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MLB teams that should be concerned about playoff return

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It’s a strong word, panic. There are words that slowly lead up to panic: worry, concern, fret, stress. But panic? That’s when you know you’re freaking out. That’s when you know it’s officially going bad.

It is only May 10. It’s probably too early for any team to panic. (Remember, the Phillies were 13-16 entering May 10 of last year and ended up in the World Series.) But that doesn’t mean teams, and their fans, aren’t doing that very thing. The teams with the highest propensity for panicking are the ones with the highest expectations coming into the season, and, it’s fair to say, any team that made the playoffs last year has the same high expectations for 2023.

But for certain clubs — seven teams, to be exact — 2023 hasn’t exactly gotten off to the roaring start they were hoping for. How panicked should they and their fans be? Here’s a look at the seven teams who were in the playoffs last year but would not be if the season started today (entering Wednesday’s games), ranked by the level of panic they should all be feeling.

How it has gone so far: Goodness, where do we start? Until Monday night, the Cardinals hadn’t won the first game of a series (an 0-10 start), they were off to their worst start since your grandparents were children and, oh yeah, they’d had a huge kerfuffle after demoting the All-Star catcher they signed to the biggest free-agent contract in team history in the offseason. Also, Busch Stadium fans were booing them.

Reason for hope: This team has Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, as well as a deep, young group of position players that is enormously talented. They’re also the Cardinals and have had one losing season this century. They’d have to turn it around at some point, right? It’s not like this division is all that daunting.

Reason for worry: The pitching staff, particularly the rotation, is having all sorts of problems, and there doesn’t seem to be much help coming. (And you can’t blame it on the catching either.) Also, they’re 11 games under .500 already. It’s only May, but it’s going to take a while just for them to crawl back to sea level.

Prediction: The uphill climb is too steep to get them into the postseason, but there’s too much talent here not to end up at least at .500 by season’s end.

Current record: 18-18
Current Fangraphs Playoff Odds: 27.7 percent

How it has gone so far: Jarred Kelenic has finally had the breakthrough that everyone dreamed he might have at some point, but everything else has had trouble getting into gear. Robbie Ray is out for the year, the back of the rotation is weak, and the offseason additions of Teoscar Hernández, AJ Pollock and Kolten Wong haven’t panned out so far. Perhaps most alarming: Julio Rodríguez is … hitting .204? How is that even possible? At least the trident is cool.

Reason for hope: Julio is going to come around at some point, and if the Mariners can get him, Kelenic and Teoscar rolling at the same time, this lineup could be what everyone hoped it would be. Plus, we know this front office will certainly do whatever it can to fill in any holes.

Reason for worry: Losing Ray really hurts, and it’s definitely concerning that they’re only at .500 with Kelenic being such a happy bonus surprise. It’s also possible all the vets they brought in don’t rebound. The biggest concern, though, is the simplest one: This division suddenly looks a lot deeper than it has in many years. Can the Mariners step up?

Prediction: The Mariners aren’t going to break through to the playoffs after 20 years and just vanish. It’s going to be a dogfight between the Mariners, Rangers and Angels behind the Astros in this division. We’re more optimistic than the Fangraphs Playoff Odds are. But just barely.

Current record: 17-19
Current Fangraphs Playoff Odds: 44.5 percent

How it has gone so far: Bryce Harper is back so much sooner than anyone thought he’d be, and that’s obviously an unalloyed positive. But … Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber have underperformed relative to expectations, which is bad enough, but seriously, have you seen what happened to the rotation? That was supposed to be one of the Phillies’ primary strengths, but the two aces, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, both have ERAs over 4.00, and Bailey Falter is 0-6. José Alvarado has been great, but the rest of the bullpen’s struggles look very familiar to Phillies fans.

Reason for hope: Bryce is back! That alone will make you feel better. Turner is an inner-tier player who will surely soon start playing like it, and Wheeler and (especially) Nola will figure it out at some point. Their biggest rivals for second place in the division aren’t exactly off to a blistering start either.

Reason for worry: Seriously, the bullpen is struggling again, and if Nola and Wheeler can’t get back to their ace status, the whole rotation could fall apart. There is no path back to the playoffs, let alone the World Series, if Nola and Wheeler don’t get it going.

Prediction: It’s a race between the Phillies and Mets to see who can figure out their early-season woes in time. That bullpen might be what bites the Phillies once again.

Current record: 20-17
Current Fangraphs Playoff Odds: 69.3 percent

How it has gone so far: Well, they’re three games over .500, so obviously it hasn’t gone that bad. But in this division, that 20-17 will earn you … last place. Here’s a fun fact: Of all the teams on the list, the Yankees are the furthest back in their division, nine games: The Cardinals, whose record is seven games worse than the Yankees’, are a game closer in their division standings.

