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The 30: Stuck in the Middle With You

Midway through the season, few teams have truly fallen out of the race or separated from the pack. Amid the parity, this week’s spotlighted teams are looking to stand out.

When Major League Baseball introduced the second wild-card spot in 2012, it triggered the Age of Uncertainty: The extra playoff spots mean more opportunity, but they also mean less clarity in the standings throughout the year.

Such is the case as the 2014 season hits the midway point. In the AL, five teams stand within two games of a wild-card spot, and nine teams are within six games. Even in the NL, where six teams1 appear to be out of the race, five others are bunched atop the wild-card standings. And that’s not to mention the divisional races, where one division is tied at the top, another has three teams within two games of first place, and only two have leaders with a cushion of more than five games.

This week’s spotlighted teams help to illustrate the situation. Despite devastating injuries, the Rangers aren’t completely out of it … though they’re close. The Indians and Royals have shown flashes but are stuck in the mass of would-be contenders near .500. And while the Dodgers look like one of the three best teams in baseball, they might not be the best team in their own division. With a month to go until the trade deadline and half a season left to play, the search for clarity continues.

It’s Week 13 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

This week’s honors go to Twins outfielder Oswaldo Arcia. Facing Rangers right-hander Nick Tepesch on Friday, Arcia took a 3-1 pitch (way) up and (slightly) in for ball four. None too pleased with the pitch location, Arcia reacted. But rather than staring down Tepesch or charging the mound, Arcia opted to express himself via bat flip. The result was a thing of beauty: an underhanded projectile that traveled so high it left the screen entirely.

oswaldo-arcia-bat-flip

Better Luck Next Year 

Though half a season remains, these teams probably need to start thinking about 2015.

30. Arizona Diamondbacks (35-49, -68 run differential, no. 29 last week)
29. Tampa Bay Rays (35-49, -37, LW: 30)
28. San Diego Padres (35-47, -59, LW: 28)
27. Houston Astros (36-47, -52, LW: 27)
26. Colorado Rockies (36-46, -14, LW: 23)
25. Chicago Cubs (34-46, -14, LW: 25)
24. Philadelphia Phillies (36-46, -40, LW: 22)
23. New York Mets (37-45, -1, LW: 26)
22. Texas Rangers (37-44, -57, LW: 20)
21. Chicago White Sox (39-44, -31, LW: 24)

When the Rangers and Tigers swapped Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder in a blockbuster offseason trade, it looked like a potential win for both sides: The Tigers were adding much-needed speed and defense while unloading Fielder’s huge contract; the Rangers were using their financial muscle2 to land a slugger they hoped could fill the power void created when Josh Hamilton left a year earlier.

Let’s check in on how that deal has worked out:

Kinsler’s impressive trolling only rubbed salt in the wound caused by what now looks like a terribly lopsided deal. Kinsler has flexed a wide array of skills since joining the Tigers, hitting .307/.342/.488 and ranking as one of the 10 best position players in the majors by Wins Above Replacement. Meanwhile, coming off his worst offensive campaign in seven years, Fielder was on his way to the poorest season of his career before suffering a likely season-ending neck injury. Even at his best, Fielder was always a bat-only player. Next year will be his age-31 season, and while the Rangers do have healthy revenue streams at their disposal, paying Fielder $24 million a year through 2020 is going to sting3 if he fails to return to his former 30-to-35-homer form.

The uncertainty surrounding Fielder is just one of several questions facing the fourth-place Rangers, who’ve nearly fallen out of contention completely after a recent eight-game losing streak put them in a double-digit hole behind division-leading Oakland. Three weeks ago, while writing about Texas’s historic injury plague, I said the team could be primed for a big rebound in 2015, much like the Red Sox in 2013 and the Blue Jays this season.4 For that to happen, however, the Rangers will need to fill some significant holes at multiple positions. Catcher is a mess, with Robinson Chirinos the best of several unsavory options. Even more pressing is the starting rotation, which looks totally unsettled after Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, with Martín Pérez likely out for at least half of 2015 and Matt Harrison’s career in jeopardy.

