MLB Buy or Sell: Ohtani’s pitching future? 100 bags for Elly? Astros alive?


From Elly De La Cruz to Paul Skenes to Bobby Witt Jr., there’s no shortage of must-watch young players in baseball these days. 

Could some of them break records or take home hardware this year? 

This week’s buy or sell looks at De La Cruz’s chase for 100 steals, the surging Royals and Astros, Shohei Ohtani’s future on the mound, the offensive surprise of the season, a bounce back on the mound and more. 

1. Elly De La Cruz will steal 100 bases

Verdict: Buy (tentatively)  

De La Cruz has not tallied another steal since his four-bag outburst a week ago, and he’s now only on pace for (gasp!) 99 steals this year. So, is 100 dreaming too big? The question is less if he’s capable of doing it — his speed plus the bigger bases and pickoff limits create the right environment — and more if he’ll play enough games and get on base enough. 

I wouldn’t say it’s likely to happen, but I’m going to buy in for a few reasons beyond it being very fun to witness. 

First, he can rack up steals in an instant. Of his 30 stolen bases this year, 20 have come over the course of just eight games. When he’s in a groove offensively, he only needs a couple of weeks to go on a tear. It’s really not preposterous that he gets hot for a month and tallies 30-40 more steals over the course of something like 20 games. Second, he has managed to get to this point despite running a 32% strikeout rate and an even higher whiff rate than he had last year, in part because he is taking more walks and chasing less. I think something close to his current on-base percentage (.348) is sustainable. 

Third, he’s not afraid to go once he gets on base, and fourth, the Reds, who have the worst batting average and third-worst on-base percentage in baseball, need him to generate offense and get in scoring position. 

There’s reason to believe once Noelvi Marté returns from suspension and others return from injury, the Reds could be more competitive, but they might have dug themselves too big a hole to compete with the Brewers and Cubs. If they get fully out of contention while De La Cruz inches closer and closer to setting records, that might give him even more free rein on the basepaths. 

2. Shohei Ohtani should only focus on hitting 

Verdict: Sell 

You might hear this take quite a bit over the coming days, weeks and months. Ohtani, after all, is the best hitter in baseball right now. He remarkably leads the National League in fWAR despite only DHing, and, sure, there could be some validity to the point that not having to pitch allows him to tap into the best offensive version of himself. So, should he just ditch trying to pitch going forward?

No, he should not. 

If we were talking about the best hitter in baseball who was also a decent pitcher, the conversation would be valid. But the Dodgers gave him his $700 million deal (almost entirely deferred, I know) because of his ability to do both exceptionally well when he is right. In any given season, he has the potential to be both MLB’s best hitter, as he was last year, and best pitcher, as he nearly was two years ago when he finished fourth in the AL Cy Young Award voting, in any given season. 

Now, there’s no telling exactly what it’ll look like coming off a second major elbow reconstruction. He defied what we thought physically possible before eventually succumbing to the human condition. There’s a world in which he doesn’t return to his usual dominant ways on the mound, at which point this thought becomes more of a conversation. But if that happens, he and the Dodgers can pivot. Until then, he’s too good at doing both — and clearly enjoys doing both — not to try. 

3. Alec Bohm’s sensational start is the biggest offensive surprise of the season

Verdict: Sell 

Bohm has been basically a league-average hitter the past two seasons (and considerably worse than that in 2021), so to see him with a 163 OPS+ and leading the majors in doubles and RBIs is certainly a surprise. But this is also a guy who hit .338 while finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting during the shortened 2020 season after being the third overall pick in 2018. 

He hit .280 in 2022 and .274 last year, so this year represents a significant leap forward — he’s getting to his pull-side power more and not chasing nearly as much. Yet, it is not more surprising than Jurickson Profar not only pacing the Padres offense but ranking second in the majors with a .339 batting average. If this happened in 2013, it wouldn’t be a huge shock. A decade later, after producing a .706 OPS over his first 10 seasons, this is remarkable from the one-time top overall prospect in baseball. 

4. The NL’s best trio of starting pitchers is in Philadelphia 

Verdict: Buy 

There’s an argument to be made that it’s the best trio in all of MLB, depending on how you feel about the bevy of arms in Seattle, but there’s not much of a question when it comes to the National League. 

If not for the Cubs’ Shōta Imanaga, who’s challenging for both Cy Young and Rookie of the Year in his first season stateside, the Phillies’ Ranger Suárez and Zack Wheeler would be the top two favorites right now to win the Cy (you could put Suárez, Wheeler and Imanaga in any order, and it would be understandable). Aaron Nola, meanwhile, threw a now-rare shutout two starts ago and is running a 3.05 ERA on the year (and has a 2.37 ERA since his clunker to start the year). 

Suárez is 9-0 with a 1.36 ERA and an MLB-best 0.79 WHIP, while Wheeler has four outings this year in which he has gone six or more innings without allowing an earned run. Among all the things going right in Philadelphia to start the season, the rotation is at the top. 

5. It’s time to take the Royals seriously 

Verdict: Buy 

The Royals have won 11 of their past 14 games and tied their best start through 50 games in their franchise’s history. They’re the first team to win 31 of their first 50 games after a 100-loss season since Cleveland in 1988. Needless to say, it’s an exciting time in Kansas City 

Their plus-72 run differential — the second-best mark in the American League — tells the story of a team that can both score and prevent runs. The starting pitching has taken a considerable leap forward behind the additions of Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha, the resurgence of Brady Singer and the continued production of headliner Cole Ragans. Meanwhile, an offense that was among the least productive in baseball last year now ranks third in runs scored and top 10 in OPS. 

