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The 30: It’s a Brave New World

Atlanta has regained divisional control thanks to a dominant bullpen and recent win streak. Can the surging Pirates and Rays make similar runs?

The A’s and Cubs pulled off the first blockbuster of trade-deadline season with a six-player swap over the holiday weekend, but it’s tough to know when we’ll see another deal that big. That’s because with one week to go until the All-Star break, a sizable chunk of teams are still trying to sort out where they stand, and in turn whether they should buy, sell, or hold.

Questions abound. Do the Phillies want to move Cole Hamels1 and Cliff Lee, and if so, can they find teams willing to take on those huge contracts? Will the Jays be more or less aggressive after falling into a deep funk and out of first place? Will the Yankees pursue more starters after nabbing an extreme ground ball guy to pitch in front of one of baseball’s worst defensive shortstops? Will the Angels acquire every relief pitcher on the planet? And how can we process a trade market in which teams nine and 10 games under .500 are saying they’re not ready to sell?

Click here for more 2014 MLB trade deadline coverage.

While we’re waiting for answers, at least we can agree to celebrate those who accomplish the spectacular, those who offer grudging respect, and those who will take all the lucky breaks they can get:

It’s Week 14 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

Predictably, our bat-flipping pal Yasiel Puig is once again a major part of the show this week. Unpredictably, he’s not the one doing the actual flipping. It turns out that MLB 14: The Show features multiple delightful Easter eggs, including this bat-flipping tutorial. Puig is the student. The teacher is, quite simply, the coolest umpire who’s ever lived:

Ten to Forget

The defending champs join the dreaded bottom tier.

30. Arizona Diamondbacks (38-53, -64 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Houston Astros (37-54, -82, LW: 27)
28. Colorado Rockies (37-53, -45, LW: 26)
27. Texas Rangers (38-51, -81, LW: 22)
26. Philadelphia Phillies (38-51, -55, LW: 24)
25. San Diego Padres (40-49, -46, LW: 28)
24. Chicago Cubs (38-49, -19, LW: 25)
23. New York Mets (40-49, -2, LW: 23)
22. Minnesota Twins (39-49, -37, LW: 20)
21. Boston Red Sox (39-50, -50, LW: 19)

Six 2013-14 free agents are headed to next week’s All-Star Game: Robinson Cano, Masahiro Tanaka, Jose Abreu, Scott Kazmir, Nelson Cruz, and Kurt Suzuki. Though Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon won’t be among them, and though their overall numbers don’t reflect it, both have shown flashes of excellence this season. And now, both present intriguing trade dilemmas for their unsurprisingly struggling new team.

The Mets signed Granderson to a four-year, $60 million deal over the winter, then watched as their big acquisition put up unfathomably bad numbers to start the season. Granderson finished April with a .136/.252/.216 line, leading the most pessimistic Mets fans to believe they’d have to spend four years shackled to the injury-prone bust who’d played in just 61 games in 2013, and not to the guy who’d whacked a combined 84 homers in 2011 and 2012. For comparison’s sake: Cruz, who’d been a candidate to land a similar deal before his PED suspension left him with a one-year, $8 million contract, finished April with a .284/.376/.580 line and seven homers.2

Granderson has absolutely mashed since, hitting .275/.389/.507 while playing his home games in one of the league’s toughest parks for hitters. Adjusting for those punitive park effects gives Granderson a 155 wRC+ since May, meaning he’s been 55 percent more productive than the average offensive player during that span. Remember how I praised Cruz way, way back in the previous paragraph? Well, his full-season wRC+ is … 157. If Granderson’s stats since May 1 were his stats for the entire year, he’d currently be the 12th most productive hitter in the majors.

Like Granderson’s, Colon’s overall numbers aren’t that impressive, but he, too, has shown flashes of dominance in 2014. In a six-start stretch spanning May 28 to June 24, Colon posted the following numbers: 43.1 IP, 34 K, 8 BB, 1.45 ERA, and a .194/.237/.263 line against. While Colon’s advanced age (41) might scare off some suitors, he’s locked into just a two-year, $20 million contract, meaning he wouldn’t require as big of a commitment as Granderson would.

So, should the Mets trade their two big offseason pickups since they’re almost certainly out of the hunt this year? Or should they keep all of their best talent and try to contend in 2015?

