How quickly should you be worried about your team’s slow start? It’s a question that fans and media members have asked themselves for as long as baseball has been played. The more patient of observers may say that April is far too early to make any grand assessments, pointing to last year’s Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners as teams that were well under 500 in May and rebounded to make postseason runs. The more restless fans, however, may say that a slow spring start could sink a team, with the 2022 Red Sox, who were unable to rebound from a 10-19, as evidence.
I stand somewhere in the middle. I believe some teams have the makeup and pedigree to deserve the benefit of the doubt after slow starts, while others’ rocky Aprils could be emblematic of deeper issues. So today, we’re going to look at six teams who entered the season with postseason expectations and who are playing sub-.500 baseball and determine how much their fanbase should start to worry.
Chicago White Sox: 7-12
2021 was supposed to be the start of a new era for the White Sox. After years of alternating between mediocrity and rebuilding, the South Siders finally emerged in baseball relevance with an exciting young offensive core and one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. They were swiftly bounced in the ALDS by the Houston Astros, but with Tim Anderson, Yoán Moncada, and Luis Robert Jr. leading the offense and Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito anchoring the rotation, the future looked bright in Chicago.
Who could have thought that the 2021 season could turn out to be a high-water mark rather than a starting point? The 2022 White Sox were a mess, stumbling to an 81-81 record due to disastrous campaigns from Yasmani Grandal and Giolito and injuries to Robert, Anderson, and Eloy Jiménez. 2023, it appears, could be even worse. The White Sox swapped out lineup stalwart José Abreu for Andrew Benintendi, who is slugging .328. That, coupled with even more injuries to Moncada, Anderson, and Jimenez, has stymied an offense that is just 18th in baseball with 74 runs.
Number of innings the white sox offense has scored in
Number of innings white sox pitching has let opponents score in
— Jay Cuda (@JayCuda) April 18, 2023
Yet remarkably, the offense is the least of the White Sox’s problems. Ace Dylan Cease has been doing Dylan Cease things, but Lance Lynn has been rocked to the tune of a 7.59 ERA. Some of that has been disastrous batted ball luck, but his average fastball velocity is down by nearly two miles an hour from 2021, which is a pretty big deal for a guy who throws some variation of his fastball over 75% of the time. Rotation mate Michael Kopech hasn’t been much better, pitching to a 6.32 ERA and leading the MLB with seven home runs allowed.
With Cease, Giolito, and new addition Mike Clevinger pitching good innings, the White Sox may have been able to weather the storm if their bullpen picked up the slack. To put it mildly, that has not happened:
With Garrett Crochet working his way back from Tommy John surgery and Liam Hendriks recovering from cancer, the White Sox really needed their other bullpen arms to step up, particularly Bummer and Graveman, who were two of the most reliable arms last season and have long pedigrees of strong relief work. Yet both pitchers have a walk rate nearly double their career average, a bugaboo that appears to have rubbed off on the rest of the bullpen. Of the relievers on their current MLB roster, only Kenyan Middleton has a walk rate above the MLB average.
Despite playing in the worst division in baseball, there is little reason to expect a turnaround. The lineup doesn’t have the same feel to it without Abreu, and the pitching staff will need a lot more than the return of Hendriks to stabilize it. Add in the fact that many of the White Sox core pieces are either on the IL already or have a lengthy injury history, and this team will be lucky to match last season’s .500 record.
Worry Level: 7
Houston Astros: 9-11
It’s hard not to trust the machine that is the Houston Astros. Over the last six seasons, they have made the ALCS every year, won four pennants, and brought home two World Series titles. They’ve lost some key pieces along the way, namely All-Stars Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole, and George Springer, but through it all, they have continued to win like no one else.
For many teams, an 8-11 start would not make you blink twice, but for a team like the Astros, it definitely raises an eyebrow. Yet a deeper look into the numbers shows that the Astros have far outperformed their win-losses numbers. Through Wednesday, the ‘Stros ranks eighth in the majors in runs and seventh in ERA. Here is the full list of other teams who rank in the top 8 in the majors in both categories:
|Team||Record||Runs Ranking||ERA Ranking|
In short, the Astros should are be playing better than their record suggests. Four of their starters have an ERA under 3.75. Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker both have OPS+ over 150. Their bullpen, for the most part, has been excellent. Sure, Alex Bregman and Jeremy Peña have gotten off to cold starts, and Luis Garcia has a 7.71 ERA, but all three of those players have proven themselves in the biggest moments and deserve the benefit of the doubt.
My one concern for the Astros is their lack of lineup depth. They are giving everyday at-bats to David Hensley, Martín Maldonado, and Jake Meyers, who each have an OPS+ well below the league average. With Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, and Chas McCormick returning sometime soon, a thin 7-9 of an order is not cause for concern, but it is definitely something to monitor if they continue to fall behind in the standings.
