What We've Learned About Each Team at the 1-Quarter Mark

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2014

What We've Learned About Each Team at the 1-Quarter Mark

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    I'm not quite sure how this is possible, but we're nearly a quarter of the way through MLB's 2014 regular season already. Surely I can't be the only one who finds that to be incredibly disturbing. The season just started, didn't it?

    Yet here we are, and with roughly six weeks of baseball in our rearview mirrors, we can stop, collect our thoughts and try to figure out what it is we've learned about each team in baseball thus far.

    In some cases, it's something about a specific player, while in others, it's something about a team's roster as a whole—or a specific part of that roster that, for whatever reason, has either underachieved or overachieved thus far.

    It will interesting to see whether the lessons that we've learned so far become increasingly important as the season rolls along or if they prove to ultimately be largely inconsequential in the big picture.

    So, what have we learned?

    Let's take a look.


    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs and are current through games of May 11. All injury information courtesy of MLB.com.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Defense Is a Major Problem

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    Lady Luck and Mother Nature can wreak havoc on even the most sure-handed defender, but the issues with the Arizona Diamondbacks' defense go deeper than a handful of fluke plays where the ball didn't bounce in the team's favor.

    The Diamondbacks returned largely the same roster that only a season ago produced two Gold Glove Award winners (1B Paul Goldschmidt and RF Gerardo Parra) and was statistically one of the premier defensive teams in baseball:

    Statistic2013NL/MLB Rank
    Fielding Pct..988T-1/T-3

    "It hasn't been good," manager Kirk Gibson recently told AZCentral's Bob McManaman. "Since I've been here, we've been pretty good. We've been pretty efficient at it."

    As one would expect, the team's struggles in the field have played a major role in the struggles that it's had on the mound, particularly with its starting rotation:

    Bronson Arroyo4.894.66
    Michael Bolsinger6.104.63
    Trevor Cahill9.175.74
    Josh Collmenter3.773.74
    Randall Delgado11.056.08
    Brandon McCarthy5.664.00
    Wade Miley5.144.47

    So what happened—and how do the Diamondbacks fix it?

    As far as Parra can tell, as he explained to McManaman, he and his teammates simply need to relax: "You know what, everything is happening, and it's happening to everybody. I think the players are working so hard that they're trying too hard, and that's what happens when you do that."

Atlanta Braves: A Sleeping Offense Could Prove Costly

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    On paper, only the Washington Nationals have a lineup in the NL East that should be able to hang with the firepower that the Atlanta Braves bring to the ballpark on a daily basis. 

    Yet somehow, only the San Diego Padres (102) have plated fewer runs than the Braves (108) this season, and the two clubs are the only teams in baseball yet to score at least 120 runs on the year.

    It comes as no surprise, then, that, among teams sitting in first or second place in their division, the Braves (plus-four) are one of only three teams to have single-digit or negative run differentials. The others? The Baltimore Orioles (even) and New York Yankees (minus-nine).

    That's a major problem for a team that, in its first 34 games of the season, has played in 22 games that were decided by two runs or less. While the Braves have gone 12-10 in those games, they are only one game above .500 (7-6) against divisional foes.

Baltimore Orioles: Nelson Cruz Was Worth the Money (and the Draft Pick)

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    At one point this past December, CBS Sports' Jon Heyman reported that the Baltimore Orioles had extended a four-year, $60 million offer to free agent Nelson Cruz, a report that team sources quickly told MASN Sports' Roch Kubatko was untrue, as the team was not in on Cruz at all.

    Two months later, the Orioles would officially sign Cruz to a far more team-friendly one-year, $8 million deal, surrendering a draft pick in the process. 

    With the way Cruz has swung the bat thus far, it's fair to say that either one of those deals would have been viewed as a bargain.

    Cruz finds himself among the league leaders in multiple categories, including home runs (nine), RBI (29), slugging percentage (.540) and OPS (.885), and has been a major reason why the Orioles have been able to keep pace in the AL East despite missing first baseman Chris Davis and third baseman Manny Machado for chunks of the season.

Boston Red Sox: Replacing Jacoby Ellsbury Is Going to Be Harder Than Expected

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    Nobody thought that replacing Jacoby Ellsbury's production atop the Boston Red Sox lineup was going to be easy, but the Red Sox head into the second month of the season with a temporary solution to what looks like it could be a season-long issue.

