Colorado Rockies (20-14) – One of the most popular “if he’s healthy” cases in the majors, Troy Tulowitzki has been healthy so far, and has also been absolutely tearing the cover off the ball (.408/.512/.786, 9 HR, 236 wRC+). He has always been considered a fantastic two-way player, but the offensive numbers we’ve seen him put up throughout the first month or so of the season have been nothing short of ridiculous. Of course, the first thing people will do when a Rockies player puts up insane numbers is bring up Coors and sure, Tulo’s home park has definitely been a factor (*small sample size alert* he has a 343 wRC+ at home), but he’s also hitting very well on the road (147 wRC+), something he’s done for his entire career (118 wRC+).Is this a fluke? Well, not really. Calling this a fluke would suggest that there will be some massive regression, and I don’t believe that will be the case. He probably won’t finish the season with a 200+ wRC+ (for comparisons sake, neither Mike Trout nor Miguel Cabrera have been able to in 2012 and 2013, though the latter came very close last season with a 192 wRC+), but that’s nothing more than an arbitrary cutoff point anyway. I think he should hover somewhere around that mark for the majority of 2014, assuming his health continues, obviously.
The interesting part is trying to figure out how this sort of production would impact Colorado’s season. Tulo has undoubtedly been the Rockies’ offensive superstar, but that’s not to say he hasn’t had any help. Both Corey Dickerson (164 wRC+) and Charlie Blackmon (159 wRC+, 6 HR, 7 SB) are playing out of their minds, Justin Morneau (149 wRC+, 7HR) has found the fountain of youth and Michael Cuddyer (136 wRC+) is continuing to hit well after last season’s rather unexpected “breakout.” It’s more than fair to assume that Dickerson and Blackmon will regress, though it’s hard to tell how rough their fall back to reality might be. Morneau can probably string together a solid season, but it’s not wise to expect this sort of production from him over the course of the entire year. Cuddyer has a solid case after what we’ve seen him do last season, though father time is undefeated, and, having just turned turned 35 in March, Cuddyer is fighting a losing battle.
As you may have noticed, a star name is missing from that list. Welcome Carlos Gonzalez, who’s had an ugly 95 wRC+ through the opening 30 games of the season. What happens when CarGo picks it up and starts producing at the level we’ve come to expect of him? Well, it depends on what the above mentioned “what ifs” do the for remainder of the season. The good news is that what’s done is done; these wins that the Rockies have earned, even if some were due to fluky performances, aren’t going to be taken away from them. Even if the likes of Dickerson and Blackmon drop off to the levels that you expected them to play at, they probably already contributed enough to push the Rockies above whatever win total was expected of the team before the season started. Then, when you take into account that CarGo should, eventually, start hitting like CarGo again, we may really be looking at the most lethal offense in the majors.
On the mound, things don’t look as good as they do at the plate, and that may eventually be what really brings the Rockies back to where most still probably think they belong, which is nothing more than a middle-of-the-pack team. Jordan Lyles has been a bright spot, sporting a shiny 2.62 ERA despite the fact that he only strikes out 4.84 batters per nine innings. His abilities to keep the ball on the ground (56.3 GB%) and in the park (0.40 HR/9) have been the main reasons for his success, though it’ll be interesting to see how long he can keep that going considering that both would be career-best marks (especially the HR-rate). Newcomer Brett Anderson is doing what he does best, which is spend time on the disabled list, while Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio and Franklin Morales have been nothing short of putrid. Jhoulys Chacin’s return to the rotation will surely give the Rockies’ staff a boost, but it’ll hardly be enough to make it anything more than below-average at best.
Because of those pitching shortcomings, this team may fall off faster than their offensive production may suggest it should. Though, if you want to look at the glass from a half-full point of view, you can argue that the Rockies have been winning despite having the 2nd worst ERA in the NL, and that those struggling starters should improve, even if not by much. That, coupled with CarGo eventually producing, could lead to the Rockies being in the wildcard race for the majority of the season.
But for now, call me a skeptic.