Reason for hope: They’re 20-17! Most teams should have such problems to be three games over .500. The bullpen has been carrying them, and there’s little reason to think they can’t keep that up. Perhaps most important, Aaron Judge returned from the IL on Tuesday.

Reason for worry: This division is seriously stacked, and the Yankees, if they can’t get some of their injured pitchers back (especially big-ticket free-agent signing Carlos Rodón, who has yet to throw a pitch for them), might not have the rotation to be able to climb their way up it. And what if Judge gets hurt again?

Prediction: Judge basically has to not only stay healthy, but also have a season similar to what he did last year just to carry this offense, particularly with the pitching injury woes. The Yankees have a lot more talent than a typical last-place team, obviously, but if the Red Sox are as good as they appear to be, we’re not sure the Yankees, with all the injuries, aren’t the worst team in this division. Which doesn’t mean they’re not still good! Just not good enough.

Current record: 17-19
Current Fangraphs Playoff Odds: 24.9 percent

How it has gone so far: The Guardians look awfully similar to some of those disappointing teams that have fallen just short the last few years: Good pitching, but no one who can hit outside of José Ramírez. Josh Bell has been fine — not great, just fine — but the rest of the offense has failed to show up, including 2022 breakout star Andrés Giménez, who is hitting .214. The rotation has actually underperformed a bit, though Logan Allen has been a nice surprise and Shane Bieber looks like his old self.

Reason for hope: They’re still in the AL Central, first off. The collapse of the White Sox has opened the field a little bit, and while the Tigers have been respectable, the Royals are one of the worst teams in baseball. The Twins are off to a nice start, but they still don’t look dramatically better than they did last year. The Guardians would be in serious trouble if they were in the AL East. But they’re not in the AL East.

Reason for worry: If Giménez doesn’t get it going, it’s tough to see this lineup getting much better. And for what it’s worth: Ramírez (.813 OPS) has been a good hitter, but not up to his career standards and certainly not to the level that some of us thought he might this year in which he could have been primed to win his first MVP.

Prediction: This one comes down to how much you believe in the Twins. We are skeptics over here, and thus there’s no reason the Guardians shouldn’t be in this race until the very last days of the season. This looks like a two-team division race again.

Current record: 17-19
Current Fangraphs Playoff Odds: 56.7 percent

How it has gone so far: Tylor Megill has made more starts than Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer combined, which is not ideal. (Though Megill has been fine, all things considered.) It’s probably more worrisome that Scherzer hasn’t quite looked like himself and that the only plus starter so far has been Kodai Senga. David Robertson has done a perfectly acceptable Edwin Díaz impression, but Starling Marte (.584 OPS) has done a terrible Starling Marte impression.

Reason for hope: They’re only a half-game out of second place despite all the early issues, and Verlander is now back. Scherzer should figure it out (although he was scratched from his start Tuesday due to neck spasms), and the emergence of Senga gives you a legitimately exciting 1-2-3 atop the rotation. The offense hasn’t clicked yet, but the pieces are all still there. The Mets still feel short one more power bat — that’s an offseason discussion, to be sure — but as old as this team is, the talent is still all there. Also, they’re not the only team in their division with issues right now.

Reason for worry: They’re so old, and old guys tend to have parts of their body that start to hurt. If they’re this wobbly early, how much stronger will they get as the year goes along?

Prediction: You weren’t wrong to be excited about this team coming into the year. Just because the vibes are off a little compared to last year doesn’t mean it’s not still an excellent team. They’re not catching the Braves, but this still looks like a clear playoff team.

Current record: 18-18
Current Fangraphs Playoff Odds: 64.5 percent

How it has gone so far: Didn’t this used to be the most terrifying offense in baseball? For all the worries about the injuries to Jose Urquidy and Luis García, this offense has never looked thinner. You have Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker and then … Jose Altuve can’t get back from the IL soon enough. Alex Bregman is back to struggling again, Jeremy Peña looks like he’s still adjusting and José Abreu still hasn’t hit a homer. This is supposed to be a monster offense. What’s happening?

Reason for hope: Altuve will be back soon, and that will help, and you’d have to think, you’d have to think, that Abreu and Bregman will get going as well. The pitching isn’t as deep as you would like, but the Astros have a way of coming up with guys. They’re the defending champs, and they haven’t missed the playoffs since 2016.

Reason for worry: As good as this team and organization is, there’s an undeniable sense that their peak is behind them.

Prediction: The division is better than it has been in years, and this isn’t one of the strongest Astros teams any of us have ever seen. That doesn’t change the fact that this is still the class of this division: The bet here is that the only compelling storyline in the AL West come September is the race to finish second behind the Astros.

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