MLB's 8 biggest early-season disappointments: Can they turn it around?

·6 min read

There’s an old saying in baseball that a team in first place on Memorial Day will likely be there at the end of the season.

That axiom generally holds true in fantasy baseball as well. But maybe this year is different.

If it seems as though we’ve had an inordinate amount of injuries in 2021, it’s because it’s true. Several reports this month have documented a significant increase in players placed on the injured list compared with the most recent full seasons. And that doesn’t even account for players impacted by COVID-19.

As a result, many fantasy managers haven’t had their full squads active at any point this season.

After going on the injured list April 12 with back pain, Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich returned to action for one game before being sidelined another two weeks.
After going on the injured list April 12 with back pain, Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich returned to action for one game before being sidelined another two weeks.

In leagues with injured reserve spots, I haven’t shied away from drafting an injured player at a discount and taking the chance he’ll be productive once he returns. Sometimes it pays off handsomely – as it did in 2017 when J.D. Martinez missed the first 33 games of the season but came back to hit .303 with 45 home runs and lead me to an AL LABR championship.

But the strategy doesn’t work so well when all of your healthy players start getting hurt. This year in NL LABR, for example, I thought $8 was a reasonable investment on Noah Syndergaard, who underwent Tommy John surgery 14 months ago. However, he left his first rehab start on Monday night after just one inning because of elbow soreness.

At one point a couple of weeks ago, that team also had Christian Yelich, Jean Segura, Mike Yastrzemski, Stephen Strasburg, Travis d’Arnaud and Brandon Nimmo on the injured list. Adding everyone up, I had exactly half of my $260 draft-day payroll on the IL. Plus three of my six reserve picks.

It’s no surprise that team is currently in last place.

Then again, my team with J.D. Martinez four years ago was also languishing in the league basement well into June before everything started clicking. The Memorial Day cliché doesn’t have to be true every time.

Top players struggling

Injuries may be the main reason behind many fantasy teams’ slow starts, but not all of them.

A number of early underachievers have done even more damage just by staying healthy … and putting up dismal numbers.

Here are eight of the biggest disappointments so far this season. (Listed with their average draft position in National Fantasy Baseball Championships’ 12-team mixed leagues.) Are any of them capable of turning things around?

SS Francisco Lindor, New York Mets (ADP: 18): A new league, a big contract and sky-high expectations may have made his transition to the Big Apple a bit more difficult.

But a perennial All-Star who posted back-to-back 30-home run/20-steal seasons in 2018 and 2019 shouldn’t be hitting .194/.302/.285 with three home runs and three stolen bases after 40 games.

His plate discipline is as good as ever. Statcast says his hard-hit percentage (43.5% through May 23) is a career high. He’s just not hitting the ball on the barrel. There’s no reason to doubt Lindor’s abilities.

Reds pitcher Luis Castillo hands the ball to manager David Bell after giving up eight earned runs in 3 2/3 innings vs. the Rockies on May 13.
Reds pitcher Luis Castillo hands the ball to manager David Bell after giving up eight earned runs in 3 2/3 innings vs. the Rockies on May 13.

SP Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds (ADP: 27): Castillo’s struggles (1-7, 7.61 ERA through 10 starts) are multiplied when compared to the success of other second-tier pitchers (Max Scherzer, Jack Flaherty, Brandon Woodruff, Clayton Kershaw) who were taken in that same late second-, early third-round range.

The home run ball has been Castillo’s nemesis in 2021, with eight allowed in 47 1/3 innings – compared to just five in 70 innings last season. But beyond that, he’s getting hit with an improbable double-whammy: He has the worst strand rate (54.1%) and highest opponents’ batting average on balls in play (.382) of any qualified starter in the majors.

By all indications, Castillo shouldn’t be this bad. But a troublesome dip in swinging strike rate makes it hard to believe he can return to SP2 status.

SP Kenta Maeda, Minnesota Twins (ADP: 48): Maybe the durability concerns were valid all along. Maeda has a history of hot starts but always seemed to end up in the bullpen down the stretch during his years in Los Angeles.

The 60-game season in 2020 fit the narrative perfectly as Maeda moved to Minnesota. He went 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA in 11 starts and finished as the runner-up in the AL Cy Young Award voting.

I wanted to believe a change of scenery was all he needed, but with a 5.27 ERA over nine outings and now a trip to the injured list, I may have to admit I was wrong.

OF Kyle Tucker, Houston Astros (ADP: 31): Tucker’s combination of power and speed was difficult to resist on draft day, but he didn’t show much of either over the first five weeks.

As late as May 10, he was still hitting below .200. But over the past two weeks, Tucker’s bat has begun to come alive. He had hits in 10 of 13 games, with four homers and 13 runs scored, while slashing .327/.400/.612.

OF Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta Braves (ADP: 43): Statcast numbers fully supported Ozuna’s breakout in 2020 when he hit .338 and led the NL in home runs and RBI. But his results this season pale in comparison.

He began the week hitting .209, with seven homers and a .630 OPS (it was 1.067 last year). Injuries haven’t been a factor either as they have in the past. He’s played in every game this season. The biggest difference is the quality of contact. Perhaps his 2019 stat line (.241, 29 HRs, 89 RBI) is a more realistic expectation.

2B-3B-OF Cavan Biggio, Toronto Blue Jays (ADP: 60);

SS-3B Eugenio Suarez, Cincinnati Reds (ADP: 61);

1B-2B Keston Hiura, Milwaukee Brewers (ADP: 64): What do all three of these players have in common besides being early sixth-round draft picks? They all began the 2021 regular season at a different position from the one they played primarily last year. Not coincidentally, all three have struggled both in the field and at the plate.

An exploding strikeout rate is the biggest issue, with each of them whiffing more than 31% of the time. Biggio is now on the injured list and Hiura was sent to the minors for a spell, while Suarez continues to flail away. All three look like sunk costs, even if they do move back to their old positions.

Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fantasy baseball: Injuries, underachievers help dig early-season holes