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Winners and losers from first month of MLB season

Believe it or not, we’re already one month into the 2018 MLB season. And while one month is far from a full season, it does give us a decent sample size of games to look at and really judge what’s happened.

In the Bronx, Aaron Judge looks every bit the star that we saw in 2017. But in Queens, Matt Harvey has stumbled to near irrelevance. Expected juggernauts like the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers have stumbled out of the gates. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians sit in prime position, despite some of their own struggles.

The teams of Manny Machado and Mookie Betts could hardly be going in more opposite directions. Despite that, the two have to be very much enjoying what’s happened in April. The same can be said for Sean Manaea, who had a historic performance to cap off a brilliant first month.

The first month of the MLB season has given us multiple winners and losers. These are the most notable among them.

Note: The stats and records cited are accurate through play on Thursday, April 26.

Winner: Aaron Judge avoiding sophomore slump

New York Yankees Aaron Judge

Heading into the season, how well Judge followed up his historic rookie season was as important as anything for the New York Yankees heading into 2018. The Yankees have to be smiling at the early returns.

Much like he did in 2017, Judge has made history in 2018. He’s hitting .337/.482/.640, has seven home runs, 22 runs scored, 17 RBI, and two steals. That’s miles removed from a sophomore slump.

In fact, if you’re still expecting a sophomore slump from Judge, all we can do is suggest that you get comfortable. If anything, Judge has looked better in 2018 than he did in 2017.

Loser: Nationals slump hard after hot start

An old expression in baseball says that you can’t win a division in April, but you can lose it. While we’re not going to go as far as to say that’s happened to the Nats, some points do need to be made.

First, Washington is 11-14, but started the year 3-0. We may not want to overreact to 11-14, but an 8-14 run is a little harder to ignore. The overall record has the Nats not only in fourth place, but in fourth place by a good margin. The fifth place Miami Marlins are only 3.5 back of Washington, who is five games behind the second place Philadelphia Phillies and 5.5 behind the New York Mets. There’s a lot of time to go, but the Nationals have dug themselves into a decent sized hole.

The other problem is Washington’s recent history. The Nats have won the National League East in four of the last six seasons. In each of those four seasons, Washington opened May with a winning record. In the two non division-winning seasons, it opened May with a losing record. So, there may be ample time to overcome a rocky start. Still, that hasn’t exactly been the Nationals’ forte over the years.

Winner: Sean Manaea, Oakland’s new ace?

Manaea took the mound for the Oakland Athletics on April 21 with a cool 1.63 ERA and 0.72 WHIP in his first four starts. It was a great beginning to the season. But the Boston Red Sox — who had been baseball’s best team and hottest offense to that point — figured to be a different kind of test. Manaea aced that test with a no-hitter.

In five starts, Manaea has a 1.23 ERA and 0.60 WHIP. He’s also struck out 30 batters in 36.2 innings, which is actually a lower K/9 rate than in either of his first two MLB seasons. But interestingly enough, that’s a good thing. Pitchers generally struggle in April. It happens. Their breaking stuff usually isn’t completely crisp and their command is off, leading to balls getting hit hard. Manaea is finding the strike zone and while hitters are making contact, it’s not significant contact.

For Oakland to contend again, it’s pitching staff will need to be rebuild. Injuries to Jharel Cotton and A.J. Puk will likely keep that from happening in 2018 and for a good portion of 2019, as well. But from what we’ve seen out of Manaea in April, the rotation has its anchor.

Loser: Underperforming stars contributing to slow Los Angeles start

The good news for the Dodgers is that they haven’t been buried. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, that has more to do with a slow start from its division rivals (with one exception) than anything its done well. The Dodgers are 11-12 and have a number of stars to thank for that.

Yasiel Puig is still homerless and is hitting .195/.256/.244 on the season. Chris Taylor has three homers, but is hitting .228/.269/.406 with no steals. On the other side of the ball, the starting pitching has been good for the Dodgers. Unfortunately, the bullpen has been mediocre. Worse is that Kenley Jansen is a big reason why. The two-time All-Star has a 5.59 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. Even more problematic is that while Jansen’s strikeout numbers look good (11.2 K/9), they’re much worse than a season ago (14.4).

The performances of these players will have to change if Los Angeles is going to become the contender we all that it would be when before the season began.

Winner: Javier Baez turning into a superstar

Make no mistake, Javier Baez was a good player heading into 2018. Over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, he hit .273/.315/.453 and averaged 18 home runs and 67 RBI a year. That’s nice production for a middle infielder. But in 2018, he’s gone to a much different level.

The Chicago keystone is hitting .310/.370/.714 with seven home runs. The Cubs have needed his output, too. They’ve struggled to find offensive consistency in the early part of the year. The strong start from Baez has been one of the few things keeping the Cubs from falling too far behind in the National League Central.

The potential has always been there for Baez to be a superstar. Through the first month of the 2018 season, he’s lived up to that potential and then some.