Well, despite their record, and despite David Wright’s very disappointing campaign, the Mets have enjoyed some encouraging success this year. Daniel Murphy is an All-Star, Juan Lagares is an elite defensive center fielder who’s hit more than enough to justify an everyday role, and Lucas Duda’s power and patience justify his shoddy defense at first. The starting pitching could be downright scary next year and beyond, with a healthy Matt Harvey likely joining Zack Wheeler, veteran Jon Niese, and top prospect Noah Syndergaard in the rotation, and with all of those pitchers under team control through at least 2016 (and 2018 if the Mets pick up Niese’s pair of options).

However, despite Sandy Alderson posturing about liking the roster he has, the Mets still have a bunch of lineup holes to fill. They also have issues to address with a bullpen that sports a low 3.22 ERA this year, but with defense-independent and park-adjusted numbers that don’t look so hot. Though the Mets play in baseball’s largest market, they either lack the money to spend or lack the will to spend it, which means that hoping for an offseason spree is probably hoping for too much.

Maybe Granderson will stay put and continue to be a rare big bat in an otherwise anemic lineup, but with Colon nearing the end of the road and toiling at a position where the Mets boast enviable strength and depth, he looks like a logical trade candidate.

Detecting a Pulse! 

There’s life here, but these teams will need breaks to emerge as serious contenders.

20. Tampa Bay Rays (41-51, -33, LW: 29)
19. Chicago White Sox (43-47, -26, LW: 21)
18. Miami Marlins (43-46, -4, LW: 18)
17. Cleveland Indians (43-45, -15, LW: 17)
16. New York Yankees (45-43, -30, LW: 16)

First, consider the above graphic (which doesn’t include Monday’s games). Then, contemplate what Tampa Bay accomplished before Monday’s shutout loss to Kansas City, winning 17 of its past 25 games and pulling off a 9-2 road trip through Baltimore, New York, and Detroit that will go down as one of the most impressive swings any team has managed this year. Next, recall the sky-high preseason expectations that surrounded the team with the second-most wins in baseball from 2008 through 2013. Finally, think back to September 2011 and one of the most stirring comeback playoff runs in baseball history. Now ask yourself: Do the Rays actually have a shot at this thing?

Well, this is a talented team, and one that boasts the same core of players who produced 91 wins3 and a playoff berth last year. It starts with David Price, who recently just missed becoming the fourth pitcher ever to strike out 10 or more batters in six consecutive starts. He’s been nearly unhittable in his last eight, posting a 2.31 ERA, 75 strikeouts, 12 walks, a .209 opponents’ batting average, and nearly eight innings per outing. He’s one of the five best pitchers in the American League, and if Rays GM Andrew Friedman elects to trade him, Price will be the best available player between now and July 31.

Price is hardly the Rays’ only talented pitcher, though. Chris Archer finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting last season and looks even better this year, hiking his strikeout rate and slashing his home run rate. Jake Odorizzi made some adjustments after getting cuffed around early in the year, and though he’s still giving up too many runs, he has also looked excellent at times, sporting a gaudy strikeout rate that tops what Jon Lester, Scott Kazmir, and other highly regarded pitchers have managed. Alex Cobb’s ERA is up a run and a half from last year, but his underlying numbers — strikeouts, walks, home runs, ground ball rate — haven’t changed much. And while injuries have decimated the rotation, that situation is improving as well: Cobb returned in late May from an oblique injury, and Jeremy Hellickson will make his first start of the season tonight, leaving Tommy John patient Matt Moore as the only notable absentee from the team’s projected preseason rotation. The bullpen has been one of baseball’s worst, with Jake McGee putting up excellent numbers and nearly everyone else failing to live up to expectations, including recently deposed closer Grant Balfour and top setup man Joel Peralta.

In addition to injuries and bullpen woes, the Rays can trace much of their heartache to cluster luck. I’ve written about hit clustering a couple of times this year,4 but here’s a quick recap: Over the course of a week, month, or even an entire season, certain teams’ hitters will bunch their hits together better than others, while certain teams’ pitchers will scatter their hits apart better than others.5 The Rays have been, by far, the least lucky team in baseball when it comes to hit clustering. As of Friday’s FiveThirtyEight piece, the Rays had lost a staggering 54 runs simply through poor hit-clustering luck, a full 20 runs worse than the next-unluckiest team, the Astros. As Peta noted on Twitter, the Rays have turned double plays on less than 5 percent of the baserunners they’ve allowed, an abnormally low number that’s also the worst in baseball. Some of that is due to defensive slippage, as Ben Zobrist and especially Yunel Escobar are seeing their range start to tail off as they age. But most of it is likely a giant fluke.

