Grand Slams: The Stretch Run
Here we are, one month from the playoffs, and as always, there are tons of stories and surprises in the MLB. While Forbes dubbed the Astros the most profitable franchise in baseball (hard to believe, but sorta makes sense considering the tiny payroll and the massive revenue sharing from major market teams), teams that are actually successful were busy winning ballgames. The developments have been of both the exciting and tediously frustrating nature. Those in fantasy leagues are aware of lots of these developments, but more casual baseball fans may not be aware of the details about the playoff races and futures of other MLB teams. So let’s dive in, shall we?
While some phenoms have performed as advertised, other highly-touted players have been absolutely disastrous this year, both for their real-life MLB teams and for fantasy players. Guys like Mike Trout have been every bit as good as expected, as he’s leading all of MLB in WAR by a decent margin. I’m sure the Dodgers and fantasy owners alike are pleased as punch with how Puig has performed. However, a slew of players have horribly under-performed. Guys like Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, BJ Upton, Jason Heyward, Justin Verlander and others have failed. Miserably. Some of these guys play for teams that somehow have succeeded nonetheless (Braves, Dodgers, Tigers), but others have been pretty instrumental in their team’s demise this season (Brewers). So let’s look at how things are progressing for some of these teams.
Although it’s still a little early, the playoff picture is shaping up somewhat clearly. As stated above, the Braves somehow keep winning despite all sorts of injuries. Despite avoiding any suspensions, the Braves have suffered a disappointing season from BJ Upton, another (somewhat) of a letdown from Uggla, and injuries to Heyward, Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm, Brandon Beachy, Eric O’Flaherty, Johnny Venters, Brian McCann, and even minor injuries to Justin Upton, BJ, Evan Gattis, and Jordan Schaeffer. That’s practically the entire roster aside from a couple starters and closer Craig Kimbrel. It’s built them up to a ridiculous 13 game lead in the NL East and home field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.
The Cardinals (no surprise) and Dodgers (no surprise to most prognostications) are right behind the Braves for the best record in the NL. The Cardinals just have a great baseball culture. Great scouts, great farm system, apparently genius manager, intelligent GM. The Dodgers are attempting the Yankees’ route of spend to win and I figured it’d fail, like it has for the Angels and Blue Jays. But while I was right in predicting a failure for the Angels and Blue Jays, the Dodgers have played frustratingly well. And to wrap up the NL, it looks more and more like the two wild card spots will come from the Central, with the Pirates and Reds in the thick of the a race and well-positioned in their bid for a postseason birth, even if that birth only includes a stupid one-game wild card playoff.
The AL has been predictable in the West and Central, but pretty exciting in the East. There are still four teams with a shot at winning that division and one or two that might be able to snag a wild card spot. So in anticipation of the playoffs, let’s look at how each team fares heading into the final month of the regular season.
As I said, the Braves continue to win, despite massive injuries and underachievers. Part of their huge division lead is due to the fact that every other NL East team has been putrid. The Braves rotation is great, featuring young phenom Teheran and other young arms like Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Alex Wood. All have excelled for the most part and should provide a solid 6-8 IP in any playoff game. Teheran especially has been lights out since settling down in late April. Since April 23 Teheran has been about as good as any starting pitcher in MLB (2.59 ERA since then, as of the date of this writing). The Braves have a shutdown closer in Kimbrel and a solid bullpen, with Avilan, Walden, Ayala and the newly-acquired Downs providing reliable setup in the 7th and 8th innings. If the Braves don’t win the NL pennant it probably won’t be their pitchers’ faults. The lineup has been the suspect part of the team, with the explosive pop of power hitters who seem to always be swinging for the fences. The high strikeout totals were expected, but the ability of this team seems wasted occasionally when the offense musters only a run or two (which had happened four times in the last nine games as of this writing). If they face a team like the Dodgers in the first round it wouldn’t surprise me to see some low-scoring games with pitching duels between Kershaw and Teheran, Greinke and Minor.
The Cardinals are my favorite to win the Central, as they have a potent offense (good for 3rd most runs in MLB to this point) and a seemingly endless line of fantastic pitching prospects waiting to help out. Everyone knows Waino is good for a shutout or two in the postseason, but beyond that, the Cards have lots of young arms that’ve managed quite well. Shelby Miller has been great nearly all year. Joe Kelly allows a lot of baserunners, but somehow avoids giving up runs, which is, after all, what you’re supposed to do. Part of the pitching success is the great baseball culture they have in the St. Louis organization, but part of it is also due to Yadier Molina (who is also a great bat) and pitching coach Dave Duncan. His work can be seen with the great bullpen the Cards have pulled together this year. In the wake of losing their expected closer (Jason Motte) and the utter meltdown of his immediate successor (Mitchell Boggs), the bullpen has become an unexpected strength in St. Louis. Edward Mujica is closing games in dominant fashion and the middle relievers are the best in the game, with Siegrist, Rosenthal and Maness leading the way with Choate and a ton of young arms following behind (mostly future starters like Martinez, Wacha and Lyons).
