Biggest Surprises of the 1st Quarter of the 2014 Season
Follow the game of baseball long enough and you come to expect the unexpected.
R.A. Dickey was a 31-year-old journeyman with a career 5.55 ERA in 262.2 big league innings when he decided to become a knuckleball pitcher prior to the 2006 season. He allowed six homers in his lone start that year and was sent back to the minors to continue working on perfecting the pitch.
Six seasons later, he was the NL Cy Young Award winner with the New York Mets.
While that's a tremendous story and probably among the best in baseball during the current era, there are several unexpected developments each and every year. These surprises are part of what makes the game so interesting over a long 162-game season.
Along with the occasional journeyman who breaks through after finally getting a shot, players who have never been highly touted as prospects emerge as superstars shortly after becoming big leaguers. Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt is a prime example, while the long list of top prospects who haven't panned out is endless.
Teams that are World Series favorites fall out of playoff contention by mid-July. On the other hand, it's rare that at least one team that isn't so impressive on paper doesn't prove the experts wrong by sticking around in the playoff race until the very end, if not advancing to the postseason.
At the quarter mark, we've already had some fun surprises around the league. Here are some of the biggest.
Aaron Harang Not Done
Contrary to popular belief, Aaron Harang's days as an effective major league starting pitcher had not come to an end.
The Cleveland Indians, whose starting pitchers are currently 25th in the majors with a 4.26 ERA, had not figured that out prior to releasing him late in spring training.
The Atlanta Braves, who lost two starters to Tommy John surgery and had two others headed for the disabled list to start the season, took advantage of the Indians' insistence on giving the inconsistent Carlos Carrasco another shot at being a starting pitcher at Harang's expense.
They gave the 35-year-old Harang—he turned 36 on May 9—a one-year, $1 million deal to help the rotation until Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd were healthy.
Both returned earlier this month, putting the Braves rotation back at full strength. And yet, Harang is still there and doesn't appear to be leaving anytime soon.
He's simply been too good to remove, which is why young lefty Alex Wood was sent to the bullpen despite posting impressive numbers in seven starts (3.00 ERA, 45 IP, 9 BB, 44 K).
In Harang's eight starts, he has a 2.98 ERA with 3.2 BB/9 and 9.7 K/9 rates. Only one of his starts hasn't been a "quality start"—at least six innings and no more than three earned runs—and he has twice flirted with a no-hitter early in his Braves career.
After pitching six no-hit innings during his season debut, he allowed a leadoff single to start the seventh. Three starts later, he pitched seven no-hit innings before being lifted because of a high pitch count.
While the timing wasn't great when he allowed nine runs in 4.2 innings on April 30 just days before Minor and Floyd were set to return, Harang has bounced back with consecutive solid starts and has further cemented his spot in the Braves rotation.
Charlie Blackmon Superstar
I'm not the only one who hated the Colorado Rockies' offseason trade of Dexter Fowler to the Astros for starting pitcher Jordan Lyles, who had a 5.35 ERA in parts of three big league seasons, and backup outfielder Brandon Barnes.
It wasn't that I didn't like the Rockies' options to replace Fowler. I thought Corey Dickerson, who had an .809 OPS in his last 55 games of 2013, and Drew Stubbs would make a fine platoon and provide sufficient offense in Fowler's spot.
So not only was I wrong about the impact that Lyles and Barnes would have—Barnes has a .799 OPS while spending time at all three outfield spots; Lyles has a 2.66 ERA in eight starts—I was wrong about who would win the center field job.
That would be Charlie Blackmon, who was handed the job despite being out-hit by Dickerson in the spring.
While I'm not sure the Rockies were expecting anywhere close to the kind of production he's given them thus far—he has a .948 OPS with nine homers, nine doubles and eight stolen bases in 40 games—they obviously thought that the 27-year-old was ready to produce after multiple injuries kept him from playing much the past few seasons.
I wasn't expecting to get off to the start that I did. But every offseason I sit down and I say, 'What are the adjustments that I need to make to make my game better?' So I try to come back every year a little bit better. I think the big thing that got me over the hump was that I was able to start this year in the big leagues.
