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Gordon Wittenmyer’s MLB Notes: Bryce Harper, Pittsburgh Pirates headline a wild, woolly — and fast — opening month


The Pittsburgh Pirates have the best record in the National League.

The New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals are in last place. 

The Chicago Cubs seem to have actually produced a homegrown star pitcher; Bryce Harper is about to set a land-speed record for returning from Tommy John surgery; and you apparently can’t beat the Miami Marlins unless you beat them by two.

It’s been a wild, woolly — and fast — first month of the MLB season, with everything from upside-down standings to tear-jerking, 30-something debuts, to power surges and a few significant early comeback stories.

And thanks to the wonderful new world of pitcher timers, it all happened during an April that took about 200 less hours to play than the first four weeks or so of last season took.

The best and worst of MLB’s first month of 2023, with operative questions for each:

BEST: The Pirates are the first National League team to 20 wins, getting a top-three pitching performance among NL teams and the NL’s top-scoring performance without making a major offseason acquisition (beyond the sentimental return of former MVP Andrew McCutchen). Along the way, manager Derek Shelton got a contract extension, and star Bryan Reynolds finally got his extension — the franchise’s first $100 million contract, in fact (eight years, $106.75 million). The question here isn’t so much whether they can keep it up as it is how many more $100 million commitments is this team willing to make as it rises — that’ll tell its longterm success story. 

WORST: The Chicago White Sox were billed — if not exactly built — for October success but are so bad they needed a seven-run rally in the ninth Sunday to finish the month no longer on pace for MLB’s all-time worst record. As it was, that ended the team’s 10-game losing streak, which matched its worst since 1956 (last done in 2013). Gonna be a long summer for the front office that tanked to put this group together. The question here is: If one of the last three teams to never sign a player to a $100 million contract actually decides a player is worth an offer like that, will he take it?

BEST: The Tampa Bay Rays are no longer a Little Engine that Could story. This incarnation is loaded with real, bona fide stars just like the big spenders surrounding them in the division — enough to score a whopping 6.72 runs per game through April with an even more whopping 61 homers, more than any team in history this many games into the season. That doesn’t even count their best-in-baseball pitching. The question without a clear answer that might take all season to answer: Who’s their most valuable player?

WORST: The Oakland Athletics aren’t trying to do anything as an organization this year other than lose and prepare to move to Las Vegas, fielding by far the worst pitching staff in the majors, one of the worst lineups and producing a first-month start that has them on pace for a 34-128 season — eight wins fewer than the all-time bottom-feeding 1962 New York Mets. The question MLB might face by late June: Is this team the best argument yet for eliminating the mandatory All-Star selection for each team?

BEST: Three words: Bryce Freaking Harper. The Philadelphia Phillies’ superstar right fielder has healed so fast and worked so hard on rehab since last year’s Tommy John surgery that he’s been cleared to return to the lineup Tuesday as the designated hitter — a record-quick 160 days since surgery. Keep in mind: “I’d imagine when I come back I’m going to struggle a little bit, getting my bearings back,” he said two weeks ago after a benchmark day of pregame work. Next up is getting cleared to play in the field, which likely means first base at least initially. The big question: Are you kidding me?

aaron judge
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

WORST: The New York Yankees’ $360-million captain, Aaron Judge, didn’t play the last few games of April with a hip injury that landed him on the injured list to open May. He joins three other members of the starting lineup — Giancarlo Stanton (hamstring), Josh Donaldson (hamstring) and Harrison Bader (oblique) — on the injured list, which also includes six key pitchers: Carlos Rodón (forearm), Luis Severino (lat), Frankie Montas (shoulder), Tommy Kahnle (biceps), Scott Effross (Tommy John surgery) and, most recently, Jonathan Loáisiga (elbow). The big question: Are you kidding me?

MLB Short Hops

DREW MAGGIC: The best debut of the season so far — and one of the best ever — was the Pirates’ Drew Maggi getting his first big-league at-bat April 26 at age 33, after 1,154 minor-league games and 4,494 minor-league plate appearances. He hit a very long foul ball on the way to a strikeout. “The best strikeout I ever had,” the emotional Maggi told reporters after the game — and after visiting with his parents and other family members who made the trip from Phoenix. “I saw my dad crying. I don’t think I ever saw him cry before. All those years, I wondered what I would say to my parents if that moment ever were to come. They’ve been right there with me. Hearing those words made it all worthwhile. I know the last 13 years have not been wasted.” Three days later, Maggi got his first two big-league hits. “Obviously, I never gave up. I believed I could do this,” he said. Maggi was sent back to the minors Sunday.

THEIR KINGDOM FOR AN ARM: Don’t look now, but the Chicago Cubs looked like they might have developed an actual legit homegrown starting pitcher — if not a star — for the first time since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over baseball operations in the fall of 2011. Left-hander Justin Steele, a fifth-round MLB draft pick in 2014, established his place in the rotation last year and through Sunday’s start not only was 4-0 with a 1.49 ERA but also had a streak of 13 consecutive starts allowing no more than two earned runs. That’s one short of former Cubs Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta’s streak from 2015-16.

POWER SURGE: Through traditionally homer-cool April, home runs are unpredictably up about 9.5 percent this season (2.3 per game) over the full 2022 season.

GRANDER LARCENY: Also through April, stolen bases and attempts are predictably up after rules changes that limit pickoff throws and increased the size of the bases — 38 percent (to 1.4 per game) and 32 percent (to 1.8 attempts), respectively. But don’t expect the steals numbers to get much bigger or even sustain this pace, especially if the homer trend continues. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, whose team leads the NL in home runs, seemed to speak for a lot of managers when he said last week: “I’m not inclined to just run just because other teams run. I still don’t like giving up outs or giving away bases.”

NO WAY, JOSÉ: How in the name of Enos Cabell does José Abreu not have a home run 28 games into his Houston Astros career? It’s his only April without at least two and his only month of more than six games without one since July 2016 — a season he slumped much of the first half as his White Sox began a tanking process to rebuild. The 2020 MVP and three-time All-Star signed a three-year, $58.5 million deal over the winter.

SORI, NOT SORI: Chicago Cubs slugger Patrick Wisdom, a former first-round pick of the Cardinals, who finally broke through with the Cubs as a 29-year-old rookie in 2021, tied Alfonso Soriano’s 2011 franchise mark for home runs in April when he connected for No. 10 on Saturday. Perhaps as impressive: He’s hitting home runs more often than either of the past two seasons while so far lowering his still-high strikeout rate (33.3%, compared to 40.8% in 2021 and 34.3% last year).

STAT OF THE MONTH: The Miami Marlins have started the season an eye-popping 10-0 in one-run games, including all three games in a sweep of the Cubs to close out April. They’re 6-13 in all of their other MLB games through April.

Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.

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