Each MLB Team's Most Troubling Storyline to Follow This Summer

Ely SussmanCorrespondent IJuly 18, 2013

Each MLB Team's Most Troubling Storyline to Follow This Summer

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    Regardless of where your MLB team sits in the standings coming out of the All-Star break, it's going to have stressful moments as the summer progresses. These troubling storylines could dramatically affect a roster's strength or a clubhouse's mood later in the season.

    Not all of them necessarily concern major league players. The Oakland Athletics, for example, face opposition from Major League Baseball about a move to San Jose. They're fighting a frustrating legal battle to ensure a promising future for the franchise.

    For the most part, though, the other teams have to worry about specific injuries or performance trends.

    Read on to find out the most troubling storylines for each MLB team in the second half of 2013.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Pursuing a Controllable Starting Pitcher

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    Most of the NL West competition has faded behind the Arizona Diamondbacks, but the opposite is true of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In order to fend off their rich rivals, the Snakes may need to sacrifice a few prospects and fortify the starting rotation through a trade.

    It's been frustrating to watch their investment in Brandon McCarthy backfire, as well as prospects like Trevor Cahill and Ian Kennedy continue to regress on the mound.

    As reported by MLB.com's Steve Gilbert, general manager Kevin Towers has said that he considers relief depth to be a higher priority. Not to disrespect this analysis, but he could instead pursue a potential frontline starter and transition one of the aforementioned guys into the bullpen.

    Arizona is flush with high-upside players in its farm system. The challenge will be using them wisely to add someone of the Jake Peavy/Jeff Samardzija ilk.

Atlanta Braves: Outfield Injuries

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    Coming into this season, there was tremendous hype surrounding the Atlanta Braves' starting outfielders and what they were capable of accomplishing in 2013 and beyond.

    Quite frankly, they stunk in the first half. B.J. and Justin Upton each struck out 100-plus times, and Jason Heyward only managed a .324 on-base percentage in 67 games. The three of them combined to slug .383, only 12 points higher than Vernon Wells.

    However, despite their poor performance, they still have a lot of potential. Ultimately, Atlanta will need strong, all-around contributions from all three to fend off the Washington Nationals in the NL East race.

    Heyward and Justin Upton are nursing hamstring and calf injuries, respectively, and they're hoping to avoid joining B.J. on the disabled list.

Baltimore Orioles: Short Efforts by Starting Pitchers

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    Baltimore Orioles starting pitchers have averaged only 5.72 innings per outing this season. That's worse than the Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees and every other relevant team in the American League pennant race.

    The return of Wei-Yin Chen—career 6.0 IP/GS—doesn't change much, and neither does newly acquired Scott Feldman.

    Jim Johnson and Darren O'Day are on pace for about 70 appearances each, which is more than you want to depend on top relievers. The 2011 Atlanta Braves, who collapsed down the stretch after abusing Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, serve as a great case study.

Boston Red Sox: Clay Buchholz's Setbacks

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    Clay Buchholz has never made 30 starts in a major-league season, and he's certainly not going to do it in 2013.

    The soon-to-be 29-year-old last pitched for the Boston Red Sox on June 8, then landed on the disabled list with a strained trapezius. After an alternating sequence of progressions and setbacks, the right-hander still feels discomfort in his neck, reports Tim Britton of the Providence Journal. This will further delay his minor league rehab assignment.

    It's been relatively smooth sailing for the Red Sox in his absence, but Allen Webster and Brandon Workman aren't going to suffice for the rest of the season.

Chicago Cubs: Starlin Castro's Season-Long Slump

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    The Chicago Cubs have been gradually building a talented core of players to try and get back in contention later this decade.

    They got the ball rolling by inking Starlin Castro to a $60 million contract extension last summer. He had already blossomed into a great player in his early 20s, as evidenced by his NL-leading 207 hits in 2011 and a pair of All-Star selections. The understandable expectation was that he would perform even better in 2013.