At the end of the day, however, it’s hard to get too panicked over a slow start. These are the Houston Astros. They still have Alvarez. They still have Tucker. They still have Valdez. They may not be the 100-win Astros of old, but this team should still easily win the division.
Worry Level: 2
Seattle Mariners: 8-11
The Mariners were unequivocally the story of baseball last year. How could they not be? A team with a 21-year playoff drought energized by one of the most exciting young players in baseball, a bullpen dubbed “Los Bomberos,” and a catcher with the nickname “Big Dumper. What’s not to like? They were completely overwhelmed by the Astros in the ALDS, but they showed they were a team to be taken seriously.
It’s not like the Mariners have played bad enough to dim any of that optimism. After all, an 8-11 record pales in comparison to the 18-27 mark they had last year. Even if they aren’t any red flags, however, there are more than a few yellow ones . On offense, new additions Kolten Wong and AJ Pollock’s combined OPS would still be below the league average, and a playoff-caliber team really shouldn’t be giving regular at-bats to Cooper Hummel (.095/.174/.143). The pitching staff, meanwhile, has been decimated by injuries to key 2022 contributors Andrés Muñoz and Robbie Ray, the latter of which has thrust Chris Flexen back into the starting rotation (7.73 ERA).
Yet even with some of the early-season disappointments, there have been a handful of good stories to offset them. Luis Castillo looks well worth the long-term investment, posting a sparkling 0.73 ERA in his first four starts. Ty France looks to be once again among the best hitters in baseball, while Julio Rodriguez leads the team in both home runs and stolen bases. Most notably, former top prospect Jarred Kelenic looks to have finally put it all together, slashing .315/.393/.430 with four home runs, including this monster shot:
482 FEET OFF THE BAT OF JARRED KELENIC 😱
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 12, 2023
With the Astros stumbling out of the gate, you would have liked the Mariners to take advantage and jump out to an early season division lead. Regardless, this is still a really good team, and with a couple of refinements around the edges at the trade deadline, they should be right back in the postseason come October.
Worry Meter: 3
Philadelphia Phillies: 7-11
The 2022 Philadelphia Phillies were sort of a mess. They were a team constructed to hit dingers and worry about the other stuff later, and while they certainly did the former (their 205 longballs ranked sixth in the majors) their defense was disastrous, their starting pitching lacked depth, and their bullpen was only marginally better than the year before. The Phillies started 22-29, fired manager Joe Girardi, and fought back into postseason contention before backing into October with an 11-14 September.
Yet a funny thing happened in that postseason. A couple of relievers got hot, the pitching depth wasn’t as much of a problem, and the Phillies mashed their way to a National League Pennant. That run made a lot of people forget about their mediocre regular season, but here we are in April, and the Phils look a lot like they did at this time last year. They currently sit at 8-11, possessing a lineup that ranks in the middle of the pack in runs scored and a pitching staff that ranks 26th in baseball with a 5.28 ERA.
There are a lot of problems to point out with the Phillies so far, so let’s first point out a couple of reasons to be optimistic:
- Aaron Nola is not going to have a 5.91 ERA all year
- Zach Wheeler is not going to have a 4.79 ERA all year
- The offense leads the majors with a .286 average
- 8 of the 9 everyday players have an OPS+ of at least 97
- Bryson Stott and Brandon Marsh each look in the midst of a breakout season
Is that out of the way? Good. Let’s get negative. Perhaps knowing that their October success was unsustainable, the Phillies attempted to bolster their offense with the additions of Craig Kimbrel and Gregory Soto, both of whom have BB/9 over 7.0. That, along with a terrible start from Seranthony Domínguez, have been major reasons why the Phillies bullpen is one of the worst in baseball (Though it should be noted they did not allow a run in their four-game set against the White Sox)
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the Phillies will once again be able to slug their way out of their pitching woes. While it’s true that they lead the league in average, they have nonetheless missed the power bats of Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins. They rank just 23rd in the majors with 16 home runs, explaining why, despite all their singles and doubles, they have still had a hard time scoring runs.
While a home run drought may be a new problem for the Phillies, a lack of starting pitching depth has plagued them for years. Bailey Falter and Taijuan Walker have been provided serviceable back-end production, but the fifth spot in the rotation has been filled with reliever Matt Strahm, whose four innings per start has put even more strain on the bullpen. The Phillies can usually count on Nola and Wheeler to pick up the slack, but both sinker-ball specialists have struggled mightily this season, in large part because the infield behind them has struggled to convert grounders into outs.
So where does this leave the Phillies? There’s no doubt this is a very talented team, but while Harper’s pending return may solve some of the offense’s issues, nobody is coming to fix the bullpen or the defense. In all likelihood, the Phillies are somewhere between their 2022 performance and their 2023 start: A slightly above-average team that has no chance of competing with the Mets or Atlanta.
