We've talked a lot already about the players and teams that are starting the season off well. That's what we like to focus on the most, after all -- the good stories, the uplifting narratives. No one really likes to dwell on the players and teams who aren't pulling their weight (unless, of course, we're talking about rival teams, in which case: fair game).
The good news, however, is this: Just because things have started poorly, it doesn't mean they can't get better. This time last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers looked like one of the most expensive failed experiments in roster-building baseball, and there was rampant media speculation (including on this very page) that manager Don Mattingly would soon be unemployed. The Dodgers ended up in the National League Championship Series, and Mattingly finished second place in voting for NL Manager of the Year. Yes, it's quite likely that this year's Diamondbacks are over and done with in the first week of May -- their roster doesn't have the talent last year's Dodgers had, and unfortunately they still have to contend not only with this year's version but also resurgent Colorado and San Francisco clubs -- but it's far from a sure thing.
This is as true for individual players as it is for entire teams. Someone's got to score all those runs and strike out all those opposing batters, after all. Here are five guys who have started out the 2014 season slow, but we expect they'll be back in the thick of things come the end of the year.
Jedd Gyorko, 2B, San Diego Padres
I was never gaga about Jedd Gyorko, the prospect -- though he was certainly a good one. Solid defenders who can play multiple infield positions and hold their own with the bat (if not excel with it) don't grow on trees, but they're perhaps not the most interesting guys in the world to dream on. Very rarely do they turn into Dustin Pedroia; a substantially larger amount of the time, they turn into valuable-if-not-spectacular major league regulars. That seems likely to be Gyorko's fate. That said, if Gyorko had played for an American League team last season, he would've had an outside shot at winning the Rookie of the Year Award outright, instead of being an also-ran with Colorado's Nolan Arenado and Atlanta's Evan Gattis. Unfortunately for him, he debuted the same year as Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig, and his .249/.301/.444 line in 525 PA just couldn't hang with the guys at the top of the RoY list. Also unfortunately for him, an OBP just barely over .300 is...well, it's something that could use some improvement.
Gyorko is, however, better than the .164/.223/.273 line he's putting up right now. The entire Padres roster is lost at the plate, outside of catcher Yasmani Grandal and outfielder Seth Smith (yeah, that's where Seth Smith ended up). But Cameron Maybin has been electric since his return and can hopefully help light a fire under some of these guys. Gyorko's biggest asset, by far, is his ability to hit for average -- sometimes that craters, sure, but guys like Gyorko don't crater that often. They're far more likely to be merely all right and wildly overrated than they are to be outright awful. I'd expect him to bounce back to what will probably once again end up a modest, but not bad, season line.
Pablo Sandoval, 3B, San Francisco Giants
Pablo Sandoval is not the most consistent hitter on the face of the planet. Here are his season OPS+, in order, from 2008 through 2013: 118, 144, 99, 155, 123, 119. His 2008 season was abbreviated due to only playing 41 games at the major-league level, but the rest of those are more or less full seasons. (He had DL stints in 2011 and 2012, the 155 and 123 years respectively.) His hitting jumps all over the place, so his career OPS of .815 is a bit deceptive -- he's never had a seasonal OPS come within 25 points of that in either direction. Part of the narrative surrounding Sandoval are physical concerns -- he's a big guy, and there's routine worry from national media corners about his lack of conditioning every time he hits a rough patch.
Right now is definitely a rough patch -- .173/.254/.282 in 122 plate appearances. This is nowhere near the longest slump in Sandoval's major league career; in 2010, that 99 OPS+ season, he went from May to August putting up over 330 plate appearances of .618 OPS baseball. He came back the next year and hit .315/.357/.552. If that stretch in 2010 didn't doom him, it's unfair to think this one will either -- but it's also fair to question how long this particular cold streak will last. Do the Giants really want to give a guy prone to cold spells that can last months on end the $100 million or so contract he'll want to keep him in San Francisco past 2015? The answer is no -- which is fine, because he needs to be in a league with a DH rule anyway.
