Reds, Red Sox and Cubs struggle out of the gate, but for different reasons

Image result for yasiel puig
Ohio against the world, I guess. Gene J. Puskar/AP

Happy baseball, kids. Lots of fun stories around Major League Baseball as most clubs clear the 10-game mark. Mike Trout is doing Mike Trout things — .367/.574/.933, 320 OPS+ — and Jacob deGrom continues to treat opposing hitters the same way Arya Stark treated the Freys. (If you don’t get that reference, google it at your own peril.)

But while some teams are riding high, like the streaking Seattle Mariners, the reloaded Philadelphia Phillies or last year’s NLCS matchup, the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers, others are seriously scuffling. We’ll focus on them individually.

Cincinnati Reds, 2-8, 35 RS, 34 RA

The Reds aren’t hitting. This won’t come as news to anyone who has suffered through the malaise of the first ten games of the Reds season. This won’t either: before Tuesday’s obligeration of the Marlins, the Reds were dead last in team wRC+, at a measly 38. If you don’t like the heftier stats, how about these? Team batting average: .170. Team on-base percentage: .233.

(After last night: 62 wRC+, .199 BA, .268 OBP. Early season stats are fun.)

Now, perhaps the hapless fish were just the magic elixir the Reds needed. We shall see. Before some of you ball your fingers into fists and start hammering your desk about small sample sizes, yes, I know. I’m familiar with the concept. The Reds have some obvious flaws, but offense generally isn’t one (might not be a strength, either). The runs will come.

Still, this early season swoon provides us a chance to really examine the expectations for the 2019 club. Namely, were the front office and fan base too optimistic going into the season? The Reds were not anywhere remotely near a good team in 2018. They almost lost 100 games. Outscored by 123 runs. Are we all aware of this? I ask that not to be snarky, but to instead reset just how impactful the Dodgers trade (in particular) would be.  And, even with Nick Senzel sorta close, it wasn’t as if the Reds had some mega-prospect ready in the wings either. I love Senzel, I think he should be given an extended look in center, but dude is rarely healthy. There was no Tatis Jr or Baby Vlad here.

So, what then? The Reds took a terrible team and added a good outfielder in Yasiel Puig, an okay-ish but often injured starter in Alex Wood, a starter coming off a horrific season in Sonny Gray, an okay innings eater in Tanner Roark and a bad DH in Matt Kemp. Guys, that ain’t moving the needle much. That isn’t to say the 2019 Reds don’t have some players I like. I adore Joey Votto. Eugenio Suarez has become a nifty player. Scooter Gennett is super easy to root for. I think the Reds should give Jesse Winker the left field job and leave him alone. Michael Lorenzen is cool. Luis Castillo is a pet fascination of mine, and I’d be delighted if he grew into the ace this team desperately needs.

Maybe — maybe — if everyone was healthy and the Reds got wise and ran an outfield of Winker-Senzel-Puig and the pitching magically became decent … maybe they fight for a Wild Card. But instead, the bats came out ice cold — as happens — and reality has fallen across Cincinnati.

The above fantasy could happen but look, it’s unlikely. It was always unlikely. The Reds aren’t contenders — to believe otherwise reduces the bar for contention so low it means nothing. If the Reds are contenders, then the entire league minus the freaking Orioles, Tigers, White Sox, and Marlins are, more or less.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth. Despite making moves to put a better team on the field at GABP, the current roster was so threadbare that Puig and co just weren’t ever going to be enough. The Reds needed to pull a Phillies and add stars. Oh, and, did you know, there were superstars on the free agent market! Like, anyone could sign them and everything! The Reds didn’t need complimentary pieces, they needed 5+ win players.

Don’t tell me they can’t afford it — big league clubs are a lot of things but hurtin’ for cash ain’t one of them. Yes, the Reds made moves. I commend them for adding salary and trying to break this half-decade of disappointment in the Queen City, but poor decisions prior to last winter have kept the cupboard too empty. It just wasn’t enough.

Short of maybe adding two of Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Patrick Corbin or inheriting a boatload of good fortune, the 2019 Reds weren’t competing. And now, after a terrible start, the odds have only gone down.

