Early Signs of Doom for MLB's Expected Contenders
It's always important to remember the MLB season is a 162-game marathon.
How a team performs over the first month of the season is not always an indication of what's to come for the remainder of the year, but it's only natural for fans to react and sometimes overreact to the early returns.
Hence the use of "doom" in our headline.
So in the season's early going, let's take a closer look at some expected contenders who are off to slower-than-expected starts and the biggest reason for their current struggles.
How did we decide which teams to include?
Simple. We compared the Opening Day playoff odds from FanGraphs with their current ones and focused on teams who have seen a notable downturn in their odds after starting the year with at least a 15 percent chance of reaching the postseason.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Early Struggles of Kenley Jansen
Current Playoff Odds: 89.7 percent (-4.3%)
The Los Angeles Dodgers entered the season with some legitimate questions about how their relief corps would fall in place, but the closer's role was not one of them.
Kenley Jansen saved a National League-high 41 games in 42 chances last season, posting a 1.32 ERA, 0.75 WHIP and 14.4 strikeouts per nine innings to further establish himself as one of the most dominant closers in baseball.
This season has been a different story, though.
The 30-year-old has already blown two saves in his first five chances, pitching to an unsightly 6.23 ERA and 1.62 WHIP while allowing 10.4 hits per nine innings—nearly double the 5.8 mark he posted a year ago.
"Right now, he's not right, as far as the way the ball's coming out of the hand," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told reporters. "We have all the confidence in Kenley. It's one of those things that people go through, and he's got to work his way out of it."
For the Dodgers' sake, he needs to figure it out quickly.
Colorado Rockies: A Stagnant Offense
Current Playoff Odds: 13.5 percent (-5.3%)
When has offense ever been an issue for the Colorado Rockies?
This year has been a rare exception to what has historically been one of the league's most potent offensive attacks:
- BA: .223 (26th in MLB)
- OPS: .687 (22nd in MLB)
- R/G: 4.04 (21st in MLB)
Outside of Charlie Blackmon (1.088 OPS), Nolan Arenado (1.005 OPS), DJ LeMahieu (.887 OPS) and Trevor Story (.804 OPS), the lineup has struggled mightily.
David Dahl was recently promoted from the minors to replace the injured Carlos Gonzalez, and he's capable of providing a spark.
The offense as a whole will need to round into form if the Rockies are going to return to the postseason after reaching the Wild Card Game a year ago.
Chicago Cubs: A Struggling Starting Rotation
Current Playoff Odds: 89.0 percent (-6.7%)
The Chicago Cubs gave up top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease to acquire Jose Quintana from the Chicago White Sox last summer.
Then they went out and spent $126 million to add Yu Darvish in free agency.
The early returns from that duo in 2018:
- Quintana: 4 GS, 2-1, 7.78 ERA, 1.78 WHIP, .304 BAA
- Darvish: 4 GS, 0-2, 6.86 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, .269 BAA
That leaves the starting staff with a 5.27 ERA that ranks 26th in the majors.
It's worth noting that Quintana is no stranger to slow starts, having gone 2-7 with a 5.60 ERA over the first two months of the 2017 season before rounding into form.
Meanwhile, Darvish is still getting acclimated to a new team, but manager Joe Maddon sounds confident he'll figure things out.
"I really believe he's going to have a great season," Maddon told reporters. "He's really good. We have to get him on a normal schedule. He knows what he needs to do to get better and more consistent. I have some ideas I'll relay to him."
Minnesota Twins: A Migraine Issue for Byron Buxton
Current Playoff Odds: 21.3 percent (-7.4%)
Byron Buxton was one of the breakout stars of the 2017 season.
After failing to live up to lofty expectations early in his MLB career, the former No. 1 prospect in baseball posted a 5.2 WAR on the strength of his stellar defensive work in center field and game-changing speed on the bases.
Expected to be a crucial part of the Minnesota Twins' success once again, he is instead dealing with migraine issues.
Over 43 plate appearances, he hit .195/.233/.244 before landing on the disabled list Wednesday.
The 24-year-old took batting practice Saturday for the first time since being placed on the disabled list, and the results were a mixed bag.
"After sleeping more than 40 total hours over the past few nights, Buxton said he was still dealing with 'pounding' in his head but said his dizziness and blurred vision had improved," wrote Mike Berardino of the Twin Cities Pioneer Press.
Even if Buxton can shake the migraine issues, there's no telling when they might return, and that's a troubling level of uncertainty surrounding one of the team's most important players.
Washington Nationals: A Shaky Bullpen
Current Playoff Odds: 75.4 percent (-13.9%)
The Washington Nationals dealt with a leaky relief corps at the start of last season before swinging a pair of trades to acquire Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler.
With all three of those late-inning arms back, the bullpen was expected to be a strength from the get-go this year.
Instead, its 5.78 ERA ranks 28th in the majors and last in the NL, and the staff has tallied six losses and three blown saves.
While Doolittle has been solid (10 G, 4/4 SV, 2.70 ERA), both Madson (11 G, 0-2, 1 BS, 6.97 ERA) and Kintzler (11 G, 0-2, 1 BS, 5.73 ERA) have struggled, leaving a glaring hole at the end of games.
Trevor Gott, Austin L. Adams and Carlos Torres were called up from Triple-A in an effort to shake things up, so credit to the front office for being proactive.
Still, the Nats will need those proven veteran arms pitching up to their potential if they hope to deliver on lofty expectations.
San Francisco Giants: A Lack of Offensive Production
Current Playoff Odds: 8.0 percent (-15.9%)
The San Francisco Giants' decision to buy this offseason seemed misguided at the time.
Now, after a 9-12 start that features a minus-nine run differential, it's looking more and more like they would have been better served by starting to rebuild.
Losing ace Madison Bumgarner at the end of spring training to a fractured pinkie finger was a huge blow, but the starting staff has actually performed well with a 3.25 ERA that ranks seventh in the majors.
Instead, it's the offense that has been the biggest weakness:
- BA: .236 (17th in MLB)
- OPS: .658 (25th in MLB)
- R/G: 3.14 (29th in MLB)
Newcomers Evan Longoria (.243 BA, .763 OPS) and Andrew McCutchen (.213 BA, .670 OPS) are off to mediocre starts, and only first baseman Brandon Belt (.288 BA, .962 OPS) has posted above-average numbers.
So what's next for a team with an aging core and a bloated payroll?
Don't be surprised if the Giants are one of the more active teams in the summer trade market. They certainly have the chips to make some noise.