MLB

Each MLB Team's Most Crucial Early-Season Storyline

Karl BuscheckContributor IIIApril 18, 2014

Each MLB Team's Most Crucial Early-Season Storyline

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    MIKE CARLSON

    From a flood of Tommy John surgeries to all sorts of minor strains and sprains, the story of the 2014 MLB season has been the unbelievable amount of injuries that have occurred all across the league.

    What follows is a breakdown of the most crucial early-season storylines for all 30 MLB teams. As you would expect, there are a lot of injury-related narratives. However, there are also stories about out-of-left field breakouts and big-money free-agent signings that have so far proven to be busts. 

    So, let's take a look at the top early-season storylines for all 30 MLB clubs. 

Atlanta Braves: Rotation Thriving Despite Key Loses

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    Todd Kirkland

    Just how good has the Atlanta Braves' starting staff been in 2014?

    After 15 games, David Hale has the highest ERA of all the club's five starting pitchers, with a mark of just 2.89. As a staff, the Braves' starters own a combined 1.58 ERA, which is nearly a run better than the league's second-best team in this category, the Oakland Athletics (2.48 ERA). 

    Of course, this wasn't supposed to happen, as both Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy had their 2014 campaigns wiped out by Tommy John surgery before the regular season even got underway .

    To this point, the club's decision to bring in Ervin Santana in the middle of spring training looks absolutely briliant. In his first two outings, the right-hander has recored a 0.64 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 14 innings of work. 

Arizona Diamondbacks: Is Season Slipping Away Already?

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    As manager Kirk Gibson put it,  via Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic: "We're not in sync at all."

    That's a more than fair assessment from the skipper considering that his club is off to a 4-14 start and currently languishing in the cellar of the National League West. It's also particularly applicable to the team's dreadful starting rotation. 

    As a staff, the Diamondback's starters have posted a 7.63 ERA, which is a full two runs worse than any other team in baseball.

    One option to bolster the rotation would be for the club to call up top prospect Archie Bradley. However, general manager Kevin Towers told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports that he doesn't want to do so because it could put the 21-year-old in a position where he feels he has to "save" the team.

    However, with the Diamondbacks already seven games out of first place in the NL West, Towers needs to do something, and do it fast. Otherwise, the rotation will dig a hole that the Diamondbacks simply won't be able to climb out of. 

Baltimore Orioles: Time to Press Panic Button on Ubaldo Jimenez?

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Three starts into his four-year, $50 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles, Ubaldo Jimenez's tenure with his new club is definitely not going to plan.

    The veteran right-hander is off to an 0-3 start and sporting a 7.31 ERA. Most troubling of all, Jimenez is allowing an absurd number of baserunners. In 16 innings of work, the 30-year-old has given up 23 hits and issued 10 free passes. 

    Jimenez has a history of not getting off to great starts, as the righty owns a career 5.21 ERA in April/May. However, as Peter Gammons tweets, with a 26-33 record and a lifetime 4.55 ERA in the AL, Jimenez also has a history of mediocrity in his current league. 

Boston Red Sox: Lack of Production out of the Leadoff Spot

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    Winslow Townson

    As the numbers clearly indicate, the Boston Red Sox need to find an answer at the leadoff spot.

    So far, the club's table-setters own a .299 OBP, which is the seventh-worst mark in MLB. One solution would be to install Dustin Pedroia as the team's new leadoff man, as Rob Bradford of WEEI suggests.

    Admittedly, Pedroia has only drawn two walks in 2014, but the four-time All-Star possesses proven on-base skills, with a career .368 OBP. The right-handed batter is also an extremely patient hitter. A season ago, Pedroia averaged 4.05 pitches per plate appearance, which was the 26th-best mark in all of baseball, according to ESPN.com.

    Plus, the 30-year-old would also add an element of speed, as he has 26, 20 and 17 stolen bases, respectively, over the past three campaigns. 

Chicago Cubs: Is Emilio Bonifacio's Strong Start for Real?

