Major League Baseball
MLB Buy or Sell: Early contenders, pretenders and first impressions from 2024
Major League Baseball

MLB Buy or Sell: Early contenders, pretenders and first impressions from 2024

Published Apr. 11, 2024 8:00 a.m. ET

We've seen the Pirates surge, the Marlins stumble, the Red Sox's rotation overwhelm and the Astros' bullpen falter.  

But which first impressions are for real?  

Here are 10 takes you might have after the first two weeks of the year — and whether I'm buying or selling those reactions (or overreactions). 

1. The Pirates' hot start is different this year


Verdict: Buy 

Remember last year, when the Pirates were 20-8 on April 29 and led the division? Well, you'll never guess what they're doing again. Pittsburgh has started 9-3 and enters Thursday with the highest winning percentage in the National League. But is it legit or another red herring? 

As good as Oneil Cruz and Bryan Reynolds are, unless Connor Joe's OPS somehow hovers around 1.000 all year, I don't think they'll maintain this offensive pace. But I do believe this year is different. The pitching staff's success (they're top 10 in ERA, top five in WHIP among MLB teams) is more believable to me, especially given the fact that we have yet to see the best of Mitch Keller or David Bednar. Jared Jones raises the ceiling of the current rotation, and that ceiling gets higher quickly once Pittsburgh calls up Paul Skenes. 

This is a team on the rise, and while the best is probably a couple of years away, it's not so far-fetched in a division up for grabs that the Pirates could take a step forward and contend (really, this time). 

2. This is the beginning of the Astros' fall-off in the AL West

Verdict: Sell 

Here is how Houston's season began:

Loss by reliever
Loss by reliever
Loss by reliever 
Loss by reliever 
Win by Ronel Blanco (no-hitter) 
Loss by reliever
Win by shutout 
Loss by reliever 

On Tuesday, you won't believe this, but a Houston reliever took an L. Eight different Astros pitchers have already absorbed a loss. The team is now 4-9 and last in a division that includes the A's. The troubles start, clearly, with a bullpen that is 1-for-5 in save opportunities and has more losses than any relief group in the sport. That feared triumvirate of Josh Hader, Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu? They entered Wednesday a combined 0-4 with a 7.63 ERA and four homers allowed. 

While there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the Houston bullpen, particularly in the middle innings, I just can't see a world where that trio continues to struggle this badly. The Astros (7-10 to start the 2021 season, 6-8 to start the 2022 season, 8-10 to start last season) are no stranger to crummy starts, although this one stands out as particularly stale. José Abreu's abysmal start at the plate is troubling, but Yordan Álvarez and José Altuve are still raking and Yainer Díaz provides more offensive upside behind the plate. I assume they'll figure this thing out. 

3. The Marlins' season is doomed — and it's time to start selling 

Verdict: Buy

What could you get for two years of Luis Arráez? Or how about three years of Jesús Luzardo? I know fire sales have gotten the Marlins in trouble before, but whatever they can do to add some bats to the farm system and think toward the future, it's time. 

All the red flags from last year's 84-78 playoff team — the minus-57 run differential, the unsustainably extraordinary 33-14 record in one-run games — seem to be rearing their head, not to mention the fact this team did nothing to get better in the offseason and is now without Sandy Alcántara and Eury Pérez

A year of bad vibes seemed to start when they let Kim Ng depart unceremoniously, and now they might lose reigning Manager of the Year Skip Schumaker, who was hired by Ng and had the 2025 club option voided from his deal. At 2-11, with a minus-30 run differential, they don't look competitive this year. Might as well start bolstering one of the worst farm systems in the sport. 

4. The Red Sox's rotation really might be one of the best in baseball

Verdict: Sell  

Look, the numbers don't lie, and I don't want to diminish what is clearly a group putting things together under new direction. Boston's starters have the lowest ERA in the majors in the early going led by new pitching coach Andrew Bailey and chief baseball officer Craig Breslow. They have gotten the best out of a group of starters that had a 4.68 ERA last year and is returning largely the same cast, minus Chris Sale and James Paxton

Nick Pivetta, Tanner Houck, Kutter Crawford and Garrett Whitlock all had ERAs over 4.00 last season. Those four all have ERAs under 1.00 this year while altering their pitch usage rather dramatically, most obviously cutting down on their fastball rate. Whitlock was over 50% sinkers this year and is under 25% on the pitch in the early going this year. Houck, guided by a slider and sinker getting more horizontal break, has nearly doubled his strikeout rate and hasn't been barreled yet. Crawford looks almost as unhittable while upping his sweeper usage. 

Clearly, there is more here than a lot of people expected going into the season, and more reason to believe that Boston could compete in the loaded AL East despite its offseason inactivity. 

At the same time, the Red Sox have faced the Mariners, Athletics and Angels, three teams not exactly known for their elite bats, and Boston's thin rotation depth is already getting tested. Beyond losing top signing Lucas Giolito to a significant elbow injury, Pivetta is now on the IL with a flexor strain. If the Red Sox had gone "full throttle" and signed a Blake Snell or a Shōta Imanaga, maybe I'd feel differently, but it's still hard to envision this group — though much improved — ending the year among the best in baseball as currently constructed. 

5. Anthony Volpe's hot start is legit

Verdict: Buy 

A year ago, we saw a top prospect shortstop in Bobby Witt Jr. evolve from one of the worst fielders at his position to one of the best. This year, we might be witnessing an offensive version of that transformation in Volpe. 

