Each MLB Team's Most Promising Sign of Hope
The beginning of the Major League Baseball season is supposed to be a happy occasion, so let's not bicker and argue about what's wrong with everything and everyone.
Instead, let's talk about hope.
Somehow, some way, there's hope for every team in MLB. We're going to prove it by pinpointing one sign of hope for all 30 franchises. These range from contenders' biggest strengths to non-contenders' most relevant rooting interest.
We'll go in alphabetical order by city.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Their Bullpen Has Been Lights-Out
The Arizona Diamondbacks have seized early control of the NL West in no small part thanks to a bullpen that hasn't suffered runs lightly.
Through nine games, Arizona relievers have logged 35.1 innings and compiled a 1.78 ERA. The latter ranks fourth in MLB.
After the club's bullpen ranked fifth in ERA in 2017, this could be seen as more of the same. However, games only ever felt safe when Archie Bradley was pitching. Without his 1.73 ERA, Arizona's collective bullpen ERA would have been 4.14.
So far in 2018, the fresh faces around Bradley are lightening his load. Brad Boxberger has been wild but also difficult to hit. Fernando Salas and Yoshihisa Hirano have done their part as well.
After last year, anyone could have expected the Diamondbacks to hit well and to get good starting pitching in 2018. If their bullpen keeps this up, they'll have yet another way to win games.
Atlanta Braves: Their Lineup Is Rolling Even Without Ronald Acuna Jr.
It won't be long before the Atlanta Braves call up Ronald Acuna Jr., who could be the greatest thing since sliced Trout.
In the meantime, they don't need him to have a fully armed and operational lineup.
Prior to running into the buzzsaw known as Max Scherzer on Monday, the Braves led all of MLB with their .840 OPS and 62 runs. And those runs were well spread out. They scored at least seven in five of their first nine games.
This is unexpected—yet not unreasonable. The Braves knew they could count on Freddie Freeman's elite bat and Nick Markakis' reliable bat. Elsewhere, they're seeing Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies realize their upside and also reaping the benefits of power that Preston Tucker has always had.
If Acuna can live up to the hype upon his arrival, there may be no stopping the roll the Braves are on.
Baltimore Orioles: At Least Dylan Bundy Looks Terrific
It's been a slow start for the Baltimore Orioles, but they can at least find comfort in Dylan Bundy, who's looking like the ace he was always meant to be.
Bundy has taken the hill three times and allowed three earned runs in 20 innings. Just as impressive, he's struck out five times more batters (25) than he's walked (5).
The former top prospect started to find his footing with a 4.24 ERA over 169.2 innings in 2017, but he notably lacked a contact rate befitting of his stuff. He's changing that this year, and it's largely thanks to additional movement (both vertical and horizontal) on his slider.
The Orioles face a tall order in keeping up with the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in the AL East race. If Bundy keeps pitching like this, however, it can only get shorter.
Boston Red Sox: Their Starting Pitching Has Been Untouchable
Based on the early returns, the Red Sox aren't about to hitch the success of their starting rotation to Chris Sale's left arm again.
As early as it is, it's hard not to get bug-eyed when looking at Red Sox starters' ERA. It's 1.70, which ranks second in MLB.
"It's what we expected," manager Alex Cora told reporters, but it's fair if everyone else was skeptical. Sale could be counted on to be an ace, but much depended on David Price's elbow and Rick Porcello's consistency.
So far Price and Porcello have combined to allow four runs in 26.2 innings. Sale is also off to a strong start, and the back end of the rotation is set to be solidified by healthy versions of Eduardo Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz.
Thus, what was arguably Boston's biggest question for 2018 already has a promising answer.
Chicago Cubs: They Have a Functioning Bullpen
What we colloquially refer to as a "bullpen" was more like a house of horrors for the Chicago Cubs in 2017. In the second half, its MLB-worst walk rate fed a 4.48 ERA.
Early on in 2018, Chicago's bullpen has its ERA all the way down to 0.94. That leads MLB.
