks the fact that they’re 10th in team OBP. While Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are up to their usual all-star-level tricks, Yonder Alonso appears to have reverted to being the player he was before his magical walk year, and 35-year-old Edwin Encarnacion (suffering from a balky back this week) has been downright awful. They seemed a sure bet to waltz to 95 wins; here at the quarter-pole, it’s anyone’s division.
Lorenzo Arguello: This is the part where we all say the Dodgers, right? They’re on pace to win maybe 65 games. Clayton Kershaw is out for a while. Corey Seager is out for the season. The bullpen is a mess. And Matt Kemp is their second-best hitter according to wRC+. Trouble doesn’t even begin to describe the issues at Chavez Ravine. Yes, having Justin Turner back is huge, there’s plenty of talent on this roster to improve, and the Dodgers’ run differential suggests they’re not as atrocious as their record suggests. But there are currently 11 teams above L.A. in the National League standings. I just don’t see how the Dodgers leapfrog at least seven of those clubs to slide in as the last wild card.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: The Dodgers are suffering the way the San Francisco Giants did in 2017. It's not just that they've lost Corey Seager for the year and Justin Turner and Clayton Kershaw to extended DL stints—they defend poorly, they don't come back when they're down, they have a bad bullpen. This is a bad team even if their run differential indicates that they're better than their record. I'll be surprised if they finish over .500.
What team is for real?
Tom Verducci: Atlanta Braves. They have the best run differential in the NL, the best contact hitting team in baseball, three legit star players in Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, and a solid rotation now that Sean Newcombe has become the strike thrower most people thought he never would be.
Ben Reiter: Nobody’s talking about what was billed as a generational superteam just two Octobers ago. Guess what? The Cubs still might be just that. Yes, they’re in fourth place in a tightly-packed NL Central, but their run differential (+53) is more than twice as good as that of anyone above them, and a truly outstanding bullpen (2.69 ERA) can carry the water until their struggling big name starters, Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana, figure out their problems.
Emma Baccellieri: Well, no, the Braves almost certainly aren’t going to manage to hold onto the NL’s best record for the rest of the season. But they’re still looking a hell of a lot more real than most people expected them to to at the start of the season. While a big part of that comes from the exciting youngsters that make the team so fun to watch—particularly Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña—the continued excellence of Freddie Freeman and a late-career burst from Nick Markakis have also played a key part, while Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz have been strong in the rotation. There’s a lot here to like, and it wouldn’t be horribly surprising to see them in a Wild Card spot when all’s said and done.
Jon Tayler: You weren’t alone if you looked at the National League standings, saw the Braves with the Senior Circuit’s best record, and checked whatever you were drinking to see if someone had spiked it. Atlanta’s ahead of schedule from its ghastly rebuild, and like the Brewers last year, there are plenty of reasons to believe. The lineup can rake, led by Freddie Freeman and the Baby Brave duo of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña; Atlanta is third in the majors in runs scored, behind only the high-powered Yankees and Red Sox. But the Braves are no slouches in the pitching department, with a team ERA of 3.47—eighth best in baseball. Atlanta’s +59 run differential shows this is no fluke, and the best part for the Braves is, should they keep this run going, they have the prospects needed to add a true impact piece at the deadline.
Jack Dickey: I don’t want to say the Braves are for real—I’m suspicious of their depth and their tight-fisted corporate ownership and Nick Markakis’s overnight transformation into Ted Williams and Kurt Suzuki’s scorching start and that strange collection of arms they call a pitching staff—and yet I find myself stuck saying that they are. This team can rake. Freddie Freeman is off to an MVP-caliber start, and the Ozzie Albies-Ronald Acuña tandem has asserted itself ahead of schedule. The righted Nationals (13-2 in their last 15) may soon take first place away, but this battle should merit watching all summer, particularly if Atlanta does the right thing and swings a trade for a pitcher.
Lorenzo Arguello: The Baby Braves are going to win the National League East! Atlanta has already jumped Arizona for the best record in the NL, and ranks among the top 10 in the majors in the following statistics: on-base percentage, runs scored, home runs, stolen bases, ERA, home runs allowed, and bullpen ERA. TBH, though, I mostly just want to see Ozzie Albies take over the postseason.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: I love the Baby Braves, but I think the St. Louis Cardinals are going to shake up the NL pennant race. If Carlos Martinez returns soon from a muscle strain, St. Louis features a glut of young starters: None of Miles Mikolas, Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty or Michael Wacha are over 29 years old, and José Martinez and Tommy Pham are two of the most underrated hitters in the NL. Maybe they don't have enough to keep up with the Cubs, but this team won't disappear from the race.