    Only the Cincinnati Reds have gotten less production out of the leadoff spot this season than the defending world champions, with Boston leadoff hitters hitting a combined .215/.302/.315 with 20 runs scored and a 71 wRC+.

    While moving Dustin Pedroia into the role makes sense, it's not as if manager John Farrell had a better option, as he explained to MLB.com's Dave Sessions:

    Considering that he's getting on base seemingly a couple times a night, he's set the table for us. Given the personnel we have, he's the one true legitimate candidate among the group to not only get on base, but to do some things, to set the table for not only [Shane Victorino] behind him, but certainly David [Ortiz] and Mike [Napoli]. Where we are, he's the guy for us.

    The problem is that Pedroia's value is maximized when he's in the No. 2 or No. 3 spot in the batting order, where his ability to not only produce runs, but get on base for the likes of Mike Napoli and David Ortiz to drive in has been invaluable in the past.

Chicago Cubs: Jeff Samardzija Gets More Expensive with Every Pitch

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    Despite sitting with an 0-3 record, few pitchers in baseball have been as good in the early part of the season as the Chicago Cubs' Jeff Samardzija, who has delivered quality starts in seven of his eight appearances on the season en route to posting a minuscule 1.45 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.

    That's both a blessing and a curse for the Cubs.

    Long the subject of trade speculation, the 29-year-old's performance thus far is only going to raise Chicago's asking price should it start fielding offers for him—and there's no shortage of teams that fancy themselves contenders and could use a top-flight arm like Samardzija's at the front of their rotations.

    But the Cubs have long maintained that a trade of Samardzija isn't a sure thing, something that GM Jed Hoyer recently reiterated while a guest on The Waddle & Silvy Show on ESPN Chicago 1000 (h/t ESPN):

    No, not at all. We've tried to keep things quiet. We've had a lot of conversations with him. ... There's been pretty consistent dialogue ... it hasn't reached the point of fruition yet, but there's always been a dialogue.

    The problem is that Samardzija has so far rebuffed any and every extension offer that the team has presented him with—and with the way that he's been throwing the ball, his asking price has most certainly gone up.

Chicago White Sox: Jose Abreu Is Better Than Advertised

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    Has it taken Jose Abreu just over one month to become the best Cuban-born player in baseball?

    It's a question that B/R's Jason Martinez recently asked, but it's one that can't truly be answered until after a full season has passed so that we have a larger sample size with which to adequately compare him to his contemporaries.

    But so far, Abreu has been better than anyone expected he'd be.

    We knew he'd hit for power, but did anyone expect him to be leading baseball in home runs at any point in the season, as he is right now with 13?

    That power has caught the eye of a number of people, including the man who signed him, Chicago White Sox GM Rick Hahn.

    "The day that stands out for me was the day in Colorado where he turned on the ball and showed that power on the inner half," Hahn told ESPN Chicago's Jon Greenberg of the 15-3 Chicago victory April 8. "He hit the ball out to left and also hit one to the opposite field. You saw that tower-to-tower power we had talked about on display in a single game."

    It's not just Abreu's power that has been eye-opening.

    He's hitting a more-than-respectable .273 and leads the American League with 37 RBI, while his .936 OPS ranks fourth on the Junior Circuit and is tied for 12th in baseball with, you guessed it, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder and fellow Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig.

    Abreu has held his own in the field as well, posting the sixth-highest UZR/150 among qualified first basemen (7.3), ahead of the likes of Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt, who won the NL Gold Glove Award last season, and Kansas City's Eric Hosmer, who many expect has a Gold Glove waiting for him in his not-so-distant future.

Cincinnati Reds: Billy Hamilton's Impatience Is a Major Problem

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    We knew there'd be some growing pains for Billy Hamilton as he began his first full season in the major leagues, but the speedy outfielder is quickly showing why replacing Shin-Soo Choo as Cincinnati's leadoff hitter may not be the place for him.

    Simply put, Hamilton doesn't see nearly enough pitches.

    Per ESPN, only Houston's Jose Altuve (3.14) sees fewer pitches per at-bat among leadoff hitters than Hamilton (3.41). That's not nearly enough for an effective leadoff hitter, especially one atop as potent a lineup as the one the Reds bring to the ballpark on a daily basis.

