1 Takeaway for Every MLB Team Thus Far in 2021 Season

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IMay 9, 2021

1 Takeaway for Every MLB Team Thus Far in 2021 Season

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    We're getting past the point of first impressions for the 2021 MLB season. Developing trends have taken on significance, for both players and teams. 

    So it's a good time for one takeaway for every club through the first month-plus. It's important to establish there are numerous things to be gleaned from close to 30 games of action. Thus, there is some subjectivity at play.

    Some of these takeaways might focus on standout or key players. Others might be more team-oriented in nature.

    Let's jump in.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Carson Kelly Is for Real

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly is reminding everyone why he was such a vital piece of the Paul Goldschmidt trade.

    Kelly was excellent in his debut season with the D-backs in 2019. He hit 18 homers and posted an .826 OPS in just under 400 plate appearances. Last season was more difficult, as Kelly slashed .221/.264/.385 in 39 games.

    But he's off to a terrific start. Discipline has been the key. After posting a 13.2 percent walk rate in 2019, Kelly walked in just 4.7 percent of plate appearances in 2020. That number has jumped to 19.8 percent this year, and his strikeout rate has dropped by 6.2 percentage points.  

    As a result, the 26-year-old ranks in the 98th percentile in expected wOBA (xwOBA). But there's more. Kelly is hitting .318 with six homers and a 1.094 OPS. The batted-ball numbers aren't overly impressive, yet he still ranks in the 92nd percentile in expected slugging (xSLG).

    It would be enormous for Arizona if Kelly were to have sustained success and become one of the best players at a premium position.

Atlanta Braves: Huascar Ynoa Is Pivotal in the Rotation

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The development of Huascar Ynoa has suddenly become vital to the Atlanta Braves.

    Mike Soroka could be out until the latter half of June after Achilles surgery and right shoulder trouble, per MLB.com's Mark Bowman. Drew Smyly had a nice bounce-back start Thursday against the Washington Nationals but has otherwise been disappointing.

    Ynoa, on the other hand, has been a gem. The 22-year-old has a 2.36 ERA and 0.90 WHIP in 34.1 innings. He is striking out 10.0 per nine innings and ranks above the 70th percentile in both whiff rate and chase rate. Those marks have helped him rank in the top 15 in skill-interactive ERA (SIERA). 

    The stuff is evident. Ynoa's got good gas and a wipeout slider that has yielded a 40.5 percent whiff rate. The fastball has gotten touched up a bit, but that's to be expected from a young arm still learning how to command his power stuff in and out of the zone.

Baltimore Orioles: John Means, Cedric Mullins Are Cornerstones

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Most of the Baltimore Orioles' future core is still in the minor leagues. But John Means and Cedric Mullins are showing why they can be franchise cornerstones.

    Means is coming off a dominant no-hitter Wednesday, one that would have been a perfect game if not for a dropped third strike. The left-hander has a 1.37 ERA and American League-best 0.67 WHIP. He leads the majors in hits per nine innings (4.1), though that might be slightly more expected after a no-hitter.

    Means ranks in the 90th percentile in average exit velocity and 81st percentile in whiff rate. He has decimated right-handed hitters with his changeup, which has the second-highest run value among all pitches in the majors. 

    Mullins, meanwhile, has been far and away Baltimore's best position player. He made strides in 2020 and has gone to another level in 2021, slashing .317/.379/.524 with five homers and an AL-best 11 doubles. He makes a lot of contact, flies around the bases and plays terrific defense. That's a legitimate asset in center field.

    The Orioles are a ways from contending. But Means and Mullins can be building blocks as the young talent makes its way through the system.

Boston Red Sox: Legit Contenders, but Pitching the X-Factor

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Let's start by stating the obvious: The Boston Red Sox will continue to score a lot of runs.

    Boston ranks first in the AL in runs scored and OPS. J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and Alex Verdugo are as dangerous a quartet as there is in the majors. Really, the only direction to go is up if Bobby Dalbec can start hitting and the Red Sox get more from the outfield group outside Verdugo. 

    But the Red Sox need more pitching. The good news is Garrett Richards has rebounded nicely as of late. Nick Pivetta has made Boston clear winners of last year's Brandon Workman trade—though it didn't take much—and Martin Perez and (especially) Eduardo Rodriguez have strong peripherals. Chris Sale also threw off a mound and could be back this summer.

