For the rest of the stretch run, we’ll be dividing teams into two categories: Contenders and Also-Rans. The idea is simple: We want to focus on 2012 trends for contending teams, while looking at 2013 and beyond for those ballclubs whose seasons are more or less over. These are judgment calls, with some chance for error. Here’s hoping we don’t whiff this badly.
It’s Week 23 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
1. Cincinnati Reds, 84-57 (607 RS, 528 RA) (last week: 1)
Over the past month, no player has hit more homers or posted a higher slugging average than Jay Bruce. At age 25, the Reds right fielder is having a breakout season, with career highs in homers (33), slugging (.558), and Weighted On Base Average (.375). Cincinnati has succeeded this season largely because of its pitching. Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips are the team’s two most hyped position players, and the two most recent recipients of long-term deals. But the Reds’ no. 1 power threat at this point has to be Bruce.1 There are 40-homer seasons in Bruce’s future, maybe as soon as this year.
2. Texas Rangers, 83-57 (714 RS, 600 RA) (last week: 2)
Bruce’s defensive numbers, on the other hand, have slipped over the past two years. But he can still go get it, too.
Rangers-Rays, September 7, 2011.
Rangers-Rays, September 7, 2012.
We’ve been over this already with Dusty Baker: In-game tactics make up just a small portion of a manager’s responsibilities, and poor tacticians can (and do) often manage successful teams. Ron Washington is a notably poor tactician, especially when it comes to his bullpen. Saving your closer for save situations (especially on the road) is a common baseball practice, one deployed by nearly every manager in the game. But Washington is pathological about it, as those two Mark Lowe–delivered Rays walk-off homers, as well as two years of playoff results, most visibly demonstrate.
If Wash won’t change the way he handles a bullpen, it’d be nice to see him give Jurickson Profar a little more playing time at least. The small-sample-size argument: In his first two major league starts, Profar has a homer and two doubles, including a game-winner on Saturday at the Trop. Large-sample argument: Michael Young has been great over the past week, but the previous 22 weeks suggest he can no longer hit, field, or run. On the plus side, check out the way he hugs Profar at the 1:16 mark here. You can’t teach leadership like that.
3. Washington Nationals, 86-54 (635 RS, 509 RA) (last week: 3)
As we said last week, having the best record doesn’t ensure leading these rankings, not when you’re sending your best pitcher to the bench for the rest of the season. The good news — aside from the Nats being on their way to their first playoff berth since the move to D.C. and a future nearly every other team would kill to have — is that Bryce Harper’s slump is over. In a 65-game stretch from June 13 to August 28, Harper hit just .214/.277/.327. Over his next 11 games, he hit .369/.429/.824, with two multi-homer games. Yes, the Nats are a team built on pitching and defense. But if they get the early- or late-season version of Harper come playoff time, this will be a team more or less without weaknesses. Even sans Strasburg.
4. New York Yankees, 79-61 (679 RS, 586 RA) (last week: 4)
You can talk about small-ball vs. big-ball, Jerry Meals making his once-a-year apocalyptically bad call, the folly of diving into first, even trivial matters like manager-writer confrontations. But the biggest reason the Yankees have come back to the pack is a matter of simple health, or lack thereof. We touched on the Yanks’ injuries last week, but it bears repeating: They’ve been decimated. Big offseason acquisition Michael Pineda never threw a single pitch. Mariano Rivera missed most of the season because pitchers have to shag fly balls in batting practice for some reason. The team’s most underrated loss, that of Brett Gardner, erased a key source of on-base percentage,2 speed, and defense. Those players have been gone for a while. But current, pressing concerns abound. Mark Teixeira reinjured his wonky calf on the game-ending, Meals-aided sprint to first Saturday, and could now miss the rest of the regular season. Andy Pettitte is trying to make it back from his own leg injury to stabilize the rotation, but he’s just now starting to throw short, simulated games. Then there’s CC Sabathia, whom Girardi describes as not injured despite two DL trips so far this season and a couple of recent outings that have been subpar by Sabathia’s super-elite standards. Yes, every team suffers injuries over the course of the season, and in some cases they can be little more than excuses. That doesn’t mean those injuries can’t cause real problems, like they have in New York.