    For comparison's sake, Shin-Soo Choo, the man Hamilton has been tasked with replacing, is seeing 4.30 pitchers per at-bat in Texas—the second-best mark among leadoff hitters in baseball.

    While one pitch may not seem like a drastic difference, when you consider that Hamilton typically isn't in the batter's box long enough to draw a walk, it's clear how big that one extra pitch can be. A slightly more patient approach at the plate by Hamilton could go a long way toward solving some of what ails the Reds lineup.

Cleveland Indians: Shoddy Defense Killing the Team's Playoff Chances

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    No matter how you want to measure the Cleveland Indians defensively, the numbers all say the same thing: The Indians stink when they have to take the field.

    No team in baseball has committed more errors (35) or posted a lower fielding percentage (.973) than the Indians, who have produced an MLB-worst minus-27 defensive runs saved (DRS) and the second-lowest UZR/150 in the game at minus-11.3.

    Speaking with Jim Ingraham of the News-Herald after another error-filled game against Minnesota May 6, manager Terry Francona seemed at a loss when it came to explaining his team's defensive miscues: “We care a lot about our defense, and our players do to. We need to try to figure out how to get better. It’s not effort. The effort’s there. We’re just making errors. We need to do better.”

Colorado Rockies: A Different Team on the Road

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    In a perfect world, the Colorado Rockies would never have to leave the cozy confines of Coors Field, where they own a 13-5 record on the season.

    For years, we've talked about how Coors Field negatively impacts pitching and how a lack of quality arms has been the major hurdle standing between the team and a playoff berth. But that's no longer the case, as the Rockies pitching staff has put up nearly identical numbers at home and on the road this year:


    While it's no secret that Coors Field has been baseball's premier hitter's park since its opening in 1995, there's a far bigger difference between Colorado's offensive production at home and on the road this season than anyone anticipated:

    Home.3551.00186 (33)136138
    Away.258.73277 (24)8692

    That's a pretty big drop in production, and it's a team-wide epidemic, not confined to only a handful of players. Even Troy Tulowitzki, off to a ridiculous start to the season, isn't immune to having some drastic home and away splits:

    Home.6081.09813 (6)2220
    Away.247.90110 (5)1116

    If the Rockies are going to make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2009, they're going to have to figure out a way to carry some of their offensive production at home with them on the road.

    Otherwise, it will be the team's potent lineup—and not its pitching staff—that serves as the culprit for its lackluster results at the end of the season.

Detroit Tigers: Still a Level Above the Rest of the Division

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    Owners of the American League's best record (21-11), the Detroit Tigers look like a team without any real competition in the AL Central, sitting with a nearly five-game lead over second place Chicago, the largest gap between first and second place in any division in baseball.

    Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (5-1, 2.04 ERA, 11.21 K/9) and Justin Verlander (4-2, 2.67 ERA, 7.17 K/9) continue to comprise the most dominating one-two punch atop any rotation in baseball, while DH Victor Martinez (8 HR) has paced the offense with his rediscovered power stroke.

    That the Tigers have been able to jump out to such a big lead despite getting less-than-Miguel Cabrera-esque production out of the two-time AL MVP and having No. 3 starter Anibal Sanchez sidelined by a finger injury since late April is bad news for the rest of the division.

Houston Astros: Dexter Fowler Isn't Part of the Long-Term Future

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    When Dexter Fowler was traded from the Colorado Rockies to the Houston Astros this past winter, many believed that the deal was a coup for the Astros, who had acquired an uber-athletic player in the prime of his career to man center field and serve as the table-setter for an up-and-coming club.

    "One of our goals this offseason was to bring in an outfielder who can spark our offense," Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow told reporters when announcing the trade, via The Associated Press (h/t ESPN) "Dexter is an exciting player who can help with the bat, with his legs, and with his glove."

    Except, after getting off to a hot start, Fowler has done anything but help the rebuilding Astros. He's struggling at the plate, hitting only .237/.327/.338, has swiped only five bases and has played below-average defense in center field, ranking among baseball's worst in terms of UZR/150 (minus-37) and DRS (minus-6) at the position.

Kansas City Royals: A Power Outage Could Prove Costly

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    Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas (pictured) continues to struggle mightily at the plate, hitting a woeful .147/.215/.321 on the season. 

