Contenders and Pretenders from the First Week of MLB Action

Nathan TesslerCorrespondent IApril 10, 2013

Contenders and Pretenders from the First Week of MLB Action

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    With the 2013 MLB season under way, a number of teams are already off to hot starts.

    As last year’s tight playoff race showed, especially since there is an extra Wild Card spot now, every game counts. Only 10 teams can earn coveted playoff spots each season, but many of the 30 teams have reason for optimism this year. 

    The season is long, though. Injuries and slumps will happen, and making the playoffs is not easy for anyone.

    Therefore, some hot starts may not be indicative of long-term success this season.

    Here are some of the contenders and pretenders from the first week of the season, including standout hitters and pitchers who are contributing positively or negatively to their teams’ starts:


    Note: Stats are current as of the morning of Tuesday, April 9

Contender: Cincinnati Reds

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    Record: 5-2

    Standout Hitter: Shin-Soo Choo

    Standout Pitcher: Johnny Cueto

     

    The Cincinnati Reds are making a claim as the best team in the majors.

    They have already accrued a +26 run differential with excellent all-around play. This team has superb talent top-to-bottom in both the lineup and the rotation.

    The lineup remains deep despite a dislocated shoulder on Opening Day for the underrated Ryan Ludwick. Ludwick hit .275 with 26 home runs last season in only 472 plate appearances.

    Joey Votto, one of the best hitters in baseball, has also struggled. He is hitting .240 with only one extra-base hit, but has still managed to rack up 10 walks and seven runs.

    Choo, the newly acquired center fielder, has lived up to his hype. He gets on base with ease (.514 on-base percentage) and is tied for the major league lead with 10 runs. Choo has even slugged two doubles and three home runs in the brief season.

    In spite of Votto’s struggles, the team still leads the majors in runs with 51. The next closest team, the New York Mets, has 43 runs.

    Even scarier, the Reds’ pitching staff has also been phenomenal.

    In total, the staff has accrued 70 strikeouts in 69.0 innings. Cueto, who finished fourth in last year’s Cy Young voting, should again be near the top this year. In two starts he is 1-0 with a 2.77 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. Over 15.0 innings, Cueto has only allowed 10 hits and five walks to go along with 15 strikeouts.

    Four of the five starters in the rotation pitched at least 200 innings for the Reds, and barring injury that number won’t change in 2013.

    Once Votto starts playing like he normally does, this team will be unstoppable. The Reds are already World Series contenders this year.

Pretender: Philadelphia Phillies

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    Record: 2-5

    Underachieving Hitter: Ryan Howard

    Underachieving Pitcher: Roy Halladay

     

    The Philadelphia Phillies are a team on the decline, and their age is showing.

    They have only one win in four home games so far. The icing on the cake for the Phillies was having former ace Halladay get shelled on Sunday night by a rising Mets team. Before that game, the Mets hadn’t beaten Halladay since 2001.

    In two starts, Halladay is 0-2 with 12 hits, six walks, 12 earned runs and three home runs allowed in only 7.1 innings. That equates to a 14.73 ERA and 2.45 WHIP. His velocity is down greatly and he is getting behind in the count far more than he ever has.

    But it is worth noting that Halladay does have 12 strikeouts already, so perhaps all is not lost yet.

    The entire pitching staff is dead last in the majors in ERA at 7.08.

    The offense has been just as bad, though. The Phillies have the third worst run differential in the majors so far, at -21.  The middle infield tandem of Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have produced well, but they are the only ones hitting at least .300.

    Ryan Howard, who had a fantastic spring training, has been a shadow of himself so far. After hitting five doubles and seven home runs in 87 at-bats this spring, Howard has yet to hit an extra-base hit in 27 at-bats. He already has 10 strikeouts, too.

    Furthermore, the Phillies play in an extremely tough NL East division. The aging stars on this Phillies team cannot produce like they could half a decade ago. 

    They are a team very much on the decline, and may finish toward the bottom of the division this year.

Contender: Atlanta Braves

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    Record: 6-1

    Standout Hitter: Justin Upton

    Standout Pitcher: Paul Maholm

     

    Speaking of the tough NL East, the Atlanta Braves have a good chance of winning the division the way that they are playing.

