The Reducer: World Cup Winners and Losers

Dispatches From the NCAA’s Deathbed

The 30: Time Heals All Wounds

The Nats have slowly turned in the right direction, while the White Sox continue to rebuild and the Cards are trying to reload

This week’s rankings come with changes, including multiple migrations toward the bottom. If you’re a fan of one of those tumbling teams, we offer small tokens of consolation.

Have a dance party:

Grab a ride:

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Enjoy the value of a good hose:

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And be thankful you’re not a Rockies fan:

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(Our apologies if you’re a Rockies fan.) It’s Week 12 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

Edwin Encarnacion made history last week. He took over the major league lead in home runs, but that wasn’t it. No, the real triumph came with his bat flip artistry. On Friday, the Jays first baseman launched two long balls, leading the Jays back from an 8-0 deficit to a rousing 14-9 win. He celebrated one of those blasts by pulling off the unprecedented fake-bat-flip-followed-by-real-bat-flip move.

For one week at least, Edwing is king.

Bringing Up the Rear

It’s lonely at the bottom, so we added some company.

30. Tampa Bay Rays (31-46, -39 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Arizona Diamondbacks (32-47, -66, LW: 28)
28. San Diego Padres (32-44, -64, LW: 29)
27. Houston Astros (33-44, -54, LW: 24)
26. New York Mets (35-41, -2, LW: 25)
25. Chicago Cubs (31-42, -9, LW: 27)
24. Chicago White Sox (35-41, -29, LW: 22)
23. Colorado Rockies (34-41, -7, LW: 17)
22. Philadelphia Phillies (34-40, -26, LW: 24)

Step one of the White Sox rebuilding process is complete. In signing Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million contract, the Sox landed one of the best free-agent bargains in years, one that has helped energize the club’s offense (and might even make teams rethink how they value Cuban players on the open market). Last year, Chicago owned the second-worst offense in baseball on a park-adjusted basis. This season, thanks in large part to Abreu, they’re a solid 13th.

Upgrading the offense gave the Sox some roster balance to complement Chris Sale. The lanky lefty missed more than a month with a flexor strain in his throwing arm, but his numbers when healthy have been phenomenal: 65.1 innings pitched, 75 strikeouts, 10 walks, four home runs, 2.20 ERA. Throw in last year’s numbers — 279.2 innings, 301 strikeouts, 56 walks, 2.86 ERA since the start of 2013 — and you have one of the five best pitchers on earth. Though Sale is the clear staff ace, he has found an able running mate in Jose Quintana. Quintana’s ERA has edged higher this year, but he has actually improved in 2014, slicing his home run rate in half while getting dented a bit by a flukishly low strand rate; by park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching, Quintana has been the ninth-best starting pitcher in the American League this season.

Now comes step two, the challenging task of filling in the pieces. Coming into this season, the Sox hoped Erik Johnson could emerge as another young rotation mainstay. Instead, the 24-year-old righty racked up a 6.46 ERA over five major league starts before being sent back to Triple-A, where he also struggled. Among John Danks, Hector Noesi, and Andre Rienzo, you have maybe one pitcher who would be fit to make 32 starts for a championship-caliber team. Other than Johnson (and he might have to prove he can hack Triple-A before coming back up), there are no obvious candidates in the high minors to fill one of the three final spots in the big league rotation.

The bullpen is in worse shape. By one park-adjusted, defense-independent metric, the Sox have fielded the single worst bullpen in baseball (despite a respectable 3.73 bullpen ERA). The offseason trade of Addison Reed opened a hole in the closer’s spot that was never properly addressed. Among setup candidates, Daniel Webb is one of several young White Sox relievers with blazing fastballs but poor-to-terrible results.

