Red Sox, Pirates among five contenders facing critical questions

There's an old saying we like to kick around in the press box around this time of year. It goes kinda like this:

You know your team's in trouble when ... it starts saying stuff like, "There's a whole lot of baseball still to be played.'"

Well, guess what? There is, in fact, a whole lot of baseball still to be played. Luckily. But that doesn't mean it's too early to worry. Because after all, if it were, how would sports-talk radio stay in business? So on that note, we ask ...

Does anyone see the makings of an October-worthy rotation in Boston or Toronto?

And whatever happened to those fearsome Pirates and Angels lineups we watched last year?

And are the Nationals planning to allow 200 unearned runs this season? Or did someone punch holes in their gloves when they weren't looking?

Excellent questions, right? Want to ponder them a little longer? Great, because we're about to take a look at five contenders with critical questions:

Boston Red Sox: starting rotation

Red Sox

Why they're worried: Their 5.73 starting-pitching ERA ranks dead last in the big leagues -- and would be more than half a run worse than the previous all-time worst ERA by any rotation in Red Sox history. (Current record: 5.19, by the 2012 edition, which didn't exactly nail that Daniel Bard-to-the-rotation experiment.) Until Saturday, when Justin Masterson dipped to 4.71, all five Boston starters had ERAs over 5.00. And in case you're wondering, no team in history has ever had five starters with 5.00-plus ERAs over a full season (including only starters with 100-plus innings). And the Red Sox have never had more than three in any season in their glorious history.

Can things get better? Look, there have been questions about the Red Sox's rotation since the first day of spring training. But those questions revolved more around, "Can they win a World Series without a true ace?" -- not, "Will this be the worst Red Sox rotation of all time?"

So let's look at this rationally. Every one of these starters has pitched worse than his career norm. And if you look at metrics like FIP, their ERAs look significantly worse than the way they've actually pitched. Those would be the good signs.

But the flip side is there's no one in this group who projects to be more than a No. 3 starter. And other teams have seen various red flags in one form or another (some more significant than others) in every member of this rotation. So there's a lot of potential here for an uptick in psychiatric visits all over New England.

Then again, this team can really hit. It has Eduardo Rodriguez and Brian Johnson looming as secret rotation weapons in Pawtucket. And it's been proved that GM Ben Cherington knows how to make a July deal. So whether Cole Hamels shows up or not, there's more reason for hope than most people walking the streets of the Back Bay have acknowledged yet.

Toronto Blue Jays: starting rotation

Blue Jays

Why they're worried: For one thing, they've been almost as bad as the Red Sox, with a 5.45 rotation ERA that would wipe out the previous franchise record of 5.23. That one was set by a 2000 Blue Jays team that ripped through 13 starters (including the young Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter, who somehow combined for a 7.48 ERA that year before their light bulbs went on). Jays starters are averaging only 5.4 innings a start, the fourth fewest in the big leagues and, once again, a figure that would be the worst in team history. This rotation has allowed a league-worst slash line to opposing hitters of .286/.364/.472, which means, roughly, it's turned every guy it's faced so far into a cross between Freddie Freeman and Troy Tulowitzki. Which we don't recommend.

Can things get better? This team is facing very similar issues to those of the Red Sox, except they have to clear customs more often. The Blue Jays lineup leads the big leagues in runs scored, and Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion haven't even gotten hot yet. So even GM Alex Anthopoulos says they don't need a rotation with five aces: "With our offense," he says, "we just need quality starts." Uh, we regret to inform him his group is tied for last in the league in those (with just nine so far).

But unlike the Red Sox, this rotation's ERA doesn't lie. All five starters have a FIP over 5.00. The two veteran stabilizers, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey, have FIPs of 5.88 and 5.23, respectively. The Opening Day starter, the promising Drew Hutchison, has failed to make it through the fifth inning four times in his past five starts. My rookie of the year pick, Daniel Norris, just headed back to the minors on a confidence-reset mission. And the promising Aaron Sanchez hasn't made it through the sixth inning yet in any start.

Nevertheless, Anthopoulos is mostly preaching patience, saying he isn't worried about Buehrle or Dickey, and that Sanchez (15 walks in his past 16.2 innings) just needs to throw strikes. But the GM did say, "We need Drew Hutchison to be good," and, "We need Norris to get hot," much like future ace Marcus Stroman heated up after a brief minor league visit last year.

What Anthopoulos could really use is a time machine, because then he could go back and keep Stroman from blowing out his knee in a spring training drill. But since finding one of those seems unlikely, this is a team that either needs a lot of things to go right -- or for its collection of mashers to put a whole bunch of crooked numbers on every scoreboard in their path.

Pittsburgh Pirates: offense


Why they're worried: Last year this excellent lineup led the league in walks, finished second in on-base percentage and scored the fourth-most runs in the National League. This year's mysterious ranks in the same categories, with much of the same cast: 13th/14th/12th. Which is, well, odd. And the troubles start with Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison, your third- and ninth-place finishers, respectively, in the MVP voting last year. Last season's combined slash line for them: .314/.381/.517. This year: .190/.256/.310. They stole 36 bases last year. They've combined for exactly zero this year. We'd call that worrisome. How 'bout you?

