Each MLB Team's Most Crucial Early-Season Storyline

Karl Buscheck@@KarlBuscheckContributor IIIApril 14, 2015

Each MLB Team's Most Crucial Early-Season Storyline

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The second week of the 2015 MLB season has only just begun, but from the return of Alex Rodriguez to a flood of unfortunate injuries, there are already more storylines to keep track of than there are in an episode of HBO's Game of Thrones.

    It's a dangerous game to play to make sweeping generalizations at such an early stage of this 162-game marathon. Then again, from the good to the bad to the downright unexpected, plot lines are already developing that could seriously impact how the 2015 season shakes out.

    While Jon Lester has stumbled out of the gates, a rising star in the AL East is putting all sorts of skills on display and one squad left for dead in the spring has stormed to a first-place start.

Houston Astros

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    The Storyline: The Glacial Start of Chris Carter and Evan Gattis

    With a 3-4 record, the Houston Astros sit in a three-way tie for second place in the AL West. What's most impressive about Houston's start is that the squad has done it with next to zero help from two of its biggest bats.

    Right-handed mashers Chris Carter and Evan Gattis have combined for just two hits in the club's opening seven games. Gattis and Carter have also racked up 21 strikeouts in 46 at-bats.

Los Angeles Angels

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    Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    The Storyline: The Josh Hamilton Saga

    Who knows what the future holds for Josh Hamilton.

    According to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno wouldn't offer a direct response when asked if the outfielder, who is recovering from a shoulder injury and who had a drug relapse over the winter, would play for the club again.

    “I will not say that,” Moreno said.

    As Shaikin notes, Moreno claims to have included language in Hamilton's contract regarding a possible drug relapse and is looking into whether to enforce that clause.

    The handling of Hamilton has not sat well with teammate C.J. Wilson. Per Pedro Moura of the Orange County Register, the starter remarked, “If Josh was hitting .300 with 35 home runs a year, what’s the situation?”

    It's a smart question from Wilson and one that simply can't be answered because Hamilton's recent numbers haven't been anywhere close to those benchmarks.

    If the Angels are somehow able to wiggle out of Hamilton's contract, the team would suddenly have a ton of cash to spend. Over the next three seasons, the left-handed hitter is set to rake in $90.2 million.

Oakland Athletics

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The Storyline: The Home Run Happy Bullpen

    The Oakland Athletics bullpen just can't stop giving up home runs.

    Through the first eight games of the season, the relief corps has already served up five bombs, which is the most in the bigs. All that yard work cost the club a couple of games over the weekend against the Seattle Mariners. For now, de facto closer Tyler Clippard isn't ready to press the panic button.

    "We're fine. The brunt of the damage [Nelson] Cruz did. Couple mistake pitches and some defensive stuff that we've got to clean up, but other than that we've been fine."

    Clippard made those comments on Sunday after Cruz had launched the go-ahead home run in the M's 8-7 with over Oakland. The game marked the second consecutive contest in which the right-fielder had delivered a decisive shot.

    It's worth noting that the Athletics pen is looking extra thin because closer Sean Doolittle is out with a shoulder injury. In his absence, a couple of young arms are going to have to step up. Otherwise, Oakland is going to make a nasty habit of coughing up late leads.

Seattle Mariners

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The Storyline: The Early Struggles of The Vaunted Rotation

    The Seattle Mariners starting five was supposed to be stupid good. And maybe it will. After all, it's still incredibly early. For now, though, the crew hasn't lived up to expectations. The staff's collective ERA is 5.85, which ranks No. 29 in baseball.

    Taijuan Walker endured the rudest introduction to the 2015 season of all the squad's starters. On Friday, the Oakland Athletics battered the 22-year-old, scoring nine runs on nine hits in just 3.1 frames.

Texas Rangers

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    Brad Loper/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Rotation That Just Can't Stay Healthy

    The Texas Rangers can't catch a break.

    Yu Davish is already done for the season. Now, Derek Holland is out for the foreseeable future. According to Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News, the lefty won't pitch until the middle of June at the earliest after sustaining another shoulder injury.

    “I didn’t sleep last night,” said Holland, via Grant. “I kept thinking: ‘Here we go again.’"

    With two of the team's top starters out of the frame, manager Jeff Banister probably hasn't been sleeping much either.

