MLB Buy or Sell: Braves fine sans Strider? Trout staying put? Phillies in trouble?

There’s no shortage of storylines in Atlanta for a Braves team moving forward without strikeout extraordinaire Spencer Strider — and coping for the loss with a major assist from a former reliever. 

This week’s buy/sell looks at the wave of successful moves from the bullpen to the rotation, offenses doing more (and less) than expected, a veteran pitcher breaking out, a young hitter making the leap to stardom, Mike Trout’s future in Anaheim, the (new?) worst team in baseball and more.  

1. Nationals SS CJ Abrams is becoming a star 

Verdict: Buy 

Abrams was a solid regular in 2023, accumulating 3.4 bWAR while swiping 47 bags. Now, he looks like a superstar in the making. After hitting 18 homers in 151 games last year, Abrams already has five in his first 15 games this season. With some added strength to his frame, he has gone from a league-average hitter to one of the best in baseball to start the season. While there is a plethora of budding stars at shortstop, from Bobby Witt Jr. to Gunnar Henderson to Elly De La Cruz, the only player at Abrams’ premium position with a higher slugging percentage or OPS than him is Mookie Betts

And it’s not flukey. 

Abrams is pummeling fastballs and spraying line drives across the field while posting an average exit velocity up almost 4 mph from last year. He’s still chasing at a high rate, but he’s often making contact when he does. His whiff rate is down, his walk rate is up, and his much-improved .295 batting average should actually be even higher based on expected statistics. The Nats’ leadoff man still has a lot of work to do to reach his defensive potential, but it’s worth the reminder that he’s still only 23 years old. All the tools are there for the former top prospect, and he’s starting to realize his massive potential. 

2. Mike Trout will be helping a different team by season’s end

Verdict: Sell 

As long as Trout is in Anaheim, and as long as the Angels‘ playoff drought continues, there will be questions about how long the generational talent will continue to stick with the only major-league team he has known. This spring, Trout said he has no intention of asking for a trade, though he would not rule out the possibility in the future. He has not been to the postseason since 2014, when the Angels were swept in three games. His experience in the World Baseball Classic only seemed to further flame his desire to play more competitive baseball. 

At the same time, he also called asking for a trade “the easy way out,” and it appears that loyalty and winning a championship specifically with the Angels team that drafted him 15 years ago would mean more

If the Angels manage to continue hovering around .500, I don’t see Trout asking out this year and I don’t see Arte Moreno making that kind of move to ship away the only star left in Anaheim. Talks will heat up if the Angels start to tank before the deadline, but even with Trout looking as good as he has at any point over the past few years, from his no-trade clause, to his luxury tax hit of more than $35 million per year for the next seven seasons, to his recent injury history, I’d still be surprised to see him on a new team at the deadline. 

Angels’ Mike Trout blasts another homer to tie for MLB lead

3. The Ronel Blanco breakout is real

Verdict: Buy

With the Astros‘ bullpen steady racking up Ls, Blanco’s steady, lengthy performances continue to be a welcome sight for a Houston team that could use any good news right now. But how sustainable could it be for a 30-year-old who entered this year with a career 4.78 ERA? 

Well, I’m buying in. 

Blanco had starred in the minor leagues and in Dominican winter ball, so it’s not entirely out of nowhere, but it helps that this version of the right-hander offers something different. He made adjustments to his changeup, and he’s using the pitch three times as often this year. Opponents have yet to find an answer. His whiff rate is actually down from last year, but he’s pounding the zone and getting such weak contact that it works. Blanco, who has a 0.86 ERA, is holding opponents to a major-league best .090 batting average. He has allowed just six hits in 21 innings, aided by a no-hitter in his first outing of the year. 

4. The Brewers‘ offense really is this good 

Verdict: Sell 

Led by a legitimate star behind the plate in William Contreras, the Brewers’ offense deserves its props. It’s better than everyone thought. The dudes don’t chase. Contreras, Willy Adames and Rhys Hoskins provide pop. Brice Turang and Sal Frelick bring speed. Top prospect Jackson Chourio provides a little of everything. It’s a team that can cause problems. 

I’m just not sold that their second-highest OPS in the sport is sustainable. 

Milwaukee is hitting an MLB-best .363 on ground balls, Contreras and Frelick are both running a BABIP over .400, and the Brewers as a team currently have the second-highest batting average on balls in play (and wOBA-xWOBA) in baseball, implying some luck involved and perhaps some regression ahead. I can buy the Adames bounce back, but I can’t buy Blake Perkins, Joey Ortiz, Turang and Frelick all hitting over .300 all year. With Christian Yelich dealing with back issues again after his majestic power surge to start the year, the group might fall at least a little back down to earth. 

5. The Phillies‘ offense should be concerned 

Verdict: Sell 

For the Phillies to supplant the Spencer Strider-less Braves in the NL East, they’ll need to get their offense going first. They currently rank 23rd in on-base percentage, 24th in OPS and have the same number of homers as the Guardians. However, we’ve seen some version of this before. Last year, when the Phillies finished with the sixth-highest OPS in the sport, this was the monthly breakdown:

March/April: .771
May: .681
June: .747
July: .728
August: .907
September: .747 

Their offense tends to be volatile, with a number of streaky hitters. Center field might be a problem, and Nick Castellanos having no extra-base hits through 65 at-bats is a bit alarming, but overall they’ve weathered the slow offensive start well, and I’d still expect to see the mercurial group get hot soon. 

