MLB's Biggest Winners and Losers at the 2014 Quarter Mark
We're at the point of the 2014 MLB season when teams have played roughly 40 games out of a possible 162.
In other words, welcome to the quarter pole. Funny how it sneaks up, isn't it?
Now, the quarter pole doesn't necessarily mean much in regard to how things are going to shake out the rest of the way. But for us, it's a solid excuse to take stock of all that's happened.
That's what we're here to do in this space by discussing the biggest winners and losers to this point in 2014. Because this is the Internet, you see, and that's sort of a classic Internet topic.
If you'll follow me this way, we'll do the losers first.
10. Loser: Billy Butler, Kansas City Royals
Billy Butler is the Kansas City Royals' designated hitter. That means he's supposed to be one of their best hitters.
He's doing that wrong, as he's slashing just .242/.395/.311 with seven extra-base hits through 37 games. His .605 OPS is second worst among Royals regulars behind only Mike Moustakas.
This is not a great look for a guy who followed up an .882 OPS in 2012 with a .787 OPS in 2013. Elsewhere, it's an equally not-good look that Butler has a ground-ball rate that won't stop going up, which David G. Temple of FanGraphs spotted as a sign of concern midway through April.
The odds of the Royals picking up Butler's $12.5 million option for 2015 are looking slimmer by the day. And if he does hit the open market, the question will be who's going to want a DH who suddenly can't hit.
9. Loser: Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh Pirates
Francisco Liriano had a huge bounce-back year in 2013, pitching to a 3.02 ERA and finishing in the top 10 in the NL Cy Young voting.
In doing so, Liriano triggered a $6 million option the Pittsburgh Pirates exercised for 2014. Just as important, he put himself in a great position for a run at a big free-agent contract after '14.
That position has since been compromised. Through eight starts in 2014, Liriano has a 4.64 ERA that doesn't quite look like the product of bad luck. His walk rate has taken a turn for the worse, and he's gone back to having trouble keeping the ball in the yard.
If Liriano keeps this up, his upcoming trip to the open market could be a disappointing one.
8. Loser: Ian Desmond, Washington Nationals
The Washington Nationals very much wanted to pay Ian Desmond this past winter. According to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, they offered him a contract extension worth around $90 million.
A solid deal, to be sure. Which is why Desmond's decision to reject it isn't looking so good right now.
Desmond is off to a brutal start, pairing lousy defense with an equally lousy .218/.270/.354 slash line through 38 games. After rating as the top shortstop in MLB by fWAR between 2012 and 2013, it's no surprise that fWAR currently rates Desmond as the worst everyday shortstop in MLB.
If Desmond turned down Washington's extension offer because he figured he could do better on the open market after 2015, he'd better get a move on turning things around.
7. Loser: New York Mets
With an 18-19 record through 37 games, the New York Mets' season could be going worse. But I'm including them on this countdown anyway for the following reason:
Man, have their two big offseason investments been clunkers.
One was a $60 million investment in Curtis Granderson. The hope was that he would provide some power, but there's been little of that. Granderson has hit just four homers and slugged just .326 in 36 games.
Another was a $20 million investment in Bartolo Colon. He has a 5.84 ERA in eight starts, which is more than a three-run increase on the 2.65 ERA he posted with Oakland in 2013.
Say it with me now: That's so Mets.
6. Loser: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers may have a solid 21-19 record through their first 40 games, but you're not alone if you're thinking they've had it rougher than their record indicates.
The Dodgers' record doesn't look so good if you take away their 7-1 showing against the dreadful Arizona Diamondbacks. Not exactly surprising once you consider that injuries to players like Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, A.J. Ellis and Hyun-Jin Ryu have exposed the club's lack of depth.
Granted, the Dodgers are still a dangerous team. They could get healthy and take off, just like they did in 2013 when they washed away a slow start with that ridiculous 42-8 run in the middle of the summer.
But a big-time comeback will be harder to pull off in 2014. In the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies, the NL West has two teams that could make it harder for the Dodgers to make a comeback than the Diamondbacks did in 2013.
5. Loser: Washington Nationals
Like the Dodgers, the Washington Nationals are another team that could be off to a worse start at 20-18 through 38 games.
But there's no escaping the sense that things could also be a lot better.
The Nationals have been hit hard with injuries. Doug Fister missed all of April with a lat strain. Ryan Zimmerman was lost to a broken thumb in mid-April, and Bryce Harper joined him on the DL with a thumb injury of his own in late April. More recently, Adam LaRoche has hit the DL with a quad strain.
The feeling you get when you look at the battered and bruised Nats is one of missed opportunity. With the Atlanta Braves struggling with an inconsistent offense and the Miami Marlins' Jose Fernandez likely destined for Tommy John surgery, a healthy Nationals team would be a candidate to run away with the NL East.
4. Loser: Chase Headley, San Diego Padres
Chase Headley, as you'll recall, posted an .875 OPS with 31 homers and an NL-best 115 RBI in 2012. Like that, it seemed he had put himself in line for a big payday with just two years to go until free agency.
