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Top of the Order: The Thin Twins Lineup Can’t Hit Righties

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

Three out of every four FanGraphs and RotoGraphs staff members picked the Twins to make the playoffs, with 18 of us predicting them to win the AL Central. (Yes, I was one of them.) And who could blame us? Sure, Minnesota lost Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda from last year’s division-winning team, but the Twins would also get a full season of Chris Paddack, a revamped and improved bullpen, and — hopefully — a full year of Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa, and Royce Lewis anchoring what looked like a strong lineup.

So, naturally, those plans went awry almost right away. The bullpen has been ravaged by injuries, Lewis hurt himself on Opening Day and will be out for yet another extended stretch, and Correa, who was off to a strong start after recovering from his plantar fasciitis that bugged him all of last year, is now on the IL with a strained oblique. Not helping matters is that Buxton isn’t hitting, striking out 36.1% of the time with an anemic wRC+ of 51. The injuries to Lewis and Correa (not to mention Max Kepler, though his stay looks like it’ll be for the minimum 10 days) have eroded Minnesota’s depth, and Buxton’s poor performance is emblematic of the lack of production from the rest of the lineup.

Entering Thursday, the 6-11 Twins had the league’s third-worst wRC+, at 80, and that’s with Correa’s 165 wRC+ in 44 plate appearances. Young lefties Edouard Julien (99 wRC+) and Alex Kirilloff (151 wRC+) are doing their part, which may make you think (as I did when I started researching this column) that the Twins are awfully exposed against left-handed pitching. But they’re actually doing fine (95 wRC+) against southpaws, with both of those lefties beating up on same-handed pitching, albeit in small samples. Additionally, Buxton’s struggles have not carried over to his 13 plate appearances against lefties, and Ryan Jeffers and Manuel Margot are also hammering them.

You probably know where this is heading, then. The Twins are horrible against righties (76 wRC+). In fact, the bumbling White Sox (73 wRC+) are the only team that has been worse against righties than Minnesota. Buxton has a 31 wRC+ across 48 plate appearances vs. righties, and Willi Castro’s 50 wRC+ against righties would look good only in comparison to the marks of some of his teammates and because it is significantly better than his -24 wRC+ vs. lefties. Meanwhile, Margot, Christian Vázquez, and Kepler have all been essentially useless against righty pitching, with wRC+ numbers below zero.

So, what exactly can the Twins do? It’s an uninspiring answer, but not much. Correa and Lewis won’t be back anytime soon. Buxton is going to be given every chance to swing his way out of his slump, and as long as he stays healthy, the Twins should be cautiously optimistic that he’ll turn things around. Aside from that, their best hope is that Kepler will be much more productive when he returns from his knee contusion, which may well have affected his hitting. Matt Wallner was optioned to Triple-A after starting his season terribly (2-for-25 with 17 strikeouts), and surely there’s hope that he’ll come back looking more like the guy who had a 144 wRC+ in 254 plate appearances last year. Otherwise, there won’t really be any saviors rising up from within. Austin Martin is already up in the majors, and Brooks Lee hurt his back and has yet to play a minor league game this year. The Twins will have to make due with what they have until guys get healthy or they find a way to swing a trade or two sometime this summer. In the meantime, it’s not looking great.

Meet the Mets’ Breakout Reliever

Early season leaderboards are always fun, and in just about all cases they shouldn’t be viewed as indicative of what’s to come for the remaining 90% of the season. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take note of surprising players at or near the top of them. So, who leads all relievers in strikeout percentage? The resurgent Craig Kimbrel? The hellacious Mason Miller? Nope, atop the list is Reed Garrett, who didn’t even make the Mets’ Opening Day roster. He wasn’t even one of the last cuts; he was optioned on March 15, a full two weeks before the season started. But since getting the call on April 1 he’s been nearly unhittable, with a ridiculously low wOBA allowed of .177.

Garrett, 31, put up a 7.11 ERA in 44.1 MLB innings before this year, and there wasn’t really anything that we were publicly aware of that made anyone think a breakout was coming. But it’s not hard to see where Garrett’s success has come now that we’ve got the data. He’s deemphasizing his two fastballs, throwing his four-seamer and sinker a combined 26% of the time, with his sweeper, splitter, and slider giving hitters fits.

The splitter — which he’s nearly tripled in usage since 2022 — has been especially lethal, with two-thirds of swings against the pitch coming up empty. The radically different pitch mix makes for changes that look sticky and should allow Garrett to continue his rapid ascent up the bullpen hierarchy. Once viewed as an up-and-down pitcher by virtue of having an option remaining, he looks here to stay.

Leiter Gets Lit Up in Poor Debut

Well, not every MLB debut can go swimmingly. Jack Leiter’s first game as a Ranger started off well enough, with two strikeouts in a scoreless first. But the wheels came off soon after; he allowed four runs in the second and three more in the third and his day ended after just 11 outs.

To my eye, the stuff looked just fine, with his fastball up to 98 mph and averaging 96, but he just didn’t have feel for his offspeed pitches. Hitters really weren’t fooled overall. His 28% CSW rate was right at league average, but it was only 21% on his curveball, slider, and changeup, which made up 47 of his 85 pitches.

Whether Leiter sticks around in the rotation remains to be seen. The Rangers already have six healthy starters as it is, and Cody Bradford’s IL stay should be a short one. And let’s not forget that Tyler Mahle, Max Scherzer, and Jacob deGrom are all lurking for returns later in the season as well.

