Playing 'Patience or Panic' with MLB's Early-Season Slumps

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistApril 10, 2014

Playing 'Patience or Panic' with MLB's Early-Season Slumps

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    David Goldman

    The start of every MLB campaign brings a good deal of excitement around the league, as all 30 teams still have hope for the season ahead.

    It also brings an overwhelming amount of overreaction, whether it is getting too excited about a player or team getting off to a hot start or pushing the panic button on a struggling team or a slumping hitter.

    It's important to remember that it's a long, 162-game season, and there is an awful lot of baseball to be played between now and October.

    With that being said, what follows is a look at 10 key hitters who have struggled to kick off the new season and my take on whether fans should show patience or panic looking ahead to the remainder of the season.

    Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

SS Zack Cozart, Cincinnati Reds

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    Al Behrman

    2014 Stats

    7 G, 1-for-26 (.038 BA), 1 RBI, 0 BB, 5 K

    Player Overview

    After hitting .246/.288/.399 as a rookie in 2012 with 33 doubles and 15 home runs, Zack Cozart entered last season looking like a potential breakout candidate.

    That didn't wind up being the case, as he hit a strikingly similar .254/.284/.381 with 30 doubles and 12 home runs, and now the 28-year-old is looking to prove he can be more than a league-average shortstop.

    He's a plus defender at the position, so he'll get more time than some others would to figure things out. The team also doesn't really have anyone to push him for playing time unless it wants to turn things over to utility man Ramon Santiago.

    Patience or Panic?

    Patience, because fans really have no other choice at this point.

1B Allen Craig, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    2014 Stats

    8 G, 3-for-31 (.097 BA), 3 RBI, 1 BB, 6 K

    Player Overview

    After serving as a utility man and making a major impact during the St. Louis Cardinals' run to a World Series title in 2011, Allen Craig settled into an everyday role in 2012 and posted an .876 OPS with 22 home runs and 92 RBI.

    He managed just 13 home runs last season but was a run-producing machine once again with 97 RBI. That was thanks in large part to an MLB-best .454 batting average with runners in scoring position.

    Craig is again slotted in the cleanup spot in a very good Cardinals lineup. He is also making the move from first base to right field to replace the departed Carlos Beltran and open things up for Matt Adams at first base.

    Patience or Panic?

    Patience. Craig was so good in the clutch the past two seasons; there's no reason to panic this early.

3B Josh Donaldson, Oakland Athletics

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez

    2014 Stats

    8 G, 7-for-36 (.194 BA), 3 2B, 2 RBI, 5 R, 1 BB, 11 K

    Player Overview

    After struggling to the point of demotion midway through the 2012 season, Josh Donaldson returned to the majors on August 14, and he went on to hit .290/.356/.489 in 47 games down the stretch.

    That wound up being just a sign of bigger things to come, as Donaldson hit .301/.384/.499 with 24 home runs and 93 RBI while posting an 8.0 rWAR and finishing fourth in AL MVP voting.

    Good as he was last year, one can't help but question the legitimacy of a late bloomer like Donaldson. His ZIPS projection had him hitting .257/.327/.424 with 19 home runs and 75 RBI, and those projections may not be far off after this slow start.

    Patience or Panic?

    Panic...if he doesn't pick things up by the end of the month. Donaldson still gets the benefit of the doubt at this point given how good he was last season, but his short track record of success means he needs to pick it up soon.

1B Prince Fielder, Texas Rangers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2014 Stats

    9 G, 6-for-37 (.162 BA), 2 2B, 3 RBI, 3 R, 2 BB, 5 K

    Player Overview

    After averaging 40 home runs per season from 2007 to 2011, Prince Fielder joined the Detroit Tigers on a massive nine-year, $214 million deal in free agency prior to the 2012 season.

    He did a terrific job the last two seasons protecting a back-to-back AL MVP in Miguel Cabrera, but his power numbers were down, as he hit 30 home runs in 2012 and just 25 last season despite playing all 162 games both years.

    Looking ahead to extensions for Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer, Detroit shipped Fielder to the Texas Rangers in a trade this offseason. With the move to hitter-friendly Arlington, many expected big things from Fielder this year in the power department, but he's stumbled out of the gates.

    Patience or Panic?

    Patience. The Rangers roster has been a mess here in the early going with all of the injuries it has faced, and that has certainly not helped Fielder get acclimated to his new team. Give it some time before pushing the panic button here.

LF Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2014 Stats

    7 G, 6-for-29 (.207 BA), 1 HR, 3 RBI, 1 R, 1 BB, 13 K

    Player Overview

    After a handful of different injuries limited him to just 118 games last season, Bryce Harper set to work bulking up this offseason in an effort to stay healthy.

    There's no denying his importance to the success of the Washington Nationals, as the team went 65-53 when he played last season and just 21-23 without him.

    It's important to remember that Harper is only 21 years old and still developing as a player. All the tools are there for him to be a superstar and perennial MVP candidate, but he has yet to reach his full potential and may very well still be adjusting to playing with a bigger frame.

    Patience or Panic?

    Patience. As long as Harper stays healthy, his terrific skill set should lead to production. A 2-for-4 game Wednesday that included his first home run of the season could be a step in the right direction.

