Poll: Slow-Starting Playoff Contenders

The Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Rockies were among the majors’ most successful clubs in 2018, when the quartet comprised 40 percent of the league’s playoff bracket. No one was better than the Red Sox, who rolled to 108 regular-season wins before steamrolling the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers in the postseason en route to their latest World Series title. The Yankees, despite their loss to archrival Boston, enjoyed a more-than-respectable year in which they notched 100 victories. And Colorado knocked out Chicago in the National League wild-card game, a battle of two 90-plus-win teams, before succumbing to Milwaukee in the divisional round.

Given the excellence those clubs displayed last year, it would have been fair to expect each of them to earn playoff berths again in 2019. Instead, while we’re just a couple weeks into the season, all of those teams have tripped out of the starting block, having combined for 19 wins in 58 games. They’re the only members of last year’s playoff field that are under .500 at this point.

Boston, whose roster is almost the same as its title-winning version (sans relievers Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly), dropped a game to the lowly Orioles on Saturday. Fifteen contests into the season, the Red Sox have already lost 10 times – something they didn’t do until Game 35 a year ago. Neither their all-world offense nor their high-end pitching staff from 2018 have come close to replicating those performances thus far, and questions have swirled around ace Chris Sale. Signed to a five-year, $145MM extension before the season, Sale’s velocity – which began dropping amid an injury-limited 2018 – has continued to plummet. Unsurprisingly, the 30-year-old’s effectiveness has waned as his fastball has lost power. Not only has Sale allowed an earned run per inning across 13 frames, but one of baseball’s all-time strikeout artists has fanned just eight batters.

Maybe Sale is battling a physical issue, but the Yankees are dealing with plenty of their own. Eleven of their players, including standouts Luis Severino, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, Miguel Andujar, Aaron Hicks and Dellin Betances are on the IL. The majority of that group won’t be back in the near future – or perhaps until 2020 in the case of Andujar – while Severino, Gregorius, Hicks and Betances haven’t suited up yet this year. With so many integral contributors unavailable, the Yankees have started 6-8. That would be less concerning if not for their inability to capitalize on an easy early season schedule. The Yankees have played 11 games against the Orioles, Tigers and White Sox, all of whom are regarded as bottom feeders, and only won six of those matchups. The AL East rival Rays (11-4) have taken advantage, evidenced by their 4.5-game lead on New York and their six-game edge over Boston.

Over in the NL, the Cubs – on the heels of a widely panned offseason – have sputtered to a 5-9 showing and a four-game deficit in the Central, which could be one of the majors’ most competitive divisions. Although cornerstone hitters Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber haven’t resembled their best selves, the Cubs’ offense has still done well statistically. Their pitching has been abysmal, on the other hand. Yu Darvish, who’s in Year 2 of a huge contract, continues to perform nothing like the pitcher he was pre-Chicago, while the bullpen the Cubs did little to bolster over the winter has looked predictably vulnerable.

Speaking of vulnerable, the Rockies have christened their season with the majors’ worst record (3-12) and its last-ranked run differential (minus-36). If the Rockies are going to overcome their horrific start to pick up their third straight playoff appearance, they’ll need far more from their position players. Their hitters have put together a woeful 37 wRC+ and minus-2.6 fWAR, both of which easily rank last in the game. Injuries have played a part, as regulars David Dahl, Daniel Murphy and Ryan McMahon are all on the IL. Meanwhile, the Rockies’ primary offensive catalysts – Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon – have all been duds so far. Those three won’t stay down forever, though, and Colorado’s starting staff also has the talent to rebound from its early season mediocrity. But the Rockies can’t afford to let this skid continue to fester, especially considering they’re stuck in a division with the perennial champion Dodgers. Realistically, it’s wild card or bust for the Rockies, but rallying to steal one of those two spots in a crowded NL won’t be easy.

While it would be unwise to panic on April 13, there are more reasons for concern than expected in all of these teams’ cases. Then again, the same was said last year about the Dodgers, who began 16-26 on their way to 92 wins and another pennant. The Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Rockies can take solace in that, perhaps, but do you believe any of them are already in serious trouble?

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