The Yankees are on pace to post their lowest team OBP since 1992.
Of course, no one was going to cry for the Yankees before, nor should they now. Alex Rodriguez has hit in every game since returning to the lineup September 3, and has regained his power stroke, too. The bullpen, already solid even without Rivera, got an unexpected boost Sunday when Joba Chamberlain pitched 1⅔ innings of dominant, high-leverage relief. And the Yankees’ recently dormant offense erupted for 31 runs over four games in Baltimore, splitting a big series with the O’s and hanging on to first place in the AL East. When you’re the Yankees, it seems, merely being really good is cause enough for a few freakouts.
5. Atlanta Braves, 81-60 (632 RS, 542 RA) (last week: 6)
Welcome back, Dan Uggla and Brian McCann. Briefly benched after seeing his average dip to near-Mendoza levels, Uggla caught fire over the weekend in New York, going 6-for-11 with a homer, two doubles, and three walks against the Mets. McCann’s problems seemed tougher to overcome, with an ailing shoulder repeatedly knocking him out of the lineup while also putting him on track for the worst offensive season of his career. But after a particularly hideous 1-for-24 stretch, McCann also came alive at Citi Field, going 5-for-9 with two homers and four runs knocked in Saturday and Sunday. Small-sample-size caveats apply, and this could also just be a case of the Mets being the Mets. But if the Braves can get something close to full-strength Uggla and McCann for October, given the good-to-excellent seasons being turned in by Jason Heyward, Michael Bourn, Martin Prado, Freddie Freeman, and the ageless Chipper Jones, they become a terrifying team for the playoffs.
6. Oakland A’s, 79-60 (594 RS, 514 RA) (last week: 5)
Oakland’s magical season continues, with a huge series coming up against the Angels. But the biggest news last week came off the field. An Erick Aybar line drive struck Brandon McCarthy on the right side of the head Wednesday, resulting in an epidural hemorrhage, brain contusion, and skull fracture for the A’s pitcher. Doctors initially described McCarthy’s injuries as “life-threatening.” Fortunately, by Sunday night McCarthy was alert in his hospital bed, asking doctors numerous questions and cracking jokes on Twitter.
Do we have any chance of preventing, or at least lowering the likelihood, of another McCarthyesque scare? Short of placing a batting practice screen in front of pitchers, the only logical solution is for pitchers to wear some sort of protective headgear. But many obstacles conspire to prevent such a move. There’s the glacial pace with which Major League Baseball changes the rules of the game, too often favoring tradition over common sense. There’s the flip side of that factor, i.e., whether imposing mandatory safety restrictions on pitchers would be an overreach of MLB’s authority. Then there are the multiple reasons pitchers wouldn’t go for it, from not wanting to break routine to potential discomfort issues with even the lightest and least intrusive headgear to simple machismo. Cases like McCarthy’s and Kaz Ishii’s are rare, so you could even argue that absent a news hook, this shouldn’t be near the list of baseball’s top priorities. But the potential negative outcomes when such an incident occurs can be so dangerous that it has to be worth a look next offseason. One of the greatest and most underrated players of the past generation found success while donning a helmet everywhere on the field. Maybe there’s a way to make this work for pitchers, too — at the very least the pitchers who want the help.