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    Rick Scuteri

    The Chicago Cubs are just halfway through the month of April, and already the club is six games off the pace in the NL Central. Also, Jose Veras is out as the team's closer after botching two save attempts and plunking three batters.

    Unfortunately, neither of those developments are particularly surprising.

    However, the impressive start of Emilio Bonifacio certainly qualifies as a surprise. In his first 13 games, the utility man is hitting .339 with three doubles and seven stolen bases. The 28-year-old's career numbers suggest that Bonifacio's early success is something of a fluke, though. In 2,363 plate appearances in the big leagues, the right-handed hitter owns a pedestrian .264/.323/.342 slash line. 

     

Chicago White Sox: Will Jose Abreu Make Necessary Adjustments at the Plate?

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    Charles Rex Arbogast

    Jose Abreu has had a crazy first few weeks in the big leagues. 

    It all started off so well for the new Chicago White Sox first baseman. In his first 10 contests, Abreu produced two multiple-home-run games, which made him just one of three players in the past 100 years to accomplish the feat, as Baseball Reference tweets.

    However, then the trouble began.

    Abreu is currently in the middle of a 1-for-21 slide, which has dropped his average down to .213. Clearly, opposing teams are beginning to find holes in Abreu's approach. Now, the question is whether the 27-year-old will be able to adjust. 

Cincinnati Reds: Billy Hamilton's Lack of Patience Holding Him Back

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    Al Behrman

    Entering the 2014 season, there was one question that was repeatedly asked regarding Billy Hamilton: would the fleet-footed center fielder reach base consistently enough to utilize his remarkable speed?

    So far, the answer to that question has been a resounding "no." In his first 14 games, Hamilton is batting .170 (8-for-47) with a .220 OBP. That has translated to the 23-year-old totaling four stolen bases on four attempts.

    A central issue for Hamilton is that the switch-hitter has been one of the least patient hitters in the NL. The Cincinnati Reds' leadoff man is averaging 3.33 pitches per plate appearance, which is tied for 94th out of 98 qualified batters in the NL, per ESPN.com. For Hamilton, a bit more patience at the plate could prove to be a vital first step toward improvement. 

Cleveland Indians: What's Wrong with Danny Salazar?

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    Carlos Osorio

    After his breakout performance late last season, the Cleveland Indians were counting on Danny Salazar to be a key contributor in the starting rotation in 2014. 

    Three starts into the year, though, the 24-year-old right-hander is looking like a completely different pitcher than the one who posted a 3.12 ERA in 10 outings a season ago. On April 10, Salazar piled up 10 strikeouts, but he also only made it through 3.2 innings. 

    In his most recent appearance on April 17, the righty failed to get out of the fifth inning, as he allowed five runs on six hits in 4.2 innings of work. After that showing, Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer concluded: "Salazar has seriously regressed from a year ago."

    It's obviously still early in the year, but Salazar's season is already trending in the wrong direction. 

Colorado Rockies: The Rise of Charlie Blackmon

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    David Zalubowski

    Charlie Blackmon has enjoyed an impressive start to the 2014 campaign.

    The center fielder for the Colorado rockies collected six hits in a single game back on April 4 and is batting .411 (23-for-58) in his first 17 contests. It's worth noting that Blackmon went a perfect 6-for-6 in that game (a 12-2 Rockies win over the Arizona Diamondbacks), a feat which has happened just 65 times dating back to 1901, per Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated.

    While the strong start has created a considerable buzz, Blackmon's breakout is not exactly shocking. In parts of six minor league seasons, the outfielder posted a .309/.376/.467 slashline. A season ago, the left-hander hit .309 with an .803 OPS. 

Detroit Tigers: The Resurgence of Ian Kinsler

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    After a couple of subpar seasons with the Texas Rangers, Ian Kinsler is off to a sensational start with his new club in Detroit. 

    Through 12 games, the 31-year-old is batting .327 (17-for-52) with three doubles, two home runs and eight RBI. Kinsler has also been highly productive on the basepaths, with three stolen bases.