3B Chase Headley, San Diego Padres

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    Lenny Ignelzi

    2014 Stats

    8 G, 4-for-32 (.125 BA), 1 RBI, 1 BB, 7 K

    Player Overview

    A slightly above-average third baseman at best heading into the second half of the 2012 season, Chase Headley exploded to post a .978 OPS with 23 home runs and 73 RBI after the break on his way to the NL RBI title.

    With his stock sky-high heading into the offseason, there was no shortage of trade rumors. But the San Diego Padres opted to hold on to what seemed to be a budding star. His numbers fell across the board, though, and he wound up hitting just .250/.347/.400 with 13 home runs and 50 RBI last year.

    Now, the 29-year-old finds himself in a contract year looking to prove he's worthy of a big-money deal in free agency. At the same time, the Padres are hoping he can regain some of his value with an eye on netting a big return at the deadline.

    Patience or Panic?

    Panic. The Padres missed their chance to sell high on Headley, and now they are hoping they can salvage some sort of value from him at the deadline. If he keeps struggling, he'll only hurt the future of a rebuilding team.

C Brian McCann, New York Yankees

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2014 Stats

    8 G, 5-for-33 (.152 BA), 2 RBI, 1 R, 1 BB, 4 K

    Player Overview

    It's fairly rare that a franchise-caliber catcher hits the open market, so it was no surprise to see Brian McCann land a big five-year, $85 million deal from the New York Yankees this offseason heading into his age-30 season.

    Since becoming an everyday player in 2006, McCann leads all catchers with 171 home runs, and he's hit a solid .277/.350/.477 over that span with seven All-Star appearances and five Silver Slugger awards.

    He dealt with some injuries early on last season but still managed to post a solid .796 OPS with 20 home runs in just 356 at-bats. He's being counted on to be a run producer in the middle of the Yankees' new-look lineup, but the numbers have not been there thus far.

    Patience or Panic?

    Patience. A relatively slow starter throughout his career, McCann should come around in time, and his power stroke from the left side of the plate should fit perfectly in Yankee Stadium.

3B Mike Moustakas, Kansas City Royals

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    Charlie Riedel

    2014 Stats

    7 G, 1-for-26 (.038 BA), 1 RBI, 1 R, 3 BB, 7 K

    Player Overview

    Once a top prospect in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Mike Moustakas turned in a promising first full season in 2012 when he had 34 doubles and 20 home runs while posting a 3.1 rWAR.

    A big spring last year had him looking like a prime candidate for a breakout season, but instead he hit just .233/.287/.364 and saw his OPS drop 57 points for a negative WAR at minus-0.1.

    He was much better in the second half last year, hitting .259/.308/.416, followed by another strong spring. He's struggled mightily here to kick off the regular season once again, though, and it may not be long before Danny Valencia sees more playing time.

    For what it's worth, manager Ned Yost sees big things ahead for Moustakas after he finally picked up his first hit of the season on Tuesday.

    “Moose, you can tell, he’s getting ready to take off,” Yost told Pete Grathoff of the Kansas City Star. “You watch his batting practices, and they’re unbelievable. Just unbelievable. When you’re oh for 20, that first hit takes a lot of weight off your shoulders.”

    Patience or Panic?

    Panic. At some point, the Royals will have to consider at least splitting time at third base between Moustakas and Valencia. And if the veteran Valencia hits like he did down the stretch last year, he could be the everyday option.

CF Colby Rasmus, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    2014 Stats

    9 G, 3-for-30 (.100 BA), 3 2B, 1 R, 3 BB, 12 K

    Player Overview

    After a disappointing start to Colby Rasmus' career, the Cardinals traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays at the deadline in 2011 in an eight-player deal that brought Edwin Jackson to St. Louis.

    He hit just .223/.289/.400 in his first full season with Toronto, though he did manage 23 home runs and 75 RBI over his 565 at-bats. But the Blue Jays wisely stuck with him, and he rewarded them with a fantastic 2013.

    The 27-year-old improved his line to .276/.338/.501 to raise his OPS by 151 points and posted a 4.6 rWAR, despite being limited to just 118 games by an oblique strain. Looking to take another step forward to legitimate stardom this season, he's off to a terrible start with the second-most strikeouts in the AL.

    Patience or Panic?

    Patience. The potential is still there for Rasmus, and he looked to have turned a corner last season, so it's not time to panic just yet.

CF B.J. Upton, Atlanta Braves

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    2014 Stats

    7 G, 4-for-29 (.138 BA), 1 2B, 0 BB, 13 K

    Player Overview

    Hoping a change of scenery could turn his terrific tools into big-time production, the Atlanta Braves shelled out a five-year, $75.25 million contract to sign B.J. Upton to replace Michael Bourn in center field.

    The results were nothing short of a disaster, as the 29-year-old hit .184/.268/.289 with a whopping 151 strikeouts in just 391 at-bats. That was good for a minus-1.3 rWAR. He was arguably the worst everyday player in the game, and the Braves are now on the hook for $62.8 million over the next four years.

    At this point, the Braves almost have to keep running him out there day in and day out in hopes that they can get some sort of return on their investment. But he has to do something other than strike out every other at-bat.

    Patience or Panic?

    Panic. At what point do the Braves just eat the money left on his deal and cut ties with Upton? It likely won't be anytime soon, but there's no denying he's been horrible since joining the team.