Incumbents such as Pedro Strop, Justin Wilson, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery and Eddie Butler are beginning 2018 a lot stronger than they ended 2017. The Cubs have also gotten what they wanted from new arrivals Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek, as well as re-signee Brian Duensing.
"What our bullpen's been able to do, lights out again," starter Kyle Hendricks said, per Tony Andracki of NBC Sports Chicago. "It's been really fun to watch them lately."
Because this bullpen is part of a collective that also features a star-studded lineup and rotation, the Cubs have quite the blueprint for fun times.
Chicago White Sox: They're the Braves of the American League
Although it's netted them fewer runs (41) than expected, the Chicago White Sox have begun 2018 carrying out an offensive onslaught.
The White Sox lead the American League with a .799 OPS, and the explanation for that can be traced to their power. They rank second in slugging percentage (.459) and first in average exit velocity (90.8 mph).
While Jose Abreu and Avisail Garcia have continued to do their thing, the White Sox have also enjoyed slugging contributions from Matt Davidson, Tim Anderson and Welington Castillo. Yoan Moncada and Yolmer Sanchez have also made their presence felt.
And just as the Braves are waiting on Acuna, the White Sox have similar hopes for Eloy Jimenez. He can hit dingers with the best of 'em in the minors, and he should be ready to put his skills to the test against major leaguers sometime this summer.
Cincinnati Reds: Nick Senzel Should Arrive Sooner Rather Than Later
The Cincinnati Reds have collected the first seven of what should be many losses throughout the course of yet another rebuilding season.
But at least they have Nick Senzel to look forward to.
Senzel might not have the most recognizable name, but he's unquestionably one of Major League Baseball's top prospects. That's mostly a credit to a bat that's produced a .313/.390/.509 slash line in parts of three minor league seasons since the Reds took him No. 2 overall in 2016.
The 22-year-old infielder is at Triple-A for the start of the season, putting him one step away from the majors. Whether it's as a fill-in for the injured Eugenio Suarez or as an eventual replacement for Jose Peraza, it shouldn't be long before the Reds task him with taking that step.
Cleveland Indians: Corey Kluber Has Picked Up Where He Left Off
Most of the Cleveland Indians seem to be unaware that the 2018 season is indeed underway, as the team has thus far sleepwalked its way to a 5-5 record.
But then there's Corey Kluber, who thus far has looked a whole lot like Corey Kluber.
The 32-year-old finished 2017 by putting up a 1.62 ERA in his final 23 starts. That stretch helped net him his second AL Cy Young Award.
So far in 2018, Kluber's most famous highlight is the one in which he served up a home run to two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani. That dinger aside, though, he's picked up where he left off with four runs allowed in 23 innings for a 1.57 ERA. He's also struck out 27 and walked only four.
Until the rest of the Indians come around (and they will), this will do for a silver lining.
Colorado Rockies: Charlie Blackmon Refuses to Regress
The Colorado Rockies are on a quest to play in back-to-back postseasons for the first time in franchise history. Ultimately, it depends on how far their stars carry them.
Nobody looks more up to the task than Charlie Blackmon.
Blackmon made the turn from star to superstar in 2017, finishing the year with a 1.000 OPS and 86 extra-base hits. It's safe to assume the memories from this season had much to do with the Rockies' extending him for $108 million over six years.
Early in 2018, Blackmon is hinting that there's plenty more where that came from. He has a 1.032 OPS and is already up to four homers. Nolan Arenado is going strong with an .846 OPS of his own, so the core of the Rockies offense looks as strong as ever.
If their pitching can get on track, they'll be on their way.
Detroit Tigers: Nicholas Castellanos Looks Like a Keeper
Although the Detroit Tigers have played better than expected out of the gate, nobody should be mistaken. For them, 2018 is the first full year of what should be a protracted rebuild.
But one priority for this rebuild is becoming clearer by the day: Nicholas Castellanos should be extended for the long haul.
The 26-year-old was one of the Tigers' better hitters in 2016 and 2017, and he has thus far been the best hitter on the team in 2018. He leads Detroit with an .877 OPS thanks primarily to two things: much-improved patience and yet another uptick in his hard-contact rate.