7. Los Angeles Angels, 77-63 (670 RS, 602 RA) (last week: 10)
As late as August 10, Ervin Santana was the worst qualified starting pitcher in the majors.3 As of that date, Santana owned the highest ERA of any pitcher eligible for the league title (5.82) with more homers allowed than any other pitcher (28) and an ugly .807 OPS allowed, despite a generously low .259 batting average on balls in play. One of the biggest reasons for his failures was the disappearance of his slider, a pitch he desperately needs to prevent hitters from sitting dead-red and launching balls into the stratosphere. The Angels have dealt with multiple problems this season, from Albert Pujols’s unfathomably bad start to a leaky bullpen to Vernon Wells playing in any number of games greater than zero. But the back of the rotation was the team’s biggest bugaboo, with Dan Haren’s fastball disappearing and Santana in full piñata mode.
We say “qualified” because any ranking of worst starting pitchers has to lead with Jonathan Sanchez. Actually, Jonathan Sanchez has been so bad this season, we might need to invent a new noun to explain his job description.
Whether it was extra side work, divine intervention, or random luck, that problem’s suddenly been fixed. Haren’s still not the ace-caliber pitcher he was as recently as last year, but he’s yielded two runs or fewer in six of his past eight starts. Meanwhile, Santana’s slider has returned with a vengeance lately, and with it the old Big Erv. Over the past month, only four starting pitchers have derived more value from their sliders than Santana has. In related news, Santana is 4-1 with a 2.91 ERA and an opponents’ OPS of just .630 over his past five starts, and the Angels are the hottest team in baseball, winners of six straight.
8. Tampa Bay Rays, 77-63 (587 RS, 502 RA) (last week: 9)
They’re playing their best ball of the season, winning six of their past eight and taking two out of three from the loaded Yankees and Rangers in succession. But it feels like they could be doing even more. As Rays PR ace Jonathan Gantt notes, Tampa Bay hasn’t lost by more than two runs since August 4; of their 12 losses over that stretch, eight have been by one run, four by two runs.
Dig this: Since the All-Star break, the Rays’ team ERA is 2.42 — more than half a run better than the next-best staff. David Price misses a start with a sore shoulder? No sweat, just call up rookie Chris Archer, and a two-run, 11-strikeout performance (with 16 swings-and-misses) against baseball’s most prolific offense is your reward. Need to finish the series strong against that same Rangers attack? Call on James Shields, whose two-hit shutout against Texas on Sunday gave him a 7-1 record with a 1.89 ERA over his past eight starts. Go on and on through the pitching staff and you’ll find more key contributors: Fernando Rodney went from scrap-heap pickup to All-Star closer; J.P. Howell set a consecutive-scoreless-innings record; Matt Moore’s striking out just under a batter an inning, putting him on pace to become the first rookie left-hander to fan more than 8.5 batters per nine innings since Sabathia 11 years ago; and no AL reliever has struck out the side more often than Wade Davis, who’s going from mediocre starter to lights-out bullpen guy for a team already overflowing with shutdown relief arms. Meanwhile, B.J. Upton just became only the second player to go 20-20 in each of the past seasons4 and he’s launching homers like it’s the 2008 playoffs all over again. Add Rays-Orioles (and Rays-Yankees) to Angels-A’s on the list of must-see series this week.
9. Baltimore Orioles, 78-62 (608 RS, 637 RA) (last week: 8)
Ryan Braun’s the other player to do it.
Nick Markakis, the Orioles’ second-best hitter this season with any kind of semi-regular playing time, will miss the rest of the regular season with a broken thumb. You could be forgiven for expecting Lew Ford to seize the starting right-field job and hit .450 with 20 homers the rest of the way, propelling the O’s into the postseason. After not playing a single major league game for half a decade, Ford earned a time-share in left with Nate McLouth this year, where he’s made a bunch of outs but also come up with a few big moments, including a home run and 2-for-4 performance Saturday that helped Baltimore seize a needed win against the Yankees.