    Tigers' manager Brad Ausmus dubbed the three-time All-Star a "baseball rat," which Kinsler described to Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports as "one of the highest compliments you can get."

Houston Astros: The Debut of George Springer

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    Pat Sullivan

    George Springer has finally arrived in Houston. 

    The right-handed batter made his big league debut on April 16, going 1-for-5 with a run scored. After his first two games with the Astros, Springer is batting .222 (2-for-9).

    Baseball America tabbed the right-handed hitter as the No. 18 prospect in all of the minor leagues entering the 2014 season. A year ago, the 2011 first-round pick hit .303/.411/.600 with 27 doubles, 37 home runs and 45 stolen bases while splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A.

    However, with those ridiculous numbers come an excessive number of strikeouts. In 2013, Springer struck out 161 times in 589 plate appearances. In 13 Triple-A contests this year, the outfielder punched out 15 times. In his first nine at-bats as an Astro, Springer has gone down on strikes four times.  

     

Kansas City Royals: When Will Offense Start to Wake Up?

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    Elaine Thompson

    Despite having a talented young core of position players, the Kansas City Royals have so far had one of the least productive offenses in all of baseball.

    The club's .639 OPS is the fourth-lowest in all of MLB. Meanwhile, the Royals have also scored just 47 runs, which is tied for the third-worst total in all of baseball. Plus, the team has managed just four home runs on the season, which ranks last among all 30 teams.

    Billy Butler, who is batting .160 (8-for-50), and Mike Moustakas, who is hitting .130 (6-for-46), have been two of the weakest links. 

    Despite that miserable start at the plate, however, the Royals are 7-7 and remain just one game out of first place in the crowded AL Central. That's primarily thanks to the pitching staff's 3.02 ERA, which is the sixth-best mark in baseball. 

Los Angeles Angels: Struggling Bullpen Letting Club Down

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    Mark J. Terrill

    After posting the seventh-worst ERA in all of baseball a season ago, the Los Angeles Angels bullpen has once again proven to be a major weakness in the opening weeks of 2014. 

    Through the first 16 games of the season, Angels relievers own a 2-3 record and a 4.66 ERA, and a couple of the club's supposed top bullpen arms have been at the center of the mess.

    On April 15, in a 10-9 loss against the Oakland Athletics, setup man Joe Smith allowed four runs without retiring a single batter. After that debacle, the 30-year-old told reporters that he had been "absolutely terrible," per the Associated Press (h/t USA Today). Smith added, "That's as bad as I've ever performed."

    Closer Ernesto Frieri has also endured a rough start to the season. The right-hander has posted a 5.68 ERA and served up three home runs in 6.1 innings of work. Opposing batters are hitting .296 against the 28-year-old, who closed out 37 games a season ago. 

    With middle-relief options lacking and and young starters like Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago in the rotation, it will be crucial for Smith and Frieri to get back on track. 

Los Angeles Dodgers: The Emergence of Dee Gordon

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    On a team filled with superstars, Dee Gordon doesn't grab a lot of headlines.

    However, the 25-year-old second baseman has quietly been one of the club's most productive players in the opening weeks of the season. In his first 14 games, the Dodgers' new leadoff man is batting .373 (19-for-51) with a .421 OBP.

    Gordon has also been a disruptive force on the basepaths, as his 10 steals lead all of baseball and match his total from a season ago.

    As manager Don Mattingly noted, via Anthony Witrado of ESPN Los Angeles, the key for Gordon is to continue hitting ground balls. "If he keeps battling and puts the ball in play he's going to get a lot of hits because anything that hits the ground twice, he's going to be safe," Mattingly said.

    With such remarkable speed, Gordon is yet another weapon in a loaded lineup. 

Miami Marlins: Not Even Jose Fernandez Can Halt Early-Season Plunge

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    After jumping out to a 5-1 start, the Miami Marlins have tumbled into quite the rut, losing nine of their last 10 games. 

    On April 16, Jose Fernandez did all he could to get the club back on track, but the 21-year-old right-hander was let down by his defense as well as the club's bullpen. In the 6-3 loss to the Washington Nationals, Fernandez allowed three runs, but none of them were earned. 

