There is a gulf between the hopeless and the helpless in Major League Baseball, even if the fog of a 162-game season can make both concepts feel painfully intertwined.
Hopeless are the Pirates and Orioles, the Diamondbacks and Rockies, all still playing worse than .400 ball, at least 9 ½ games south of their division leader and no addition this side of Babe Ohtani likely to change that.
Helpless? Well, everyone can use a little help, and even if every stroke of luck has gone against your club, it’s nothing that a little tweak and a hot streak can’t cure for just about every other squad.
Just ask the Milwaukee Brewers. Ten days ago, they were 21-23, closer to last place than first.
Then, a slight tweak. The club dealt reliever J.P. Feyereisen to Tampa Bay for shortstop Willy Adames, an all-glove, light-hit player who can camouflage his .745 career OPS with irrepressible enthusiasm.
Ever since? The Brewers have won seven of nine games and are now perched two games out of first place, Christian Yelich healthy and aces Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes ready to bulldoze opponents.
Switching up the vibe didn’t hurt, either.
“Willy’s awesome,” Burnes said Sunday, before the Brewers completed a three-game sweep of the Washington Nationals. “From the very first day we got him, he walked into the clubhouse full of energy, ready to play. Willy’s a guy that comes to the ballpark and it doesn’t matter if we’re playing the 12:10 game or a 7:10 game, as soon as he walks in the door, it’s full energy and full go.
“The biggest addition he’s had to the team is the energy and the morale he’s bringing to the clubhouse and obviously, he plays a great shortstop and is swinging the bat well.”
Indeed, Adames has 10 hits in his first 30 at-bats and, on their third try, the Brewers have stabilized their most important position after Orlando Arcia and Luis Urias faltered.
Summer has unofficially arrived, and soon, too, will the trade rumor mill. There will be far larger transactions than the Adames deal (which the Rays might refer to as the Feyereisen deal), but the grander point is that opportunity remains for almost everybody.
Perhaps it’s not a trade, big or small, that a foundering team needs, but rather a ball or three that find a hole, a minor adjustment by a scuffling star, a manager overturning a buffet table or perhaps recording a shareable bit of social media content.
It may not be time to panic, but it is an option, too. With that, here’s eight teams that could stand to smash that panic button – or at least rearrange the furniture – as June arrives:
New York Yankees
Oh yeah, baby.
There’s no summer quite like a Yankee Angst Summer and 2021 may be the hottest in recent memory. It’s been a dozen years since the Bombers reached the World Series and now, with every stellar Gerrit Cole start wasted, every offensive valley that follows a too-fleeting peak, an unease rooted in the feeling that this imperfect Yankee group may be, in Year 4 of the Aaron Boone era, squandering its best and maybe final chance at a championship.
Boone termed the team “incredibly” frustrated after a “terrible” weekend in Detroit, during which the 19-31 Tigers swept three games from the Yankees, who reverted to their punchless April ways while committing myriad defensive and baserunning gaffes.
We largely stick to our April diagnosis, that the Yankees are generally fine but will face a slog in the AL East. Now, that slog is looking increasingly like a quagmire.
Losing five of six – two of those to Toronto – pushed the Yankees deeper into third place with the Blue Jays right behind them. An inflexible roster and lack of organizational depth – particularly with long-term commitments like Aaron Hicks and Luis Severino shelved and Corey Kluber likely out an extended period – is rearing its head.
And the cry to do something, anything, will only grow louder, though the paucity of top prospects and aforementioned inflexibility will leave GM Brian Cashman with limited wriggle room.
Boone, then, had little choice Sunday but to insist The Group In The Room was good enough.
“It’s absolutely good enough. We had a bad weekend,” he said after their 6-2 defeat in Detroit. “As pissed off as I am, and as we should be by the way we played, it’s a bad weekend. We have to turn the page. We have an important homestand coming up against some good opponents and yes, we’re absolutely good enough.
“We need to figure it out and find a way to play cleaner baseball more consistently, because we’re about to go up against some good teams.”
That we know for sure: The first-place Rays are in the Bronx for four starting Monday, followed by three with the second-place Red Sox. Check back in a week and we’ll find out how hot this summer may get.
Los Angeles Angels
At some point, the Angels’ “buzziness” and their on-field performance will intersect, and network executives will rejoice at an October filled with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.
For now, though, the Angels have this thing where the more interesting they are, the worse off they seem.
It’s on the verge of happening again, as Ohtani is on the way to his best two-way season yet (and a possible AL MVP award) while the pitching falters and the squad founders.
Oh, Trout is out into August with a calf injury, but the team’s 24-29 mark was built long before he succumbed (and was amid a career-best season himself).