Top of the Order: Suzuki’s Oblique Injury Strains Cubs’ Depth

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

Craig Counsell’s new team has come out of the gate strong, sitting above .500 17 games in. However, 15 of those 17 games featured Seiya Suzuki, who the team will now be without for a significant period of time after Suzuki strained his right oblique during Sunday’s game against the Mariners. An injury to his opposite oblique kept Suzuki out six weeks in 2023, and it looks like this one will keep him out at least two-thirds as long.

The outfielder has improved every year he’s been in the majors, performing solidly as a rookie (116 wRC+) in 2022 before taking a step forward with a 126 wRC+ in 2023, including a 149 wRC+ in the second half. It looked as if he was building upon those second-half adjustments in the early going this year, with a 141 wRC+ through his first 68 plate appearances, including three home runs. Things looked great under the hood too, with a hard-hit rate above 50% (in the 92nd percentile), and an xwOBA, xBA, and xSLG all in the 70th percentile or higher.

Suzuki isn’t an easily replaceable player. Jed Hoyer and co. have built an enviably deep farm system, but the corresponding move was for post-prospect outfielder Alexander Canario. Pete Crow-Armstrong has struggled in Triple-A this season, especially since returning from elbow soreness, which isn’t exactly an encouraging follow-up to the center fielder looking overmatched in his first big league action last year. Fellow Top 100 prospect Owen Caissie is getting his first taste of the minors’ highest level, and Kevin Alcántara and Matt Shaw are both in Double-A for now.

Without a shiny prospect savior to fill in for Suzuki, Counsell will instead look to do what he does best: mix and match. Superutilityman Christopher Morel played every day even with Suzuki healthy, trading in his plethora of gloves for a time split between third base and DH in the hopes of making him more consistent at the hot corner. That hasn’t exactly come to pass, with Morel already worth -2 defensive runs saved, though obviously all sorts of small sample size caveats apply. More troubling is that he isn’t making up for it with the bat — he’s mired in a 1-for-21 slump since April 10, lowering his wRC+ to 86 after a very strong start.

That could lead to more playing time for lower-upside bats like Garrett Cooper, Mike Tauchman, and Nick Madrigal, and probably Canario, since it feels unlikely he was brought up just to ride the pine. Counsell mentioned in Seattle that Morel is dealing with a finger injury. If the Cubs think that injury timing up with his slump is more than a coincidental development, they can of course IL him as well, even if that puts even more of an onus on current stalwarts Ian Happ, Nico Hoerner, Dansby Swanson, Michael Busch, and Cody Bellinger. One x-factor could be Patrick Wisdom, who strikes out a ton but has prodigious power. He’s currently rehabbing a back injury in Triple-A and could be back any day now; he’s got flexibility to play all four corner positions.

The Rangers’ Cavalcade of Returning Pitchers, Part One

He’s not Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom or Tyler Mahle, but the Rangers got a big boost to their rotation when they activated last-minute free agent signee Michael Lorenzen from the IL on Monday. He’s a perfectly useful fourth or fifth starter, and he fit that bill in his first start of the year. He threw five shutout innings in the Rangers’ win, though he walked five and threw just 58% of his 79 pitches for strikes. Lorenzen and his $4.5 million contract aren’t really there to pitch exceedingly well, though; he’s there to raise the floor, give the Rangers a chance to win, and perhaps slide to the bullpen later in the season.

Joining Lorenzen in the majors will be Jack Leiter, who is set to make his big league debut on Thursday for at least a spot start and perhaps a more permanent role. The former Vanderbilt standout and second overall pick hasn’t had an easy path to the bigs, following up a 5.54 ERA in 2022 with a 5.19 mark in 2023, making just one rough start in Triple-A. That didn’t necessarily put Leiter in great position to be knocking on the door, but he finally got his control in order, slicing his previous walk rate almost in half as it dipped down to 5.3%.

With those two in the fray and Mahle and Scherzer both recovering well (Scherzer’s timeline, in fact, appears to be accelerated from what was anticipated this winter, and he could be back as soon as early next month), the Rangers rotation will soon theoretically transform from one that’s treading water into a real strength for the club. Assuming health, Nathan Eovaldi, Scherzer, Mahle, and Jon Gray should all have rotation spots locked in, with a spot left for one of Leiter, Lorenzen, Andrew Heaney, and Dane Dunning. Lorenzen, Heaney, and Dunning all have bullpen experience as recently as last year’s playoffs, so a transition for any or all of them wouldn’t be asking anything new of them and could turn the relief unit into a real strength. Any contributions from deGrom would be gravy; he told the New York Post’s Joel Sherman last October that he’s aiming to be ready for August, and no recent developments appear to have changed that plan.

Yelich’s Back Strikes Back

Christian Yelich landed on the injured list yesterday (his placement is retroactive to April 13) with back trouble. Back injuries are unfortunately nothing new for the Brewers’ left fielder, who hit the IL due to that ailment twice in 2021; his barking back also kept him out of action on a day-to-day basis in 2022 and 2023. The former MVP was enjoying an excellent start to 2024, with a 205 wRC+ backed up by a career-low strikeout rate and a barrel rate that trailed only his MVP runner-up season in 2019.

Yelich’s stint on the IL should mean more playing time for defensive standout Blake Perkins, who is playing well in his sophomore campaign; the switch-hitter entered Tuesday’s action with a 177 wRC+. Outside of Jackson Chourio, Pat Murphy will probably rotate through the other outfielders frequently, with Perkins joined by lefty Sal Frelick and righty Joey Wiemer. Owen Miller, Oliver Dunn, and Jake Bauers could also slide from the infield to the outfield if needed.