What team is a mirage?
Tom Verducci: Colorado Rockies. Their offense just isn’t good enough. The Rockies are last in OPS+. The rotation is mediocre.
Ben Reiter: The Milwaukee Brewers. I’m still not buying the first-place Brewers. Their +6 run differential suggests they should be around .500; their offense is below average despite the additions of outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich; and none of their starters scares anyone (though Josh Hader certainly does). Expect the Cubs, and probably the Cardinals, to pass them soon.
Emma Baccellieri: The Mariners’ chances for success this year were always going to have a thin margin for error, and watching second baseman Robinson Canó receive an 80-game suspension this week for violating the league’s joint drug agreement probably killed that margin. Throw in the lack of pitching depth here, and the team’s chances of remaining well over .500 don’t look too good moving forward.
Jon Tayler: I’m tempted to say “Every team in the NL West,” as all the would-be contenders there can’t hit and are being torn apart by injuries. But I’m down on the Mariners, who are coasting on a good lineup but have a terrible rotation (minus James Paxton) and a shaky bullpen (aside from Edwin Diaz). And that good lineup just lost Robinson Canó for most of the rest of the season due to the twin sucker punch of a broken hand and a PED suspension. At 24–18, Seattle is very much in the AL West and wild-card hunts, but the team desperately needs reinforcements at several key positions to stay that way. If the M’s don’t get them, then this season will sink like a stone.
Jack Dickey: It’s hard to call a team a mirage at 23–20, but the Rockies are plainly bound for a losing record. Aside from Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and Trevor Story on the right day, they cannot hit at all—their team OPS+, which controls for park effects, is a last-in-the-majors 80—and it’s hard to think of how they can change that. Top prospect Ryan McMahon could plausibly replace the struggling Ian Desmond (.171/.213/.349) at first, but in his 60 big-league plate appearances before being sent down earlier this month, McMahon actually hit worse than Desmond (.180/.317/.200). The rotation, led by Chad Bettis, remains a relative bright spot, which is more than can be said for free-agent reliever Bryan Shaw (hitters are OPS-ing .827 against him). Wade Davis has been fine, and Adam “What if Sergio Romo were a wizard?" Ottavino has been one of the best stories in the game, but they can’t throw all the relief innings themselves.
Lorenzo Arguello: This answer is not super exciting: the Colorado Rockies. Is it odd to pick a slightly-above-.500 club with obvious flaws and not-so-high preseason expectations? Maybe, but Colorado went to the playoffs last season and fully expects to return this season. It’s not happening. The Rockies are the worst-hitting team in the bigs according to wRC+ and their issues at the plate couldn’t be better explained than by what happened Tuesday afternoon in San Diego. Former really bad Rockie and current just as bad Padres starter Jordan Lyles came within five outs of a perfect game. That’s embarrassing.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: The Angels have the offense and starting pitching to make a deep run, but they've got to figure out their bullpen now that Kenyan Middleton is likely out for the year with a UCL injury. It's a matter that GM Billy Eppler can address at the deadline, but the Angels will need to play extremely well to keep pace with the Astros, and that means they can't blow eighth-inning leads like they did against Houston on Tuesday.
Which player is due for a drop-off?
Tom Verducci: Jed Lowrie, Athletics. He’s playing like an All-Star, but he’s 34 years old and hitting .371 on balls in play – 73 points higher than his career average.
Ben Reiter:Nick Markakis. The guy’s hitting near .340, and is on pace for career highs in home runs and RBIs, as well as his first All-Star appearance, at the age of 34. I don’t think it’s for real. He’s just not squaring the ball up regularly. Markakis has had just six “barrels” all season—a Statcast-based metric invented by Tom Tango that is awarded when a batter hits a ball with a combination of exit velocity and launch angle that can be expected to result in a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. Some 53 players already have twice as many, and J.D. Martinez already owns 25. Some high BABIPs are sustainable because their owners regularly hit the ball so hard. Markakis’s, which is .353, isn’t.
