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April highlights from MLB

by Matt Smith

One month into the MLB regular season and there have already been enough stories to last a year.

Here are some of the key things that have happened.

Early struggles

Any team or player can go through a tricky month, so we should be wary of taking a bad April to always be a sign of things to come. It’s not easy to be pragmatic like that when it’s your team in the stir, though.

The Toronto Blue Jays have been a constant source of worry for their fans during the first month. They’ve picked up a bit of late so they no longer hold the worst record in the Majors, but having the second-worst record (8-17) isn’t much of a consolation.

They’ve been bedevilled by injuries – a common theme as we’ll see – and the return of Jose Bautista, who looked likely to leave as a free agent over the off-season, has not started well.  Bautista has always been the sort of player loved by his own fans but hated by opponents, and it’s fair to say his struggles have not evoked much sympathy. He has the sort of attitude that would use that negativity to spur him on; however at 36 years old it’s possible this may not just be a one-month blip and instead a sign of his decline as a force at the plate.

The team that does hold the worst record is the Kansas City Royals. The tragic death of pitcher Yordano Ventura continues to cast a shadow over the club, as does the looming free agent status of a number of core players (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain being the main ones).  It looks like this is the end of the line for this World Series-winning group and they may be set for a rebuild, which is a shame for their fans but the memories of their 2015 triumph will sustain them for years to come.

In the National League, it’s the Royals’ World Series opponents from 2014 and 2015 that are getting most of the flak.

The San Francisco Giants have started slowly and whilst there’s enough talent on their roster to get back into the Wild Card race, losing Madison ‘I’m just a crashing dirt bike numpty’ Bumgarner for a couple of months at least is a significant blow. Much as it would be just like the Giants, and especially just like MadBum, to defy the odds and stage a glorious comeback, they’re making things very difficult for themselves.

The same could be said for the New York Mets. Injuries, injuries, injuries is the story here and what’s most concerning is the sense that this isn’t just down to bad luck. Yoenis Cespedes and Noah Syndergaard are the latest two stars to reportedly pull rank and play through fitness concerns, only to make matters worse. You don’t like to criticise players who are desperate to be on the field, but it does raise questions as to who is in charge and looking at the bigger picture of a long season.

10-day DL

The Mets’ management of injury concerns comes at a time when we’re seeing a significant change in the approach of teams towards injuries.

One of the many changes brought about by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement signed over the off-season was the introduction of a 10-day Disabled List, down from the 15-days that it had been for many years.

The disabled list is something that can confuse Brits new to MLB. The starting point is simply that the players on the DL are injured; however formally placing them on the DL is part of managing the strict limit of 25 players that a team has at their disposal on a given day.

An MLB team’s 25-man roster is part of their overall 40-man roster of players, and this is then part of an organisation-wide group of players throughout their 5 or 6 Minor League teams (‘feeder’ teams, in a sense).

The Disabled List is there so that teams can’t simply game the system by having a large squad of players to mix-and-match from every single day. If a player on your active 25-man roster picks up an injury, you either have to play short-handed while he recovers or place him on the DL so that you can put someone in his place.

With a 15-day DL, teams were more inclined to keep hold of a player for minor niggles rather than have to be without them for a couple of weeks. The Players Association (union) were keen to change this as it tended to mean players were back out on the field earlier than they probably should have been.

The idea of the 10-day DL is that the shorter time period will make teams err on the side of caution and give the player time to recuperate fully. The first month of the new rule has shown this to be the case. More players are going on the DL and this has a knock-effect in ‘real’ baseball (opportunities for other players to get some Major League service time) and in ‘fantasy’ baseball.

Doing well despite the injuries

The Washington Nationals were many people’s favourites for the NL East division this season and they’ve shown why during April by amassing an MLB-leading 17-8 record. That positivity comes with the recent blow of losing off-season recruit Adam Eaton to a knee injury that looks set to see him miss the rest of the season.

The actual impact of his absence on the Nationals’ play-off hopes is lessened by how strong their roster is, although losing a good player like Eaton is always going to be a blow.

You could say the same about the Boston Red Sox and David Price. They’re not pulling up any trees so far, but a 13-11 April keeps them nicely in the running and Chris Sale has been outstanding.

Price is continuing his rehabilitation from an arm injury that many feared could see him miss the entire season and whilst there’s still no firm timetable for his return, currently it looks like he may be back on a Major League mound at the end of May or beginning of June. There’s no need to rush him, despite the competitive nature of the AL East, and if he can be up to speed for the second-half of the season then they’ll have an intimidating front three to their rotation with reigning Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello an impressive ‘number three’ to call on.

The ‘nice’ start for Boston comes with the ominous signs of a young New York Yankees team that doesn’t see 2017 as a rebuilding year. They’ve looked really impressive in April, Aaron Judge in particularly showing off his incredible power at the plate, all whilst being without Didi Gregorious for most of the month and their best young player, Gary Sanchez, heading to the DL. He could be back in the lineup by the end of this week so this could be much more than just a good start.

If they can keep it up, the Yankees will be in a very different position at this year’s trade deadline than they were in 2016. Whilst last year they were shopping veteran players for prospects, this year they may use some of their prospect depth to add a starting pitcher (Jose Quintana would be the obvious one) to make a play-off push.

The Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks also shouldn’t be overlooked as they’re the NL West front-runners in the early going.

The Rockies have started well despite their main off-season recruit, Ian Desmond, only just making his debut yesterday due to recovering from a fractured left hand. As for the D-Backs, they’ve suffered the blow of losing pitcher Shelby Miller to an elbow injury that will almost certainly require Tommy John surgery and over a year on the sidelines. It’s a cruel blow considering he’d shown positive signs in his first couple of starts after a miserable 2016 and will add to the case of Arizona signing him being one of the worst trade decisions by a team in recent history.

Other players standing out

Marcus Thames has been the big story of April, swatting 11 home runs for the Milwaukee Brewers in his first month back in the Big Leagues after a three-year stint in the Korean league. Sadly his power surge has prompted the inevitable sniping from some that drugs may be involved, but Thames came back with a great response (“If people keep thinking I’m on stuff, I’ll be here every day. I have a lot of blood and urine”).

The Houston Astros’ Dallas Keuchel beat the Oakland A’s on Sunday to make it a perfect 5-0 record from his first five starts. Painful as it was to watch for this A’s fan in some ways, you have to appreciate a pitcher like Keuchel who doesn’t rely on 95+ mph fastballs to mow down opposing line-ups.

Ervin Santana will look to equal Keuchel’s record 5-0 record on Tuesday night starting against, of course, the A’s (Sonny Gray will make his much-anticipated first start of the season for Oakland in that game too). Santana’s strong start for the Minnesota Twins has been a great surprise for his team and, as is the way, puts him in the shop window for a potential trade later in the season.

Finally, Chris Coghlan deserves a mention for what he did against Yadi Molina and the St Louis Cardinals. Dives in football are rightly condemned; in baseball, they can be a thing of wonder.

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