Buying or Selling MLB's Hottest Starts to the 2022 Season

Brandon Scott@@brandonkscottFeatured Columnist IMay 26, 2022

Buying or Selling MLB's Hottest Starts to the 2022 Season

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    No more "small sample size" excuses. 

    We've watched enough baseball and observed enough statistical trends throughout the first quarter of the season to make certain declarations. 

    In essence, we know which teams are really good and which ones are bad. The All-Star players have mostly revealed themselves, and we're firmly planted in the season's developing storylines. 

    So we're playing a fun game of "buy or sell" to determine what's real and what's fake from the players and teams off to the hottest starts. 

    To read about whether struggling teams will turn it round, click here.   

Minnesota Twins

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    The Chicago White Sox were supposed to be the class of the American League Central. Though the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers made big offseason moves, they were seemingly fighting for second place.

    What's happening in Minnesota has been a revelation, considering how the Twins have done it. 

    The pitching staff is fifth in MLB with a 3.33 ERA. Max Kepler is tied for sixth among qualified right fielders in WAR (1.3), per FanGraphs. Rookie starting pitcher Joe Ryan was performing at an All-Star level before going on the COVID-19 injured list Wednesday. 

    All of this without elite play from marquee free-agent signing Carlos Correa, who has dealt with a finger injury. 

    FiveThirtyEight projects a 50 percent chance for the Twins to win the AL Central. 

    Between the pitching and an offense with the 11th-highest OPS (.717) in baseball, this looks like a complete team stepping on the White Sox's heels. 

    Verdict: Buy

Milwaukee Brewers

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    The Brewers jumped out to their best start through 40 games in franchise history. That's in part due to the strong pitching everyone expected. 

    Milwaukee's pitchers have the most strikeouts collectively (431), the fifth-lowest opposing batting average (.221) and the seventh-best in ERA (3.36). 

    The real question was always whether the Brewers offense could be good enough to support what they do on the mound. 

    For now, it looks good. The Brewers rank ninth in OPS, just ahead of the Houston Astros, a known offensive juggernaut.

    Yet Milwaukee has experienced injury misfortune in recent days. 

    All-Star right-hander Freddy Peralta is expected to miss significant time with a posterior strain in his right shoulder. Willy Adames is sidelined with a high ankle sprain. Hunter Renfroe went on the 10-day injured list on Tuesday with a strained hamstring. 

    Only the Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals are competitive in the NL Central. Expect Milwaukee to either win its division or at least compete for a wild-card spot. 

    But between health concerns and a mostly average offense, it's difficult to put Milwaukee in the same class as the other division leaders in the NL. 

    With the Cardinals right behind them, sporting a higher run differential against more teams above .500, expect the division winner to come from St. Louis. 

    Verdict: Sell

Tommy Edman, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Tommy Edman is following a breakout 2021 season, in which he made a case as baseball's best second baseman, with another gem.

    After the Cardinals called up their second-ranked prospect, Nolan Gorman, last week, Edman has moved over to shortstop.

    If he plays there as well as he did at second base, and Gorman is the player they believe he is, the Cardinals are fielding an impressive middle infield.

    Edman is tied for fourth among qualified second basemen in outs above average and tied for third in runs prevented, according to Baseball Savant.

    Edman also leads qualified second basemen in WAR (2.1), runs scored (33) and stolen bases (10) and ranks fifth in wRC+ (134), per FanGraphs. He also has the fifth-highest walk percentage. 

    Verdict: Buy 

Daulton Varsho, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Just a couple of weeks ago, Daulton Varsho had recently made the switch back from center field to catcher because of an injury to Carson Kelly. 

    At the time, his metrics in center field were elite, and FanGraphs' WAR had him as one of baseball's 10 best position players. 

    That's gone down a bit. Varsho now ranks tied for 14th in WAR. But he's been a consistent hitter for the Diamondbacks this season. He's slashing .268/.337/.490 with an .827 OPS and eight home runs in 42 games.

    Over the last seven games, Varsho has slashed .355/.394/.645 with two home runs. It would not be reasonable to expect him to continue slugging like MVP-level players Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.

    As the season goes on, there should be a regression to the mean, which would have him closer to a league average hitter.

    Verdict: Sell

Justin Verlander, Houston Astros

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    After missing all but one start over the last two seasons following Tommy John surgery, Justin Verlander is back like he never left. 

    The last time he was fully healthy in 2019, he beat out then-teammate Gerrit Cole in the AL Cy Young race. 

    Now, he's leading the AL in wins (six), ERA (1.22), WHIP (0.72), opponent batting average (.161), and opponent OPS (.441). He has three consecutive scoreless starts and 19 consecutive scoreless innings.

    "He's unlike almost any other player I've ever had," Astros manager Dusty Baker told reporters after Verlander's most recent start. Verlander fanned eight without giving up a free pass in six innings of work agaisnt the Texas Rangers.

    With his command, pitch mix and recent uptick in velocity, it seems safe to say the Astros have their World Series ace back. 

    The only question now seems to be whether he's really going to win his third Cy Young at age 39.

    Verdict: Buy

Taylor Ward, Los Angeles Angels

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    The leadoff hitter for the Angels is slashing .370/.481/.713 with a 2.7 WAR in only 30 games. He also has the protection of a healthy Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon. 

    It's this combination that will keep the Angels in the AL West race with the Houston Astros. 

    Ward is having a career season, performing well over his career slash line (.256/.339/.448).

    His peripheral numbers show him toward the top of the league in xBA (.322), xSLG (.662), wOBA (.507) and xwOBA (.457). Ward trails only Max Muncy and Juan Soto in walk percentage (17.6). 

    Ward has been out of the Angels' lineup in recent days while dealing with a shoulder/neck issue, but his MRI came back clean. 

    Verdict: Buy 

New York Yankees

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    As noted in the most recent B/R MLB Power Rankings, the Yankees have been the best team in baseball since their 5-5 start.

    They have a +66 run differential, which ranks atop the AL, and lead all of baseball with 63 home runs. The trio of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo have combined for 39 homers. 

    Meanwhile, the pitching looks just as good as the hitting. Across MLB, the Yankees are third in ERA (second in the AL) and fourth in WHIP.

    Recent struggles of Aroldis Chapman (who is now on the IL with an Achilles injury) and Jonathan Loaisiga have raised legitimate bullpen questions. Even with that, the Yankees' bullpen ranks second in WAR, per FanGraphs.  

    This is a squad with no weaknesses. 

    Verdict: Buy