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Every MLB Team's Biggest Red Flag Through 1 Month of Play

Rick WeinerFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2014

Every MLB Team's Biggest Red Flag Through 1 Month of Play

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Only a month into the regular season, it's too early to start ringing alarms and pressing panic buttons around baseball. There's too much baseball left to be played for teams and their fans to begin freaking out.

    That said, April served as an education for each of MLB's 30 franchises. General managers have had a chance to see how the rosters they composed are gelling—or not—and what areas they may need to focus on strengthening as we get deeper into the season and closer to the July trade deadline.

    Let's take a trip around the game and see what each of those areas of concern are.

     

    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs; All injury information courtesy of MLB.com.

     

Arizona Diamonbacks: The Entire Pitching Staff

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    How bad have things gotten with Arizona's starting rotation?

    Of the seven different pitchers that the team has used in the rotation, only one—Josh Collmenter, who began the season as the team's long reliever—has pitched to a sub-5.00 ERA. Collmenter was needed when manager Kirk Gibson decided that he'd seen enough of Trevor Cahill and Randall Delgado, both of whom pitched to ERAs above 9.00 before being replaced in the rotation. 

    While the likes of Bronson Arroyo (7.77 ERA, 1.81 WHIP) and Brandon McCarthy (5.54 ERA, 1.42 WHIP), both pictured, continue to search for answers, there's another problem brewing that hasn't gotten much attention yet: the impact that the rotation's ineptitude is going to have on the Diamondbacks bullpen.

    Arizona relievers have thrown an MLB-high 102.2 innings, 10 more than the next-closest bullpen. The extra work that they have to put in this early in the season could easily come back to bite the team later in the season, especially if Arizona is somehow able to play its way back into contention.

    Regardless of where the Diamondbacks sit in the standings, acquiring bit pieces like recent addition Lucas Harrell isn't going to solve the team's pitching woes. Arizona's rotation needs an overhaul.

     

Atlanta Braves: Lack of Consistent Offensive Production

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    The Atlanta Braves sit atop the NL East with a three-game lead over the second-place New York Mets (yes, the Mets are in second place). The Braves are there because of stellar pitching and defense, not because they're out-slugging the competition.

    The Braves have scored only 89 runs on the season, joining the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and San Diego Padres as the only teams that have yet to crack the 90-run plateau. Of the 25 games that they've played, the Braves have scored two or fewer runs 10 times, failing to put a run on the board in five of those contests.

    Regulars Jason Heyward (pictured), Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton all have an OPS below .600, while Chris Johnson (.610 OPS) is dangerously close to joining the club.

     

Baltimore Orioles: Ubaldo Jimenez's Struggles

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Signed to take some of the pressure off of Chris Tillman at the front of Baltimore's rotation, Ubaldo Jimenez has done the opposite thanks to his inability to command pitches and get batters out with any regularity.

    It's no surprise given that Jimenez traditionally struggles in the first month of the season. But the veteran has shown none of the poise or command that he flashed over his last 28 starts with Cleveland in 2013, when he pitched to a 2.61 ERA and held the opposition to a .664 OPS.

    This season, Jimenez has the fourth-highest ERA  (6.75), is tied for the second-most walks (17) and has the highest WHIP (1.83) among qualified starters.

    At this point, the Orioles can do nothing but hope that when the calendar flips from April to May, Jimenez will snap out of his funk.

Boston Red Sox: Clay Buchholz's Struggles

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    Clay Buchholz has begun to show signs of life. In his last start, against Toronto, he bounced back from a rough first inning to throw a season-high seven innings and pick up his first win.

    “Going seven innings is a good thing any day out,” Buchholz told reporters, including John Tomase of the Boston Herald. “But given the way the team bounced back after that long first inning, it shows what kind of group of guys we have here. The game’s not over until the last out is made. I felt really good with it.”

    But the 29-year-old is only one start removed from his worst outing of the year, allowing six earned runs and seven hits over 2.1 innings against Baltimore. In addition, for the fourth year in a row, his fastball velocity has dropped:

    YearFastball Velocity (mph)
    201094.1
    201192.3
    201292.2
    201391.9
    201490.9

    Are we wrong to be concerned about Buchholz's early-season struggles? Boston manager John Farrell doesn't seem bothered by it, as he explained to Tomase before Buchholz's last outing:

    We were seeing it as start two and start three got under his belt. And then last time out he was flat, and you could say there was a little bit of a pull-back or a step back. I don’t think starters get their true arm strength and endurance until you get into May. You don’t want to just throw it to the calendar and say, ‘Well, on a certain date everything is going to click.’ But guys need innings under their belt, and Clay’s getting there.

