MLB's Biggest Winners and Losers for the Month of April
The first month of the 2014 MLB season is coming to a close, and while we won't really get a good idea of how the season is going to shake out until the weather warms up and a few more months are in the books, that does not mean it's not worth taking a look back at April.
Early-season performance is not always indicative of future success or failure, but the biggest takeaway from the first month may have been that the Milwaukee Brewers are a lot better than we expected and the Arizona Diamondbacks are a lot worse than we expected.
The Atlanta Braves pitching and the Chicago White Sox hitting have also been pleasant surprises, while a popular dark-horse pick in the San Diego Padres can't buy a run and the "retooled" Minnesota Twins rotation looks worse than it did last year.
Without giving anything else away, here is a look at my picks for the biggest winners and losers of the month of April around Major League Baseball.
All stats courtesy of MLB.com, unless otherwise noted.
Loser: The Trade Value of Chase Headley
After a monster second half in 2012 that saw him hit .308/.386/.592 with 23 home runs and 73 RBI, Chase Headley entered the 2013 offseason with sky-high trade value.
Eyeing a possible long-term extension, the San Diego Padres decided against selling high on the third baseman and instead hoped he could follow things up with an impressive 2013 campaign.
That didn't turn out to be the case, though, as he battled a thumb injury to start the season and never really got things going, hitting .250/.347/.400 with 13 home runs and 50 RBI over 520 at-bats.
Set to hit free agency next offseason, the Padres were unable to come to terms on an extension with him once again this winter, and it looks like a safe bet that he'll be playing elsewhere in 2015. That means he's as likely a candidate as any to be moved come July, and at this point, the Padres are hoping he can salvage some value.
He's hitting just .186/.250/.314 so far this season, so he has some work to do if the Padres hope to get anything meaningful for him.
Winner: The Trade Value of Jeff Samardzija
Given a regular rotation spot for the first time in 2012—after spending the first four seasons of his big-league career primarily pitching out of the bullpen—Jeff Samardzija turned in a breakout season.
Over 28 starts, he went just 9-13, but he posted a 3.81 ERA and struck out 180 batters in 174.2 innings of work. That was enough to make him the clear ace of a rebuilding Chicago Cubs team and a potential core piece of their future.
Looking to build off of that breakout campaign and establish himself as a legitimate ace, the big right-hander instead took a step back last season, when he went 8-13 with a 4.34 ERA (though he did throw 213.2 innings and strike out 214 hitters).
After an offseason that featured extension and trade rumors, the 29-year-old entered the season with his future status in Chicago still up in the air. He's under team control through the 2015 season, but the team could look to maximize its return on him by moving him now, if it doesn't intend on extending him.
He's winless through six starts so far this season, but has a 1.98 ERA and 1.24 WHIP, and he may very well wind up being the prize of the trade deadline if he keeps it up.
Loser: $100 Million Man Homer Bailey
The No. 7 pick in the 2004 draft, Homer Bailey had a tough time establishing himself in the league early on in his career, going 25-23 with a 4.89 ERA over his first five seasons.
Things finally clicked in 2012, as he went 13-10 with a 3.68 ERA while reaching the 200-inning mark (208.0 IP) for the first time in his career, giving an already solid Reds rotation a major boost in the process.
He was even better last year, throwing his second career no-hitter and going 11-12 with a 3.49 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 209 innings. Set to hit free agency at the end of the 2014 season, the Reds were faced with the decision to either trade him or extend him this past offseason, and they opted for the latter.
The ever-rising cost of starting pitching coupled with the fact that Bailey is still just 27 years old resulted in a six-year, $100 million extension for a guy with a career ERA over 4.00 who had yet to record career win No. 50.
The early returns on that deal have not been good, as the right-hander sits at 1-2 with a 6.15 ERA and 1.785 WHIP through his first five starts this season.
At the end of the day, he's getting paid either way, so maybe the loser here is the Reds for giving him that deal, as opposed to Bailey himself.
Winner: Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins
The rookie season that Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez put together as a 20-year-old in 2013 is one of the best the game has ever seen from a pitcher. Only on the Opening Day roster due to a pair of injuries and having never pitched above High-A before that, the right-hander was immediately one of the best starters in the game.
He finished the year 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 172.2 innings of work, heading an impressive NL rookie class and finishing third in NL Cy Young voting.
When preseason award predictions came around, I left Fernandez out of my top-10 for NL Cy Young voting, saying I thought he would be solid once again and had an incredibly bright future, but that I expected enough regression for him to finish outside the top 10. Whoops.
Through six starts this year, he's 4-1 with a 1.59 ERA and an NL-high 55 strikeouts in 39.2 innings of work. But that stat line doesn't tell the whole story.
He was shelled for eight hits and six runs in four innings during his third start of the season, but in his other five starts, he has allowed a grand total of one earned run in 35.2 innings. Even more impressively, he's allowed just nine hits and two walks while striking out 32 over a current 23-inning scoreless streak spanning his last three starts.
