Last week, we took a look at whether or not we should be worried about MLB teams off to cold starts. Today, we are going to do the complete opposite. In this article, we’ll look at five teams off to surprisingly strong starts and determine whether or not we should buy or sell their performances thus far.
Baltimore Orioles: 19-9
Look, I really wish I could say that the Orioles are for real. They have one of the most exciting young cores in baseball, led by former number-one pick Adley Rutschman, who already has a strong claim as the best catcher in baseball. Their bullpen is lights out with their monstrous closer Félix Bautista, one of the most un-hittable arms in the game. Their beautiful ballpark is home to a fanbase that has waited decades for a winner and deserves one as much as anybody this side of Seattle.
Félix Bautista's 3Ks in the 9th. pic.twitter.com/9ndhXrLT24
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 28, 2023
Yet I can’t say these birds’ hot start is an indication that they have arrived, and the main reason why is a direct indictment on the front office. Rather than add to their collection of young, controllable talent, the Orioles have spent the last 12 months operating like sellers.
Last season, they dumped reliever Jorge López and first baseman Trey Mancini at the trade deadline despite being just a few games out of a Wild Card spot. The front office spent this offseason bargain-hunting for complementary pieces like starters Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin and utility-man Adam Frazier rather than spending big bucks on an impact player that could get them over the edge.
Despite this, the Orioles still boast one of the league’s best bullpens and an offense that ranks in the top ten in the majors in runs scored. Yet the failure to address a glaring starting pitching need is likely going to be their downfall.
Dean Kremer and Kyle Bradish both have ERAs well above six, and while Kyle Gibson and Tyler Wells have better surface-level numbers, their well-below-average strikeout rates point to looming regression. The only starter who has anywhere near plus stuff is Grayson Rodriguez, and as talented as Rodriguez is, it’s unwise to ask a 23-year-old rookie who is still working through command issues to carry a team to the postseason.
|Pitcher||FB Velo Percentile||Whiff Percentile||
K Rate Percentile
Another point of concern for the Orioles is their almost comically soft schedule. The Orioles have somehow played 16 of their 28 games against teams with under a .400 winning percentage, going 13-3 in those contests. Against all other teams, they are just 6-6. At a certain point, the Orioles are going to run out of games against the Athletics, Tigers, and Nationals, and their lackluster pitching is going to get put to the test.
Like some other teams we’ll get to on this list, the Orioles have shown significant progress thus far in 2023. But I don’t think they’re quite there yet. Without a true number one or even number two starter, the Orioles are going to both tax their bullpen and put enormous pressure on the offense. All told, the Orioles look a lot closer to a .500 team than a true postseason threat.
Verdict: Buy them playing competitive baseball, sell them finishing higher than fourth in the AL East
Minnesota Twins: 17-12
After eight years mired in mediocrity following the prime of Joe Mauer’s great career, the 2019 Minnesota Twins emerged out of nowhere with one of the most powerful lineups in MLB history. Though obviously assisted by that year’s juiced ball, the Twins finished with the most regular-season home runs in MLB history.
Eleven different players cracked double-digit longballs, including eight with more than 20 and five with more than 30. Dubbed “The Bomba Squad,” the Twins rampaged their way to 101 wins but, as is often the case in their unfortunate history, they drew the 103-win Yankees in the ALDS, who easily bounced them in three games.
In the three years since, the Twins have played in just two postseason games, both losses in the 2020 Wild Card series, and have watched much of the Bomba Squad depart or underperform, Yet this year, the Twins have built what appears to be their next great team with something entirely new: Pitching. Who could have thought? Even in their “glory days,” the Twins’ pitching staff often consisted of Cy Young winner Johan Santana, premier closer Joe Nathan, and a collection of no-names and journeymen.
That’s not the case anymore, in large part because of a collection of savvy trades to fortify the top of their rotation. Each key member of their rotation was acquired from outside the organization
|Pitcher Aquired||2023 ERA||
Player Gave Away
|Sonny Gray||0.77||Chase Petty|
|Pablo López||4.00||Luis Arraez|
We all know how Arraez is doing, but Cruz lasted just a half-season in Tampa Bay, Faucher has a career 5.56 ERA, Steer is a 25-year-old with four career home runs, and none of the other prospects the Reds got are in MLB.com’s Top 100.
To win as a small-market team you have to win trades, and it looks like a very real possibility that when it’s all said and done, the Twins will have gotten the better end of all four of these deals. Factor in late-inning fireman Jhoan Duran and Pablo López, who have combined to allow just two runs in 21 innings, and you have all the makings of an elite staff.
On just pitching alone, the Twins look like clear favorites in the American League Central. The question is whether they have enough offensive punch to contend with the powers of the East and West.
As usual, the Twins have hit a lot of long balls in 2023, but their ability to control the strike zone is a clear issue. Their lineup has the fourth-highest strikeout totals while drawing the ninth-fewest walks. In addition, they have stolen only three bases all season, all by Michael A. Taylor, making them one of only two teams with fewer than ten steals.