    But he's accounted for 25 percent of Kansas City's 16 home runs on the season—the lowest power output of any team in baseball. In fact, the Royals are on pace to hit only 70 home runs, which, going back to 2000, would be the lowest home run total for a team by a wide margin.

    The team's lack of power hasn't been lost on manager Ned Yost, who believes that the outage is only temporary, as he explained to MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince last month:

    You can't ever go up there looking to uncork one. In your approach, you want them aggressive, with a plan, and you want to take advantage of mistakes. [Danny] Salazar hung a split [Tuesday night], and Moose [Moustakas] deposited it. That's what we haven't been doing. When pitchers make mistakes, we're popping them up or rolling over on them instead of driving it out of the park. That will happen as the season goes on.

    Left fielder Alex Gordon isn't overly concerned either, he told Castrovince:

    The whole object of the game is to score runs. We want to drive the ball, but if we hit 20 singles in a game and score 10 runs, we're happy with it. Obviously, we want more power, but the whole point of the game is scoring runs. You can't come in here and focus on the negative. This game is a negative game. It's about being positive and staying within yourself, and knowing it's going to come.

    But what happens if that power doesn't come?

    Gordon, who has hit 20 home runs in two of the past three seasons, has only one on the year, as do Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, two of the team's most important bats.

    If that trio (Gordon, Hosmer and Butler) is going to flounder when it comes to power, the Royals could be in for a very long, disappointing season.

Los Angeles Angels: Talk of Albert Pujols' Demise Was Premature

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    It wasn't that long ago that we were told that Albert Pujols was done, that not only were the three-time National League MVP's best days behind him, but his days as a productive everyday major league player were in the rearview mirror as well.

    Someone forgot to tell Pujols that.

    Finally healthy after battling injuries in each of the past two seasons, Pujols once again looks like a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the Los Angeles Angels lineup and has outplayed some of his more ballyhooed counterparts this season.

    Enter Player X.

    Take a look at how Pujols' numbers this season stack up against a player that nearly everyone would have said at the beginning of the season was on a different level than Pujols: 

    Pujols.276.346.89119 (10)26
    Player X.273.358.88219 (7)22

    Player X is none other than Pujols' younger teammate, Mike Trout.

    I'm not saying that Pujols is a better player than Trout—but if I (or anyone else) would have said that, roughly six weeks into the season, the two would have nearly identical numbers, well, I'd have been laughed out of whatever room I had just walked into.

    Pujols is back, and as long as he stays healthy, he makes the Angels a far more dangerous club than anyone expected they'd be in 2014.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Defense Could Doom Championship Aspirations

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    If you can't catch the ball, you can't win the game.

    It's a pretty simple concept, one that has been proven to be true time and time again over the course of more than a century's worth of baseball.

    No matter how much talent may sit on a team's roster, failing to master such a simple concept can prove to be costly. It's a lesson that the Los Angeles Dodgers are beginning to learn, as only the Cleveland Indians (37) have committed more errors in the field than the Dodgers (35).

    While errors are part of the problem, manager Don Mattingly realizes that the issue runs deeper than that, as he recently explained to Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times:

    I think we have certain physical limitations. For anybody that plays, if it’s range or speed or whatever it is. But there are plays you should make, plays you’re supposed to make -- you have to make.

    It always cost you something. If it’s costing you more pitches, costing you extra guys out of the bullpen. It’s always costing you something.

    Advanced defensive metrics aren't quite as harsh to the Dodgers as the traditional stats are, but some of the team's biggest names are also its biggest liabilities in the field:

    Carl Crawford-12.3-1
    Andre Ethier-9.4-2
    Matt Kemp-35.5-5
    Hanley Ramirez-26.1-6

    If the Dodgers are going to catch the San Francisco Giants for the top spot in the NL West, the team's defense is going to have to improve in a hurry.

Miami Marlins: Home Sweet Home

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    After the Miami Marlins' insane home/away splits at the end of April, it appears that so far in May, things have remained the same.

    Miami is simply unbeatable at home, going 6-1 this month (17-5 on the season), and is simply awful on the road, sitting with an MLB-worst 3-13 record on the road.