Chicago Cubs, 3-7, 72 RS, 71 RA

The Cubs aren’t at all in the same place as their stumbling divisional brethren. The Cubs do have superstars. Couple of ’em. Bryant. Rizzo. Baez. They’ve won recently and are expected to continue to win. Still, it doesn’t take much of an analytical eye to get a smidge uncomfortable at their pitching situation.

Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish are all probably going to be fine (read: league average or a hair above), but therein lies the rub. So far, they’ve been atrocious — all aside from Lester, who promptly got hurt.  Will they suck all year? Probably not, but the Cubs aren’t exactly overflowing with upside in their rotation either, and Darvish is particularly worrisome. I fear my original pitching gif love might be done as anything more than a back-of-the-rotation punching bag.

Unfortunately, even if decent free agent starters were still available, even into mid-April, just waiting for a team with cash to swoop in and make an offer, the Cubs are choosing not to spend broke. Shame. Poor Cubs.

As a team, the Cubs are producing a 71 ERA+. That’ll climb, obviously. But will it climb enough — and will Kris Bryant return to being Kris Bryant — soon enough to keep the Brewers in sight? Maybe. The Brewers seem poised — as much as possible after less than 15 games — to bludgeon the NL Central all season. Even if the Brewers do so, the Cubs are likely Wild Card bound.

Alas, one wonders if the first whiffs of decline are wafting on the North Side. I hope that isn’t the case, mind you. I want Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to battle Bryant and Rizzo for years to come, pounding home runs and facing off in the chill of midwestern winters. I hope that happens. A Cubs-Brewers NLCS would be a freaking blast.

But I’m not sure. If the front office isn’t willing to make moves, maybe the PECOTA projection of a low-80s win total will come true after all.

Boston Red Sox, 3-9, 51 RS, 79 RA

The champs will be in the playoffs. For me, there’s no point really discussing it much further. Overall, the team is too talented. The concern for me isn’t whether the Red Sox are a contender, but instead what the team will look like once October dawns.

It comes down to Chris Sale. Look, maybe he’s going to be fine. It’s early. Sometimes pitchers don’t throw as hard early in the season. But Sale’s velocity is way down (nearly 5 MPH) and he’s leaning heavily on the slider and the changeup, the latter of which might not be that big of a deal otherwise, but remember the first point. Sale wasn’t leaning on offspeed stuff as much before. He had no need to do so. Dude throws gas. Hitters slugged .321 off his fastball last season and whiffed nearly 30 percent of the time against it.

Things were hardly more optimistic after Sale, again averaging 2-3 MPH less on his fastball than last season, struggled on Tuesday: 4 IP – 7 H – 5 ER – 0 BB – 3K. Consider what Sale had to say after the loss:

“If I knew what it was I’d fix it,” Sale said following Tuesday’s 7-5 loss. “That’s kind of where I’m at, spinning my tires. I’m looking at this, looking at that, see if I’m tipping pitches, see if (it’s) my mechanics, if it’s this, if it’s angles. You know, I’m still searching, but I’ll find it. I know who I am. I know what I can do. I’ve been there before and I’ll keep grinding.”

The critical issue is health. If Sale is healthy and has a mechanical issue, he’ll figure it out. Might take a bit, might be rough in the meantime, but that’s not a disaster scenario. Heck, even a more pessimistic take, that perhaps he is inching into a new phase of his career, isn’t the end of the world. He’ll adjust and continue to be really good. The man is a fire-breathing dragon, after all. Maybe not quite as many epic strikeouts, but probably still pretty darn good.

Or, maybe something is wrong.

I should note that I get nervous even inching toward some sort of conclusion in April, short of a major injury. Frankly, I fully expect Sale will be destroying fools like always once the season warms up. The team isn’t openly concerned, by the way, and maybe in September we look back at this and laugh, realizing Boston was merely easing their Ferrari out of the driveway.

Still, given how last year’s regular season ended and how utterly fragile pitchers are, I can’t help but worry. That isn’t condescension from a Yankee fan, mind you. Pitchers like Sale (and Luis Severino) make baseball more fun.

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