Can things get better? Logic says this can't possibly continue. Not that logic always applies to baseball. But for one thing, the track records don't match the production. And when in doubt, our advice is to go with large samples over small samples. And now a second thing to remember: Last year at this time, this lineup was functioning just as badly, at .225/.300/.359 after the first 25 games. This year's line: .231/.282/.354. So the offense and the weather have a history of heating up simultaneously in Pittsburgh. Might have something to do with the french fries on the sandwiches at Primanti Brothers. Not sure.

OK, now that we've brightened the skies, here's the dark cloud: As the Pittsburgh Tribune's Travis Sawchik wrote this weekend, the Pirates are a notorious fastball-raking team that's seeing the fewest four-seam fastballs in the league -- and they've responded by chasing a ton of breaking balls. Which explains the precipitous drop in their walk rate.

And then there's McCutchen, who's hitting .193 with a .598 OPS so far. When I brought up his slow start to one NL scout, the first two words out of his mouth were: "He's hurt." McCutchen is one of the great warriors in baseball and a guy who played through a cracked rib down the stretch last season. But his left knee clearly isn't allowing him to run or, more important, hit the way he can.

"Hitters have to have their legs," the scout said. "He's a great fastball hitter. But when you don't have your legs, the breaking ball is even more difficult to hit. It's hard to trust your hands if you know that when you follow through, your left knee is going to hurt."

So are McCutchen's issues a long-term or short-term issue? The Pirates' whole season could ride on that answer.

Los Angeles Angels: offense


Why they're worried: Why did this team win 98 games last year? Because it mauled pitchers daily. It led the major leagues in runs scored. But this year? Only 22nd in runs scored per game. They outscored the Astros by almost 150 runs last season, and they're already 29 runs behind them this season. They finished in the top four in the AL in extra-base hits, on-base percentage and OPS last season. And this year? In the bottom two in all those categories. Oh, and one more thing: How could a team with Mike Trout on it have one triple all year? Jay Bruce just hit two in one game.

Can things get better? On one hand, opposing teams look at the Angels and say: They need one more big bat. Maybe Josh Hamilton was never the guy they thought they were signing. But their left fielders have combined for a .152/.200/.221/1 HR stat line so far. So that's a black hole in their lineup and their outfield that even a shadow of the old Josh Hamilton could have filled.

On the other hand, can we talk large versus small samples again? Four hitters in this group have dramatically underperformed versus their career norms: Albert Pujols (.225/.296/.393), Matt Joyce (.148/.195/.222), Erick Aybar (.216/.276/.237) and Chris Iannetta (a mind-boggling .094/.192/.109). That's a combined .493 OPS (small sample). Over the previous three years, they all had an OPS between .707 and .810 (large sample).

Or let's take a look at this lineup as a whole. Last year after 26 games, the Angels had crunched 37 homers and had a .256/.323/.443 team slash line. A year later, they're at .225/.289/.343, which is tough to comprehend, no matter how much they miss the invaluable Howie Kendrick.

So yeah, they might be short on depth. And sure, they might be wishing on Pujols to be the force he used to be, not the aging facsimile of that guy he is now. But we repeat: Mike Trout plays for this team! So the Angels might not lead the major leagues in runs scored again. But if you think they're going to be practically the worst offensive team in baseball, a year after being the best, I have an igloo in Palm Springs I'd like to sell you.

Washington Nationals: defense


Why they're worried: Quite a pace this team is setting: 25 unearned runs in 26 games? Here's how hard that is: Just up the Beltway last year, the Orioles allowed 36 unearned runs all season. Or if you prefer to measure this in errors, it's also 25 errors in 26 games for the Nationals. The two Florida teams -- the Rays and Marlins -- have committed only 15 combined. And then there's the shortstop, Ian Desmond. He's up to nine errors, tied for most in the big leagues at any position. He probably doesn't want to know that Omar Vizquel had eight seasons in which he played at least 100 games at short and didn't put up nine E-6s all year.

Can things get better? Even though the Nationals have just ripped off six wins in seven games, what's worrisome here isn't merely the error total. It's that this team just doesn't turn enough balls in play into outs. According to baseball-reference.com, the Nationals have converted only 64.9 percent of all batted balls into outs. That's the worst rate in baseball. As recently as 2012, the year of their first division title in D.C., they converted 70.2 percent, tied for second in their league.

What bugs pitching coach Steve McCatty is that a pitching staff that was supposed to be historically awesome hasn't picked up the defense the way it was designed to.

"I tell you what," he told Jerry Crasnick recently. "Errors happen in baseball. I'd be interested to see how many runs have scored on that particular play, as opposed to how many runs were let in afterward. If there's an error made, all you have to do is get the next guy out. ... So I'm not gonna sit here and find fault in any way, shape or form with unearned runs. We had the opportunity to stop them. We have to get better at that.'"

Well, if he's really interested, the Nationals have allowed at least one unearned run in 12 different games this year. In only two of them did runs score on an error itself. All the rest -- 22 of the 25 -- scored after the pitchers failed to stop the bleeding. Then again, the pitchers have committed six errors themselves, the most in baseball. So it's on them in more ways than one.

Now it's true that the Nationals have had a lot of players who have either been hurt, changed positions or played out of position. And it's possible that when Anthony Rendon returns, he'll help put those pieces back in place. But will that be enough to fix Desmond, who was described by one scout this week as a guy who is playing defensively as if he were "in a fog"? The Nationals had better hope so, because when your shortstop isn't making even the routine plays, your defense isn't good enough to win a World Series. Period.