Then Headley responded by slashing a modest .250/.347/.400 in 2013. Then, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com, he turned down an extension worth between $33 and $39 million over three years.
A defensible decision if Headley came out swinging a hot stick in 2014...but that hasn't happened. He's slashed just .195/.271/.351 in 22 games, and has also missed some time with a calf injury to boot.
As more time goes by, Headley's 2012 outburst is looking more like a fluke. If he doesn't turn things around, he could have a tough time on the open market this winter.
3. Loser: Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco Giants
Capping our series of players who are paying for rejecting contract offers is Pablo Sandoval.
According to Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com, the Giants made Sandoval a three-year offer in the $40 million range. This apparently wasn't close to good enough for Sandoval, who quickly rejected it.
So far, Sandoval's not doing much to prove that he's worth as much as he thinks he is. Through his first 37 games, he's put together a .191/.262/.294 slash line with just two home runs.
Suffice it to say that Sandoval isn't quelling any notions that he's too inconsistent to justify a big investment. And even if he does turn things around, you wonder if it might already be too late for his chances of scoring on the open market this winter.
2. Loser: Tampa Bay Rays
Most of us had the Tampa Bay Rays pegged as a contender heading into 2014, if for no other reason than the strength of their pitching staff.
We might as well have been pinpointing where disaster would strike.
The Rays began the season with Jeremy Hellickson on the DL with an elbow injury, and he's since been joined by Alex Cobb and Matt Moore, who's gone for the year with Tommy John surgery. Elsewhere, what looked like a strong bullpen has been a disaster. Grant Balfour, Josh Lueke, Joel Peralta and Brandon Gomes all have ERAs over 4.50, and Tampa Bay's bullpen as a whole is 25th in ERA.
The Rays' pitching issues have been a big factor in them starting out at 16-23. That puts them at last place in the AL East and, according to ESPN, the second-worst playoff odds in the AL after the Houston Astros.
1. Loser: Kirk Gibson and Kevin Towers, Arizona Diamondbacks
Since they're 15-26 in their first 41 games and easily one of the worst teams in baseball, we could call the Arizona Diamondbacks losers easily enough.
But nah. It's Arizona manager Kirk Gibson and general manager Kevin Towers who deserve the finger-wagging.
Over the last few years, Gibson and Towers have crafted rosters based on a shared desire for a team full of gritty underdogs. To achieve said goal, they've jettisoned talented players like Justin Upton, Chris Johnson, Adam Eaton and Tyler Skaggs so they could bring in players like Martin Prado and Mark Trumbo.
The Diamondbacks may have gotten grittier in the process. But after going just 81-81 last year and falling flat this year, what they're proving is that grit doesn't win games any better than talent.
10. Winner: Dee Gordon, Los Angeles Dodgers
It hasn't been all bad for the Dodgers. They've had their bright spots in 2014, as well as a pleasant surprise in Dee Gordon.
A top-100 prospect in 2010 and 2011, Gordon became a forgotten man as he struggled through 2012 and 2013. On top of his struggles, the Dodgers further complicated his future by trading for Hanley Ramirez in 2012 to play short and signing Alexander Guerrero last winter to play second.
But then it turned out Guerrero couldn't quite play second base. That was Gordon's chance, and he made the most of it with a solid spring. And 37 games into 2014, he hasn't stopped making the most of his opportunity, slashing .324/.365/.432 with an MLB-best 24 stolen bases.
In doing so, you have to figure that Gordon has put himself back in the Dodgers' long-term plans. Considering how well the team pays productive players, that's a good place to be.
9. Winner: Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies
Charlie Blackmon didn't "win" a starting job in the Colorado Rockies outfield in the traditional sense. He had just a .635 OPS in spring training, and got the start in center field on Opening Day sort of by default.
Well, I guess it doesn't matter how you get it so long as you do everything in your power to keep it.
All Blackmon has done this season is slash .352/.385/.614 through 38 games, with nine home runs, eight stolen bases and 2.0 fWAR. Which, for the record, makes him one of the five best players in MLB.
8. Winner: Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs
On occasion, refusing to compromise in extension negotiations can work out. Isn't that right, Jeff Samardzija?
In December, Bruce Levine of 670 The Score reported that the Cubs had made an offer of $55 million over five years to Samardzija. He rejected it, entering 2014 with no extension in place and free agency just over the horizon after 2015.
That's looking like a wise decision. Samardzija has used improved control and an improved ground-ball rate to pitch to a 1.45 ERA, putting himself in the discussion of the elite starters in the National League.
Production like that makes Samardzija a good bet to be traded this summer. If he doesn't end up with a team willing to pay him what he's worth, all he has to do is keep on dominating until he hits the open market after next season.
7. Winner: Yangervis Solarte, New York Yankees
I would ask you to raise your hand if you knew who Yangervis Solarte was before 2014, but I'd rather not oust any liars.
None of us knew who he was. It's good to know prospects, but the word didn't really apply to Solarte. At 26 years old and with merely modest minor-league numbers, he looked like mere organizational depth.
