Reasons to believe in the Padres; good vibes in Cincinnati, bad vibes in Minnesota

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Reasons to believe in the Padres; good vibes in Cincinnati, bad vibes in Minnesota

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Happy Jackie Robinson Day! Do you know who owns your favorite minor-league team? We have notes on the Astros and Padres, another Monday good/bad week entry and a play you must see. I’m Levi Weaver, here with Ken Rosenthal — welcome to The Windup!

Optimism in San Diego

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves; San Diego is only 9-9. But there are a few indicators that maybe something is brewing.

First, let’s take the opportunity to wildly overreact to the Padres taking a series from the Dodgers in Los Angeles over the weekend, and to the fact they’re 6-4 in their last 10 games, while Los Angeles is just 5-5.

None of that might matter in a month. But for now? Go on, San Diego, I’m listening.

There’s Jackson Merrill, who at just 20 years old is already hitting .333/.419/.426 (.845 OPS), and has already ascended to the leadoff spot. As Dennis Lin reports, the team seems to firmly believe he’s a superstar in the making.

Meanwhile, the last Padre to bat leadoff at such a precocious age (Fernando Tatis Jr.) seems to be back to his “old” self. That feels strange to say about a guy who is only 25, but the last year Tatis looked like this at the plate was back in 2021. His defense was astounding in 2023 — he’s the reigning NL Platinum Glove winner, after all — but how do a .900 OPS and five home runs sound on April 15?

Speaking of former shortstops now thriving as outfielders, how about Jurickson Profar? He has never quite lived up to the “Chosen One” moniker from his uber-prospect days in Texas, but the 31-year-old’s .960 OPS is leading Padres starters so far.

They could use a bit more efficiency from their non-Cease starters, but even the bullpen looks pretty spiffy, sporting four sub-2.00 ERA guys.

Now here’s Ken on a team headed in the opposite direction.

Ken’s Notebook: Astros’ ALCS streak could be in jeopardy

Did the Astros really need to spend all that money on Josh Hader? (Eric Christian Smith / Associated Press)

From my column today on the Astros:

On Saturday, Houston appeared on the verge of dropping to 4-12. They were tied in the seventh inning with the Texas Rangers, a team that had beaten them six straight times at Minute Maid Park, including all four games in the 2023 American League Championship Series. Five Astros starting pitchers were on the injured list. Their bullpen was a mess.

Naturally, the Astros rallied, as they have time and time again while reaching the ALCS in each of the past seven seasons and winning the World Series twice. A seven-run seventh produced a 9-2 victory. On Sunday, the offense erupted for a third straight game without Alex Bregman, who is dealing with an illness. The result was an 8-5 triumph over the Rangers — and a stirring series victory.

By now, we should know not to count out the Astros. Not when they possess four of the best position players in the sport: Bregman, Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker. Not when they rallied from 2 1/2 games back with three to play last season to win their third straight AL West title and sixth in seven years, the only exception coming in the shortened 2020 campaign.

Still, the Astros are 6-11. Their excitement over beating the Rangers the past two days could diminish rapidly in the next three, when they face the Atlanta Braves. All of the innings their starting pitchers threw in recent postseasons, all of the transition the organization underwent this offseason, might finally cause this mini-dynasty to collapse under the weight.

In recent months, The Athletic’s Chandler Rome has chronicled questionable decision-making by the Astros and several growing concerns. Those concerns, since the start of the season, have only grown more acute. The Astros have enough of a track record to warrant the benefit of the doubt. I list five reasons in the column why the team’s path to an eighth straight ALCS appears increasingly problematic. The first has to do with the signing of Josh Hader.

It’s difficult to call the addition of one of the game’s best closers a mistake. But at the very least, the Astros’ five-year, $95 million commitment to Hader, coming days after Kendall Graveman underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, was an overreaction.

Worse, the move failed to address the bullpen’s bigger issue: the loss of 207 1/3 innings with Graveman’s injury and the free-agent departures of Hector Neris, Ryne Stanek and Phil Maton. Hader, who prefers to pitch only one inning, won’t eat into much of that deficit.

