Encouraging starts from non-playoff teams

April 20th, 2023

We understand that most early-season trends will be long since forgotten by the All-Star break, and that no team has ever clinched a playoff spot in April. Even so, a team can make a real impression in the first few weeks of the season.

This makes it an especially interesting time for clubs coming off disappointing years, whether they failed to meet expectations or weren’t ready to take that final step toward playoff contention. The previous season’s middling (or basement-dwelling) teams have a unique ability to grab our attention in the early going and make us think, at the risk of getting our hopes up, that this year is going to be different.

We can admit that we’re just as susceptible to those good feelings as anyone else. So, with that in mind, we asked eight MLB.com writers to weigh in on the non-playoff teams whose encouraging starts they’re buying -- and why you might want to jump on the bandwagon, too.

1. Pirates (12-7, 3rd in NL Central)

What’s different: So far, almost everything. The Pirates had the third-worst OPS (.655) and fifth-worst in ERA (4.66) in MLB in 2022; this season, their OPS (.784) ranks seventh and they’ve shaved half a run off their ERA (4.08). Outfielders Bryan Reynolds and Jack Suwinski are off to hot starts, as is Andrew McCutchen in his return to Pittsburgh.

Challenge ahead: Will the rotation hold up? Three Pirates starters have ERAs over 5 in the early going: Vince Velasquez (5.12), Rich Hill (5.57) and Roansy Contreras (6.00). Mitch Keller and Johan Oviedo have been strong so far, but they’ll need some help from their rotation-mates if the Pirates are going to contend.

Why it can stick: Even with Oneil Cruz out four months with a broken ankle, there’s talent on the Pirates’ roster. Reynolds is a star on offense, and the Bucs have added to their lineup to support him. Plus, three of the Pirates’ top five prospects are currently in Triple-A and could arrive as reinforcements sometime this year.

-- Theo DeRosa

2. Texas Rangers (12-6, 1st in AL West)

What’s different: The Rangers centered their offseason around upgrading their pitching staff, and that group currently owns a top-10 ERA (3.49) and a 9.6 K/9, which would crush the single-season franchise record (8.6). Although much money was spent on the starting rotation, Texas’ bullpen has been even better. That group is tied for third in ERA (2.71) and second in opponents’ batting average (.190).

Challenge ahead: Jacob deGrom has been outstanding since his rocky Opening Day start. But on Monday, he provided yet another reason why you must hold your breath every time he takes the mound. It’s imperative for the Rangers to keep their high-priced ace healthy, especially if they want to stay competitive in a division that features the reigning World Series champion Astros, a strong Mariners squad and the improved Angels.

Why it can stick: The Rangers complement that mound success with an offense that features some potent veteran bats in Marcus Semien, Nathaniel Lowe and the currently injured Corey Seager. Plus, rookie third baseman Josh Jung is off to a good start. In short, the Rangers haven’t had a team this complete in about a decade.

-- Brian Murphy

3. Milwaukee Brewers (14-5 record, 1st in NL Central)

What’s different: The pitching. MLB has seen an increase in offense following the 2023 rule changes, with the average team’s run total going from 4.28 per game in 2022 to 4.61 this season. But the Brewers have been able to avoid that trend, allowing 3.15 runs per game (fourth in MLB) this season after allowing 4.25 (T-16th) a year ago. 

Challenge ahead: Getting over the hump. The Brewers have reached the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, but they have not passed the NLCS in that span. Milwaukee is one of three franchises that have existed since the 1960s and not won a World Series (Padres, Rangers).

Why it can stick: Youth movement on offense. Even if/when the pitching returns to Earth, young offensive stars like William Contreras (25 years old), Garrett Mitchell (24) and rookie Brice Turang (23) should keep the Brewers performing at a high level on that side of the ball.

-- Cole Jacobson

4. Twins (11-7 record, 1st in AL Central)

What’s different: Pitching. After posting a 3.98 ERA and 22.1 strikeout rate in 2022, Twins pitchers have the second-lowest ERA (2.69) and lead the Majors with a 29.1 strikeout rate in 2023. Pablo López, Sonny Gray and Joe Ryan have been a three-headed rotation monster while the bullpen has the fifth-lowest ERA (2.77).

Challenge ahead: Keeping Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa healthy. It’s no secret that those two players are the driving star-level players the Twins need to get back to the playoffs. To their credit, the Twins have gotten off to this strong start despite both of them performing well below their career norms so far.