Top of the Order: Mason Miller Makes The A’s (Sometimes) Worth Watching

Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

You don’t need me to tell you that the A’s aren’t a good team, nor a particularly entertaining one. Esteury Ruiz, arguably the club’s most fun position player, is down in Triple-A looking to build on his spring training success and become a more consistent everyday player than he was last year, when he led the majors with 67 steals but also had a wRC+ of just 86 and was, as far as DRS is concerned, horrible in the outfield (-20). That leaves the A’s without many players worth tuning in for, with the roster littered with post-prime veterans, waiver claims, and former prospects who’ve lost their shine. But Mason Miller’s career is just getting going, and it’s delightful to watch.

The flame-throwing righty burst onto the major league scene last year with a 3.38 ERA in four starts, including seven no-hit innings against the Mariners in a May outing that was just the third of his career. But a minor UCL sprain kept him out until September, when he was used in two or three inning spurts, topping out at 54 pitches. That perhaps foreshadowed how he’d be used this season, with David Forst saying at the Winter Meetings that he’d likely work out of the bullpen in an effort to limit his innings (and injuries). In the very early going, the move has not only kept Miller healthy, but allowed him to turn on another gear. He’s now pitching with absolute dominance as a reliever instead of teasing it as a starter. Read the rest of this entry »

Top of the Order: Mizuhara Set To Be Charged

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

In one of the quicker conclusions to a headline-grabbing baseball story I can think of, Shohei Ohtani’s former interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, is set to be charged with bank fraud; he’ll reportedly surrender to authorities on Friday, with an arraignment date still to be scheduled.

Mizuhara’s alleged transgressions, which were detailed in a federal affidavit filed Thursday, were even more extensive than had previously been reported. According to the complaint, federal investigators claim that Mizuhara stole more than $16 million from Ohtani (or “Victim A,” as he’s referred to in the document), rather than the initially reported $4.5 million. Read the rest of this entry »

Top of the Order: It’s Holliday Season in Baltimore

Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

Finally, after what felt like the longest less than two weeks of our lives, the moment has arrived: The Baltimore Orioles are calling up shortstop Jackson Holliday, the top prospect in baseball. He will make his MLB debut with the Orioles as soon as Wednesday, sliding in at second base because Baltimore already has Gunnar Henderson, another former no. 1 overall prospect, at shortstop.

The 20-year-old Holliday exceeded even the rosiest of expectations in spring training, hitting .311/.354/.600 with two home runs in 48 plate appearances. But he didn’t make the Opening Day roster despite all that, with general manager Mike Elias citing Holliday’s performance against lefties in the minors and his need to further acclimate to the keystone as reasons to delay his big league career. But, with Holliday off to a bonkers start at Triple-A (.333/.482/.605 with a 189 wRC+) and the Orioles, at 6-4, in need of a jolt, now was the right time to bring him up.

Like both Adley Rutschman and Henderson before him, Holliday is great at everything but perhaps not truly elite at anything. No, he doesn’t have the raw power or speed of Wyatt Langford, the American League’s other tantalizing rookie, but Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin grade Holliday as a future five-tool star with plenty of development still ahead of him.

Ben Clemens wrote that it would be the wrong decision for Baltimore to keep Holliday down past the Super Two deadline (typically 30 or so days into the season), not only because it would be a bad-faith gesture to Holliday, but also because it would be a terrible baseball move. With the Orioles’ offense looking more good than great in the early going, they’re making the right choice to call him up now: Holliday is simply better than the players he’s replacing; Jorge Mateo is best used as a super-utility man and Ramón Urías has struggled to start the season. Moreover, the O’s had little service-time incentive to keep him stashed in the minors; if he wins the AL Rookie of the Year award, they will be rewarded with an additional draft pick and Holliday will receive a full year of service, no matter how long he’s on the big league roster. Assuming he’s ready for the majors, the Orioles stand to benefit more from having him on the roster for as long as possible.

So now, and apologies for what you’re about to read… What a bright time, it’s the right time to call up Holliday.

Blake Snell Will Be Fine

From a results standpoint, Blake Snell’s Giants debut was not a good one. Facing the Nationals at home on Monday, he allowed three runs on three hits and two walks while striking out five, and it took him 72 pitches to get through three innings. But with his late signing, lack of a true spring training, and relatively quick ramp-up, San Francisco should consider the start a muted success. Sure, the Giants lost 8-1, but Snell got through the outing without injury — something that is hardly a guarantee for any pitcher, especially so far this season — and he should be built up for about 90 or so pitches his next time around. Overall, that’s encouraging.

Besides, it wasn’t all bad when you take a look under the hood. Snell’s stuff didn’t look too far off from the arsenal that won him his second Cy Young award last year. As you’d expect, his average velocity for all four of his pitches was down, but none alarmingly so: His fastball dipped just 0.1 mph, while his slider had the biggest velocity drop, at 1.1 mph. As a result, his spin rates also decreased, but again, this shouldn’t be concerning.

Additionally, Snell got 11 misses on 25 swings (44%), and 33% of his pitches resulted in either a called strike or a whiff; both rates were higher than his marks from last year. The quality of contact against him was anemic as well, with the seven balls in play averaging an exit velocity of just 80 mph. This is who Snell is: an elite contact suppressor and whiff-inducer who will more often than not run into high pitch counts because he avoids the middle of the plate.

As recently as a month ago, I was lamenting the state of the Giants rotation, but things are looking up now. Snell joins Logan Webb to give them a formidable frontline duo, one that is as strong as any other in baseball. Meanwhile, their decision to convert offseason acquisition Jordan Hicks into a starter has gone better than anyone could’ve expected, and they also have top prospect Kyle Harrison. And let’s not forget that San Francisco’s staff has more reinforcements on the way. Alex Cobb was initially on track to return from offseason hip surgery ahead of schedule, perhaps as soon as sometime this month, before he suffered a mild flexor strain; the setback will keep him out until early May. Lefty Robbie Ray, the 2021 AL Cy Young winner, could make at least a handful of late-season starts once he’s back from Tommy John surgery; and Tristan Beck and Sean Hjelle could be factors as well.