This lack of offensive creativity is such a glaring issue because it goes in direct contrast with how the Twins should be trying to win their games. Their formula should be to get a quality start from one of their starters, scratch out a couple of runs, and have Lopez and Duran close the door in the ninth.
Yet the Twins continue to trot out a boom-or-bust offense that has failed them so often in October’s past, and when the temperature starts to drop and they face the top arms in the American League, it’s likely to be their downfall.
Verdict: Buy them as AL Central Champions, sell them as a postseason threat
Texas Rangers: 17-11
I’ll admit: I have been a skeptic of the Texas Rangers’ recent team-building approach. A 100-loss 2021 campaign in which they trotted out both the league’s worst offense and one of its worst pitching staff should have been a clear indication to the front office to tear it all down and embark on an Astros’ style rebuild.
Instead, the Rangers pulled out their checkbook and went on an unhinged spending spree, inking All-Star shortstops Marcus Semien and Corey Seager to massive long-term deals as well as starters Jon Gray and Martín Pérez.
Despite Semien and Seager being as advertised and Perez surprising everyone with an All-Star appearance, the rest of the roster was still not close to being good enough, leading to a 94-loss campaign.
Rather than admitting their mistake and committing to a rebuild, the Rangers doubled down on their all-in approach, signing future Hall of Famer Jacob deGrom to lead their rotation as well as All-Star Nathan Eovaldi and the resurgent Andrew Heaney. They also brought in three-time World Series champion manager Bruce Bochy to oversee all this new talent, and you don’t exactly bring a 68-year-old out of retirement if you are not expecting to win.
Surprisingly, through 27 games, everything has worked. Every pitcher in their new-look pitching staff has an above-league-average ERA. Semien and Seager have continued to rake, but it has been homegrown hitters Jonah Heim, Nathaniel Lowe, Josh Jung, and Adolis García who have stepped up to help the offense improve from 12th in runs in 2022 to 2nd in 2023.
Even the pieced-together bullpen, which looked like a glaring weakness entering the season, has been stabilized by the re-emergence of Will Smith and Dane Dunning.
Everything about this looks sustainable. This is not a bunch of journeymen off to hot starts: There are names up and down the roster who have a proven track record of success, and their +59 run differential speaks to their dominance. The only thing that can stop them is injuries. One of the risks of building your team around veteran, established players is that they tend to be more prone to injury, and three of the Ranger’s starts, in particular, come with significant injury risk.
|Jacob deGrom||Five-year, $185 million||
Made just 26 starts from 2021-2022 due to various arm and shoulder ailments
|Nathan Eovaldi||Two year, $34 million||
Two-time Tommy-John recipient, has made more than 25 starts just three times in 12 years
|Corey Seager||Ten-year, $325 million||
Has played more than 135 games one time since 2017
Already this April, Seager has been placed on this the injured list with a hamstring ailment that is expected to sideline him for at least a month. deGrom was just placed on the IL with elbow inflammation, an injury that cost him the second half on the 2021 season.
As we saw last year, the Rangers don’t have the depth to succeed if their marquee stars go down for an extended period of time. To replace Nathan Eovaldi, for instance, the Rangers will likely turn to Dane Dunning, who had a 4.46 ERA last season that ultimately prompted his move to the bullpen. Even if he is successful, his move from the bullpen to the rotation will make the fragile Rangers relief corps even more uncertain.
Recent Jacob deGrom injuries per Baseball Prospectus. pic.twitter.com/BfTpKhSZeL
— Luke Arkins (@luke_arkins) April 29, 2023
If the question is whether the Rangers are better than last year and can tread water without deGrom and Seager, than the answer is a pretty resounding yes. But if the Rangers are serious about competing for a championship, then they are going to need the stars that got so hopeful in the first place.
Verdict: Buy them as a serious playoff threat as long as Seager and deGrom return
Pittsburgh Pirates: 20-9
Who doesn’t love this? After a brief run of competency from 2012-2014, the Pirates fell right back into their old habits of cellar-dwellers due in large part to an owner that has never shown any interest in building a baseball team and some ill-timed trades. Shipping Shane Baz, Tyler Glasnow, and Austin Meadows for a year-and-a-half of poor Chris Archer performance is emblematic of a team that has no margin for error yet has hit on very few on their true attempts at winning.
Going into 2023, there was little reason to be hopeful about the Pirates. The only real selling point to fans was the progression of young players like Oneil Cruz and Ke’Bryan Hayes and the All-Star caliber play of centerfielder Bryan Reynolds. So, if I told you a month ago that Cruz was going to break his ankle a week and a half into the season and Hayes was going to post a .689 OPS through April (albeit with excellent defense), you would probably assume the Pirates are in last place.
Yet here we are, about to turn the calendar to May, and the Pirates sit with the best record in the National League at 20-9 and the best run differential at +48. Their offense ranks in the top five in the MLB in runs, averages, and OPS, while their starting rotation has delivered more quality starts than any in the game. They’ve beat up on the bottom feeders in the NL but they’ve also more than held their own against teams with winning records, going a combined 6-3 against the Dodgers, Astros, and Red Sox.