Chicago White Sox

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Dominant Return of Chris Sale

    It's no coincidence that Chris Sale was on the shelf as the Chicago White Sox opened up the season 1-4.

    In his debut on Sunday, the lefty didn't waste any time reminding the Minnesota Twins just how nasty he is. Sale allowed one run on five hits while punching out eight in six innings, as the White Sox rolled to a 6-2 win.

    What makes Sale so valuable to Chicago is that he has a knack for making things easy for the bullpen on the day he starts. Plus, Sale inspires confidence in the lineup, as the squad knows that all it takes is a run or two to get the W.

Cleveland Indians

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Loss of Yan Gomes

    It's still extremely early, but the Tribe has already suffered a bad break.

    According to Paul Hoynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, backstop Yan Gomes is out for six-to-eight weeks after sustaining a MCL sprain in his right knee. Gomes is a steady defender and a force at the plate, as he connected on 21 home runs in 2014.

    While expressing confidence in backup Roberto Perez, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona explained just how crushing the injury is: "Losing Gomes, that could be a season-killer. But Perez can handle this," he said, via Maria Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Detroit Tigers

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    The Storyline: Miguel Cabrera's Monster Start

    Apparently Miguel Cabrera is back to 100 percent.

    Seven games into the season, the first baseman checks in with a .517 average (15-for-29) with three doubles and two home runs. Miggy's stupid good start earned him the American League Player of the Week award. As Jason Beck of MLB.com notes, that's the 13th time Cabrera has claimed that distinction.

Kansas City Royals

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Emergence of Salvador Perez

    Still just 24 years old, Salvador Perez is already a Gold Glove winner and a two-time All-Star. In his first seven games of the 2015 season, the catcher has been battering the AL to the tune of a .417 average (12-for-29).

    As Peter Gammons explains on GammonsDaily.com: "Salvador Perez has become to this Royals generation what the great George Brett was to that 1976-85 team that won a World Series, two pennants and made the postseason seven times in a decade. They are energy centers, leaders, captains of authenticity and accountability with whom everyone wants to play."

    It's difficult to disagree with Gammons' assessment. From his defensive prowess to his leadership skills to his offensive production, Perez is asserting himself as one of the best young players in baseball. And as Perez rises, so too does the 7-0 Royals.

Minnesota Twins

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Train-Wreck Rotation

    Some things just never change.

    Another season and another mess of a rotation at Target Field. The Minnesota Twins starting staff has posted a staggering 6.87 ERA, which works out to the worst mark in baseball. There's no reason to think things will get any better anytime soon.

    MLB banished Ervin Santana for 80 games after the vet tested positive for the steroid Stanozolol. Now, Ricky Nolasco is out of the mix as well. Per Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press, the right-hander has landed on the 15-day DL because of right elbow inflammation.

Baltimore Orioles

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Promising Start of Ubaldo Jimenez

    Ubaldo Jimenez was all sorts of awful in 2014.

    He's made only one start this season, but the first showing was highly encouraging. On Saturday, the right-hander worked seven scoreless innings against the Toronto Blue Jays, giving up just a single hit while striking out eight.

    The Baltimore Orioles made it all the way to the AL Championship Series in 2014 with next to zero help from Jimenez. If the starter returns to form in the coming months, the O's could potentially ship out another arm to shore up another need that emerges.

Boston Red Sox

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    The Storyline: The Tremendous Upside of Mookie Betts

    There's just no other way to put it. Mookie Betts is fun to watch.

    The Boston Red Sox's table-setter and center fielder is a true triple threat. On Monday, Betts connected on a three-run blast, stole two bases and robbed the Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper of a home run. He also did all that in the first two innings.

New York Yankees

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    The Storyline: The Return of Alex Rodriguez

    Alex Rodriguez is back.

    The 39-year-old infielder is far from the most popular player in the Bronx, but he has been one of the most consistent producers at the plate. In the first seven games of 2015, A-Rod collected a couple of doubles and a home run for the New York Yankees.

    Rodriguez now has 655 career homers and is closing in on Willie Mays' mark of 660. There are at least couple of former superstars who are still on the Yankees slugger's side. "When Alex hits No. 660, I'll be happy for him, said Barry Bonds, via Bob Nightengale of USA Today. "Willie will be happy for him. Everybody should be happy for him."

    Based on the reaction Rodriguez has drawn in the spring and the start of April, there's a slim chance that Bonds will get his wish. Instead, MLB is careening toward one of the most awkward milestone celebrations of all time.