    The second-year pitcher also recorded a season-high 10 strikeouts in the start. In his first three outings, Fernandez has now totaled 33 punchouts in 23.2 innings of work. 

Milwaukee Brewers: Club Making Noise in Loaded NL Central

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    With three NL Central clubs making the playoffs a season ago, the division once again promises to be fiercely competitive in 2014. 

    In the opening weeks of the campaign, it's actually the Milwaukee Brewers—the team that finished fourth in the division in 2013—that is leading the way. The Brewers boast a talented lineup that has been powered so far by Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy and Aramis Ramirez. 

    However, it's the Brewers pitching staff that has been the big story. The team's staff has posted a 2.73 ERA, which is the third-best number in all of baseball. The starting rotation, headlined by Yovani Gallardo and the 24-year-old Wily Peralta, has produced a 2.55 ERA, the fourth-best mark in MLB. 

     

     

Minnesota Twins: Free-Agent Signings Not Paying off

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    Ann Heisenfelt

    In the offseason, the Minnesota Twins dished out a combined $72 million to sign Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes in the hopes of bolstering a rotation that posted the worst ERA in all of baseball in 2013. 

    To this point, though, neither of those acquisitions is working out. Hughes is 0-1 with a 7.20 ERA over his first three outings with his new club. The 27-year-old has failed to work more than five innings in each of his three starts. Meanwhile, Nolasco has produced a 1-1 record with a 5.50 ERA.

    Of the two starters, Nolasco appears to be the one who is far more likely to turn his season around. In his most recent outing against the the Kansas City Royals, the right-hander worked eight innings and allowed one run. 

New York Mets: Team Remains over .500 Despite Injuries to Big Names

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Over the winter, the New York Mets dished out some serious cash to established veteran players in Curtis Granderson, Chris Young and Bartolo Colon. 

    In the opening weeks of the 2014 season, all three free-agent additions have been slowed by injuries. However, even when they have been on the field, the results haven't exactly been inspiring. 

    Granderson, is hitting .167 with 16 strikeouts in his first 48 at-bats as a Met. The 33-year-old, who inked a four-year, $60 million pact this offseason, has missed time this week after smashing into an outfield wall on April 14. The right-fielder is expected to return to the lineup for Friday's game against the Atlanta Braves, according to Adam Rubin of ESPN New York

    Young has played just a single inning in the field in 2014. The 30-year-old is slated to be activated from the DL on Friday, per Mike Vorkunov of the Star-Ledger

    Meanwhile, Bartolo Colon could be headed to the DL with a back issue, as Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News reports. In his most recent outing on April 13, the Los Angeles Angels tagged the 40-year-old for nine runs in five innings of work. 

    Despite the array of injuries to those three key signings, the Mets remain a game over .500 (8-7) and sit in third place in the NL East. 

New York Yankees: Infield Falling Apart

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    The trouble in the New York Yankees infield all started when Mark Teixeira went down with a hamstring injury in just the fourth game of the season. 

    The first baseman missing time with an injury is not terribly surprising considering that a wrist problem limited the veteran to a grand total of 15 games a season ago. Francisco Cervelli, who briefly saw time at first base after Teixeira went down, also ended up on the DL thanks to a hamstring strain.

    The situation got so dire at first base that at one point Carlos Beltran even played a few innings at the position—his first ever appearance at that spot. 

    Middle infielders Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts have also been limited by quad and back issues, respectively. The end result of all the injuries has been a ton of opportunities for Dean Anna, Yangervis Solarte and Scott Sizemore. 

    Sizemore is a particularly intriguing player to watch out for. The infielder, who missed all but four games over the past two seasons with knee injuries, was batting .344 with a .936 OPS in Triple-A before joining the big league club. 

Oakland Athletics: Who's the Closer?

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The Oakland Athletics have all sorts of late-inning options in the bullpen.

