The 30: Four Teams to Watch for the Rest of 2015

Mark J. Terrill/AP

Since we last spoke, well, there just hasn’t been much to speak about. The Home Run Derby is … back? The All-Star Game was the meaningless exhibition it always is — albeit one filled with an especially young collection of stars. But as far as legitimately competitive baseball goes, all we have since the Week 14 rankings is one weekend series per team.

This week, then, it’s all about the next two and a half months. We’re taking a look at four clubs facing some intriguing questions from now until season’s end.

How do the Marlins handle disappointing seasons for Giancarlo Stanton’s running mates? Could the sub-.500 Rangers trump contenders in the race to land Cole Hamels? What’s behind the Angels’ surge into first place? And what might the Pirates do now that they’ve become — despite an ugly weekend — one of the most complete teams in baseball?

This is the stuff you gotta watch for the rest of the year. It’s Week 15 of The 30.

Best Double Bat Flip of the Week

When we checked in on 21-year-old Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor last week, we marveled at his gaudy numbers since returning from the minors on June 15. Over the weekend, Odor started the second half right where he left off. The Astros pitching staff made the mistake of getting in his way.

On Saturday night, Odor fell a double short of hitting for the cycle, and his two biggest hits of the game were accompanied by stylish bat flips. In the third inning, Odor crushed a Scott Feldman pitch into the upper deck for a two-run homer, punctuating the shot with an aggressive discard.

Then, in the ninth, Odor smoked a triple to the wall in center. As he sprinted out of the box, he showed even more contempt for his bat, sending it helicoptering through the air.

His final line for the game: 3 for 5, two runs scored, two RBIs, and a little help from his friends.

(Out)field of (Broken) Dreams

Marcell Ozuna’s tailspin is the biggest — but not the only — problem for a Marlins outfield that looked unbeatable last year.

30. Philadelphia Phillies (32-62 record, minus-154 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Miami Marlins (38-54, minus-30, LW: 28)
28. Colorado Rockies (39-51, minus-57, LW: 27)
27. Milwaukee Brewers (41-52, minus-38, LW: 29)
26. Seattle Mariners (42-50, minus-49, LW: 25)
25. Cincinnati Reds (40-49, minus-50, LW: 24)
24. Oakland A’s (43-51, plus-53, LW: 22)
23. Atlanta Braves (43-49, minus-43, LW: 23)
22. Boston Red Sox (42-49, minus-47, LW: 20)
21. Chicago White Sox (42-48, minus-77, LW: 21)

The 2014 season was Marcell Ozuna’s coming-out party. At age 23, the Dominican center fielder dazzled in his first year as an everyday major league player, swatting 23 homers, putting up a batting line 14 percent better than league average, and playing top-10 defense at a premium position.1 At year’s end, the Marlins could look back and see an incredible asset: a four-win player under team control for five more years who was already very good and young enough to suggest future improvement. Along with Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich, the Marlins boasted three under-25 stars who collectively comprised what was arguably the best outfield in baseball.2

Fast-forward to July 5 of this year. On that day, Stanton sat on the disabled list with a broken bone in his left wrist, while Yelich’s production was way down from 2014 levels despite a recent hot streak that had boosted his numbers. Yet, Ozuna’s situation was the worst of the three: His vortex of ineptitude included a brutal .249/.301/.337 batting line that was .224/.260/.273 in his past 48 games, punctuated by an abysmal 1-for-36 stretch. As weak as the outfield had become, the Marlins still made a decision that would have been unthinkable a year ago: They sent Ozuna to the minors.