To be clear, this team still has flaws — its offense has been one of the worst in the National League and its relievers collectively were below replacement level entering Tuesday — but Snell and the starting staff will be just fine.

The Free-Swinging Giancarlo Stanton

I’m confident in saying Snell is the same player he was at last season’s peak, but I have no idea how to evaluate Giancarlo Stanton, the most enigmatic player in baseball. He is still hitting the crap out of the ball despite overhauling his conditioning in the offseason and coming to camp noticeably slimmer, and his surface-level numbers so far are good: .250/.268/.550 with three home runs and a 134 wRC+.

But as the OBP foreshadows, Stanton’s plate discipline has eroded, and I’m just not sure he can make this work. He’s chasing 45.7% of the pitches he sees outside the zone, which is the worst rate of his career by 15 points. His contact rate is also down, and his overall swing percentage is above 50% for the first time in his career. Stanton has always been streaky, but usually his plate discipline is indicative of where his results will be.

The concern here is that this solid start is nothing more than luck, that Stanton is flailing but essentially running into a few homers with guesswork. If that’s the case, it might be wise for pitchers to stop throwing him anything near the zone to see if he’ll keep chasing. In the meantime, it’s too soon to know what to make of Stanton.

The 40-Year-Old Legend

I really thought it might be curtains on Jesse Chavez’s career when he got rocked in his first spring training outing, and I really, really thought it was when the White Sox released him last month. After all, if he couldn’t crack the bullpen that sure looked like it was going to be the worst in baseball, whose would he join?

Well, of course, I discounted both the Braves connection and his apparent comfort pitching in Atlanta. Soon after being released, Chavez signed a minor league deal, and later had his contract selected to give him a spot on the Opening Day roster. And as he’s done whenever he’s worn an Atlanta uniform, he’s piling up outs.

The 40-year-old has allowed just one run in 6.1 innings across three appearances, helping to save the rest of the bullpen in each outing. Indeed, he’s still kicking in what’s set to be his last season, all while pitching with guile and a funky arm action (and wearing sunglasses no matter the lighting or time of day). Each outing brings him closer to retirement, but I’m convinced Chavez’s vibes will live forever.

Well, That Didn’t Last Long

Some quick finality on the Julio Teheran signing, which I wrote about on Friday: He was DFA’d after just one start, in which his former Braves squad trounced him for four runs on just eight outs, with six hits and a couple of walks to boot.

We’ve since learned that his $2.5 million contract is not, in fact, for the full $2.5 million, but that it’s rather a split contract that pays him at that rate in the majors but only $150,000 in the minors. Still, the MLB split makes it implausible that anyone claims him, and it also makes it a near-guarantee that he accepts an outright assignment to Triple-A, since he’d be forfeiting his right to earn that hefty rate if he’s needed back in the bigs again.

Top of the Order: Trevor Story’s Injury Tests Boston’s Thin Infield Depth

Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

The Red Sox trounced the Angels on Sunday to bring their record to an excellent 8-3 in the early going. But the night before, they lost shortstop Trevor Story to a significant injury that could end his season, when he subluxated his shoulder diving for a grounder. Despite his slow start (67 wRC+), things were looking up for Story. He was fully healthy and at his natural position for the first time since he joined the Red Sox; he had slid over to second upon signing with the team ahead of 2022, when Xander Bogaerts was still around, and played just 43 games last year after undergoing internal brace surgery on a torn UCL in his elbow.

Indeed, Boston entered this season optimistic that Story’s health and production would return. And after offensive anchor Justin Turner left in free agency, the Sox were relying on Story’s righty bat to balance out a heavily left-handed middle of the lineup, which features Rafael Devers, Masataka Yoshida, and Triston Casas. Without Story, that job falls mostly on Tyler O’Neill’s chiseled shoulders.

Story’s injury is the second that Boston’s middle infield will have to weather; offseason acquisition Vaughn Grissom was set to play second base, but he strained his hamstring early in spring training and isn’t expected to be back until late April at the earliest. That leaves a ragtag middle infield, with two more lefties, Enmanuel Valdez at second and David Hamilton at short, expected to see most of the playing time up the middle. Righties Pablo Reyes and Bobby Dalbec will fill in against tough lefties, though the latter is more of a corner infielder. Valdez has been anemic in his first 35 plate appearances this year — his wRC+ is -13 — but he was solid in much more extensive rookie campaign last year, with a 102 wRC+. Hamilton’s start has been the opposite story: He mashed his first homer on Sunday in his first game back up after posting a 25 wRC+ in his first 39 big league plate appearances in 2023.

Both are decent role players and average-ish hitters (Hamilton is a 50-grade hitter, Valdez 45), with Hamilton also possessing blazing speed. But even when Grissom comes back, at least one of them will have to be a bit more than that somewhere on the middle infield. More importantly, O’Neill needs to keep hitting something like he is (I don’t think he’ll keep up his 73-homer pace), and Yoshida needs to get going.

Unlike the Red Sox, the Nationals are doing what was generally expected of them: playing .333 ball. What does intrigue me, though, is how the defense has been aligned.

Despite keeping Victor Robles around instead of non-tendering him, he was relegated to the bench to start the year, only picking up a couple of starts (one against a lefty, and one with Jesse Winker out due to illness) before hitting the IL after suffering a hamstring injury in that second game. Instead, the Nationals not only rostered two lefty-hitting, outfield-playing non-roster invitees in Winker and Eddie Rosario, but they’re starting them both — with Rosario in center!