    In the first 15 games of the 2014 season, though, none of the clubs's relievers have proven capable of consistently closing out ballgames. Jim Johnson, whom Oakland acquired this offseason, lost his job as the team's closer after just five outings. 

    Sean Doolittle and Luke Gregerson, who have taken over the gig, have both stumbled while trying to lock down saves. For now, both pitchers appear better suited for the setup roles that they were originally supposed to occupy. 

    Since his demotion, Johnson has now turned in three straight shutout performances, allowing just two hits in five innings of work. That's encouraging stuff for the sinkerballer. Still, according to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, "it's unclear when or if he'll regain the closer role."

Philadelphia Phillies: Chase Utley in the 'Zone'

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    Tom Mihalek

    Chase Utley is off to a monster start in 2014. 

    In the opening weeks of the season, the Philadelphia Phillies second baseman is hitting .462/.517/.769 with seven doubles and three home runs. As manager Ryne Sandberg said to Chris Branch of the News Journal, "He's just in a real good zone."

    In his first 13 contests, the five-time All-Star has hit safely in all but one game. Already, Utley has produced a bWAR of 1.2. 

    Shortstop Jimmy Rollins has also gotten off to a promising start, as the 35-year-old has connected on a couple of home runs and stolen three bases. 

Pittsburgh Pirates: Edinson Volquez Proving Spring Stats Don't Matter

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    Gene J. Puskar

    From a statistical perspective, Edinson Volquez had an absolutely terrible spring. 

    In five outings, the right-hander posted a 9.64 ERA in five outings. Of course, as the right-hander is clearly demonstrating in the regular season, spring training stats don't mean much of anything at all. After 16 games, Volquez has been the most effective starter on the Pirates' staff.

    Volquez owns a 1.71 ERA in 21 innings of work, and on April 16 he picked up his first win as a member of the Pirates. 

San Diego Padres: Jedd Gyorko and Chase Headley off to Ice-Cold Starts

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    Lenny Ignelzi

    Through the opening weeks of the 2014 campaign, both Jedd Gyorko and Chase Headley are hitting well below .200. 

    Last year, Gyorko swatted 23 home run in his rookie season with the San Diego Padres. That impressive performance prompted that club to hand the 25-year-old a six-year, $35.5 million extension on April 14. However, in the first 16 games of 2014, the right-handed hitter has managed just one home run and is batting .161 (9-for-56)

    Meanwhile, Headley's contract year is off to a nightmare start. The third baseman is currently sidelined with a right biceps strain and a sore right knee, per Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune. In his first 50 at-bats, the 29-year-old is hitting .160 and has also gone yard just one time in 2014. 

San Francisco Giants: Is Rotation Good Enough to Contend for NL West Title?

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    Jae C. Hong

    After 16 games, the San Francisco Giants are 10-6 and are tied atop the NL West with their southern rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

    The question, though, is whether the club has the starting staff to keep pace with the reigning division champs. Of the 13 pitchers on the roster right now, Matt Cain (4.00 ERA), Ryan Vogelsong (5.40 ERA) and Tim Lincecum (7.20 ERA) check in with the three highest ERAs on the team. 

    Of that trio, Vogelsong and Lincecum are definitely the biggest unknowns. In 2013, Vogelsong put up a 5.73 ERA and a 58 ERA+ in just 19 starts.

    Lincecum has proven to be wildly inconsistent over the past two seasons. In 2013, the right-hander threw a no-hitter in July, but on the year he posted a 4.37 ERA and a 76 ERA+. Back in 2012, the starter recorded a 5.18 ERA and a 68 ERA+. In his first three appearances in 2014, Lincecum has already allowed five home runs. 

    Should either of those two starters struggle again in 2014, the Giants will be in a tricky spot, as the club is noticeably lacking in potential rotation reinforcements. 

Seattle Mariners: Offense Still Scuffling Despite Addition of Robinson Cano

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    Ted S. Warren

    One of the main ideas behind the Seattle Mariners' signing of Robinson Cano was that the superstar's presence in the lineup would help his teammates see better pitches and, by extension, spark the club's offensive output. 