Ozuna’s struggles extend beyond the obvious numbers, too. In 2014, the righty slugger pulled off a great imitation of a prototypical left-handed hitter, batting .390 on pitches down and in. This year, per ESPN Stats & Info, that number has tumbled to .263, part of a yearlong struggle that’s seen Ozuna scuffle on any and all pitch locations on the inner half.

ozuna-2014-heat-map

ozuna-2015-heat-map

That inability to handle inside pitches has fueled broader struggles to hit the ball with authority. Last year, Ozuna ranked a solid 60th among 146 major league hitters in Well-Hit Average. This year, he’s 123rd out of 160. It’s possible Ozuna could have worked out his troubles in Miami, and the club didn’t have to put itself in a position where it’s trotting out 41-year-old Ichiro Suzuki and journeyman Cole Gillespie on most nights. But there’s no denying that he was mired in one of the worst slumps any hitter has had this year.

While watching Ozuna ply his trade in Triple-A New Orleans has to be painful for Marlins fans, the hope is that playing in a lower-pressure environment helps him get back to 2014 form; he’s at .351/.351/622 in his first 37 times at bat. A return to form for Ozuna, along with keeping Stanton on the field and getting Yelich back to his high-OBP, doubles-pounding ways, will be vital to the Marlins’ chances in 2016 and beyond.

Buy Now for Later

While front-running teams start calling about Cole Hamels, the nearly-out-of-contention Rangers remain in the mix for the Phillies ace.

20. San Diego Padres (43-49, minus-45, LW: 26)
19. Arizona Diamondbacks (42-48, minus-6, LW: 19)
18. Texas Rangers (43-48, minus-35, LW: 18)
17. Cleveland Indians (44-47, minus-17, LW: 17)
16. Tampa Bay Rays (47-47, minus-16, LW: 15)
15. Detroit Tigers (45-46, minus-20, LW: 16)

If you had to pick one team that’s most likely to acquire Cole Hamels in the next 11 days, it would be the Dodgers. Adding a pitcher of Hamels’s caliber would address L.A.’s biggest weakness — starting pitching after Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Brett Anderson — and also give the team a long-term option to pair with Kershaw at the top of the rotation if Greinke rides his current Bob Gibson impersonation to a contract opt-out at the end of 2015.

But beyond the Dodgers and other teams in the thick of the pennant race, the Rangers have reportedly emerged as a strong suitor. This might seem curious for a team that’s five games under .500, with just two wins in its past 11, sitting 7.5 games behind the front-running Angels and closer to last place than to first. Except, it’s also a potentially logical move for a team that might have a wider variety of options for 2016 than anyone else.

The best-case scenario for 2016 and beyond includes a return to form for Martin Perez. The 24-year-old lefty made his long-awaited return Friday, lasting five innings against the Astros in his first start back from 2014 Tommy John surgery. As with Matt Moore and other pitchers returning from TJ, we should expect Perez to struggle with command for a while. But he still carries lots of upside, having fired three straight scoreless outings last April before the elbow injury and also notching some impressive results during his first full big league season in 2013. If Perez can return to full strength by Opening Day of next year, and if top-of-the-rotation starters Yu Darvish (Tommy John surgery; possible return: April 2016) and Derek Holland (shoulder injury; possible return: August 2015) can also heal as quickly as hoped, the Rangers would have a strong pitching foundation.

Add Hamels to that mix and the Rangers would immediately become an intriguing AL West sleeper against the perennially strong Angels and the up-and-coming Astros. If they could then re-sign Yovani Gallardo to, say, a four-year extension,3 you have a potential super-rotation. Combine that with another year of development for 2015 revelations Delino DeShields Jr. and Odor, along with young power-monger Joey Gallo, and you give Hamels a potential winning environment for the duration of his contract.4