Consider that after his current 1-for-12 slide, Blackmon's average has "plummeted" from .355 to .333. Even if his pace slows significantly, he appears a lock to hit over .300 with 20-plus homers and 20-plus stolen bases. Only three players did that in 2013—Carlos Gonzalez, Andrew McCutchen and Mike Trout.
Established Hitters Still Struggling
Established hitters slumping three and four weeks into the season isn't uncommon. It happens every year. A majority of them eventually right the ship and their end-of-season numbers are pretty much on par with what they've done throughout their careers.
But it seems like there are always two or three who continue to falter. After two or three months, it can no longer be considered a slump anymore. Whether that player is hurt or on the decline, something else is going on.
There is a significant group of hitters who are coming dangerously close to that territory.
- Brian McCann, who signed a five-year, $85 million deal with the New York Yankees this past offseason, has a .621 OPS with five homers in 35 games. The 30-year-old still brings value with his defense and leadership, but he's been a huge disappointment at the plate.
- After finishing 2013 with a bang, posting a .906 OPS with 11 homers and 13 stolen bases to lock down his first 20-20 season, the streaky Will Venable has gone in the opposite direction to start this season. The 31-year-old has a .520 OPS with one homer and 39 strikeouts in 42 games, and he could soon see his playing diminish with the return of Carlos Quentin.
- The Kansas City Royals have a few hitters who have yet to do much at the plate, including Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas. They've been an up-and-down group of hitters for years, so it's not a big surprise. But Billy Butler hasn't ever been a big part of the "downs," which is why his .587 OPS with one homer and 31 strikeouts in 40 games is such a huge concern.
- A recent 5-for-14 stretch has Carlos Santana's batting average all the way up to .158, which tells you how bad he was prior to that. While it's a good sign that the 28-year-old switch-hitter is breaking out of his slump, he's nowhere close to the hitter he's been in the past, and his last place Cleveland Indians are suffering because of it.
- Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy was in line for a big payday as a free agent after the 2014 season, but his early-season performance has his value taking a huge dip. The 31-year-old, who has a .732 OPS with an average of 26 homers and 75 runs batted in over the past three seasons, has yet to homer while posting an OPS of .602.
The Mismanagement of the Pittsburgh Pirates
The patience of the Pittsburgh Pirates front office finally paid off in 2013 as its young, inexpensive team broke through with its first winning season and playoff appearance since 1992.
With several key pieces of that successful team departing via free agency, the Pirates did almost nothing to replace them—unless you don't consider reclamation project Edinson Volquez a downgrade from A.J. Burnett.
OK, we get it. Despite the extra revenue in ticket sales that the team benefited from with a playoff run and will continue to benefit from if the fanbase remains excited about the product, the Pirates want to hold their ground and continue building through the farm system. After all, they have one of the most talented outfield prospects in the game, Gregory Polanco, ready to step into the lineup.
The problem is that he's not in the lineup. The 22-year-old is still down in Triple-A, where he has a 1.040 OPS with five homers, 11 doubles, five triples and nine stolen bases. The Bucs, in the meantime, are 17-23 and already 8.5 games out in the NL Central.
And in case you're wondering, the right field platoon of Travis Snider (.651 OPS) and Jose Tabata (.629 OPS) isn't panning out. That was also the case in 2013. That's why they traded for Marlon Byrd late in the season.
The savings could be significant if Polanco's major league service time doesn't begin until late June—he wouldn't be eligible for arbitration until after the 2017 season, and he would only be eligible for arbitration three times prior to free agency instead of four—which is the only explanation for why he's still in the minors.
Of course, the Pirates can't say that or else they'd have a lawsuit to deal with from the players union. Even if they continue to spin it as a young player needing more time to develop, Polanco and his agent could probably build up a pretty good case against them in court if they chose to go in that direction. It's becoming as laughable as the Bucs were through most of the '90s, all of the '00s and the early part of this decade.