    However, Nathan Eovaldi has struggled in three of his last four outings. Plus, a rotating sixth starter might not be the worst idea even when Sale returns, given his injury history.

    The Red Sox could also benefit from more depth in the bullpen. Command has been a wild card for Adam Ottavino and Darwinzon Hernandez. Not to mention, Boston's starters don't go terribly deep into games. As such, the Red Sox need more guys to be effective in the middle innings.

Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant Is All the Way Back

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    Kris Bryant's 2020 campaign was marred by numerous injuries. But the 2016 NL MVP is healthy, and he's playing some of the best ball of his career.

    The Chicago Cubs star is slashing .306/.391/.658 with nine homers and 22 RBI. He ranks fourth in MLB in fWAR. He's producing how a franchise would hope its top star might.

    Yet, the advanced numbers are way more telling than the counting stats. Bryant's average exit velocity (88.1 mph) isn't spectacular, but it's his highest since 2016. His hard-hit rate (45 percent) is the best of his career, as is the 15 percent barrel rate. What's changed?

    For starters, Bryant is making more contact in the zone. His 81.7 percent zone contact rate is close to another personal best. Additionally, Bryant isn't missing fastballs. He's hitting .319 with seven homers against heaters this season.

    The 29-year-old has also been valuable in terms of his positional versatility. Cubs manager David Ross has used him in all three outfield positions and both corner infield spots.

    Bryant—a free agent at the end of the season—might not remain on the North Side through July. He certainly has upped his trade value.

Chicago White Sox: The Rotation Is One of the Best in Baseball

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    The preseason hype surrounding the Chicago White Sox focused mostly on the positional talent. Chicago is scoring its share of runs, but the rotation has been superb.

    Chicago's starters rank second in fWAR and fifth in expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) while leading the majors in ERA. Carlos Rodon has been brilliant, giving up just 12 hits and two earned runs in 31 innings while striking out 44 opponents. The Lance Lynn acquisition is paying off early, as he has a 1.82 ERA in four starts.

    But perhaps the most notable guy is right-hander Dylan Cease. The 25-year-old has a 2.37 ERA in six starts. He has not allowed a run in his last two outings, striking out 20 in 13.0 innings. Walks are still a bit of an issue, but Cease has strong batted-ball metrics and ranks in the 83rd percentile in chase rate.

    The scariest thing is, this group can be so much better. Lucas Giolito has a 4.99 ERA in six starts, while Dallas Keuchel has also been uninspiring. Moreover, the White Sox can deploy Michael Kopech as they see fit.

    Chicago's rotation can be as good as any in baseball. That's a good thing, too, because there's a lot of offensive uncertainty with both Eloy Jimenez (pectoral) and Luis Robert (hip strain) on the shelf.

Cincinnati Reds: Bullpen Is a Disaster

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Reds have a serious bullpen problem.

    Reds relievers have the second-worst ERA and the worst xFIP in the majors. That's despite having Tejay Antone, who has been the team's best workhorse with a 2.60 ERA and 0.87 WHIP.

    Most everyone else is struggling. Amir Garrett has a 10.38 ERA and has given up four homers in 8.2 innings. Sal Romano has also given up four homers and has a 6.23 ERA. Lucas Sims can't find the strike zone. Jose De Leon was optioned. It's a mess.

    Cincinnati's rotation has upside if Luis Castillo can revert to the ace-caliber guy he was in 2020. Heck, Wade Miley threw a no-hitter on Friday! The offense has cooled and will be without Joey Votto (thumb) for a month, but it's still scratching across runs.

    But the bullpen needs to be better, plain and simple.

Cleveland: Pitching Will (Again) Define How Far This Team Goes

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Pitching has been the biggest driver of Cleveland's success for years. Nothing has changed in 2021. 

    Manager Terry Francona's team ranks 13th in the AL in runs scored and in OPS despite big seasons from Jose Ramirez and Franmil Reyes. Cleveland's hitters don't get on base nearly enough (.282 OBP), and the club was no-hit on Friday.

    Alas, the pitching staff has and must continue to carry the load. 