With Clayton Kershaw on the shelf, he may very well be the best pitcher in the game right now, and he looks like a safe bet to prove me wrong when it comes to Cy Young voting.
Loser: Curtis Granderson, New York Mets
With some money to spend and a clear need for a power bat to slot behind David Wright in the lineup, the New York Mets shelled out a four-year, $60 million deal to Curtis Granderson just before the winter meetings kicked off.
Granderson first established himself as a star back in 2007, when he was playing for the Detroit Tigers, as he hit .302/.361/.552 with 38 doubles, 23 triples, 23 home runs and 26 stolen bases in what goes down as one of the most impressive all-around offensive seasons in baseball history.
He joined the New York Yankees in 2010, and he turned himself into one of the game's top power hitters in 2011 and 2012, when he hit a combined 84 home runs and drove in 225 runs. He did so at the cost of his batting average, though, as he hit just .247 over his first three seasons in the Bronx.
A pair of freak injuries that resulted from hit-by-pitches limited him to just 61 games last season, as he hit just .229/.317/.407 with seven home runs in 214 at-bats. But the Mets paid him big money this offseason, nonetheless.
He's seen that average plummet by nearly another 100 points here in the early going this season, as he's hitting just .136/.252/.216 with one home run through his first 88 at-bats. If the 33-year-old doesn't turn things around soon, the four-year deal could wind up being a huge flop for a rebuilding Mets team.
Winner: Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies
With the trade of Dexter Fowler to the Houston Astros during the offseason, the Colorado Rockies entered spring training with a vacancy in center field and a number of options to choose from to fill it.
Incumbents Corey Dickerson and Charlie Blackmon were joined by offseason acquisitions Brandon Barnes and Drew Stubbs, and while all four made the Opening Day roster, it is Blackmon who has separated himself from the pack.
The 27-year-old entered the 2014 season with just 481 plate appearances under his belt over the past three seasons, but he did show some legitimate potential last year, hitting .309/.336/.467 with 25 extra-base hits over 246 at-bats.
He's taken his expanded opportunity and run with it this season, with a .379/.425/.621 line and 12 extra-base hits through his first 95 at-bats.
There is a good chance he experiences some regression here in the near future, but his hot start is not a complete fluke. He has the tools to continue to provide a spark atop the order, and he should be able to make a run at a .300-plus average over a full season.
Loser: Ricky Nolasco and the Minnesota Twins "Retooled" Rotation
Last season, the Minnesota Twins finished dead last in MLB with a starters' ERA of 5.26, and the result was a third straight 90-loss season and a fourth-place finish in the AL Central.
Understandably, pitching was the focus of their offseason, as they added Ricky Nolasco (four years, $49 million) and Phil Hughes (three years, $24 million) on the two biggest free-agent deals in team history. They also re-signed Mike Pelfrey (two years, $11 million) despite a subpar showing last year.
The result of all of these moves so far this year? A slightly worse 6.04 ERA from their rotation, putting them last in the American League and ahead of only the Arizona Diamondbacks (6.34) in the league.
Hughes (5.14 ERA), Nolasco (6.67 ERA), Pelfrey (7.32 ERA) and incumbent Kevin Correia (7.33 ERA) have all been terrible for the most part, and an impressive start by former top prospect Kyle Gibson (3-1, 3.63 ERA) has not been nearly enough to offset the struggles of the others.
Making the struggles even more disappointing is the fact that the Twins offense has been fantastic so far, averaging an MLB-best 5.52 runs per game and helping them to a 12-11 start. If they had even league-average starting pitching, they'd have one of the best records in baseball right now.
Winner: Aaron Harang and the Atlanta Braves "Patchwork" Rotation
Entering the season, I ranked the Atlanta Braves as the No. 26 starting rotation in baseball, following a wave of injuries that shelved three-fifths of their projected rotation.
With a washed-up veteran in Aaron Harang, a guy who was a free agent just a week prior in Ervin Santana and a pair of relatively unproven youngsters in Alex Wood and David Hale, the staff certainly looked weak on paper behind ace Julio Teheran.
It turns out that I could not have been more wrong, as that group currently leads all of baseball with a collective 1.90 ERA, turning in 20 quality starts in 25 games so far.
Harang (3-1, 0.85 ERA), Teheran (2-1, 1.47 ERA) and Santana (3-0, 1.95 ERA) all rank within the top 15 in the National League in ERA, while Hale (1-0, 2.31 ERA) and Wood (2-4, 2.93 ERA) are not far behind.
Injured starters Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd will both be healthy very soon, giving the team the terrific problem moving forward of having too many viable starting options.
Loser: Jedd Gyorko and the San Diego Padres Offense
The San Diego Padres were pegged by many, myself included, to be one of the dark-horse teams of 2014. They may not have been unanimously expected to contend for a playoff spot, but it was widely believed that they would take a major step forward as a team and perhaps make a run at a winning record.
