10 Biggest Takeaways from the First Month of MLB Action

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2015

10 Biggest Takeaways from the First Month of MLB Action

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    Surprised yet?

    You should be.

    The first calendar month of the Major League Baseball season is behind us, and there was absolutely no shortage of stunning happenings during that time. From the supposed best team in baseball literally kicking away wins to one of the game’s biggest stars involved in a disturbing soap opera, the game has provided plenty of early barstool chatter.

    While some of these surprises can be dismissed as small-sample-size oddities—the Houston Astros in first place and Clayton Kershaw’s 3.73 ERA among them—there are others that will have relevant impacts for a significant portion of the summer. Ignoring them would be to scoff at the most important dealings of the early season.

    We shall not scoff here. Instead, we will explore them, focusing on events and trends that not only shaped the first month but can continue to mold how the rest of the season unfolds.

National Disappointment

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The Washington Nationals won 96 games last season, and when they signed Max Scherzer, the top free-agent pitcher last offseason, they looked like the best team in the majors…on paper. 

    The game is not played on compressed wood fibers, though. It is played on dirt and grass and in front of tens of thousands of people a night, sans Wednesday’s game in Baltimore. 

    Through its first 20 games, Washington did not live up to the billing, going 7-13 and falling eight games out of first place in the National League East.

    The Nationals defense has been the most surprising part of their awful start. It has made a majors-leading 24 errors, and its minus-12 defensive runs saved, as calculated by FanGraphs, is the third-worst total in the National League. Shortstop Ian Desmond leads all big league players with nine errors.

    “We surely didn't want to start like this,” Bryce Harper told reporters Sunday, per The Associated Press (h/t USA Today), after the team was swept by the Miami Marlins, part of a six-game losing streak that put them at six games under .500. “We're a great team, and we'll get it going.”

    The Nationals did get going immediately after that sweep. They won three consecutive games before dropping one Friday, improving to 10-14.

    The rotation’s 3.98 ERA is ninth in the league, disappointing for sure. But the track records in it are just too good to think that number won’t improve, and if the defense can stop impeding progress, the Nationals are a team capable of rebounding.

    How long it takes them to climb back to the top of the standings is something this second month will shed light upon in the coming weeks.

Busted Ace

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    Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

    Corey Kluber’s rise to Cleveland Indians ace was the kind of blindside shot people don’t easily forget. That is why expectations for his 2015 season skyrocketed after he beat out Felix Hernandez to win the American League Cy Young Award last year. 

    This season, however, the results just aren’t there. He is 0-3 with a 4.24 ERA and the Indians are 0-5 in his starts. This is quite a difference from April 2014, per Jordan Bastian of MLB.com.

    Kluber is also the sixth reigning AL Cy Young winner to not pick up a win through his first five starts of the season, according to Joe Reedy of Fox Sports Ohio.

    Things have not been disastrous despite the Indians losing all five of his starts. Kluber still has a 2.61 FIP, the seventh-lowest mark in the AL, according to FanGraphs. His 9.53 strikeouts per nine innings are also seventh. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 5.14, just slightly off pace from his Cy Young season.

    The problems for Kluber are him not being able to strand runners, which he did 78.6 percent of the time in 2014 against a 64 percent rate this year, and opponents have a .362 BABIP against him, the fourth-highest average in the league among qualified starters.

    Making things scarier for the Indians is that Kluber has gotten worse as he’s made more starts. In his first three, Kluber produced three quality starts and pitched into the eighth inning twice, completing it once. He struck out 25 and walked four in those three starts.

    In his last two outings, Kluber has gone 12 combined innings and given up 10 earned runs. He’s struck out 11 and walked three.

    Kluber’s next start is Saturday against the Toronto Blue Jays, the team with the fourth-highest OPS in the AL. If Kluber is not on his game, things could get worse before they get better.

Fast and Furious Royals

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Going into spring training, it appeared the Kansas City Royals had a mildly impactful offseason, adding Edinson Volquez, Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales while losing James Shields and Billy Butler. However, that kind of offseason still had analysts mostly favoring the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central.