Loser: Matt Harvey loses place in starting rotation

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. When the New York Mets reached the 2015 World Series, they did so by sweeping the NLCS. This meant that they got to set their rotation up however they wanted. They opened that series not with Noah Syndergaard or Jacob deGrom, but with Harvey. And while that series was unsuccessful for New York, Harvey validated the selection with two strong outings. Not even three years later, there’s no longer a place for him in the starting rotation.

Harvey initially lashed out at the media, not giving them a comment on the move. Maybe a writer (or writers) wrote something about Harvey that he deemed unfair. Who knows? He doesn’t have to give them a quote. But it’s unlikely that any of them are responsible for the home runs he’s allowed. That aside, Harvey is now a pitcher who’s had a number of injury issues and is three years removed from his last good season. He’s also a free agent at season’s end. That’s not a good place to be for a pitcher who will be 30 next March.

That means that Harvey will have to thrive in his new role. It’s not without precedent. Wade Davis and Andrew Miller are just two failed starters who became dominant relievers. Harvey can certainly do the same. He can also conceivably regain his place in the rotation. These things are all possible and would give Harvey a chance to bolster his value. But whatever ultimately happens, the first month of the season was a rough one for New York’s former Phenom.

Winner: Mookie Betts showing MVP form on surging Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox suffered from a severe lack of power in 2017. They were good enough elsewhere to win the American League East, but were not much of a matchup for the Houston Astros in the ALDS. J.D. Martinez was certainly signed to help Boston. But for this team to compete with the American League powerhouses like the Astros and Yankees, other players were going to have to step up. Betts has helped lead that charge in 2018.

It’s not that Betts was terrible in 2017. He hit .264/.344/.459 with a respectable 24 home runs. But while not bad, those numbers were down from the .318/.363/.534, 31 home run season that we saw in 2016. The 2016 version of Betts is what we’ve seen through the first month. Actually, we’ve seen a better player. He’s hit .350/.442/.750 with eight home runs, helping the Red Sox to baseball’s best record.

The list of potential AL MVP candidates through the first month is strong. It includes the likes of Judge, Yankees’ teammate Didi Gregorius, Carlos Correa, and the incomparable Mike Trout. But one month in, Betts doesn’t take a back seat to any of them.

Loser: Offseason trades providing little return for Giants

The good news for the San Franciso Giants is that they’ve generally been better than they were last April, when they stumbled out of the gate en route to a 98-loss season. The bad news is that they’re still a struggling team. Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen, who were acquired to help this team compete again, haven’t exactly helped matters.

The two have combined for seven home runs, which is decent. But decent doesn’t quite make up for the rest of the struggles. Combined, Longoria and McCutchen are hitting .213/.289/.402. Of course, both have time to get their seasons going in the right direction. But this situation feels a tad more urgent than most.

Longoria and McCutchen aren’t young players. The Giants were a terrible team in 2017 and rather than rebuild, opted to add two players in their 30s (including a pending free agent in McCutchen). Generally speaking, we don’t associate patience with teams like that. So, is there time to turn things around? Sure. But not as much as some of the season’s other slow starters have.

Winner: Manny Machado owning free agent year

From a team perspective, 2018 isn’t going great for Machado. The Baltimore Orioles are one of baseball’s worst teams. But there’s only so much one player can do. While Machado isn’t enjoying a lot of team success in 2018, he is enjoying a great deal of individual success.

The Baltimore shortstop is hitting .347/.429/.663 with eight home runs. Machado was going to get paid in a big way after 2018 regardless of what happened in the season. He has too many things working in his favor. But if he can actually have a career year heading into a free agent class that many teams have specifically saved their money for. Watch out.

Machado will be 26 in July. So, he’s really only entering his prime. He’s one of baseball’s best hitters and plays both third base and shortstop at an elite level. Barring a trade (which is possible but based on the offseason, unlikely), Machado’s season will not end with a playoff appearance. But by the time this offseason is over, Machado was already looking at a $300 million contract. The first month of the year has done a lot to drive that already big price.

Loser: Where has the Reds offense gone?

We’re surprised that the Cincinnati Reds are 5-20. We weren’t exactly expecting this team to compete for a playoff spot. Still, a .200 winning percentage is a level of futility that we weren’t expecting. But more than the overall record, the offensive struggles of this team are what really have us surprised.

This is an offense that includes players like Joey Votto, Adam Duvall, and Billy Hamilton. It should not rank at or near the bottom of nearly every major offensive category. But one month into the season, that’s precisely the case.

Things appeared headed in the right direction for the Reds heading into the year. Believe it or not, having the worst record in baseball doesn’t necessarily mean that things aren’t going the right way. But the backbone of the team struggling so mightily is a much different story. If the offense doesn’t get things going, it may be time to restart the rebuilding project in Cincinnati.

