With a little more than a month of the season in the books, several teams have defied expectations, finishing April with above-.500 records.
A group of MLB.com experts gathered for a roundtable to analyze three teams -- the Giants, Mariners and Royals -- all of whom were not contenders in 2020 but are playing at a better-than-expected clip this year, and, in some cases, are tops in their divisions. The big question: Will it last?
Alyson Footer, moderator: Are you surprised at how well these teams have performed so far? After watching them through Spring Training, what were your thoughts on how they’d do this year, and have they exceeded expectations? Or are they playing at the level you expected?
Anne Rogers, Royals beat reporter: I'm not surprised that the Royals are playing the way they are. They showed in Spring Training that their lineup was going to be vastly improved, and that's what it has shown to be. Their pitching has had ups and downs so far, and that's what we expected, too. I figured the Royals would probably be a .500 team throughout the season, so they're doing better to start -- but when you look at what they have on paper, and the expectations manager Mike Matheny laid out during Spring Training, the way they're playing makes some sense based on what the front office deemed important this offseason.
Now, if you would have told me the Royals were going to be at the top of the American League a month into the season, that would have caught me off guard. But, it's a long season, and some teams start out hot while some teams start out cold. Certainly, the Royals are pumped to be in the "hot" category.
Maria Guardado, Giants beat reporter: I think it's a little surprising that the Giants entered May atop the National League West. The Padres and the Dodgers obviously dominated the headlines over the offseason, so I think the assumption was that the Giants would have a hard time keeping pace with those two heavyweights in the division.
The Giants have definitely benefited from a soft schedule -- they've played a lot of games against the Marlins and Rockies -- but they've also gone 3-3 against the Padres thus far, which suggests they could have some staying power. A lot of that has to do with their stellar rotation, which definitely had a few question marks back in Spring Training. The Giants essentially rebuilt their starting staff by re-signing Kevin Gausman and adding a trio of bounce-back candidates in Anthony DeSclafani, Aaron Sanchez and Alex Wood on one-year deals. They've all been outstanding so far, even while Johnny Cueto has been sidelined with a lat strain.
Daniel Kramer, Mariners beat reporter: Yes and no. I figured that the Mariners were going to take a step forward, and their 15-12 April certainly had more credibility than their 13-2 start from 2019. An offense that relied almost exclusively on the Kyles (Lewis and Seager) for 45% of its run production last year all of a sudden injected a former All-Star (Mitch Haniger) and an up-and-comer who seemingly hits everything (Ty France). So there are some promising pieces in place.
But there are legitimate questions of sustainability here with Seattle less than one month in, and they’ve lost their top two starting pitchers, including James Paxton, who will miss the entire season. Marco Gonzales (left forearm strain) will be shelved for at least multiple starts, which forced manager Scott Servais to deploy seven relievers in a bullpen game on Monday against Baltimore. That’s not ideal for a ‘pen that has emerged as arguably the Majors’ most surprising. Speaking of, that unit has been nails, and I don’t think anyone -- certainly myself, but even some among that pitching staff -- saw that coming, mainly because there were so many pieces that were added externally this offseason and were largely unproven.
Mark Feinsand, executive reporter: Of these three teams, I would have to say I am most surprised by the Mariners. We all knew Seattle was in the midst of its rebuild, and given that GM Jerry Dipoto didn’t make much noise during the offseason, I thought this would be a year for the kids to get more experience and go through some growing pains. That still may be where this season winds up, but getting a taste of winning is always a good thing for a young team. And with Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez still waiting in the wings, their arrival -- whenever that may be -- should also add a boost of life to the team.
The Giants have the talent to be a good team, but the fact that they play in a division with the Dodgers and Padres probably led to them being picked as no better than a third-place team. The pitching has been outstanding, and Buster Posey’s return has been as important as any player in the league to a team. Posey has produced offensively, and his work behind the plate was recently described to me as being the equivalent of a second pitching coach.
