This week's preview will focus on three expected playoff contenders who have struggled out of the gate. Let's take a closer at each.
1. Washington Nationals (7-12)
The Nationals enter the week on a five-game losing streak and the discouraging fact that four of their seven wins have come against the hapless Phillies. They're 1-2 against the Mets, 1-2 against the Red Sox, 1-2 against the Cardinals and 0-3 against the Marlins, which hasn't done much to allay the criticism of recent seasons that they beat up on the bad teams and struggle against the good ones.
Their defensive woes have been well chronicled: They've allowed 15 unearned runs, tied for second-most in the majors. But it's not just the errors; Baseball Info Solutions credits the Nationals with minus-13 Defensive Runs Saved, tied for worst in the majors. That's not just shortstop Ian Desmond; he has minus-3 DRS, meaning they have other issues besides his error rate.
In theory, the defense should get better. Michael Taylor graded out at minus-4 runs in center field, but Denard Span is back there now. He has lost a step from his defensive peak with the Twins, but he has been league average the past two seasons. Anthony Rendon, the team's best defender last season, just started his rehab assignment and should be back soon. However, there is talk that Yunel Escobar will remain at third, with Rendon playing second, where Danny Espinosa and Dan Uggla haven't provided any offense. I don't quite understand why the Nats would do that; Rendon was terrific at third last season while Escobar has graded poorly so far at third (minus-3 DRS).
Aside from the defense, the hitting has been abysmal. The Nats are hitting .218/.288/.349. Again, some of that has been missing Rendon; Jayson Werth missed the start of the season and hasn't hit yet; Uggla, predictably, has been terrible (.114). Why general manager Mike Rizzo thought Uggla had something left in the tank was one of the great mysteries coming out of spring training. Bench guys Tyler Moore, Clint Robinson and Reed Johnson haven't contributed.
Will the offense get better? A healthy Rendon and Werth will help. I don't think Ryan Zimmerman will hit .205 all season. Bryce Harper already has drawn 17 walks -- five intentional -- as teams are pitching around him. Right now, they rank 27th in the majors in line-drive rate, which is why they rank 25th in BABIP.
As for the vaunted rotation, it hasn't been vaunted yet. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez have allowed a combined 85 hits in 69 innings; Gonzalez has been wild and Zimmermann's strikeout rate is way down. Still, it's too early to panic, considering the track records of these guys. At some point, you have to think the Nationals will reel off a long winning streak. In the weak NL East, FanGraphs still gives them a 62 percent chance of winning the division, lower than on Opening Day and maybe a sign that they won't be the 95- to 100-win powerhouse many of us projected.
This week: At Atlanta (3), at Mets (4)
Seattle Mariners (7-11)
The Mariners are my team and I've seen a lot of them so far. It's a legit 7-11 record. They are 4-0 when Felix Hernandez starts and 3-11 when anybody else starts. You wonder if they've wasted Nelson Cruz's best 18 games -- .310, nine home runs, 20 RBIs. The bullpen, which had the best ERA in the majors last year, hasn't been the same lockdown group. James Paxton and Taijuan Walker have allowed 32 runs in 31.1 innings.
The two biggest big-picture concerns, however: The Mariners still have OBP issues (.291, 14th in the AL) and the team defense hasn't been good (minus-10 Defense Runs Saved, 25th in the majors). Mike Zunino is looking more and more like the second coming of J.P. Arencibia. Sure, his defense is stellar but he has 24 strikeouts and four walks and is hitting .140. Trouble is, the backup catcher is Jesus Sucre, who is even worse at the plate, so the Mariners will live and die with Zunino's bat. First baseman Logan Morrison is hitting .159/.209/.206 with two RBIs and Dustin Ackley is hitting .200/.245/.500 -- he has three home runs and three RBIs. First base and left field are supposed to be positions you get offense from and the Mariners aren't getting it.
The Mariners weren't a plus defensive team last year at minus-11 DRS. Cruz playing regularly in the outfield won't help that and, early on, Robinson Cano's range is way down (even though the Mariners' strikeout rate is slightly lower), from 4.75 plays per game to 4.05. Considering neither shortstop Brad Miller nor center fielder Austin Jackson rate as plus defenders, the Mariners' up-the-middle D is an issue.
I'd be much more worried about the Mariners than the Nationals. Here's one final reason why: As pointed out on the U.S.S. Mariner blog, they actually have a high Win Probability Added on offense, ranking fifth in the majors, even though they're 22nd in runs scored. That suggests they've actually had timely hitting so far (they've had a couple of big comeback wins), but it makes you wonder what will happen if that normalizes. Despite all this, FanGraphs still rates the Mariners as the favorite to win the division, at 35.6 percent, just ahead of the Angels' 32 percent.
This week: At Texas (3), at Houston (3)
Cleveland Indians (6-11)
The Indians have played through more bad "luck" than the Nats or Mariners; they're 1-5 against the Tigers, although they've only been outscored 38 to 35 in those six games.
That doesn't mean there aren't issues here. As with the Nationals and Mariners, we've seen a poor defensive team, with the Indians tied with the Nationals at minus-13 Defensive Runs Saved. While Washington and Seattle have reason to expect better defense moving forward, that's less obvious with Cleveland, which rated as the worst defensive team in the majors last year at minus-75 DRS. Considering the Royals rate at plus-24 runs, the Indians already trail the Royals by 37 runs on defense alone; that's a lot of pitching and hitting you have to generate to make up the difference.
The rotation has been fine. I'm not worried about Corey Kluber, who is 0-2 with a 3.90 ERA in four starts; he has 31 K's and five walks in 27.2 innings. That's the same pitcher who won the Cy Young Award last year. Trevor Bauer has allowed two runs in three starts and Carlos Carrasco has a 1.72 FIP compared to a 4.60 ERA. The defense hasn't helped but his ERA should drop.
Two big problems on offense: Jason Kipnis looks lost with a .504 OPS and just one extra-base hit in 71 at-bats. Michael Bourn may be done. If he's not giving you speed and defense, which he isn't, he isn't of much value, especially since he's hitting .169. Trouble is, there isn't really another center fielder on the roster, as Michael Brantley is stretched defensively there. You wonder if the Indians will considering calling up defensive whiz Francisco Lindor to play shortstop, move Jose Ramirez to second and try Kipnis in center field, where he played in college.
Getting Yan Gomes back will help and I still like this rotation, but the Indians have already dug themselves a hole behind Detroit and Kansas City. FanGraphs gives them an 18 percent chance of winning the division.
This week: Kansas City (3), Toronto (4)
Look, one 8-2 stretch is all these teams need to get back on course. But each team has some flaws that have been exposed. It's a big week for each to start playing better baseball.