Which slow-starting team should be worried the most?

April 11th, 2023

The 1927 Yankees, widely considered the best baseball team of all time, lost four games in a row in August of that year, and, in late April, four games out of six. You don’t know about this, and probably don’t care. It’s worth noting that no one at the time made much of a big deal out of it, either.

The reason for that is simple: Those skids, relatively short as they were, did not happen at the beginning of the season. The 1927 Yankees started 6-0. (6-0-1, actually.) When you start 6-0, end up winning 110 games and sweep the World Series, nobody cares about a four-game losing streak. No one even notices it.

When you start the season that way, particularly when your team has high expectations, everybody freaks out. That’s clearly the case for five teams, all of whom are considered serious contenders this year but who have gotten off to slow starts this season. Four of these clubs reached the playoffs in 2022, two reached the World Series and one won it all. Yet each enters Tuesday with a sub-.500 record.

It's too early to be too scared. But it’s not too early to be a little scared, no? Here’s a look at these five slow starters, ranked by how worried their fans should be, from least to most.

5. Astros (5-6)

Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker are launching homers and getting on base, and José Abreu looks like a perfect fit. While Alex Bregman is off to a dreadful start, he’ll surely be right as rain by the time Jose Altuve returns from his fractured right thumb, hopefully by early June. And the pitching continues to be a strength. While Luis Garcia has been roughed up so far, the team’s other four starters, including rookie Hunter Brown, all have ERAs below 4.00.

No, losing two of three at home to the Tigers isn’t a good look. But this is still a loaded roster and many people’s pick to reach the World Series yet again. They’ll be fine. Frankly, they already are fine.

4. Mariners (4-7)

It would be a major disappointment for the Mariners, a year after they finally ended their postseason drought, to take a big step backward the very next season, particularly with as aggressive as this front office has been. This slow start has many Mariners fans -- who are not exactly familiar with prosperity, as a concept -- nervous, particularly with the Angels and Rangers looking stronger than some expected out of the gate. The pitching hasn’t been the issue: Outside of Robbie Ray’s flexor strain, the rotation has been exactly what the team was expecting. Instead, it’s the bats. Julio Rodríguez has been stellar, if not spectacular thus far, but the players Seattle brought in to help this offseason have not provided much support. (Teoscar Hernández, Kolten Wong, AJ Pollock, Cooper Hummel and Tommy La Stella were hitting a combined .141/.239/.293 entering Monday.)

But as long as the rotation stays strong -- and can hold up until Ray returns in a month or so -- those guys should hit well enough. And it’s not like the Angels and Rangers are off to scorching starts. When Julio explodes -- and he will -- this team should soar like we all thought.

3. Cardinals (Record: 3-7)

The Cardinals have had more drama -- a lot more drama -- than they are used to having at any point, let alone a week into the season. The verbal tussle between manager Oliver Marmol and center fielder Tyler O’Neill dominated the discussion in the early going, obscuring that the real problem with this team is exactly what skeptics fretted it would be: starting pitching. The Cardinals got only one quality start in their first nine games, and the starter with the lowest ERA, Jack Flaherty, has walked a stunning 13 batters in 10 innings. (That is, uh, unsustainable.) Adam Wainwright should be back in a week or two, but otherwise, there’s no clear help coming, so these pitchers have to figure it out.

Fortunately for them, they’ve got some slack to work with, thanks to a terrific, versatile offense. NL MVP candidates Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt have been joined by Jordan Walker, a Rookie of the Year favorite who might just lap the field. The Cardinals also faced three serious contenders in their first three series: Toronto, Atlanta and Milwaukee. Their next three series are against Colorado, Pittsburgh and Arizona. If they’re still at least three games under .500 after that, then you can worry.

2. Phillies (4-6)

Considering how historically unlikely the Phillies’ World Series appearance was last year, you’d think Phillies fans would have tempered expectations a bit heading into this year. But that’s not exactly how things work in Philly, and the addition of Trea Turner made it clear that the Phillies were looking to return to the Fall Classic this year. So the slow start -- including series losses to the Rangers and Yankees -- may raise some eyebrows. The likely season-ending injury to Rhys Hoskins was a killer, but it’s also not helping that entering Monday, Kyle Schwarber had a .179 OBP, with J.T. Realmuto at .250. Those guys are All-Stars, after all, and with Bryce Harper and Hoskins out, the Phillies need them more than ever.

The real fear here relates to the slow starts of Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, a 1-2 punch that has a combined 6.52 ERA right now. Those guys surely will be fine (right?), but if not -- and if the bullpen continues to be shaky -- the Phillies could have a real problem. The Braves and Mets aren’t going anywhere, and in a tight race, these losses hurt. Even April games count, you know.

1. White Sox (5-6)

Will the AL Central turn out to be a three-team race? If so, the White Sox will need to pick up the pace, after losing home series to both the Giants and Pirates. Despite the (perhaps predictable) injury to Eloy Jiménez, the issue here has been the pitching, with the Pale Hose putting up a dreadful 6.80 ERA over their first 10 games. Dylan Cease looks great, but Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn have allowed 19 earned runs in 19 innings, and the bullpen has been a huge mess.

The White Sox have some room to work with in this division, but the pitching, particularly the bullpen, looks like it might be a headache all year. Of all the teams on this list, the one that missed the playoffs last season appears likeliest to do so again this year.

But then again, there’s nothing wrong with these teams that a five-game winning streak wouldn’t fix. That is, after all, baseball.