As for the Royals, I was higher on Kansas City than most people (and took some heat for it in our offseason AL Central roundtable as a result). I loved how aggressive GM Dayton Moore was in free agency this winter, bringing in pros like Carlos Santana, Mike Minor and Michael A. Taylor, then making the trade for Andrew Benintendi. I don’t know if any of these three teams can sustain it over 162 games, but I like the Royals’ chances the best because of the division they play in, especially given the White Sox’ injury woes.
Footer: When the Royals traded for Benintendi, that signaled to me that they were getting ready to start winning a little bit.
Rogers: This is the year the Royals want to make the turn toward contending again. Dayton Moore signaled it throughout the offseason, and the comments in Spring Training further backed it up. They're ready to win, especially players like Whit Merrifield and Hunter Dozier, who have been there for a few years now but didn't experience the 2014-2015 run.
Feinsand: As I wrote in Tuesday’s notebook, the Royals are reaping the reward for their decision not to trade Danny Duffy the past couple years. Duffy has been the best pitcher in the AL through the first month, though I don’t think anyone believes he will have a 0.60 ERA all season. Still, these are the kinds of things that help a team believe in itself, which has to be a good thing for K.C.
Footer: Maria, your comment on the rotation leads me to believe that the Giants may end up coming back to the pack a little bit. A rotation of reclamation projects has a good chance to be decent for short spurts, but the long haul may be different. Or am I being too pessimistic?
Guardado: I think it's a fair point. Sanchez, in particular, is coming off right shoulder surgery and hasn't exhibited the premium velocity he enjoyed when he was at the peak of his career with the Blue Jays, so you have to wonder about his durability over the 162-game season. Wood has been electric, but he also has had injury issues in the past and opened the season on the IL with a lower back strain. I think the Giants will go as far as their starting rotation takes them, so they really can't afford to take many hits there, especially since their offense hasn't quite found its groove yet (despite an offensive onslaught against the Rockies at Coors Field on Tuesday).
Footer: I think of the three teams we're talking about today, I have the most confidence in the Royals, just because they've done this before -- built from scratch, and succeeded, and now that it's time to do it again, you have to believe Dayton Moore can.
Rogers: Yeah, absolutely. They've done this before. They made it a point to add experience to their roster to help the younger guys. They have exciting talent in the Minors knocking on the door. They have a manager who's won before, too. And I do think being in a weaker division like the AL Central -- we don't know how the White Sox are going to respond, the Twins had a cold start and you get to play the Tigers for a lot of games -- helps them, too. I wouldn't be surprised at all if this is a close race all the way through September.
Feinsand: The Royals not only brought in pros this winter to fill some holes, but they added players with championship pedigree like Benintendi and Taylor, who have each been a part of a recent World Series winner. I liked that approach.
Kramer: The Mariners seemed like a stellar fit for Benintendi, and a source said that they pursued him via trade at one point last offseason, which signals that Dipoto and management view this as a year to take a step forward. He would’ve represented a much-needed left-handed bat and a veteran presence in that clubhouse, with winning experience. And though Kelenic is coming sooner than later, left field has given the Mariners just .167/.286/.328 and 84 wRC+ (league average is 100) worth of production, most notably with Taylor Trammell’s 43.8% strikeout rate.
Feinsand: Here’s my question for the three beat reporters: If the team you cover finds itself in the race come July, will the front office be allowed to add talent before the Trade Deadline? That could be a key as to whether these teams will be able to compete down the stretch.
Rogers: Royals owner John Sherman showed this offseason he was willing to add talent even after a pandemic year in his first season as majority owner. Will that continue in July? I think it's possible, especially if the Royals are right in the mix. Like every team, pitching depth is going to be key down the stretch, and that could be something they target. I also think the team is ecstatic about the top prospects it has on the way to the Majors this year.
Guardado: I think if the Giants are in contention in July, Farhan Zaidi and Co. will definitely look to add, particularly in the bullpen, which has been a little spotty so far. I can't see the Giants giving up any big prospects for a rental, but I think the front office will be opportunistic and be on the lookout for any possible upgrades.