    Instead, Castro is making a negative impact defensively and scuffling at the plate. The Cubs experimented with dropping him down in the batting order, and they interrupted his impressive streak of consecutive games played so that he could clear his head. Entering the final series of the first half, Castro owned an awful .232/.267/.332 batting line.

    However, Optimists can spin his latest 8-for-16 showing against the St. Louis Cardinals into a sign of encouragement.

Chicago White Sox: Pressure to Trade Chris Sale

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    When the Chicago White Sox confessed their intention to sell at the deadline to CBS' Sports Jon Heyman,  they specified only two untouchables: Paul Konerko and Chris Sale. As general manager Rick Hahn steadily dismantles the roster, he's adamant about keeping the team's captain and its long-term ace.

    Meanwhile, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports believes that trading Sale would single-handedly revitalize the farm system and position Chicago to contend within a few years:

    David Price isn’t out there. Cliff Lee isn’t out there. No ace is out there. Some smart team is going to exploit the shortfall by putting a top-of-the-rotation starter in play.

    The White Sox should be that team.

    In the short-term, however, such a blockbuster move would demoralize an already-indifferent fanbase.

Cincinnati Reds: Johnny Cueto's Recurring Lat Injury

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    Coming off the first full 33-start season of his major-league career, Johnny Cueto has already made three separate trips to the disabled list.

    He's been effective when active, limiting the opposition to a .213 batting average against. Cueto's 7.6 K/9 is also the highest of any he's posted since his rookie campaign of 2008.

    Rookie Tony Cingrani is pitching beautifully in his absence, but the Cincinnati Reds will need as much rotation depth as possible just to make the playoffs. The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals show no signs of fading, and the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals have the talent to shake up the wild-card race.

    This team needs Cueto back on the mound (and with safer mechanics).

Cleveland Indians: Straightening out Vinnie Pestano

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    Numerous teams expressed interest in trading for Vinnie Pestano prior to this season.

    What's not to like? The right-hander tallied 160 strikeouts in 132 innings from 2011-2012 with a 2.45 ERA, dominating at a very team-friendly price tag.

    However, upon returning from elbow soreness this past May, Pestano has pitched uncharacteristically poorly. He's missing both outside the strike zone and over the middle of the plate, resulting in a bloated batting average against and an ugly walk rate.

    The Cleveland Indians will need to consider restricting Pestano to low-leverage situations if he doesn't begin turning his season around.

Colorado Rockies: Todd Helton Limps off into the Sunset

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    Like Mariano Rivera, Todd Helton has become ridiculously wealthy during a successful career spent entirely with one franchise. The difference, of course, is Helton's physical and statistical deterioration.

    Even with home games in the friendly confines of Coors Field, the veteran first baseman hasn't slugged above .500 during any season since 2005. Helton is seemingly always aching or fully disabled (forearm strain from late April-early May). The Tennessee native has also posted a career-worst .333 on-base percentage while starting no more than six days in any week.

    The Colorado Rockies burst out of the starting gate in 2013, showing glimpses of a team that could contend for a playoff berth in what's expected to be Helton's final year. By the All-Star break, however, they had sunk below .500, likely positioning themselves to stand pat at the deadline or sell.

     

Detroit Tigers: The Quest for Bullpen Depth

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    The Detroit Tigers bullpen is comprised of two ace relievers—Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly—and then a whole lot of junk. That's why the reigning American League champs barely have any breathing room in the AL Central standings.

    They need a third dominant arm to compensate for their lack of depth, but there aren't many available players who fit that description.

    Previous trade talks they've had about Jonathan Papelbon won't pick up if the Philadelphia Phillies believe they can make a playoff run. According to Todd Zolecki of MLB.com, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. would be reluctant to move him under any circumstances because the team has no other internal closer candidates.

    The Minnesota Twins will at least listen to offers for Glen Perkins, but Detroit isn't a realistic suitor. Established stars under long-term contracts seldom get dealt within a division.