    But through the first month, the Royals showed they are still a team to be feared, in more ways than their play on the field. 

    The Royals entered Saturday 16-7 and 1.5 games up on the Tigers in the AL Central. Their .812 OPS was second in the league and their .362 OBP was first. They also lead the AL with 47 doubles, and their 131 strikeouts were the fewest.

    Their bullpen has allowed eight earned runs in 70.2 innings for a 1.02 ERA, the best in the majors. Their 0.76 WHIP is also No. 1 in the game.

    Earning about as many headlines as their play is that the Royals also lead the majors in bench-clearing incidents. They have fought or nearly fought the Los Angeles Angels, the Oakland A’s (more than once) and the Chicago White Sox—a brawl that led to five players being suspended for the Royals.

    While the Royals are undoubtedly a quality club with the roster to win a second consecutive pennant, some of their early-season feats have been overshadowed by bad blood. In order to earn their proper respect, those things must stop and they must let their play speak for them.

Masahiro Tanaka’s Domino Effect

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The New York Yankees knew their season depended on remaining relatively healthy throughout the season. If they could do that, they were among the favorites in the American League East. If they could not, odds were they would miss the postseason for a third consecutive season. 

    Now that No. 1 starter Masahiro Tanaka is lost for a significant block of the season with a forearm strain, things are not looking so good in the Bronx.

    The Yankees have not shown they have the rotation to survive without Tanaka, and with plenty of injury history up and down the aging lineup, Tanaka could be just the first in a line of ailing players.

    Making things murkier, if the Yankees are in the race or holding on for dear life come the July 31 trade deadline, they will surely be tempted to part with some of their prized prospects to acquire a game-changing player, likely a pitcher.

    The problem with that, especially if the player is a rental, is that the team’s farm system has just started to gain accolades after years of being drained because of previous trades and free-agent signings that forfeited draft picks. 

    If the Yankees truly want to build from within, they cannot overreact to Tanaka’s absence—and their possible slide in the standings because of it—by tapping their farm system.

Who in the AL East Can Pitch?

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    When the season started, it looked like a healthy New York Yankees rotation could challenge to be the best in the American League East. However, now that Masahiro Tanaka is lost for more than a month, starting pitching is scarce throughout the division. The Tampa Bay Rays are perhaps the only exception.

    The Rays starters are second in the AL with a 3.35 ERA. Beyond them, no other East team had an ERA lower than the Yankees’ 4.14. That mark was seventh in the league, and the Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox all ranked in the bottom four with the Red Sox last in the majors with a 5.62 starters ERA.

    “You wonder, 'Are you going to be able to slug your way to a division championship?' And that’s right now how it’s going to have to be for four of the five teams in this division,” Brian Anderson of Fox Sports Florida said, referring to the lack of quality starting pitching within the division.

    The Rays expect to get Alex Cobb, their best starter last season, back from forearm tendinitis relatively soon, possibly this month. And Matt Moore should return from Tommy John surgery before the All-Star break.

    With no one else even close to approaching that kind of rotational depth, the Rays suddenly look like the favorite in the East going forward.

Mets Become Legitimate Contender

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Run prevention is the biggest reason teams win games in this sport. Pitching, in the rotation and bullpen, along with a stout defense, can turn a team with no power and just an OK offensive attack into a serious contender. The Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants proved as much over recent seasons.

    This is how the New York Mets are built. Their pitching is above average and their defense, while not elite, is quite serviceable. Those are the reasons they sit atop the National League East with a 4.5-game lead entering play Saturday.

    While the Mets’ offense has been sort of “meh” through the first month, no one on the roster is lacking confidence, in themselves or others.

    “I didn't know too much about the makeup of the team before," left fielder Michael Cuddyer told Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal. “But ever since I got here, guys have been confident with their abilities, their talent—and confident in everybody else's abilities and talents. That's half the battle, being able to trust your teammates. There's a lot of trust in here.”

Joc Pederson Erasing Memories of Matt Kemp

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    When the Los Angeles Dodgers traded Matt Kemp in December, parting with a player they believed to be a franchise pillar for the overwhelming majority of his career when they signed him to an eight-year, $160 million extension in 2011, critics wondered if rookie Joc Pederson would be ready for an everyday role in the big leagues. 