Emma Baccellieri: Jed Lowrie’s hot start has been a nice boost for the A’s, but it’s looking pretty unlikely that he can keep it going at this rate. He’s benefitted from an unusually high batting average on balls in play so far, and especially from a high rate of home runs to fly balls. That all points toward some regression, along with the fact that there don’t appear to be any especially meaningful changes in approach that have led to his current .329/.383/.557 line. He’s actually making less contact this year than usual, with more of that contact coming in the form of a groundball. None of that bodes well for him to continue along at this level.
Jon Tayler: There are plenty of names on the early leaderboards that make you scratch your head. Wait, Nick Markakis is a slugger now? When did Jorge Soler finally learn plate discipline? That’s not that Daniel Descalso, is it? But while those hot starts may feel like flukes, they’re all doing something that makes you think that success is sustainable. Markakis is striking out less and making more contact; Soler is more patient and hitting the ball harder; Descalso is putting the ball in the air more often. Jed Lowrie’s peripherals, though, don’t support his transformation into a .325/.385/.500 hitter, as he’s striking out more, walking less and hitting more groundballs than last year. The slow deflation of his .368 batting average on balls in play will likely drag his numbers back down to more sensible levels.
Jack Dickey: Aaron Nola is a good pitcher, and it’s unquestionably a good thing for baseball that his Phillies have awoken from their forced hibernation just as Philly’s basketball team awoke from theirs. (The Phils are not a mirage, though I’d rate the Braves as the likelier club to survive the stretch run.) But Aaron Nola is not 1.99 ERA good—it’s hard to notice anything that's changed enough in his underlying performance to suggest he will maintain this level of early-season success. He seems a safe bet to return to the pack by the all-star break.
Lorenzo Arguello: Asdrubal Cabrera was an All-Star for the Indians in back-to-back seasons in 2011 and 2012. Otherwise, he’s been about league average at the plate (career 107 OPS+). Now in his third year with the Mets, Cabrera decided to morph into a superstar. He’s on pace to finish with the following stat line: .320/.366/.540, 25 homers, 54 doubles and 100 RBI. Cabrera is a good hitter who will likely finish with productive numbers, but at 32, he’s not going to continue to put up these kind of numbers.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: Maybe this is the year where Brandon Belt finally breaks out—he's slashing .301/.405/.562 with nine homers—but do players really have breakout seasons at age-30? The Giants first baseman has long confounded the home fans, and it's hard to see him maintaining such strong power numbers in a park where he's never been great. He'll still get on base, but his BABIP is suspiciously high (.361) and I'm not keen that he's the a formative middle-of-the-order presence.
Whose hot start is legitimate?
Tom Verducci: Gerrit Cole. Escaping the Pirates, drafting behind Justin Verlander, adopting the Astros’ use of breaking balls, and featuring better mechanics (cleaner, looser arm action) have Cole in a great place.
Ben Reiter: J.D. Martinez. Why wasn’t the free agent market hotter for someone who is legitimately one of the half dozen best hitters in baseball, and has been for years? It’s a mystery, but the Red Sox got a steal. Martinez’s traditional numbers through his first 40 games in Boston are eye-popping: a .351 average, 11 homers, 34 RBIs, a 1.043 OPS—but his underlying stats suggest they’re sustainable, particularly an average exit velocity of 95.6 miles per hour that trails only Aaron Judge’s.
Emma Baccellieri: Josh Hader was already coming off a pretty nice rookie season, but he’s really come into his own this year. He’s struck out a whopping 57 percent of the batters he’s faced so far—the best in baseball—due in large part to leveraging his slider, which he’s been throwing nearly three times as often this year. Add in the fact that he’s lowered his walk rate as he’s improved his command, and things are looking pretty good for the Brewers reliever.
Jon Tayler: Everything behind Odubel Herrera’s superb first two months feels like the sign of a long-awaited next step. One of baseball’s more talented yet frustrating players, the Venezuelan centerfielder has never been short on tools but has never consistently put them on display. This season, though, he’s figured something out. His strikeout rate has been cut nearly in half, and his walk rate has doubled. His swing rates, meanwhile, are down across the board, while his contact rates have shot up. And he’s capitalizing on all the strikes he’s now seeing, hitting a scalding .429 on fastballs this season. The new version of Herrera looks like he’s here to stay.