    Manager Mike Redmond believes that his team's struggles away from home have been overblown, as he told Tom D'Angelo of The Palm Beach Post before the team set out on an 11-game road trip last Thursday:

    We just got to keep playing. I know everybody has made a huge deal of the splits on the road. This team is starting to come together. I like where we’re at right now. I like the energy. I like the chemistry. Now we just got to go win out of our suitcase and I can’t wait to get out there and get started tomorrow night.

    After a series-opening win against San Diego Thursday, the Marlins dropped the next three to the Padres, giving them a 1-4 road record for the month and making the upcoming three-game series in Los Angeles and four-game stint in San Francisco all the more daunting—and important.

    Two games above .500 and only two games behind Atlanta for the NL East lead, the Marlins simply cannot afford to fold up shop and get crushed whenever they leave home. If this team has any chance of shocking the baseball world and contending for a playoff spot in 2014, it must start winning away games.

Milwaukee Brewers: Rotation Is for Real

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    We figured that the Milwaukee Brewers rotation was going to be better than it was a season ago, thanks to the addition of Matt Garza via free agency and the expectation that Yovani Gallardo, the ace of the staff, couldn't possibly be as bad in 2014 as he was in 2013.

    Nobody expected that the Brewers rotation would be this good, however, as the team's starters rank among the game's best in nearly every pitching category:

    StatBrewersNL Rank (MLB Rank)
    ERA3.265 (7)
    WHIP1.204 (T-6)
    IP237.21 (1)
    QS28T-1 (T-1)
    K/97.165 (22)
    BAA.2445 (T-8)

    Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Wily Peralta have all pitched to sub-3.00 ERAs, while Marco Estrada comes in with a more-than-respectable 3.53 mark. Garza, with a 4.98 ERA and 1.45 WHIP, hasn't been quite as spectacular as his rotation-mates, but he's delivered a quality outing in four of his eight starts this season.

    If the Brewers are going to prove that their early season surge to the top of the standings in the NL Central wasn't a fluke, they're going to need their starters to continue performing at a high level—and for Garza to improve slightly, pitching closer to his career numbers (3.88 ERA, 1.29 WHIP).

Minnesota Twins: Starting Rotation Isn't so Improved After All

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    The good news for the Minnesota Twins is that they realized that re-signing Mike Pelfrey was a mistake.

    The bad news is that the rest of the starting rotation remains.

    Minnesota's rotation has pitched to a 5.36 ERA, the worst in the American League (and second only to Arizona's 5.47 mark for the worst in baseball), but it comes in with the worst numbers in the game when it comes to innings pitched (201.1), WHIP (1.56), K/9 rate (5.32) and K/BB ratio (1.61).

    While Phil Hughes has begun to turn a corner, pitching to a 2.05 ERA and 1.06 WHIP over his last four starts, Kevin Correia and Ricky Nolasco (pictured) continue to flounder, and until those veteran arms begin to pitch up to their capabilities, the Twins are going to lose more often than they win.

New York Mets: Jonathon Niese Is a Legit Front-Line Starter

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    With Matt Harvey sidelined for the season, all eyes at Citi Field turned to youngster Zack Wheeler to step up and grab the reins as the ace of the New York Mets starting rotation in 2014.

    While Wheeler has been decent (7 GS, 5 QS, 4.35 ERA, 1.47 WHIP), it's 27-year-old Jonathon Niese—overlooked last season as Harvey and Dillon Gee established themselves as fixtures in the rotation—who has taken command of the team's rotation.

    Niese has delivered a quality outing in all but one of his seven starts on the season, and while his won-loss record (2-2) leaves something to be desired, his 2.17 ERA (tied for eighth-best in the National League, 10th best in baseball) and 1.07 WHIP (12th best in the NL, 18th in MLB) do not.

    He may not post gaudy strikeout numbers or have stuff that's quite as electric as Harvey's, but Niese has left little doubt that he's capable of providing a team with quality innings at the front end of a rotation. And he's perhaps given the Mets a valuable trade chip should the wheels fall off between now and the trade deadline.

New York Yankees: Not Enough Pitching

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    A few months back, when shortly after signing Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract, Brian Cashman took to the airwaves as a guest on ESPN Radio's The Herd With Colin Cowherd and said that the team viewed Tanaka as its "No. 3 starter," (h/t ESPN), that was under ideal conditions.

    Thus far in 2014, things have been anything but ideal for the New York Yankees starting rotation.

