Why these six struggling MLB contenders have what it takes to turn things around

Given that we’re more than one-quarter of the way through the 2023 Major League Baseball season, we’ve already witnessed a good amount of baseball. Teams have banked a possibly substantial number of either wins or losses that will go toward determining who makes or misses the playoffs. 

Of course, there’s also still plenty of time for things to change. Look no further than last season. Let’s go all the way to the end of May. Sure, some things were in place. The Yankees, Astros and Dodgers were in first place and that’s where they’d end up. Some of the worst teams were already in their cellar position, too. 

On the other hand, some eventual playoff teams looked like they were in a bad way before their fortunes greatly turned. 

  • The Braves were only 23-27 and, more jarringly, trailed the Mets by 10 1/2 games. The opened June by winning 14 games in a row and ended up winning 101 games and the NL East. 
  • The Phillies were 21-29 and would fire their manager one game later. The opened June with a nine-game winning streak and also won 15 of 17. They’d end up with an NL pennant. 
  • The Mariners were in fourth place in the AL West at 21-28. They went a modest — but successful! — 16-13 in June before ripping off a 14-game winning streak leading up to the All-Star break in July. They’d break the longest playoff drought in baseball and then beat the Blue Jays in the Wild Card Series. 
  • The Guardians were 21-24 and trailing the Twins by six games in the AL Central. They would go 18-10 in June and won the AL Central by 11 games thanks to winning 24 of their final 30 games. 

See? There’s an awful lot of time left to turn things on. 

It’s music to the ears of teams like the Padres, Cardinals, Mets and then, again, the Mariners, Guardians and Phillies. 

Of course, as the repeat slow-start offenders can attest, an awful lot needs to break right for teams to drastically turn things around the way the Braves, Phillies, Mariners and Guardians did last season. Can it happen for some of these teams? Here’s what they’ll need. 

1. Padres

They need to hit better. 

That’s it. For real. 

Oh, you want more? OK. 

The Padres to this point have been one of the worst offensive teams in all of baseball. They are hitting .222 (last in the majors) with a .379 slugging percentage. The only teams scoring fewer runs per game are the Royals, A’s, Guardians, Tigers and Marlins. They are striking out too much and just about the only thing they’ve done well so far is draw walks (thank you, Juan Soto). 

There’s also situational hitting. The league slash with runners in scoring position is .254/.335/.414. The Padres are hitting an embarrassing .189/.289/.322 with runners in scoring position. 

The personnel should be there. Once Manny Machado gets off the injured list, the Padres have a foursome (looping in Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Xander Bogaerts) that could be the toast of baseball. The problem is that Machado has been bad, Soto started slow, Bogaerts leveled off after a hot start and Tatis has been good but not great. Also, Jake Cronenworth needs to be better while He-Seong Kim has taken a step back from last season and they’ve gotten absolutely nothing offensively from behind the plate. 

So, yes, they need to hit better. If things come together the way it looks like they can, the Padres could be due a hot streak like we saw from one of those four teams listed above last season. 

2. Cardinals

It’s already started. The Cardinals actually bottomed out at a pitiful 10-24. They’ve been what many expected them to be since then, having won 11 of 15. Plus, playing in a sub-par division means the Cardinals are only five games out of first despite still being seven games under .500 here closing in on June. 

The offense is humming along as it should be, for the most part. The problem has been in the rotation and it seems likely that there will continue to be issues there. Still, we’ve seen enough flashes and we know the Cardinals are capable of adding an arm or two at the trade deadline. 

This group is certainly one to watch. 

3. Mets

Here’s another one where the turnaround has possibly already started. Plus, the Mets spotted themselves a nice 14-7 cushion to start the season. They just went 6-16 after that against mostly bad competition and the situation seemed rather dire. They now have won five straight games, though, and things are looking up. 

Better health and performance in the rotation would be a bonus. José Quintana is on the road back and it looks like Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander might be ready to look like their old (young) selves for a bit. Kodai Senga will be continually adjusting all season, but his upside is immense. 

That should be one of the best rotations in baseball in the second half, if they can get everyone there. It would be a true needle-mover, as only the A’s have a worse rotation WAR to this point in all of baseball. Mets starters this year have a 5.09 ERA and that just isn’t acceptable. 

Solving some rotation issues comes with the added bonus of helping alleviate the pressure on the bullpen. 

They could also stand to have a better offense. Maybe Starling Marte’s big day on Sunday gets him going and that would be helpful. I also think they’ll benefit from letting the youngsters (Brett Baty and Francisco Alvarez for sure, but maybe even Mark Vientos, too) play on a regular basis. 

It’s still a long season and the Mets have talent. Let’s see how it plays out. 

4. Mariners

The Mariners have had some misfortune in one-run games, sitting 4-12 in such contests. Sometimes that evens out. The common sentiment these days is that it will even out, but it doesn’t always happen in season. 

The other big thing here is the offense. The Mariners have been low-average and high-strikeout all season. The terribly low average is dragging down the on-base and slugging, sure, but the home runs haven’t been there as much as they were last season. That’s especially striking with the breakout of Jarred Kelenic. 

A decent portion of the offensive shortfall can be placed at the feet of 22-year-old wunderkind Julio Rodríguez. Others, such as Ty France, Teoscar Hernánez and Eugenio Suárez need to be better, but Julio is the big one to watch here. If he starts clicking the way he did last year, it’s a decent bet the others get in line. 

You can squint your way home here, but the Mariners have an uphill battle. They are six games behind the Rangers and in fourth place. There’s no guarantee the Rangers or even Angels backslide in a major way and the Astros are starting to look like themselves after a World Series hangover. Plus, there are likely to be at least two wild cards — if not all three — from the AL East. 

Maybe Monday night’s win and a visit from the A’s will kick things into gear for the Mariners. 

5. Guardians

Another one: The offense needs to be a lot better. The Guardians rank dead last in the American League in OPS. They don’t hit for average, rarely walk and don’t hit for power. Yeah, that’s pretty much everything, at least at the plate. They do steal bases well, so there’s that. 

More than anything, though, the Guardians’ best path to the playoffs has already been achieved in both geography and being in the American League. They only trail the Twins by 3 1/2 games in the worst division in baseball, so even a modest string of wins here gets the Guardians right back in playoff position. 

6. Phillies

This one has already been covered by my esteemed colleague Mike Axisa. Check out his four things that can turn the season around in Philly, with Trea Turner at the top of the list.