    Farrell's explanation seems reasonable enough. But that doesn't change the fact that Boston, which finds itself in third place in the AL East, needs the Buchholz from a year ago—the one who went 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA over his first 12 starts before being sidelined by injury.

Chicago Cubs: Lack of a Reliable Closer

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    David Welker/Getty Images

    No bullpen in baseball has been as ineffective in the ninth inning this season as the one that calls Chicago's Wrigley Field home, with Cubs relievers blowing four of the six save opportunities that they've been presented with so far in 2014.

    While ninth-inning struggles may not seem like a big deal on a club that wasn't expected to contend in 2014, the Cubs need to show some progress in the third year of the rebuilding plan put in place by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Giving away wins at the end of games doesn't help to achieve that goal.

     

Chicago White Sox: Chris Sale's Arm Health

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    For the third consecutive season, Chicago's Chris Sale has been forced to the sidelines due to arm trouble, though this is the first time that he's landed on the disabled list.

    Sale's delivery has long been a contentious topic, with the talented southpaw utilizing an "inverted W" delivery, where both elbows are above his shoulder at the moment his front foot hits the mound. As Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci wrote in 2011, this puts undue stress on the arm:

    Without the energy from the rest of the body, the shoulder and elbow must bear higher levels of torque in what in even optimum circumstances is a maneuver that taxes the physical limits of what an arm can bear.

    While a MRI on his elbow showed no damage to his ulnar collateral ligament, according to Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan, that Sale is dealing with arm trouble once again should be a reason for concern, right?

    Don't tell that to White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, who downplayed Sale's latest injury in comments he made to ESPN Chicago's Doug Padilla:

    Listen, the last few years he’s had something and we shut him down. Why? Because we wanted to take care of him, and that’s what we’re doing right now. When he’s able to go, he’ll be out there and really not one second before.

    Erring on the side of caution is never a bad thing, especially when it comes to the most important piece of a team's pitching staff. But at the very least, the health of Sale's left arm is something that needs to be monitored throughout the regular season. The White Sox, like most teams, are ill-equipped to deal with the extended absence of the ace and workhorse of the staff.

Cincinnati Reds: Brandon Phillips' Decline

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    Even more troubling that Billy Hamilton's struggles atop the lineup in Cincinnati is Brandon Phillips' disappearing act in the heart of the order.

    Never known as a patient hitter, Phillips has all but abandoned the theory that, by allowing the opposing pitcher to throw four balls out of the strike zone, the umpire will award him first base. Instead, Phillips has decided to swing at anything—and everything—that comes his way.

    The problem is that Phillips simply isn't making contact as often as he has in the past. His 73.9 percent contact rate is a career low.

    Among the 21 second baseman who have qualified for the leaderboards this season, Phillips ranks 18th in slugging percentage (.324) and OPS (.599) and 19th in on-base percentage (.275). 

Cleveland Indians: Justin Masterson's Disappearing Velocity

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    According to Brooks Baseball, Cleveland ace Justin Masterson throws either his four-seam fastball or slider nearly 80 percent of the time when he's on the mound.

    Normally that's not a problem, as both pitches—especially his slider—have been above-average offerings in the past. But both of Masterson's biggest weapons have seen a precipitous drop in velocity in 2014:

    SeasonFastball VelocitySlider Velocity
    201393.191.1
    201490.488.7

    That's translated into some mediocre numbers across the board for the 2013 All-Star: a 4.54 ERA and 1.50 WHIP with the opposition hitting .273/.357/.396 against him through six starts.

    After losing both Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir as free agents, the Indians needed another All-Star-caliber performance out of Masterson. So far, they've gotten anything but that.

Colorado Rockies: Carlos Gonzalez's Left Knee

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    Colorado's All-Star left fielder, Carlos Gonzalez, is dealing with tendinitis in his left knee once again. He aggravated it as he ran down the first-base line in a game against Philadelphia on April 20.

    Per MLB.com's Owen Perkins, CarGo downplayed the issue after the game:

    Last year I played the entire year [with it]. It wasn't that bad. It's kind of bad right now. That's why you guys see me sometimes limping down the line. Sometimes in the outfield. It's something I have to deal with and be smart about it. I want to keep playing, so that's what I'm planning to do.