That was merely one more unlikely moment in an Orioles season that’s been downright Team of Destiny–ish so far. Mark Reynolds (Mark Reynolds!) has been the best hitter in the league over the past month, crushing the Yankees with such regularity that he has no more use for his bat. On the pitching side, Zach Britton, the potential future ace who had a huge chunk of his season wiped away by injuries, has leveraged his suddenly unhittable slider into a big recent hot streak, one that slowed down a bit Sunday mostly because of a couple of walks and a bunch of dinks and dunks. Maybe Lew Ford going nuts isn’t even a bold enough prediction for this team. What’s Lenn Sakata doing these days?
10. San Francisco Giants, 79-61 (609 RS, 566 RA) (last week: 9)
Ryan Vogelsong over his past five starts: 31 strikeouts, seven walks, 67 percent strike percentage.
Ryan Vogelsong over his past five starts: 20.4 innings pitched, 37 hits, 27 percent line-drive rate, .525 BABIP, 10.13 ERA, 1.074 opponents’ OPS.
The 5½-game NL West lead is great, and the Giants are getting enough juice out of their non-Melky hitters (more than five runs per game over their past 11) to make them a viable October threat. But Vogelsong might need to lay off the Aubrey Huff–style celebrations for a while.
11. Chicago White Sox, 75-64 (651 RS, 592 RA) (last week: 12)
They’ve lost nine of their past 13 games, including two out of three to the spoileriffic Royals. Now comes word that Adam Dunn’s oblique injury might shelve him for the next five-plus days. Having several previously productive (some might say over-their-head productive) players go cold at once isn’t helping matters. Alex Rios in the past month: .200/.227/.365. Alejandro De Aza: .191/.254/.340.
12. St. Louis Cardinals, 75-65 (670 RS, 576 RA) (last week: 13)
Having the top-scoring offense in the National League post-Pujols is an excellent way to contend for a playoff spot. But the Cardinals would be nowhere right now if not for their tremendous starting pitching depth. Despite losing Edwin Jackson to free agency, Chris Carpenter to an injury that’s kept him out all year, and Jaime Garcia for more than half the season, St. Louis keeps slotting in fresh arms and finding results. Rookie right-hander Joe Kelly was a quality-start machine earlier in the year, turning in seven straight outings of six or more innings pitched and three runs allowed or fewer from late June through the end of July. Garcia’s return forced a quick trip to the bullpen, but Lance Lynn’s struggles, top prospect Shelby Miller’s struggles for much of the year, and now Jake Westbrook’s oblique injury have Kelly entrenched in the rotation. Six innings of two-run ball against the streaking Brewers set up the Cardinals for a win before Jason Motte blew the game in the ninth (the Cards would win in extra innings). Kelly’s season line of 67 strikeouts, 33 walks, 102 hits, and a 3.93 FIP in 95 innings pitched won’t remind you of vintage Koufax. But for a fifth starter making league minimum on an offensive powerhouse, that’ll do just fine.
13. Detroit Tigers, 73-66 (607 RS, 570 RA) (last week: 11)
Here’s a weird stretch for ya: Get swept by the Royals, sweep the White Sox in a battle for first place, lose two out of three to Cleveland, get swept by the Angels. Seven of those eight losses were one-run affairs, so perhaps this is just a random stretch of bad luck happening at the worst possible time. But the same problems that have plagued the Tigers all year continue to be an issue — they have a weak supporting cast behind their biggest hitters (33 runs scored in their past 11 games). The way Max Scherzer has pitched over his past six starts, you can make it a quintet of legitimate stars on Detroit’s roster, along with Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Austin Jackson. But the regression you would have expected out of unlikely 2011 heroes Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila, and Brennan Boesch has hit hard, turning this into a true stars-and-scrubs roster. In addition, bit players like Ryan Raburn and Don Kelly have been terrible, showing why they are in fact bit players whenever they get playing time. Unless the Tigers get red-hot and make good on the World Series dreams Mike Ilitch harbored when he threw $214 million at Fielder, don’t be surprised to see another splashy move or three during hot stove season.