Worry Meter: 6
St.Louis Cardinals: 8-11
The Cardinals are a weirdly constructed team. They have two MVP candidates surrounded by a bunch of high-contact, high-on-base utility men. They have approximately eight different outfielders (give or take) who could start on other major league teams. And while most of the league is infatuated with high-octane velocity and strikeout numbers, the Cardinals rely on pitchers who throw strikes and induce weak contact to the best defense in baseball.
In 2022, this all worked. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado had career years, and Tommy Edman and Brenadn Donavan gave them plenty of RBI chances. The starting rotation was a little wobbly at times, but the ageless Adam Wainwright and midseason additions Jordan Mongomery and José Quintana were enough to stabilize it, and Giovany Gallegos and Ryan Helsley shut things down at the back end. They had the misfortune of running into a red-hot Phillies team, but the Cardinals had to feel pretty good about their formula headed into 2023.
Offensively, things have largely gone according to plan. The stars are doing their thing, and they’ve even gotten unexpected production from guys like Nolan Gorman and Alec Burleson. They are still only middle of the pack in many offensive categories, but their recent series against the Diamondbacks in which they scored 24 runs in three games could be a sign of good things to come.
The starting rotation, however, is a different story. The Cardinals chose to let Quintana walk and are still missing rotation stalwarts Dakota Hudson and Adam Wainwright, who combined for 58 starts last year. Those absences have thrust Jake Woodford and Steven Matz into rotation spots, who have each responded with ERAs over 5.50. Jordan Montgomery had thus far been unable to recapture the magic of last summer and Miles Mikolas has been rocked to the tune of an 8.10 ERA. The only pitcher with a palatable ERA is Jack Flaherty, but even he has walked as many as he has struck out.
The frustrating thing for the Cardinals and their fans is that their offense, bullpen, and defense are all championship-level. It’s the pitching staff that has held them back and created a 6.5-game hole to the first-place Brewers. It’s hard to see a 40-year-old Adam Wainwright fixing this pitching staff, and unless Jack Flaherty reverts to his 2019 form or Miles Mikolas finally learns to strike out batters at a reasonable rate, it’s not going to get any better. The rest of the roster should get them at least a wild card spot, but this rotation will keep them from being in the upper echelon of contenders.
Worry Meter: 5
San Diego Padres: 9-11
There’s a reason you play the games. After acquiring superstar outfielder Juan Soto at the trade deadline last season and signing perennial All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts this fall, the Padres were declared “the next big thing” and the “offseason winners.” Yet 20 games, the Padres are a measly 9-11, invoking memories of the 2021 club that also began the season with high anticipation only to sputter down the stretch and miss the playoffs.
Fear not, Padres fans, because I am here to tell you that everything is going to work out just fine. Manny Machado, another superstar in the Padres’ seemingly endless line of generational talent, has struggled to the tune of a .241/.274/.316 slash line. Given that he has hit at least 28 home runs and driven in 85 runs in every full season since 2015, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. The same can be said about Soto, whose underlying metrics strongly disagree with his .194 batting average:
Look, I understand some Padres fans' frustration with Juan Soto.
But I don’t think his struggles continue much longer. His underlying/statcast numbers show us that.
This doesn’t even include his .316 wOBA vs. .400 xwOBA.
IMO he’s obviously pressing (most notably at home) pic.twitter.com/LPL5Lk0peZ
— Clark Fahrenthold (@CFahrenthold11) April 18, 2023
It’s also difficult to judge the Padres when arguably their best player hasn’t even taken the field yet. Fernando Tatis Jr, who has posted laughable numbers during his Triple-A “rehab” assignment, is set to return from his PED suspension on Thursday, marking the first time since 2021 that the electrifying talent has played in an MLB game. His return should completely transform a Padres lineup that is just 24th in the major leagues in runs, giving the stars in front of him more pitches to hit and bouncing José Azocar and his .576 OPS from the starting lineup.
If there is one area of the team I am slightly worried about, it’s the back end of the rotation. New addition Michael Wacha’s frightening underlying 2022 metrics look to have caught up with him, as he has battered to a 6.06 ERA in three starts. Blake Snell has been equally as bad, averaging less than five innings per start while walking thirteen batters in eighteen innings. Yet like the offense, it’s hard to judge the rotation when their best arm, Joe Musgrove, hasn’t even taken the mound, and with Seth Lugo and Ryan Weathers looking sharp in their first couple of outings, the Padres don’t necessarily need Wacha and Snell to be the top-of-the-rotation arms many expected headed into the season.
Overall, the Padres are the team on the list I am least concerned about. There is simply too much talent on this team to play sub-500 baseball. With Soto starting to get his groove back and Musgrove and Tatis Jr. set to return, the Padres could be about to go on a run that makes their inclusion on this list seem foolish.
Worry Meter: 2
Adapted by Chris Corr (@Chris_Studios on Twitter)
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