Although the Tigers only control Castellanos through 2019, he's said his "plan A" is to spend his entire career in Detroit. If they weren't already, the Tigers must start taking that idea seriously.
Houston Astros: Hangover? What Hangover?
Conventional wisdom holds that winning the World Series is about as fun and, eventually, about as hazardous to your health as draining a handle of tequila in one night.
You wouldn't know it from looking at the 2018 Houston Astros.
It was reasonable to fear that their 101 wins and World Series championship from 2017 would lead to one hell of a hangover this season. Instead, they've never looked better. They're 9-2 and have won games with quality hitting and pitching and even a bit of dumb luck.
It would feel too good to be true if the Astros didn't look so amazing on paper. It's basically the same team as last year, plus Justin Verlander (who's playing his first full season in Houston) and Gerrit Cole. Thanks to an extra-bendy slider, the latter looks ready to take his place among MLB's top aces.
If a hangover isn't going to stop this team, maybe nothing will.
Kansas City Royals: The Trade Deadline Is Only 4 Months Away
The Kansas City Royals don't just have a bad major league team. They're also sitting on a farm system that Bleacher Report has ranked the worst in baseball.
However, one of these things should change for the better in a few months.
The Royals will have plenty to sell on the summer trade market. Their top prize will be Danny Duffy, and they're also sure to get offers on Kelvin Herrera, Mike Moustakas, Lucas Duda and Jon Jay.
They might get offers for Ian Kennedy, too. He won't be easy to move due to the $49 million left on his contract. But if he can keep up his hot start to 2018, he's only going to get easier to unload.
The Royals' major league roster will get even worse if they cash in their trade chips ahead of the July 31 deadline. But the trade-off, so to speak, will be the beginnings of a foundation that they can build on.
Los Angeles Angels: The Hype Undersold Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani came over from Japan with a goal to be a two-way star in MLB. The idea seemed implausible to begin with, and his struggles in spring training pushed the likelihood closer to impossible.
And yet, there he is channeling Babe Ruth.
Ohtani has begun his pitching career with two overpowering performances highlighted by 18 strikeouts in 13 innings. Meanwhile, he's begun his hitting with three homers in his first 18 at-bats.
And it's all legit. On the mound, the 23-year-old has achieved MLB's highest swinging-strike rate via elite fastball velocity (97.1 mph) and a devastating split-finger fastball. At the plate, he ranks second among qualified hitters in average exit velocity (97.3 mph).
Already, Ohtani is building a case as the best player on the Los Angeles Angels. Considering that this is the same team that employs Mike Trout, that's saying something.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Red Flags Aside, Their Pitching Has Been Fine
The World Series hangover that was supposed to afflict the Astros seems to have been passed to the Los Angeles Dodgers. They've begun the year by stumbling their way to a 3-6 record.
It could be worse, though.
Especially on the mound. Although the Dodgers do have things to worry about—e.g. Kenley Jansen's velocity—they've nonetheless managed a 2.72 ERA through their first nine games.
Clayton Kershaw has done his part, and he's had plenty of help. Alex Wood and Rich Hill have carried over their excellence from 2017, and Kenta Maeda looks better than ever. While Jansen has struggled, the likes of Ross Stripling, Pedro Baez, Josh Fields and Tony Cingrani have picked up lots of slack.
The Dodgers' pitching is a strength that should hold all season. Once their other strengths show through, they'll be just fine.
Miami Marlins: Brian Anderson Looks Like a Cornerstone
This season isn't about winning games for the Miami Marlins. It's about seeing what they have to work with as they look to rebuild in coming years.
So far, the big standout is Brian Anderson.
The 24-year-old was never considered an elite prospect when he was in the minors, but he was generally regarded as one of the better players in Miami's system. It's becoming easier to see why, as he's shown an advanced feel for hitting in racking up a solid .289/.426/.474 slash line.
"He's a guy that's always been a short-swing guy and a guy with a good eye. That helps you get better pitches to hit," manager Don Mattingly said of Anderson to reporters.