But through 32 games, there's Solarte slashing .330/.405/.473 while playing second, third and short for none other than the New York Yankees. And as time goes by, it's getting harder to ignore what looks like legit talent.
“In the beginning, he was swinging the bat really good left-handed and struggling right-handed," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi of his switch-hitting surprise, via David Hutchinson of The Star-Ledger. "But he’s got his right-handed stroke going as well. He has been really good from both sides.”
Maybe it will all come crashing down. But for now, it looks like a non-prospect has played his way into the future plans of baseball's mightiest franchise. That's just plain cool.
6. Winner: Melky Cabrera, Toronto Blue Jays
Meanwhile, in the realm of all-time comebacks, Melky Cabrera would like your attention.
After slashing .279/.322/.360 in 2013, Cabrera is slashing .333/.368/.521 through 38 games in 2014. He's leading the American League in both batting average and hits (55).
It's a performance reminiscent of when Cabrera hit .346 in 2012. Which, given how it was interrupted by a 50-game PED suspension, is a performance that many of us figured wouldn't happen again.
That it is happening again might lead you to think that Cabrera is back on the juice, but it's more likely a case of him simply being healthy. While it was easy to blame his poor 2013 on him coming back down to earth after his suspension, hey, you'd struggle to hit, too, if you had a tumor on your spine.
That Cabrera is seemingly hitting on this level is a good enough story in itself. That it's happening with another crack at free agency due up is even better for him.
5. Winner: Milwaukee Brewers
I figure the Milwaukee Brewers deserve a shout-out if for no other reason than being the team in the NL Central to take advantage of slow starts by the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds.
But we can also give them credit for taking a chance on Francisco Rodriguez and Mark Reynolds when nobody else wanted to go near them. And even despite Matt Garza's slow start, we can give the Brewers credit for otherwise quietly putting together one of MLB's best rotations.
There's also something to be said about how the Brewers' early success has somehow happened without Ryan Braun overshadowing it. That probably would have happened if their success was a case of him putting the team on his back, but it's instead been much more of a collective effort.
And since it's been fun to watch, here's hoping the Brew Crew sticks around for a while.
4. Winner: San Francisco Giants
What makes the San Francisco Giants a winner?
You mean, besides the fact that they have the best record in baseball through their first 39 games?
One is how they've scored on relatively modest free-agent investments. Tim Hudson has pitched like an ace. Mike Morse has hit eight home runs with an .836 OPS. Ryan Vogelsong is coming around after a slow start. Brandon Hicks has come out of nowhere to be a surprise power producer.
And among the Giants regulars, Pablo Sandoval is really the only one who's disappointing. Buster Posey is hitting like an MVP again, and Angel Pagan, Brandon Crawford and Hunter Pence have all been above-average producers. So was Brandon Belt before he got hurt.
All told, this season is unfolding more or less like the Giants drew it up. It must be an even year.
3. Winner: Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox
Jon Lester is yet another guy who recently rejected an extension offer.
And in his case, it's hard to blame him. As Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported, the Boston Red Sox's offer was for between $70 and $80 million, well below fair-market value.
Still, Lester was going to have to pitch well to justify rejecting the offer. And so far, he's not.
No, eight starts into 2014, Lester's pitching better than ever. In addition to his 2.75 ERA, he has a 5.1 K/BB ratio and the highest fWAR of any qualified starter in MLB.
Lester was an ace between 2008 and 2010. Given how he finished 2013 and how he's started 2014, he looks like an ace again. With free agency fast approaching, things are looking up.
2. Winner: Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers
We come now to easily the riskiest contract-extension rejection we've discussed.
Following his Cy Young-winning 2013 season, ESPN's Jayson Stark reported that the Detroit Tigers offered Max Scherzer a contract that would have made him one of MLB's six highest-paid pitchers. Rejecting an offer like that out of a belief that he could do better would have been a bold move by Scherzer.
Well, he did. And so far, Scherzer's looking more wise than bold.
Through eight starts, Scherzer is leading the AL in both ERA and strikeouts, and is also among the top six in the AL in fWAR. Rather than regress after his Cy Young performance, he's keeping it up.
We just saw Masahiro Tanaka get the largest free-agent contract ever for a pitcher. It wouldn't be a surprise if Scherzer set a new record this winter.
1. Winner: Potential David Price Suitors
The Tampa Bay Rays' slow start is very bad news for them.
...But potentially very good news for everyone else. For if it keeps up, David Price may hit the trade market this summer after all.
It will be in the Rays' interest to trade Price if they fall out of the race. The specter of him leaving as a free agent after 2015 will be there, and he'll have more value on the block this summer than he will this winter. Since Tampa Bay's farm system could use a boost, it would want to take advantage of that value.
And no, Price's slow start isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. He has a 4.53 ERA, but fancy-pants metrics like FIP and xFIP say he's actually pitched a lot better than that. His numbers should come around.
Maybe the Rays will come around with them. If not, Price's days with the Rays may be numbered.