Meanwhile, though the Rays’ offense might not look like much based on surface stats, adjusting for Tropicana Field’s run-dampening environment reveals that the Rays have actually trotted out a top-10 offense this year. Kevin Kiermaier’s unlikely emergence (he’s hitting an amazing .286/.322/.557) and Logan Forsythe’s sharp in-season turnaround have spurred recent improvement, and pending returns for Escobar (possibly as soon as this weekend), David DeJesus (likely shortly after the All-Star break), and Wil Myers (in late July or early August) could further bolster the attack. If baseball played a 262-game season and simply started over after the break, the Rays would be as well positioned as any team to make a spirited playoff run.

Unfortunately, they don’t have that much time. As hot as they’ve been lately, they still sit 10 games under .500. And while their 2011 miracle run offers hope for another big comeback, making up 9.5 games (their current deficit for both the AL East lead and the second wild-card spot) is much tougher to pull off when doing so also requires passing six teams instead of just one or two.

So the Rays will have no choice but to field offers for Price, Zobrist, and other veterans who offer a year and a half or less of club control. There’s certainly a scenario in which Tampa Bay stays blazing hot for the next three weeks, the rest of the AL East crumbles, and Friedman entirely abandons the idea of selling veterans for prospects. The most likely scenario, however, has the Rays winding up as sellers. With a decimated farm system and a tiny revenue stream, they can afford only so much dreaming before they’re forced to accept reality.

The Dogfighters

Three NL Central teams in a furious race for second, three AL contenders trying to break long playoff droughts … and the first-place Orioles.

15. Kansas City Royals (46-42, +18, LW: 13)
14. Cincinnati Reds (46-42, +21, LW: 10)
13. Pittsburgh Pirates (47-42, -3, LW: 15)
12. Toronto Blue Jays (47-44, +23, LW: 7)
11. St. Louis Cardinals (48-42, +18, LW: 11)
10. Baltimore Orioles (49-40, +29, LW: 14)
9. Seattle Mariners (49-40, +66, LW: 12)

Advanced stats don’t know what to make of the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Clint Hurdle’s club has allowed three more runs than it has scored, which, without adjusting for other factors, would suggest the skill level of a .500 team. The Pirates are five games over .500, however, following a dramatic in-season turnaround. On May 20, the Pirates were eight games under .500, eight games out of first, and in fourth place; now they’re five games over, 4.5 games out, and a mere half-game behind St. Louis for second place. With games against the Cardinals and Reds this week, the Pirates have a chance to make up even more ground.

The Pirates were a weird team to figure out during last year’s stirring postseason run too. It makes sense that not much has changed: For the umpteenth season in a row, the Pirates entered play with a shoestring budget. In some ways, that’s admirable. The A’s and Rays have become revered for winning with budget-conscious rosters the past few years, so when the Buccos beat up on richer rivals, it’s natural to want to laud the underdogs for a job well done.

On the other hand, the Pirates have money to spend,6 and the hope is that they spend it. In keeping with this year’s Grantland curse/reverse-curse trend, Pittsburgh caught fire right after I lamented its tightwad ways five weeks ago. As exciting as this post–May 20 turnaround has been, however, it’s still fair to ask if the Bucs would have been in better shape if they’d pushed the budget a little more aggressively this offseason.

Remember last year’s killer bullpen, led by sandwich purveyor Jason Grilli? All-Star Tony Watson and new closer Mark Melancon have pitched well, but Grilli’s been jettisoned to Anaheim, and the rest of the pen hasn’t been particularly good. Russell Martin has missed nearly half of the team’s games to date. Francisco Liriano is on the DL; Gerrit Cole spent time on the DL as well, and could miss his next scheduled start after exiting Friday’s game early with lat soreness. And the Bucs still don’t have a major league-caliber starting shortstop.

Beyond that, the common refrain is to lament the time that Gregory Polanco spent in the minors so that his team could avoid Super 2 compensation, especially with the big right fielder prompting statheads to evoke Barry Bonds’s name as a comparison. The bigger source of frustration remains the rotation, however. Knock the starting five built around Cole, Edinson Volquez, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, and Vance Worley, and you might get a “Scoreboard, dumbass” reply from your Pirates-loving pals. Still, a team can get by on shifty defense and good fortune for only so long before a staff stuffed with quadruple-A All-Stars starts to crack.