However, considering the salary space they’d need to clear out, the Rangers would face some tough choices if they did pursue Hamels, choices that’d become doubly tough if they wanted to pull off the Hamels-Gallardo exacta. For one thing, you have to think Shin-Soo Choo might be gone before they take the field next season. Choo’s owed a terrifying $102 million from 2016 to 2020, making him one of the most toxic assets in baseball given his age (33) and lackluster production (.227/.308/.388). Even if you wanted to hope for a bounce back, there might not be room for him on the roster, given the addition of Josh Hamilton, the emergence of DeShields, and the eventual return of Gallo (at least, until third base opens up). If the Rangers could find a taker for even half of Choo’s remaining contract, it might be worth trading him just for that dose of salary relief, plus a prospect or two. The more painful decision, though, revolves around Adrian Beltre, who’s 36 and hitting .255/.288/.390. Declining his 2016 option opens a spot for Gallo and also saves $16 million that can be applied toward carrying out that aggressive Hamels-led pitching plan. But Beltre’s a likable team leader and a six-win player as recently as last season — factors that make the call more difficult than his age and 2015 numbers would suggest.

These aren’t easy decisions, and a mini-rebuild could also make sense given the Rangers’ top-heavy payroll, their struggles over the past couple of years, and the tough competition that awaits at the top of their division. But if you believe in the power of having options, Texas has plenty. And if the reports are to be trusted, adding a new ace is one of them.

Halo Heat

Fresh off an ugly breakup, the Angels surge into first place.

14. Baltimore Orioles (46-45, plus-44, LW: 13)
13. Toronto Blue Jays (47-47, plus-89, LW: 14)
12. New York Mets (48-44, minus-11, LW: 12)
11. San Francisco Giants (49-43, plus-32, LW: 11)
10. Chicago Cubs (49-41, plus-21, LW: 8)
9. Minnesota Twins (50-42, plus-14, LW: 10)
8. Washington Nationals (49-41, plus-31, LW: 9)
7. New York Yankees (50-41, plus-27, LW: 7)
6. Houston Astros (51-43, plus-60, LW: 6)
5. Los Angeles Angels (50-40, plus-37, LW: 5)

The dispute that ended with Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto clearing out his desk on June 30 might not bode well for the team’s long-term future. If, as a league source claimed, the coaching staff had become complacent, the manager stubborn and combative, and the owner overaggressive, that could create a tough environment for whoever eventually takes over for interim GM Bill Stoneman.

Fortunately, none of that makes a lick of difference right now. The Halos have won nine of their past 12 games since Dipoto’s departure, nabbing control of first place and making themselves the favorites to win the AL West. It’s tempting to ascribe some sort of grand meaning to the wins that have piled up since the split, but it’s still too much of a stretch to say that the guy working upstairs was somehow holding the team back, that there’s some quirky Ewing Theory–esque magic at work, or that Dipoto’s replacement — a much-respected executive who’s been in the game nearly 50 years but hasn’t made any major moves during his nearly three weeks in charge — is the reason the Angels are now playing so well. The truth is, the Angels were a 98-win team last year that had underachieved for a good chunk of 2015, and now they’re playing the way most of the baseball world figured they would.

Leading the charge is the best player on earth. Mike Trout was already having a season that thrust him back into MVP discussion for the fourth straight year, but the 23-year-old has gone nuts in those 12 games since Dipoto stepped down: an absurd .333/.444/.800 with seven home runs. Also on fire? Kole Calhoun. The 27-year-old outfielder broke out last year, batting .272/.325/.450 in his first season as a full-time starter, only to struggle for much of this year, with a sub-.700 OPS through the end of June. Since then: a .327/.368/.712 run that includes two long balls Saturday against the Red Sox and has lifted his batting line to just a tiny tick below that 2014 level. Throw in the rejuvenation of Albert Pujols, along with a bunch of line drives from 25-year-old C.J. Cron and other supporting actors, and the Angels lead the American League in park-adjusted offense in July.

The pitching staff’s not too far behind, either, ranking third in the AL in ERA this month. Like Calhoun over the first three months, 27-year-old right-hander Garrett Richards had slipped a bit from the levels of his breakout 2014 campaign, but he has found his groove in July, posting a 2.05 ERA, highlighted by a two-hit whitewash of the Red Sox on Saturday. Also chipping in: 27-year-old Hector Santiago, who has allowed just one run in 14 July innings to lower his season-long ERA to a sparkling 2.33, and 24-year-old Andrew Heaney, who, given the 1.32 ERA he now has after four starts this year, is starting to make Angels fans come to terms with the loss of Howie Kendrick. For all the abuse the Angels’ farm system has taken over the past few years, there’s no way this team is in first place without a wide array of twentysomethings — both homegrown and acquired through shrewd trades — at the top of their game this month.