Rosario is 32, not fleet of foot (13th-percentile sprint speed), and not a very good outfielder; he was solid last year in left field but graded out negatively there in 2022, and of course center requires covering more ground. Even with Robles hurt and Jacob Young (who profiles more as a fourth outfielder-type) on the roster in his stead, playing Rosario up the middle doesn’t really make much sense. Offseason signee Joey Gallo is only 30, and he is more experienced and has performed better out there than Rosario has in his career — Gallo has five defensive runs saved in 463 innings patrolling center — but he has been relegated to first base entirely so far, with Joey Meneses as the regular designated hitter.

In a vacuum, I can understand why Washington wants to keep Lane Thomas in one spot; he’s the only outfielder on the roster who starts against righties and lefties alike, and his strong arm plays well in right. I can also understand, in a vacuum, wanting Meneses at DH, leaving Gallo (the only other player with extensive experience there) at first; Meneses isn’t a good first baseman! But if those decisions lead to playing an average-at-best left fielder in center field, one of the most consequential defensive positions on the diamond, they’re not the right ones.

One position switch that is paying off, though, is Spencer Steer’s multi-season willingness to keep switching positions. Ostensibly, he’s a third baseman; that’s where he played most of his innings in his first big-league action in 2022 and where he started out last year. But when Elly De La Cruz and Matt McLain came up, Steer slid across the diamond to first with Joey Votto sidelined by shoulder surgery. When Votto came back and Christian Encarnacion-Strand came up? No problem, Steer made 13 starts at second and played the outfield for the first time outside of nine innings in 2022.

All that bouncing around in 2023 didn’t affect his bat, as he finished sixth in Rookie of the Year balloting and put up a 118 wRC+. But having a full year of experience at the plate and settling in as the full-time left fielder could have Steer really turning a corner here in 2024. His 237 wRC+ is of course unsustainable, and it’s just nine games, but he’s walking at the same rate of over 10% and striking out less. He also has 10% of last year’s barrel total (three already) in just 6% of the plate appearances.

Top of the Order: Josh Jung’s Injury Weakens the Rangers’ Strength

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

Injuries are unfortunately nothing new in Josh Jung’s short major league career. The Rangers third baseman emerged during the first half of last season as one of baseball’s top young talents until a fractured thumb in early August kept him out of action for six weeks and limited him to 122 games. His overall numbers — 110 wRC+ and 2.5 WAR — were strong enough for him to finish fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting despite a rough final stretch upon his return; he had a 38 wRC+ in his 54 plate appearances to close out the regular season. He rebounded just in time for the postseason, hitting three home runs and posting a 128 wRC+ in 70 plate appearances as he helped lead Texas to the franchise’s first World Series championship.

Despite missing almost all of spring training with a calf strain, Jung looked poised to take another step forward in 2024, coming out of the gates hot with a .412/.474/.941 batting line in his first 19 plate appearances. But regrettably, that potential breakout came to a crashing halt on Monday when Jung was hit by a pitch at which he swung and broke his wrist. The injury requires surgery that could keep him out of action for six to 10 weeks.

The Rangers, who over the last two offseasons decided not to significantly augment their offense through trades and free agency, have interesting internal options to fill in for Jung. Infielder Justin Foscue was called up from Triple-A earlier this week when Jung was placed on the injured list. Foscue, who can also play first and second, is not a premier prospect, but he grades out as a 70 hitter and has walked more than he’s struck out at Triple-A, making for a high-floor hitter who can slide in nicely at the bottom of the order. For now at least, it looks like he and Ezequiel Duran will be on the short side of platoons in the corner infield with first baseman Jared Walsh, who is filling in for the injured Nathaniel Lowe, and Josh Smith at third.

Jung’s injury is a big blow for a Texas team that was relying on its potent lineup to carry the load while four of its starting pitchers — Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Tyler Mahle, and Michael Lorenzen — work their way back from injuries of their own. That was never going to be easy in the competitive American League West, but the Rangers had the offensive talent to make it work. They were banking on Jung to build upon his solid rookie campaign, top prospect Wyatt Langford to make an immediate impact, and Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Adolis García to play up to their All-Star pedigrees. Instead, with Lowe and now Jung hurt, the Rangers are not at full strength on either side of the ball. Their margin for error in the playoff race, which was already expected to be thin, just got even smaller.

The Mets have unmatched vibes thus far this season, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Fortunately for them, they scratched out a win in game two of their doubleheader against the Tigers on Thursday at Citi Field despite being no-hit into the eighth inning. But they’re still a 1-5 team that has been rained out three times already this year.

That said, I’m not here to talk about the Mets coming out of the gate colder than any team besides the Marlins; I’m here to talk about Julio Teheran. The veteran right-hander debuted in 2011, and since then he’s pitched in every major league season except for 2022. While he’ll probably always be best known for his nine seasons in Atlanta, he’s bounced around quite a bit after leaving the Braves. He pitched 10 atrocious games for the Angels in 2020, made one start for the Tigers in 2021 before going down with injury, and delivered 71.2 perfectly decent innings (0.3 WAR) with the Brewers last year.

With that underwhelming of a recent track record combined with his age (33) and lack of stuff (his sinker averaged under 90 mph last year), it was surprising to see the Mets sign him to a $2.5 million contract for the remainder of the season, even though he couldn’t make the Orioles out of spring training. With the Mets in the highest tax bracket, the $2.5 million contract will effectively cost them $5.25 million, assuming he’s a Met for the entire season.

But the Mets have the financial muscle to flex, and they’ll continue to make moves like this ad infinitum as long as Steve Cohen will sign the checks. Teheran is an entirely unsexy pitcher, but he gives the Mets something that teams need more and more desperately in each successive season: relatively high-floor innings. He’s probably not better than prospects like Christian Scott and José Buttó — and, frankly, I probably would have just gone with one of those two instead — but depth isn’t a bad thing, even if one has to overpay for it. (Teheran will cost the Mets more, including taxes, than the Rangers will pay Michael Lorenzen.) As the Mets look to rebound from a rough start without ace Kodai Senga, they’re taking the quantity approach to pitching, and pitchers like Teheran go a long way in solving the season-long innings puzzle.

Top of the Order: I Love Watching Bryce Harper Hit Dingers

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

Fun with small samples: Bryce Harper entered Tuesday hitting .000/.154/.000 over his first 13 plate appearances of the season, with five strikeouts. After his second career three-homer game on Tuesday, he’s now at .200/.294/.800, good for a WRC+ increase of 198 points (from -34 to 164).

Harper put the Phillies on his back in a 9-4 win over the Reds, driving in six runs with the three homers — one a grand slam — that combined for 1,209 feet of distance and left the bat at 108, 103, and 108 mph. The grand slam, a left-on-left blast against Brent Suter, made the score at the time 8-1 and allowed the Phillies to cruise to a win using just two pitchers — an important reprieve for an overworked bullpen. Not a bad day on the job, and a much-needed good one for a Philadelphia team that entered the day 1-3 on the young season.

There’s just something so aesthetically appealing about watching Harper hit homers, especially into the raucous crowd at Citizens Bank Park. His long balls aren’t the hardest hit in baseball, nor do they travel the farthest. But seeing his ferocious swing unload and send a ball deep into the Philadelphia night is an unmatched view across the sport. It’s the antithesis of my favorite right-handed home runs to watch: the liners that Giancarlo Stanton smokes. Stanton suddenly turns his hips, flicks his wrists, and launches absolute rockets with what looks like no effort whatsoever. Harper puts his entire body into every swing, hurling his bat into the path of the incoming projectile, torquing what feels like the weight of multiple people to send a ball into flight.

Harper’s future Hall of Fame career has not been without its trials and tribulations. He’s always been a good or great hitter, but there have certainly been seasons where he was more the former than the latter. That’s an awfully high standard to hold him to, but when you’re a first-overall phenom, those are the breaks. Last year, two seasons removed from winning his second MVP award, it took him a few months to regain his power stroke after coming back from Tommy John surgery in record time, but once he did, we were privileged to watch him clobber 16 of his 21 dingers in August and September. And thankfully, this year we didn’t have to wait anywhere near as long for his thunderous bat to come alive.

Seeing a team like the Pirates come out of the gates hot is always refreshing, though there’s obviously the context of playing the Marlins and Nationals, not exactly powerhouses. I’m not really convinced that they’re even a .500 team; most teams will have a five-game winning streak over the course of the season, and starting the season with one is no more indicative of a team’s talent level than ending the season with one to avoid 100 losses.

But while I’ll need a lot more time to gather thoughts for the team as a whole, I’ve really liked what I’ve seen so far from catcher Henry Davis. The former first overall pick struggled mightily in his debut last year, with a 76 wRC+ and -1.0 WAR in 62 games, almost exclusively playing right field instead of behind the dish. He was worth -9 defensive runs saved, and to my eye, the look matched the metrics: He has a very strong arm, but his reads were rough and he often had to be bailed out by the second baseman when a not-particularly-shallow fly ball was hit his way.

Back at his natural position, Davis looks more comfortable, grading out (in the very early going) as a scratch defender by DRS and very slightly above average as a framer. I also like how well he’s controlled the strike zone through his first 21 plate appearances, with as many strikeouts as walks; both rates are vastly improved from last season. Of course, all of that comes with a small-sample caveat, but you can’t fake exit velocity as a hitter, so it’s worth mentioning that he’s already hit a ball harder (111.5 mph) this year than he did all of last year (109.9 mph).

Tuesday night’s acquisition of Joey Bart should do nothing to unseat Davis’ position as the starting catcher, though perhaps it’s a little more pedigree breathing down his neck than Jason Delay and the currently injured Yasmani Grandal. It is an interesting “ships passing in the night” moment though for two catchers who were taken within the first two picks of their respective drafts.

It’s too simple to say that Taylor Trammell is in for a breakout just because the Dodgers claimed him off waivers and should have playing time to offer him with Jason Heyward’s back troubles, but at the same time, there’s probably not a better fit for him. Hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc revitalized J.D. Martinez’s career a decade ago and also helped Chris Taylor break out, and it’s not implausible to think Trammell could be his next turnaround.

Trammell has a wRC+ of just 83 in his 351 career big league plate appearances, and at 26 years old and out of options, he’s at something of a crossroads. But he was our 61st-ranked prospect at the end of 2020, so it’s not as if the Dodgers have nothing to work with here. They’re hoping to do what the Reds, Padres, and Mariners all couldn’t: Turn Trammell into a quality major leaguer before moving on.

Top of the Order: Let’s Review Payrolls

Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

As I mentioned in my intro column on Friday, my main responsibility here at FanGraphs is updating the RosterResource payroll pages, which give a great overview of all 30 teams’ payrolls and where they stand in relation to the luxury tax lines. I like to view payrolls with the understanding that each team is going to have its own normal range; as such, I find it best to look at the 2024 Dodgers relative to the 2023 Dodgers and the 2024 A’s relative to the 2023 A’s. So, with that in mind, I put the teams into five buckets.

All payrolls listed below are the “real payroll” for the teams rather than their luxury tax payroll. Official 2023 payrolls have not yet been reported, so I’ve used the RosterResource payrolls for both 2023 and 2024.