    Steve Cishek of the Miami Marlins is pretty much unavailable, and although Milwaukee's Francisco Rodriguez has been great in 2013, he comes with a Jose Valverde-like risk of implosion.

    It figures to be a frustrating search for the Tigers, and they may ultimately have to settle for a less reputable name and hope for the best.

Houston Astros: Finding Suitors for Carlos Pena

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    The Houston Astros have a few relatively desirable pitchers to peddle this summerlike Bud Norris and Jose Verasbut they aren't nearly as eager to shop Carlos Pena.

    Coming off the worst season of his career in 2012, the first baseman/designated hitter has made zero progress. His performance in each of the triple-slash categories this season is essentially the same, and his defensive value is not what it used to be.

    Moreover, the 35-year-old has asserted himself as a leader in the Astros clubhouse. Perhaps that fact—and the lack of contenders who will show interest in him—can prevent him from being dealt.

Kansas City Royals: Ongoing Mike Moustakas Problems

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    The Kansas City Royals probably intended to treat Mike Moustakas just like they did Billy Butler.

    Bulter, also a former first-round draft pick, became a productive mainstay in their lineup and inked a relatively team-friendly contract extension entering his age-25 season. Moustakas showed comparable offensive potential in the minors, not to mention superior fielding ability. If he showed improvement in 2013, his third year in the majors, the Royals would have been ready to commit to him long-term as well.

    In a frustrating twist, the third baseman has been an automatic out at the plate in 2013. His batting average hasn't exceeded the .250 mark at any point this season, and he has driven in only five runs since Memorial Day.

    Along with Butler, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez, Moustakas was supposed to be a part of K.C.'s core. Now, his future up in the air.

Los Angeles Angels: The Starting Pitching Problem

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    Most of the world's baseball analysts penciled in the Los Angeles Angels atop the AL West standings or, at the very least, into one of the American League's postseason spots.

    The primary power hitters have certainly disappointed. Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo all slumped for extended stretches during the first half.

    Even so, the thin starting rotation has to be the No. 1 concern for the front office moving forward.

    Although Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson can maintain excellence for extended periods, there's very little to like about the rest of the staff. The Halos have their fingers crossed that Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas can be midseason saviors.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Yasiel Puig's Conduct off the Field

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    There's no denying that Cuban star Yasiel Puig has special talent. Even if he slumps a bit coming off a historically great start to his career, expect a huge rebound and for him to end the season with awesome overall stats.

    The major unknown with Puig is how much of a distraction he'll be off the field.

    In an Insider-only column, ESPN's Buster Olney makes an ugly comparison to Barry Bonds because of the outfielder's perceived self-centeredness.

    Aside from rubbing fellow players the wrong way, Puig has also been less than enthusiastic about complying with media requests. When he does actually talk, it's through a translator, so the possibility of being misquoted is always out there.

    As much as the Los Angeles Dodgers value his hitting ability and general athleticism, all the production could be for naught if he upsets clubhouse chemistry.

     

     

Miami Marlins: Embarrassing Attendance

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    This fun fact is going to blow your mind.

    Ready?

    Since the beginning of June, the Miami Marlins have a higher winning percentage than the St. Louis Cardinals or Texas Rangers.

    Unbelievable, right? The same pathetic team that was drawing serious comparisons to the 1962 New York Mets has actually been competitive lately. Standout rookies like Jose Fernandez and Marcell Ozuna are combining with slightly more experienced players to actually win games.

    South Florida still doesn't care. In the second year of Marlins Park, the club is dead last in average attendance.

Milwaukee Brewers: The Biogenesis Saga

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    There are about 20 professional players linked to the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic, but none of them means more to his franchise than Ryan Braun. He is also set to face one of the longest suspensions after sneaking out of punishment for a positive test in 2011.

    On top of being an extremely productive individual in his baseball prime, Braun's contract runs through 2020. It's back-loaded too, so forfeiting salary in 2014 wouldn't actually save the Milwaukee Brewers all that much money.