    The biggest storyline of this team, which will likely follow them all season, is the impact of the newly acquired Upton brothers. So far, Justin has been sensational while brother B.J. has been the opposite.

    Justin is hitting .423 and leads the majors with six home runs already, while B.J. only has one home run to go along with his .120 batting average. But B.J. made his home run count, as the brothers made history Saturday night, hitting the home runs to tie and then win the game.

    The Uptons also have a knack to make very boneheaded plays. All is good in Atlanta right now, but it is imperative that the two stay levelheaded if the team starts to slump.

    On the field, Justin only has eight RBI to go along with those six home runs. Aside from Justin, the rest of the lineup has been uninspiring, and they only rank in the middle of the majors for most offensive categories.

    So how are they 6-1?

    The main reason for the strong start is that this team will live and die by their pitching staff.

    And what a staff it is.

    Headlined by the ageless wonder Tim Hudson, the Braves have allowed the second-fewest runs in baseball at 16. As a whole, the team has a 2.29 ERA and 1.13 WHIP.

    Maholm, a breakout candidate this year, has been perfect in his first two starts. He is 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in 12.2 innings. Maholm has only given up seven hits and four walks to go along with 13 strikeouts.

    Another potential star is Mike Minor.

    Minor was one of the best pitchers in baseball after the 2012 All-Star break. He was 6-4 with a 2.16 ERA and 0.87 WHIP, including a September where he went 4-0 with a 0.87 ERA and 0.71 WHIP. Opposing batters hit only .197 against Minor in the second half.

    In his only start so far, Minor was stellar in 7.1 innings. He allowed just five hits and a solo home run, as well as seven strikeouts to no walks. Minor finished with only 84 pitches on the night, and he should continue to be just as efficient this season.

    The NL East will be a tight race this year. The Braves and Washington Nationals are World Series contenders. The Mets are young, but they are talented and motivated. Even the aging Phillies cannot be counted out with the stars they have.

    Nonetheless, the Braves have established themselves as a team with a deep pitching staff. They are 6-1 despite their underachieving lineup, and once the lineup picks up the slack this will be a tough team to beat.

Pretender: New York Yankees

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    Record: 3-4

    Underachieving Hitter: Robinson Cano

    Underachieving Pitcher: CC Sabathia

     

    Like the Phillies, the New York Yankees are an aging team rapidly on the decline.

    And with the acquisitions of more declining veterans such as Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells, Kevin Youkilis and Lyle Overbay, someone forgot to tell the Yankees it’s not 2008 anymore.

    Here is the main conundrum faced by the Bombers: they are suddenly trying to cut payroll for the first time in decades.

    The Yankees have become notorious for spending abundantly. As the New York Times article details, Major League Baseball has continually imposed higher and higher luxury taxes in an attempt to keep the New York Yankees richest teams from drastically outspending the small-market teams.

    However, this year Major League Baseball decided to impose a different rule.

    It is clear that the Yankees are more than willing to pay higher luxury taxes. They have been doing it for years. But the new rule by MLB states that if a team’s payroll goes under the $189 million threshold by the 2014 season, then all previous luxury taxes immediately disappear forever.

    Even more, the Yankees could become eligible for financial reimbursements if they manage to get below the threshold by 2014.

    The Yankees’ current luxury tax rate has ballooned to almost 0.50. This means that for every dollar they spend over the $189 million threshold, the front office must pay an extra 50 cents as taxes.

    The current payroll right now is well above $200 million, so the front office must do a lot of work to get the payroll down by the end of the season.

    As for the team on the field, they have been a disaster. The hitting has been only decent and the pitching staff has been a nightmare. 

    Cano is currently hitting .222 with only two RBI after a superb World Baseball Classic. On the other hand, Sabathia’s fastball velocity has been down significantly. He is currently 1-1 with 12 hits and seven walks allowed in 12.0 innings. Expect this inconsistency he has already displayed to last the rest of the season.

    The newcomers Hafner, Wells and Youkilis have hit very well so far, and it is embarrassing to think what the lineup might have produced without them. 

    The team has many holes to fill but a front office that is desperately trying to cut costs at the same time. As a result, the Yankees do not have the highest payroll in baseball for the first time in over a decade.