The Big Gainers (at least 10% increase since 2023)

1. Orioles ($66M to $98M, a 48% increase)

The O’s had nowhere to go but up after running a bare-bones payroll for last year’s 101-win campaign. The big increases came from arbitration raises and trading for Corbin Burnes ($15,637,500).

2. Diamondbacks ($124M to $168M, a 36% increase)

Owner Ken Kendrick wasn’t kidding when he said he was willing to add payroll to keep the team in World Series contention. The Diamondbacks didn’t lose anyone significant in free agency, and new additions Eugenio Suárez, Eduardo Rodriguez, Joc Pederson, and Jordan Montgomery will combine to earn almost $60 million this season.

3. Dodgers ($236M to $314M, a 33% increase)

The Dodgers reined in spending in 2023 with an eye on having maximum flexibility for this season, and goodness did they flex it. They committed over $1 billion in free agency, 36% of the entire league’s total.

4. Royals ($91M to $116M, a 27% increase)

Kansas City’s big move was the mega-extension for Bobby Witt Jr., with free agency expenditures large in quantity (seven MLB free agents) but low in big splashes. (Seth Lugo’s $36 million contract was the largest.) Still, they look markedly improved.

5. Rays ($79M to $97M, a 23% increase)

The Rays were pretty quiet in free agency, but their payroll is up quite a bit even after trading away Tyler Glasnow and Manuel Margot. The large collection of arbitration-eligible players accounts for most of the gain here.

6. Pirates ($70M to $84M, a 20% increase)

This is similar to the Rays’ situation; Aroldis Chapman ($10.5 million) was Pittsburgh’s biggest free agent commitment. David Bednar’s arbitration years and Mitch Keller’s extension could keep the Pirates in the $80M+ range for a while.

7. Nationals ($109M to $130M, a 20% increase)

In the final year of his contract, Patrick Corbin is earning $11 million more than he did in 2023, and his raise accounts for over half of Washington’s increase.

8. Astros ($201M to $241M, a 19% increase)

This year, the Astros almost certainly will pay the luxury tax for the first time under owner Jim Crane. Josh Hader signed the biggest free agent deal for a reliever (by present value), and yet he has just the fifth-highest salary on the team.

9. Reds ($87M to $104M, a 19% increase)

Cincinnati had a very Royals-y offseason. Jeimer Candelario’s three-year, $45 million deal was the largest signing the Reds made, but add the $13 million he’ll earn this season with the salaries of newcomers Emilio Pagán, Frankie Montas, and Brent Suter and you get $37.5 million of fresh commitments to four players. That explains the increase in payroll even without Joey Votto on the team anymore.

10. Cubs ($190M to $224M, an 18% increase)

The Cubs waited awhile to strike in free agency, but they’ve now got four players earning over $20 million and another three above $10 million.

11. Braves ($205M to $230M, a 13% increase)

The Braves added more complementary players from the outside (Reynaldo López, Jarred Kelenic, Aaron Bummer) because their extension-heavy strategy creating few holes to plug. Austin Riley, Matt Olson, and Sean Murphy’s raises combine for $12 million in extra salary.

12. Yankees ($272M to $301M, an 11% increase)

Juan Soto’s hefty $31 million salary in his walk year explains the Yankees’ payroll jump, as the Marcus Stroman contract and arbitration raises are essentially negated by the salaries of Josh Donaldson, Luis Severino, and Frankie Montas (among others) coming off the books.

The Moderate Gainers (between 5% and 10% increase since 2023)

13. Giants ($196M to $208M, a 6% increase)

The Giants look significantly better on paper with Jung Hoo Lee, Blake Snell, Matt Chapman, and Jorge Soler, but they’re not actually that much more expensive. Joc Pederson, Brandon Crawford, Sean Manaea, Alex Wood, and Ross Stripling all underperformed in 2023 and are now playing elsewhere.

14. Rangers ($214M to $226M, a 6% increase)

The World Series champs did their big shopping in the two offseasons before last year, and many of the core contributors from the 2023 roster are still with the team. The largest contract Texas gave out this free agency was Tyler Mahle’s two-year, $22 million deal, leading to a minimal increase in payroll.

15. Blue Jays ($215M to $226M, a 5% increase)

After missing out on Shohei Ohtani, the Blue Jays had a low-key offseason. Yariel Rodriguez signed for $32 million but started out in the minors to get stretched out, and rather than making big expenditures the team will instead be relying on improvements from stars like Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

16. Athletics ($59M to $61M, a 5% increase)

Well, at least their relative change is actually qualifying as a moderate increase? By absolute change, this is essentially nothing; their highest paid player is Ross Stripling, who’s earning $12.5 million, but the Giants are covering $3.25 million of that, meaning the A’s themselves aren’t paying a single player eight figures.

Largely Unchanged (Within 5% of their 2023 payroll)

17. Cardinals ($178M to $181M, a 1% increase)

The Redbirds got most of their offseason shopping out of the way early, locking down Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson, and Lance Lynn before the Winter Meetings. The Gray deal is heavily backloaded, though, keeping things steady.

18. Guardians (steady at $98M, a 0.4% increase)

The Guardians will look to bounce back from a sub-.500 year with largely the same personnel.

19. Phillies (steady at $246M, a 0.2% decrease)

The Phillies tend to allocate their contracts evenly and will run it back with essentially the same squad that brought them to within one win of their second straight NL pennant.

20. Mariners ($140M to $139M, a 0.7% decrease)

Seattle made plenty of moves without adding payroll because, as you might have expected, trader Jerry Dipoto’s swaps kept the ledger pretty balanced.