The Rangers will have ways to address those problems over the winter, from picking through a weak free-agent class to considering a significant trade to solve the Elvis Andrus/Rougned Odor/Jurickson Profar playing-time crunch that will surface if and when all three middle infielders are healthy. The more drastic move, however, would be to jump into the trade-deadline fray this July and cash in veterans for future assets. Some of the potential moves are obvious: Neal Cotts and Jason Frasor are free agents at year’s end, and the Rangers could get at least decent value for two of the best setup men in the league. Colby Lewis can also test the market this offseason, though he’s been terrible in 2014, so it’s unlikely a contender would give up anything good to get him.

Then there’s the more aggressive path: trading players the Rangers control beyond this season. His rough Sunday outing notwithstanding, Joakim Soria has been fantastic all year, striking out 39 batters, walking just four, and allowing just 18 hits in 27⅔ innings; Texas holds a $7 million option on Soria for next season, and assuming his injury woes are behind him, that’s a bargain for an elite reliever. The Rangers also hold a $13.5 million 2015 option on Alex Rios; though Rios has only three homers this season, there’s probably a market for a player hitting .304/.336/.438 and boasting a track record that suggests his power could return any second. Keith Law took things a step further, suggesting that the Rangers trade Adrian Beltre in order to reload with young talent while clearing the way for super-prospect Joey Gallo.

Unless the Rangers think they’re two or three years away from winning again, they’re unlikely to move Beltre. Still, you never know: As the Fielder-for-Kinsler deal showed, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels is never afraid to swing for the fences. Hopefully for the Rangers, their next home run personnel swing won’t result in an ugly strikeout.

The Negative Run Differential All-Stars

Six teams with redeeming qualities … and their share of luck.

20. Minnesota Twins (37-43, -29, LW: 19)
19. Boston Red Sox (38-44, -33, LW: 21)
18. Miami Marlins (39-43, -5, LW: 15)
17. Cleveland Indians (39-42, -21, LW: 18)
16. New York Yankees (41-39, -32, LW: 12)
15. Pittsburgh Pirates (42-40, -9, LW: 17)

When The 30 last looked at the Indians, they were the worst defensive team in baseball. That lousy glovework was wreaking havoc on nearly every pitcher on the staff, except for breakout star Corey Kluber and a couple of relievers. Six weeks later, the Indians are … still the worst defensive team in baseball.

That means that barring major lineup changes, Cleveland’s best chance this year will be to outslug the competition. Though the Tribe sit in the lower echelon of wild-card contenders, there’s still a chance they could ride their offense back to the postseason. And with apologies to Jason Kipnis, who’s back from the disabled list, and Carlos Santana, who’s finally getting hot, the big story for the Indians’ offense has been Lonnie Chisenhall’s otherworldly play.

In fact, it’s been one of the biggest stories in baseball. The Indians’ third baseman is hitting .350/.404/.562 this season, second in the majors in batting average and ranking seventh in on-base percentage and eighth in slugging among all hitters with as many plate appearances. That last caveat underscores Chisenhall’s meteoric rise this year: He wasn’t the team’s Opening Day starter at third, and he didn’t fully seize the everyday gig until early May. Chisenhall, the 31st-best prospect in baseball in 2010 and 25th-best in 2011 according to Baseball America, hit .244/.284/.411 in his first three major league seasons, totaling a mere 643 at-bats as the Indians refused to settle for his subpar production. Now he’s the third-best hitter in baseball on a park-adjusted basis, outpacing Yasiel Puig, Miguel Cabrera, and many other stars.

ESPN’s TruMedia system offers some insight into how Chisenhall has improved so much, so quickly: He’s using the whole field more than ever, slapping about 30 percent of his hits to left, about 32 percent to center, and about 37 percent to right. He’s also making harder and more effective contact, hiking his line-drive rate to career-high levels while ranking seventh in the AL in that department, and hitting infield popups half as often as his career average, ranking among the best in the league at avoiding those. MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian recently shed some light on Chisenhall’s mechanical adjustments as well, noting that the third baseman tweaked his batting stance by lowering his hands and adopting a slight forward lean, both changes that appear to have helped. Though he’s no Wade Boggs in the walks department, Chisenhall has at least edged his walk rate higher this year (to 6.6 percent) while trimming his strikeout rate (to 15.6 percent).

