Masahiro Tanaka

Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in MLB, April Edition

Masahiro Tanaka

The initial month of the 2014 campaign has featured sizzling performances by rookies, a revived veteran slugger and a surprise contender. It has also seen slumping stars and several pitchers sidelined. One month surely does not make a season. But there are many elements—both positive and negative–that made April a captivating beginning.

Hot

T5. Adam Wainwright and Jose Fernandez:
With a sputtering Cardinals offense, the importance of Wainwright is even greater. A recent knee scare hasn’t slowed him down, as he earned a league-high fifth victory when he shut down the Pittsburgh Pirates with eight shutout innings. In fact, he hasn’t allowed a run to score on him since April 12. So, there’s no question he’s among the game’s best in earned run average (1.20).

Wainwright was a preseason favorite by pundits to be a Cy Young Award contender. Right now, there’s no question he’s on pace to pitch at that high level.

The same can be said of Fernandez, who is picking up where he left off from last year’s sensational Rookie of the Year performance. With a little run support from the Marlins, he is nearly unbeatable. That was true on Tuesday when Atlanta Braves bats were stifled by Fernandez’ heat. The 21-year-old also maintained an impressive streak of his own, as he has yet to allow an earned run in 23 innings.

4. Albert Pujols:
The St. Louis version of Pujols hadn’t been present in Anaheim ever since signing a lucrative contract with the Angels more than two years ago. By missing time and being off-balance at the plate when he was playing, Pujols could only generate 17 homers and 64 RBI in 2013.

A much different story in 2014: nine home runs, 23 runs driven in and an OPS of .927. The undisputed highlight of his revival came on April 22 in Washington, as the largely uncelebrated chase for 500 home runs was complete. His second round-tripper of the night made him the 26th player in big league history to reach that milestone.

3. Braves pitching:
Sentiments in March were that the Atlanta Braves would be weaker in the pitching department once the disabled list piled up with valuable starters. Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Brandon Beachy all were bitten by the injury bug.

But they haven’t been hampered by it at all. The best rotation up to this point is led by Alex Wood’s club-best 37 strikeouts and Aaron Harang’s surprising beginning. Ervin Santana, signed in late March as a stop gap, has yet to lose after four starts and is one of four members of the rotation who possesses an ERA that ranks among the top 15 in the league.

2. AL rookies:
The early returns show that the race for AL Rookie of the Year will a hotly-contested battle with three main contenders up to this point.

Leading all players in home runs (10) and RBI (32) up to this point is Jose Abreu. The White Sox first baseman punctuated a spectacular start to 2014 with a walk-off grand slam on Friday to help Chicago beat the Tampa Bay Rays. That also broke the previous record for most home runs by a rookie in April. Two days later, he set the standard for most rookie RBI in that month.

Masahiro Tanaka has lived up to all the expectations that were placed upon him when he signed with the Yankees. In five starts and 35.2 innings pitched, he has 46 strikeouts, allowed nine earned runs and compiled a record of 3-0.

The least-heralded of the talented rookies is Yordano Ventura, with an average fastball speed of 97 miles per hour and an ERA under 2.00. However, if he continues to pitch like he did against Baltimore (no runs allowed in eight innings of work), there’s no doubt that he’ll be in the national spotlight real soon—even if he is starring for a small market in Kansas City.

1. Milwaukee Brewers:
Never does a season go by without a team that starts out on a hot streak. For 2014, that team is Milwaukee.

Next to Atlanta, the Brewers have the best pitching staff—with stats to back it up. As of Wednesday, they are second in the majors in ERA (2.59), first in WHIP (1.05) and first in quality starts (22) mainly due to the efforts of Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse.

Returning to the lineup with vengeance at the start of the year is Ryan Braun, who is batting .318 with six home runs. The momentum built is temporarily put on hold due to an oblique strain suffered last weekend, which will keep him out for an undetermined amount of time.

The team did just fine against St. Louis on Monday, scoring five unanswered runs to ultimately top the Cardinals in 12 innings.

Not

5. A’s bullpen:
When Oakland inked Jim Johnson in the off-season, it was with all intention that the former Orioles closer would hold the same position with the A’s.

That was the casefor about a week and a half. Johnson’s early struggles culminated in a ninth inning lead lost against Minnesota on April 9, causing manager Bob Melvin to remove him from the closer role. But the plague of late game demises spread to others in the Oakland bullpen, with a league-leading six blown saves in 11 chances. The lackluster performance has been so widespread that Melvin could reinstate Johnson to his original job.

4. Injured pitchers:
The epidemic of arms damaged during Spring Training spread into the first part of the regular season. Since the start of the 2014 campaign, there have been 17 pitchers that have undergone the dreaded Tommy John Surgery. Notable names on the mend include Patrick Corbin, Kris Medlen, Jarrod Parker, Ivan Nova and (most recently) A.J. Griffin.

The team most hurt by the rash of injuries is the Tampa Bay Rays, who have seen Matt Moore and Alex Cobb go down. It’s been hard for Joe Maddon to fully replace them, as his club is one of the AL’s worst in terms of team ERA.

3. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder:
The only player in baseball worth the massive contract he received last month hasn’t lived up to it with his slow start this month.

Two home runs, 15 RBI and a .277 batting average after 21 games may be satisfactory to the average ballplayer. It’s a grave disappointment for a two-time defending AL MVP like Miguel Cabrera.

The Tigers are still in first place without their star being at his bestand without the slugging first baseman they had for the past two seasons. Prince Fielder was jettisoned from Detroit to the Texas Rangers in an off-season trade.

Even in a more hitter-friendly ballpark, Fielder hasn’t gotten out of the blocks well. Like Cabrera, he also had just a pair of homers. His RBI total (nine) and batting average (.206) is even lower.

2. Padres offense:
A club that was among the bottom half in the league in multiple categories last year has shown no signs of improving. In fact, this group has gotten significantly worse.

In 28 games this season, San Diego has scored a measly 77 runs—last in all of baseball and 13 less than the 29th-ranked offense (Houston). Its home run total (15) and team batting average (.217) is equally woeful.

Without consistent run producers, the Padres are handcuffed and simply can’t compete with the Dodgers and Giants in the NL West.  The main culprit for this anemic performance is the myriad of injuries to the Opening Day batting order. Chase Headley recently landed on the disabled list with a strained calf and Carlos Quentin has yet to appear this season due to a bruised left knee.

1. Pittsburgh Pirates:
There are many teams worthy of being in this position. The Houston Astros, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs immediately come to mind. But that would be piling on clubs that weren’t expected to sniff the top of their respective divisions.

It was believed that Pittsburgh would use the momentum gained from their first winning season (and first playoff appearance) in 21 years as a springboard for continued success and sustained contention.

One month into the season, it hasn’t gone in that direction. The Pirates downward turn is best exemplified in a team batting average that ranks among the worst in the NL at .221 and just 96 runs scored. After 16 games, Pittsburgh is already nine games back of first place Milwaukee in the Central.

Brian Wright

About Brian Wright

With over a decade's worth of sports journalism experience, MLB Lead Writer Brian Wright has been featured on Bleacher Report, SB Nation, as well as The Washington Examiner, and is currently a staff writer with the Stafford County Sun (VA). While attending Virginia Tech, Brian covered Frank Beamer's Hokie football teams (among other sports) for the school's daily campus newspaper. As a lifelong die-hard New York Mets fan, there is very little chance Brian will be an unbiased reporter come October.

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