Winner: Youngsters help spearhead hot starting Braves

Given the struggles of the Atlanta Braves in recent years, a 14-10 start is something to be upbeat about. But Atlanta should be more upbeat about how the record has been achieved. The Braves’ youth movement is not only giving them hope for this season, but showing genuine promise for the future.

Ozzie Albies is hitting .288/.333/.635 with eight home runs. Dansby Swanson has only two homers, but is hitting .316/.363/.484. That’s a pretty solid offensive middle infield. It’s only better when we remember that Albies and Swanson are 21 and 24, respectively. Additionally, while he’s only been up briefly, 20-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. has already shown why he’s one of baseball’s best prospects.

A 14-10 start doesn’t mean a whole lot over a 162 game season. But when you’re a team that hasn’t contended in a while, a strong start is very nice. It’s even nicer when such young players are right in the middle of it. Regardless of what happens for the rest of 2018, Atlanta and its fans have a lot to look forward to going forward.

Loser: American League Central for letting Indians off the hook

The first month of the year has been bumpy for the Indians. While it’s showing signs of life, the offensive has suffered through a team wide slump. There’s no doubt that the Indians are the most talented team in the American League Central. But the way Cleveland was playing, one of its division rivals could have opened up something of a lead in the season’s first month. That hasn’t happened. Not only are the Indians well within striking distance, but they’re actually in first place. Their division rivals are a big reason why.

Cleveland has slumped to a 6-8 record in non-divisional games. But against the Central, the Indians are a cool 7-2. Cleveland’s primary whipping boys have been the Detroit Tigers, who are 0-4 against the Indians.

The timing was ideal to take advantage of the struggles of the division’s best team. Instead, Cleveland is not only in first place, but is the only American League Central team with a winning record. Now that the Indians seem to be moving in a more consistent direction, all we can do is wish the division’s other teams good luck.

Winner: Diamondbacks take advantage of slow starting division

Heading into the season, the National League West looked like it could be baseball’s toughest top-to-bottom division. It hasn’t worked out that way. Only two National League West teams sport a winning record. The Arizona Diamondbacks have certainly taken advantage of the struggles of their division mates.

Arizona is 13-5 against divisional opponents and 17-7 overall. That’s four clear of the second place Colorado Rockies. Perhaps as importantly, the Arizona has taken advantage of an uneven start from Los Angeles, who is 11-12 Thursday. At some point, we’ve got to assume that the Dodgers are going to make a run. Getting as much cushion on them as possible will quite helpful to the Diamondbacks chances of winning the division.

A phrase that you’ll hear a lot is that you can’t win a division in April. That’s true. But Arizona couldn’t have asked for much more from the season’s first month.

Loser: Derek Jeter is tone deaf or thinks we’re all idiots

In a way, it almost feels ridiculous to write about the Marlins. After all, Derek Jeter seemed to imply that his team wouldn’t be contending in the near future. It seemed like 2018 would be a tank year for the Marlins. So, why not just ignore Miami and see what it has to offer in 2019? Jeter’s “Real Sports” interview with Bryant Gumbel has a lot to do with that. In that interview, Jeter said that he expects this team to contend. Well, Mr. Jeter, it’s not happening.

The Marlins may not have baseball’s worst record, but that’s not much of a victory. Miami is 7-17, a pace that works out to about 47-115 over a full season. Lewis Brinson — probably the best young player acquired by the Marlins in the offseason — is hitting .146/.213/.268. Now, the struggles of a rookie like Brinson normally wouldn’t be anything to be overly concerned with. Except, again, one of the team’s owners said this team could contend.

What’s really happening here is that players like Justin Bour, J.T. Realmuto, and Starlin Castro are having years of their careers wasted. A fan base not known for its immense size is looking at its worst season in a long time. And this is from a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2009. Somehow Jeter thinks this team can contend? If he doesn’t like the word “tanking,” say “aggressively rebuilding” or something of that nature. When Jeter says that this team can contend, he’s either horribly tone deaf or purely insulting his fan base. Neither is exactly what you want out of a team executive.

Winner: Gerrit Cole loving life with the champs

As a reminder, the Astros returned most of the team that won 101 games and the World Series a season ago. This wasn’t exactly a team that needed a lot of help by the way of offseason moves. But the decision to bring in Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates has worked out well for the champs.

Cole has posted a 1.29 ERA, a 0.77 WHIP, and a 12.6 K/9 rate for Houston. Those numbers are all mighty impressive. But just as notable is that each time Cole has taken the hill, he’s gone seven innings. Starters going deep into games is becoming increasingly rare. There’s no telling how much value a starter who can give his bullpen a break every fifth day has to his team.

Even without Cole, Houston had a rotation that was hard to match in the playoffs. We’re a long way from October. But expect the way that Cole has pitched for the champs to have a large impact on what contenders — especially those in the American League — do at the deadline. Cole has thrown down an early gauntlet on behalf of the champs.