MLB Lineup and Pitching Changes That Already Need to Be Made
The 2022 Major League Baseball season isn't even a week old, but why put off until tomorrow what you might be able to fix today?
Based on a combination of offseason expectations, spring training observations and super early regular-season returns, we've put together a list of changes teams should consider before it's too late.
Nothing too drastic here, though. We'll save the "call up the star prospect" cries for another day. And we've limited ourselves to one "improve via trade ASAP" request. Rather, these are relatively minor adjustments that could produce major benefits.
Changes are presented in no particular order, aside from oscillating between teams from the American League and the National League. We'll start with one player from the AL who should be in the starting lineup.
Statistics current through the start of play on April 12.
Give Edward Olivares a Real Shot
Spring training statistics typically aren't worth the paper they're printed on, but they've got to count for something, right? Few players were more impressive during this year's abridged spring training than Kansas City's Edward Olivares.
The 26-year-old outfielder went 17-for-34 at the dish with nine extra-base hits, three home runs and two stolen bases. The only player to amass more total bases than Olivares' 33 during the preseason was Byron Buxton (35).
As a result, Olivares made the Opening Day roster for a Royals squad that—at least as far as preseason win totals were concerned—was expected to finish last in the AL Central.
But he hasn't seen much action yet.
He was a pinch runner (and stole a base) in Saturday's win over Cleveland and only entered Sunday's game against the Guardians after the Royals were already down by double digits.
On the one hand, there's no room at the inn. The Royals have a trio of established, well-paid outfielders in Whit Merrifield, Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor. Both the 1B and DH spots are pretty well spoken for between Carlos Santana and Hunter Dozier, too. Even though not much is expected of this team in 2022, stealing a spot in the lineup isn't going to be easy.
But why not find a way to ride Olivares' hot bat and assess if he can be a building block for the future? Or if he's not going to start anytime soon, at least send him back down to Omaha for regular ABs while you wait for a spot to open up.
Experiment with Diego Castillo in the Outfield
Much like Kansas City's Edward Olivares, Pittsburgh's Diego Castillo was a spring-training darling for a team likely going nowhere fast.
Castillo had 13 hits in 38 plate appearances, including six home runs. While he doesn't have any dingers yet in the regular season, the rookie has gotten out to a nice start with four hits in his first nine at bats.
The question is: If he can keep this up, where do they put him?
Throughout his entire minor-league career, Castillo has bounced between third base, second base and shortstop. For now, second base is probably his job to lose. However, it won't be long before highly touted 2B Nick Gonzales and SS Oneil Cruz get called up to join 3B Ke'Bryan Hayes in the Pirates infield, at which point Castillo might be the odd man out.
They could always slot him as the primary DH, but they might be better suited finding out if he can shag flies for a living, considering their outfield situation beyond Bryan Reynolds isn't great.
Castillo did make a couple of appearances in right field late in spring training, so the possibility is clearly on Pittsburgh's radar. Might as well just go all in and slot him at No. 3 in the lineup (behind Hayes and Reynolds) and at No. 9 in the field on a daily basis and see how it pans out.
Make Matt Barnes Win the Closer Gig Away from Jake Diekman
The 2020 season was a small sample for everyone, especially relievers, but two years ago, Jake Diekman was one of the most unhittable relievers in baseball. In 21.1 innings of work, the left-handed former Oakland Athletic allowed just eight hits and one earned run while striking out 31 batters.
He wasn't nearly that effective last year and did struggle to keep the ball in the yard, but he had a respectable 3.86 ERA and converted seven save opportunities in spite of those 10 home runs allowed. Boston inked the veteran to a two-year, $8 million deal shortly after the lockout ended.
That pickup has already paid huge dividends.
With projected closer Matt Barnes sidelined by a back injury, Diekman was called upon to protect a 4-3 ninth-inning lead at Yankee Stadium on Sunday night. With Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Gallo due up, it was a terrifying proposition. However, Diekman recorded three consecutive swinging strikeouts to give the Red Sox their first win of the season.
Barnes is the one making the big bucks (two years, $18.75 million), but he imploded last August after getting that contract extension, posting a 13.50 ERA for the month with just one save. In fact, his last save of the season came on August 4, and it's not like he had a long history of closing games before 2021, tallying just 15 saves over the previous seven years.
Boston should ride the lightning with Diekman, even when Barnes is healthy. Or it should at least commit to a platoon, unafraid to deploy Barnes in the eighth and save Diekman for the ninth when the opposing lineup's LHP/RHP splits encourage such a move.
Remove Wilmer Flores from the Hot Corner
Wilmer Flores playing third base is a temporary solution while the Giants wait for Evan Longoria to recover from surgery on his right index finger. Tommy La Stella is also working his way back from an Achilles surgery performed in October with no timetable for a return, so it might be a while before either hot-corner option is available.
After Flores committed an error in each of the first two games of the season, it's clearly time for San Francisco to explore a Plan D at third base.
This isn't exactly new information about Flores. From 2016-21, there were 61 players who logged at least 1,000 innings at third base, and his .928 fielding percentage ranked 59th on that list. He made seven errors there as Longoria's backup last year.
The utility man has been pretty reliable at both first and second base throughout his career, but that throw across the diamond has been a recurring issue. In San Francisco's 2-1 loss to the Marlins on Saturday, one of those throwing errors contributed to Miami's first run.