The Moderate Slashers (between 5% and 10% decrease since 2023)

21. Mets ($346M to $324M, a 7% decrease)

The Mets’ payroll remains stratospheric, but nearly $70 million is money paid to other teams for James McCann, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer. They’re projected to be all the way down to $159 million in commitments for 2025, with no huge arbitration raises set to add to that significantly.

22.Tigers ($121M to $109M, a 10% decrease)

Don’t confuse cheaper with worse. The Tigers should be a much better team this year; they just no longer have Miguel Cabrera’s $32 million on the books.

23.Red Sox ($199M to $178M, a 10% decrease)

Boston’s offseason was many things, but full-throttle it wasn’t. Adding injury to insult, the team’s big free-agent addition, Lucas Giolito, will miss all of 2024 after undergoing UCL repair surgery.

24.Marlins ($110M to $99M, a 10% decrease)

Peter Bendix had a quiet first offseason with the Marlins, with Tim Anderson ($5 million) being his only free agent expenditure.

The Big Slashers (at least 10% decrease since 2023)

25.Brewers ($126M to $110M, a 13% decrease)

Milwaukee traded Corbin Burnes, brought back Brandon Woodruff on a reduced salary, and signed Rhys Hoskins to a backloaded contract that adds only $10 million to the 2024 payroll. Even so, the Brewers are 3–0 to start the season and should still contend for the NL Central title.

26.Rockies ($172M to $147M, a 15% decrease)

Colorado’s payments for Nolan Arenado went down from $21 million last year to $5 million this year, creating almost the entire difference. The team’s only free-agent additions were Jacob Stallings ($2 million) and Dakota Hudson ($1.5 million).

27.White Sox ($177M to $146M, an 18% decrease)

With Liam Hendriks, Yasmani Grandal, Tim Anderson, Elvis Andrus, Aaron Bummer, Mike Clevinger, and Dylan Cease all gone, the White Sox are dealing with a drastic decline in payroll and talent — two roster attributes that could continue to crater next offseason, when both Yoán Moncada and Eloy Jiménez could become free agents.

28.Angels ($215M to $174M, a 19% decrease)

The Angels ducked under the luxury tax threshold by just $30,000 after letting five players go on waivers last August, and they won’t come anywhere close this year. Anthony Rendon and Mike Trout alone combine for nearly 45% of that.

29.Twins ($159M to $128M, a 20% decrease)

Owner Jim Pohlad said payroll would go down, and it certainly did, even as the Twins look primed to repeat as AL Central champs. Carlos Santana ($5.25 million) was Minnesota’s “big” free agent signing.

30.Padres ($255M to $167M, a 34% decrease)

The Padres followed through on plans to bring payroll down to a more manageable level to come into compliance with MLB’s debt-servicing rules, and they didn’t replace Juan Soto in any meaningful way, either.

To be clear, nothing I’m about to say is a dig on A’s fans. They’ve got what I would say is by far the toughest situation of any fanbase in the league, with their favorite team about to abandon them for three nomadic years in an unknown temporary home (Sacramento, perhaps? Salt Lake City?) before heading to a Las Vegas stadium that has been rendered on paper but entirely unclear in its real-life funding. (Nevada will chip in a hefty $380 million of what will be at least a $1 billion project.) With that all laid out, though, the A’s attendance has been nothing short of incredible, and I don’t mean that positively.

ESPN has a handy tracker for average team attendance, and the gap between the 15th-place A’s and 14th-place Marlins (remember, only 15 MLB parks have games during the opening weekend) is about 12,500 per game, nearly as large as the gap between the Marlins and the no. 10 Mariners. The boycotted Opening Day was actually the best attended of the three games, with over 13,000 tickets sold, though it would appear only a fraction actually went to the game. Instead, they bought tickets to access the parking lot for their protest.

Without protests and boycotts to artificially inflate attendance, the A’s may have a tough time cracking 10,000 fans at any point this season, and the team will exit Oakland with a whimper.

It appears as if Joey Bart will be on the move shortly, with his expected-all-spring jettisoning from the Giants’ roster finally coming with a DFA on Sunday. Bart hit well in spring training, with a .414/.526/.448 line in 38 plate appearances. He made the Opening Day roster as San Francisco’s third catcher, but he was never going to overtake Patrick Bailey and Tom Murphy on the depth chart so long as they stayed healthy.

Bart hit just .219/.288/.335 in 502 plate appearances with the Giants, and his -6 defensive runs saved in 156 games behind the plate don’t give any value back on the other side of the ball. That said, he was still the 2nd overall pick in 2018, and I don’t see him clearing waivers. Teams who could look to upgrade their backup catcher spot include the A’s, Diamondbacks, Braves, and Pirates.

Welcome to Top of the Order

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Friday, and welcome to Top of the Order, FanGraphs’ new triweekly column! Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

To those who aren’t familiar with my work, a little background: I’ve been at FanGraphs since the beginning of the 2021 season. My work here has been largely behind the scenes, with my main responsibility being updating the RosterResource payroll pages (which are pretty great, if I do say so myself). I’ve worked with Jason Martinez and RosterResource as far back as 2012, when it was MLB Depth Charts, before it was in FanGraphs’ awesome interface and even before it was stored in Google Sheets (it was just text on a page!).

That transaction and payroll lens has dominated how I think about baseball over the last decade or so; it’s informed how I watch baseball, and it will certainly influence the topics I choose to discuss in these columns. I’m not watching for the long view of players’ Hall of Fame careers like Jay Jaffe does; I don’t have an incredible projection system like Dan Szymborski; I don’t have an innate feel for the game’s aesthetics and trends like Ben Clemens. I’m watching and following for information. Read the rest of this entry »