Jack Dickey: One player whose underlying performance has improved, at least a little, is Mookie Betts. He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone (20.3% this year, compared to 23.5% for his career), and he’s swinging at more pitches in the zone (59.4%, compared to 55.9% for his career, and 53.8% last year), and the pitches he makes contact with (he has an 86.4% contact rate, 15th in the bigs), he’s pulling (50% of his batted balls, compared to 41.5% for his career). He’s embraced his fate as a power hitter. Will he wind up with 50 homers? Probably not. But 40’s in play.
Lorenzo Arguello: Odubel Herrera has been a slightly above average hitter the last few seasons to go along with decent power numbers. This season, he’s gotten off to a ridiculous start, leading the league in batting average while being near the top in on-base percentage and carrying a 172 OPS+. He continues to lower his strikeout rate while increasing his walk rate. At 26 years old, this sure looks like the year the former Rule 5 draft pick turns himself into more of a household name outside of Philly.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: Ozzie Albies is for real. He has a 57.6% extra-base hit rate, he can steal bases and he's not totally averse to walking. If he continues at half of his current production rate, he'll earn some down-ballot MVP votes.
Should any player be on the trading block?
Tom Verducci: Of course, Manny Machado should be traded tomorrow. But teams rarely make trades—or even engage in much trade chatter—until they get on the other side of the amateur draft. Stay tuned.
Ben Reiter: Manny Machado is the obvious name, but how about another member of the atrocious Orioles: Zach Britton. Britton is still a few weeks away from returning from a torn Achilles, but every contender will be clamoring for the closer, assuming he’s healthy. In fact, the market for Britton – a free agent this winter – might be more robust than for his starrier teammate. The Astros very nearly pulled off a deal for him at last season’s deadline, and could lead the pursuit.
Emma Baccellieri: Most of the early chatter on potential Orioles deals has focused on whether Manny Machado will be on the trading block, but Baltimore has a candidate perhaps more likely to go in the next few weeks in reliever Brad Brach. Like Machado, he’s in his walk year, and like always, the bullpen is an area where most contenders would be happy to make a deal to add some depth. But if last-place Baltimore wants to get much of a return on him, they’d probably be wise to move soon—his velocity is down a few ticks this season, and it makes sense to strike a deal before it has a chance to slip further.
Jon Tayler: Manny Machado should’ve been traded yesterday. That the Orioles haven’t already moved him despite being 16 games back in the AL East and holding the third-worst record in the majors at 13–29 defies belief. What exactly are they waiting for? The only rational explanation is that Baltimore’s front office is terrified of the fans revolting and abandoning Camden Yards in droves should Machado get dealt. But honestly, it can’t get much worse anyway: The Orioles are 22nd and 20th, respectively, in average and total attendance this season. Baltimore already knows that this O’s squad is a lost cause, and the sooner the front office gets with that program and trades Machado to get a needed rebuild going, the better.
Jack Dickey: I’ll skip Manny Machado, who should have been traded in the offseason after his second-half rebound, and turn my eyes to a middle infielder of slightly less renown on a similarly woebegone team: Can the Reds get something for Scooter Gennett? The power surge he showed last year—27 homers in just under 500 plate appearances—appears, by golly, real enough. He’s hitting .323/.360/.503 with six dingers this year. His eye isn’t great, but it’s improved pretty steadily over the past few seasons. The Indians could use him, since Jason Kipnis appears to be toast, as could the Dodgers, who are asking too much from 39-year-old Chase Utley.
Lorenzo Arguello: The obvious name is Manny Machado. The Orioles are going nowhere and he should’ve been traded weeks ago. I’ll go with a different answer, instead: Josh Donaldson. The Blue Jays came into 2018 thinking they could legitimately contend, and the hot April start showed promise. Since then, division rivals New York and Boston have put the AL East—and likely the first AL wild card spot—out of reach. Likewise, whoever finishes second in the AL West will probably get the second wild card. Why not get as much as possible for a free-agent-to-be? Contenders like the Indians, Cardinals or Diamondbacks could use a third base bat.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: If the Rockies fall out of the playoff race, then they should start shopping their army of relievers (Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee) and sell any of them to a team making a playoff pitch and inclined to overpay for relief pitching. There is always at least one team who does it at the deadline.