The marathon-high pile of ugliness Major League Baseball foisted on the world this April warrants every iota of hyperbole henceforth. The weather was terrible, and the game did everything in its power to match it. Pitchers walked more hitters than any time since the turn of the century and are on pace to set single-season records for the most wild pitches, hit-by-pitches and strikeouts. Hitters, never ones to let pitchers one-up them, are fighting bad with worse. Eight teams are hitting in the .220s, and antiquated though batting average may be, the staunchest sabermetric disciple would agree on the grimness of it all, particularly when three of those teams currently own the best record in their division.
Generally speaking, April doesn’t offer the cleanest brand of baseball. This, though? This start to the season where home teams, who typically win about 54 percent of games, are 200-207? This sliver of time in which 22.7 percent of plate appearances have ended in strikeouts? This is the sort of stuff that tends to get lost amid the everyday shiny objects.
It is easy to get lost in Didi Gregorius’ staggering start or Mike Trout’s never-ending quest to rid himself of flaws or Ozzie Albies’ breakout or Sean Manaea’s no-hitter or Max Scherzer finding the sixth Infinity Stone. Or going even more granular and appreciating the little moments that give baseball its joy and splendor and all that hippie-dippie baloney.
Perhaps if baseball hadn’t bifurcated itself into this have/have-not game, it would get a little bit of a break, but some of these teams deserve a visit from the Environmental Protection Agency to measure their toxicity. Heading into the final day of the month, seven teams are on pace to lose 100 games. The last time that happened was 2002, a season in which a record four teams finished the year with triple-digit losses.
Considering at least a few teams that have no aspirations to compete and will look to dump players before the trade deadline aren’t in this category, it’s easy to understand how the landscape could look this summer, with the occasional good team-vs.-good team matchup but more good vs. bad or, worst of all, bad vs. bad. Perhaps the polarity of the mean is strong and draws the awful teams in from the extremes, but it’s not likely. Because the extremes are exactly where these teams want to be: the good for a playoff berth, the bad for more draft money.
It is anti-competitive and unfortunate and gives the world the gift that is the …
1. Miami Marlins trying to maintain the illusion that they’re interested in winning when they traded a literal outfield of All-Star-caliber players for prospects and then gave out a single major league free-agent deal this offseason: a one-year, $3.25 million contract to backup-caliber outfielder Cameron Maybin.
Maybe this is all just a messaging error by the Marlins, which would not be a first. CEO Derek Jeter is a dogged competitor, and in his mind, acknowledging the obvious – that a team more or less bereft of major league-quality players is going to be bad – does not compute. This led to his beef with Bryant Gumbel, the headlines that emanated from their “Real Sports” interview and the eventual highlighting of their 9-18 record.
And that came after they won series against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies this week. Every team, even one as bad as the Marlins, is entitled to a good week. Before the season, one scout said: “This might be the worst team I’ve ever seen.” This week, when asked who was the worst of the worst teams, a general manager didn’t even take a second to think about it. “The Marlins,” he said. So, yeah. The burden of that deserves the respite of some wins. And, hey, they’ve almost snuck past the …
2. Kansas City Royals to move into 29th place in runs per game. The Royals already own the fine distinction of allowing the most runs in baseball per game. One need not be a chef to recognize this is a recipe for an awful season.
The Royals are 7-20, on pace to go 42-120, and that’s after winning their last two against the Chicago White Sox. The first three numbers of Kansas City’s bullpen ERA heading into Sunday were 6.66, which is appropriate for a group that has bedeviled pretty much nobody. Yes, were one to subtract the contributions of Blaine Boyer and the aptly named Justin Grimm, the number would look a lot less satanic, but the former remains rostered, the latter DL’d and the prospect of help coming from within dubious.
These are the 2018 Royals, a team that even with the return of Salvador Perez and the maybe-possibly-could-be breakout of Jorge Soler doesn’t pass the smell test. Mike Moustakas almost certainly won’t be around come August. The Royals recognize that any efforts to piecemeal some kind of a playoff run this year are doomed. It’s a harrowing reality to face before the calendar turns to May, though it’s one that’s starting to dawn upon the …
3. Baltimore Orioles these days, too. How bad is it there? Well, Pedro Alvarez has been their second-best offensive player. And it’s not really close.
It makes the complete waste of Manny Machado’s first month that much more painful. The Orioles held onto Machado this winter because they believed they could build around him. His .361 batting average leads baseball. His .448 on-base percentage may be even more impressive; Machado has long been a free swinger, and his 17-to-16 walk-to-strikeout ratio indicates a dangerous improvement at the plate. Oh, and now he’s playing shortstop as well, though scouts and defensive metrics agree: He hasn’t been nearly as good there as he was at third base.