Allen Craig, 1B/OF, St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals know hitting. Whatever the current org has going on with its player evaluation and development staff, they know how to identify and develop guys who can hit at the major leagues. Craig is just one of a long list of guys -- David Freese, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams and soon Oscar Taveras -- to come through the major-league system and hit at every level without being overpowering batting-practice monsters. Craig was one of the first of these guys to make it to the major league level, and since coming up in 2010, he's put up 1420 plate appearances of .850 OPS ball.
All of this means I'm not particularly concerned about him starting the season hitting .208/.259/.336 in 135 plate appearances. Craig has been a .300 hitter at every level of the game above short season A ball -- including the majors coming into this season -- and that generally doesn't go away at age 29 for no reason. He'll be back to form soon enough. The big issue with Craig is that he's a much better fit at first base than he is in right field, and if Matt Adams keeps hitting and Oscar Taveras starts knocking down the door, the Cardinals could start shopping him around to see what they can get, just like what they did with David Freese last offseason. But that won't matter until he starts hitting.
Homer Bailey, SP, Cincinnati Reds
This is not the ideal way for Bailey to kick off the massive contract extension the Reds gave him in the offseason. Then again, the very first month of an extension is not the time to make ultimate judgments about whether or not a six-year contract with $100 million guaranteed (with a mutual option for a seventh year worth $25 million) will pay off. However, while the Reds aren't precisely hurting for starting pitching at the moment -- Cueto is Cueto, Tony Cingrani and Mike Leake have been solid, and converted reliever Alfredo Simon has a 1.99 ERA over 40.2 IP so far this year as a starter -- the Reds likely aren't pleased that their new $100 million man is the weak link in the rotation.
Homer Bailey's career can be divided roughly into two segments: before 2012 and since 2012. Before 2012, Bailey's career ERA was 4.89. From the beginning of the 2012 season to the beginning of this one, his ERA has been 3.58. The extension is predicated on the assumption that 3.58 ERA Bailey is the new normal, and I generally think they're right about that. But I'm not entirely certain about that success continuing long into Bailey's 30s -- his new extension ends, at earliest, after his age-33 season. Bailey's performance the last two seasons hasn't made his new contract teflon, but he's earned the benefit of the doubt until at least midseason.
Clay Buchholz, SP, Boston Red Sox
I'm not sure anyone outside of the super-fans was ever really convinced that Clay Buchholz was a 1.74 ERA pitcher. Of course, he certainly was in some respects -- that's the ERA he pitched to across 108.1 IP last season, before delivering a similarly-virtuosic playoff performance for the eventual World Champions. But Buchholz had a career ERA of 3.92 over 636.1 IP coming into 2013 -- and fragile, above-average starters don't generally become Cy Young shortlist aces on a sustainable basis at age 28 after six years in the majors. The exception to that general argument is Cliff Lee, who did precisely that at age 29 -- but barring any evidence that Buchholz has developed the best fastball command in the majors, it's hard to point to Lee as any kind of comp.
If a 1.74 ERA is outperforming that kind of peripheral ratio, then certainly the 5.63 ERA Buchholz has through six starts this season is underperforming it. What Buchholz has done, however, is pitch to exactly the same strikeout-to-walk ratio as he did last year: 2.67. But it's worth noting that, while the ratio is the same, Buchholz is striking out (and walking) fewer batters. He's also allowing almost double the number of hits per nine innings as he did last year (11.8 this season, compared to 6.2 last season) and allowing a more reasonable number of home runs this season (the four homers he's allowed so far in 2014 match the total he allowed in 2013). All this paints a picture of an above-average pitcher getting hit hard and being slightly unlucky on balls in play. When he irons that out, he should start performing better -- but not amazingly so -- and to me, that sounds just like Clay Buchholz.
* * *
There are other guys who could have made this list (Curtis Granderson, Wade Miley, Carl Crawford) as well as other guys that people are going to tell me should have made this list, though I'll respectfully disagree (Darwin Barney, Ricky Nolasco). But I think all five of these guys stand a good chance of making an impact in 2014 regardless of their bad starts. Oh, and Bartolo Colon, too -- Bartolo Colon will have an amazing summer this year and every year until he's 50. Don't trample on my dreams.