The Major League Baseball season is almost one-third of the way through. That’s wild, right? Heck, we are only about 10 games away from the equivalent of the completion of the entire 2020 season. If you’re only a third of the way through something, it’s reasonable to think you have a long way to go, and thus plenty of time to turn matters around if you’re off to a slow start. But sometimes, you’re too far back. Sometimes, a third of the way around the track, it’s clear: Your horse is too far behind.
There are five teams that had legitimate postseason hopes heading into this season that, while maybe not too far behind yet, should probably be incredibly concerned right now. Their seasons aren’t over. But in the words of the great songwriter who turned 80 years old this week, it’s not dark yet … but it’s getting there.
Who should be hitting the panic button? How about these five teams? And can they turn it around?
5th place, 7 games behind the A’s
At this point, noting that the Angels have two of the best and most exciting players in baseball and still can’t get to .500 is rote and tired, but … seriously how can this possibly be happening? The initial urgency and excitement of the Angels having both Mike Trout and a making-it-work-both-ways Shohei Ohtani has faded as the team’s pitching has collapsed once again. Even some of the Angels’ more sensible offseason moves, like bringing in José Quintana, haven’t panned out (he has a 7.92 ERA). This might be the worst pitching staff they’ve had of the Trout era, and that’s saying a lot. Oh, and Trout might be out for two months. Yipes.
Moving forward: All told: 7 games back isn’t that bad, considering how everything has gone. There’s reason to think the Rangers and Mariners will get worse as the season goes along, rather than better, and there’s still a sense the A’s are playing over their heads a bit. If the Angels can just keep their heads above water until Trout comes back -- no small feat! -- maybe he can spur them forward when he returns. But the nightmare scenario here is an Ohtani injury, which, of course, is always lurking dangerously below the surface. If he gets hurt while Trout’s still out, well, this happy baseball story will have turned into a nightmare. And fast.
Blue Jays (23-23)
4th place, 5 1/2 games behind the Rays
The Blue Jays are not a bad team, by any stretch of the imagination. If they were in the NL East rather than the AL East, they’d be right there just outside of first place. The problem of course is that they’re not in the NL East. And in the AL East, being at .500 through 46 games is an excellent way to fall out of the race. The Blue Jays knew the Yankees would be good, and it was reasonable to think the defending AL champion Rays weren’t going anywhere. But the hot start and subsequent resilience of the Red Sox has thrown a huge wrench into Toronto's plans. Suddenly the Blue Jays aren’t just five games out of first place, they’re in fourth place … and five games out of third. Every team that’s that far behind has a hill to climb. The problem for the Jays is that they have three.
Moving forward: Getting George Springer -- you know, the big huge free agent they signed in the offseason who has played in four games this year -- back on the field would be incredibly helpful, but there still doesn’t seem to be a timeline there. The pitching is the issue, as always; after their top guys, there just isn’t much there. They move to Buffalo next week, and they might spend the rest of the season there. Is this season remaining just too much of an anomaly to invest in all that heavily?
5th place, 2 games behind the Mets
Much of this was easy to see coming, wasn’t it? The Nationals were an older team that hoped to get enough contributions from their aging starters and fill-in hitters like Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber to complement their star Trea Turner and their superstar Juan Soto to hang around the NL East. That worked for a while, but they still find themselves in last place, though only 2 games out of first. The problem is that they aren’t even receiving the peak Ted Williams season from Soto they were expecting, and there won’t be an easy game in that division all year.
Moving forward: Maybe it’s time to pull the cord? Soto and Turner obviously aren’t going anywhere, but they’re going to want some reinforcements soon, and a great way to get some would be to trade impending free-agent ace Max Scherzer, the sort of Deadline game-changer teams would be willing to dig deep into their farm system for. It’s tough to see this version of the Nationals competing with their division rivals, even with all those other teams' flaws. It was a noble effort. But the slow starts in the rest of the division have disguised what’s going on here. The mask is about to be lifted.
4th place, 5 games behind the Cardinals
All told, last year was supposed to be the year for Cincinnati. The pandemic was hard on all of us, but it was particularly hard on the Reds, who geared up for a big 2020 only to have no paying customers coming through the turnstiles. Now Trevor Bauer is in Los Angeles, Eugenio Suárez has forgotten how to hit, they don’t have a shortstop and my goodness what has happened to Luis Castillo? The Reds have had buzzard’s luck the past few years. That luck has not changed in 2021.
Moving forward: This division, which increasingly looks like it will have no breakout team, gives them hope. Every team in the NL Central may get a little run this year: It was the Brewers in April, the Cardinals for the first half of this month, and the Cubs now. Will it be the Reds' turn soon? They better hope so, because the Reds, once again, are more in for this year than what may await them in the future. There’s still talent here. Will they ever get it lined up in a row?
5th place, 9 1/2 games behind the White Sox
Did anybody see this coming? The weird thing about the Twins’ start is that, even watching them, it doesn’t feel like it should be this bad. Nelson Cruz is still hitting, Josh Donaldson has been healthy, Byron Buxton has been an absolute monster (when healthy of course). But injuries have ravaged the pitching staff, and the defense, while improved with Andrelton Simmons around, has a way of going off the rails at the worst possible times. The house is starting to collapse on the Twins, who are somehow 1-8 in extra innings. Is it too late to build it back up again?
Moving forward: This division still has wins in it to be had: Detroit, Kansas City and even Cleveland aren’t scaring anyone. There’s a reason the Twins were thought to be favorites, or at the worst co-favorites, of this division. But they are now 9 1/2 games out of first, and 10 out of the Wild Card. That is a deep, deep hole. Buxton will be back soon (hopefully), which will obviously help, but the clock is ticking, and fast. Think of it this way: The Twins would have to win 11 in a row just to get to where the Royals are right now. Does this look like a team about to win 11 in a row? They could be sellers before you know it.