Either way, when the Orioles do deal Machado – and with their 8-20 mark and -54 run differential, it’s a matter of when – they’ll begin a reset that’s hard to stomach. Especially having just signed Alex Cobb to a four-year deal. Maybe they can offload his contract eventually, though Cobb’s April consisted of a seemingly impossible achievement: over three starts, in 11 2/3 innings, he allowed 30 hits. Still missing, alongside his effectiveness, is his changeup. During his two best seasons, he threw the pitch at least a third of the time. This year, he’s using it just 17.1 percent.
Frittering away Machado’s contributions … Cobb looking nothing like what was expected … Chris Davis and Jonathan Schoop offering nil … a bullpen that was once a strength looking more like the Royals’: The Orioles are legitimately bad. The same cannot yet be said of the …
4. Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers, though they’ve earned their place on this list because of an ignominious April. Neither is a threat to lose 100 games. Neither, to tell the truth, is in grave danger yet of losing its division. Still, concerns do exist and need addressing.
One source familiar with the Nationals said this week that there’s “no harmony” inside the clubhouse, which is to be expected from a team that’s 12-16 but still does not serve as a ringing endorsement for first-year manager Dave Martinez. Harmony and record almost always dovetail. At the same time, adjusting to Martinez against the backdrop of former manager Dusty Baker’s megawatt personality does take time, and the Nationals’ talent – even amid injuries to Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon and Adam Eaton – remains among the game’s best.
The 12-15 Dodgers, like the Nationals, have a positive run differential. Los Angeles’ bullpen has been iffy. Its offensive stars aren’t playing like it, and Dave Roberts went so far as benching Cody Bellinger on Sunday for lack of hustle. There’s plenty to like. It’s just not clicking at this point, and with Arizona racing out to a 19-8 start, a seven-game deficit today feels big, even though it can be erased in a hurry. It’s worth noting that two of the teams ahead of the Dodgers, Colorado and San Francisco, both carry a negative run differential, which is typically a sign of how a team may fare going forward. It’s why at -34 the …
5. Minnesota Twins are trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on. First, they got swept by Tampa Bay. Then the Yankees took four in a row from them. Cincinnati stole a game at Target Field before the Twins snapped an eight-game losing streak Saturday, only to lose the series to the Reds on Sunday.
And here they are, 9-14, barely outside of that 100-loss pace, with Byron Buxton on the disabled list indefinitely with a foot injury, Ervin Santana still not throwing off a mound following February finger surgery, the Fernando Rodney Experience going as expected and Jorge Polanco out another two months with a PED suspension. The Twins would like to take April, load it into a superweapon and shoot it to the moon.
The best news is that the first-place Cleveland Indians are only 14-12 themselves. Their offense has been borderline embarrassing, and among them, the gonna-be-worse-than-they-are Detroit Tigers, the Royals, the Twins and the …
6. Chicago White Sox, the American League Central these days offers five teams who have allowed more runs than they’ve scored. The AL Central: Where bad baseball goes to live!
The 8-18 White Sox have been worse than expected, mainly because they have been dreadful with runners in scoring position, have not translated their home run prowess into scoring and feature a pitching staff that has walked an obscene number of batters, doesn’t strike guys out and stinks at inducing ground balls. Here’s the thing: It could get worse. The White Sox are allowing a home run on just 7.9 percent of flyballs. The league average is 12 percent.
This is a transition period for Chicago, one in which they’re here to identify who will play what role as the ascent of their highly rated farm system squeezes jobs. Jose Abreu at first and Yoan Moncada at second are in. Tim Anderson at shortstop and Matt Davidson at DH may have locked themselves into roles, too. Beyond that? Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez and Carson Fulmer are in the biggest tryouts of their lives, because Michael Kopech and Dane Dunning and Dylan Cease are on their way, and so long as his arm holds up, Alec Hansen is on the come.
This may be as bad as it gets for the White Sox for a long time. It’s also a place the …
7. Texas Rangers hope not to find themselves anytime soon, even as the reality of their current situation can be summed up in one sentence: Their best starting pitcher is a 300-pound 44-year-old.
At 11-18 and -39 runs, the Rangers have a bad record and bad indicators. They can’t seem to win at home – their 4-12 record is worse than every team but the Royals’ and White Sox’s, which isn’t great company to keep – and they’re not going to be making any trades to bolster a beleaguered pitching staff. Another month like this, and the Rangers may be the biggest sellers in the game.