    Shane Bieber is in Cy Young form. Aaron Civale has been a solid No. 2, and Zach Plesac strung together good starts against the Twins, White Sox and Reds. Triston McKenzie has given up lots of hard contact and has had command issues, but he also ranks in the 88th percentile in whiff rate.

    The bullpen, meanwhile, has one of the best one-two punches in James Karinchak and closer Emmanuel Clase. That's as intimidating a duo as there is in the majors.

    Obviously, the lineup could stand to see increased production from guys like Eddie Rosario and Cesar Hernandez. Josh Naylor has come on fairly strong as of late.

    Ultimately, though, the pitching staff should continue to determine team success, or lack thereof.

Colorado Rockies: Sell Sooner Rather Than Later

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    It's not as if there haven't been positives for the Colorado Rockies.

    Colorado ranks fourth in the NL in runs scored and seventh in OPS. Guys like Raimel Tapia (.786 OPS) and Ryan McMahon (eight homers) have made strides. Garrett Hampson's numbers (seven steals, .740 OPS) are also noteworthy.

    Still, the franchise is clearly in transition with Jeff Bridich stepping down as general manager. The Rockies should begin this transition by hashing out plans to sell.

    Trevor Story is the obvious asset. Right-hander Jon Gray should be a desirable starter. Reliever Mychal Givens is on an expiring contract and could appeal to a number of teams. 

    Colorado desperately needs to bolster the farm system. The Rockies might be able to acquire more value if they try to make some deals in the next couple of months rather than waiting until the deadline.

Detroit Tigers: This Is the Year Matt Boyd Gets Dealt

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    It feels like Detroit Tigers left-hander Matt Boyd has had his name tossed about in trade rumors for the last three years. But this could be the season he is moved.

    Boyd was horrific in 2020, giving up an MLB-high 45 earned runs and 15 homers. The long ball has really become an issue, especially in the past few seasons. However, Boyd has mitigated that problem this year.

    The 30-year-old has given up just one homer in his first 35.2 innings, posting a 2.27 ERA in six starts. He is also missing barrels

    Boyd is under club control through 2022. He will likely be Detroit's best asset. This will be the year the Tigers move him.

Houston Astros: A New Cristian Javier

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    Steve Nesius/Associated Press

    Cristian Javier had an excellent rookie season in 2020, posting a 3.48 ERA in 54.1 innings and finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year race. Yet, he looks like a different guy this year.

    Javier has a 1.75 ERA and 0.90 WHIP through five starts. Most notably, he has unlocked the swing-and-miss stuff. 

    The 24-year-old ranks in the 72nd percentile in whiff rate after ranking in the 21st percentile in 2020. He has added well over 2 mph to his slider, which has a 51.1 whiff rate this season. It's also been his best out pitch.

    Javier has also shown more variety. He is still heavily reliant on the fastball-slider combination but has not been afraid to mix in the curveball and changeup, especially against left-handed hitters.

    Javier's emergence as a strikeout arm could be a big development for the Astros, who need quality from their rotation, considering the shortage of depth in the bullpen.

Kansas City Royals: Danny Duffy’s Outstanding Start

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Has any pitcher been quite as surprising as 11-year veteran Danny Duffy? 

    The Kansas City Royals left-hander is 4-2 with an AL-best 1.26 ERA and 341 ERA+ through his first six starts. Duffy has struck out 40 in 35.2 innings, giving up just two homers and walking 10.

    The success appears to be coming from an increase in velocity. Duffy has added at least one tick to every pitch in his arsenal. That has resulted in Duffy's ranking in the 66th percentile in whiff rate after he ranked below the 45th percentile in each of the previous three seasons.

    He also has that much more sharpness with his breaking stuff and has commanded the fastball to every quadrant.

    Kansas City likely hopes to stay in contention as long as possible. But Duffy (on an expiring contract) could be a valuable trade asset.

Los Angeles Angels: Mike Trout Is Only Getting Better

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    There are a number of takeaways when it comes to the Los Angeles Angels.

    On a positive note, Shohei Ohtani's all-world talents have been on full display. Jared Walsh ranks 16th in wRC+. From a more pessimistic standpoint, the Angels desperately need more pitching.

    But we have to talk about the best player in the game.