New year, new regime, same story: A 5.03 staff ERA – begging the question of whether the rotation or bullpen is more culpable – is dragging down a club that’s added first baseman Jared Walsh (.927 OPS) to a gaggle of MVP-caliber everyday players like Trout, Ohtani and Anthony Rendon. That doesn’t much matter when the bottom fell out on Dylan Bundy (0-5, 6.50 ERA) in his second year in Anaheim, while Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning more closely resemble question marks than solutions.
So, what to do now?
At some point, the club could summon top prospect Jo Adell from Class AAA, where he’s already smashed 10 homers but is reaching base at just a .295 clip. And Adell can’t pitch.
But let’s set a modest goal here. The Angels are on track for a fourth straight fourth-place finish, and a winning percentage of .4-whatever. There’s probably no competing with the Astros and A’s at this point.
The baseball-viewing public will, however, settle for any semblance of hope. A winning record and, say, leapfrogging the bland and futile Seattle Mariners, at the very least, might spark faint thoughts that Trout and Co. may matter in October someday.
The Entire NL East
This five-team derby was so highly anticipated, one wondered if 90 wins would be enough to win the division – or even make the playoffs! – as four teams reloaded or geared up and the Marlins lay in wait.
Now, 85 wins might get it done and nearly the entire division is in some form of crisis.
Oh, perhaps the Mets don’t have to panic – they’re atop the division by 2 ½ games, getting startling performances from guys like Taijuan Walker and Edwin Diaz and still employ Jacob deGrom. Those injuries, though: 16 guys currently on the 10- or 60-day IL, not counting deGrom’s earlier stint.
With everyday stalwarts like Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil shelved – the latter two for an extended period – the Mets have taken on the feel of Wile E. Coyote stepping off the cliff, horridly awaiting the inevitable fall.
Yet they reeled off four straight wins in the wake of Conforto and McNeil’s grim prognosis, which came a week after reserve outfielders Albert Almora Jr. and Kevin Pillar were sent to the IL in highly unsettling fashion, Almora crashing into a wall and Pillar struck in the face by a 95-mph fastball.
Oh, and their $341 million shortstop is batting .191.
Somehow, they’re the only East club above .500, and the division figures to see a new king come October. That’s because the three-time champion Braves are a mess. Pitcher Mike Soroka’s return from Achilles surgery is in some jeopardy; replacement Huascar Ynoa is out after taking out his frustrations on a dugout wall. Outfielder Marcell Ozuna faces significant punitive action from the legal system and MLB after his arrest on domestic violence charges.
The Phillies? Manager Joe Girardi took a page out of Tass News Agency with regard to injury updates, but scarcity of information won’t boost a roster far from optimally constructed. The good news is their annual September pilgrimage to the .500 mark might actually win the division this year.
The Nationals? Caught in a trap where, collectively, they cannot hit, which puts more pressure on the pitchers, who then press to avoid making that one mistake that costs them the game, and….
“That’s something I don’t want them to do. The game is hard enough already,” says manager Dave Martinez. “I tell them every day – don’t make it happen. It will happen.”
For a team that’s scored two or fewer runs in five of its last six games, and ranks 28th in the majors in runs, it can’t happen soon enough.
The Marlins? OK, so it’s hard to associate panic with what might be the most low-pressure environment in the majors right now, with Miami moderately exceeding expectations as its rebuild ramps up. But having three-fourths of its starting infield shelved at the moment is certainly not what they want.
Squandering MLB’s biggest stars? Why the Angels continue to struggle despite having big names
They’ve been so disappointing that you’d think the Twins would be far past panic and more into the “acceptance” stage of grieving a lost season.
But we’re not going to throw in the towel on these cats just yet.
Instead, we’ll grant them what we’ll call a Manfred Mulligan, which is to say the Twins’ 21-31 record is disproportionately impacted by seat-of-the-pants, temporary (hopefully) rules.
They are 1-8 in extra-inning games, a format that does not play well with the Twins’ lack of a Craig Kimbrel-Aroldis Chapman-like presence in the bullpen.
They are 1-5 in seven-inning games and actually a .500 club (19-19) when games are played to completion in nine innings.
But make no mistake: The time to go is now. The Twins’ next seven games are at Baltimore and Kansas City, a compulsory bit of momentum-building if they’re to get anywhere near the overachieving White Sox. Another forgiving 12-game stretch is on the horizon (Seattle, Texas, Cincinnati, Cleveland) before they meet up again with the White Sox to close the month.
Of course, we’re still affording the Twins benefit of the doubt as two-time AL Central champs. Perhaps the poor performances of free agent starters Matt Shoemaker and J.A. Happ will continue, and the fifth-worst bullpen in the game offers no relief.
Or perhaps young outfielders Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach will prove able replacements for the infirm Max Kepler and Byron Buxton. And that they and starter Kenta Maeda return healthy and productive.
If not? OK, then it’s time to panic.