Adrian Beltre? Free agent to be. Bartolo Colon, the old and hefty starter? Same. Cole Hamels? Ditto. With Elvis Andrus able to opt out of his deal, the Rangers could explore dealing him, too. And Mike Minor and Doug Fister and pretty much everyone not named Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Ronald Guzman and Rougned Odor. Maybe even them, too.
Because half-measure rebuilds tend not to be anything. Teams of great means can pull it off, as have others with some luck and skill, like the Diamondbacks. Most go the route of the …
8. San Diego Padres and just nuke the major league club for a few years until the dividends of prospecting start to pay off. Granted, the Padres were the last team to take advantage before the current collective-bargaining agreement restricted the amount of money a team could spend in Latin America. And that bonanza personifies where they’re headed and who’s going to take them there.
General manager A.J. Preller’s bread, butter, main course and dessert is Latin America, and his confidence in young talent from there is unmatched. It’s why 19-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. is at Double-A, why 20-year-old infielder Luis Urias is at Triple-A, why four of the eight 18-year-old position players in full-season ball this year are with the Padres’ low-A affiliate in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
It’s also what drew the Padres to Christian Villanueva, whose April star turn helped make their 10-19 record feel just a little more palatable. The Cubs non-tendered Villanueva after winning the World Series. San Diego swooped in, brought him to the big leagues last year and gave him real playing time this season, and he has awarded the Padres with eight home runs and an 1.150 OPS.
The long-term giddiness that Franchy Cordero creates is even greater. The 23-year-old is a flawed player. He strikes out far too much. He doesn’t walk. And then he hits home runs that go 450 feet or 475 or close to 500, and he runs with elite speed, and it’s the exact sort of thing an organization without much of a past to speak of can dream on, because the Padres are in their 50th season of existence and still haven’t won a World Series.
Neither Villanueva nor Cordero nor Joey Lucchesi nor any of the other bright spots this year will bring them one. They do, however, give the Padres a greater sense of what may be than what fans of the …
9. Cincinnati Reds are suffering through these days. At 7-21, the Reds own the worst record in baseball – and that is with an offense that features Joey Votto, not in MVP mode yet, but still Joey Votto – Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett and on-base machine Jesse Winker. Cincinnati could trot out the Big Red Machine and it wouldn’t make up for their pitching.
It is not yet May, and the Reds have used 20 pitchers this season. Hitters are slugging .474 against the Reds. Their ERA is 5.42, and it is well-earned, with peripherals that back it up. They’ve been bit with some bad luck on fly balls turning into home runs, though that’s also life in Great American Ball Park.
The Reds aren’t totally doomed. Their system is solid, particularly on the hitting side with Nick Senzel and Shed Long close, Taylor Trammell a bit further away. There are trades to be made and free agents to be signed who can help with the pitching problem. And by the end of the year, it’s a fair bet that they will not have the worst record in the major leagues. Because the …
10. Miami Marlins still exist, and it is their prize to lose. Yes, Wei-Yin Chen came back this week and looked solid, and Dan Straily makes his return to the rotation Monday, and with those two and Caleb Smith (41 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings) and Jose Urena and Jarlin Garcia … well, it’s not a top 5 or 10 or even 20 rotation, but it’ll do.
The lineup and bullpen are the bigger issues, and the return of J.T. Realmuto from the DL doesn’t paper over the Marlins’ inadequacies, which stem from the systematic dismantling of a team that could have lived in the place that is so scary to baseball teams: between 74 and 86 wins.
There, a team probably does not make the playoffs, and it probably does not get a high draft pick, and that is a limbo nobody wants to oblige. Win or lose is not a binary; it is an imperative. It is something for which Derek Jeter and the Marlins, when their strategy is seen in a vacuum, should be praised. Because it is the logically sound choice.
The problem is that the Marlins are far from the only ones adopting it. Heading into the season, the only teams playing sub-.400 ball right now that harbored actual playoff aspirations were the Twins, Rangers and Orioles. The other teams figured maybe they could run into something special, but most are realistic and practical enough to know their team’s expected outcome. This is baseball in 2018, like it or not. It is great individual performances and awesome teams looking to crack 100 wins and a race likewise toward the bottom, with teams jockeying and jostling for position to see who can be the most awful. Power Tankings, if you will.
It is so many of these teams that are bad already knowing they may be worse eventually and hoping the promise of something good in the future is enough to maintain interest. Because if there are more months like April, more that combine some troublesome elements in the micro game with the macro issue one look at the standings makes obvious, baseball will have some very serious questions to ask itself.
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