It’s Week 18 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
3. DETROIT TIGERS
It’s not all perfect. Jhonny Peralta is expected to be suspended for the rest of the regular season for possession of performance-enhancing drugs. The usually untouchable Justin Verlander has been erratic, allowing zero, five, zero, six, seven, and one runs, respectively, in his past six starts. Omar Infante is on the disabled list, out at least another week and very possibly more. Miguel Cabrera’s abdominal injury is said to be less serious and the buzz is that he could return tonight, though he has now missed four straight games, and even one game without the best hitter on the planet isn’t ideal.
Despite all this, the Tigers remain in great shape. For that, they can thank Dave Dombrowski.
In the past four years, the Tigers GM has traded for Max Scherzer (16-1, 2.85 ERA, 2.71 FIP, 4.5 Wins Above Replacement, Cy Young front-runner), Doug Fister (3.52 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 3.1 WAR), Infante (.309/.340/.447, 2.5 WAR), Peralta (.305/.360/.463, 3.3 WAR), and Austin Jackson (2.4 WAR), while signing Prince Fielder (17 homers), Torii Hunter (315/.349/.484), Anibal Sanchez (2.59 ERA, 2.46 FIP, 3.7 WAR), and Joaquin Benoit (1.40 ERA, 2.19 FIP, 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate). When news leaked that Peralta was going down, the Tigers did what the Rangers couldn’t: They executed a contingency plan. In acquiring slick-fielding Jose Iglesias as part of a three-way trade, the Tigers nabbed a replacement for Cabrera while he heals, and now a full-time substitute for Peralta for both the rest of this season and the next five years, someone who should provide a defensive boost that the range-challenged team badly needed. They also scooped up Jose Veras from the Astros, fortifying a bullpen that had regained its footing with the emergence of lefty Drew Smyly alongside Benoit but still needed reinforcements.
A cupcake schedule deserves some of the credit for the Tigers’ current eight-game winning streak (12 wins in their past 13 games). But let’s not get too cynical about it: Detroit has retained its iron grip on first place despite hard charges by the surging Indians and Royals. That’s quite a feat for a team that developed Verlander, Rick Porcello, and not much else using a stream of trades, loads of Hot-N-Ready cash, and plenty of guile to build a championship-caliber roster. A four-game series against Cleveland starts tonight, with the division lead on the line. That the roster’s likely to be at close to full strength even with a key player getting whacked by the PED hunt says a lot about the team’s architect and his ability to call an audible. Really, many audibles.
12. TEXAS RANGERS
They went 6-1 last week with three consecutive walk-off homers, took two out of three from the A’s to slice the AL West lead to 2½ games, and just a couple weeks earlier acquired Matt Garza from the Cubs, fortifying their rotation and adding much-needed classlessness to their Twitter presence. So why are the Rangers holding steady at no. 12 this week?
Nelson Cruz, that’s why. Cruz is widely expected to be suspended sometime today, knocking him out for the final 50 games of the regular season. That’s a huge blow for Texas’s middle-of-the-pack offense. Among Rangers regulars, only Adrian Beltre has been more productive than Cruz. Texas reportedly turned over every rock in an effort to account for that expected loss, pursuing much-rumored trade targets as well as bigger fish like Jose Bautista, but to no avail.
Thing is, the Rangers could still be a formidable playoff opponent. Strip out the effects of their incredibly hitter-friendly stadium and you’ll find a stacked pitching staff. Yu Darvish has struck out 29 batters with a 0.47 ERA and .439 opponents’ OPS since returning from the disabled list July 22, and he has been one of the game’s most dominant starters all year long. Derek Holland fired eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts Sunday at Oakland and would have a legitimate Cy Young case if voters were willing to look past superficial stats. The acquisition of Garza and Alexi Ogando’s return from the DL suddenly give Texas one of the league’s deepest starting fives, to go with an elite bullpen and a strong team defense.
The challenge now will be making it to October. Cruz’s absence will hurt a team that must navigate an insane AL pennant race. The Indians, Rangers, and Orioles are separated by just 1½ games in the battle for the second wild-card spot, with the Yankees and streaking Royals just three games behind the back of that pack. Texas did an admirable job of acquiring Garza without giving up any truly elite prospects,1 and it could benefit in the long term from exercising such patience. There’s even a chance the Rangers could acquire a bat before the August 31 waiver deadline. But if they miss the playoffs by, say, one game, the loss of Cruz and an inability to find a replacement could very well prove to be the biggest reason why.
