What's wrong with the contenders?

What's wrong with the contenders?

One quarter of the way through the season, few would have predicted the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and Toronto Blue Jays would have struggled the way they have. These underperforming clubs still have time to turn it around, but would need to have things break their way at this point to have a real shot at the post season.

Here’s an analysis of each, from least troubled to most troubled.

Washington Nationals, 2nd in NL East, 23-23

The story of the Nationals to this point can be summed up in two words: inconsistency and injuries.

First, the injuries. Last year, the Nationals were 5th in the NL in runs scored, and while they only hit .261 as a team last year, timely hitting and good power numbers carried their offense. Not so this year, as their team batting average languishes in the .220s and timely hits and home runs have been extremely rare. Injuries to Wilson Ramos, Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman, and Bryce Harper have stunted the group as a whole. Trying to get offense going without protection has proven difficult for the remainder of the everyday lineup.

The pitching staff has not escaped the injury bug either, as Cristian Garcia, Ross Detwiler and Ryan Mattheus have been placed on the DL or missed games. And with the organization devoid of good arms in the minors right now, this has been an issue.

The injury bug has compounded maddening inconsistency as well. Danny Espinosa is hitting under .200 with virtually no walks. He also leads the team in strikeouts. Ryan Zimmerman has not yet hit for power, and Adam LaRoche is only now recovering from a disastrous start to the season. The bench, which was so good last year, is hitting in the. 100s as a group. The team is 28th in runs scored in MLB. The pitching has not been bad – 3rd in quality starts, 9th in ERA at 3.60. But Rafael Soriano has 3 blown saves on the year, nearly matching his highest total for any complete year so far, and the bullpen as a whole has a 4.31 ERA with more hits than innings pitched. This group must play to potential if the Nats are to make a run. The defense, last in the league, must also improve – especially from Ryan Zimmerman.

Los Angeles Dodgers, last in the NL West, 18-26

The Dodgers expected to contend after signing a number of high-profile free agents, including ace Zack Greinke. The reality of this season has been very harsh, however. While the offense has not been bad- 11th in MLB in 13th in batting average at .255 – the hitting has been extraordinarily utimely, as the Dodgers rank 29th in runs scored and slugging. The pitching has been very pedestrian, with opposing batters hitting .255 and in the middle of the pack in ERA, quality starts, and WHIP.

So, if nothing is terribly wrong, what is the problem?

For the pitching staff, walks are an issue. Six of their pitchers have an ERA above 5.0. And the injury to Zack Greinke put pressure on all of the pitchers to pick up the slack. But the talent is there – and there is time to get everyone in sync.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, fourth in the AL West, 18-27

Here is a story of a “why aren’t they doing better?” team. They do not have a bad offense – 8th in slugging percentage, 12th in batting average, 12th in runs. Not what you want when you spend all the money to bring in Josh Hamilton and the rest of the free agents the Angels brought in, but not bad. Hamilton is hitting .222 and Pujols .247 – so there is room to improve there. But the main issue is pitching.

The Angels are 28th in team ERA (4.66), 29th in WHIP (1.46), and opposing batters are hitting .266 against the Angels (40 points better than the Nats are hitting against the league). They have an amazing 10 pitchers with an ERA of 4.9 or above. Put simply, this is one of the very worst pitching teams in baseball, and must improve to make the playoffs.

Toronto Blue Jays, last in the AL East, 19-27

With records similar to the Dodgers and Angels, why pick on the Blue Jays? Because every team above them has made the playoffs in the last three years, and they have not made the playoffs since the 1990s.

And because they are relying on a bunch of ex-Marlins to get them there.

The offense has been anemic. They are 25th in batting average at .242, 23rd in on base percentage at .308.

The pitching gets even worse. 29th in ERA (4.77), 28th in WHIP (1.45), and opponents are batting .266 against the Jays. They have among the lowest number of quality starts in the league, which has taxed the bullpen. Their ace, RA Dickey, has an ERA of 4.5 and they have used an incredible 13 pitchers with ERAs worse than his.

It’s not that there is no talent here. It’s that the talent has entirely imploded. A bad offense and a bad defense, in a division with the Yanks, Sox, Rays and Orioles, mean no playoffs.