As long as he keeps that up, the Marlins will exit 2018 with at least one cornerstone player to build around. If Lewis Brinson also gets his bat going, that'll make two.
Milwaukee Brewers: Eric Thames Is Partying Like It's April 2017
Even one of the Milwaukee Brewers' biggest stars isn't taking much comfort in the team's early record.
"You guys have watched the games," Ryan Braun told reporters after the Brewers dropped three games out of four to the Cubs at Miller Park. "We're extremely fortunate to be 5-5."
The Brewers are now 6-5 after beating the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, but Braun isn't wrong. They've have had some fun moments, but they've also been beset by injuries and inconsistent performances on both sides of the ball.
On the bright side, they have Eric Thames to be excited about. He's been the Brewers' best hitter with an .875 OPS and three homers. It's a taste of April 2017, when his 1.276 OPS and 11 homers made him one of baseball's top hitters.
If Thames can avoid plummeting to earth this time around, he can be a big part of a team that should get better in the long run.
Minnesota Twins: Their Starting Pitching Is Turning a Corner
Between 2011 and 2017, Minnesota Twins starters outpaced even those of the Coors Field-laden Rockies for the majors' worst ERA at 4.94.
This season has thus far produced a much more reasonable 2.91 ERA.
The gem at the center of that number belongs to Jose Berrios, who pitched his first career shutout in his season debut against the Orioles. The Twins have also gotten strong work out of fellow incumbent Kyle Gibson, as well as from new addition Jake Odorizzi.
The Twins shouldn't have to rely strictly on those three to carry their rotation throughout 2018. Lance Lynn is better than he's shown so far. They'll also get Ervin Santana, who pitched to a 3.28 ERA in 211.1 innings in 2017, back from a finger injury at some point.
If the Twins do indeed continue to get strong pitching in tandem with strong hitting, a second straight postseason appearance may await them.
New York Mets: Their Pitching Is Back on Track
It was the New York Mets' pitching that carried them to back-to-back postseasons in 2015 and 2016. The injury bug and other malicious entities spoiled the party in 2017, resulting in an ugly 5.01 ERA.
So far in 2018, it looks like the party is back on.
The Mets' NL-best 2.25 ERA underscores a heaping helping of positive storylines. Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard have combined for 34 strikeouts in 27.2 innings. Albeit in a less overpowering fashion, Steven Matz and Matt Harvey have found ways to be effective.
Then there's New York's bullpen, which boasts a 1.21 ERA. Jeurys Familia is back to being untouchable after a rough 2017. Even better, first-year manager Mickey Callaway has re-purposed Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo as old-school firemen.
With an 8-1 record, the Mets have already upset expectations for the NL East. If they keep getting pitching like this, that theme could last throughout the season.
New York Yankees: Didi Gregorius Just Keeps Getting Better
After a strong start, the New York Yankees have been sidetracked by injuries, bullpen struggles and a strikeout-filled slump by one of their high-profile sluggers.
It seems there's no stopping Didi Gregorius, however.
The 28-year-old was one of the more important cogs in the 2017 Yankees, as he provided slick defense at shortstop and 25 homers at the plate. Now he's the most important cog in the 2018 Yankees, mostly thanks to an offensive performance highlighted by a 1.430 OPS and three homers.
As evidenced by how he has three times as many walks (9) as strikeouts (3), Gregorius has been taking better at-bats. That's only helping him to improve a power output that's been trending up for years.
Even after the Yankees' other big components come around, Gregorius might end up as the team's MVP.
Oakland Athletics: Sean Manaea Looks Ready to Be an Ace
In case anyone's thinking it: Yes, Matt Chapman is deserving of a shoutout. He's carried the Oakland A's on both offense and defense early in 2018.
But if this team is going to go anywhere, it's going to need to rely on its young pitchers. That's what makes Sean Manaea's early performance so important.
The 26-year-old lefty has made two starts and allowed two earned runs in 15.2 innings. He's struck out 11, walked one and allowed only seven hits.