Chisenhall had his coming-out party on June 9, racking up five hits, smashing three home runs, and driving in nine runs in five plate appearances, becoming the first player ever to accomplish that feat.

There’s little likelihood of Chisenhall staying this hot, however. Though harder contact and more line drives help explain some of his surge, his .393 batting average on balls in play leads the AL by a healthy margin, goes way beyond his career norms, and would rank as one of the best figures for that category by any hitter in years. Since Chisenhall isn’t Ichiro in his prime — the kind of hitter with impeccable bat control who can also leg out dozens of infield hits — he’s not going to sustain a .393 BABIP for long.

Still, the Indians have gone from getting bottom-of-the-barrel production from the hot corner to fielding one of the best young hitters in baseball. And since half the team can’t catch the damn ball, that kind of hitting is essential to Cleveland’s playoff hopes.

The Contenders

Eight tightly bunched teams jockey for position.

14. Baltimore Orioles (42-39, +4, LW: 11)
13. Kansas City Royals (42-39, +12, LW: 10)
12. Seattle Mariners (44-38, +50, LW: 14)
11. St. Louis Cardinals (44-39, +18, LW: 7)
10. Cincinnati Reds (43-38, +22, LW: 16)
9. Atlanta Braves (44-38, +0, LW: 13)
8. Washington Nationals (43-38, +39, LW: 9)
7. Toronto Blue Jays (45-39, +30, LW: 8)

I recently covered the Royals’ playoff chances for FiveThirtyEight, right after K.C. pulled off an impressive 10-game winning streak. You can read that article to see how teams that amass 10-game winning streaks generally fare when it comes to playoff odds, but here are a few follow-up points:

• Assuming the Royals are encouraged by Billy Butler’s recent hot hitting and feel that both Omar Infante’s track record and Eric Hosmer’s star potential deserve respect, they’re left with two obvious places to improve the roster: third base and right field.

Mike Moustakas was so bad earlier this season that the Royals were forced to demote him to Triple-A. Despite a few bursts of encouragement since returning to the majors, Moustakas is hitting just .215 with a .271 on-base percentage in June, and with more than 1,700 major league plate appearances to his name, there’s now ample evidence to suggest he’s not an MLB-caliber batter at third base. Norichika Aoki, meanwhile, has gone from being a solid all-around contributor as a 30-year-old rookie to a non-tenable hitter as a 32-year-old. In his first season with the Royals, Aoki is one of just two batting title–eligible players with zero home runs; the other is Miami’s Adeiny Hechavarria, who’s a shortstop and not a right fielder, and thus isn’t expected to deliver as much offensively.

Unfortunately, finding significant upgrades at those spots might be tricky. Star third basemen are in short supply right now, and finding one who’d be readily available in a trade could be nearly impossible. Kansas City’s best bet might be to acquire a 2014 overachiever like the Cubs’ Luis Valbuena, who’s posted a .271/.361/.448 line this season compared to a .229/.311/.365 career mark, and hope that he’s delivering a breakout instead of a fluke. Meanwhile, the Royals can count the number of quality outfielders likely to be on the market on one hand. San Diego’s Seth Smith is probably the best of the bunch, but he’s also having what could either be a career year or a fluke half destined to evaporate down the stretch.

• Aoki has been on the DL since June 21, opening the door for center fielders Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson to start next to each other. Both Cain, who’s hitting .301 in June with power but a low OBP, and Dyson, who’s hitting .302 in June but with few walks and no pop, have pumped up their offense a bit lately. Their main skills remain speed and terrific defense, however. The Royals are already a team built on pitching and fielding, so giving Cain and Dyson most of the center- and right-field playing time even after Aoki returns would give K.C. the best outfield defense in the majors by a wide margin, and it could offer a workable (and cheap) alternative to paying up for an offensive star at the deadline.