    But Gonzalez has hit only .152 (5-for-33) in the eight games since and, over his last 16 games, he's hitting only .156 (10-for-64). It's fair to wonder whether continuing to gut it out and play on his balky knee is going to lead to more serious problems as we get deeper into the regular season.

    At some point the upstart Rockies, who sit only a half-game behind first-place San Francisco in the NL West, may have no choice but to protect Gonzalez from himself and shut him down so that his knee can heal.

    The last thing the Rockies can afford is to lose him for an extended period of time.

Detroit Tigers: Lack of Production at Shortstop

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    Detroit has already bailed on the ill-fated Alex Gonzalez experiment at shortstop and is heading into the season's second month with a combination of Andrew Romine and Danny Worth (pictured) manning the position.

    That trio has produced some of the worst numbers that any team has gotten from the position in 2014—a .194 batting average, .293 on-base percentage and .529 OPS. Expecting Romine and Worth to improve drastically on those numbers is to set yourself up for disappointment.

    At this point, it's not a matter of will Detroit make a move to upgrade the position, it's how long can the Tigers hold out until they have no choice? Through one month of the season, all five members of the AL Central look as if they are a hot streak away from taking control of the division.

    If the Tigers want to put some separation between themselves and the rest of the field, GM Dave Dombrowski is going to have to address the shortstop situation sooner rather than later. That might require the team to bite the bullet and surrender a first-round draft pick to sign free agent Stephen Drew.

Houston Astros: A Lack of Offense

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    A lack of quality pitching figured to be Houston's biggest issue in 2014. While the team's pitching staff has left much to be desired, the team's lineup has been equally inept.

    Only three of the team's regulars have posted an OPS above .700—Jason Castro (.783), Jonathan Villar (.746) and Jose Altuve (.709). The team is hitting a combined .208 with a .641 OPS and only 88 runs scored, the second fewest in baseball.

    Dexter Fowler, brought in over the winter to provide a spark atop the lineup, has hit only .194 (13-for-67) over his last 17 games. Top prospect George Springer has looked overmatched, hitting .176 (9-for-51) with a .263 on-base percentage and .479 OPS.

    There's no easy fix for what ails the Astros, and with no expectations of success in 2014, getting prospects like Springer and Jonathan Singleton some major league experience should be the team's focus for the rest of the season.

     

Kansas City Royals: Inability to Hit with Runners in Scoring Position

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    Pointing to the continued struggles of Mike Moustakas would be too easy. We'll focus instead on something that's more of a team issue—Kansas City's inability to hit with runners in scoring position.

    Through one month of the season, the Royals are hitting only .239 with a .633 OPS when they come to the plate with runners in scoring position. The biggest culprits are the key pieces in the lineup: Eric Hosmer (.217), Salvador Perez (.192), Alcides Escobar (.185), Moustakas (.111) and Billy Butler (.208), pictured above.

    With Detroit looking vulnerable and the Royals sitting with a real chance to overtake the Tigers for the division this season, Kansas City simply cannot afford to not capitalize on run-scoring opportunities.

Los Angeles Angels: Closer Situation

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    The ninth inning continues to be an area of concern for the Los Angeles Angels, where Ernesto Frieri has been replaced, at least temporarily, by Joe Smith.

    While Smith has converted two of three save opportunities, the veteran reliever doesn't have a track record of success in the ninth inning, having blown 17 of 22 save opportunities over his eight-year career.

    Manager Mike Scioscia believes that this switch isn't going to last all that long, as he explained to the OC Register's Jeff Fletcher shortly after making the announcement:

    Short term, Joe will be good and hopefully give Ernie a chance to find his release point. Historically Ernie responds well to this. We need this. I think this is the best route to take to get to the final solution that we want.

    The concern isn't so much about the short-term—it's whether Frieri, or anyone else on the roster, can be a reliable long-term answer for a team that is expected to contend for a playoff spot.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Lack of Outfield Production

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Since Yasiel Puig broke onto the scene last season, one of the biggest questions in Los Angeles has been how manager Don Mattingly was going to find enough playing time for four outfielders who, when healthy, all deserved to start on a regular basis.

    Now, there's a new question to be asked: When are they going to start living up to expectations?

