Contenders or pretenders? 5 clubs on the fence

May 15th, 2022

Friends would recommend watching “Schitt’s Creek,” and for a while I just couldn’t get there with it. Despite a great cast featuring Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, the first season was a bit awkward and obnoxious. It felt like everybody was trying too hard.

But like a true pro (sitting on my couch, eating cookies), I stuck it out with “Schitt’s Creek,” and I’m glad I did. The characters developed in winsome ways and began to play off each other perfectly. When the sitcom’s sixth and final season basically swept the 2020 Emmys, I was happy for that band of misfits who had pulled it together to become a winning team.

That kind of thing happens in baseball all the time, which is why it’s never wise to totally count out a team with a ton of talent until or unless the math does it for us.

So far in 2022, there are five teams that were widely pegged as contenders who have, for one reason or another, fallen flat. All five of these teams entered the weekend with records that would place them outside the playoff picture if the season was over.

But the season hasn’t ended. So can these five teams make like a certain TV show and get it together? Let’s discuss.


The situation: The South Siders entered 2022 as clear favorites to repeat in the American League Central. But their roster was raided by injury early, while the Twins played well enough to seize the top spot. Lance Lynn’s absence has made Dallas Keuchel’s 6.86 ERA stand out all the more, the bullpen has allowed a lot of traffic (1.38 WHIP) and the offense has lacked thump (.354 SLG, 24th in MLB).

Reason for optimism: We’ve seen some of late, with third baseman Yoán Moncada and reliever Joe Kelly having returned from the IL and Luis Robert coming alive at the plate after a slow start that included a groin injury. Michael Kopech has made a seamless transition to the rotation (0.93 ERA in six starts) and Lynn will be back soon from a knee issue. As the Sox get healthier, relievers settle into their expected roles and the bats reach their optimum levels, there is no reason why they can’t hang with a Twins team that still has to prove its staying power.

Reasons for skepticism: Eloy Jimenez’s torn right hamstring keeps him out for the foreseeable future, which affects the shape of the lineup. Liam Hendriks has had an uncharacteristically erratic season so far and, if he’s not his dominant self, that affects the shape of the ‘pen. The biggest issue for the Sox is if the injury bug continues to bite throughout the year or important pieces are underperforming, their farm system might not have the depth to make a positive impact via callups or midseason trades.


The situation: The defending champs lost three of their first five games of the season and haven’t gotten back over .500 since. The struggles of veteran starter Charlie Morton (5.65 ERA, 76 ERA+) have hampered the rotation, while outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall and shortstop Dansby Swanson have been among the worst-performing regulars in the National League. While the Mets have surged to first place in the NL East, the Braves are disappointingly ranked in the middle of the pack in runs per game (4.15, tied for 14th in MLB) and runs allowed per game (4.48, 23rd in MLB).

Reasons for optimism: Ronald Acuña Jr. made an earlier-than-expected return from a gruesome right knee injury and, despite a recent bout with a groin strain, has made an instant impact (.282/.391/.487 slash). The expected stats indicate that Ozuna, Duvall, Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies and Swanson have all experienced some bad luck. In fact, the difference between the Braves’ slugging percentage (.398) and expected SLG (.493) is the largest of any NL team. Morton has a long track record that suggests he’ll contribute positively to a rotation in which Max Fried continues to grow into ace status and Kyle Wright has provided a boost. The bullpen looked good on paper and has been effective in reality, with the 10th-best WHIP (1.17) and seventh-best average against (.214) in MLB. The Braves proved last year that they can overcome a sluggish start.

Reasons for skepticism: It was one thing for the Braves to claw their way back to the top of the NL East in 2021, when it was the most disappointing division in baseball. But the Mets have upped the ante this year. If Morton is washed or the rotation needs other fixes AND the offense doesn’t get going, that might be too much for even GM Alex Anthopoulos to fix in what figures to be a seller’s trade market.