Bryce Harper hammers 2-run HR to extend Phillies’ lead vs. Rockies

6. The Braves are vulnerable after the Strider injury 

Verdict: Sell

Our Deesha Thosar wrote that Atlanta still might be the best team in the National League even without Strider. As crazy as it might be that a team can lose MLB’s strikeout king and still be the favorites, that’s how loaded this Braves roster is. They have the top offense in baseball in the early going — by far — and that’s with reigning MVP Ronald Acuña Jr. having hit only one home run. Even if the rotation continues to struggle, they can just out-mash teams, à la the Rangers

But the pitching staff might figure it out, too, despite a couple red flags beyond Strider’s injury. Coming off an injury-plagued 2023 season, Max Fried’s early struggles and diminished strikeout rate give me some pause, but he hasn’t lost his velocity and tends to figure things out (his highest ERA over the past four years was 3.04). Charlie Morton is coming off back-to-back stinkers and isn’t getting much swing and miss, which becomes a little more alarming at age 40. However, Reynaldo López is thriving, and with Bryce Elder and top prospects AJ Smith-Shawver and Hurston Waldrep waiting in the wings in the minors, there should be enough options to keep the Atlanta rotation afloat at least until the Braves learn more about what they have at the deadline. I’d still expect Atlanta to win the East.  

7. The reliever-to-starter pipeline can really work 

Verdict: Buy 

We saw last year with Seth Lugo — who finished his 2023 season, in which he made 26 starts, with a nearly identical ERA (3.57) to the one he had the year prior as a full-time reliever (3.60) — the rare veteran move from the bullpen to the rotation doesn’t need to bring with it growing pains. 

And, it’s becoming a little less rare. 

The aforementioned López in Atlanta and Jordan Hicks in San Francisco have been the best members of their respective rotations to start the season. At a time when throwing as hard as you can for as long as you can is the prevailing thought, both hard-throwing righties have scaled back the velocity they used in short spurts out of the bullpen to pace themselves for longer outings as starters. And it’s working. 

López has taken about 3 mph off his stuff from last year, is using more of his curveball, and has allowed just one run in his first 18 innings. Hicks’ velocity is down even further, but he said that affords him better control. The results are impossible to ignore. While his strikeout rate is down, so is his walk rate — by nearly half what it was last year. Hicks has upped the usage of his splitter, which is giving opponents problems. Both pitchers look like they’ve made the adjustments needed for a smooth transition. 

In López (0.50), Blanco (0.86), Lugo (1.05), Cody Bradford (1.40) and Hicks (1.57), five of the top 13 qualified starting ERA leaders were spending most of their time in the bullpen at some point in the previous year or two. 

Astros’ Ronel Blanco highlights Ben’s Team of the Week

8. The new-look Padres are bringing the vibes back to San Diego 

Verdict: Buy 

As I wrote in our late March roundtable, while I think the Padres and Giants will both be better this year, I expected San Diego to be the more legitimate NL West contender. There’s just too much talent there to have a repeat of last year, and there’s especially no way they could continue to be that bad in one-run games (9-23) again. 

Well, this new-look group appears to be bringing some different vibes. 

The Padres just took back-to-back series on the road against first-place teams in the Dodgers and Brewers and are 7-4 against teams over .500. Five of their 11 wins have come in comeback fashion, and they’ve consistently delivered with runners in scoring position. Jurickson Profar and rookie Jackson Merrill have solidified an outfield that needed the help — a remarkable feat for Merrill, a 20-year-old converted shortstop who had never played center field professionally before this year — Fernando Tatis Jr is back to mashing, Dylan Cease and Michael King look ready to lead the rotation, and there’s reason to believe things will look even better when Manny Machado’s elbow allows him to start playing the field again. 

They probably won’t topple the Dodgers, but this appears to be a team that will find ways to win more often than not, which is the opposite of last year’s group. 

9. Michael Busch will carry the Cubs‘ offense with Seiya Suzuki down 

Verdict: Sell 

Given the path to a full-time role that he didn’t have in Los Angeles, the top-100 prospect is taking advantage of the more regular opportunity being afforded to him in Chicago. Busch recently tied a franchise record with a homer in five straight games while beginning to realize his massive offensive potential. He is barreling the baseball with regularity and showcasing his tremendous plate discipline, leading all qualified Cubs hitters in every slash line category. 

After struggling in his first taste of the majors with the Dodgers last year, he is doing virtually everything better this go-around — chasing less, whiffing less, making more contact, hitting the ball harder with regularity, getting the ball in the air, utilizing his pull-side power and, perhaps most notably, mashing fastballs. 

But a player with an offensive profile that many have compared to Max Muncy’s can also be prone to strikeouts, and there will eventually need to be some adjustments made as pitchers gain more intel. Outside of Busch and the injured Suzuki, the rest of the Cubs’ lineup hasn’t produced much offensively. I expect Busch to continue to produce, but it might be a bit much to expect him to carry the group with this level of play in his sophomore year. He needs more help. 

10. The A’s are no longer the worst team in baseball

Verdict: Buy 

(The White Sox. It’s the White Sox.)

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the L.A. Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. An LSU grad, Rowan was born in California, grew up in Texas, then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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