Kramer: I think it depends on cost, really. The Mariners actively pursued Kolten Wong and Tommy La Stella last offseason and ultimately fell short because management didn’t offer a third year to either one, indicating that finances and budget are very much in play for 2021. The Mariners also have spent the past three years accruing and cultivating talent that has blossomed into the Majors’ No. 3 farm system, per MLB Pipeline, so even if they’re in it in July with a desire to win now, they’ll likely be conservative about mortgaging some of that prospect capital come the Trade Deadline. But this is Dipoto, who has never shied from being aggressive. I just don’t think a blockbuster splash -- at this point this season -- would be in the cards.
Footer: Is there one new acquisition on each of these three teams that you think has been the biggest difference maker?
Kramer: Reliever Will Vest. He was a Rule 5 Draft selection, struggled mightily at the onset of Spring Training and looked like he would be shipped back to the Tigers. He’s since earned manager Scott Servais’ trust, is pitching in more high-leverage moments and had a 1.17 ERA over his first 14 outings.
Feinsand: Vest has been great, and the most fascinating thing about him is that the Mariners made that Rule 5 pick exclusively based on data and video because he didn’t pitch in the Minors last year. Fascinating stuff.
Guardado: Anthony DeSclafani. I think he probably has the best chance at staying healthy throughout the season and enjoying a Kevin Gausman-like renaissance in San Francisco.
Rogers: Carlos Santana, without question. We knew this going in, but his presence in the lineup has helped the Royals so much. With his plate discipline, sure, but also his ability to produce -- and produce when it counts. He has 27 hits and 21 RBIs going into Tuesday's game. And he can do damage, too. He leads Royals position players with 1.1 WAR, according to Baseball Reference, and his clubhouse presence has been lauded as much as his bat.
Footer: Are there any other “surprise” teams we haven’t discussed yet?
Feinsand: These three clubs have certainly been surprises, but I would be remiss not to mention the Red Sox. Last year was nothing short of a nightmare for Boston, but Chaim Bloom seemed unfazed with his approach and the results are showing thus far. The Red Sox are atop an AL East that came into the season with three other legit contenders, and to this point, Boston has been better than all of them. That division is going to be a wild one to watch.
My other surprise this season is that, ahead of Tuesday’s slate, no team in the NL East was over .500. I really thought that division was going to be excellent, though it seems that playing each other so often could prevent any one of those teams from really racing out to a good record.
Footer: Let's fast forward to the second week in September. Is the team you cover contending for a playoff spot? Let's do this on a scale of 1-10 -- 1 is "no way" and 10 is "for sure." Where does your team fall?
Kramer: Dipoto has long said that the barometer for a successful 2021 would be “contending for a postseason spot” in the final two months. And while there are some strong foundational pieces in place, the injury concerns of the starting rotation and the questions about the bullpen’s sustainability suggest there could be some hiccups along the way this summer. So, I would say 5, and even that might be optimistic.
Rogers: I'll go with a 7. I'm tempted to go even higher than that because of the division they're in, but man, it's such a long season. Health is going to be important for the Royals, and they're going to have to limit the offenses of Minnesota and Chicago, as they learned this past weekend against the Twins. But they have a talented lineup, a pitching staff that's coming together, a manager who has won before and wants to win again and a front office that won't be afraid to make moves when it needs to.
Guardado: I'll go with a 6. I still think the Dodgers and Padres are better built for the long haul, but the Giants could end up hanging around the Wild Card race. It will be fascinating to see where they stand at the Trade Deadline and how that influences their activity.
Feinsand: Royals: 8 -- Weak division, good well-rounded talent and a front office that could make some moves.
Giants: 6 -- Running with the Dodgers and Padres is going to be quite a challenge, but a Wild Card is possible.
Mariners: 3 -- They’re still one year away, but they’ll be a lot of fun to watch.