14. Los Angeles Dodgers, 74-67 (557 RS, 539 RA) (last week: 14)
No team more aggressively pursued in-season upgrades this year than the Dodgers, of course. It may have made sense from a financial standpoint and as an effort to win the hearts and minds of L.A. sports fans. But it certainly made sense from a straight personnel point of view. The Dodgers had multiple gaping holes on their roster, the kinds of holes that even average players would have upgraded, let alone actual stars. Shane Victorino was expected to improve the Bobby Abreu–Juan Rivera left-field goulash that had gotten the Dodgers nowhere. Seemed like a safe bet given Victorino’s track record, particularly his huge all-around numbers last season. Not so much, as it turns out. In 35 games with the Dodgers, Victorino’s now hitting just .245/.309/.329, while eating up precious plate appearances in the lineup’s no. 2 slot. With Matt Kemp now sidelined at least a few days with shoulder inflammation and fraying of the labrum, the Dodgers are right back to running out one of the league’s shakiest offenses, even with Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez onboard; Clayton Kershaw getting scratched from his Sunday start with hip problems doesn’t inspire confidence, either. The Dodgers are 5½ games out in the NL West and have fallen behind St. Louis in the battle for the NL’s second wild-card spot. There’s a real chance they end the season out of the playoffs, maybe even close to .500.
15. Pittsburgh Pirates, 72-67 (574 RS, 571 RA) (last week: 15)
Speaking of badly fading teams, it doesn’t get much worse than the Pirates getting swept by the Cubs, including a 12-2 demolition Friday than featured an unspeakable seven Pittsburgh errors. The Buccos were in first place as recently as July 14; they’ve gone 23-29 since, dropping to third place, 2½ games out in the chase for the second wild-card spot. This is still more late-season excitement than Pirates fans have experienced in 20 years. But maybe expectations were set too high, given the team’s blistering start and its long playoff drought. There never was much front-line talent behind Andrew McCutchen, and Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes make for three near-automatic outs at the bottom of the order.5 If Pittsburgh’s Cinderella run falls short, fans can always look forward to Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, and more Starling Marte in the future. But with a mega-windfall on the way in the form of a new national TV deal, the Pirates will be out of excuses to avoid spending money. Adding the right piece or two over the winter could make a run at contention actually pay off in 2013.
16. Milwaukee Brewers, 69-71 (669 RS, 644 RA) (last week: 18)
The Pirates aren’t exactly teeming with great alternatives, though one wonders why a known out machine like Barajas keeps getting so much playing time while Michael McKenry and his .830 OPS gathers splinters as often as he does.
After winning the first two games of the weekend’s series at St. Louis, the Brewers had a chance to climb into the fringes of the wild-card race. But Sunday’s extra-inning loss dropped Milwaukee to six back instead of four, pretty much shutting the door on their 2012 chances. The team’s recent strong play did highlight one of its biggest strengths: its promising and inexpensive corps of starting pitchers. Twenty-seven-year-old rookie Mike Fiers has fanned more than a batter an inning, with a 2.67 FIP that ranks second among all pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched. Recent call-up Wily Peralta’s a 23-year-old rookie with some command issues but also big K rates over the past two years in the minors. Marco Estrada isn’t young (he’s 29), this is as close to a full season as he’s ever had as a starter, and it’s been a good one: 9.5 K/9 IP, 1.9 BB/9 IP, and a 3.60 FIP, including a 1.96 ERA, 32 strikeouts, five walks, and one homer allowed over his past four starts. Milwaukee’s offense has more runs scored this year than it did at this point last season with Prince Fielder in tow and a playoff spot nigh. If the Brewers’ young pitchers can provide ample support behind Yovani Gallardo next year, the team’s playoff drought might last all of one season.