These are problems that contending teams can address. For the White Sox, that time hasn’t yet arrived. A series of moves over the winter — led by the Abreu pickup — transformed the Sox from one of the least talented teams in recent memory to one that now has a franchise hitter to go with its franchise pitcher, plus a few promising supporting cast members. The next step will be seeing if GM Rick Hahn can go full Oakland and construct a strong roster 1 through 25. If the Sox start spending real money on mid-rotation starters and veteran relievers this winter, we’ll know they’re ready to try that path.

Eight Is Enough

… to fill our lives with mediocrity.

21. Boston Red Sox (35-41, -17, LW: 23)
20. Texas Rangers (35-40, -48, LW: 16)
19. Minnesota Twins (36-38, −16, LW: 21)
18. Cleveland Indians (37-39, -26, LW: 16)
17. Pittsburgh Pirates (37-38, -18, LW: 18)
16. Cincinnati Reds (37-37, +4, LW: 19)
15. Miami Marlins (37-38, +1, LW: 12)
14. Seattle Mariners (40-36, +37, LW: 15)

The past three weeks have been a roller coaster for the Twins. After climbing to within a game of .500 on June 4, Minnesota dropped four of its next five games, including a 14-5 shellacking against the Astros. Then they won three straight, including a 4-0 shutout of the loaded Jays in a game started by the notoriously shaky Kevin Correia. The optimism generated by that short streak quickly faded away, as the Twins dropped their next five straight. It was a maddening streak, one that featured both terrible pitching (in a 12-9 loss to the Tigers) and punchless hitting (just five runs combined in a stretch of four games). Then, just when it looked like the Twins might be about to drop out of the AL Central race, they swept a four-game series with the White Sox and now sit just five games behind first-place Detroit.

When Minnesota signed veteran designated hitter Kendrys Morales to a prorated, one-year, $12 million deal, observers scratched their heads. Sure, the Tigers’ relatively underwhelming performance and a so-so group of wild-card contenders had enabled the sub-.500 Twins to hang around the fringes of the playoff races. But given that Morales was a freely available player who no longer had draft-pick compensation attached, and given how many better and richer teams needed a middle-of-the-order hitter, this was a tough one to understand. One of the possible reasons to sign Morales — aside from simply wanting to improve the lineup and win more games — was to give the Twins a juicy piece of trade bait if the team falls out of the race.

For a few games, Morales went nuts, hitting the cover off the ball and keying several Twins wins. But he has gone ice cold since, dropping his season line to a sickly .216/.273/.275. With Minnesota back to playing well, and Morales not, the incentive to flip him (at least for now) looks low.

So the question now becomes: Will the Twins stay in the race?

Some of the early forces that propelled the team’s modest success have fizzled. Chris Colabello, at one point a threat to Hack Wilson’s RBI record, every fantasy league’s standings, and the future of the planet itself, has reverted back to being a bench jockey. Oswaldo Arcia hit .378 with four homers and a .733 slugging percentage in the first 45 plate appearances following his May 26 promotion. He’s now 0 for his last 31, with just two in 43 at-bats since spraining his ankle on June 5 (hat tip to Twins beat writer Mike Berardino). The next Twin to get whacked by the regression monster could be Danny Santana: After an impossibly great 25-game debut that saw him hit .372, Santana has batted just .220/.273/.268 in the 10 games since, and probably won’t bat leadoff for much longer.

Those performances have been mitigated by some eye-popping numbers elsewhere on the roster:

• Phil Hughes: 95.1 innings, 3.40 ERA, 2.64 FIP. His eighth win of the season Sunday was notable mostly for being the first time he’d allowed a walk in four starts. Hughes has now struck out 82 batters and walked just nine this year.

• Kyle Gibson: 83 innings pitched, 3.25 ERA, 3.51 FIP. Gibson, the seventh-most-prolific ground ball pitcher in the majors, has now tossed 22 consecutive scoreless innings — the fourth-longest active streak in MLB.