    Tanaka has become the unquestioned ace of the staff, delivering a quality start in each of his seven outings and emerging as not only an early contender for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, but for the Cy Young Award as well.

    After him, things aren't so pretty.

    CC Sabathia is a shell of the pitcher that he once was, looking more like an over-the-hill No. 5 starter than a front-line starter. That he finds himself on the disabled list with fluid in his right knee isn't necessarily a bad thing given his performance to date.

    Hiroki Kuroda has been up and down, as has Vidal Nuno, called upon to plug a hole created in the rotation when Ivan Nova was lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery. Michael Pineda was excellent in three of his first four starts to the season, but shoulder issues once again have him sidelined.

    So the Yankees, after spending close to a half billion dollars on free agents this past winter, head into the heart of May with a rotation comprised of Tanaka, Kuroda, Nuno, David Phelps and Alfredo Aceves.

Oakland Athletics: Superstars Need Not Apply

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    Ask a casual baseball fan to name more than three players on the Oakland Athletics roster and you're likely to be met with a blank stare. Despite the lack of a true superstar anywhere on the roster, Oakland continues to lay waste to its competition, sitting with a three-game lead in the AL West and the best run differential in baseball (plus-61).

    Oakland's pitching staff has the lowest ERA (2.96) and WHIP (1.12) in the American League, thanks largely to the contributions of a myriad of unknown middle relievers, up-and-coming ace Sonny Gray and veteran reliever-turned-starter Jesse Chavez.

    Offensively, the A's have scored 178 runs, the AL's third-highest total and fourth-best in all of baseball. Not bad for a lineup that features only one .300 hitter, part-time catcher Derek Norris, who is anything but a household name.

    If we've learned anything, it's that the names on the back of the jerseys are meaningless when everyone is playing for the logo on the front.

Philadelphia Phillies: The Old Guard Still Has Some Fight Left

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    Much has been made of the Philadelphia Phillies' aging core and the need for an infusion of youth, but there's a problem with that theory: Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley aren't quite ready to hang up their spikes.

    While no longer the players that they once were, that trio has combined to put up some more than respectable numbers in the early part of the 2014 season:

    Howard.255.78213 (7)2118114
    Rollins.276.81111 (4)1721122
    Utley.338.94520 (3)1920158

    Of the three, Utley has been by far the most impressive, putting up MVP-caliber numbers at the plate and providing above-average defense in the field.

    Granted, their play hasn't been enough to get the Phillies to a winning record, as the club is currently two games below .500 (17-19), but that's not so bad all things considered—especially when you realize that they're only four games out of first place in the NL East.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Paging Dr. Polanco, Dr. Gregory Polanco

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    Something is ailing the Pittsburgh Pirates: a lack of production from much of the lineup.

    The Pirates rank 21st in runs scored (144), 20th in batting average (.245) and 19th in OPS (.694). Travis Snider and Jose Tabata, the team's primary right fielders, have hit a combined .244 with three home runs and 18 RBI.

    GM Neal Huntington knows where to find the cure—in right field at least. It's hanging out in Indianapolis, where the team's top prospect, Gregory Polanco, has hit .368 with four home runs, 28 RBI and an OPS of 1.011 through his first 34 games of the season at Triple-A.

    There's no shortage of theories as to why the Pirates have yet to promote Polanco, as recently detailed by Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, but one is that the team is somehow punishing Polanco for recently turning down its seven-year, $25 million contract offer.

    Ultimately, the Pirates are only punishing themselves—and digging a deeper hole that they'll look to Polanco to help them crawl out of once he does finally get the call.

San Diego Padres: Pitching Isn't the Issue

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    While the jury is still out on the San Diego Padres' enigmatic lineup, there's no longer any doubt as to whether the Padres have the pitching necessary to contend for a playoff spot.

    Andrew Cashner (pictured), Ian Kennedy and Tyson Ross have all been stellar at the front of the Padres rotation, a major reason why the team's starters' ERA (3.58) is the seventh-lowest in the National League and 10th-lowest in baseball.

    That it's happened without the services of Josh Johnson, San Diego's biggest offseason acquisition and despite a slow start from Eric Stults, the team's best pitcher a year ago, makes those numbers all the more impressive.

    Things are even more impressive in the bullpen, where despite losing longtime mainstay Luke Gregerson, the Padres have pitched to the second-lowest ERA (2.13) and third-lowest WHIP (1.12) in the game, converting an MLB-best 92 percent of their save opportunities (13-for-14). 

