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Where things stand a quarter of the way into the season

Houston Astros v Detroit Tigers

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - MAY 14: Carlos Correa #1 of the Houston Astros celebrates scoring a run in the first inning with George Springer #4 while playing the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on May 14, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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The season is a quarter of the way through, more or less. Let’s see what, if anything, we’ve learned, what, if anything, we were super wrong about and what, if anything, is happening just like we expected it to happen.

The American League Playoff Picture

If the season ended today, the AL playoff teams would be the Rays, Twins, Astros, Yankees and Indians. That’s not super unexpected. Sure, the defending World Series champion Red Sox are not in that crew, but that seems like a very temporary situation given how hot they’ve been of late. They’re a half a game back of the punchless Indians in the Wild Card and have made up a ton of ground recently.

While most people picked the Indians to beat the Twins in the Central, the Twins were thought of as a potential contender thanks to Cleveland’s curious decision to willingly downgrade on offense in the offseason. Seeing the Yankees there is a surprise based on all of the early season injuries they’ve had, but they were largely picked as a playoff team. The Rays started off way hotter than many expected but they were a pretty popular Wild Card pick. The Astros leading the West is no surprise.

Given how things are trending right now, it’s a pretty safe bet that the playoff representatives from the junior circuit are going to be pretty much who we thought they’d be. Which, however much it vindicates prognosticators, says something not terribly flattering about nine or ten of the teams in the A.L. who, quite frankly, never looked all that interested in competing this year.

The National League Playoff Picture

In the National League the playoff representatives, if the season ended today, would be the Phillies, Cubs, Dodgers, Brewers and Cardinals. Probably even less of a surprise than the A.L. The East was thought to be a dogfight, but the Phillies were certainly one of the chosen dogs. The Central could’ve gone with those three teams in any order, but many a pundit thought it quite possible that both Wild Card teams would come from that division. The Diamondbacks’ selloff, the Rockies’ decision not to improve themselves and the Dodgers’ talent and depth made that division a foregone conclusion in the mind of most and, so far anyway, it’s played true to form.

Like the American League, the story of the National League is one of alpha teams and also-rans. It’s great if you’re a fan of an alpha team I suppose, but we’re in an era right now that is far less broadly competitive than any we’ve seen in some time.

The Free Agents

Much of the offseason was spent with . . . very little happening. Most of the big name free agents had to wait a long, long time to sign and two of them -- Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel -- still haven’t signed. Let’s look at our Hot Stove Top Ten free agents -- not counting Clayton Kershaw, who opted-out of his existing deal and quickly re-signed and not counting Keuchel and Kimbrel -- and see how they’re faring:

