What should each scuffling juggernaut freak out - and chill out - about?
A week ago, only the most brazenly contrarian among us would've predicted an American League postseason pool that doesn't include the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Houston Astros.
That's still the case today, obviously. It's only been a week.
Still, those putative powerhouses haven't looked the part yet. None of them have a winning record. None sit higher than third in their division. They certainly haven't validated our preseason fears about competitive imbalance. That isn't to say these teams won't all be there come October, but each has been underwhelming early on, beset by problems both legitimate and piddling.
As such, let's identify one actually worrisome issue for each scuffling juggernaut, as well as one ostensible problem that isn't worth losing sleep over. (Note: Stats updated through Thursday's games.)
Boston Red Sox (2-6; 5th in AL East)
Freak out about: Chris Sale.
Diminished velocity raised eyebrows throughout his ineffective Opening Day start, and the lanky left-hander did little to assuage concerns in his follow-up outing in Oakland, where his four-seamer hovered just below 90 miles per hour and he threw twice as many offspeed pitches as fastballs. (It should be noted that he was still effective against the A's, pitching six innings in a 1-0 loss.) Red Sox manager Alex Cora attempted to downplay the situation afterward, pointing out that Sale's velocity has waned at times in the past. Still, it's never dipped as low as it did against the Athletics, who struck out just once in those six innings. The last time Sale tossed six-plus innings without recording multiple strikeouts? It was *checks notes* ... yeah, it's never happened before.
Chill out about: The offense.
If a two-and-a-half-game drought is indicative of anything, it's that even really good offensive teams slump from time to time. And though the Red Sox have indeed gotten off to a sluggish start at the plate - slashing a meager .240/.306/.384 (97 wRC+) through Thursday - their lineup is still really good, if not necessarily as indomitable as last year's. Besides, they haven't even played a home game yet. Hitting in Seattle and Oakland can be hard! On the bright side, J.D. Martinez is still murdering the baseball, as are Xander Bogaerts and Mitch Moreland. Mookie Betts, meanwhile, isn't going to finish the season with a .269 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), nor will the Red Sox collectively watch a smaller percentage of their fly balls go over the fence than the punchless Baltimore Orioles.
New York Yankees (3-4; 3rd in AL East)
Freak out about: The injuries.
To say the Yankees' depth has been tested so far would be a Giancarlo Stanton-sized understatement. They took the field on Opening Day without rotation ace Luis Severino, center fielder Aaron Hicks, shortstop Didi Gregorius, and key bullpen cog Dellin Betances. Since then, three major pieces - Stanton, Miguel Andujar, and Troy Tulowitzki - have been felled by injuries, and Andujar may end up missing the entire season with a torn labrum. The attrition will undoubtedly take a toll. Even with all those players incapacitated, the Yankees are still pretty good on paper, but they're not the behemoth they were poised to be. If Severino (rotator cuff inflammation) and Stanton (left biceps strain), in particular, don't return promptly, the Yankees' path to a division title will become much more fraught.
Chill out about: Aroldis Chapman.
As alluded to above, diminished velocity is always concerning, especially when a pitcher loses 3 mph off their fastball like Chapman has so far. Still, the Yankees' bullpen is so ridiculously stacked that it doesn't need Chapman to be dominant to thrive as a group. After all, his nascent struggles notwithstanding (4.50 ERA in four appearances) - and sans any contribution from Betances yet - the Yankees' relief corps still ranks ninth in the majors in park-adjusted ERA (67 ERA-), fifth in park-adjusted FIP (78 FIP-), and fourth in expected weighted on-base average (.252).
Cleveland Indians (3-3; 3rd in AL Central)
Freak out about: The offense.
If you can tell me who hit third for Cleveland in Wednesday's loss to the White Sox without looking it up, I'll Venmo you $100 right now. (Editor's note: Not actually.) The answer is Jordan Luplow. If you haven't heard of Jordan Luplow, congrats, you have a life! Adults with responsibilities shouldn't be aware of Jordan Luplow, a 25-year-old former third-round pick who'd compiled a .194/.274/.371 slash line over 64 big-league games before landing with Cleveland this offseason. Anyway, his presence should tell you everything you need to know about the state of this lineup. A week into the season, the Indians rank at or near the bottom of the majors in batting average (.174), OBP (.255), slugging percentage (.239), and wRC+ (39). Good thing their rotation is lights-out.
Chill out about: Corey Kluber.
A slow start is pretty standard for the two-time Cy Young Award winner. Historically, by a host of meaningful metrics, the first month of the season has been Kluber's worst, and there's ample evidence that his unsightly 5.63 ERA through two starts in 2019 is just a blip. He's yet to surrender a home run in 10 1/3 innings, while his .353 BABIP and 52.9 percent strand rate suggest he's been victimized by some rotten luck. Despite his modest strikeout numbers thus far, his swinging strike rate (13.6 percent) is actually higher than it was in 2018, when he racked up 222 strikeouts in 215 innings and ultimately finished third in AL Cy Young voting. He'll be fine.
Houston Astros (2-5; 4th in AL West)
Freak out about: Uh ... nothing?
Honestly, this team is so talented and so healthy - and with due respect to the red-hot Mariners, so lacking a worthy division rival - that it'd be disingenuous to suggest there's legitimately something to worry about. If you have to spaz out about something, though, direct your ire toward Ron Kulpa, the home plate umpire who relentlessly antagonized the Astros on Wednesday night simply because, as he put it, he "can do whatever (he) want(s)."
Chill out about: The lack of timely hits.
Contrary to what your uncle told you, "clutch hitting" isn't a real skill; good hitters perform at a higher level and poor hitters perform at a lower level irrespective of a particular game's score, its base-out state, or any other variable that may help promote the false narrative. Meanwhile, the Astros' lineup is replete with good hitters. They even have a couple of great hitters. So while their .095 batting average with runners in scoring position is easily the worst mark in baseball so far, it's nothing more than small-sample flatulence. By season's end, the Astros, who finished tied for second in park-adjusted offense last year, will once again be among the league leaders in virtually every offensive category. (Josh Reddick knows it, too.)
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.
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