San Francisco Giants: Options on the Bench Are Few and Far Between

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    The San Francisco Giants aren't one of those clubs that has a plethora of platoon situations (they have none, in fact), so the lack of production from the team's bench thus far in 2014 is less troubling than it would be for a team like Oakland, which rolls with platoons at four positions.

    That said, no team can go through an entire season without getting some meaningful contributions from its reserves—and if the early returns this season are any indication, the Giants are in trouble when manager Bruce Bochy has to call upon one of them.

    Of the team's five primary reserves—infielders Ehire Adrianza and Joaquin Arias, outfielder/infielders Tyler Colvin and Juan Perez and catcher Hector Sanchez—only Sanchez has contributed anything of substance, hitting .236 with a pair of home runs and 16 RBI. The group as a whole is hitting only .186 with those two home runs and 24 RBI.

    The unit figures to get stronger if and when second baseman Marco Scutaro returns to action, pushing Brandon Hicks back into a reserve role, but the Giants are going to need more production from their reserves if they hope to stay atop the NL West all season long. 

Seattle Mariners: Robinson Cano Can't Do It Alone

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    Perhaps the biggest criticism of the Seattle Mariners' busy offseason was that the team didn't do enough to bolster its lineup after signing free agent Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal, the largest ever given to a second baseman.

    So far, the Mariners haven't done anything to dispute that theory.

    While Seattle ranks 17th in baseball with 152 runs scored on the season, Cano (.291) is the only regular who's hitting above .265, and he's one of four with an OPS above .700.

    Corey Hart, signed to provide Cano with some protection in the lineup, is hitting only .218 with a .680 OPS, while none of those tasked with hitting in front of Cano are able to get on base consistently enough to take advantage of his run-producing capabilities.

    Seattle's leadoff hitters have mustered a weak .235/.295/.340 slash line this season, while those hitting directly in front of Cano have been even worse, hitting only .184/.213/.310.

    Until the team sees increased production from those around Cano, the Mariners will continue to be no better than a team that plays .500 baseball, results that aren't going to end the team's lengthy absence from the playoffs.

St. Louis Cardinals: Big Hits Are Few and Far Between

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    If the St. Louis Cardinals came to the plate with runners in scoring position last year, it was a foregone conclusion that they were going to put runs on the board.

    The team hit a ridiculous .330 with an .865 OPS in those situations, a major reason why the Cardinals finished the season tied with Boston for the best record in baseball (97-65) and advanced to the World Series for the second time in the past three years.

    In 2014, those hits simply aren't coming, as St. Louis has been one of the worst teams in baseball when it comes to coming through with runners on second or third base, hitting a combined .233 with a .644 OPS.

    That's a major drop off, and while some of it can be attributed to the loss of Carlos Beltran, who hit .374 with a .972 OPS with runners in scoring position a season ago, there's more than enough blame to go around the Cardinals clubhouse this season.

    Player'13 BA RISP'13 OPS RISP'14 BA RISP'14 OPS RISP
    Matt Adams.329.927.118.345
    Matt Carpenter.3881.001.355.837
    Allen Craig.4541.138.233.639
    Matt Holliday.3901.033.4001.004
    Yadier Molina.373.950.286.716
    Jon Jay.297.828.278.871

    So, what gives?

    Matt Holliday didn't have any answers as to how to solve the team's struggles this season when asked by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold.

    “There is not a magic formula that gets it done,” Holliday said. “It’s the same hitters with the same approach. It just hasn’t worked out. It’s not for lack of effort or ability. Right now it’s not happening.”

    Neither did manager Mike Matheny.

    “We’ve talked about it until we’re tired of talking about it,” Matheny said. “When we’re having trouble scoring runs, we’ve got to get (situational hitting). It’s frustrating for these guys because they work on it to get it done. We’re going to have to work hard. On those things, I think we can work harder.”

Tampa Bay Rays: There's a Crack in the Pitching Pipeline

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    Without Alex Cobb (left oblique strain), Jeremy Hellickson (right elbow surgery) and Matt Moore (Tommy John surgery), the Tampa Bay Rays have turned to their seemingly never-ending pipeline of young pitching talent, only to find that, for the first time in a long time, the pickings are slim.