By wRC+, Volpe was one of the 10 worst qualified hitters in the sport in 2023 (he slashed .209/.283/.383) despite a 20/20 rookie year. He does not look like the same guy to start his sophomore campaign. Volpe reportedly cleaned up his bat path to eliminate some of the holes in his swing and stay in the zone longer. The result is a lower launch angle, fewer flyouts and more line drives, allowing the shortstop to utilize his plus speed. He is mashing breaking balls, which gave him trouble a season ago, but the most glaring difference is a whiff rate he has cut down by more than double from last year. He isn't chasing as much — and when he does, he's still making a lot more contact than he did previously. 

While this level of play might not be sustainable, and he'll probably need to barrel more balls consistently to make the leap into superstar territory, it's an extremely encouraging start for Volpe and a Yankees lineup that could use a third star behind Aaron Judge and Juan Soto. His Gold Glove defense gives him a solid floor, but the improvements under the hood offensively give reason to believe Volpe, a 2019 first-round pick, could reach his ceiling sooner than anticipated after last year's offensive troubles. 

6. Shōta Imanaga will win NL Rookie of the Year 

Verdict: Sell

A starting pitcher moving stateside from Japan is taking the National League by storm — just maybe not the one everyone expected. 

While Yoshinobu Yamamoto seems to be figuring things out after a disastrous first start, Imanaga has yet to allow a run through his first two outings. He has been an exceptional, vital piece for a shorthanded Cubs rotation, expertly placing his rising four-seamer at the top of the zone while getting swing and miss on his splitter. His control (he has yet to walk anyone) and his chase rate (he ranks in the 99th percentile) have been elite. If we were voting right now for NL Cy Young, he would get my vote. But we are not. And there are some reasons for trepidation. 

He hasn't allowed a home run through two starts, but he has the highest fly ball rate (and lowest ground ball rate) of any pitcher who has thrown at least 10 innings this year. That sample size is far too small to draw any sweeping conclusions, but it's worth remembering that his terrific NPB strikeout and walk numbers last year also came with elevated home run and fly ball rates. That gives me some pause, especially considering the increased power he'll see in MLB and the fact that opponents are hitting him hard when they do make contact. In addition, can he continue to turn to his fastball/splitter 90% of the time when he starts seeing more lineups a third time through? 

7. The Tigers and Royals will be contenders in the AL Central

Verdict: Buy 

The inactivity of the Twins and Guardians this winter opened the door for another team — or two — to make their case as division title contenders. The rough start for the Twins and Shane Bieber's season-ending injury have only opened that door further. 

While I'm hesitant to make too much of the hot starts for the upstart Tigers and Royals — both young teams got where they are primarily by whooping the White Sox, although Kansas City's success against Houston lends more legitimacy to its start — we should learn more about Detroit soon. The Tigers, still waiting on their best hitters to get cooking, will face the Twins in two of their next three series (the other series is against the reigning champion Rangers). 

Both teams appear to have legit aces in Tarik Skubal and Cole Ragans, and the additions in the Detroit bullpen (Shelby Miller looks basically untouchable) and the Kansas City rotation (Royals starters' 1.97 ERA ranks second behind the Red Sox) have both teams positioned well to make a run in a winnable division. Brady Singer appears poised for a bounce-back year, and might this be the MJ Melendez breakout season? 

8. It's panic time for the Twins and Mariners 

Verdict: Sell  

The White Sox and Athletics are not set up to win baseball games this year, so it's a bit troubling that those are the only teams averaging fewer runs per game than Minnesota and Seattle in the early going. 

Losing Royce Lewis for an extended period is obviously devastating, but no one could have anticipated this degree of ineptitude from a Twins offense that had a top-seven OPS and launched the third-most homers in the sport last year. They not only have the lowest batting average in baseball — by a lot — but also had only four home runs on the season before finding the bleachers five times over the past two days versus the Dodgers. Maybe that will get them, and last year's breakout rookie Edouard Julien, going. 

I'm less concerned about their offense, especially considering how Carlos Correa has bounced back, as I am the Mariners'. Seattle tried to address some of its high whiff rates … only to start this season with the highest strikeout rate in the sport (followed, by the way, by a Twins team that had the most strikeouts in baseball last year). 

Neither the mainstays of the lineup nor the newcomers the Mariners hoped would upgrade the group have gotten going. Julio Rodríguez, J.P. Crawford, Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver and Luke Raley each have an OPS under .500. Still, the bigger surprise is the struggling rotation. There's just no way the starters' ERA stays above 5.00 for long, and Rodríguez will get hot at some point. For both teams, it's an uneasy start — but I think too early to panic. 

9. The Cardinals are missing the playoffs again

Verdict: Buy 

It HAS to be better this year in St. Louis …


A trendy pick by many to rebound and win the NL Central, the Cardinals again find themselves in last place in the early going. Sonny Gray is a huge add, but he can only do so much to provide stability to a rotation that might struggle once again. The Cardinals are going to go as far as their offense takes them … which isn't very far if the veteran hitters they're counting on most continue to struggle the way they have to start the year. I wouldn't necessarily pick the Cardinals to finish in fifth place again, but after watching this team for a couple of weeks, it wouldn't shock me if that happens. 

10. The Rays' pitching staff is finally overwhelmed by all the injuries and might be in trouble 

Verdict: Sell

Tampa Bay has the fifth-worst ERA in baseball, and the numbers are particularly skewed by a struggling bullpen. But, c'mon, it's the Rays. As a group, the Rays haven't finished outside the top five in ERA since 2018, when they ranked sixth. They tend to absorb injuries and somehow figure this stuff out. 

Similar to the situation at the back end in Houston, I have a hard time believing Pete Fairbanks, Colin Poche and Phil Maton will all have ERAs over 5.00 for long. The same goes for starter Zach Eflin, who has gotten off to a rough start after finishing sixth in Cy Young voting last season. And though life becomes more difficult without ace Shane McClanahan, at some point Tampa Bay should get Taj Bradley, Shane Baz, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen back into the mix. I'm not overly concerned yet. 

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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