    With April in the books, Pederson has certainly shut down the doubts.

    He ranks in the National League’s top five in walks, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS and weighted on-base average, according to FanGraphs. Manager Don Mattingly recently moved him up to the leadoff spot this past week after hitting him eighth most of the month. 

    “Obviously, he's handled that eighth spot,” Mattingly said, per the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez. “It's really a tough spot for a young player, with that pitcher behind you. We're not asking him to do anything differently. I know everybody makes a big deal out of lineup changes and things, but you're not doing anything differently.”

    He has also patrolled center field with skill the franchise has not seen in years. He has a 12.0 ultimate zone rating per 150 innings, according to FanGraphs. While his defensive numbers are not at an elite level, he is a rookie and has shown the tools to eventually develop into one of the league’s best center fielders.

    Pederson is among the NL’s Rookie of the Year favorites through the first month, and if he continues to impress on both ends, he could end up a better, younger, cheaper version of Kemp.

Scott Kazmir, Johnny Cueto Turning into Coveted Trade Targets

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    The Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds were fringe contenders when the season started, but both clubs are looking like doubtfuls through the first month. Both clubs started Saturday below .500.

    Kazmir has been outstanding for Oakland, though. He has a 0.99 ERA through four starts, 30 strikeouts, 9.88 strikeouts per nine innings, a 2.55 FIP, a 0.88 WHIP and opponents are hitting .158 against him. Simply put, he’s been one of the American League’s best through April. 

    Cueto has been stellar as well. He has a 1.95 ERA through five starts, 38 strikeouts, 9.24 strikeouts per nine, a 2.74 FIP, a 0.73 WHIP and opponents are hitting .172 against him. Like Kazmir, he has been outstanding.

    Both pitchers can become free agents after the World Series, making them trade targets if their teams are not in tight contention come the July 31 trade deadline. If they are dealt, they could be the pieces that swing playoff races come October.

Nelson Cruz, Hanley Ramirez Exactly What New Teams Ordered

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Elite hitters have become a scarcity in today’s baseball landscape, so when the Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox signed Nelson Cruz and Hanley Ramirez, respectively, over the offseason, they did so expecting big offensive contributions.

    Neither Dominican Republic native disappointed as April turned to May. Cruz has a majors-leading 11 home runs and 23 RBI, while Ramirez isn't far behind with 10 homers and 22 RBI.

    In that same time frame, Cruz was first in the league in slugging percentage and second in OPS. Ramirez was third in slugging and seventh in OPS.

    Pitching has been an issue for the Mariners and Red Sox this season, but because of Cruz and Ramirez, offensive power numbers have not been.

Josh Hamilton’s Journey into Irrelevance

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Hamilton was a superstar hitter coming off a season in which he finished fifth in American League MVP voting and won a Silver Slugger award when the Los Angeles Angels signed him to a five-year, $125 million contract before the 2013 season. 

    In his two seasons with the Angels, he hit .255/.316/.426 with 31 home runs and 123 RBI. As a two-season total, those numbers stink for a player expected to be one of the league’s best hitters.

    It is easy to believe those down numbers played a part in the Angels making Hamilton an outcast after a Major League Baseball arbiter ruled Hamilton would not be suspended after he self-reported a drug relapse over the offseason. From that point, the Angels expressed disappointment in the ruling and with Hamilton’s actions. Hamilton later fired back, saying Angels owner Arte Moreno “knew the deal when he signed me.”

    The Angels traded Hamilton back to the Texas Rangers on Monday. While this was major sports news, it is another step toward Hamilton becoming an irrelevant player. His declining skills and poor health have made him mostly mediocre, and now that he is playing for a Rangers club which could potentially lose 95 games, Hamilton is unlikely to move the needle ever again.

    His return to the field—he is rehabbing from a shoulder injury—later this season will be newsworthy. But beyond that, Hamilton, like the Rangers, will be forgotten because of a lack of production.