    Remember when Mike Trout told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic this spring he was only just starting to feel more comfortable in the batter’s box? He wasn't kidding. Trout has been dominant in 2021.

    The three-time MVP leads the majors in batting average (.385), OBP (.496), OPS (1.235) and OPS+ (243). He also ranks first in wRC+ and fWAR. How is it he keeps getting better?

    Trout is fully buying into his pull power. He is hitting to the pull side 51.6 percent of the time, though he has also stayed through the middle of the field. His launch angle (10.5 degrees) is also the lowest of his career. Trout is staying on top of the ball, which has resulted in the highest hard-hit rate and barrel rate of his career.

    The .518 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is unsustainable. But there is no question this is the best Trout we have ever seen.

Los Angeles Dodgers: What's Up with Mookie Betts?

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    If Trout is the best player in baseball, Mookie Betts has been the second-best player in the sport for years. Only, he hasn't played like it this season. 

    Betts is slashing .257/.367/.450 with four homers and just seven RBI. The walk rate is up, but the strikeout rate has also seen a slight uptick.

    Now, Betts wasn't always struggling. He was 8-for-23 with three extra-base hits through the first several games. But he then missed four games with a lower back injury. It's been a tough slog ever since, as Betts is hitting just .233 with a .723 OPS in 20 games since the injury. The absence of hard contact has been troubling. Betts' barrel rate is down nearly two percentage points from 2020.

    Something else of note: Pitchers are throwing him more breaking balls (five percentage points higher). He hasn't handled them well, hitting just .189 with a 25 percent whiff rate as compared to a 19.4 percent whiff rate on breakers in 2020.

    Have pitchers adapted to Mookie, or is he just not right physically? It's unclear, but his slump has mirrored the Dodgers' abominable recent stretch.

Miami Marlins: The Rotation Is Incredibly Fun

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The Miami Marlins are the only NL East team with a positive run differential, mostly because of the quality in their starting rotation.

    The trio of Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Trevor Rogers has been fantastic. All three have sub-3.00 ERAs, with Rogers sitting quite nicely with a 1.89 ERA through his first seven starts.

    It's not just that those three guys have been so good. They're also in their age-25 seasons or younger, which makes the success all the more impressive.

    Sixto Sanchez is still on the mend from a shoulder setback. He should add even more intrigue when healthy. But the Marlins are still a fun team to watch when the above three guys take the bump.

Milwaukee Brewers: The Walking Wounded

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    Before delving a little deeper into the extent of the Milwaukee Brewers' injuries, we should state they deserve a lot of credit.

    The Brewers are just one game back in the NL Central despite an offense ranking 14th in the NL in OPS and last in the NL in strikeouts. The rotation has been terrific, with Brandon Woodruff dominating and Freddy Peralta looking like a breakout star.

    But Milwaukee has been deprived of a lot of key guys. Corbin Burnes has been on the injured list since the end of April. Brett Anderson has not pitched since April 23.

    The situation is even direr in terms of the position group. Catcher Omar Narvaez (who leads all Brewers position players in WAR) recently hit the IL with a hamstring strain. Lorenzo Cain only just returned after missing close to three weeks.

    Then there's Christian Yelich. The former NL MVP was placed back on the IL with a back issue that has given him fits all season. Manager Craig Counsell told reporters the team would "seek avenues to get answers," per Adam McCalvy of MLB.com.

    The lack of depth is starting to catch up with Milwaukee, as the Brewers came into Friday's game having lost five straight. They could certainly benefit from better health.

Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton Living Up to Full Potential

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Byron Buxton was the No. 2 overall pick in 2012. He always had exceptional talent. Through the years, though, injuries and inconsistencies have led to Minnesota Twins fans only getting a glimpse of that talent.

    But Buxton has had it all on full display.

    The 27-year-old is slashing .370/.408/.772 with nine homers and a 235 OPS+. He has 10 doubles and has stolen five bases without being thrown out. 

    Much of the buzz has been about Buxton's growth in the batter’s box, and rightly so. He ranks above the 96th percentile in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrel rate. However, Buxton's defense has been equally special.

    Sometimes it's hard to appreciate premium defending when it's exhibited so often. But Buxton continues to dazzle in center field. He ranks in the 97th percentile in outs above average (OAA) and is first in defensive runs saved (DRS).

