Buying or Selling Whether Struggling MLB Teams Can Turn It Around in 2022

Zachary D. RymerMay 24, 2022

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 11: Brian Snitker (L) of the Atlanta Braves and Marcell Ozuna (R) of the Atlanta Braves during the Wednesday evening MLB game between the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox on May 11, 2022 at Truist Park in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2022 Major League Baseball season is only at the quarter mark, yet fans whose favorite teams are off to sluggish starts might feel like Yogi Berra.

That is, it's getting late early.

For our part, there are seven teams that we expected more from in 2022. Though not all of them made the playoffs last year, each at least salvaged a winning record. This season, however, they're below .500 or not as far above that mark as anyone expected.

We wanted to determine whether these slow starts are mirages or real deals. So, please follow along as we play a game of "buy or sell" with these teams' turnaround potentials.

Toronto Blue Jays

TORONTO, ON - MAY 22: Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Santiago Espinal (5), Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Yimi Garcia (93) and Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (27) as they wait on a pitching change late in the game. Toronto Blue Jays Vs Cincinnati Reds in interleague MLB play at Rogers Centre in Toronto. Jays lost 3-2 but took 2 of 3 on the series. CORONAPDToronto Star/Rick Madonik        (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Record: 22-20

Run Differential: Minus-14

Last season, the Blue Jays won 91 games, including 40 after they finally returned home to the Rogers Centre on July 30. That was the most of any American League team during that stretch, and it seemed to herald their rise as World Series contenders for 2022.

In actuality, they're lucky to be in third place in the American League East.

The Jays' major malfunction is happening at the plate, where they haven't resembled the juggernaut they were:

  • 2021: 5.2 runs per game, 1.6 home runs per game
  • 2022: 3.6 runs per game, 1.0 home runs per game

With his OPS down from 1.002 to .775, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hasn't been the same force he was last season. Yet he's hardly alone in failing to meet high expectations, as incumbents Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and newcomer Matt Chapman are in that same boat.

More broadly, it's not just a power outage. With a .179 average with runners in scoring position that ranks as the worst in MLB, Toronto is just not producing big hits.

But while all this is obviously bad news, you might say it's also good news. Any lineup with this much talent almost certainly won't stay down forever, and even now there actually are positive signs under the hood.

Only the high-powered New York Yankees have racked up hard-hit balls at a better rate than the Blue Jays. And as frustrating as the team's performance with runners in scoring position has been, its .206 BABIP in such situations is way too low to possibly be sustainable. The luck dragons owe them some hits.

In the meantime, the Toronto pitching staff is doing its bit with a 3.57 ERA. Considering that this is despite a combined 5.10 ERA from Jose Berrios and Hyun Jin Ryu, even better pitching could be in the club's future.

Verdict: Buy

Boston Red Sox

BOSTON, MA - MAY 20: Xander Bogaerts #2 of the Boston Red Sox talks with Alex Cora #13 of the Boston Red Sox after colliding with Alex Verdugo #99 of the Boston Red Sox during the eighth inning of a game against the Seattle Mariners on May 20, 2022 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Record: 19-22

Run Differential: Plus-1

The turnaround is already on in Boston, where the Red Sox made it five wins in a row and nine out of 12 when Franchy Cordero walked off the Seattle Mariners on Sunday.

As the Blue Jays have continued to struggle to find their offense, there's no overstating how much better the Boston lineup has been in May after it did nothing of note in April. Last month, the Red Sox scored 76 runs in 22 games. This month, they're already up to 98 in 19.

Though Cordero delivered the big blow Sunday, the Red Sox's surge has more to do with their Big Four of Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez and Trevor Story. They have a .929 OPS and 20 home runs this month, with Story producing seven of the latter just since May 11.

However, it also bears mentioning that this also happened Sunday:

Seattle Mariners @Mariners

Eugenio coming up big 💪 <a href="https://t.co/sGtng8ZuKV">pic.twitter.com/sGtng8ZuKV</a>

Red Sox fans are getting to know that kind of pain all too well. The club's relievers have blown 11 saves while converting only eight, making Boston the only team with a negative ratio in that department.

It's hard to wave these struggles off as just one of those things. Manager Alex Cora doesn't have many arms he can trust in high-leverage situations. He'll have at least one more if Garrett Whitlock ever moves back to the bullpen, but that might not be feasible until Chris Sale (rib cage) or James Paxton (Tommy John surgery) can come off the injured list.

There's also the question of whether the Sox have enough depth around the Big Four. It's telling that hitters not named Devers, Bogaerts, Martinez or Story have combined for just three home runs this month, and likewise that the bottom third of the lineup bears an MLB-worst .521 OPS.

After the Red Sox finished 41-35 within the division amid their 92-win season in 2021, it's another warning sign that they're just 5-11 this year. Neither the Blue Jays (9-10) nor the Yankees (15-8) nor the Tampa Bay Rays (8-4) come with that same red flag.