Witt is going to challenge for an MVP award, Salvador Pérez leads the American League with a .343 batting average, and Maikel Garcia and Michael Massey have provided some needed depth to the top half of the order. I don’t know if they’ll continue hitting this way — things drop off rather dramatically in the bottom half of the order — but the pitching should be good enough to keep them contending with the Guardians and Twins

And yet…

6. Two AL Central teams will make the postseason

Verdict: Sell 

This division race should be among the most compelling in the sport. The Guardians and Royals have started to separate, but I’d expect the Twins — one of the streakiest teams in baseball to start the year — to go on another run at some point to make this interesting. Cleveland and Kansas City have the second- and third-most wins, respectively, in the American League right now, and all three teams would be representing the AL Central if the playoffs started today. It’s incredibly impressive to see what the Guardians are doing right now without Steven Kwan or Shane Bieber and with the rest of their rotation yet to produce the way it can. 

BUT …

I have enough trepidation about Cleveland’s offense outside of José Ramírez and Josh Naylor and about Kansas City’s ability to beat the best teams — the Royals have had an easy strength of schedule thus far and are just 6-9 against teams over .500 — that I still think it might take winning the AL Central for a team from that division to make the playoffs. The Rangers, Astros, Rays and Red Sox are all lurking, and I’d expect some of those middling teams in the other divisions to get hot at some point. 

7. The surging ‘Stros will make the playoffs 

Verdict: Buy 

You might have missed it amid their brutal start and the offensive struggles of Alex Bregman, José Abreu and Chas McCormick, but the Astros now have the third-highest OPS in baseball. Even after inexplicably dropping a series to the lowly Angels, they’ve still won 10 of their past 14 games and lead MLB in hits during that stretch. 

Kyle Tucker leads the majors with 17 homers and a 203 OPS+ and Jeremy Peña is in the midst of a career year at the dish, taking some pressure off guys like José Altuve and Yordan Alvarez (who is starting to heat up) from having to be the guys to consistently produce. 

More importantly, Josh Hader and Bryan Abreu are finding their way for what has been one of the worst bullpens in baseball to begin the year — Hader has allowed just one run on two hits all month — and the rotation, though still shaky, is getting whole again. As bad as this thing was to start, the Astros are only five games back. Let them hang around at your own peril. 

8. Kyle Tucker will push for AL MVP 

Verdict: Sell 

Tucker has to be one of the most underrated players in baseball. He finished fifth in MVP voting last year, has an OPS over .800 in each of the past five seasons and has been the best hitter in the American League this season while grading out as one of the best defensive right fielders in the sport. By fWAR, he has been MLB’s most valuable player to start the year. His name should be brought up more among baseball’s top talents. 

And yet, I still can’t buy in just yet to him winning the award, not with the way Juan Soto and Aaron Judge have the Yankees humming and the way young shortstops Gunnar Henderson and Witt are starring for their winning clubs. All it takes is one cold month, which Tucker has experienced each of the past two seasons — a .625 OPS in July 2022 and a .681 mark in May 2023 — to fall insurmountably behind in what will likely be the most entertaining award race of them all. 

9. It’s time to pay attention to the Alek Manoah bounce back 

Verdict: Buy 

Look, there’s not a ton going well in Toronto these days. But the starting pitching is not the problem, and Manoah’s bounce back could be one of the great turnaround stories of the season. I say could because it’s far too early to declare the 2022 All-Star “back” after only three starts, given how last year’s monstrosity of a season went and how he failed to inspire a ton of confidence with his first few minor-league outings to start this year while still dealing with some of the control issues that spiraled his 2023 season. 

But his past two starts — each seven innings, no earned runs allowed — have more closely resembled the version of Manoah that thrived in 2021 and 2022. His sinker has been unhittable against righties, his confidence seems to be back, and if he can continue to keep the free passes down, he will put himself in a position to find his form again. His next start is at Detroit on Friday. 

10. Despite late start, Paul Skenes will be a Rookie of the Year contender  

Verdict: Buy 

Imanaga is the obvious favorite here, and if the Cubs star continues pitching at this rate — his 0.84 ERA is the lowest mark ever for a pitcher through his first nine career starts — he’ll run away with the award. In addition, Yoshinobu Yamamoto has a 2.38 ERA over his past nine starts, and Skenes isn’t even the betting favorite right now in his own rotation to win the award (Jared Jones has a 3.05 ERA and an even better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Imanaga, who has 58 strikeouts and only nine walks). It was a packed field full of worthy competitors even before Skenes’ May call-up. 

But the start to Skenes’ career — particularly his second outing, when he went six innings and allowed no hits, no runs and struck out 11 — demonstrated why he’s the most-hyped pitching prospect since Stephen Strasburg, and why he’ll be in the conversation the rest of the way. He has a 2.25 ERA through three starts and the ability to overpower opponents in a way unlike any other rookie pitcher. Plus, there should be enough time for him to work his way into the ROY mix, especially if any of the pitchers ahead of him miss time. 

I’m skeptical that the Pirates will allow him to be fully unleashed, considering the unlikelihood of them competing this year, what he means to the future of the club, and how carefully they’ve handled Jones already, but this rookie pitching duo will make Pittsburgh worth watching — regardless of their record — any time one of them is on the mound.

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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