    Twins fans can only hope the injury issues are not flaring up again. Buxton left Thursday's game with a hip strain and was placed on the IL.

New York Mets: What's Up with Francisco Lindor?

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Much like Betts, Francisco Lindor has struggled. Only Lindor's OPS is 268 points lower than Betts'. 

    It's no secret the 2021 campaign has not been the kind of introduction Lindor was likely hoping to give New York Mets fans. He is hitting .175 with a .549 OPS and only just broke an 0-for-26 stretch Thursday against the St. Louis Cardinals.

    On the one hand, Lindor is taking his walks and not being baited. His 13.7 percent walk rate is by far the highest of his career. But the hard contact hasn't been there. Lindor ranks in the 40th percentile in average exit velocity and 21st percentile in barrel rate.

    It's anyone's guess as to exactly why Mr. Smile is having a tough time getting the barrel through. The Mets might just have fired hitting coach Chili Davis in part because their marquee attraction was so visibly not himself.

    It's hard not to notice the increase in ground balls and decrease in pull rate. Lindor can hit the ball all over the field, but he's best when he's unleashing his pull power especially from the left side.

    There was also that incident Friday night in which Lindor possibly scuffled with Jeff McNeil before saying postgame they were arguing about whether an animal they saw in the dugout tunnel was a rat or a raccoon. These are strange times, indeed.

New York Yankees: Giancarlo Stanton Going Nuts

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The New York Yankees have gradually begun to get their dormant offense rolling. Giancarlo Stanton is a huge reason for the recent success.

    Stanton was trending similarly to Lindor through the first couple of weeks. He was hitting .158 with a .571 OPS on April 21. Since then, however, the 2017 NL MVP has been prolific.

    Stanton was hitting .481 with six homers, four doubles and 11 RBI in his last 12 games entering the start of a weekend series with the Washington Nationals. He hit safely in each of those dozen contests. 

    The 31-year-old also struck out just 10 times in 55 plate appearances during that stretch. That might not seem significant, but it very much is given Stanton's swing-and-miss tendencies, especially at the start of the season.

    Stanton ranks at the top of the majors in average exit velocity, max exit velocity and hard-hit rate. He was due for more success so long as he started to make a bit more contact and elevate the ball. 

    Both those things have happened, resulting in an incredible offensive display.

Oakland Athletics: Streaky!

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    The Oakland Athletics have been one of the most volatile clubs in baseball.

    Oakland's early-season woes were one of the major storylines when the A's lost seven of their first eight games. But manager Bob Melvin's squad rebounded with 13 consecutive victories and 14 wins in 15 games, only to lose four of the next five.

    The Athletics are all over the map, mostly because the highs have been very high and lows have been very low. 

    Take, for instance, closer Lou Trivino. He allowed just two runs in his first 16 innings but nearly blew a late lead to the Toronto Blue Jays on May 3 before giving up five runs and blowing in his next appearance just two days later. Other players, like Jed Lowrie, have also succumbed to streakiness.

    The good news is Matt Chapman is heating up. He had hit safely in nine straight games heading into the weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Philadelphia Phillies: This Might Be the Best Version of Bryce Harper

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Bryce Harper's 2015 MVP season was one of the best individual campaigns ever. Yet, it's possible this is the best version of Harper we've ever seen.

    The Philadelphia Phillies star is slashing .322/.449/.598 with six homers. He has also stolen three bases and has a 190 OPS+, the second-highest mark of his career. Dig a little deeper, though, and you might come to realize Harper is at his most dangerous. 

    Harper has new career-high marks in average exit velocity (93.1 mph), barrel percentage (20.3) and hard-hit rate (51.6 percent). He ranks in the 100th percentile with an astonishing .513 xwOBA. That's not even the most eye-popping number on his page, either. He has an absurd .783 xSLG mark. 

    Harper has made improvements elsewhere, as well. He ranks in the 63rd percentile in outs above average and has been an asset on the bases. 

    The 2010 No. 1 overall pick has become so "overrated" he is now underrated. Harper is proving yet again why he's one of the best players in baseball.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Richard Rodriguez Will Be a Top Deadline Target

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Quick aside: Keep an eye on JT Brubaker. He has a 2.78 ERA in six starts and, of greater import, ranks 14th among qualified starters in SIERA.