    The franchise is more concerned with how fans will perceive the outfielder after his involvement in the scandal is officially announced. Braun has been their No. 1 attraction since dominating as a rookie in 2007, but there's a possibility that he'll get the Alex Rodriguez treatment (universal hatred) for artificially enhancing his performance.

Minnesota Twins: Ron Gardenhire's Future with the Team

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    After Tom Kelly spent 16 seasons at the helm, Ron Gardenhire was expected to also have a long tenure as manager of the Minneosta Twins.

    Mission accomplished. The former Twins infielder and longtime third base coach is in his 12th season as skipper. He was named American League Manager of the Year in 2010 after perennially contending for the award—and the AL pennant—throughout the 2000s.

    Embarrassingly, however, Minnesota has posted the AL's worst record in the last two seasons. So far this season, the team is a dozen games out of playoff position and are once again destined to sell at the deadline.

    Just before the All-Star break, Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press reported that general manager Terry Collins gave Gardenhire the dreaded "vote of confidence." Of course, it would be much easier to believe in his job security if Gardenhire had his contract extended beyond this season.

    It's going to be a rough second half in the Twin Cities, with veterans Justin Morneau and Glen Perkins being available at the right price, the pitching staff laboring and Gardy likely to take the fall for it.

New York Mets: Shutting Down Matt Harvey

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    New York Mets manager Terry Collins spoke with Jim Baumbach of Newsday about how the team plans on limiting Matt Harvey's workload.

    Always remember something. We are not going to hinder this kid's health by killing him now when the future is so bright . . . We are not going to jeopardize what's down the road for right now. We're not going to do it.

    Collins hopes he can limit Harvey's workload in such a way that he completes the entire season as opposed to being shut down with a few weeks of games still to play.

    The NL Cy Young Award candidate tossed 130 innings prior to the All-Star break, and that total would have been even higher had the Mets not skipped one of his scheduled starts.

    Even if Collins succeeds in keeping Harvey in the rotation through September, it's going to mean stricter limits every time he takes the mound.

    "Always remember something," Collins said. "We are not going to hinder this kid's health by killing him now when the future is so bright . . . We are not going to jeopardize what's down the road for right now. We're not going to do it."

    Collins hopes he can limit Harvey's workload in such a way that he completes the entire season as opposed to being shut down with a few weeks of games still to play.

New York Yankees: Derek Jeter's Injuries

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    Record-wise, the New York Yankees haven't really suffered without Derek Jeter.

    Rather, the impact of his absence is evident in the team's depressed ticket sales and ratings on the YES Network, Zach Schonbrun of The New York Times reports.

    Jeter finally returned from a fractured ankle on July 11, only to leave innings later with an ailing quad. The Grade 1 strain kept him out for the final weekend of the first half.

    His commanding presence in the lineup resonates as much as his actual performance. The Yankees need plenty of both from Jeter in the second half to avoid slipping out of the playoff race entirely.

Oakland Athletics: Searching for a New Ballpark

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    The Oakland Athletics have been reluctantly negotiating a five-year extension on their lease to remain in O.co Coliseum. Their goal is to relocate to San Jose later this decade.

    As KTVU.com reported in April, the team is feuding with the county over revenue streams and taxes. In June, Jill Tucker and John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the city itself sued Major League Baseball for delaying the move.

    For the time being, the A's are operating on a low budget, but they are thriving thanks to a deep pitching staff, patient lineup and steady defense.

Philadelphia Phillies: The Future of Chase Utley

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    General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't want to move Chase Utley, and Philadelphia Phillies players and fans do not want to see him go either. When he is relatively healthy, he's arguably the best all-around second baseman in the National League.

    The simple truth, however, is that the Phillies must excel for the rest of July to legitimize themselves as contenders. That's going to be a challenge with a suspect bullpen and both Ryan Howard and Ben Revere being on the disabled list.