• Brian Dozier: .245/.359/.450, with good defense. A recent slump whacked his batting average, but Dozier has picked up the pace again over the past couple of weeks, is on pace for the first 30-30 season in Twins history, and even earned himself a Sports Illustrated profile.

A skeptic would counter those numbers by noting that the Twins are 16-10 (.615) against the White Sox and 86-124 (.410) against everyone else since the start of last season (hat tip to Aaron Gleeman); that Gibson isn’t going to keep this up much longer while posting the fifth-lowest strikeout rate among all starting pitchers;1 and that the Twins won’t get far without a viable everyday center fielder, and with Joe Mauer hitting like Derek Jeter (not in a good way).

Still, if this is as good as it gets for the 2014 Twins, that would still be the team’s best showing since 2010. And with Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Trevor May, and other promising talents waiting in the wings, things figure to only get better from here.

The Tipping Points

Where you’re a bad weekend away from being under .500.

13. Atlanta Braves (38-37, -14, LW: 9)
12. New York Yankees (39-35, -30, LW: 14)
11. Baltimore Orioles (39-35, +9, LW: 13)
10. Kansas City Royals (39-36, +14, LW: 11)
9. Washington Nationals (39-35, +40, LW: 10)

If you had to rank the Nationals’ most pressing needs coming into last offseason, starting pitching would’ve ranked pretty low on the list. This was a team that could trot out Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez at the front of the rotation, with promising prospects coming up behind them. There didn’t seem like much of a point to acquiring a high-priced veteran to add to the mix, especially not for a team that finished an unimpressive 16th in park-adjusted offense in 2013.

Still, sometimes a deal falls into your lap and you have to take it. The Tigers, seeking to clear space for Drew Smyly in their rotation and clear payroll to (presumably) re-sign Max Scherzer and/or address other team needs, made veteran right-hander Doug Fister available. Given that the asking price on Fister ended up being about 60 cents on the dollar, the Nats had no choice but to pounce. From 2011 through 2013, Fister ranked in the top 25 among all qualified starting pitchers in xFIP, the top 20 in ERA, top 15 in FIP, and top 10 in Wins Above Replacement. He was slated for his second round of salary arbitration, and would go on to snag a one-year, $7.2 million contract as a result. All for the cost of a relief pitcher, a decent pitching prospect, and a utility man. How could they possibly say no?

Fister missed the first 34 games of the season with a right lat strain, but he’s been as good as advertised since. For years one of the stingiest pitchers in the league when it comes to walks, Fister hasn’t disappointed, allowing just six free passes over nine starts and 57.2 innings pitched. Earlier this month, Fister led a charge that saw Nationals starters rack up 50 strikeouts without a base on balls, the longest such streak in a century.

On Saturday, Fister silenced the Braves’ bats, firing eight innings of shutout, five-hit ball, while ceding just one walk. Then on Sunday, rookie Tanner Roark surrendered just a single run over 5.1 innings against Atlanta. Those productive starts did two things: First, they gave Fister seven starts of two runs or fewer allowed in his past eight outings, including two shutout performances in his past three. Second, they helped the Nats reverse the curse that seems to plague them whenever they play the Braves. They’d scored 2.5 runs per game and batted .218/.277/.591 against Atlanta’s pitching since Opening Day 2013. But thanks to Fister, Roark, and the stout Nationals bullpen, Washington won the final two games over the four-game weekend series, thereby grabbing control of first place in the NL East.

With Gio Gonzalez recently back from the disabled list for the Nats, and Gavin Floyd out until at least August with a fractured elbow for the Braves, the balance of starting pitching power has turned squarely toward Washington. With young star Bryce Harper due back from a torn thumb ligament on July 2, that could bolster the seventh-best lineup in the NL.

Still, don’t expect the Nats to shake their Atlanta nemeses any time soon. The Braves have viable options to replace Floyd in the rotation. Moreover, their schedule for the rest of the first half is a raging joke: Atlanta plays all of its final 20 games before the All-Star break against sub.-500 teams, doing battle with the Astros, Phillies, Mets, Diamondbacks, Mets again, and Cubs.