    So far, the fearsome foursome of Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Puig have combined to hit only .227 with a .304 on-base percentage and .704 OPS. Of the group, only Kemp (.803) and Puig (.821) have an OPS above .580, while only Puig (.281) is hitting above .225.

    Their combined lack of production has contributed to the Dodgers sitting with only a plus-3 run differential and alone in third place, nearly two games behind first-place San Francisco in the NL West.

Miami Marlins: Inability to Win on the Road

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    If Miami could play all of its games at home, we'd be talking about the Marlins as one of the premier teams in baseball and a legitimate contender for a World Series title.

    The Marlins own a 10-4 record at home and put up some of the best numbers in baseball, both at the plate and in the field, when playing in the spacious confines of Marlins Park. The same can't be said for the team when they're on the road, where they've lost 10 of the 12 games.

    StatHome (Rank)Away (Rank)
    BA.299 (2).215 (25)
    OPS.814 (2).621 (26)
    R85 (2)32 (29)
    ERA2.36 (3)4.66 (23)
    WHIP1.10 (5)1.44 (T-24)
    BAA.226 (T-6).258 (17)

    Inquiring minds want to know...what's the deal?

    Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald asked utility player Jeff Baker that very question. While Baker attributed some of the team's struggles to the pitchers that they've faced on the road (the Marlins have played at Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington and the New York Mets), he had some additional insight into the problem:

    I think the biggest thing — and it’s kind of a catch-22 with our ballpark — you’re not going to hit too many homers at home. So I think our approach is a little bit better at home. Sometimes it’s hard not to think about it just because as a hitter and a competitor you want to drive the ball and hit the ball out of the park.

    You go on the road in some of these other parks and you kind of feel like you want to make up for it because you’re not going to get the power numbers, you’re not going to drive in the runs at home. I think we kind of fall into that a little bit instead of just trying to keep staying with our approach, grinding at-bats, seeing a lot of pitches, which at home we’re very, very good at doing. But I think it’s a combination between the two. I think as we get into a bigger chunk of the season and get going, I don’t think the numbers are going to be as dramatic as they are right now.

    Clearly, something changes in the team's approach when they leave the cozy confines of South Florida. It's on manager Mike Redmond to figure out how to keep that approach consistent, regardless of the venue, if the team has any chance of finishing the season with a record of .500 or better.

Milwaukee Brewers: Lack of Organizational Depth

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Milwaukee has gone on an all-out assault on the rest of baseball over the first month of the regular season. The Brewers have jumped out to a nearly seven-game lead over St. Louis in the NL Central and put everyone on notice that they are back—with a vengeance.

    There's no denying that the Brewers, when healthy, have enough talent to compete with any team in baseball. But what happens if one of the team's regulars is lost for an extended period of time?

    Kiss first place—and the whole vengeance thing—goodbye.

    Milwaukee has the worst farm system in baseball, which not only means the team doesn't have the internal options to replace a key piece of the puzzle, but it lacks the kind of young talent that it takes to acquire suitable replacements.

    The Brewers must tread lightly—for one misstep could cost them far more than it would any other team.

Minnesota Twins: Starting Rotation

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    In 2013, Minnesota starters posted the worst ERA in baseball (5.26), threw the fewest innings (871) and struck out only 4.93 batters per nine innings of work.

    After spending roughly $84 million to keep Mike Pelfrey in the fold and add Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco (pictured) to the mix, surely the Twins would see better results in 2014, right?

    Not exactly.

    One month into the season, Minnesota's rotation no longer has the worst ERA in baseball. Its 6.03 ERA comes in just ahead of Arizona's 6.34 mark, but the Twins still own the top spot for fewest innings thrown (126.2) and lowest K/9 rate (5.12).

    Only one member of the rotation, Kyle Gibson, has pitched to an ERA below 5.10, posting a 3.83 mark through four starts, while Hughes (1.39) is the only one with a WHIP below 1.45.

    That the team's starters have been that bad and the Twins still have a winning record (12-11) is nothing short of a miracle. 

New York Mets: Curtis Granderson's Struggles

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Signed to a four-year, $60 million deal over the winter, Curtis Granderson was supposed to switch boroughs in New York, moving from the Bronx to Queens, and provide the same kind of power for the Mets that he had done for the New York Yankees.

    What the Mets have gotten instead is a player who looks lost.

    Since hitting his first home run as a Met against Cincinnati on April 5, Granderson has hit only .118 with one extra-base hit, four RBI and a .388 OPS, a run that saw him put together a career-worst 0-for-23 streak.