    Should the team slump, there will be a strong temptation to trade Utley, as he stands head and shoulders above the other potentially available second basemen.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Jeff Locke's Inevitable Downturn

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    Matt Trueblood expertly sums up the awkward dilemma that the Pittsburgh Pirates face concerning All-Star Jeff Locke on Arm Side Run:

    Jeff Locke is not even a league-average pitcher. He’s a fluke in pants. He’s a lie. His ERA from here forward has about a 50 percent chance of being double his ERA to this point.

    What Locke represents is the difficulty, from a political and management standpoint, that a front office faces in replacing players whom the rest of the team perceives to be crucial to their success.

    Although Locke finished the first half with the second-best ERA among qualified starters, both his BABIP and FIP strongly suggest that he'll regress. He's allowing way too many baserunners, and there's going to come a point where he doesn't leave so many of them stranded.

    The eventual return of Wandy Rodriguez from the disabled list will be crucial.

San Diego Padres: Cory Luebke's Tommy John Rehab

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    MLB.com's Corey Brock reports that Cory Luebke is making progress in his rehab 14 months after Tommy John surgery:

    Luebke is back throwing again after several stops-and-starts during his rehabilitation. He's currently at 120 feet, working up from 60, 90 to 120 feet with 150 feet still to go before he can return to a mound.

    It feels better, Luebke said of the elbow. We're being a little more cautious, making sure that I don't push it.

    The San Diego Padres quietly agreed to a $12 million extension with him prior to the 2012 season, only to lose him to injury after one month.

    The 28-year-old southpaw owns a 9.3 K/9 in 55 career appearances, so the Padres are anxious to get him back. The feeling is mutual, as Luebke has already been shut down twice this summer after attempting to do too much too soon.

San Francisco Giants: The Matt Cain Mess

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    Eno Harris of FanGraphs investigated Matt Cain's 2013 struggles, but came away with more questions than answers:

    Matt Cain’s velocity, pitching mix and swinging strike, walk, strikeout and ground-ball rates are all virtually identical to his career rates, so it’s tempting to say that nothing is different. And yet, Matt Cain is making mistakes. Since he’s always around the zone, they are hittable mistakes. And now that they are closer to the heart of the zone, they are being hit harder than they’ve ever been hit.

    Ask the crowd, and there are a million theories. Ask the pitcher, and it’s just about making mistakes. Ask the numbers, and they say that yes, he’s missing his spots, but that his career still suggests he can right the ship.

    Cain thrived in the five starts immediately following that post, with his overall ERA improving from 5.45 to 4.29. Unfortunately, he undid all that progress with two early July clunkers at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets (3.0 IP, 11 ER, 2/7 K/BB).

    The 28-year-old is the biggest underachiever on a San Francisco Giants team that will seriously contemplate selling at the trade deadline. More importantly, there's about $95 million remaining on his contract as the second half opens up. That will turn into a huge albatross if this mediocrity persists.

Seattle Mariners: Jeff Datz's Cancer Battle

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    A few weeks into the regular season, Seattle Mariners third base coach Jeff Datz revealed his cancer diagnosis to the public through an article in the Seattle Times.

    At that time, we didn't have a timetable for his return nor any idea what kind of cancer he had. Datz only said that treatment would keep him away from the team.

    Larry Stone of the Seattle Times caught up with him before the All-Star break and reported that the 53-year-old "can see an end in sight." Six weeks of radiation has been effective against the Level Two squamous-cell cancer on his neck.

    However, the former catcher isn't completely out of the woods yet. On Sept. 6, Datz will undergo a medical scan to confirm that he's in the clear.

    For the Mariners, who are so far removed from a playoff spot, this individual's well-being is their chief concern.

St. Louis Cardinals: Chris Carpenter's Comeback Attempt

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    After all the sweat and tears, he's so close.

