Early Signs of Doom for MLB's Expected 2019 Contenders

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 23, 2019

Early Signs of Doom for MLB's Expected 2019 Contenders

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    What's eating the reigning champs, and other observations.
    What's eating the reigning champs, and other observations.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The 2019 Major League Baseball season has only been going for three weeks and change, but the expected status quo is already in jeopardy.

    To wit, a few teams that were expected to be heavy hitters in the American League and National League playoff races are off to slow starts that are laced with signs of lasting doom. 

    We will focus on seven in particular, plus a few dishonorable mentions. These teams have been worse than anticipated out of the gate, with flaws that run the gamut from offensive, defensive and pitching problems to plain ol' injury issues.

    We'll start in the AL East and work our way to the NL West.

New York Yankees: A Better Question Is Who's *Not* Injured

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    Aaron Judge
    Aaron JudgeJim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Record: 12-10, 2nd in AL East

    Relative to the 100 games they won in 2018, the New York Yankees' early record is a massive disappointment. Considering who occupies their injured list, it could be worse.

    Currently out of commission for the Yankees are outfielders Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks and Jacoby Ellsbury, infielders Didi Gregorius, Miguel Andujar, Troy Tulowitzki and Greg Bird, catcher Gary Sanchez and pitchers Luis Severino, Dellin Betances, Ben Heller and Jordan Montgomery.

    What's more, many of these injuries are of the serious variety. Per the official MLB.com tracker, only Stanton and Sanchez are expected back before the end of April.

    The big concern right now is how long Judge, a two-time All-Star and elite power supply, will be out with the oblique injury he sustained on Saturday. Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters it's a "pretty significant" injury.

    These injuries hardly constitute a roster construction flaw, yet they're nonetheless a harsh reality that New York has to deal with. This season will be a success story only if the Yankees ultimately rise above their current .500-ish pace.

Boston Red Sox: Their Supposedly Elite Lineup Has a Hangover

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    Mookie Betts
    Mookie BettsBillie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    Record: 9-13, 4th in AL East

    The Boston Red Sox's starting rotation has been knocked around, yet hope has materialized. Per MLB.com's Dawn Klemish, Boston starters went from an 8.79 through their first 13 games to a 3.21 ERA over their next nine. 

    Now it's the Boston offense's turn to get going, because this isn't pretty:

    • 2018: .792 OPS and 5.4 R/G
    • 2019: .691 OPS and 4.2 R/G

    Apart from J.D. Martinez and Mitch Moreland, nobody is free from blame for the Red Sox's offensive downfall. That includes reigning AL MVP Mookie Betts, who's gone from a 1.078 OPS to a pedestrian .783. In his own words, what he's doing is "unacceptable."

    The guys in the Red Sox's lineup also need to shape up on the other side of the ball. The club's defense ranks 24th in efficiency, rooted in some truly sloppy play.

    It should bode well that the Red Sox have carried over essentially the same lineup that led the charge to 108 wins and a World Series title in 2018. But there's clearly a hangover effect in play right now, and such things have been known to last.

Cleveland Indians: Their Offense Is Shallow and Ineffective

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    Jose Ramirez
    Jose RamirezTed S. Warren/Associated Press

    Record: 12-9, 2nd in AL Central

    On the bright side, the Cleveland Indians are comfortably over .500 and only 1.5 games behind the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central.

    On the less bright side, they've allowed more runs than they've scored, precisely because their offense has even bigger problems than Boston's. Collectively, the Indians are averaging a .637 OPS and a hair under four runs per game.

    There are reasons to believe that better things await Cleveland's offense. Superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor is back after a stay on the injured list. Fellow superstar Jose Ramirez probably won't languish with a .464 OPS forever.

    And yet this is decidedly not the same lineup that averaged 5.1 runs per game in 2018.

    Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Yan Gomes and Yonder Alonso were lost via trades and free agency over the winter, and the Tribe certainly spared expense in filling their shoes. Bringing back Carlos Santana is proving to be a stroke of genius, but their haul of low-risk additions (e.g., Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Gonzalez and Brad Miller) has yielded next to nothing in rewards.

    That always had the potential to cost the team out on the field. Lo and behold, it is.

Oakland Athletics: Their Starting Rotation Isn't Holding Together

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    Mike Fiers
    Mike FiersBen Margot/Associated Press

    Record: 12-13, 4th in AL West

    There was a point early on when things were looking up for the Oakland Athletics precisely because of their starting pitchers. They fueled a 2.00 ERA that begat a 6-2 run between March 28 and April 4.

    The A's have gone 6-9 ever since then, however, and whether they have a workable starting rotation at all is very much a question mark.

    A's starters are saddled with a 5.01 ERA overall, and it would be much worse without the fine work of Brett Anderson and Frankie Montas. Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada and Aaron Brooks have combined for a 6.88 ERA over 15 starts.

    This is happening on the heels of a 2018 season during which Oakland's starting rotation didn't look like much, but still aided a 97-win campaign with a respectable 4.17 ERA. The A's front office took that as a cue to largely leave their rotation alone over the winter.