Verdict: Sell

Chicago White Sox

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 21: Manager Tony La Russa #22 talks with Josh Harrison #5 of the Chicago White Sox after Harrison was hit by a pitch during the fourth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium on May 21, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Record: 21-20

Run Differential: Minus-22

Like those of the Red variety, the White Sox finished the weekend on a high note by sweeping a doubleheader against the Yankees.

The latter of those victories felt like a statement. Michael Kopech pitched seven one-hit innings, and Tim Anderson provided the dagger a day after he was on the receiving end of what he called "a disrespectful comment"—White Sox manager Tony La Russa called it "racist"—by Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson.

Chicago White Sox @whitesox

Don't sleep on Tim Anderson. <a href="https://t.co/gaNGRaK1aZ">pic.twitter.com/gaNGRaK1aZ</a>

In any case, the White Sox are back over .500. They've had trouble staying there, but it shouldn't be too hard for a team that won 93 games in 2021 to stay there this time.

Even if they do, though, that doesn't necessarily mean they have a straight path to their second straight American League Central title.

Even as the White Sox were going about their business in 2021, they left themselves open to all sorts of creeping doubts. It was no great secret, after all, that they played an easy schedule. Nor that they tended to fold when the going got tough, racking up a 27-29 record against winning teams.

Chicago is having that same issue in 2022, as even its doubleheader sweep improved its record against winning clubs to only 7-10. And contrary to last year, the team's flaws are less subtle.

Though the White Sox are notably outscoring the Blue Jays with 3.6 runs per game, that doesn't make it easy to overlook the team's discipline issues. Its walk percentage is down from 9.6 to 6.0, which is the worst in MLB. To keep making up for that, Chicago will have to do better than a .236 batting average.

It will help to get Eloy Jimenez back from a torn hamstring, but the White Sox will also need better than a .610 OPS from veterans Jose Abreu, Yasmani Grandal and AJ Pollock. As each of them is in their mid-30s, there may be only so much hope.

If the White Sox can't generate more offense, their pitching staff will have to keep carrying an undue burden. Lance Lynn's eventual return from knee surgery will provide a boost, but Garrett Crochet (Tommy John surgery) isn't walking through that door. And as dominant as he has been so far, Kopech is already just 17.1 innings shy of matching the career-high 69.1 he pitched last year.

It would be easier to be higher on the White Sox if they were running unopposed in the division as they did last year. But with the Minnesota Twins at 26-16 and with a plus-32 run differential, that's not the case.

Verdict: Sell

Seattle Mariners

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - MAY 09: Diego Castillo #63 of the Seattle Mariners hands over the game ball to manager Scott Servais #9 during the seventh inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at T-Mobile Park on May 09, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Record: 18-25

Run Differential: Minus-25

Not that there ever was much doubt, but the experience the Mariners have had in 2022 should prove "fun differential" isn't a sustainable formula for winning games.

After winning 90 games despite allowing 51 more runs than they scored in 2021, the Mariners weren't supposed to need fun differential to keep them afloat. Courtesy of newcomers Robbie Ray, Eugenio Suarez, Jesse Winker and Adam Frazier and superyoungsters Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic, they were supposed to win games the old-fashioned way: by consistently outscoring their opponents.

They're still struggling in that regard largely because those players have been a mixed bag. Of late, Suarez, Frazier and especially Rodriguez have been good. Not so much for Ray, Winker and Kelenic, the latter of whom got the boot back to the minors 11 days ago.

And yet it's only fair to point out just how lopsided the Mariners' schedule has been:

  • Home: 10-7, plus-9 run differential
  • Away: 8-18, minus-34 run differential

That's a lot of road games against not many home games, and it hasn't been an easy schedule to boot. The Mariners have already been on two trips to the East Coast, which is a long way from the Pacific Northwest.

In this way, at least, things will get easier. And nobody will be happier to play more games at T-Mobile Park than Seattle hitters. Small sample size and all, but their .767 OPS at home is tops in the American League.

On the pitching side, it's too early to panic about Ray. Seattle's $115 million left-hander may have a modest 4.77 ERA, but he has whiffed 27 of the 72 batters he's faced over his last three starts. In a related story, he's found the fastball velocity he was missing.

The beleaguered bullpen also deserves some patience. Despite its 4.31 ERA, there is lots of good stuff at play. To wit, only three teams are getting a lower contact rate from their relievers than the Mariners.

Granted, Seattle has dug a deep hole. It's in fourth place in the American League West, where the Houston Astros (27-16) and Los Angeles Angels (26-17) look like superteams.

Then again, the Mariners don't have to catch either of them to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2001. To make it into the newly expanded field, they might merely have to leapfrog the Texas Rangers (18-22). 

Verdict: Buy


MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - MAY 18: Ronald Acuna Jr. #13 of the Atlanta Braves at bat during a game against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field on May 18, 2022 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The Brewers defeated the Braves 7-6 in eleven innings. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Record: 19-23

Run Differential: Minus-15

Atlanta was below .500 as late as Aug. 4 last season, and yet it still won the World Series. So, why should anyone be worried?