    While Mets fans are concerned about Granderson's inability to produce, one of his former teammates, Yankees ace CC Sabathia, is not, as he explained to NJ.com's Brendan Kuty

    It's baseball, man. I know Curtis has been playing a long time. He's a (veteran). He knows how to turn a page. That guy's got the greatest attitude I've ever been around. He's dealt with failure better than anybody I've been around. I'm sure he'll come out of this and perform well over there.

    The Mets have managed to post a winning record and sit in second place in the NL East without much of a contribution from their biggest offseason addition. Just imagine where they might be if Granderson was swinging the bat the way that the Grandy Man can.

New York Yankees: Back End of the Rotation

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    CC Sabathia isn't the pitcher that he once was. That he's allowed more hits than innings pitched and sits with an ERA on the wrong side of 5.00 is a major concern.

    But not as much of a concern as what's going on with the back end of New York's rotation.

    The Yankees have already lost Ivan Nova for the season to Tommy John surgery, and Michael Pineda (pictured), who has arguably been the team's best starter through the first month of the regular season, has yet to take the mound since the second coming of the "Pine Tar Incident."

    Replacing Nova was going to be difficult enough for a team that doesn't have quality depth in the upper levels of the minor leagues. But what happens if Pineda falls apart, now that everyone is going to be searching for a foreign substance whenever he takes the mound?

    That would leave the Yankees needing to fill two rotation spots. A rotation that features both David Phelps and Adam Warren isn't going to scare anyone.

     

     

Oakland Athletics: Key Pieces of the Bullpen

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    As a whole, Oakland's bullpen has been pretty solid in 2014, pitching to a 2.60 ERA and 1.12 WHIP.

    But, as John Hickey of the Bay Area News Group noted this past Saturday, numbers can be misleading:

    The trio of Johnson, Gregerson and Doolittle, thought along with Dan Otero to be the main men at the back end of games for the A’s have a nasty 4.84 ERA.

    The reason the team bullpen ERA is so low is that Fernando Abad, Ryan Cook, Otero, Drew Pomeranz and (briefly) Evan Scribner have combined to allow four earned runs in 42.1 innings for a jaw-dropping ERA of 0.85.

    Those numbers have changed slightly since Hickey wrote that, but the point remains the same: The key pieces of the bullpen need to do more.

    Manager Bob Melvin isn't about to push the panic button: “The good thing is we have really good depth down there (in the bullpen). Now the game is not played out on paper, but on paper we still do have a very talented bullpen and a lot of depth.’’

    At some point, Doolittle and Johnson, more than Gregerson, are going to have to start playing up to the numbers that reside on those pieces of paper.

Philadelphia Phillies: An Ineffective Bullpen

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Through 26 games, Philadelphia's bullpen ranks last in the National League with a 4.84 ERA—one of only two bullpens on the Senior Circuit with an ERA above 4.00.

    That the Phillies bullpen is a mess isn't anything new, as Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer recently made note of:

    They have tried 31 relievers since the start of the 2012 season, and no combination has yielded success. They are ending the first month of 2014 with the sobering reality that, right now, it is difficult to field a seven-man unit that merits a manager's trust.

    They have tried just about every tactic. They signed a big-money closer. Looking for a bargain, they added fringe veterans on palatable contracts. They handed important roles to young arms. Then, when all that failed, they offered $12 million to one of the game's most reliable setup men.

    And, still, the same faults lamented by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. in 2012 and 2013 have emerged in 2014.

    Amazingly enough, the most trustworthy member of the team's relief corps has also been its most outspoken, closer Jonathan Papelbon (pictured), who has converted eight-of-nine save opportunities while pitching to a 2.38 ERA and 1.15 WHIP.

    Just imagine how bad things would be without Papelbon in the mix.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Starting Rotation

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    If you wanted to point to the lack of production from Pittsburgh's offense, which has mustered a rather pathetic .221/.296/.351 slash line, as the team's biggest concern you wouldn't be wrong. But more troubling is the production—or lack thereof—that the team is getting from its starting rotation.

    Pirates starters have gone 3-13 with a 4.17 ERA and 1.26 WHIP; 1-8 with a 4.68 ERA over their last 14 games.

    Last year's ace, Francisco Liriano, has only two quality starts. Wandy Rodriguez, expected to help soften the blow of A.J. Burnett's defection to Philadelphia, has been a disaster, pitching to a 7.65 ERA and 1.60 WHIP over four starts before hitting the disabled list with knee soreness.

