Early but Concerning Disappointments of the MLB Season so Far
"It's still early" is the compulsory caveat that we place on both good and bad surprises throughout April of the Major League Baseball season.
After all, it's a marathon, not a sprint, right? And in marathon terms, we're only about 2.5 miles into that 26.2-mile grind.
At a certain point, though, early trends become the new normal as slow starts devolve into down years for players, position groups and teams alike.
So, yes, it's still early. But here are a few things we're legitimately concerned about with the end of April rapidly approaching.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics are current through the start of play on Sunday, April 24.
The White Sox Are Floundering
Heading into the regular season, the Chicago White Sox had the best "win their division" odds of any team in the big leagues. Per CBS Sports, their win total line was 91.5, which was a full 11 wins higher than the next-closest AL Central team (Minnesota Twins at 80.5). Even the mighty Dodgers were only projected for 10 more wins than their presumed closest challenger (San Diego).
Yet, as we approach the end of April, the ChiSox are two games below .500, have the second-worst run differential in the American League and have not won a game in over a week. (They're still very much in the race for the AL Central, though, where no one currently has a winning record.)
Injuries certainly aren't helping their cause. Neither Lance Lynn (knee), Yoan Moncada (oblique), Joe Kelly (biceps) or Yermin Mercedes (hand) has played this season. Lucas Giolito (abdomen) just returned to the mound Sunday after leaving his Opening Day start early. AJ Pollock missed nearly two weeks with a hamstring injury, and it's likely that Eloy Jimenez will be out for much longer than two weeks after straining his hamstring Saturday.
Those seven players are making a combined $69.3 million this season—basically an entire Cleveland Guardians payroll ($70.7 million) worth of injuries. That's a noteworthy amount of expected contribution on the sideline.
But even most of the healthy members of the White Sox are struggling.
Jose Abreu homered on Saturday, but it was just his second blast of the season, and he's still only hitting .208. Starting outfielders Luis Robert (.205) and Adam Engel (.208) are also hovering just above the Mendoza Line. Catcher/designated hitter Yasmani Grandal (.128) and second baseman Leury Garcia (.108) would need to get hot for a couple of days just to climb to .200. And the two highest-paid, healthy starters (Dallas Keuchel and Vince Velasquez) have allowed a combined 19 earned runs in 18 innings of work.
Pretty much every year, there's at least one preseason World Series candidate that crashes and burns, finishing at or around .500. Last year, it was the Padres. In 2019, both the Phillies and Red Sox under-delivered. The year before that, it was the Nationals. In 2017, the Mets really disappointed, going 70-92 after a preseason line of 89.5. I could go on, but you get the drift.
By no means are we writing off the White Sox, but it's an early race between them, the Braves and the Astros for which preseason contender will be least relevant by September.
Patrick Corbin Looks Washed Up
In December 2018, the Washington Nationals signed Patrick Corbin to a back-loaded, six-year, $140 million contract. And the first year of that deal was great. He had a 3.25 ERA during the regular season, pitched three critical scoreless innings in Game 7 of the World Series and did it all for $12.5 million.
It's been all downhill since.
The good news is he hasn't been injured. He hasn't missed a start since Washington acquired him. So, at least he's giving the Nationals something for all the money they invested in him. That's more than they can say for Stephen Strasburg over the past couple of years.
But since that 2019 campaign that earned him some down-ballot Cy Young Award votes, Corbin has ballooned to 4.66 in 2020, 5.82 in 2021 and now an eye-popping 11.20 through four starts this year.
The biggest issue is that his out pitch just isn't getting outs anymore.
Per Fangraphs, Corbin's slider was worth 27.0 runs above average in 2018 and 21.8 runs above average in 2019. Among qualified pitchers, he led the majors in that category in 2018 and finished behind only Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer in 2019. It was one of the best pitches in all of baseball for two seasons.