Why it can stick: Their pitching looks legit and sustainable. López has a sizable velocity bump and a filthy new sweeper. Gray is bombarding opposing hitters with nasty breaking balls. Ryan’s new splitter has perfectly complemented his fastball and sweeper. Jhoan Duran and Jorge López have headlined a deep and dominant bullpen.

-- Brent Maguire

5. Orioles (11-7, T-2nd in AL East)

What's different: The first full season of Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson? Yes, please. Rutschman was MLB Pipeline's No. 1 overall prospect in 2021 … then Henderson was in '22. Now both are in the Majors -- and so is current No. 5 overall prospect Grayson Rodriguez. What an influx of young talent the O's have.

Challenge ahead: Rutschman is 25, Henderson is 21 and Rodriguez is 23. Rutschman has played 131 big league games; Henderson has played 50; Rodriguez has pitched three. Trying to help carry a team to the playoffs so early in a career is a lot of pressure. Especially in a gauntlet like the AL East.

Why it can stick: Then again, Rutschman might be the best catcher in baseball already, and sure looks like he could captain a team on a playoff run. And young stars are making a bigger impact in MLB than ever before. Plus, the 2022 season was this team's proving ground. They showed they had what it takes to contend; the next step is the postseason.

-- David Adler

6. Chicago Cubs (11-6, T-2nd in NL Central)

What’s different: What isn’t? In 2022, the Cubs were below average across the board. This year, Cubs hitters rank in second in MLB in batting average (.286), third in on-base percentage (.347) and fourth in strikeouts, while the pitching staff has cut its ERA from 4.00 in 2022 to 3.24 in ‘23 and has given up just 12 home runs, tied for second-fewest.

Challenge ahead: Getting the back end of the rotation on board. Marcus Stroman (0.75 ERA) and Justin Steele (1.44) have been unbelievable through their first four starts. But the rest of the rotation -- Drew Smyly, Jameson Taillon, and Hayden Wesneski -- haven't quite kept pace, with a collective 4.46 ERA and 1.44 WHIP.

Why it can stick: The top of the order. Dansby Swanson (.333 AVG) has looked like a great get for Chicago thus far, and his bookends, Nico Hoerner (.347 AVG, 9 SB) and Ian Happ (career-high .961 OPS), have proved to be strong complements for him and each other. If those three guys keep setting the table, the Cubs should keep cruising.

-- Shanthi Sepe-Chepuru

7. Arizona D-backs (11-8, 1st in NL West)

What’s different: A full season of Corbin Carroll’s game-changing speed and an overall improved lineup. Carroll is second in the Majors in average sprint speed and has shown his ability to impact both on the basepaths and in the outfield, which we got a peek into last year. Overall, the team is hitting .259, after hitting .230 last year, including .181 in April.

Challenge ahead: The Dodgers and Padres. Not necessarily the games against them -- Arizona is 5-3 against the Dodgers and 1-1 against the Padres -- but the mere fact that neither is a sub-.500 team, despite current records.

Why it can stick: The starting pitching. Though Madison Bumgarner was reportedly DFAed on Thursday after a slow start to the season and Zach Davies had struggled before hitting the IL, listen to the rest of the rotation. Ryne Nelson with a 3.71 ERA, Zac Gallen at 3.33, Merrill Kelly at 2.53 and Drey Jameson at 2.35 in his two starts. The only other teams with at least four starters with two or more starts and an ERA under 3.75 in them: the Braves, Astros, Giants and Rays. Good company.

-- Sarah Langs

8. Los Angeles Angels (9-9, 2nd in AL West)

What’s different: Mike Trout has been healthy for 100% of the season, and Anthony Rendon is contributing again. While the record is modest, an offense that ranked 20th in runs per game a year ago was up to eighth entering Wednesday, also benefiting from improved depth, including from offseason additions Hunter Renfroe and Gio Urshela.

Challenge ahead: I get why nobody picked the Angels before this: We’ve been here before, and nobody wants to be Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. The Angels went 14-8 last April. They started 6-2 in 2021. They’ve looked good at other times during their eight-season playoff drought, only to fall flat. At some point, you have to see it to believe it.

Why it can stick: Beyond any numbers, the Angels have more incentive to go for it than any other team on this list. There’s the postseason drought, the fact that Trout has never celebrated an October win and Shohei Ohtani’s pending free agency. Look no further than the recent promotion of 2022 first-round pick Zach Neto for evidence that the Halos will be aggressive between now and the Trade Deadline in pushing toward the playoffs.

-- Andrew Simon