    Offensively, the Pirates can get a boost by promoting top hitting prospect Gregory Polanco. But they don't have that luxury with the starting rotation, with top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon out for the season due to Tommy John surgery.

     

     

     

San Diego Padres: A Lack of Offense

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    No team in baseball has been as woefully inept at the plate as the San Diego Padres.

    Hitting a combined .219 with a .273 on-base percentage and .601 OPS (yes, that's not a typo), the Padres have scored only 75 runs in 28 games.

    Even worse is that it appears the team's offensive malaise is travelling with them from the dugout to the field, where the Padres have committed 20 errors, the seventh-most in baseball. That's something that manager Bud Black admitted to the Union Times' Dennis Lin that he was working to avoid:

    What we've got to stay away from is the hitters letting their offense go into their defense. That's something we’ve talked about. Whether that's happening because we’re not swinging the bats, we’ll address. But when you don't score and you make a couple errors, they become magnified.

    Key pieces of the lineup, including 1B Yonder Alonso, 2B Jedd Gyorko and currently-injured 3B Chase Headley (pictured) are all hitting below the Mendoza Line. Only three everyday players—Everth Cabrera, Chris Denorfia and Seth Smith—have posted an OPS above .700.

     

San Francisco Giants: Pablo Sandoval's Lack of Production

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    About two weeks ago, during his weekly spot with CSN Bay Area's Andrew Baggarly, San Francisco GM Brian Sabean said that he believed Pablo Sandoval was allowing his stalled contract negotiations and impending free agency to get in the way of his ability to produce at the plate:

    He needs to concentrate on baseball right now. I think he might be pressing a little bit because it’s in his head one way or the other. But now it’s (negotiations) definitely been shut down at least for the time being. I think he needs to get on with baseball.

    At the time, Sandoval was hitting .164 with a .579 OPS. Since then, he's hit .195 with a .543 OPS—slightly different numbers that do nothing to help the team win games.

    Now, multiple sources, including CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, are reporting that Sandoval is seeking a five-year deal worth at least $100 million. While it's hard to imagine that Sandoval could contribute any less at the plate than he already has, it's fair to wonder whether this new revelation will only serve to add to his distraction—and inability to produce.

Seattle Mariners: A Thin Starting Rotation

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Before winning four of their last five games, the Seattle Mariners embarked on an eight-game losing streak that saw them get outscored 48-18.

    You can point to that relative lack of offense, averaging just over two runs per game, as a major reason for concern. But more troubling is the number of runs that the pitching staff allowed.

    After Felix Hernandez and the resurgent Chris Young, Seattle's rotation has essentially been held together by band-aids and duct tape, without key arms like Hisashi Iwakuma (pictured), James Paxton and Taijuan Walker.

    The good news is that Iwakuma could take the mound for Seattle on Friday against Houston. But as he explained to MLB.com's Greg Johns (through his interpreter), nobody has given him an indication as to whether that will happen: "I'm prepared to go Friday. They haven't told me anything yet, so we'll have to wait and see. But physically, a four-day rest would be good, as always."

    But even with Iwakuma back in the fold, Seattle's rotation has major holes at the back end, where Brandon Maurer and Erasmo Ramirez have been less than reliable.

     

St. Louis Cardinals: Inability to Hit with Runners in Scoring Position

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    While we've started to see signs of life from some of the key pieces of the lineup in St. Louis, the Cardinals are still struggling to put runs on the board with any consistency, tied with Pittsburgh for 25th in baseball with 96 runs scored on the season.

    The Cardinals, who were baseball's most dangerous team with runners in scoring position a season ago (.330/.402/.463) have been one of the worst in the game this season (.220/.291/.309). 

    Allen Craig (pictured), who led all of baseball with a .454 batting average with runners in scoring position last year and drove in 83 of those runners looks nothing like that player in 2014, hitting only .182 with four RBI in the same situation.

    While it's unfair to put all of the blame on Craig's shoulders, getting him going at the plate could pay major dividends for a Cardinals club that has far more talent than its .500 record would indicate.

Tampa Bay Rays: Lack of Depth in the Starting Rotation

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Beginning in spring training, the injury bug has repeatedly hit Tampa Bay's rotation. After years of marveling at the quality depth that the Rays had in their organization, it appears as if the never-ending cycle of quality arms the system was able to produce may be taking a break.