They currently sit just two games under .500 at 13-15, but an anemic offense could keep them from hanging around much longer, as they have had serious trouble consistently scoring runs.
Heading into Wednesday, their 2.68 runs per game ranked last in MLB, and by a sizable margin of over half a run per game.
No one person in particular has been to blame, but second baseman Jedd Gyorko has been perhaps the biggest disappointment. After hitting 26 doubles and 23 home runs as a rookie last year, the Padres rewarded him with a six-year, $35 million extension in the early going this season.
He has hit just .144/.218/.211 with three extra-base hits and 30 strikeouts in 90 at-bats so far this year, though, and as a key cog in the team's rebuilding effort, he has to turn things around.
Outside of Chris Denorfia (85 AB, .318/.348/.435) and Everth Cabrera (112 AB, .295/.319/.384), no one is hitting consistently. Something has to change for this team at the plate, and it has to change quickly.
Winner: Jose Abreu and the Chicago White Sox Offense
Last season, the Chicago White Sox finished last in the American League with an average of 3.69 runs per game, as they hit just .249 as a team on their way to a 99-loss season and a last-place finish in the AL Central.
Granted, we are only one month into the 2014 season, but no team has made a bigger turnaround at the plate so far than the White Sox, as they are tied for the MLB lead with 153 runs scored and hitting .272 as a team.
Their 5.46 runs per game are tied with the Colorado Rockies for second in MLB, trailing only the Minnesota Twins (5.52), who have played five less games on the year.
A number of guys are having big seasons, but offseason addition Jose Abreu has definitely made the most noise after signing a six-year, $68 million deal following his defection from Cuba. The slugger currently leads all of baseball with 10 home runs and 32 RBI, which are both rookie records for the month of April.
Six other regulars are hitting .280 or better, including current AL batting-average leader Alexei Ramirez (.355), and the team would conceivably be even better had right fielder Avisail Garcia not been lost for the season with a shoulder injury.
That said, manager Robin Ventura acknowledged the team will need to do more than hit if it hopes to legitimately contend, telling Scott Merkin of MLB.com: "In the end, you always know you have to pitch and play defense. There's a lot of different things that have to happen for teams to win even to get into the playoffs that you have to do a little bit of everything to be able to do it."
Loser: Arizona Diamondbacks
After a disappointing 81-81 season last year, the Arizona Diamondbacks had as busy an offseason as anyone in the National League, acquiring slugger Mark Trumbo, closer Addison Reed and veteran workhorse Bronson Arroyo to shore up three key areas of need.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were still viewed as the class of the NL West and the favorites to win the division heading into 2014, but the Diamondbacks at least looked to have a shot at contending for a wild-card spot.
Instead, they find themselves with the worst record in all of baseball at 8-22, including an abysmal 2-15 record at home. They have managed to win one series so far, beating the San Francisco Giants on the road, and they have also split a four-game series with the Chicago Cubs.
The starting rotation has been the biggest issue, as projected Opening Day starter Patrick Corbin was lost for the season before it even started, and the guys that are left have combined for an MLB-worst 6.34 ERA and just seven quality starts in 30 games. Their biggest issue has been their susceptibility to the long-ball.
They are middle-of-the-pack offensively, averaging 3.73 runs per game, but that has not been nearly enough to offset the team's pitching woes.
On the plus side, Paul Goldschmidt (.319 BA, 11 2B, 3 HR, 17 RBI, 20 R) is still really good, so at least that's something.
Winner: Milwaukee Brewers
The biggest winners of the first month of the season have to be the Milwaukee Brewers, as they currently have the best record in baseball at 20-7, thanks in large part to an impressive nine-game winning streak spanning the first two weeks of the season.
Injuries to a number of key hitters and the suspension of Ryan Braun left them struggling to avoid a last-place finish for much of 2013, and through all the misfortune, they finished with a disappointing 74-88 mark on the year.
Braun and shortstop Jean Segura are both dealing with minor injuries right now, but as a whole, the offense is healthy, currently averaging 4.11 runs per game.
That has been more than enough support for one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball, as the unit sits third behind the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals with a 2.80 starters' ERA.
Yovani Gallardo (2-0, 1.91 ERA) has again looked like a staff ace, while Wily Peralta (3-1, 2.56 ERA), Kyle Lohse (4-1, 2.70 ERA) and Marco Estrada (2-1, 2.87 ERA) have all been great as well. Newcomer Matt Garza (1-2, 4.09 ERA) has been the weak link, but those numbers are bloated by one bad start in which he allowed five runs in five innings.
Add to all of that one of the best bullpens in baseball (2.16 ERA), fronted by a suddenly untouchable Francisco Rodriguez (13-of-13 SV, 16.0 IP, 7 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 23 K), and the Brewers look to be a complete team and legitimate contender.
Are they going to lead the league in wins? Probably not. And once the St. Louis Cardinals start hitting, the Brewers could have a hard time staying atop the NL Central, but there's no question that they have the talent to be playing in October.
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