    But let's talk about Pittsburgh Pirates closer Richard Rodriguez, because he's been one of the stronger relievers in baseball.

    Rodriguez has yet to allow a run in 12.1 innings. Just two men have reached base against him. That's...superb.

    Now, some of the advanced metrics aren't quite as friendly. Rodriguez ranks in just the 16th percentile in average exit velocity and 45th percentile in whiff rate. Yet, he has pretty consistently outperformed some of his peripherals throughout his career. Maybe that's just who he is. 

    The 31-year-old is arbitration-eligible for two more seasons after 2021. Pittsburgh will likely look to sell him to reliever-needy teams come deadline season.

San Diego Padres: Can’t Let Pitching Staff Carry Them Forever

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    The San Diego Padres are living up to their preseason reputation as one of the top teams in baseball thanks mostly to an elite pitching staff. 

    San Diego's starters have the third-best ERA in baseball. Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove have been among the best pitchers in the sport. Blake Snell has been a strong addition, if not overly exceptional. Ryan Weathers looks like an asset. 

    The bullpen has been surprisingly good. Mark Melancon has converted all 11 of his save chances. Lefties Drew Pomeranz and Tim Hill have been effective from that side of the rubber, with veteran right-hander Craig Stammen rediscovering old form after a poor 2020 campaign.

    But the Padres need to score more if they hope to maximize their potential. San Diego ranks 11th in the NL in runs scored and 13th in OPS. The Friars also rank just 20th in xwOBA.

    The pitching gains are huge. Still, the Padres are unlikely to realize their World Series dreams if they don't start hitting.

San Francisco Giants: They’re a Playoff-Caliber Team

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The San Francisco Giants have been one of the early surprises in baseball. Like the Padres, they owe a lot of their success to a tremendous pitching staff—mostly the rotation.

    San Francisco's rotation has the best ERA in the NL. It is top-to-bottom a strong unit. Even Logan Webb, who has a 5.34 ERA, has good peripherals, including a 3.34 xERA.

    There was hope Kevin Gausman would build off a strong 2020, and he has. But guys like Anthony DeSclafani, Aaron Sanchez and Alex Wood have all been pleasant surprises. Johnny Cueto was also showcasing excellent stuff before hitting the IL with a lat injury.

    The Giants can hit, too. San Francisco ranks sixth in the NL in OPS. The veterans are making big contributions, with Buster Posey (1.231 OPS), Evan Longoria (.885 OPS), Brandon Crawford (.817) and Brandon Belt (.823) driving the baseball. Mike Yastrzemski was heating up before heading to the IL with an oblique injury, and the Giants will likely hope he can get right back to business after he returned Friday.

    San Francisco might not be in the same class as the Dodgers or Padres. But the Giants are absolutely a playoff-caliber team.

Seattle Mariners: They Fight Like Hell

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The Seattle Mariners rank 14th in the AL in OPS. There are some question marks in the rotation. Plus, they're a young team.

    Yep, the M's are quite youthful…and quite scrappy.

    Seattle entered Saturday as the second-best team in the AL West. The Mariners have had to battle for wins, but they are finding ways to close the show. The M's are 8-4 in one-run games, and the bullpen ranks fifth in fWAR.

    The Mariners will eventually need to score more and find steadier run-producers outside Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager. It would help quite a bit if Ty France broke out of his slump.

    Lastly, please bring Jarred Kelenic up. He's pretty much been ready since the start of camp and homered twice in his first MiLB game of the season Thursday.

St. Louis Cardinals: Most Balanced Team in NL Central

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    No single NL Central team has been all that impressive. But the St. Louis Cardinals, considered by many to be preseason favorites, are probably the most balanced team in the division.

    The Redbirds rank fifth in the NL in runs scored and ninth in OPS. They rank ninth in staff ERA, with the return of Kwang Hyun Kim really bolstering the rotation and Giovanny Gallegos anchoring the bullpen. St. Louis can hit and pitch from start to finish.