Unique High Fives For Everyone

Because you’ve earned the right for celebratory dugout handshakes for now.

8. Toronto Blue Jays (42-35, +25, LW: 4)
7. St. Louis Cardinals (41-35, +25, LW: 7)
6. Detroit Tigers (40-32, +7, LW: 6)
5. Los Angeles Dodgers (42-35, +40, LW: 8)
4. Los Angeles Angels (41-33, +42, LW: 5)
3. San Francisco Giants (45-30, +49, LW: 2)
2. Milwaukee Brewers (47-30, +37, LW: 3)
1. Oakland A’s (47-29, +135, LW: 1)

Until a couple days ago, the Cardinals could claim starting pitching depth that rivaled Washington’s for best in the National League. They piled up three straight shutouts earlier this month, marking the first time the Cards had held teams scoreless three times in a row on the road since 1964. All those good tidings ended Sunday, as a report signaled the end of that starting pitching depth in one fell swoop.

Jaime Garcia has struggled with injuries for the past two-plus seasons (with only 36 starts made since the beginning of 2012), making his latest shoulder injury less of a surprise. The rougher news was Michael Wacha hitting the DL with a stress reaction in his right pitching shoulder. Wacha had picked up right where he left off in his rookie campaign last year, posting a 2.79 ERA that ranked 14th among qualified National League starters. Carlos Martinez had already made two spot starts last week, and he’ll stay in the rotation with two new vacancies springing up. The question now becomes who’ll take the other spot.

Here’s a thought: What about David Price? With the Rays already more or less out of the pennant race, and other teams not yet fully into pre-deadline selling mode, marketing Price now would give Tampa Bay a jump on the competition, which could include the Cubs shopping Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, plus other angles. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Rays are unlikely to trade Price to an AL East rival, especially with Rays decision makers believing this was a worst-case scenario kind of season, and that they could contend again as soon as next year (thus possibly facing Price a bunch of times during a potential 2015 playoff race, a challenge they wouldn’t want).

There’s logic on the Cardinals’ side of the equation, too. Though Price’s superficial numbers (especially win-loss record and ERA) aren’t nearly as good as they’ve been in recent years, there have still been some positive signs. For one thing, he has slightly hiked his fastball velocity after a slow start to the season. He owns the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball, and owes many of his relative struggles to (potentially fixable) suboptimal pitch location, which (along with a touch of bad luck) is how you end up with career highs in home run rate and batting average on balls in play.

Topkin reported that the Cardinals were one of several teams that have recently scouted Price. They’re also one of very few teams that have the young talent to make a blockbuster deal work; the need, given the current glaring rotation hole and the Cardinals’ position smack in the middle of the NL Central and NL wild-card races;2 and the money to take on Price’s salary (what’s left of his $14 million deal this year, something like $20 million next year after an arbitration award, and a potential nine-figure price tag for an extension). Price adding a left-handed component to what’s currently an all-righty rotation wouldn’t hurt, either.

A Price trade to St. Louis is no sure thing, of course. If Price does get shopped around, the Cards figure to face stiff competition for his services from multiple teams. Also, Rays GM Andrew Friedman has talked in the past about his preference for making trades during the offseason, when things are less chaotic. Granting that he was referring to potential buying (and not selling) scenarios in those instances, that angle — along with the Rays in the past showing that they’ll only trade away top-caliber players if the conditions are perfect — could still bear watching.

Relying on Martinez and, say, Tyler Lyons to man two rotation spots for a potentially extended period of time isn’t an encouraging thought for a team seeking to defend its NL title. Whether it’s Price or some other veteran starter, don’t be surprised if the Cardinals pull the trigger on a deal at some point in the next few weeks.

Filed Under: MLB, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins, Washington Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals, The 30

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.

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