The Pirates are finally lined up to be in the playoffs for the first time in forever and they are a solid club. They have a weak offense, but their pitching has been lights-out and they seem to be one of those teams that does all the fundamentals right, winning close games by the bushel. They are experiencing their typical second-half letdown (they’re about .500 since the 81-game mark after finishing their first 81 games with a great record and nice lead in the NL Central). If the Pirates were to win the division (I don’t think they will), they’d be a decent foe in a short series. In a one-game playoff anything can happen, so I won’t dive into it too much here.
Same goes for the Reds, who I think will snag the other wild card spot. I just don’t think a Dusty Baker team will muster enough to make a deep playoff run. Brandon Phillips thrived in the cleanup spot this year with his gap power, but his average suffered and he didn’t hit as many over the fence and didn’t steal as many bases. Choo has cooled off and I just don’t see any part of this team as consistent enough to win a postseason series. Now watch them prove me wrong, haha.
I hate it, but the Dodgers have staked a convincing lead in the NL West. I really wanted the Diamondbacks to win the division, but they just don’t have it this year. It bums me out that a basketball legend and business mogul thinks he can come in and spend his way into baseball success, but he apparently knows what he’s doing. Good for you, Magic. The Dodgers do scare me. I’d hate to face them in any series if they’re fully healthy. They’re winning games left and right without Kemp, without Crawford, and without their starters being 100% all the time. Facing both Kershaw and Greinke twice in a series with a lineup that includes Puig, A-Gon, HanRam, a healthy Kemp and Crawford makes my stomach churn. Kenley Jansen has been one of the best closers in the game after usurping the role from $22 million baby Brandon League. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the suddenly unhittable Ricky Nolasco. Ugh. I hope I’m wrong, but unless they suffer some injuries, I can see them making the Braves or Cardinals look silly if things go their way.
I don’t even know where to begin in the East. How did the Red Sox get a 2.5 game lead this late in the year? John Farrell might be manager of the year just for turning this shitstorm around in one season. They do have the league’s most prolific offense, having scored the most runs so far this season. And their pitching hasn’t been horrible, as the rotation and closer have been adequate. I don’t know if that’s a recipe for a World Series Championship, but it certainly is the thing for making it to the playoffs. They’re not my favorite to win the AL pennant, though.
Neither are the Rays or any other AL East team. You gotta like Joe Maddon and all his crazy shifts and whatnot. The offense isn’t always there and David Price did start the season miserably, but the team seems to be firing on all cylinders now and if they don’t win the division, they should certainly claim a wild card spot. I can’t say that much for the Orioles or Yankees, who need to not only win the vast majority of their games in September, but also need other teams to lose to make headway in the standings. Not likely, but not impossible. If you’re a Yankees fan, at least ARod (playing surprisingly well!) and Jeter and Granderson are back. There is (slim) hope!
The Tigers own the AL Central and if they could for once get firing on all cylinders they’d be the team to beat in the AL. They still stand as my favorites to win the AL pennant, but their recent pitching slump is perplexing. They have the best 1-5 batters in baseball, but it just doesn’t seem to be enough to push them over the hump. Verlander has been less than expected (3.73 ERA, 1.36 WHIP), Fister has done this year what all the eggheads thought he’d do last year (succumb to poor defense and fail to strike out enough batters). The shining knights have been Sanchez and Scherzer, who seems to have finally reached his potential. The bullpen is still a sort of Achilles Heel, but Benoit has been OK there and if the starters do their job while the offense slugs itself into a big lead, the bullpen may not have so much pressure in the playoffs.
The Rangers are about as good as everyone expected. The trio of Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux and his brother Mike Maddux, the pitching coach, makes for a formidable store of pitching knowledge. They still have a good offense, even after giving up Hamilton and Young, but the pitchers have done well despite pitching in a hitter’s ballpark. Yu Darvish is as dominating as anyone could’ve ever hoped and Derek Holland is right behind him. The rest of the rotation has been a series of stop-gaps, but those stop-gaps have performed admirably and the bullpen has done the rest. Somehow Joe Nathan is having a career year even though he should’ve been long washed up by now. Must be the Ryan Express giving him pep talks during the games.
The A’s are another good play-fundamentals ballclub. Get guys on base, move em over, move em in. I kinda like it, but it’s not too exciting and I’m afraid it’s not the stuff of championships. I’m glad the Athletics can win like they do with a small budget, but I just don’t see a serious run at a championship regardless of whether they win the division or make a wild card spot. The bullpen is shaky, the rotation is inconsistent and the lineup can manufacture a couple runs a game, but doesn’t have much in the way of explosiveness. Being 12th in OBP, but only 22nd in BA highlights the problem here.
So that’s about it! I’m hoping for a Braves/Tigers World Series, but I bet it’ll be a Cardinals/ or Dodgers/Rangers World Series. That’s ok, I’ll watch it either way.