• The Royals signed Raul Ibanez on Monday, and while he could see some time in right field in addition to at DH and maybe even first base, he’s 42 and hit .157 with the Angels this season. He’s not the answer.

• Speaking of K.C. outfielders, here’s a look at the current Wins Above Replacement leaders for 2014:

Mike Trout: 5.5
Troy Tulowitzki: 4.7
Giancarlo Stanton: 4.4
Alex Gordon: 4.2

Since the start of the 2011 season, only Trout, Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, and Robinson Cano have delivered more all-around value than Gordon. Maybe the Royals’ outfield isn’t such a concern after all.

West-Coast Bias

Four of baseball’s six best teams call the Golden State home.

6. San Francisco Giants (46-36, +28, LW: 3)
5. Detroit Tigers (44-34, +19, LW: 6)
4. Los Angeles Angels (45-35, +51, LW: 4)
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (47-37, +54, LW: 5)
2. Milwaukee Brewers (51-33, +40, LW: 2)
1. Oakland A’s (51-30, +135, LW: 1)

They say teams can never have enough pitching, and when that maxim is coupled with the rumor mill’s fixation on pitchers and the Dodgers’ recent history of paying up for talent, the result is frequent buzz about L.A. making a play for David Price, the best pitcher on one of the few teams sure to be selling at the trade deadline. If the Dodgers truly want to address a major team weakness, however, they should turn their attention to another Ray: Ben Zobrist.

In pursuing Price, L.A. would be adding another trophy to an already crowded mantle. The always insightful and often entertaining Dodgers Twitter feed noted that Sunday marked the 33rd consecutive game in which a Dodgers starter walked two or fewer batters, the longest such streak in at least a century. Clayton Kershaw has been otherworldly, going 6-0 with a 0.82 ERA, 61 strikeouts, and four walks in June (putting him in elite company) while twirling 28 consecutive scoreless innings. But Kershaw’s got great company, too, with rotation mates Josh Beckett and Zack Greinke both ranking in the top seven in NL ERA, and Hyun-Jin Ryu not far back at 18th. Price would replace Dan Haren in the rotation, an upgrade to be sure. But a playoff rotation of Kershaw, Greinke, Beckett, and Ryu would likely be the best any team could offer anyway, and adding Price would simply make an extraordinary strength a little stronger.

On the other hand, adding Zobrist would address a problem that threatens to hurt the Dodgers significantly for the next few weeks: a frightening lack of options on the left side of the infield. On Saturday, I watched from Dodger Stadium’s sunny stands as the home team pummeled the Cardinals, 9-1, the prelude to a series-clinching win Sunday that thrust L.A. into a tie for first place with the Giants, capping an incredible run that erased a 9.5-game deficit in 21 days. But that Saturday game also featured two potentially costly injuries. Justin Turner, who hit .400 in June, pulled a hamstring and had to go on the DL the next day. And Hanley Ramirez suffered a calf injury, which could set up another DL stint and marks a recurrence of the same injury from earlier this year. Meanwhile, though Juan Uribe returned from the disabled list last week, he doesn’t yet look ready to handle everyday duties.

Acquiring a versatile player like Zobrist would allow the Dodgers to cover whichever injury creates the biggest need. It would also offer a hedge against possible regression or continued platoon issues for Dee Gordon, who was after all a .256/.301/.312 hitter from 2011 through 2013 and who’s batting just .261/.311/.348 against lefties this season even amid his big first half. And it would provide another outfield option … though, admittedly, that’s not a huge draw for a team that has outfielders growing out of its ears.

Given the Dodgers’ penchant for blockbusters, they could do something huge and strike a multi-player deal to acquire both Price and Zobrist. Or they could go after an infielder from another team. Either way, acquiring infield help would address one of the very few weaknesses this loaded Dodgers team has. After all, World Series contenders need to do everything they can to stay hot.

 

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Baseball, Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Trades, Lonnie Chisenhall, David Price, Ben Zobrist, 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