If you were forced to choose one unifying theme of the 2014 MLB season, it would have to be injuries. As of mid-May, there have been twenty-two Major League pitchers who have needed Tommy John surgery, but that is only half the story. The Rays, Rangers, and Yankees each have at least three starting pitchers (Texas has five) on the disabled list, while Atlanta has three pitchers already ruled out for the year.
Every team’s depth will be tested at some pont in the grueling 162-game MLB season, but this year has forced general managers to go scrambling early and often. On top of minor league talent, the intangibles (character, toughness) of teams become magnified when the injury bug hits. There’s no crying in baseball. At the quarter mark of the 2014 season, here are seven teams with surprising grades.
1. Atlanta Braves: A
After Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy went down with season-ending injuries, the balance of power in the NL East shifted to Washington. Atlanta signed Ervin Santana and pretended like it was no big deal, turning the pitching negative into a strength. At the quarter mark of the 2014 season, they lead all MLB in ERA and quality starts and trail just one team in WHIP. On the backs of the pitching staff, they stand in first place with a +6 run differential.
For that performance alone, the Braves deserve an A. Team offense has been horrible (29th in runs scored and OBP), yet manager Fredi Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell have found a way to put the wins on the board night after night. It’s the essence of overachieving. The Braves are just praying the team’s offensive slump will end. Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla need to pick it up.
2. Boston Red Sox: C-
Red Sox management and ownership decided to largely stand pat in 2014, letting Jacoby Ellsbury walk yet retaining most of the team that won the 2013 World Series. Declines in the rotation (21st in WHIP, 22nd in batting average against) can be attributed to the poor performances by Clay Buchholz (6.44 ERA) and Felix Dubront, both of whom have pitched poorly in 2014.
Boston’s hitters haven’t exactly picked up the slack. They rank 18th in MLB in batting average and 14th in slugging, even after a recent home run barrage. Mike Napoli (5 home runs) and Daniel Nava (.167 BA) have shown the biggest dropoff after career years in 2013, while Mike Carp (.243 BA) and Jonny Gomes (3 home runs) have provided little to no production off the bench. In a division that has no dominant team at the moment, the Red Sox sit in third place with a 42 percent chance of making the playoffs. That equals a C- for the defending champs.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates: F
After an exciting playoff run in 2013, expectations rose for the Pirates in 2014. So far, they haven’t pitched well (20th in batting average against, 24th in quality starts in MLB), they haven’t hit well (22nd in runs scored), and have a -12 run differential. Worse, they’ve been manhandled by the division-leading Brewers, losing seven out of their first nine games to Milwaukee.
That performance has landed Pittsburgh in fourth place in the division, seven losses behind the Brewers at the close of the season’s first quarter. Their chances of making the playoffs stand at 15 percent. At this point, the best one could grade the Pirates would be a D. It drops to F for the poor division play.
4. Los Angeles Angels: B
The Angels were a deeply flawed team in 2013, with doubts surrounding Albert Pujols the entire season. A healthy Albert has returned in 2014 to spark the team with both power (10 home runs) and excellent defense at first base. The revival of the complete Pujols game has allowed a subpar Mike Trout (.269 BA) time to find his stroke.
Meanwhile, the Angels are above .500 and sitting in second place just two losses behind Oakland in first. They sport an impressive +32 run differential thanks to the dominance of Garrett Richards (4-0, 2.42 ERA) and consistency of both Jered Weaver (3.22 ERA) and C.J. Wilson. Though it may be how these high-caliber players should be performing, they deserve high marks for the improvement over a year ago.
5. San Francisco Giants: A
The Giants of 2013 looked a long way from the championship team of 2012, but there’s been a comeback for the team by the Bay in 2014. They rank third in ERA and fourth in WHIP with the first quarter of the season in the books. Spearheaded by Tim Hudson (4-2, 2.09 ERA) and Madison Bumgarner (5 wins), the Giants have been revitalized with their pitching-first approach of old.
Their offense has also shined in 2014, with Michael Morse and Brandon Belt showing major power while Buster Posey and Angel Pagan have been consistent. They’re going to be tested with Belt out after breaking his thumb, but they rank 10th in the majors in both runs scored and slugging. That deserves an A grade.
6. L.A. Dodgers: C
With a 9-13 home record and a run differential of +3, there are many questions to ask about the Dodgers in 2014. Yasiel Puig (.324 BA, 31 RBI) and Zack Grienke (6-1, 2.38 ERA) are two of the players actually providing answers for Don Mattingly. Even with the slump of Adrian Gonzalez after his hot start and the injury to Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers survived the first quarter of 2014.
For one of the favorites to go all the way, surviving is not enough. The Dodgers sit in third place with a 38 percent chance of making the playoffs after 42 games. The surge of the Colorado Rockies (+50 run differential) will make it hard for the Dodgers to be complacent for long.
7. Oakland A’s: A+
As with the Braves, Oakland’s expectations dropped when A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker were hurt in spring training. Sonny Gray (4-1, 2.17 ERA), Scott Kazmir (5-1, .28 ERA), and Jesse Chavez (3-1, 2.44 ERA) have been huge producers for the battered rotation. As a result, the A’s have the best run differential in baseball (+71) at the end of the season’s first quarter and hold the best chance of making the playoffs (89 percent).
On the offensive end, Brandon Moss (8 HR, 33 RBI) and Josh Donaldson (9 HR, 28 RBI) have provided the pop. Derek Norris is hitting .352 with a .441 OBP. The A’s are second in runs scored and on-base percentage through the first quarter of 2014. This combination of surprise pitching and steady production lands them the highest grade possible.