Inside Baseball | Concern levels for 4 teams off to slow starts

(AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

A quartet of teams expecting to be playing at playoff time found themselves in the cellar at the halfway point of the first month of the season. Indeed, it was a startling start for all four. Of course it’s way early, and many, many teams have come back from slow starts before.

The ultimate example of a slow starter that came back big came in 1991, when the Twins started 2-9 and wound up winning the World Series.

So don’t count anyone out yet, even the Jays.

But do these four slow starters have it in them? Let’s take a closer look at the Rangers, Cardinals, Giants and Blue Jays, who all spent some time this week in last place.

  1. Cardinals

They began the year playing a brand of baseball that bears no resemblance to what’s widely called Cardinals baseball, or at least what we think of as Cardinals baseball. Of course, this has been going on at times since the beginning of last year. So there were early worries, or worse – though some of them were allayed for the moment by a sweep against a depressed Pirates team.

The Cardinals are perennially a scrappy and determined lot, and it’s a surprise whenever they play sub-.500 baseball for any length of time. But there are some real concerns here.

Their outfield is near the bottom on defensive runs saved, and “their infield is one of the worst in baseball – at least defensively,” one rival says. Meantime, their .206 batting average is worst in the NL, and their 6.69 pen ERA is by far the worst.

Of course, there are some significant encouraging signs, well beyond eking three out against a sad Bucs team left reeling by Starling Marte’s 80-game PED suspension (more on that below). Michael Wacha recently hit 98 mph on the gun, and a rejuvenated Trevor Rosenthal hit 101 (he’s actually thrown 16 pitches at 100 or above). Plus, there’s their history, which is almost all good. They seem to make it work.

Reason to doubt: The defense may just not be what it used to be. Adam Wainwright could be on the back end. Might they miss Matt Holliday’s leadership?

Reason to hope: They do have a tradition of excellence, and seem to accept nothing less. Mike Leake looks like a new man his second year in St. Louis, and Wacha is in form again. And of course, they still have Yadi, and for three more years after this one.

Upshot: There would appear to be significant talent here. The vibe wasn’t there early, especially in their sweep at Yankee Stadium. But their pedigree says they’ll be there. Realistic concern level (on a 1 to 10 scale): 4.

  1. Giants.

“I’m worried about the Giants,” one rival says.

Of course, that’s been said before, and at least in recent years they almost always seem to come on strong – they are a great finisher, that’s sure, with their three rings in the last six years.

After their rocky beginning, they’ve looked a bit better in recent days, so they may just be warming up. “I think the club has a lot of life,” GM Bobby Evans says. “There are good signs.”

That being said, there are some issues, too. “We’ve got a few chinks in the armor, a few things to sort out,” Evans conceded.

The big issue from last year – the ninth inning – should be fine with Mark Melancon closing now. After blowing up in the first game, conjuring images of a 2016 season wasted by an uncharacteristically leaky pen, he’s be exactly what they expected, and hoped for.

The big issue now is left field. The Giants held virtual tryouts for that spot this spring, and after several players showed positive signs in spring, collectively their left fielders began 0 for 20 with 10 K’s.

Now, with tryout winner Jarrett Parker out after breaking his clavicle, others rehabbing or in the minors (Melvin Upton Jr. and Drew Stubbs were late signees), Evans admits, “We don’t have a true left fielder. We’re going to have to mix and match.” Longtime infielder Aaron Hill is expected to see some real time out there.

No matter what’s happening in left field, it’s fair to say they are very dependent on Buster Posey. And so, of course the beaning of Posey was quite a blow. “This team just isn’t very good when they’re without Posey in the lineup,” one rival observed. Overall, the .679 OPS is good for only 22nd in baseball.

Meantime, the starting pitching, which has helped carry them to three World Series championships, also has been below par. The 4.20 rotation ERA is also good for only 20th best. “After (Madison) Bumgarner and (Johnny) Cueto, they have some questions,” another rival said.

Reason to doubt: The lineup is heavily dependent on a catcher. The outfield seems pretty messy at the moment, with Denard Span also struggling in center.

Reason to hope: They have it in them (most of the players remain from at least one of their championship teams, and in many cases two or even three). Posey is one of the biggest winners in sports, as is MadBum. Melancon will shore up the back end of the pen. They are a determined lot, and have shown they will make moves if necessary.

Upshot: They aren’t great at anything right now, at least not on days when Bumgarner and Cueto don’t start. But don’t put anything past this bunch, which has figured out how to win three World Series rings without ever seeming to be the best team. Realistic concern level: 3.

(Photograph by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire)

  1. Blue Jays.

They just can’t hit. They are last in the AL with a .624 OPS and last with .340 slugging percentage, and their seven home runs through Monday was tied with ex-Jay Eric Thames (more on him below). And they’ve combined a lack of power with a lack of speed (no stolen bases).

Russell Martin hasn’t hit at all. And he’s barely been worse than Jose Bautista, who seemed primed for a big year after a great spring and even better WBC, or Devon Travis. They are all hovering around the .100 mark.

They also can’t stay healthy, which may ultimately be the bigger problem. Josh Donaldson and Aaron Sanchez are on the D.L., and J.A. Happ will be joining them soon. Many teams can’t lose three players. But to lose three of their most important players is an absolute killer.

“It’s getting old fast,” one Blue Jays insider said, calling the confluence of bad tidings a possible “perfect storm.”

Reasons to doubt: The 2-11 start puts them in a significant hole. Injuries to top players are a major concern. “Left field has been an issue from day one,” as one rival said. They have strong personalities and guys with an edge who could potentially exacerbate the surprising start.

Reasons to hope: They aren’t all that different from the defending two-time ALCS participant, minus Edwin Encarnacion. If healthy, it’s one of the best rotations in baseball. They have strong personalities and guys with an edge, who may not let this thing fall apart.

Upshot: Healthy, this should be a playoff team. But between the hole they’ve dug and the health they don’t have, this just may not be their year. Realistic concern level: 8.

  1. Rangers

It’s easy to pinpoint their problem, as it’s almost all in the bullpen – and specifically the closer’s job. Sam Dyson went on the D.L. with a hand contusion, but observers also thought they detected a confidence issue, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering how he was blowing up.

The demotion of Keone Kela over disciplinary issues (more on that below) left their pen at less than their best. Then, between Matt Bush’s shoulder woes and Dyson’s troubles, the whole thing looked like a mess. Overall, their 5.44 bullpen ERA was 24th best in baseball. But considering the ninth inning blowups, it seemed much worse than that.

Of course, not having team leader Adrian Beltre, whose calf is healing slower than he’d hoped, is a downer for everyone, especially with Ian Desmond, Mitch Moreland and Carlos Beltran gone via free agency, and perennial hopes Jurickson Profar and Joey Gallo still developing.

There’s no question what the real issue is, though. And if they can straighten out that solitary problem, they could easily work their way back into the mix. As bad as they’ve played they were only a half-game out of second place when the third week began. It’s way too early to draw any real conclusions about them.

Reasons to doubt: Gomez looks more like the guy from Houston last year than the guy who finished with Texas. The rotation is thin. They need Beltre, their leader. Profar and Gallo seem like they’ve been on the cusp of a breakthrough for years, and they haven’t quite done it yet. That bullpen is the big one, though.

Reasons to hope: They have one of the best one-two rotation punches in the game in Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels. Even with the winter defections, their talent is well above average. Manager Jeff Banister is the steady hand they need.

Upshot: This team has made the playoffs consistently except for that one year where they were absolutely decimated by injuries (2014). And really, there is only one major issue that’s torpedoed the start. Realistic concern level: 5.


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