So it is sustainable? Well…. let’s start with the positives first. Mitch Keller, Johan Oviedo, and Roansy Contreras all look like long-term rotation building blocks, posting ERAs and FIPs under 4.00. David Bednar once again looks like one of the best closers in baseball, allowing just one earned run and one unintentional walk in his first 13.0 innings of the season. If nothing else, those four arms should keep the Pirates in a lot of games and make them significantly better than last year.
At the same time, though, there are things with the Pirates that just don’t make sense:
|Player||2022 Slashline||2023 Slashline|
Is it possible that all these players — ranging from unproven youngsters (Castro, Suwinski, Delay), quad-A journeymen (Joe), and over-the-hill veterans (McCutchen) — simultaneously unlocked something in their swing to have career-best seasons? Maybe if we were talking about the Dodgers or the Rays, but the Pirates’ coaching staff isn’t exactly known for their developmental prowess.
What’s far more likely is that the Pirates had a hot month, buoyed by good vibes and a soft schedule, and will come down to Earth in May. An improved pitching staff will likely make that drop-off result in a .500 team rather than a 100-loss one, but expecting them to be a true contender in what was expected to be an early stage of their rebuild is too big an ask.
Verdict: Buy them as a relevant team, sell them as a playoff contender
Arizona Diamondbacks: 16-13
There are few more daunting tasks than attempting to compete in the NL West.
The Padres and the Dodgers have been engaged in a multi-year arms race, cornering all the top talent on both the free agent and trade markets. After a 106-win 2021 season, it appeared the Giants would be right there with them, but a rapid decline of many of their overperforming veterans and a couple of big free-agent whiffs have left them three steps behind their California neighborhoods. The Colorado Rockies, meanwhile, have been an unmitigated disaster for the last decade, and have never posed any threats to their division rivals.
Then there are the Diamondbacks. For years, they were known as the team that consistently failed to build a winner around Paul Goldschmidt, but over the past years, they have begun building the pieces of a really good baseball team.
The 2021 Diamondbacks won just 52 games, but it marked the first full season in which Merrill Kelly and Zac Gallen anchored their rotation. They both took huge steps forward in 2022, emerging as legitimate top-of-the-rotation arms and helping the Diamondbacks cut their team ERA by nearly a run and win 22 more games.
At the same time the Diamondbacks were finding their two top arms, their offensive was being remade by the integration of some exciting prospects. 25-and-under outfielders Jake McCarthy, Alek Thomas, and Corbin Carroll each began getting regular looks in the outfield for the first time, and while they had their expected rookie growing pains, they each showcased the loud tools that made them highly-regarded prospects in the first place. They had so many talented left-hand hitting outfielders, in fact, that they traded 20-20 threat Daulton Varsho to the Blue Jays for promising young catcher Gabriel Moreno.
With the Padres trading for Juan Soto and the Dodgers winning 111 games, the exciting brand of baseball the Diamondbacks were playing last year flew under the radar. This year, however, a 16-13 start has the baseball world paying attention to the best team in the NL West.
Gallen and Kelly have been as advertised, Carroll looks like the NL Rookie of the Year favorite with a .309 average, four home runs, and ten stolen bases, and new additions Miguel Castro and Andrew Chafin have stabilized the bullpen with sub- 3.00 ERAs.
Corbin Carroll's last 6 games:
.667 OBP, .889 SLG, 10 hits, 5 walks, 7 runs, 3 steals…
…and video game speed doing it.pic.twitter.com/IaCh0v8EbR
— Codify (@CodifyBaseball) April 29, 2023
As a Diamondbacks fan, you have to feel pretty good about the progress the team has made in the last few years. But in terms of competing with the Dodgers and the Padres, they still have a lot of work to do. The Diamondbacks know what they have in Gallen and Kelly, but everything after that is a huge question mark. Here are all the other pitchers with multiple starts for the Snakes this year:
This would be a problem for even the league’s best offenses, but the Diamondbacks have some problems on that side of the ball as well. They rank just 24th in the majors with 24 home runs and have yet to have a player crack five round-trippers. Their best offensive performance to this point is Geraldo Perdomo, who had a .547 OPS last season and has a .154 point difference between his actual average and his expected average based on the quality of his contact.
In total, it seems like there are two different Diamondback teams. The first team is on the day that Gallen and Kelly pitch, where the offense uses their speed and contact ability to scratch out a couple of runs and the pitching does the rest. The second team is on the day when anyone else pitches, where the starter puts the club in an early hole and the offense lacks the punch to make the comeback.
The first team is probably good enough to contend with the Dodgers or Padres, but the second team is likely the reason they’ll finish closer to .500 than to first place.
Verdict: Buy them as a team in the hunt, sell them as a team that can compete with the Padres or Dodgers