    Youngster Jake Odorizzi has been inconsistent at best, while veteran Erik Bedard (pictured), despite pitching to a respectable 3.65 ERA, is averaging less than five innings per start and has walked nearly as many batters (13) as he's struck out (17).

    Tampa Bay's rotation ranks 25th in ERA (4.29), 23rd in WHIP (1.39) and, perhaps most alarming, is tied with Baltimore and Arizona for the fewest quality starts in baseball this season, with only 12 in the team's first 38 games.

    That lack of quality outings is a major reason why Tampa Bay finds itself with a losing record (16-22) and nearly six games off the lead in the AL East. Whether the team has enough pitching to tread water until Cobb and Hellickson return to action remains to be seen.

Texas Rangers: Prince Fielder May Not Be the Perfect Fit

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    When the Texas Rangers traded second baseman Ian Kinsler to Detroit over the winter for first baseman Prince Fielder, most expected the hulking first baseman to get back to putting up big-time offensive numbers in what has historically been one of the more hitter-friendly parks in the game.

    Instead, Fielder has struggled mightily, both at home and on the road, and he heads into the heart of May batting only .226 with three home runs, 14 RBI and a .687 OPS, well off the career .286 average and .910 OPS that he bought with him to Texas.

    Fielder is seeing more defensive shifts than ever before, according to Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News, who recently asked Rangers manager Ron Washington about his first baseman's struggles:

    Things are not happening good for him right now. When he’s swinging right, if people want to shift on him and get in front of that, go ahead. When he finally gets it going, he won’t see the shift. Good hitters will just look to get through the ball. And when he’s swinging it right, you better watch out when he hits that ball.

    If that sounds familiar, it's because Washington said nearly the same thing to Grant a few weeks earlier:

    He’s struggling. There really is no other explanation. But in May, June, July, August, if he does what Prince Fielder does, I won’t care about April. I’ll wait on Prince Fielder because he has the ability to carry us on his back. And when we need to get on his back, his back is going to be fresh.

    With the Rangers losing ground to Oakland in the AL West, Washington's words are going to begin ringing hollow sooner rather than later. If Fielder is unable to make the adjustments that he needs to in order to get back on track, it could be a very long season in Texas.

Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista Is Once Again a Legitimate MVP Candidate

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    Back-to-back injury-plagued seasons, coupled with the rise of Mike Trout and the continued excellence of Miguel Cabrera, made the Toronto Blue Jays' Jose Bautista an afterthought when it came to discussing the best players that the American League had to offer.

    But after tying a Blue Jays team record for most consecutive games reaching base, according to ESPN Stats and Info—a streak that came to an end Sunday night—Bautista is an afterthought no more.

    2013-14Jose Bautista38
    1998Carlos Delgado38
    2001Carlos Delgado37
    1994Joe Carter37
    1989Fred McGriff35

    The 33-year-old outfielder leads baseball with 34 walks on the season and ranks among the league leaders in multiple offensive categories, including home runs (nine), runs scored (31), RBI (25), slugging percentage (.537) and OPS (.967).

Washington Nationals: The Nats Can Beat You in Multiple Ways

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    Back in November, during his introductory press conference as the Washington Nationals' new manager, Matt Williams was asked what type of manager he'd be, one that focused on small ball or long ball.

    His response, per The Washington Post's James Wagner

    What type of manager will I be? It will be fluid. .. With the incredible young men on this team, we have a chance t win if we do things right. … We’re going to refine some things and take the next steps to get to where we want to go.

    Williams was spot on, as the Nationals have continued to flex their muscles by hitting 35 home runs on the season, tied for the 10th-most in baseball, while squaring up to bunt more often than ever before. 

    Via ESPN's Mike Petriello (subscription required):

    Approximately one-fifth of the way through the season, the Nationals already have 15 bunt hits. That's as much or more than six teams had for the entirety of 2013, and it's only the second week of May. Only two teams since 2002 have managed even 54 bunt hits; at their current pace, the Nationals would have 75.

    More impressively, the Nationals have been doing it effectively. Since 2002, the 2008 Cleveland Indians stand as the team with the highest rate of turning bunts into hits, at 45.8 percent. Excluding the 2014 teams who have fewer than seven bunt hits, the Nationals' 48.4 percent would be the new most efficient team of the last 12 years.