    However, in the first few weeks of the season, that has not been the case. In his first 15 games, the five-time All-Star is batting .271 with a .689 OPS, two doubles and one home run. Collectively, the team has produced just a .665 OPS.

    Despite the lack of production with the bats, the Mariners are off to a respectable 7-8 start thanks largely to a surprisingly strong performance from the pitching staff. Even with starters Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker all on the DL, the team still has a 3.10 ERA, which is the sixth-best mark in MLB. 

St. Louis Cardinals: Allen Craig Yet to Find His Swing

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    David Goldman

    Just about any way you look at the numbers, 2014 has not been a good season for Allen Craig. 

    The St. Louis Cardinals' right-fielder is batting .158 (9-for-57) with just two extra-base hits (one double and one home run) and a .438 OPS.

    In 15 contests this season, the right-handed hitter has yet to produce a single multi-hit game. However, there are signs that Craig, a career .300 hitter, could be pulling out of his early slump. Despite the fact that his average is still well below .200, Craig has actually hit safely in the last six games.

Tampa Bay Rays: Rotation Takes Major Hits with Matt Moore and Alex Cobb out

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    Chris O'Meara

    Entering the season, the Tampa Bay Rays had one of the top rotations in all of baseball with David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer leading the way. Just a few weeks into the season, though, the club has already lost Moore and Cobb.

    Moore, who was an All-Star in 2013 with a 3.29 ERA, is set to undergo Tommy John surgery and will be out until 2015, per Mark Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. Cobb, meanwhile, is on the shelf with a strained oblique and likely won't be back until early June, as Topkin reports. Cobb has a 1.89 ERA in three starts this year after recording a 2.76 ERA in 2013.

    That's a lot of pitching talent to lose in one week, but manager Joe Maddon isn't raising any alarms, as he explained, via Topkin: "Listen, it happens to everybody every year, it's happening to us right now...I still fully believe we're going to win with the guys we have out there."

    Despite Maddon's vote of confidence, there's no doubt that Price and Archer, in particular, will be facing extra pressure with Moore and Cobb out of the picture. 

Texas Rangers: When Will Prince Fielder Break out of Early-Season Slump?

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Prince Fielder's career with the Texas Rangers is off to a forgettable start.

    After his first 16 games, the first baseman is batting .164 (10-for-61) with three doubles, one home run and a .262 slugging percentage. Considering that Fielder has clubbed at least 25 home runs in each of his eight full big league seasonsand also due to the fact that he owns a career .911 OPSit's difficult to imagine that the left-handed hitter won't eventually break out of his early-season funk.

    On April 15, the five-time All-Star launched his first home run as a Ranger but then promptly went 0-for-7 in the next two contests. 

Toronto Blue Jays: Corner Outfielders off to Powerful Starts

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    In the opening weeks of the 2014 season, Jose Bautista and Melky Cabrera have already combined to hit 10 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays. Bautista has accounted for six of those homers, and the 33-year-old is currently batting .269/.457/.654 with 18 walks in 16 games.

    Meanwhile, Cabrera has also been racking up power numbers with four doubles, four home runs and a .301/.320/.521 slash line. It's also worth noting that center fielder Colby Rasmus has added in three homers as well.

Washington Nationals: Club Once Again Struggling Against NL East Rival

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    The trend continues for the Washington Nationals.

    After going 6-13 against the Atlanta Braves a season ago, the Nationals are off to a 1-5 start against their NL East rivals in 2014. In the most recent matchup between the two teams on April 13, the Braves battered the Nationals 10-2, as Gio Gonzalez allowed six runs in six innings of work. 

    After the game, Andrelton Simmons couldn't quite explain the Braves' recent dominance in the series, via Mark Bowman of MLB.com: "Maybe when we're out there playing them, we do well for whatever reason. If anything, it might be in their head."

    Clearly, the Nationals will have to figure out just what that reason is. With the teams not set to meet again until June 19, when the Braves return to Nationals Park, the club will have a couple of months to dwell on the issue. 

     

    Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

    If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.

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