The Cubs are on the rise while the Mets ... well, the Mets are not on the rise. They're just striking out a lot.
Welcome to the latest installment of 3 Up, 3 Down, our weekly gauge of who’s streaking and who’s slumping throughout Major League Baseball. Our latest edition includes notes on the Twins' deep collection of bats, a pair of impressive rookies and a string of strikeouts at Citi Field.
↑ The Cubs, Back on Track ↑
A 2–7 start caused plenty of panic on the North Side as the Cubs plunged to the bottom of the NL Central within the season’s first two weeks. The 2016 champs initially followed their fire-and-brimstone offseason with a dreadful start, quickly casting doubt onto the long-term viability of their manager—Joe Maddon’s contract expires after 2019—and the core of their roster. But the reports of Chicago’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
The Cubs are cruising of late, winning seven of their last eight with a 15–3 record since April 15. They’re fourth in runs and second in OPS with an NL-best +51 run differential. Kyle Hendricks threw a Maddux for the ages in a win over the Cardinals on Friday and Javy Báez broke a 5-5 tie with a solo dinger at Wrigley on Saturday. Chicago will have the opportunity to continue their hot stretch with a four-game set against the Marlins this week. (Never mind that they already lost Game 1)
The lone damper of the Cubs’ success comes at the hot corner. Kris Bryant is slashing a respectable .243/.380/.470, but the 2016 MVP is still a sizeable step away from his peak. Perhaps this is the new normal for Bryant, even if he remains healthy. Chicago’s lineup is strong enough to withstand a solid (if not spectacular) Bryant, though, riding the excellence of Anthony Rizzo and Báez. The three-way race for the NL Central will be a dogfight. Expect the Cubs to be within striking distance of the division crown well into September.
↑ A Pair of Promising Rookies ↑
We noted the Vlad Jr. effect in Toronto last week, but the stream of exciting rookies doesn’t end up north. A pair of promising prospects made a big impact on the diamond this week, as infielder Michael Chavis appeared in the Red Sox' lineup as Nick Senzel made his debut in Cincinnati. Both delivered in a big way.
Chavis bashed three homers in a weekend series against the White Sox, driving his RBI total to 13 in 63 plate appearances. The 2014 first-round pick is slashing .309/.433/.673 in Boston, adding another impact bat to one of the American League’s most potent lineups. While Chavis continued to shine in Beantown, Cincinnati's No. 1 prospect made his debut at Great American Ball Park. Senzel smacked his first career dinger on Saturday, then added two more against the Giants on Monday afternoon. After a rash of injuries over the last two years, one of baseball’s most exciting prospects has made his mark in the big leagues. Perhaps he can lead Cincinnati out of the division cellar.
↑ Minnesota’s Deep Lineup ↑
Excluding the often-frustrating and currently-injured Miguel Sanó, the Twins don’t have a batter on their roster with a single All-Star appearance. Yet as we enter the second week of May, Minnesota sits atop the AL Central at 21–12, in line for its first division crown since 2010. So what’s the reason for the Twins’ early success? Look to one of baseball’s deepest lineups.
The Twins are the only team in the American League with eight players sporting an OPS over .800, joining Ronald Acuña Jr. and the Braves. The easy outs in Minnesota’s lineup are few and far between. Only the Angels have struck out less and only four teams have hit more homers. The catching duo of Mitch Garver and Willians Astudillo has been particularly potent after Joe Mauer’s retirement. Eddie Rosario has 12 home runs and Nelson Cruz boasts a .981 OPS, while contract-extension recipient Jorge Polanco is hitting .317 while slugging .610. As the Indians battle a power outage and the injury bug, Minnesota has positioned itself to host its first playoff game in a decade.
↓ The Mets Offensive Regression ↓
As the Twins bats their way atop the American League Central, the Mets have dropped nine of their last 12 behind a struggling offense. Entering Monday's action, New York tallied 79 strikeouts in its last seven games, hitting just .188 as a team. The team has the second most strikeouts in the NL, fanning their way to a weekend sweep at the hands of the Brewers. The boo birds were bound to arrive at Citi Field sooner than later.
All was well in Queens through mid-April as the Mets raced to a 9–4 start. But dreams of a return to prominence have faded as the Braves, Phillies and Nationals battle for NL East supremacy. The Mets have acquired a haul of talent to help them compete in the coming years (in theory), but their whiff-heavy tendencies currently place them closer to Miami than Philadelphia in one of baseball’s toughest divisions.
"I'm coming for him."#Padres rookie sensation Chris Paddack was talking a big game before his matchup with #Mets rookie slugger Pete Alonso tonight, and he backed it up, striking him out on 4 🔥 pitches, with strike 3 being the fastest pitch he's thrown in #MLB so far. pic.twitter.com/KBIovqqUdV— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) May 7, 2019
↓ Kyle Freeland’s Free Fall ↓
Kyle Freeland looked to be the exception to the rule at Mile High through his first two MLB seasons. The 25-year-old lefty finished seventh in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2017 and fourth in the NL Cy Young race in 2018, combining for a 3.39 ERA in 358 1/3 innings. After a string of young starters failed to materialize into reliable options, Freeland had an opportunity to break the mold.
The Mile High curse has hit Freeland hard in year three. Only six pitchers have allowed more earned runs, including rotation mate Tyler Anderson. Freeland has yielded 27 runs in 39 2/3 innings, striking out just 34 batters. His home-run rate has more than doubled compared to last year and he leads the league in losses. Colorado’s potent lineup should help tally enough wins at Coors Field, yet German Márquez can’t be the only reliable starter. Freeland will need to return to form for the Rockies to gain significant ground in the standings.
↓ Oakland’s Playoff Prospects ↓
Speaking of 2018 playoff teams struggling out of the gate, the A’s enter Tuesday last in the AL West. Oakland has lost eight of its last ten and is just 5–13 on the road. A road trip out east was particularly painful, including sweeps in Toronto and Boston. The good vibes of 2018 have largely dissipated.
The A’s haven’t been poor in any particular area. They sport a minus-7 run differential, rank eighth in quality starts and 13th in homers. Their defense has taken a dip this season with 21 errors in 36 games, though a string of miscues from Jurickson Profar skews the numbers. It’s not time to hit the panic button in Oakland just yet, though the A’s desperately need a strong May to re-establish themselves in the AL Wild Card race.