These days, his velocity on the slider is down to 80.1 mph, compared to 81.7 in 2018 and 2019, and batters simply aren't chasing it like they used to. As a result, Corbin's slider was worth 5.2 runs below the league average last year and is at negative-3.7 thus far this year. And with that haymaker no longer in his arsenal, opponents are also teeing off on just about everything else he throws.
Now for the really bad numbers in Washington: $23 million this year, $24 million next year, $35 million in 2024 and another $10 million in deferred money due in 2025. Not only does he look washed up, but the $92 million the Nationals still owe Corbin might also keep them from being able to lock up Juan Soto on a long-term deal.
The Rangers Can't Get Anyone Out
Scoring is down across Major League Baseball. After 10 consecutive years in the .244-.255 range, we awoke Saturday morning to a leaguewide batting average of .231 with teams averaging slightly below 4.0 runs per game. There hasn't been a single complete game yet this season, let alone a complete-game shutout, but there seems to be at least one pitcher carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning on a daily basis. Heck, the Rays took one into the 10th inning Saturday.
But you wouldn't know batters are struggling from watching the Texas Rangers, who have allowed 10 more runs than any other team in the American League.
After selling last year's team for parts at the trade deadline, the Rangers did everything in their power to mash the reset button right before the lockout began. They ponied up $325 million (10 years) for Corey Seager, $175 million (seven years) for Marcus Semien and $56 million (four years) for Jon Gray. They also brought in Brad Miller, Kole Calhoun, Garrett Richards and Martin Perez on shorter deals worth a combined $19.7 million in 2022 in hopes of at least cobbling together a winning record for the first time since 2016.
However, the pitching has been abysmal en route to a 5-9 start.
Gray made two subpar starts before landing on the IL with a knee sprain. Spencer Howard lasted three innings and gave up four home runs before also hitting the shelf with a finger injury. And Perez had to go six shutout innings Saturday just to get his ERA back below 4.00.
The Rangers have gotten impressive strikeout rates from their starters as a whole, but it wasn't until their 14th game that one managed to pitch into the sixth inning. That is putting a lot on the shoulders of a not-great bullpen. And what good is that strikeout rate when the starters have a collective ERA well north of 6.00 to show for it?
This all begs the question: How long will they wait before calling up highly touted prospect Cole Winn, who has a 1.38 ERA with the Triple-A Round Rock Express? And would they dare rush last year's No. 2 overall draft pick, Jack Leiter, up to the big leagues this season?
They've got to try something, because they are spending way too much money to settle for one of the worst records in the majors.
Everything About the Cincinnati Reds
The old adage is that while you can't win a pennant in April, you sure can lose one. And thus far, 29 of the 30 teams have done a decent job of avoiding losing that pennant. The Diamondbacks, Nationals, Orioles and Rangers certainly aren't in great shape, but they're each one four-game sweep away from at least making things interesting again.
The 2-13 Cincinnati Reds, on the other hand, might soon be on the verge of preparing for 2023.
In fairness, their early schedule has been a murderer's row. The Reds have played 11 road games against the Braves (four), Dodgers (four) and Padres (three), and four home games against the Guardians (two) and Cardinals (two). It's feasible that all five of those teams will make the postseason, and playing 73 percent of those games away from home has made that trek even tougher.
It's not like they've been tough-luck losers, though.
The Reds scored a total of 15 runs in their last 10 losses and have lost 11 consecutive games by multiple runs. Per FanGraphs, the most valuable player on Cincinnati's roster has been Tyler Mahle, worth 0.6 WAR in spite of a 6.88 ERA. Baseball Reference has Mahle at negative-0.3 WAR and no one on the team above 0.3.
The moral of the story is things aren't going well, which is quite a letdown after back-to-back winning seasons. And even though the schedule has been tough and a bunch of key players have been injured—most notably Mike Moustakas, Mike Minor, Luis Castillo, Donovan Solano and Jonathan India—the whole "it's still early" thing probably doesn't apply here.