Pittsburgh Pirates (12-20) – After finally making the postseason last season and enjoying a two-year run as everyone’s favorite surprise team, it looks like the Pirates might regress in 2014. Andrew McCutchen is still being totally awesome (.317/.434/.526, 170 wRC+), but he isn’t getting as much help offensively this season as he did in 2013. Gaby Sanchez and Josh Harrison have been raking in the small amount of plate appearances they’ve gotten respectively, and Neil Walker is producing at a high level for a player at any position, let alone a middle-infielder; however, the rest of the lineup isn’t quite there, and that wasn’t the case last season.In 2013 the Pirates had seven players produce at above league-average rates at the plate, while this season it’s only been McCutchen and Walker. Starling Marte, while nearly doubling his walk rate (up to 7.5% from 4.4%) has seemingly left his power behind in 2013, slugging around the .350 mark. Pedro Alvarez, who, despite hitting 36 HR last season, still finished with a rather boring but not bad 111 wRC+; 2014 has still been kind to him as far as power is concerned, as he’s still hitting the ball out of the park (8 HR). However, his overall production has stalled (108 wRC+), though the underlying numbers suggest that he’s been rather unlucky; he’s walking far more than usually while striking out far less, but it’s also fair to point out that his staggeringly low .217 BABIP isn’t helped by the fact that he’s hitting line-drives on only about 12% of his batted balls. Jose Tabata, who was a nice surprise last season (118 wRC+), is back to being terrible (71 wRC+), and the newly acquired Ike Davis is continuing his awfulness (87 wRC+) in Pittsburgh instead of in New York. The worst performer of them all, though, is without a doubt Jordy Mercer. Whether you believed that last season was a fluke or not, it’s hard to imagine anyone predicting Mercer falling off this badly. He’s currently hitting .173/.218/.210, good for a 12, yes, 12, wRC+. For his sake, let’s really, really hope that this whole small sample size thing will even things out at least somewhat.
The rotation hasn’t been great either, and is a complete opposite of last season’s major bright spot. Only four teams had better starters’ ERAs last season than the Pirates, while this season they’re tied for the 4th worst in that same category. After dominating last year, Francisco Liriano is struggling so far in 2014, striking out fewer batters while walking more on a per-inning basis (the difference aren’t staggering, but they’re existent). He’s also allowing more HR/FB this season, an interesting tidbit when you realize that his velocity is down 1.2 MPH from 2013. It’s obviously still early, but I’d keep any eye on that and see if it may be the beginning of an ugly trend. A.J. Burnett, who was fantastic for the Pirates last season, is no longer on the team, and rising star Gerrit Cole is off to a slow start, though the peripherals suggest that it should turn around soon. Charlie Morton, he of the 3.26 ERA in 2013, is, as you may have already guessed yourself, struggling as well, with a 4.21 ERA so far. He’s walking more batters, getting less ground balls and is allowing more HR/9 than he did last season, which is basically the recipe for regression.
Obviously, there’s still time for the Pirates to pick things up and get themselves back into the wildcard race. But, as many have feared since their return to relevance in 2012, this team may not be as good as its 2012-2013 records indicated.
Adrian Gonzalez (.282/.364/.573, 9 HR, 157 wRC+) – Is the “old” Adrian finally back? His decline was never as dramatic as some made it seem, but it’s impossible to deny that he hasn’t looked this good since 2011. The power is at a ridiculously high level (.289 ISO), and though it’s bound to decline at least somewhat, assuming it doesn’t drop-off too much, this is an MVP-type bat.
Jon Lester (2.59 ERA, 10.73 K/9, 1.85 BB/9) – The only appropriate way to describe Lester’s start to this season is “holy shit.” Putting up career-bests in K/9, BB/9 and ERA, it looks like the only thing that might stand between him and the CY Young award is an injury. The likes of Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and last season’s winner of the award Max Scherzer will definitely give him a run for his money, but we may be looking at the best pitcher in the AL in 2014.
Yasiel Puig (.309/.397/.500, 4 HR, 4 SB, 155 wRC+) – Sure, the wRC+ is right about where it was in 2013 (when it was 160), but the point here is that those who doubted Puig’s legitimacy don’t really have much to hold on to anymore. The main concerns were about plate discipline, but with more walks, fewer strikeouts and mostly the same results when he is swinging the bat, Puig is making those doubts fade away. The power is slightly down, though not enough to suggest that a significant decline is in store. Basically, get used to Puig-mania, because it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.