  • Bryce Harper (Phillies): Bill talked all about Harper’s early struggles yesterday, so go read that for the full breakdown. The short version: the strikeouts stink and the cold streak has erased that early hot streak, but (a) it may not be as bad as some are portraying it; and (b) one does not judge a 13-year contract based on seven weeks of production.
  • Manny Machado (Padres): Machado started slow but has caught fire in May, hitting five homers in his last 12 games and posting a 1.052 OPS. For the season that puts him . . . basically where he has always been: on pace for about 35 homers and a 120 OPS+ or so while playing excellent third base defense. The Padres knew they were probably a year or two early with Machado, but they’re getting what they paid for in the meantime.
  • Patrick Corbin (Nationals): One of the few bright spots on a train wreck of a Nationals squad, Corbin, like Machado, has basically been himself: a 3.20 ERA (139 ERA+) a good number of strikeouts and not too many walks in eight starts. There are a lot of teams who could use that production even if the Nats are wasting it at the moment.
  • Josh Donaldson (Braves): He has not returned to his old MVP form but he’s stayed healthy for the most part -- he’s on pace to play in 150 games -- and he’s been productive, providing some power and good on-base ability for the Braves.
  • Nahan Eovaldi (Red Sox): Four starts and then elbow surgery followed by an absence of a minimum of six weeks. Given his track record that probably shouldn’t be terribly shocking. The Red Sox had his 2018 World Series performance dancing in their heads, it seems.
  • A.J. Pollock (Dodgers): Sort of the same deal. He’s always had trouble staying in the lineup and that continues in 2019. He hit .223/.287/.330 with two home runs and 14 RBI in 115 plate appearances before a staph infection in his elbow sidelined him for six weeks as well. The Dodgers, however, are doing fine without him.
  • J.A. Happ (Yankees): He’s been a league average starter, basically. Not what you want, but given how many injuries the Yankees have endured, health and some innings eating is not nothing.
  • Daniel Murphy (Rockies): Murphy has been a non-entity for Colorado. Imagine if the Rockies had actually improved their offense instead of just spinning their wheels.
  • Michael Brantley (Astros): Brantley has been fantastic, and so far finds himself on his way to a career year, leading the league in batting and posting a line of .335/.379/.585 while currently on a 38-homer pace. That the Indians did not even attempt to re-sign him -- indeed, they didn’t even extend him a qualifying offer -- is front office malpractice.
  • Andrew McCutchen (Phillies): A decent start for the former MVP has been derailed by a tough May and now he’s featuring a less-than-stellar line of .237/.363/.388. When you figure in defense, though, he’s been more valuable to the Phillies than Harper has so far.

A mixed bag to be sure. And that mixed bag continues beyond the top 10 free agents. For every nice pickup -- say, Charlie Morton or Nelson Cruz -- there have been a couple three busts. Perhaps the most notable thing about free agency though was not any individual player’s triumph or struggle as much as there have been teams like the Braves, Indians and Rockies who mostly avoided free agency yet have suffered from clear and expected shortcomings that went unaddressed.

The Rookies

Part of the reason the Hot Stove Season was so slow was that teams are, increasingly, relying on young players, including rookies, to carry a heavier and heavier share of the load. Here are the standout rookies to far in the 2019 season:

  • Pete Alonso (Mets): The best power prospect the Mets have developed since probably Daryl Strawberry, Alonso has not disappointed. He’s on a 49-homer pace right now and sports a .936 OPS.
  • Fernando Tatís, Jr. (Padres): He’s injured but he was putting up fantastic numbers and flashing some serious leather before going down. As was the case with the Machado signing, starting Tatís in the bigs this year, without holding him down in the minors for service time purposes, is part of a wise long term plan for San Diego in which he’s allowed to make mistakes now, when it matters less. Except he’s not making many mistakes.
  • Michael Chavis (Red Sox): Seven homers in 21 games and a .999 OPS with a lot of walks in the mix has been a godsend for Boston.
  • Chris Paddack (Padres): The kid arrived on the scene with both fully-formed stuff and a fully-formed ego to match it. He’s backed it up thus far, however. Even with last night’s poor start, Paddack has a 1.99 ERA and an excellent K/BB ratio. Assuming the Padres fall farther out of contention, however, expect Paddack to be shut down at some point in the second half as he’s on pace to massively exceed his past highs in innings pitched and there’s not a huge percentage in the Padres doing that in a non-contending year.
  • Brandon Lowe (Rays): Lowe (.286/.338/.541) has been the driver of the Rays’ offense.
  • John Means (Orioles): The O’s are competitively irrelevant in 2019, but Means has been a bright spot. He’s an older rookie at 26, but a 2.33 ERA in a swingman role constitutes near stardom in Baltimore these days.
  • Alex Verdugo (Dodgers): The Dodgers’ depth on display. One of the reasons Andrew Friedman had no trouble shipping off Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp was the knowledge that Verdugo was ready to step in. He’s also a big reason why losing A.J. Pollock for an extended period is not that big a deal. Step in he has, to the tune of .330/.373/.541.