Per MLB.com's Andrew Simon, the worst 25-game start in MLB history to still produce a playoff berth was the 2001 Oakland A's, who started out 8-17 before an absurd 94-43 record the rest of the way. Well, Cincinnati needs to go 6-4 in its next 10 games (good luck against St. Louis, San Diego, Colorado and Milwaukee) just to reach that 8-17 mark.
Joey Gallo Looks Completely Lost
Later this calendar year, Joey Gallo is going to become one of the most intriguing free agents in recent history.
He earned a Gold Glove in each of the past two seasons for his work in the outfield. He was an All-Star in 2019 and 2021. Over the past five seasons, only Nelson Cruz, J.D. Martinez, Nolan Arenado, Eugenio Suarez and Aaron Judge hit more home runs than Gallo's 151.
However, during that five-year period, he also batted .208 and struck out in 36.0 percent of his plate appearances. And he has gotten off to a horrendous start this season.
Through 15 games, Gallo is batting .136. He just scored his first run of the season Saturday afternoon. We're still waiting for his first extra-base hit and first run batted in. He is striking out a slightly worse than usual 37.3 percent of the time.
And it's concerning for two big reasons.
No. 1 is that Gallo historically fares better in the first half than the second half. Per Baseball Reference, Gallo has triple-slashed .216/.347/.499 before the All-Star Break and .191/.313/.480 after it. And heading into last season, he had more home runs in March/April (25) than in any other month. He did start slow last year before really catching fire in June, but nowhere near this slow.
No. 2 is that Gallo isn't even hitting fastballs right now.
Per FanGraphs, Gallo was 17.1 runs above average against fastballs last season, 15.1 runs above average in 2019 and 23.7 runs above average in 2017. His cumulative runs above average for those five seasons was 65.0, which ranked 23rd among the 483 players with at least 500 plate appearances from 2017 to 2021. But he is at negative-2.2 at the moment, which ranks among the worst in the majors.
To be fair, he is seeing fewer fastballs than usual. The rate at which opponents are throwing him both changeups and sliders is considerably higher than it was in any of the previous five seasons. But, uh, that's going to continue since it's obviously working.
The Reigning Champs Are a Mess in the Outfield
Let's begin this final section with a gigantic "Ronald Acuna Jr. should be back within two weeks" asterisk. Getting one of the game's best players back on the field for the first time since last July will provide a massive boost for the surprisingly sub-.500 Braves.
Great as he is, though, Acuna can't simultaneously play all three outfield spots, and they've been a mess out there without him.
In fairness, it hasn't been all bad in the Atlanta outfield. Marcell Ozuna (.274 AVG, 4 HR, 10 RBI) has been a most welcome re-addition to the cleanup spot after missing the final 114 games last season between a hand injury and administrative leave.
But the other three players in the outfield rotation have been major disappointments.
Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario played a huge part in Atlanta winning it all last season. Those trade deadline acquisitions hit a combined 22 home runs over the final two months of the regular season, and each added three more blasts in the postseason—with Rosario dominating the NLCS against the Dodgers.
They brought both guys back in 2022 in hopes of more of the same, but neither has hit a home run through the first 16 games.
At least Duvall is occasionally getting on base with a .185 average. Rosario has been the least valuable asset in the majors this season, batting .071 with three errors already committed in the field. But backup outfielder Guillermo Heredia hasn't been much better with a .158 batting average, so the Braves have little choice but to keep throwing Duvall and Rosario out there and pray they turn a corner.
Even after Acuna returns to action, the assumption coming into the season was that Ozuna would become the primary DH with Duvall and Rosario remaining in the lineup and in the field. We'll see how things actually play out if those two outfielders continue to struggle and the Braves continue to lose ground on the Mets in the NL East. (Maybe Michael Harris II or Drew Waters gets the call to the big leagues? Perchance they bring Justin Upton back home?)