    Trouble is, Oakland underestimated both the potential for regression—particularly in light of the 2018 starters' 29th-ranked strikeout rate—and how much it would miss the injured Sean Manaea and the departed Trevor Cahill. The bill for this mistake is coming due now.

Washington Nationals: The Top-Heaviness of Their Roster Is Showing

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    Max Scherzer (L) and Patrick Corbin (R)
    Max Scherzer (L) and Patrick Corbin (R)Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Record: 10-11, 4th in NL East

    Following the flurry of activity that engulfed the division over the winter, the NL East has been about as competitive as anticipated. Only the Miami Marlins are truly out of it.

    The Washington Nationals, however, aren't as in the race as they were widely expected to be. 

    It's not Anthony Rendon's fault, and he's been getting a decent help on offense from Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton. On the pitching side, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg are doing just fine atop the rotation, while Sean Doolittle and Kyle Barraclough are anchoring the bullpen.

    There's, otherwise, an ample supply of black holes in Washington's roster. Trea Turner (broken finger) is sorely missed at shortstop, and the Nats aren't getting much out of second base, first base and catcher either. And apart from their big guns, their pitching can be charitably described as "adventurous."

    Perhaps it's too early to panic about this. Alternatively, this is eerily reminiscent of the top-heaviness issue the Nats had with their roster last season, which resulted in a disappointing 82-80 record.

Chicago Cubs: Their Lineup Still Isn't All the Way Fixed

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    Kris Bryant
    Kris BryantMichael Reaves/Getty Images

    Record: 10-10, 4th in NL Central

    The Chicago Cubs are coming around. They started out at 3-8. They're 7-2 since, and 2.5 games back, first place in the NL Central isn't far outside their reach.

    Yet at the same time, their lineup is actually going backward. To illustrate:

    • First 11 G: .838 OPS and 6.7 R/G
    • Next 9 G: .716 OPS and 4.0 R/G

    This could be revealed to be Just One of Those Things™, but this isn't the first time in recent history that the Cubs have had their offensive output suddenly dry up. Indeed, that was the story of their late slide in 2018.

    As far as individuals go, the Cubs must be concerned that Kris Bryant's bat still looks about as lifeless as it did following the left shoulder injury he sustained last May. A second straight slow start for Anthony Rizzo and ongoing inconsistency from Kyle Schwarber are two more concerns.

    Not to be overlooked is that it's not just offense that this Cubs lineup is struggling with. This is no longer a great defensive unit, as Chicago's efficiency is tied for 25th.

    All this is just noise for now, but perhaps not for much longer if improvements aren't made.

Colorado Rockies: Their Bad Offense Has Gotten Even Worse

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    Nolan Arenado
    Nolan ArenadoMike Carlson/Associated Press

    Record: 10-13, 4th in NL West

    The Colorado Rockies have also been coming around with a 6-1 record in their last seven games. This has much to do with their offense showing up with an .871 OPS and 43 runs.

    Still, it'll take a lot more for the Rockies offense to prove it's truly out of the woods.

    Though Colorado won 91 games and made the playoffs in 2018, its offense didn't exactly go along willingly. They struggled to find production from players not named Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon, and things were downright ugly (.665 OPS) away from Coors Field.

    New year, same problems. Only David Dahl is off to a truly strong start offensively, and there's a 270-point gap between the Rockies' home OPS (.830) and road OPS (.560).

    It will help when Arenado, Story and Blackmon inevitably get rolling again, and when newcomer Daniel Murphy returns from a broken finger. It's difficult to predict who else might help, however, as the team's offense is otherwise made up of many of the guys who were part of the problem in 2018.

Dishonorable Mentions

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    Noah Syndergaard
    Noah SyndergaardDerik Hamilton/Associated Press

    New York Mets (12-10): Their Pitching and Defense Are Shockingly Bad

    The Mets are surviving so far, yet there's plenty not to like about their NL-worst 5.45 ERA. There aren't many early success stories in their pitching staff outside of newcomer closer Edwin Diaz. To boot, their defense has been the least efficient in the MLB by a good margin.

                    

    Atlanta Braves (11-10): Their Pitching Staff is Kind of a Mess

    The Braves' 4.69 ERA isn't terrible, but it's been a struggle for them to produce even that number. They've used more starters (eight) than any other team, and their bullpen was in disarray even before Arodys Vizcaino was lost for the season with a shoulder injury.

                    

    Milwaukee Brewers (13-11) and St. Louis Cardinals (13-9): Neither Has a Functional Starting Rotation

    Speaking of bad pitching, these two NL Central rivals have been getting plenty of it from their starters. Brewers starters have struggled with a 5.81 ERA, while Cardinals starters haven't been much better with a 5.11. Neither club has the right to be surprised, given that both came into the season with serious questions looming over the efficacy of their pitching plans.

                       

    San Diego Padres (12-11): Their Offense Isn't Clicking

    It's not the biggest shocker that the Padres are on their way to San Diego's first winning season since 2010, but it was supposed to be their Manny Machado-infused offense leading the way. In actuality, he is one of many hitters off to a slow start amid a collective .693 OPS and 3.4 runs per game.

                     

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.