Tampa Bay Rays

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Onslaught of Pain

    The Tampa Bay Rays training staff has been busy—really busy.

    As Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times notes, the AL East squad has nine players on the DL, which is the most of any club. The rotation has been absurdly dinged up, as Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly and Alex Colome are all injured. Chris Archer, one of the few healthy arms left, summed up the situation perfectly, via Topkin: "It's not ideal. Somewhat chaotic."

Toronto Blue Jays

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    The Storyline: The Ascension of Miguel Castro

    Miguel Castro. Remember that name.

    Last year, the right-hander was starting in A-ball. Now, the 20-year-old is closing in the big leagues. Castro is a perfect 2-for-2 on save opportunities and has given up zero runs on one hit in four outings. Fellow rookie Roberto Osuna, who is also just 20 year old, is worth an honorable mention, too.

Arizona Diamondbacks

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    The Storyline: The Awesome Debut of Archie Bradley

    It's been a major struggle to find quality starters in the desert. In Archie Bradley, it looks like the Arizona Diamondbacks have a really good one.

    In his major league debut Saturday, the right-hander was brilliant, limiting the Los Angeles Dodgers to one hit in six shutout innings while tallying six K's. In the process, Bradley took out Clayton Kershaw, who was on the mound for the Dodgers.

Colorado Rockies

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Storyline: Figuring out Who Will be Closing

    The Colorado Rockies have demoted LaTroy Hawkins from the closer's gig, according to Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post. The veteran reliever just hasn't been able to get anybody out in 2015. In his first three outings, Hawkins has piled up a 16.87 ERA.

    As Saunders explains, Rafael Betancourt will get the first crack at the ninth and Adam Ottavino could also factor into the equation.

Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The Storyline: Finding a Replacement for Kenley Jansen

    Chris Hatcher hasn't enjoyed any success in his attempt to hold down the fort for the sidelined Kenley Jansen. In three outings, the replacement closer has let in seven runs (five earned) in just 1.1 innings of work. That's just not going to get it done.

    On Sunday, Joel Peralta stepped up to close out a 7-4 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks. The right-hander, who the Los Angeles Dodgers snagged in an offseason swap with the Tampa Bay Rays, has impressed early on with Los Angeles. In four outings, the 39-year-old has yet to give up a run.

San Diego Padres

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    The Storyline: Finding a New Shortstop

    The San Diego Padres revamped nearly every aspect of the team over the offseason. The one spot in which the National League West club is clearly lacking is shortstop.

    According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the Pads are in the process of scouring the market to find an upgrade at that position. Rosenthal points to Elvis Andrus of the Texas Rangers and Starlin Castro of the Chicago Cubs as the "most obvious targets," but speculates that the Padres will try to find a more affordable player.

San Francisco Giants

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Health of Matt Cain

    Matt Cain sure has had a difficult time staying healthy

    An elbow problem limited the starter to 15 outings in 2014, and he opens up this season on the DL with a flexor tendon strain in his right arm, per the team's Twitter account.

    According to Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle, Cain has yet to throw a pitch in the rehab process. Aside from Madison Bumgarner, the rest of the rotation is looking suspect. As a result, the San Francisco Giants need Cain back on the mound as soon as possible.

Chicago Cubs

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Underwhelming Beginning of Jon Lester's Career on the North Side

    Jon Lester's first two starts for the Chicago Cubs haven't gone to plan.

    The lefty ace, who is sporting a 7.84 ERA, just hasn't been fooling any hitters in the NL. In 10.1 innings, the starter has given up 18 hits.

    At least Lester is making an effort to hold on baserunners. On Sunday against the Cincinnati Reds, Lester threw to first on two occasions. Per the MLB on Fox Twitter account, that was the first time he's thrown over at all since April 2013. Unfortunately for the Cubs, the second throw sailed well over the head of first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

Cincinnati Reds

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The Storyline: Johnny Cueto Watch

    The clock is ticking on Johnny Cueto's time with the Cincinnati Reds.

    According to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, it's unclear if the Reds even made a contract-extension offer to the righty before his Opening Day deadline because his asking price is so ridiculously high. The figure is in the neighborhood of $200 million, as Heyman reports. If the Reds' season goes south, Cueto will become an obvious trade chip this summer.

