Surprise, surprise: Early storylines of 2014
From the Brewers' pitching to Utley's resurgence, a look at the unexpected
Baseball never ceases to surprise us. And while many of the surprises early in 2014 have been of the injury variety, some unexpected positives have played out, too.
Here are 10 of the most pleasant surprises from the season's first two weeks:
1. The A's: They lost No. 1 starter Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin in Spring Training to challenge a rotation already short on experience, their $10 million closer Jim Johnson imploded and Coco Crisp -- a pivotal piece of the lineup -- has been banged up. Yet here they are, sitting at 8-4 and in their usual spot atop the American League West.
The margin for error for teams like Oakland is razor thin, but the early adversity has done nothing to discourage the A's.
2. The Brewers' pitching: The Brew Crew looked like a really nice sleeper pick going into 2014, but nobody anticipated a 10-2 April run that would ascend them to the top of the National League Central standings -- by three games, no less.
Perhaps they will follow the model set by last year's Braves, whose awesome April put them in a commanding NL East position they would not relinquish. The major caveat with the Brewers is their low walk rate, which could lead to some lineup ruts. But if they keep pitching like they have, the lineup can afford to run hot and cold. Kyle Lohse's 3.05 ERA is the highest on the starting staff. Yovani Gallardo (2-0, 0.96 ERA) has done his part to confirm the organizational assumption that he simply never recovered from the World Baseball Classic last year. Matt Garza (2.57) has proven to be a meaningful free-agent addition. Milwaukee has the third-best starters' ERA in baseball, and its bullpen has allowed just three earned runs in 32 1/3 innings.
3. Two Braves' K rates: We just mentioned those 2013 Braves, who ran away with the NL East. Their Achilles' heel, which revealed itself in October, was a propensity toward strikeouts, and that has continued in 2014. But beyond Aaron Harang's 0.96 ERA or Alex Wood's emergence, what is striking about Atlanta's latest strong start is the cutdown on K's by two vital position players.
Freddie Freeman has a .442/.519/.814 slash line through 52 plate appearances. That's due to a 7.7 percent strikeout rate that stands in stark contrast to his 19.2 mark from 2013. Freeman might regret telling Chipper Jones that pitchers have "nothin' to get me out with" right now (the baseball gods rarely smile favorably upon the cocksure), but the discipline he's showing early in his age-24 season is an encouraging sign.
Andrelton Simmons has yet to strike out, 40 plate appearances into his 2014 season, and that's helped fuel an early .306 average out of a player whose offensive contributions are a bonus given the great gains he provides with his glove.
4. Jose Abreu: Abreu's power to all fields was one of the better batting-practice displays on the back fields in Spring Training camp. The expectation was that it would take time for that power to reveal itself on the Major League stage, where he'd see more fastballs in on the hands or breaking balls in pitcher's counts.
But the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Abreu has been impressive both in stature and slugging percentage (.588), belting four home runs for the White Sox (7-6). At $68 million over six years in a game starved for run production, Abreu might prove to be a steal.
5. Michael Morse: Speaking of steals, how good does the Giants' one-year, $6 million investment in Morse look? He has a .350/.409/.600 slash line that pairs with Brandon Belt's blasts to give San Francisco -- a team that ranked second-to-last in homers per game last season -- a suddenly slugger-heavy offensive attack.
Morse's .651 OPS last season was troubling, and AT&T Park did not look like a good place to recover from his Safeco struggles. But the right-handed power he has provided has been a revelation for a Giants club trying to hang with the Dodgers in the NL West.
6. Mark Buehrle: The only way the Blue Jays are going to sustain a major climb in the standings this season is if their horrendous rotation performance from 2013 does not remain the norm. The fact that the rotation went untouched over the offseason did not lend itself to optimism, but Toronto got encouraging signs from Dustin McGowan and Drew Hutchison in Baltimore over the weekend.
Most importantly, they've gotten not just a return to form but utter dominance out of Buehrle, who is 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA and a 0.905 WHIP through three starts. The Blue Jays still have plenty to prove, but they're 7-6, and Buehrle is a big reason why.
7. Chase Utley: For a 35-year-old second baseman who has averaged only 108 games played over the last four seasons, the expectations are understandably tempered. As much respect as there is for Utley in this game, the thought of him suddenly returning to his Silver Slugger form and leading this cast of fellow old-timers to victory is/was a specious one.
But look at this: .500/.565/.875. That's Utley's ridiculous slash line two weeks into the season. On the one hand, Utley is bound to come back down to earth. But Utley is the only qualifier left standing with a hit in half his at-bats, and his 4.3 percent strikeout rate might be the biggest indicator that he's on the verge of a special season.
8. Charlie Blackmon: The season sample is still small enough that Blackmon's 6-for-6 breakout against the D-backs on April 4 adds 88 points to his average. And sometimes, 27-year-old outfielders who come virtually out of nowhere end up going back to nowhere.
But Blackmon has paired nicely with Michael Cuddyer atop the Rockies' order, as his .500 on-base percentage has created ample opportunity for one of baseball's most potent offenses. Blackmon was a bubble player on a team that carried an astounding six outfielders on Opening Day, but he's shown staying power.
9. Shin-Soo Choo vs. lefties: The Rangers' rotation has been battered by injuries, and Prince Fielder's slow start and Adrian Beltre's injury have impacted the lineup. That's put more pressure on Choo to ignite the lineup and justify the $130 million contract that many people panned because of his career-long struggles against left-handed pitching.
Choo, with a .436 OBP, has held up his end of the bargain in the leadoff spot. And he seems to have benefited from working with hitting coach Dave Magadan, who was once instrumental in helping David Ortiz improve upon his southpaw struggles. In 20 plate appearances against lefties, Choo has a .400 average and four walks.
10. Yangervis Solarte: Five days after Alex Rodriguez's season-long suspension was upheld, the Yankees announced the Minor League signing of Solarte. Three months later, that signing appears to have helped save them from the threat of a disastrous infield, especially in light of the Mark Teixeira hamstring injury.
After beating out Eduardo Nunez for a spot on the roster, Solarte, an eight-year Minor Leaguer, has become manager Joe Girardi's de facto third baseman. Solarte has made the most of the opportunity with a .357 average, .913 OPS and six doubles. Who knows how long this lasts, but the Yanks, sitting at 7-6, have taken advantage of it.
Bonus: The Orioles' other Gold Glover: We knew the O's had one of the better defenses in baseball. But who knew that prowess extended to the ball girl?