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.





4 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
David Klein
1 month ago

Really sucks about Yelich he looked like the Yelich of 18-19 very early on and now he hurts his back again the Brewers lineup has been pretty damn good but this is a big blow.

I was really blown away by Jared Jones’ stuff yesterday as was the Mets batters as not only does he have an explosive fastball but his breaking stuff is sick as is his control and command. I mean 59 pitches through five with fifty of them being strikes is ridiculous he has better stuff than Ragans and up there with Strider’s stuff. If was quite a difference in how his opposite number in Quintana who is near the end of his career pitched with diminished stuff and having all kinds of babip luck on rockets and having issues throwing strikes as he has nearly a month into the season.

The Mets rotation has been mostly five and dive guys other than Butto but other than the two guys who got dfa’d in Ramirez and Tonkin the Mets bullpen has been dominate as the kids would say. Reed Garrett not Diaz has been the most dominant reliever and strike out king, whoever told him to rarely throw his fastball and throw his splitter and slider a ton is a genius.