Milwaukee Brewers: Team to Beat in the NL Central
The St. Louis Cardinals were in the World Series last season. The Pittsburgh Pirates won a wild-card spot with 94 wins, while the Cincinnati Reds got the second wild card after winning 90 games. All three of those teams are in the NL Central, where the Milwaukee Brewers finished 23 games out with 88 losses.
Even after landing prized free-agent starter Matt Garza, the Brewers weren't being taken seriously as a division contender in 2014. There were simply too many questions throughout their roster.
A lot of those have been answered, however, while the poor offseasons of the Reds and Pirates, and a slow start by the Cards, have the tables turned in 2014.
After a come-from-behind 4-3 win over the Pirates on Thursday, the Brewers are now 26-15 with a 5.0-game lead over the Cardinals, a 7.0-game cushion over the Reds and an 8.5-game lead over the Bucs.
Ryan Braun still looks like Ryan Braun after a 65-game performance-enhancing drug suspension ended his 2013 season early. Carlos Gomez is playing like an MVP candidate again. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy is having another terrific season.
The rotation has been one of the best in baseball. Wily Peralta has taken a step forward, while Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Marco Estrada have all been very tough on opposing hitters.
Closer Francisco Rodriguez is having his best season since 2008 when he saved 62 games for the Angels. Tyler Thornburg, who was the odd man out in the rotation after Garza signed, has been very good out of the bullpen. Offseason acquisition Will Smith has been excellent as the team's primary lefty reliever.
A lot needed to go right for the Brewers to contend, and to the surprise of many, that's exactly what is happening.
With Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin lost to season-ending elbow injuries, the Oakland A's were forced to turn to journeyman Jesse Chavez (pictured) to fill out their rotation.
The 30-year-old, who had a 5.48 ERA in 234.2 innings pitched in parts of six big league seasons coming into 2014, has always had a great arm. The results were usually poor, however.
While moving an unsuccessful starting pitcher to the bullpen has worked out often—particularly because starters need to command three pitches to get through a lineup two or three times and a reliever can get by with two good pitches—the opposite has rarely been the case.
And yet, the A's felt comfortable enough to move Chavez, who was slated for a low-leverage bullpen role, into the rotation with just two big league starts under his belt. The result has been unbelievably positive.
Chavez has a 2.44 ERA with 12 walks and 51 strikeouts in 51.2 innings pitched while holding opponents to a .208 batting average. He's completed seven innings in three starts and eight in another, though he's only cracked 100 pitches twice.
Not only is he a huge reason why the A's are 25-16 and in first place in the AL West, Chavez is setting himself up for a nice raise after the season, when he's eligible for arbitration for the second time. He's making a team-friendly $775,000 to pitch like an All-Star in 2014.
Yankees Did Have a Solid Backup Plan at 3B After All
There's no question that Alex Rodriguez had become a distraction for the New York Yankees. And his days of being one of the best players in the game were well behind him. But his season-long suspension still left a big void at the hot corner, if only because the in-house options were nonexistent and the free-agent and trade markets didn't have much to offer.
Thus, the Yankees were probably expecting a significant downgrade with some combination of utilityman Kelly Johnson, Eduardo Nunez and Scott Sizemore holding down the fort.
Fortunately for them, journeyman infielder Yangervis Solarte, a 26-year-old veteran of eight minor league seasons with the Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers, forced his way onto the roster with an amazing spring performance (18-for-42, 2 HR).
Not only has Solarte proved that his spring performance wasn't a fluke despite a very average .733 OPS in the minors, the switch-hitter is second in the American League in batting average (.325). He also has as many walks (17) as strikeouts (17), and now the power is coming.
Teammate Brian Roberts spoke to Solarte's incredible 2014 season thus far, per George A. King III of the New York Post:
It’s become a running joke in our dugout, best player I’ve ever seen, at this point. It’s a great story, fun to watch. To do what he is doing is tough to do. It’s tough to hit .350 in this league for two months.
After hitting just one homer in his first 28 games, Solarte hit three in six games. A regression could be coming once teams have a much more detailed report on how to get Solarte out, but I wouldn't bet against a player who can beat the odds and have this kind of success as a rookie playing for the Yankees.
Maybe he just doesn't realize how difficult this is supposed to be.