    Chris Carpenter, the 38-year-old right-hander who was so instrumental during the team's 2006 and 2011 World Series runs, is out on a minor league rehab assignment for the St. Louis Cardinals. The 30-day clock began ticking on July 15 when he made his season debut at Double-A, as detailed by MLB.com's Allen Vaughan.

    In early February, Carpenter felt numbness in his neck and throwing shoulder, and he emotionally announced that he would try to battle back to help the team.

    His progress is both heartwarming and very awkward in that this final stage of rehab coincides with trading season around the sport.

    If the Cardinals go out and acquire a legitimate starting pitcher to reinforce their staff, Carpenter won't have a rotation spot to claim. On the other hand, they could stand pat at the July 31 deadline, but that's under the bold assumption that the worn-down workhorse will dodge physical setbacks and perform at an elite level.

    It's a very difficult call for John Mozeliak and the entire front office to make.

Tampa Bay Rays: Hak-Ju Lee's Health

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    Hak-Ju Lee shredded ligaments in his left knee in late April, ending his season.

    The shortstop was dominating at Triple-A with a .422/.536/.600 batting line and more walks than strikeouts through 15 games. MLB.com named him the fourth-best prospect on the Tampa Bay Rays entering 2013.

    Tampa Bay will keep a very close eye on his rehab because any setbacks would mean at least another year of Yunel Escobar. That wouldn't be ideal considering that his team option costs $5 million.

Texas Rangers: Mediocrity of Top Prospects

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    Last winter, the Texas Rangers had enough young ammunition to contemplate trades for Justin Upton and David Price.

    They elected to keep all the top talent and have helplessly watched their value dip this season.

    Potential star third baseman Mike Olt labored early in the season at Triple-A before being diagnosed with vision problems, and he has merely been serviceable since returning from the disabled list. Coming off a summer where he slashed .288/.398/.579, Olt is only a .211/.312/.399 hitter in 2013.

    Right-hander Cody Buckel had fantastic numbers at the lower minor league levels, including a 1.31 ERA and 0.98 WHIP at High-A Myrtle Beach in 2012. However, he pitched unbelievably poorly at the opening of this season—a 20.25 ERA and three walks per inning!—and was sent to extended spring training to figure things out. Buckel hasn't taken the mound for an official game since May 1.

    Of course, 20-year-old Jurickson Profar had the distinction of being baseball's top prospect when this summer got underway. He's been on the major league roster for much of the year, but he entered the midway point with an underwhelming .655 OPS. Profar has also committed seven errors in less than 300 innings as an infielder, which prompted a position change.

     

Toronto Blue Jays: The Josh Johson Enigma

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    From afar, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos held Josh Johnson in extremely high regard. In the offseason, he agreed to take on several other bloated contracts from the Miami Marlins and ship them a handful of top prospects just to acquire Johnson with one year remaining on his contract.

    Unfortunately, the right-hander has had a difficult time adjusting to American League life. Although his strikeout and walk rates are consistent with his career norms, he's been plagued by a high BABIP and troubling home-run-to-fly-ball ratio.

    Talks about a long-term extension have understandably been tabled given his overall mediocrity. The pressing question is whether he even merits a qualifying offer this winter (one year, approximately $13.8 million).

    Coming off a fully healthy campaign, Johnson also missed more than six weeks of action earlier in 2013 with triceps inflammation.

Washington Nationals: The Awful Offense

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    Make all the excuses you want, but the simple fact is that the 2013 Washington Nationals—the most popular World Series pick entering the season—rank 13th in the National League in runs per game.

    Every time it seems that they're going to sustain an exciting hot streak, they don't. Despite retaining all the key offensive contributors from last year's 98-win team, the Nats have only once scored more than 20 runs in a single series.

    Completing a trade for Scott Hairston could potentially strengthen the bench, but Washington will need more thump from the left side as well.

    General manager Mike Rizzo has proven time and again that he's not hesitant to pounce when a chance to improve presents itself. The Nationals cannot meet their lofty preseason expectations unless he stays true to that approach.