Manaea appears to be working with basically the same stuff he had in 2016 and 2017. He credits his confidence for his improvement, telling reporters that it's all about "just not caving in, not mentally freaking out or panicking."
If it works, it works. As long as Manaea can keep it up, Oakland's rotation will have a stopper to help hold things together.
Philadelphia Phillies: Rhys Hoskins Just Won't Stop Raking
Initially, the sub-headline for the Philadelphia Phillies read: "Gabe Kapler Can Only Get Better at This Whole 'Managing' Thing."
But rather than pile on Kapler, let's give Rhys Hoskins his just deserts.
Hoskins began 2017 as a fringe prospect and ended it as a rising major league star. He hit his way to the majors with a .966 OPS at Triple-A and then got even better with a 1.014 OPS and 18 homers in just 50 games with the Phillies.
It's a new season now, yet the 25-year-old's bat is still on fire. He's come to the plate 34 times and come away with MLB-high marks in batting average (.429) and on-base percentage (.553).
Elsewhere in Philly's lineup, Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, Jorge Alfaro and Cesar Hernandez are also providing performances to rally around. But at this point, it's clear Hoskins is going to be the centerpiece for years to come.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Gregory Polanco's Breakout Is Fueling a Surprise Offense
No matter which direction you look in the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse, you're bound to spot a positive storyline. There are plenty to go around amid the team's surprising 7-2 start.
But if one must take the cake, it has to be Gregory Polanco.
The Pirates signaled tremendous trust in Polanco when they signed him to a long-term contract extension early in 2016. That turned out to be his best season yet, but it was immediately followed by his worst season in 2017.
Polanco's response was to go all-out to get in better shape for 2018. The effort is paying off with a 1.206 OPS and three homers. His production is being driven by more frequent hard contact, as well as a more discerning eye for the strike zone.
Considering that Polanco is still only 26 and the Pirates can keep him through 2023, this may be the start of a long reign as Pittsburgh's post-Andrew McCutchen franchise cornerstone.
San Diego Padres: Christian Villanueva Has Legit Power Potential
There are only so many positive things to say about a 2-8 team that's still developing the best fruits in its farm system.
We'll settle for this: The San Diego Padres may have found a keeper in Christian Villanueva.
They picked the 26-year-old up as a free agent in 2016 after he was let go by the Cubs. He promptly put up an .896 OPS with 20 homers for the Padres' Triple-A affiliate. He then clubbed four homers in just 12 games once he was called up to San Diego.
Villanueva's three-homer game against the Rockies on April 3 accounts for the best highlight the Padres have generated so far in 2018. Those are also the only three homers he's hit, granted, but they still serve to punctuate the power he boasts. The average exit velocity on the three blasts was 106 mph.
Until the aforementioned fruits arrive, the Padres need as much of that as they can get.
San Francisco Giants: Johnny Cueto Appears to Be Back
The San Francisco Giants' 2018 rotation looked thin to begin with. Once it was thinned even further by injuries to Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija, the pressure was on Johnny Cueto to carry the load.
So far, so good.
Cueto has allowed one run over 13 innings in his first two starts. He's only struck out five of the 47 batters he's faced, but he's walked just two, and his early soft-contact rate (27.5) is one of the best among NL starters.
The 32-year-old had a rough year in 2017, as he made only 25 starts and pitched to a 4.52 ERA when he was healthy. But times like these serve as reminders that he can be one of baseball's best pitchers when he has everything working.
In light of their current pitching depth and the overall strength of the NL West around them, the Giants can't have Cueto be anything less than that in 2018.
Seattle Mariners: A Healthy Mitch Haniger Once Again Looks Like a Star
With their pitching once again on the fritz, it's looking like the Seattle Mariners will need their offense to carry them in 2018.
Mitch Haniger is one guy who seems fine with that.