The situation: The Phils of recent vintage are evidence that you can’t just buy your way into the playoffs. They have the second-longest postseason drought in MLB and the longest in the NL. In beefing up the lineup around reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper with Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber, Philadelphia had appeared poised to bash its way into contention this year. But Harper, while productive, is playing through a right elbow UCL tear that has limited him to DH duties on a team that already had plenty of DH types to begin with. And the pitching staff entered the weekend ranked 22nd in MLB in ERA (3.97).

Reasons for optimism: The offense has been among the best in baseball on measure (.747 OPS, second in MLB) but has struggled with runners in scoring position (.714 OPS, 19th in MLB). Positive regression to the mean for what is a very good collection of bats would help the Phillies improve on their lackluster record in one-run games. The pitching staff is performing better than the raw ERA (and one particularly noteworthy blowup against the Mets) would indicate. Several key members of that staff have better expected ERAs than raw ERAs -- including rotation linchpins Zack Wheeler (3.15 vs. 4.26), Aaron Nola (2.51 vs. 3.83) and Zach Eflin (2.76 vs. 4.50) and bullpen arm José Alvarado (3.24 vs. 7.45).

Reasons for skepticism: Harper’s injury, which is not going away on its own anytime soon, doesn’t affect his swing but does significantly affect the way the daily lineup is constructed. The defense did not project to be good and, well, it hasn’t been (minus-nine defensive runs saved). That doesn’t help a team that doesn’t have a lot of margin for error.


The situation: After last year’s 90-win club finished just two games out of a playoff spot and big moves were made for reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez, the Mariners appeared poised to make a real run at the AL West title. Alas, it’s the Angels who have surged to contend with the Astros, while the M’s have been in a prolonged funk the last two and a half weeks.

Reasons for optimism: This team did get off to a promising 11-6 start, so you don’t have to squint too hard to see it getting back to that level of play for sustained stretches this summer. Highly touted rookie Julio Rodríguez appears to be finding himself at the plate (.311/.363/.432 slash since April 22), and the advanced metrics insist that Winker (.371 expected weighted on-base average vs. .276 actual wOBA) will turn it around to augment a lineup in which Ty France and J.P. Crawford are thriving. Young George Kirby and Logan Gilbert have both flashed their potential in the rotation. Last year’s squad went 4-11 in mid-May, only to go 68-46 the rest of the way. This team can absolutely rattle off a similar run.

Reasons for skepticism: Start with Ray, who pitched better in his last start but whose underlying advanced metrics remain decidedly underwhelming. If he’s just not right (and if Gilbert’s early success gets undermined by a rising walk rate), do the Mariners have the pitching to be a serious contender? It’s also jarring to see the highly touted Jarred Kelenic continue to struggle at the plate, and he's now been optioned to Triple-A. And with Mitch Haniger out for months with a right high ankle sprain and Kyle Lewis not expected back for another couple weeks at the earliest, the Mariners lack reinforcements. Unfortunately, the team with the longest postseason drought in North American professional sports has a lot to prove and, to date, the M’s haven’t proven it.


The situation: A Boston ballclub that came within two wins of the World Series last year now has a record that puts it among the dregs of MLB. Though the roster did not undergo a massive renovation from last year and the Sox made a splash in signing Trevor Story, the lineup has been lackluster, Chris Sale has been absent from the rotation and the ninth inning has been a mess.

Reasons for optimism: The offense has been carried by Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez, all of whom have OPS+ marks at least 40% better than league average. Give the Red Sox even league-average offense collectively from the other six spots in the order and you have a totally different team. There could be options within the system in the form of outfielder Jarren Duran and first baseman Triston Casas to improve the lineup depth, and perhaps Story can turn it around after a dreadful start. The Boston bullpen is a mess, but we’ve seen other clubs fix their ‘pens on the fly. Sale and James Paxton will return from injury eventually to give the rotation innings it desperately needs.

Reasons for skepticism: Math, for one. The Red Sox entered the weekend not just 12 games back in the brutal AL East, but also 5 1/2 games back in what is and will continue to be a crowded Wild Card race. The Red Sox are chasing clubs with better depth and fewer questions -- and having Sale’s return from a rib cage injury delayed by a personal medical issue sure doesn’t help their cause. Story’s rough start and Bogaert’s unresolved contract issue hang over this club in a significant way.