17. Philadelphia Phillies, 69-71 (584 RS, 596 RA) (last week: 19)
Here’s another team that’s climbed to within almost-but-not-quite range of the league’s contenders, though playing the dreadful Rockies will usually help on that front. If the Brewers’ most important source of additions comes with their rotation, for the Phillies it’s the outfield. With Victorino and Hunter Pence gone, the Phils hope to find out what they have in Domonic Brown and John Mayberry Jr. — doubly so given they owe $115 million to six players for 2013. The 28-year-old Mayberry has struggled with the same poor batting eye that’s plagued him through his minor league career, but he’s shown some pop, whacking 35 extra-base hits in 396 plate appearances. Brown hasn’t hit for any power in his short audition this year, but he’s still just 25 and was once the higher-rated of the two prospects. Philly might have to break the bank for Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, or B.J. Upton anyway, given that their current left fielder is Juan Pierre. But shopping for one big free agent would be a lot more palatable for the Phillies’ already stretched budget than pursuing two or more.
18. Arizona Diamondbacks, 69-72 (628 RS, 603 RA) (last week: 17)
Add Tyler Skaggs to the list of exciting young pitching prospects who made their Arizona debuts this year, joining Trevor Bauer and Patrick Corbin. On talent alone, Bauer and Skaggs have a chance to become the team’s top two starters in the next couple years. The D-backs own multiple years of control over the team’s nominal veteran starters, Ian Kennedy and Cahill. Owning the rights to five young, talented starters such as these, along with Justin Upton, Chris Young, Paul Goldschmidt, and Miguel Montero, as well as veteran sluggers Aaron Hill and Jason Kubel for next season, would figure to make Arizona a strong NL West contender for 2013.
19. Seattle Mariners, 67-74 (535 RS, 556 RA) (last week: 16)
Just about every year, the Mariners approach the trade deadline in lousy shape. And every year, speculation trickles forth that Felix Hernandez might be headed elsewhere, to a team that would allow his talents to be better leveraged. The M’s need to figure out what they have in Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak. They need to shepherd top pitching prospects Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton to the big leagues, and see if they can become the next generation of strike-throwers the Mariners need. But Seattle also has more than enough money to make a preemptive strike with King Felix, locking him in with a lucrative contract extension that’ll take him well beyond his would-be 2014 walk year and buy out the rest of his prime. If another team were to offer an unbeatable package of young talent, the M’s would be foolish to not give it a look, at the very least. But as baseball’s revenues explode, teams increasingly recognize how irreplaceable top talents truly are, and how winning games always beats winning any nonexistent smart-shopper awards. Hernandez is one of the three best pitchers on earth. Might not be a bad idea to try to keep someone that good.
20. New York Mets, 65-75 (577 RS, 617 RA) (last week: 20)
David Wright’s more than three years older than Felix Hernandez, and he’ll be nearly 31 years old once his 2013 club option year is up. That makes the Mets’ decision on whether or not to re-sign their franchise player considerably tougher. Also mucking up the waters: Wright’s inconsistent past few years. After putting up MVP- or near-MVP numbers in each of his first four full seasons, Wright averaged just over three Wins Above Replacement from 2009 through 2011, making for above-average but hardly superstar-level results. He’s made a huge comeback this season, hitting .313/.401/.498 and generating 6.6 WAR. But as Amazin’ Avenue’s Eric Simon tweeted, Wright hit .239/.320/.323 over his past 42 games heading into Sunday. His power’s also dissipated, with Wright trying to get to 20 homers for the first time since 2010, let alone approach the 29 homers he averaged from 2005 through 2008.
Multiple teams will go into the offseason with a big hole at third base, and the free-agent market offers little in the way of top-flight talent at that position, meaning Wright could fetch a ton of talent in trade. But there are off-field reasons to keep Wright at virtually all costs, from the Mets’ never-ending quest to remain relevant in a Yankees town to the team’s efforts to attract fans to Citi Field. The Mets might also have a contender-worthy starting rotation next year, with Matt Harvey set for his first full season and top prospect Zack Wheeler knocking on the door. The Mets’ decision on Wright could carry more intrigue than virtually any other move in the winter months.