Through eight games, the 27-year-old owns a .997 OPS and two homers. This might seem like a suspiciously large increase from his modest 2017 breakout, but it's in theme with how well Haniger hit when he was at his healthiest last year:
- Through April 25: 1.054 OPS with 4 HR in 21 G
- After Aug. 19: .923 OPS with 9 HR in 38 G
Also keep in mind that the Mariners traded for Haniger in 2016 when he was fresh off a .999 OPS and 25 homers in the Diamondbacks system. As such, his record of hot hitting has quite a few miles on it by now.
If it keeps up, the Mariners won't need Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura and Kyle Seager to do it all.
St. Louis Cardinals: Jordan Hicks Looks Like a Closer in Waiting
Based on his professional history, Jordan Hicks is an unlikely major leaguer. It hasn't even been three years since the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him out of high school, and he only got as far as High-A in the minors.
Based on his arm, however, he's right where he belongs.
According to Statcast, the 21-year-old is leading even Aroldis Chapman in average fastball velocity at 99.1 mph. To boot, his is the kind of heater that hits another gear when it reaches the hitting zone.
"That's as good of a fastball as you are going to see," Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux said in March.
Thus far, Hicks' fastball has helped him rack up 5.1 innings without allowing an earned run. For now, this is his foray into setup duty for Greg Holland. Down the line, it should be the opening salvo of a career as a shutdown closer.
Tampa Bay Rays: At Least the Farm System Is in Good Shape
The good thing about the 2018 Tampa Bay Rays is...
...OK, fine, there isn't one. They've embarrassed themselves in every way en route to their 2-8 record, and Chris Archer and Alex Colome are off to slow starts that aren't helping their trade value.
The only silver lining: The Rays don't need to clean up at the trade deadline to have a bright future.
We had their farm system ranked at No. 7 in MLB at the outset of spring training. Brent Honeywell's Tommy John operation is one bummer that's occurred since then, but there's still plenty to like about guys such as Willy Adames, Brendan McKay, Jesus Sanchez, Jake Bauers and Christian Arroyo.
Arroyo has already logged major league time with the Giants, and both he and Adames should see time with the Rays this season. As far as reasons for hope go, that's better than nothing.
Texas Rangers: Nomar Mazara May Finally Be Ready for His Breakout
Nomar Mazara was a perfectly fine member of the Texas Rangers in 2016 and 2017, but not quite the elite hitter they were hoping for.
He may be ready to change that in 2018.
This may seem like a questionable conclusion in light of Mazara's good-not-great early slash line of .317/.378/.415. But this is a case where the devil is in the details, specifically regarding the kind of contact Mazara is making.
If the 22-year-old keeps crushing the ball like this, he's going to get more hits to fall and gradually start living up to the hype that accompanied him when he was one of baseball's top prospects.
Toronto Blue Jays: Justin Smoak Is Still Breaking Out
The Toronto Blue Jays offense has lived up to its billing as a deeper unit than the one that held the team back a year ago.
Still, the success of Toronto's lineup hinges on the stars in the middle. That's where the Jays must be very pleased with Justin Smoak's early returns.
The 31-year-old authored a surprise breakout with an .883 OPS and 38 homers last season. Now he's threatening to surpass that success as he's compiled a 1.048 OPS and hit a couple of homers through his first 11 games of 2018.
"He's just really coming into his own, I think. A late bloomer," manager John Gibbons said of Smoak, who was a top prospect when he broke in back in 2010.
That's putting it lightly. At this rate, Smoak may supplant Josh Donaldson as the biggest offensive threat the Blue Jays have.
Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper Is Healthy and Unstoppable Again
There's a good chance 2018 will be Bryce Harper's last season with the Washington Nationals. If so, all anyone can ask is that he makes it count.
That doesn't look like it's going to be a problem.
Nine games into the season, Harper looks even better than he did when he was the unanimous National League MVP in 2015. He's come to the plate 47 times and has racked up MLB-leading totals in homers (6), walks (16), slugging percentage (.966) and OPS (1.519) while striking out only five times.
When Harper is going like this, typically the only thing that can slow him down is injuries. To that end, all the Nats can do is hope he remains unscathed through September and into October.
If he can do that, there's no reason he can't go out with bang after bang after bang.