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3 up, 3 down in April: How MLB’s first month went right for the Pirates and very wrong for the White Sox

One month down, five to go for MLB’s 2023 season. As baseball flips the calendar to May, things officially aren’t new, but many are still weird — or at least unexpected.

You know some of the headlines: The Tampa Bay Rays might be unstoppable. The San Diego Padres haven’t quite taken flight. The Los Angeles Dodgers are depleted. All of those teams are ultimately not too far off course from their forecasts (OK, the Rays are north of almost every team in baseball history, but we’ve covered that).

Before we move forward into May, let’s take a look at some clubs whose current positioning in the standings might inspire double-takes. Here are three teams with surprisingly sunny outlooks and three that, through the season’s first month, have holes to climb out of.

Pirates, Orioles, Rangers soaring to start season

Pittsburgh Pirates: I don’t think anyone saw this coming, and I was high on the Pirates. Guided by a new raft of veterans — most notably, returning hero Andrew McCutchen — the Pirates’ rebuild has gone from half-baked to sizzling in a hurry. Even with Oneil Cruz sidelined by an ankle injury, the Bucs have surged to 20-9, finishing April atop of the NL Central with a dynamic lineup. Newly extended Bryan Reynolds is batting .320, and the team is getting real power from 24-year-old Jack Suwinski and 30-year-old Rockies castoff Connor Joe.

The improved pitching has been less flashy, but Pittsburgh has several young starters taking steps forward, including Roansy Contreras and Johan Oviedo. That duo, both acquired in trades during their fallow period, and the veteran Vince Velasquez have shown a pretty clear strategy of throwing more sliders. So far, it’s working.

There’s a long way to go for the Pirates to remain in playoff contention, but April was the brightest month in a long time in Pittsburgh.

Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles’ optimism bloomed last summer as catcher Adley Rutschman quickly proved franchise player expectations correct. So far this season, Rutschman still looks terrific, and Baltimore is building up around him. This year’s biggest revelation? Former top prospect Jorge Mateo, who appears to be having a major breakout.

Top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez made his MLB debut and has pitched to a solid 4.07 ERA (11% better than average by park-adjusted ERA+) in five starts. The O’s are also getting solid work from Tyler Wells and offseason acquisition Kyle Gibson.

Baltimore’s real magic is happening in the bullpen, though. A season after the emergence of splitter-flinging closer Felix Bautista, the Orioles have plenty of interesting setup men, including dynamite righty Yennier Cano — who has yet to give up a run in 11 innings.

At 19-9, Baltimore sits second in baseball’s toughest division in the early going, with AL Rookie of the Year favorite Gunnar Henderson having not hit his stride yet and several potential contributors still percolating in Triple-A.

Texas Rangers: Flush with recently signed stars, the Rangers are making a run for the AL West. At 17-11, they have looked the part of a contender early on. There are predictable injury concerns now — with both Jacob deGrom and Corey Seager on the IL — but also more lasting reasons for positivity. Most notably, rookie third baseman Josh Jung is hitting to the tune of a 128 OPS+, and catcher Jonah Heim has played more like a star than a solid starter. Those are both welcome developments, as is Adolis Garcia’s improved plate discipline, that go beyond the team’s spending.

In the rotation, where most of the money was spent this winter, the Rangers will need to weather deGrom’s absence and hope for continued production from Martin Perez and Nathan Eovaldi. Andrew Heaney has been wobbly so far, but Dane Dunning — a younger arm pushed into a swingman role — has pitched brilliantly when opportunities arise.

There are still some questions and outright holes on this roster, which will probably flare up more as the Houston Astros gallop into the frame, but Texas has had more answers than many expected.

Cardinals, White Sox, Guardians sit under .500

St. Louis Cardinals: This is what bad baseball looks like, St. Louis. The Cardinals pitching staff came into the season as a major concern, but no one thought the lineup would hit the skids. Yet despite an overflowing roster of young hitting options, that is what has happened. Continued strong performances from Paul Goldschmidt and Tommy Edman, plus a breakout month from Nolan Gorman, are really the only significant bright spots.

Nolan Arenado will probably put it together, but right now, he’s batting .239 and slugging only .319. More ominously, the apparent glut of productive outfielders has quickly turned into a problem. Top prospect Jordan Walker started off hot, then slumped and struggled so badly on defense that he was sent to Triple-A. Tyler O’Neill got benched by manager Oli Marmol over a questionable hustle play, and it turned into a public spat. Lars Nootbaar, Japan’s new second-favorite player, has been useful but missed time due to injury.

This would all be less alarming if the rest of the division weren’t playing so well. But the aforementioned Pirates are doing what they’re doing. The Milwaukee Brewers are 18-10, and the Chicago Cubs are holding serve in an upward-facing season at 14-13. That means the Cardinals are in last and already five games out of third in the division they have long ruled.

Chicago White Sox: Tony La Russa wasn’t helping, but it turns out he was far from the only issue dragging this once-promising team down. The White Sox — a grisly 8-21 heading into May — are dealing with too many issues to enumerate. Some are unavoidable (injuries, pitchers' age). Others arise from half-measures (Andrew Benintendi isn’t very impactful for a big offseason signing).

And some were completely foreseeable to seemingly everyone except the White Sox front office. Specifically: They gave new manager Pedro Grifol a losing hand from the get-go. Trying to place Eloy Jimenez, Gavin Sheets, Andrew Vaughn and Jake Burger in a single successful baseball lineup is one of those unsolvable problems that gets named after the person who first attempted to solve it and occupies obsessive hobbyists for decades with no progress.

There are simply too many players on this team who have no good position other than designated hitter. That might not be the biggest problem, but it sure does stand out as emblematic of the franchise’s failure to build on the promise of 2020 and 2021.

Cleveland Guardians: In comparison to the bottom of the AL Central, the Guardians still look fine. They are very much in the orbit of the division-leading Minnesota Twins, but the ways in which they got here are concerning. Their vaunted pitching staff is getting decent results but striking out fewer batters than all but two other teams (Washington Nationals and Oakland A’s). Peripheral numbers for several frontline stars — Shane Bieber, Emmanuel Clase among them — look a bit off.

Then there’s the offense. It ranks 26th in the majors by park-adjusted wRC+, but the best number to sum up the issue might be this: Perennial MVP candidate José Ramirez has already been intentionally walked five times, twice as many as any other hitter in the majors? Why? Because other threats in this lineup are few and far between.

Ramirez has batted third every game, and Cleveland’s Nos. 4 and 5 hitters have combined for an MLB-worst .192/.269/.341 line. That almost has to get better, but it needs to be much, much better for the Guardians to get back on track.