And, hey, if you want to point to a schedule that’s seen the Angels play 11 of their 12 games this month against sub-.500 teams as a reason for their success, that’s OK, too. It just probably doesn’t have much to do with backroom disagreements or any pixie-dust-related epiphanies.

Set With Stars

Despite a surprising willingness to do so, the Pirates don’t need to make a big-name acquisition before the trade deadline.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates (53-38, plus-53, LW: 1)
3. Kansas City Royals (55-35, plus-67, LW: 4)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (53-40, plus-67, LW: 3)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (58-34, plus-100, LW: 2)

Pirates beat writer Travis Sawchik included a fascinating nugget in his July 12 column: The Pirates made a run at David Price last July, offering an attractive package of prospects in an attempt to land the best available pitcher. For a team that’s not exactly known as a high-rolling wheeler and dealer, this was a surprise. But it would seem to be an exciting one, especially given where the Pirates now lie in the standings and the wealth of talent that figures to be available in the next week and a half.

Except, here’s the thing: This is the strongest team the Pirates have fielded during the impressive run that started in 2013. And while that strength understandably triggers visions of a deep playoff run and a desire to add big-name players to make that happen, the Buccos might be so good at so many key positions that emptying the farm system to add a star won’t even be worth the trouble.

Consider the starting rotation. With Hamels, Johnny Cueto, Scott Kazmir, Mike Leake, Matt Garza, and maybe even Price among the potentially available arms, pitching-needy teams have plenty to choose from. But short of a sudden, major injury, there’s no way you can call the Pirates pitching-needy. Pittsburgh is one of only two teams with three or more ERA-title-qualified starters who own ERAs under 3.00: 24-year-old phenom Gerrit Cole, as well as veterans A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano.5 Those numbers are supported by peripheral stats, too, with all three carrying ground ball rates above 50 percent and FIP numbers no higher than Liriano’s 3.08. If they could find a way to add Price or Cueto to that trio, the rotation becomes nuclear, but that’s a luxury item for a staff that can already match up with anyone they’ll see in October.

If they’re going to make a move, look for it to come in the shape of position-player help. Shortstop Jordy Mercer suffered a leg injury Sunday and will now head back to Pittsburgh for further evaluation. If the injury proves serious, the Bucs will be without the entire left side of their infield. (Third baseman Josh Harrison is already on the shelf.) Even with the solid play of rookie Jung Ho Kang (initially at short, now at third with Harrison out), the Pirates could still use infield help to stem the tide, making players such as Martin Prado (especially if the Marlins could pick up some of his $11 million salary for 2016), Jean Segura, or former Pirate Aramis Ramirez intriguing options. Even if Mercer’s injury proves not too serious, the lackluster production shown by Pedro Alvarez and Sean Rodriguez makes an infielder pickup seem all the wiser. Along with the interest in bullpen reinforcements that seemingly every team has at this point in the year, those are pretty much the team’s only pressing desires.

A weekend sweep at the hands of the Brewers was less than ideal, as is the Cardinals’ stubborn insistence on remaining successful. But as we approach the deadline silly season, knowing that your roster needs little more than a tune-up is a good place to be.

Filed Under: MLB, Jonah Keri, MLB Power Rankings, MLB Stats, The 30, Baseball, Rougned Odor, Texas Rangers, Miami Marlins, Marcell Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Cole Hamels, Los Angeles Angels, Pittsburgh Pirates, Mike Trout, Garrett Richards, Kole Calhoun, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett

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 New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri