MLB Hot Starts: Can They Last? We’re several weeks into the baseball season at this point, and four of the six divisions are being led by teams that failed to make the playoffs last year. The pitching deficient Colorado Rockies are five games over .500 as well, and Justin Upton is leading the league in proving his former General Manager to be totally wrong. The Braves basically stole Upton away from the Arizona Diamondbacks and Kevin Towers over the off season — and all Upton has done is lead the league in balls hit over the outfield fence since. The fun part of the beginning of any season is seeing unexpected teams and players rise to prominence and then trying to predict if they can stay there. It is always crucial to remember that the 25 games or so that have been played by most teams is a particularly small sample size, and if the Rockies went 15-10 for a 25 game stretch during the middle of August barely anyone would notice. But because they are doing it now, when other games are yet to be played, they are jolting the Denver air with excitement about baseball. There is some truth to the saying “there’s no point in looking at the standings until the end of June,” but because it’s more entertaining to break that rule, we’re going to try to examine if these upstart ball clubs have any chance of sustaining their success through the humid summer months and into the fall.
Record: 15 – 10
Short Answer: Possible to finish above .500, very little chance at playoffs
Long Answer: A.J. Burnett pitched his way out of New York, posting ERA’s above five in his last two seasons with the Yankees. Emphasizing just how much New York wanted to get rid of him is the fact that they were willing to pay a good portion of his current salary for him to play for another team. That team was the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are reaping the benefits of a newly focused Burnett freed from the confines of one of baseball’s toughest fan bases and media markets. In 2012, Burnett threw 200+ innings and recorded a 3.51 ERA, and in 2013 he has even bettered those marks. Joining Burnett atop the Pirates rotation is Astros’ castoff Wandy Rodriguez, who has a minimal ERA of his own this season at 1.66 and has only allowed batters to hit .182 against him in four starts. While Rodriguez’s numbers will undoubtedly rise as the season progresses, it is conceivable to believe that he and Burnett can anchor the Pirates’ rotation all season long. The problems arise in the back end of the rotation, where Jeff Locke and Jonathan Sanchez are anything but reliable and at the plate. Andrew McCutchen is their only proven big-time run producer, and even though Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin will improve despite slow starts, their lineup is significantly worse than their rivals’, the Reds and the Cardinals. That leads into the Pirates’ grandest problem of all — their division. The Pirates have a solid chance at finishing above .500 for the first time since 1992. but they lack the talent of their fellow NL Central competitors and in the end will likely lose out to both of the teams mentioned above.
Boston Red Sox
Short Answer: Yes, strong pitching always makes a team a contender
Long Answer: Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester may be emerging as the aces many believed them to be when they were first called to the bigs. This couldn’t come at a better time for the Boston Red Sox, who are coming off a disastrous 2012 campaign that saw the team win only 69 games and ship Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, and Carl Crawford to other destinations. The 2013 season brought with it many uncertainties, however, up to this point the Red Sox have been the best team in a crowded AL East thanks to a team ERA of 3.39. The strong starts of Buchholz and Lester may be only a flash in the pan, but both pitchers possess elite level talent so it is possible that they aren’t flukes. Further, David Ortiz has been absolutely mashing, batting .516 in his first eight games since returning from injury. Dustin Pedroia has played like a former MVP so far with a .330 batting average and .438 on base percentage. Ortiz will undeniably come back down to earth, but if he, Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and newcomers Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino can all produce at levels consistent with the rest of their careers, the Red Sox offense should be able to support its pitching staff. The AL East is full of worthy competitors though with the Blue Jays, Rays, Yankees, and Orioles all featuring vaunting lineups and solid pitching staffs of their own. Yet there is no reason to believe the Red Sox won’t be able to compete with the rest of the pack as the season continues.
Kansas City Royals
Short Answer: Yes, the AL Central is weak
Long Answer: The Kansas City Royals have been hoping for several years that their loaded farm system will finally transfer into wins at the major league level. Aided by a weak AL Central, 2013 might just be their year. The Detroit Tigers came into the season as the heavy favorites to win the division, and even though that is still the case, the Royals are making a strong case to become their toughest contender. The Royals, like the Red Sox, rely on a strong pitching staff to be the stabilizer for their ball club. To this point, only one of the Royals’ five starters has an ERA above 3.20 and they’ve only allowed opposing batters to hit .241 against them as a staff. The big question marks for this team, however, are: can Ervin Santana bounce back from a lackluster 2012 season to anchor their staff and can they produce enough runs. Santana served a reliable starter for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim from 2005 to 2011, but struggled mightily in 2012 with a 5.16 ERA. In 2013, Santana has posted only a 2.00 ERA through 36 innings, and while the Royals aren’t expecting him to be this dominant all season, having an ERA in the 3’s or low 4’s would be a big plus. Offensively, the team has benefitted from strong performances from Alex Gordon and shortstop Alcides Escobar to this point, but if they are really going to succeed this year they’re going to need Eric Hosmer to finally live up to his massive power potential. There are still a lot of ifs associated with the Royals, but if everything breaks right don’t be surprised if they’re still hanging around a poor AL Central in September.
Short Answer: No, not enough pitching
Long Answer: The Colorado Rockies were victim to several unfortunate injuries during 2012, and consequently became one of the worst teams in the National League. At one point the team’s pitching staff was so inadequate that they resorted to using only four starters, allowing them to only throw a strict number of pitches per game, just because they were willing to try almost anything to get batters out. Now it’s 2013 though — Troy Tulowitzki is back and the Rockies’ rotation has returned to conventional formation. The amazing thing about the 2013 Rockies rotation is that only Jeff Francis threw more than 100 innings the year before. With this many pitchers coming off injuries, it’s difficult to predict how they will hold up over the course of the season. A five-man starting rotation of Jon Garland, Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio, Jhoulys Chacin, and Jeff Francis doesn’t exactly inspire fear into opposing lineups either. Pitching will likely be this team’s downfall, however, even if they can’t compete with the Dodgers and Giants they will be better than they were last season. With Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Dexter Fowler as the foundation of their lineup they do feature a more formidable attack than most teams in the NL. Expect the Rockies to remain competitive but drop out of the postseason race sometime over the summer.
Short Answer: Unlikely, but good pitching can always keep a team in the race
Long Answer: If the Rockies’ pitching will eventually lead to their downfall, the Arizona Diamondbacks couldn’t be in a more opposite situation. With the quick rise of youngster Patrick Corbin filling out a rotation filled with established starters, the Diamondbacks’ pitching staff has the ability to keep the club in contention all year long. That is, if the team can muster enough hitting to actually win games. When your team’s most feared hitter is a 25 year-old first baseman with only a career high of 20 home runs, the outlook can never be too great. That isn’t to knock Paul Goldschmidt too much, as he does seem poised to have a breakout 2013 season, but as a fact that does not bode well for the team. The lineup’s second most feared hitter is journeyman Cody Ross, who is also very useful, but not an outstanding second option. Martin Prado and Miguel Montero are both good hitters for their respective positions, but it is still undoubtedly going to be a struggle for Arizona to plate runs throughout the season. Yet, if Goldschmidt can actually have a breakout season in 2013 and the rest of the lineup can produce slightly above expected performance, the Diamondbacks could be the surprise team in 2013.