In Sunday's game, Flores was the DH while Luke Williams got the start at third. The latter started a critical 5-4-3 double play in the seventh inning of a one-run game. Perhaps he could be the stopgap solution until Longoria returns in a month or so. Then again, handing the reins to a guy who had a .238 batting average in 1,876 career plate appearances in the minors creates a whole new issue for the Giants.
Still, Williams could be worth a shot.
The Angels Need Another SP STAT
Shohei Ohtani is still slinging filth on the mound. Noah Syndergaard's first multi-inning outing since 2019 was extremely encouraging (5.1 IP, 0 R). And there's a lot of hope that 2020 first-round pick and strikeout artist Reid Detmers will be a fixture atop the rotation for years to come.
But is one current ace, one former ace and one future ace anywhere near enough for a team that desperately needs to strike while the iron is hot?
Mike Trout is now in his 30s, and if the Angels want Ohtani (arbitration-eligible in 2023; unrestricted free agent in 2024) to stick around into his 30s, they need to show that they are committed to getting him into a World Series as soon as possible.
Getting "Thor" on a one-year, $21 million deal was a nice start, but they need to do more, and fast. Banking on the likes of Jose Suarez, Patrick Sandoval and Michael Lorenzen is a fine way for the already sub-.500 Angels to continue their non-winning ways.
Where they can actually find upgrades remains to be seen. Both Sean Manaea and Chris Paddack were traded within the past 10 days, either of whom could have been a solid addition to the Angels' rotation. GM Perry Minasian should be working the phones on an hourly basis trying to find the next team willing to move an established starter, because if the Angels decide to wait to go all-in on this season, it might be too little, too late.
Save Collin McHugh for More Important Spots
To be clear, I'm not suggesting Collin McHugh should replace Kenley Jansen as Atlanta's closer, nor Will Smith as the primary set-up guy. Those back-of-the-bullpen stars are making a combined $29 million this season for a reason.
But McHugh is on a two-year, $10 million deal, which makes him Atlanta's third-highest paid reliever and fifth-highest paid pitcher overall.
Why, pray tell, is he pitching in mop-up roles?
McHugh has made two appearances thus far in 2022, and the Braves were already trailing by multiple runs by the time he took the mound in each of them. In the games in between, they turned to A.J. Minter, Darren O'Day and Tyler Matzek to protect leads in the sixth through eighth innings.
It worked out for them both times. However, it's bizarre that they have a guy who posted a sub-2.00 ERA in both 2018 and 2021, and they're not using in high-leverage situations.
If that's how it's going to be, at least let McHugh do his opener thing. He started seven games for the Rays last year for a combined pitching line of 12.0 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 12 K.
Drop Byron Buxton into the Heart of the Order
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
However, if it's repeatedly hitting solo shots as the leadoff batter, maybe go ahead and do some lineup tinkering.
As previously noted, Buxton was red hot in spring training, batting .469 with a 1.608 OPS. The oft-injured Twins star has carried that momentum into the regular season with three home runs through his first three games. In fact, those dingers came in three consecutive plate appearances.
All he has to show for those jacks, though, is four runs batted in, as his power is being somewhat wasted atop Minnesota's batting order.
It'd be one thing if this were a 2021 Kyle Schwarber situation, in which batting leadoff is what sparked Buxton's power surge.
But it's not. As of Monday morning, Buxton had tallied 163 career plate appearances in the leadoff spot, resulting in 10 home runs, a .270 batting average and an .867 OPS. Meanwhile, in a combined 203 career plate appearances at fourth, fifth or sixth in the order, he has 14 home runs, a .299 average and a .964 OPS.
He has only been the clean-up hitter in 10 games, but he was especially great in that limited sample, hitting .368 with a 1.084 OPS. Pull at that thread and see if Buxton doesn't double his previous single-season career high of 51 RBI in 2017.
Swap Trent Grisham and Jurickson Profar in the Order
Any change to San Diego's batting order has to be considered a short-term move, as things will change considerably in seven-ish weeks when Fernando Tatis Jr. makes his return from a fractured wrist.
All the same, why not at least temporarily get Jurickson Profar as many plate appearances as possible while letting Trent Grisham find his swing elsewhere in the lineup?
Highlighted by a grand slam in Sunday's win over the Diamondbacks, Profar has been an early bright spot for the Padres. He's batting .357 with a pair of home runs and has drawn three walks. It might be fools' gold from the utility man who hit .227 with just four home runs in 412 plate appearances last season, or maybe it's a bit of a renaissance year for a man who hit 20 home runs in each of 2018 and 2019.
Either way, it's worth taking a shot on him in the leadoff spot, considering Grisham has floundered in the early going.
The Padres' center fielder has just four singles and a .261 on-base percentage thus far—not exactly setting the table for Manny Machado, Jake Cronenworth and Luke Voit. And, for what it's worth, Grisham hit much better fifth (.300 AVG, .916 OPS) and seventh (.304 AVG, .929 OPS) than he did as the leadoff guy (.248 AVG, .723 OPS) in 2021.
San Diego could also entertain the unorthodox idea of Voit as the leadoff hitter. He's no threat on the basepaths with zero career stolen bases, but he has already drawn eight walks this season. That type of OBP atop the lineup could be huge if and when Machado and Cronenworth get going.