In the past couple of weeks a number of other young talents have been called up. This group includes Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Nick Senzel, Keston Hiura, Carter Kieboom, Corbin Martin, Griffin Canning, Nicky Lopez and, as of this morning, Austin Riley. Many of them have already shown why they’re such highly-touted prospects -- witness Vlad Guerrero Jr.'s Tuesday night -- and we can expect some more headlines about these guys as the season progresses.

Say what you want about the state of Major League Baseball right now, but youth is definitely being served. At least after we passed the point where it became impossible for rookies to earn a full year of service time in 2019, of course.

Managers on the Hot Seat

  • Dave Martinez (Nationals): The Nats, considered a contender before the year began but now mired in fourth place with the second-worst record in the National League, have been baseball’s biggest disappointments so far this year. That has a lot of Washington fans calling for Martinez’s head. So far the Nats’ front office has not shown that it’s listening to those fans, but at some point a team can only underachieve so much for so long;
  • Mickey Callaway (Mets): The seat is not super hot for the second year manager, but the sturm und drang surrounding the Mets always seems to be a bit more sturmy und drangy than it is with most teams. The Mets are in second place thanks to the Braves and Nats struggles, but there is a sense they should be doing better. In a media market like New York, that’s always going to lead to the seat getting hot. Fun thing: Mets fans telling me on Twitter that they’d rather have Joe Girardi in the dugout. Wouldn’t put it past the Wilpons to consider it; and
  • Don Mattingly (Marlins): I’ve not heard anyone calling for his job and, honestly, the reincarnation of John McGraw, gene-spliced with the reincarnation of Casey Stengel wouldn’t have this steaming pile of a roster performing much better. Still, crap rolls down hill, Derek Jeter and the Marlins’ front office isn’t going to fire themselves, and it would not shock me at all if Mattingly is made a scapegoat for this mess at some point this year. Heck, he’d probably consider it a mercy killing at this point. No one deserves this.

That’s pretty much it, I reckon. Everyone else is either (a) winning; (b) is being managed by a new guy; or (c) is being managed by a dude who has the confidence of the club’s front office. Or, in the case of Bruce Bochy in San Francisco, has already announced his retirement.

Thinking Ahead To the Trade Deadline

It’s still a little early for this, but what the heck?

  • Madison Bumgarner (Giants): San Francisco is going nowhere and it’s no secret that they’re, at long last, on the cusp of an overdue rebuild. Bumgarner is the crown jewel of their tradable assets;
  • Nicholas Castellanos (Tigers): The best hitter on a Tigers team that is making no pretense of contending is almost certain to be traded. Wherever he goes he’s likely to be a rental, however, as he recently hired Scott Boras in anticipation of free agency in the upcoming offseason;
  • Mike Minor (Rangers): He’s on a pretty team-friendly deal, locked up through next season and is currently enjoying a career year. Any contender looking for a lefty but not willing to pay the price Bumgarner should bring will be in on Minor;
  • José Abreu (White Sox): Another rental with some pop but with no defensive value.
  • Anthony Rendon (Nationals): The thinking is that the Nats will extend Rendon and pay him like the franchise cornerstone that he is and if I had to bet I’d bet on them doing that. Heck, that was the point of letting Bryce Harper walk, right? Still, it wouldn’t shock me if you at least heard some rumors about Rendon this summer given how crappy the Nats season has gone;
  • Trevor Bauer (Indians): The Tribe clearly intended to defend their AL Central crown with starting pitching and with Corey Kluber going down for an extended period, Bauer, along with Carlos Carrasco, are more important to Cleveland than ever before. Still, the Indians are disappointing, sitting four games out with little hope of the Wild Card given the strength of the AL East contenders. If they crater by June -- which is not a given in light of how soft the AL Central truly is -- selling Bauer off would not be shocking at all, especially given the signals he’s sent which make it pretty clear that he wants to test the free agent market when his time comes.

Oh, and of course, every reliever, everywhere, will be on the block, because that’s just how baseball rolls these days.

So, that’s where we stand 25% of the way into the season. Now let’s watch the 75% remaining make all of this look silly come October.

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