    Everything that we've come to know about the Rays has been torn apart by stats like these:

    • The rotation's 4.51 ERA ranks 11th in the American League and 25th in baseball
    • The rotation's 1.37 WHIP ranks ninth in the American League and  22nd in baseball
    • Opponents are hitting .271 against Tampa Bay starters, the ninth-highest BAA in baseball

    In seasons past, none of those stats would have been something that we'd even consider to be a possibility in Tampa Bay.

    But without Alex Cobb (left oblique strain), Jeremy Hellickson (right elbow surgery) and Matt Moore (Tommy John surgery), the Rays have been forced to turn to inexperienced youngsters like Jake Odorizzi (pictured), who has shown that he's not ready for prime-time, and over-the-hill veterans like Erik Bedard.

    Even David Price, one of the premier arms in the game, has struggled this season. Of the 19 major league starters who have thrown at least 40 innings, Price ranks 18th in ERA (4.75), behind the likes of Dillon Gee, John Lackey and Jason Vargas.

    Cobb and Hellickson will be back in the mix eventually, and the rotation should once again begin to get on a roll once they do. But until then, things will continue to be a bit dicey at Tropicana Field.

Texas Rangers: Prince Fielder's Lack of Production

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    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    Think about this for a second: Ian Kinsler's slugging percentage (.414) is significantly higher than Prince Fielder's (.313).

    Texas' biggest offseason acquisition has been in a funk since the season began, hitting only .202 with seven extra-base hits (two home runs) and nine RBI, certainly not the kind of production that the Rangers were expecting when they sent Kinsler to Detroit in exchange for the hulking first baseman.

    To his credit, manager Ron Washington isn't panicking, as he explained to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News:

    He’s struggling. There really is no other explanation. But in May, June, July, August, if he does what Prince Fielder does, I won’t care about April. I’ll wait on Prince Fielder because he has the ability to carry us on his back. And when we need to get on his back, his back is going to be fresh.

    Washington had better hope that version of Fielder is slowly making his way down South, because the Rangers can't afford to go through an entire season with an unproductive Fielder clogging the middle of the lineup.

Toronto Blue Jays: Second Base and the Fifth Spot in the Rotation

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Thanks to Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos, we know what the two red flags in Toronto are—because he told us, while a guest on a recent podcast with ESPN's Buster Olney:

    We like our [first] four spots in the rotation. Our fifth spot, we have McGowan in there right now. J.A. Happ’s obviously a guy that can step in and be a starter for us as well.

    Second base, it’s outstanding defensively with Ryan Goins, but from an offensive standpoint we can certainly upgrade there. Apart from that, we feel like we’re a pretty good club.

    McGowan (5.87 ERA, 1.61 WHIP) has been shaky, but he's not the only member of the Blue Jays rotation who has delivered less-than-stellar numbers this season. R.A. Dickey (5.09 ERA, 1.47 WHIP) and Brandon Morrow (6.04 ERA, 1.57 WHIP) have been equally as disappointing.

    At this point, it's only a matter of time before the Blue Jays have no choice but to give top prospect Marcus Stroman a shot to show what he can do in the rotation.

    As for second base, Goins (pictured) is one of six different players the team has used at the position. While an upgrade would be welcomed, the team will likely need to look outside the organization to locate one. 

Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper's Inability to Stay Healthy

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    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    Out until July after undergoing surgery to repair torn thumb ligaments he suffered after sliding headfirst into third base, Bryce Harper is once again unavailable to help Washington make up ground on Atlanta in the NL East.

    While this is only Harper's second career stint on the disabled list, the 21-year-old has been sidelined with a plethora of injuries throughout his short career. Per Baseball Prospectus, Harper has missed 45 games since breaking into the league in 2012 with a myriad of illnesses and injuries.

    Now you can't blame Harper for getting sick, but many of his injuries could have been avoided had he not played with the kind of reckless abandon that he does. That's not to say that Harper shouldn't go all-out on every play, but he's got to learn how to better brace himself for the impact of, say, running into an outfield wall.

    Harper wasn't having a monster season by any means (.289, 1 HR, 9 RBI) but missing the next two months is only going to further delay his development—and keep the Nationals and their fans saying, "Just wait until next year," as it pertains to Harper's anticipated breakout season.

    Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated that Harper injured himself sliding headfirst into first base. We regret the error.

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