Is it time to panic about Corbin Carroll's offense, Oneil Cruz's strikeouts or Craig Kimbrel's inconsistency?

With a month of baseball in the books, we can begin to separate overreaction from legitimate cause for concern

April has flipped to May, and a month of the MLB season is already behind us.

It is the time of year when cement starts to set and settle. The small-sample-size theatrics are, ever so gradually, becoming trustworthy.

And there’s a thin line between legitimate concern and frantic overreaction. The 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals, for instance, started the season 19-31. A rocky spring does not preclude a successful summer or an unforgettable autumn.

With that in mind, let’s parse through a few early-season dips to try to separate fact from fiction.

Last season, Carroll was a main character. As a 22-year-old rookie, the D-backs outfielder finished fifth in NL MVP voting behind 25 homers and 54 steals. Hitting atop Arizona’s lineup, the unanimous Rookie of the Year carried the underdog Snakes all the way to the Fall Classic. Along the way, Carroll looked like he was setting sail on a lengthy career as a prototypical leadoff hitter, a catalytic pest set to bother NL West clubs for years to come.

Instead, the sophomore slump has arrived — and it has not been kind. Through 29 games, the goateed outfielder has a .193 batting average and a .538 OPS with just one homer. His under-the-hood batted ball data backs up that feeble output. Carroll’s defense and baserunning prowess give him a monumental floor, but his offensive performance has cratered so far this season and is a huge reason behind Arizona’s sluggish start.

Carroll’s average exit velocity on pitches in the strike zone has plummeted from 92 mph in 2023 to 84.6 mph. That’s the fourth-weakest mark in MLB among players with at least 200 pitches seen this season; Adam Frazier, who was nicknamed “Captain Slapdick” by Mariners fans during his year in Seattle, is hitting the baseball harder than Carroll.

That’s the type of statistical shift that typically implies some sort of injury, but Carroll hasn’t mentioned any physical discomfort, even though he had a few issues with his right shoulder in 2023. It’s also worth noting that the Seattle-born outfielder hit only four home runs over the final two months of last season and has never been an elite exit-velocity guy.

Perhaps his two hard-hit balls Monday against the Dodgers, including a deep fly that would’ve been a homer in 17 of 30 ballparks, is a harbinger of brighter days ahead. But if Carroll really is healthy, this sudden drop in contact quality is worth at least a tinge of worry until things change.

This is another sobering reminder not to believe in spring training. Cruz was a March revelation, blasting seven homers in 46 trips to the dish after missing most of 2023 due to an ACL tear. Unfortunately, that spring performance has not carried over into meaningful games — quite the opposite.

Cruz’s 45 punchouts are tied for the MLB lead. He has just six extra-base hits. His shortstop defense is grading out poorly. Both his whiff rate (swing-and-misses) and chase rate (swings at pitches outside the zone) are dreadful. Cruz is generally still pulverizing the ball when he does make contact, but power means nothing when you can’t use it. The graveyards of baseball history are littered with players of this ilk.

Most concerning are Cruz’s numbers against same-sided pitching. The left-handed swinger is just 3-for-32 with a walk and 14 strikeouts against southpaws. That brings his career left-on-left OPS to an unusably microscopic .480 mark.

Now, Cruz’s injury history and cavernous ceiling mean the Pirates will extend him patience and grace as he tries to capitalize on his talent. But the same-sided struggles are a huge red flag, one that, I believe, will preclude him from becoming a franchise cornerstone.

I’m not panicking, but my palms are getting sweaty.

The Pirates will be patient with Oneil Cruz, but can he deliver on his potential? (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)
The Pirates will be patient with Oneil Cruz, but can he deliver on his potential? (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)

A crucial year for the frisky Houston third baseman has gotten off to a putrid start. Set to hit free agency for the first time at season’s end, Bregman has a .577 OPS through 26 games. More importantly, he hadn't hit a baseball over the fence until Tuesday. It’s hard to secure a massive deal on the open market without some taters.

Bregman’s poor showing in the home run column is instructive of two larger issues: He’s hitting too many grounders and he’s not pulling the baseball. Bregman implemented some swing changes over the offseason — most notably, altering the way he loads his hands — and those could be negatively impacting his timing.

But as a whole, I’m not panicking much. Bregman’s exit velocity numbers are in line with his track record, implying that he isn’t suffering from a physical decline. And the elite swing decisions that have helped him reach base at a 37% clip over his nine-year career haven’t gone anywhere, either. The strikeout-to-walk ratio is still outstanding.

Once Bregman gets more comfortable with his new mechanics — or ditches them and switches back to his old ways — it’s reasonable to expect his numbers to look more Bregman-y.

The Padres remodeled their rotation over the winter. Out were Michael Wacha, Seth Lugo, Nick Martinez and NL Cy Young winner Blake Snell. In came Michael King and Randy Vásquez in exchange for Juan Soto, as well as Dylan Cease, acquired late in spring training to be the ace. It was a staff with a plethora of questions, but returners Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove were set to offer dependability and continuity. Instead, Darvish has spent time on the injured list, and Musgrove has performed like one of the worst pitchers in baseball.

The Padres don’t need Musgrove to be dominant; they just need him to be competent. But so far, he hasn’t come close. In seven starts, the San Diego kid has a 6.94 ERA across 35 innings. His expected ERA based on batted ball data is even worse. The fastball velocity is down by about 1 mph, from 93 to 92, a small but crucial difference. The sweeper Musgrove added to his already crowded arsenal over the winter is making all his breaking pitches bleed together.

A powerful and positive presence in the clubhouse, Musgrove is respected throughout the organization, but good vibes don’t go as far when you aren’t getting outs. San Diego’s staff is already undermanned with Darvish just returned and Vásquez on the shelf, so Musgrove doesn't have the luxury of taking time to get right. Something is clearly amiss with the veteran right-hander, and until the fastball velocity gets back up, it’s unlikely things will improve.

The Orioles are in a tricky spot, one that dates back to last year. When all-world closer Félix Bautista underwent Tommy John surgery in late September, it created a gaping hole in Baltimore’s bullpen. Bautista is irreplaceable, but the Orioles signed legendary closer Craig Kimbrel to fill some of the void. The nine-time All-Star was magnificent in the ninth until this past weekend, when he blew two saves against the Athletics and was removed from Sunday’s game due to upper-back tightness.

Kimbrel has been running a high-wire act for a few years now, oscillating between dominant and disastrous. But as his October implosion with the Phillies last year showed, he cannot be relied upon as a primary option in the postseason. Yennier Canó, who had a breakout campaign in 2023, is the obvious candidate to pick up ninth-inning duties in Baltimore instead, but the Birds need to make their bullpen a priority at the trade deadline. The reason for panic comes not now but later, in October, if the O’s turn to this version of Kimbrel in a crucial spot.