As good a back end as Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly and Hader might be — and each has struggled thus far — their value diminishes when the middle-inning relievers can’t hold leads. Neris, Stanek and Maton will earn a combined $19.25 million in 2024, or just slightly more than Hader. The Astros could have signed other relievers they preferred for less. Or maybe divided the money among two relievers and a starter. They still would have had Abreu and Pressly in the late innings.

More Astros:

Who’s buying up minor-league teams?

This might not be something you think about often, but minor-league teams have owners. And there’s a chance the team you’re thinking of right now is owned by Diamond Baseball Holdings, which now owns 32 of the 120 minor-league teams, and is “aggressively in acquisition mode.”

It all began in 2020, when MLB drastically overhauled the minor leagues. Forty-three teams lost affiliation that year, and Diamond’s executive chairman Pat Battle and longtime minor-league owner Peter Freund saw an opportunity. They started acquiring teams, and they haven’t stopped.

“We are agnostic to geography. We are agnostic to club affiliation,” Battle said. “If you’re one of the 120, we are interested.”

So, is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

So far, there are hopeful developments. When teams are bought, DBH tends to keep the local staff in place. They’ve paid on the high end of the expected values, and they’re investing the money to get stadiums up to the higher standards MLB is demanding.

Of course, there’s also skepticism from some about their close relationship with the league office, and concerns that one company getting too much influence is inherently risky.

Chad Jennings, Evan Drellich and Sam Blum do a great job of laying out all the details and letting us decide for ourselves.

Monday vibe check

One week is a very small sample size! But that’s what this section is for: A little snapshot of the week. Let’s get into it! (All team stats are from Sunday through Saturday.)

Good week

• The Milwaukee Brewers had the best offense in baseball last week, scoring 58 runs in six games. William Contreras has led the way — from Sunday through Sunday, he hit .433/.514/.867 (1.381 OPS) with four home runs.

• Strikeouts have been Elly De La Cruz’s Achilles heel, but not only is he hitting .400/.500/1.050 (1.550 OPS) with four home runs (and three stolen bases), his strikeout rate has been a much more palatable 16.7 percent.

• Speaking of the Reds, their outfield defense is thus far the best in baseball, per Sports Info Solutions. They had a cavalcade of circus catches this week, and C. Trent Rosecrans has all the details.

Bad week

• The Minnesota Twins hit just .179 last week, and now Carlos Correa has joined Royce Lewis and Max Kepler on the IL; he has a mild intercostal strain and is expected to miss two to three weeks.

• Not to pile on, but the White Sox won just one game last week … and that win doubled their total for the season, and it was the game in which Yoán Moncada was injured. How bad is it? The highlight of the season is a milkshake.

• A week into the season, Maikel Garcia of the Royals was hitting the ball harder than anyone in the league. He’s still in the 81st percentile, but he hit just .083 for the week (.182 for the season). The explanation? Insanely bad luck — his BABIP this year is .196 (league average is usually around .300), and his xBA is .266.

(This has not slowed the Royals, who are 8-2 in their last 10 games. Tyler Kepner has more on their surprising 10-6 start.)

Handshakes and High Fives

On Jackie Robinson Day, from our friends at Did you know Jackie Robinson has two Hall of Fame plaques?

Jayson Stark writes brilliantly on Spencer Strider (who had internal brace surgery on Friday) and compiles a list of just how much pitching talent is currently on the IL. Meanwhile, Zack Meisel and the team talked to pitchers about how they’re dealing with elbow injuries. Everyone’s thinking about it, but for now, the plan is: “Keep throwing hard.”

There will be a cool moment tonight in Oakland, where Chip Caray (Harry Caray’s grandson) will be calling play-by-play for the Cardinals, while his son Chris will do the same job for the A’s.

It’s tax day! On our Windup podcast, Stephen Nesbitt talks to MLB-pitcher-turned-financial-advisor Jacob Turner about the byzantine rules of athletes filing taxes in multiple states.

Andrew McCutchen hit his 300th home run on Sunday.

Shohei Ohtani has tied Hideki Matsui for the most MLB home runs by a Japanese player.

Keith Law tells us about a few guys whose stock is rising ahead of this year’s MLB draft.

Look at this play by A’s pitcher Lucas Erceg!

You can buy tickets to every MLB game here.

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(Top photo of Jackson Merrill and Fernando Tatis Jr.: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)