    But the Yankees also have an aging and injury-riddled team that seems destined for mediocrity by season’s end.

Contender: Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Record: 4-2

    Standout Hitter: Carl Crawford

    Standout Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw

     

    As mentioned in the previous slide, the Yankees no longer sport the highest payroll in baseball.

    That award goes to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who ironically filed for bankruptcy less than two years ago. But Magic Johnson & Co. have injected an abundance of cash into the team, and the Dodgers are taking advantage.

    In six games this season, the Dodgers have allowed an incredible six total runs and eight walks, including three shutouts. On offense, though, the team is tied for 27th in runs with only 17.

    But the Dodgers have a wealth of offensive stars that are finally healthy this season, such as Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford. Kemp has struggled so far with just two hits, both of which are doubles. But Crawford has been sensational, already amassing five runs to go along with a .450 batting average and .500 on-base percentage.

    Considering the dearth of runs the Dodgers have scored altogether, Crawford’s five runs is even more impressive.

    The lineup should improve even more once Hanley Ramirez returns from the disabled list. Ramirez thrived earlier in his career under a more personable manager, and Don Mattingly certainly fits that mold. It will be interesting to see if Ramirez can replicate his prominent success.

    However, the main story for the Dodgers this season is Kershaw.

    The perennial Cy Young candidate has been the best pitcher in baseball. In two starts, Kershaw is 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 0.44 WHIP in 16.0 innings. He sports a 16/1 K/BB ratio and has given up just six hits.

    Kershaw also stands a strong chance to become the first pitcher in baseball with a $200 million contract.

    The rest of the pitching staff has stepped up huge so far. Newcomers Josh Beckett, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Greinke seem primed for solid seasons in the rotation.

    In spite of the big-name players on this team, perhaps the best aspect has been the bullpen full of mostly no-names. In 13.0 total innings, the relievers have a 0.00 ERA and 0.38 WHIP. They have 11 strikeouts and four walks, along with an amazing one hit allowed.

    The Dodgers have spent lavishly of late, and it is certainly paying off. The grand finale will be Kershaw’s imminent mega-deal. 

    This team is set for a strong season once the offense finds its groove, and the front office has spent its way into “World Series contender” status.

Pretender: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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    Record: 2-4

    Underachieving Hitter: Josh Hamilton

    Underachieving Pitcher: Jered Weaver

     

    While the crosstown rivals have been spending at will with great results, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have not been able to find similar success.

    Adding insult to injury, the recent news is that ace Weaver is out at least four weeks with a fractured non-throwing elbow.

    But Weaver, who finished third in Cy Young voting in 2012, was struggling before the injury. In two starts, Weaver was 0-1 with a 4.91 ERA and 1.36 WHIP. In 11.0 innings, Weaver allowed nine hits, six walks and two home runs while only striking out six batters.

    The Angels’ other ace, C.J. Wilson, struggled in his only outing so far. Wilson gave up three earned runs and four walks in 6.0 innings.

    Despite the big names this franchise possesses in both aspects of the game, they rank in the middle of the pack on offense as well.

    To put this in perspective, you know things are looking bleak when the player leading the Angels in batting average is career-.276 hitter, Alberto Callaspo. The leading home run hitter is Chris Iannetta, who has not hit 10 home runs in a season in three of the past four years.

    The struggling stars include phenom Mike Trout (.250 batting average), Albert Pujols (.211), Josh Hamilton (.160) and Howie Kendrick (.217). 

    However, things are not as bleak as they seem for the Angels.

    Hamilton, signed this offseason from the Texas Rangers, struggled as he was ridiculed in his return to Texas. He should bounce back as the Angels go on a six-game home stretch. 

    Even though Pujols has struggled with the bat, he has still managed to hit two home runs and draw eight walks, second to Joey Votto. Pujols still has a .429 on-base percentage and 1.008 OPS despite the poor batting average. Once he catches fire there is no stopping him.

    Also, the bullpen has been outstanding so far. They have only allowed 10 hits while striking out 25 batters in 20.2 innings.

    Once Weaver returns and the star hitters start playing like they are capable of, this team still cannot be counted out.

    But in a division that includes the Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers and a revamped Seattle Mariners team, the Angels must act quickly.

     

    Stats and Rankings via ESPN.com and mlb.com