To GM Neal Huntington’s credit, he worked hard to upgrade last year’s roster, nabbing Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau in August waiver trades and relying on Cole to give the rotation a jolt as a midseason call-up. Now he needs to repeat the feat. The offense is better this year behind perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, Polanco, Martin, Neil Walker, and 2014 superutility man/superhero Josh Harrison, who’s come through again and again. With the offense clicking and Polanco playing the part of 2013 Cole, Huntington’s goal should be to pull off a Byrd-type deal for the rotation. Even if the Pirates can’t land someone like Price, enough teams will drop out of contention over the next three weeks to make some solid midrotation starters available.

The Pirates have already picked themselves up and brushed themselves off.

With a pitching upgrade or two, they might just be able to pull off another surprise playoff run.

Elite Eight

A huge winning streak propels the Braves into the league’s upper crust.

8. San Francisco Giants (49-40, +23, LW: 6)
7. Atlanta Braves (49-40, +11, LW: 9)
6. Washington Nationals (48-40, +53, LW: 8)
5. Detroit Tigers (48-37, +24, LW: 5)
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (51-40, +62, LW: 3)
3. Milwaukee Brewers (52-38, +30, LW: 2)
2. Los Angeles Angels (52-36, +74, LW: 4)
1. Oakland A’s (56-33, +140, LW: 1)

There’s a long list of reasons for the Braves’ recent nine-game winning streak and their return to first place after briefly ceding that spot to the Nationals. Tommy La Stella caught fire, providing a stark daily reminder of what can happen when not paying a starting second baseman $13 million a year to be terrible. La Stella’s double-play partner, Andrelton Simmons, who’s already making his case as the next Ozzie Smith, added some big offensive contributions to his ledger. Freddie Freeman, one of the five best first basemen in the majors, got hot. And behind Julio Teheran and Ervin Santana, a stingy starting rotation overcame multiple preseason Tommy John surgeries to take its place among the NL’s best.

Much of the credit, however, goes to the Braves’ bullpen, the unit that’s been arguably the best in the game behind one superstar and an armada of lesser-known contributors. Craig Kimbrel remains the main attraction, and with good reason: While it’s fair to acknowledge that elite relief pitchers tend to put up better numbers than elite starters because it’s far easier to throw 15 pitches per appearance than 100, it’s also fair to note that Kimbrel has annihilated every other pitcher7 across the board — ERA, FIP, strikeout rate, etc. — since his major league debut in 2010. Wielding a high-90s fastball and a knockout curve, he’s a metronome of dominance.

Kimbrel-Looking-2

Kimbrel has received ample support from his bullpen mates, particularly Jordan Walden. Acquired from the Angels for damaged starter Tommy Hanson after the 2012 season, Walden has emerged as one of the best setup men in the NL. Like Kimbrel, he ranks among the league leaders in K rate, relying on a fastball/slider/changeup repertoire. And in addition to pure velocity or pitch movement, Walden benefits from a delivery unlike anyone else’s, featuring a mid-pitch hesitation that messes up hitters’ timing:

It doesn’t stop there, though. Rookie Shae Simmons has translated his nasty fastball-slider combo into great results, with 16 strikeouts, five walks, 11 hits, no homers, and a 1.06 ERA in 17 innings. Anthony Varvaro, a 12th-round pick acquired off waivers from the Mariners three years ago, owns a 2.57 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning. And while the other relievers’ contributions haven’t been significant beyond that, this is still a deep, inexpensive, and highly effective group on the whole.

Perhaps most impressive of all is what the Braves had to overcome to get here. Three years ago, they trotted out three all-world relievers in Kimbrel, Jonny Venters (1.84 ERA, 96 strikeouts, and two homers allowed in 88 innings and a league-leading 85 appearances), and Eric O’Flaherty (0.98 ERA, 67 strikeouts, 59 hits, and two homers allowed in 73.2 innings). All of that work caught up to Venters, leading to Tommy John surgery in May 2013 and zero innings pitched in the big leagues since 2012. O’Flaherty had T.J. surgery of his own five days after Venters, filed for free agency at the end of last season, and signed a two-year, $7 million deal with the A’s, who banked on an effective return.

While the Braves would certainly love to have those two elite lefties flanking Kimbrel again, they’ll surely settle for their current relief crop, which they cobbled together without the benefit of expensive free-agent acquisitions or major trades. Even when they’re not outspending, they’re out-scouting. And more often than not, they do just that. 

This article was updated to remove an inaccurate characterization of the Braves’ local television contract.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, New York Mets, Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates, Atlanta Braves, MLB Trade Deadline, 2014 MLB Trade Deadline, Baseball, David Price, Curtis Granderson, Bartolo Colon, Craig Kimbrel, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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