    Another thing to consider: The Cardinals rank eighth in the NL in slugging but have the fifth-largest difference between their actual slugging percentage (.401) and xSLG number (.481). There is plenty of upside, particularly when considering Paul Goldschmidt (.646 OPS) is off to a slow start.

    The rest of the teams in the Central have a clear flaw. That's not as easy to discern with the Cardinals.

Tampa Bay Rays: Need to See More

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Rays didn't make many changes to their position group this past winter. It was always going to be how they replaced Blake Snell and Charlie Morton in the rotation.

    President of baseball operations Erik Neander got some veteran arms in Rich Hill, Michael Wacha and Chris Archer. Still, it seemed likely the Rays would have to rely on the arm talent in the pipeline at some stage.

    We are starting to see more of those guys. Shane McClanahan and Luis Patino are both up to join Josh Fleming. Those three, teaming with early AL Cy Young candidate Tyler Glasnow, are absolutely vital to Tampa Bay's chances of contending.

    The bullpen is still solid and should improve with the return of Pete Fairbanks after a rotator cuff injury. The offense is managing to score runs despite ranking 11th in the AL in OPS and 26th in the majors in xwOBA.

    It feels like we've yet to really see this group take shape. The young arms have more to prove, and Wander Franco could be on a fast track to the bigs.

Texas Rangers: Solid Group of Building Blocks

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    Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

    The Texas Rangers suddenly have guys to build around.

    The decision to part with Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor up the middle has paid major dividends. Isiah Kiner-Falefa has a .754 OPS with five homers and six steals. He is tied for second in defensive runs saved. Meanwhile, Nick Solak has an .848 OPS and ranks just ahead of Kiner-Falefa in fWAR.

    There's more. Nate Lowe, acquired from the Rays in the offseason, has an .835 OPS and 25 RBI. Willie Calhoun has just 72 plate appearances, but he is more closely resembling the guy who had an .848 OPS in 2019. Additionally, Adolis Garcia has an .854 OPS and ranks in the 85th percentile in outs above average.

    The rotation has been super hit-or-miss. Kyle Gibson, 33, isn't a building block. But Dane Dunning, who has a 2.23 FIP, definitely will be as the main piece in the Lance Lynn trade.

Toronto Blue Jays: Vladdy Jr.'s Dominance

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    The hype that preceded Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s debut in 2019 was almost unfair to him. In addition, he, like the rest of baseball, dealt with strange circumstances in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

    However, the Vladdy Jr. hype train only picked up steam after he revealed he lost 42 pounds in the offseason. Could 2021 be the year he broke out? The answer through just over a month would appear to be a resounding yes. 

    Guerrero is slashing .321/.459/.575 with seven homers and a 193 OPS+. He still has more walks (24) than strikeouts (22). Of course, the batted-ball metrics are stellar. The 22-year-old ranks in the 85th percentile in hard-hit rate and 95th percentile or higher in xwOBA and average exit velocity. 

    The most important part of Guerrero's development has been his ability to get the ball elevated. His launch angle (10.2 degrees) is nearly six degrees higher than it was in 2019.

    This is the guy Toronto Blue Jays fans likely envisioned as he tore through their minor league system. He is staking his claim as one of the best hitters in the game.

Washington Nationals: More Production Needed from the Newcomers

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The Washington Nationals made fairly significant investments in both Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber last offseason. 

    Washington gave up a pair of its top prospects—Eddy Yean and Wil Crowe—to acquire Bell from the Pittsburgh Pirates. They also paid Schwarber $10 million after he was non-tendered by the Chicago Cubs.

    The moves made at least some sense. The Nats needed middle-of-the-order production. Bell (an All-Star in 2019) and Schwarber (.816 career OPS in Chicago) were pretty strong options in that regard.

    Unfortunately for the Nats, both guys have been quite disappointing.

    Bell is hitting just .145 with a .540 OPS. He's hitting the ball hard but once again is pounding it into the ground. Schwarber is hitting .190 with a .602 OPS and has the third-highest strikeout rate of his career.

    Washington desperately needs more offense from these two boppers, because it's unlikely guys like Starlin Castro and Victor Robles will be major run-producers.

    Josh Harrison has far exceeded expectations. However, the Nats will not maximize their offensive output if Bell and Schwarber continue to struggle.

                  

    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant or FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate prior to the start of play on May 8.

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