Milwaukee Brewers

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    The Storyline: The Team's Suspect Glove Work

    It's never a good idea to give a big league team extra outs. The Milwaukee Brewers learned that lesson in painful fashion on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    In the ninth inning of that contest, left fielder Khris Davis dropped a line drive and the Bucs proceeded to pour on six runs, as the squad rolled to a 10-2 win over Milwaukee. Davis isn't the only Brewer who has made a costly miscue either. The team has committed seven errors, which is tied for the fourth-highest mark in baseball.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The Storyline: The Health of Andrew McCutchen's Left Knee

    Andrew McCutchen is the engine of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Unfortunately for the team, the center fielder is dealing with a mechanical issue.

    According to Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, McCutchen sat out on Saturday with a sore left knee. As the 28-year-old explained via Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, he's not overly concerned about the fact that he's playing at less than 100 percent: "My 80 percent is pretty good."

    Pretty good, indeed. McCutchen went yard the very next day in his return to the lineup. Still, considering how instrumental the former NL MVP is to the club's plans, Pittsburgh will have to keep a very close eye on that knee.

St. Louis Cardinals

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    The Storyline: The Potential Rise of Carlos Martinez

    From Adam Wainwright to Lance Lynn to Michael Wacha, the St. Louis Cardinals have some big arms in the rotation.

    In Carlos Martinez, the Cards also have an arm with tremendous upside. The 2015 season is the first time that the righty is working as a full-time starter in the majors. His debut was highly promising, as Martinez was flat-out nasty. In six frames, the 23-year-old gave up two runs and went for eight K's as he flew around the mound. Not bad for a fifth starter.

Atlanta Braves

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Unexpectedly Strong Start

    After executing a fire sale in the offseason, the Atlanta Braves were supposed to be a mess in 2015.

    Apparently the players didn't get that message.

    At this early juncture, the Braves sit atop the standings in the NL East. A lot of the credit for the wicked fast start goes to Atlanta's pitching staff. As a group, the Braves pitchers have posted a 1.83 ERA, which is the best mark in baseball. Julio Teheran has been leading the way, as the right-hander is already 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA.

Miami Marlins

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Unexpectedly Poor Start

    This is not how the season was supposed to be begin for the Miami Marlins.

    As the second week of the season begins, the Fish are still searching for the club's second win. As if a 1-6 start wasn't frustrating enough, the team will now have to dig out of this hole without the services of Henderson Alvarez. Per Joe Frisaro of MLB.com, right shoulder inflammation and mild elbow tightness have resulted in a stint on the 15-day DL for the Venezuelan.

New York Mets

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Storyline: Settling on a New Closer

    The New York Mets are accepting applications for the closer's position.

    According to Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News, the Mets would like to see Jeurys Familia claim the spot and Bobby Parnell will also be under consideration when he returns from the DL. One pitcher who definitely is out of the mix is Jenrry Mejia, who earned himself an 80-game ban after testing positive for the steroid Stanozolol.

    Mets general manager Sandy Alderson is absolutely furious with the right-hander. The exec doesn't see Mejia as a ninth-inning option when he returns from his suspension. “I hope our bullpen is pitching so well there is not a spot for him,” said Alderson, via Ackert. “I hope he is not a factor.”

Philadelphia Phillies

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Demise of Chase Utley

    Chase Utley has been really bad to open up the 2015 season. In his first seven games, the veteran second baseman has collected just two singles, posting a .091 average (2-for-22).

    As Joe Giglio of SportsRadio WIP remarks, the struggles have been going on for a while: "Chase Utley has been awful since last June, but we only talk about Ryan Howard. Why?"

    It's a shrewd observation from Giglio. In three of the final four months of 2014, Utley checked in with a sub-.700 OPS.

Washington Nationals

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The Storyline: The Nonexistent Offense

    The Washington Nationals just can't score any runs.

    Through the first seven contests, the Nats have put only 17 runs on the board. That's the lowest total in the NL and tied for the No. 27 spot in the majors. As a team, Washington is swinging at a clip of .185. It certainly hasn't helped that the injured Denard Span and Anthony Rendon have yet to appear in a game and that Jayson Werth has played in only one contest.

    Still, even with that super rotation in the nation's capital, Washington is going to have to pick it up with the bats.

    Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and MLB.com. All videos courtesy of MLB.com. Quotes acquired first-hand unless otherwise noted.

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

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