Well, for one, it's not the same team.

That's most apparent at first base, where Matt Olson doesn't look like an able replacement for Freddie Freeman. Olson started hot, but he's faded so much that he's worth less than half as much WAR as Freeman has produced out west for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley are having down years, and the lineup also has a worrying foundational problem in the sense that it's swinging and missing a lot. It leads MLB in both swinging strike rate and strikeout rate.

Of course, you could counter this by pointing out that Atlanta didn't have a contact-oriented offense last season. It got by because of the long ball. Only two clubs topped the 239 homers Atlanta hit last year, and home runs certainly continued to play a major role for Brian Snitker's offense in October.

This brings us to the obvious good news: Atlanta is still hitting home runs in bunches. Its 52 are second only to the Milwaukee Brewers' 55 among National League clubs.

Not bad for a team that didn't get Ronald Acuna Jr. back from a torn ACL until April 28. His impact has been immediate, as he's hit .274/.400/.435 and generally helped stabilize things. Atlanta is 8-8 in the 16 games he's played.

Meanwhile, the starting staff that was already getting good stuff from Max Fried, Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson has recently been getting more from Charlie Morton, who has a 2.20 ERA over his last three starts. Things are also as steady as ever in the bullpen, as Atlanta leads the majors in FanGraphs' version of WAR.

In the long run, a team that has this much going for it should be just fine.

Verdict: Buy

Philadelphia Phillies

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - MAY 21: Bryce Harper #3 of the Philadelphia Phillies looks on during the eighth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Citizens Bank Park on May 21, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Record: 20-22

Run Differential: Plus-15

The Phillies have finished at or around .500 in each of the last four seasons, so perhaps it's inappropriate to be disappointed that they're there again.

Yet this season was meant to be the one in which Philadelphia finally returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2011 for one specific reason: the opposition wouldn't be able to contain its lineup.

That has more or less been the case. Of the club's top 10 hitters in plate appearances, only J.T. Realmuto has an OPS+ below 100. The Phillies are also above average in nearly every major category save for their .313 on-base percentage, though that still puts them ahead of the Astros.

Probably the best sign is that Bryce Harper hasn't lost anything from last year's National League MVP effort. Particularly not in May, wherein he's hit .344/.379/.754 with six home runs.

You probably know where this is going, though.

The Phillies were only ever going to thrive if the questions that pretty much everyone had about their defense were put to rest. As they're fourth from the bottom in turning balls in play into outs, that is not happening.

It's especially hard to conjure hope for the defense while Harper is only able to work as the designated hitter because of a balky right elbow. That means more time in the outfield for Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, which is basically equivalent to more time on land for marine animals.

Though less of a question mark than the defense, the bullpen also came into this season with much to prove. That, also, is a quest that is not going well. One humiliating meltdown against the New York Mets certainly accounts for a lot of it, but Philly relievers still rank last in win probability added.

Basically, the new Phillies look a lot like the same ol' Phillies.

Verdict: Sell

San Francisco Giants

San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler, middle, walks toward the dugout after making a pitching change during the sixth inning of the team's baseball game against the Washington Nationals in San Francisco, Friday, April 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Record: 22-19

Run Differential: Plus-14

The Giants are perhaps doing too well to be on this list, but nobody can make the case that they're living up to the high bar they set with last year's 107-win season.

The bright side is that the 2022 Giants aren't far off the pace the 2021 Giants set, as the latter was 25-16 through 41 games. And while this year's iteration is less powerful, it is still scoring 4.9 runs per game in part because it can get 'em on (fifth in OBP) and get 'em over (tied for third in productive outs) with the best of 'em.

Though the club's ERA is up 102 points from 2021, San Francisco has made substantial gains in limiting hard-hit contact and stifling exit velocity. As such, there's a perspective from which that ERA regression is the result of bad luck.

Unless, of course, the problem is more so bad defense.

Fielding the ball has been such a challenge for the Giants that they rank second-to-last in the National League in efficiency and second-to-last in defensive runs saved. Outs above average specifically shows their fielding problems exist primarily in the outfield, where they're at minus-seven compared to minus-three on the infield.

Outfield defense didn't look like much of a strength coming into the season, and the new dead ball is creating a lot more action for outfielders by way of a much lower rate of home runs per fly ball. Between that and the huge dimensions of Oracle Park, it follows that Giants outfielders would be having a hard time this season.

That in and of itself probably wouldn't stick out so much if San Francisco were as strong everywhere else as it was in 2021, but that's a hard argument to make. One telling data point is the club's record against winning teams: 7-14.

With the Arizona Diamondbacks (22-22) and Colorado Rockies (19-22) once again bringing up the rear in the National League West, these Giants aren't so flawed that anyone should expect worse than a third-place finish. And with an extra playoff spot in each league, third place probably won't block them from returning to the playoffs.

But if the question is whether the Giants can get back ahead of the Dodgers (28-13) and San Diego Padres (28-14), we lean "no"—even if they weren't already 2-6 against those clubs.

Verdict: Sell

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.