28. MIAMI MARLINS
Jose Fernandez already had 13 strikeouts through 7⅓ innings when Mark Reynolds came to bat in the eighth inning of Friday night’s game. He dominated the third-highest-scoring offense in baseball, shutting out the potent Indians lineup and allowing just two hits. Only now Reynolds was being annoying. Fernandez had struck out three Indians on three pitches apiece, eight more on four pitches. Here, Reynolds had worked the count to 2-2, preparing to face his sixth swing of the at-bat.
This would not stand. Fernandez reached back and fired a curveball from the depths of hell, an 85 mph bender that will haunt Reynolds’s dreams for a week. After that whiff, Fernandez blew on his fingers. Allegedly, he did so to combat the humidity built up at Marlins Park. Of course this was just a front. You do something like that only when you’re shooting flames out of your right hand.
Fernandez’s monster performance Friday gave him 27 combined strikeouts over his past two starts, covering 16 innings. In his past 11 starts (75⅓ innings) dating back to June 1, Fernandez has struck out 86 batters, allowed two home runs, posted a 1.67 ERA, and limited opposing hitters to a line of .164/.234/.219. When it comes to rolling big numbers, the Marlins’ early-season attempts to limit his pitch counts have failed miserably: Fernandez ranks 13th in the National League with 138 strikeouts, despite ranking 37th in innings pitched with just 127 2/3. Only Cy Young front-runners Clayton Kershaw and Matt Harvey, the sparkling Patrick Corbin, and off-the-charts RISP performer Jeff Locke own lower ERAs than Fernandez’s 2.54. We could keep going and going with R-rated Fernandez numbers, as ESPN Stats & Info did here. Some industry insiders question Fernandez’s listed age. But if he’s anywhere near 21 years old, as the program says he is … yikes.
Fernandez’s emergence as a potential Felix Hernandez 2.0 is just one of the multiple bright spots for a Marlins team that could become scary as hell much quicker than you’d think (as is, they’re 27-23 in their past 50 games, having knocked off some good teams in the process). The Fish called up top outfield prospects Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick two weeks ago. Yelich was a first-round pick who hit .313/.387/.499 in 302 minor league games, many of those coming in terrible environments for hitters. Watching him at bat, you’re struck by the plate coverage his 6-foot-4 frame provides, but also by how young he looks — he’s as lanky as your typical high schooler, with the face of a 13-year-old. Hailed as a top prospect for both his tools and his numbers, Yelich could become a beast when he fills out and adds more power to his high–batting average profile. Marisnick isn’t nearly as polished a prospect despite being a year older than Yelich. But he, too, projects as an above-average major leaguer down the road, taking a step forward this year with a .294/.358/.502 campaign at Double-A Jacksonville.
Depending on what the Marlins do with star slugger Giancarlo Stanton, this could be the most dynamic outfield in baseball in a couple years. Though trade rumors have dogged Stanton and Miami for a while, he’s still under team control through 2016 and he’s still one of the best power hitters in baseball, with 106 homers in just 441 career games. Marcell Ozuna got sent back to the minors after hitting a rough patch, but he also showed flashes of potential earlier this year, giving the Fish four potential impact outfielders.
The pitching staff isn’t just Fernandez, either. Twenty-two-year-old Jacob Turner, acquired as the main piece in the Anibal Sanchez/Omar Infante deal at last year’s deadline, has flashed a 2.68 ERA in 12 starts. Twenty-three-year-old Nathan Eovaldi is an easy name to forget, given he was the key guy coming back in the 2012 deadline deal for Hanley Ramirez, who has set the league on fire. But he, too, has shown flashes of brilliance, including a one-run performance Sunday against the Indians in which he was firing 99 mph fastballs in the seventh inning. Turner, Eovaldi, Marisnick, and multiple other intriguing prospects came over in recent trades, the biggest of which cemented Jeffrey Loria’s reputation as a genius and looks even shrewder eight months later, with the Jays floundering on a gigantic payroll and the Marlins steadily building a young core with upside. The Marlins’ tendency to call up top prospects when they’re ready, rather than deploying all manner of service-time shenanigans, is an absolute breath of fresh air if you like to see the best young players actually play in the big leagues.
The Marlins still have multiple holes left to fill, starting with just about the entire infield. A cynic would question the team’s intentions, given that it tore down the roster just a year after moving into a mostly publicly financed $634 million stadium that has been mostly empty for much of this season. But with a few well-timed moves and a few dollars spent to add talent, this could be a dangerous team, maybe as soon as 2015.