21. San Diego Padres, 66-75 (556 RS, 604 RA) (last week: 22)
The NL’s best recent spoilers have swept the Pirates, stamped out the last of Arizona’s playoff hopes, and taken two out of three from both the Braves and Dodgers, all in the past three weeks. Carrying the team through that stretch is Chase Headley, who’s cranked five homers and knocked in 19 runs over his past seven games. We’ve covered the Padres’ quandary with Headley before, and the price tag’s going up by the day, with Headley leading the NL in RBIs despite toiling in a weak lineup and a hitter-crushing ballpark. Whatever they decide with Headley, though, the fundamental question will be how the Padres’ new ownership group runs the ballclub. Will San Diego continue to hover at or near the bottom of the league in team payroll every year? Or will the new owners’ $800 million purchase price prove to be a harbinger of a more aggressive approach — to finding new revenue streams, building the Padres’ brand, and yes, spending money on actual players?
22. Boston Red Sox, 63-78 (668 RS, 687 RA) (last week: 21)
Everything that could go wrong this year did. There’s the start of a solid nucleus here with Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, Clay Buchholz, plus Jon Lester’s 2012 runsplosion’s an aberration, and Jacoby Ellsbury, if he can regain his power and the Red Sox lock him up long-term. Nineteen-year-old phenom Xander Bogaerts leads a promising group of prospects working their way up through the system. And thanks to their successful dumping of a quarter-billion dollars in salaries (not to mention NESN’s preposterously gigantic profits), the Sox can spend to their hearts’ content. Of course, given all the effort they put into ditching the Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett albatrosses in the first place, it’s conceivable that the front office might choose a more patient approach. That might seem like a good way to ensure also-ran status for the next couple years or more. But if the goal is sustainable success, and the Sox remain committed to halting spending at an arbitrary point to avoid eating into their massive profits, it may be better to suffer a bit more now.
23. Toronto Blue Jays, 64-75 (628 RS, 669 RA) (last week: 24)
The easy answer is the Jays splurge for one or two arms and make the kind of run next year that optimistic fans expected this season. The tougher pill to swallow would be that the Jays whiffed in handing long-term contracts to Rickey Romero (5.85 ERA) and Adam Lind (.665 OPS) and that more broadly the team’s core group of players just isn’t that good, even with the world-beating version of Edwin Encarnacion in tow. A full season of health for Jose Bautista and a step up for Brett Lawrie could help bridge that gap.
24. Kansas City Royals, 63-77 (585 RS, 638 RA) (last week: 23)
We’ve obsessed over Wil Myers many times in this space, but the fact is the Royals have their entire lineup of the future in place and locked up through 2015 except in right field, where they’re saving Myers’s service time for next year. We’ve been touting the Royals’ future for a couple years now, though, and the answer’s the same as it ever was: It’ll all come down to pitching. Approximately 90,000 young Royals pitchers had Tommy John surgery over the past year, leaving the rotation in the hands of Luke Hochevar, Jeremy Guthrie, Larry Gura, and a head of cabbage. Danny Duffy, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi these are the types of names we need to be fawning over for Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Alcides Escobar, and Wil Myers to get a sniff of playoff baseball one day.
25. Miami Marlins, 63-78 (547 RS, 637 RA) (last week: 26)
Our friends at ESPN Stats & Info offer this list of players with the most homers through their age-22 seasons:
Mel Ott, 115
Eddie Mathews, 112
Frank Robinson, 98
Bob Horner, 91
Giancarlo Stanton, 89
Johnny Bench, 87
Stanton homered in every game of the Nationals series, meaning he’s a near-lock to pass last year’s 34 homers and set a new career high. He leads all major league hitters with a .321 Isolated Power mark (minimum 400-plus plate appearances). Seriously #SignStanton.
26. Cleveland Indians, 59-81 (563 RS, 728 RA) (last week: 25)
They’ve allowed more runs than any other AL team, and the only reason the Ubaldo Jimenez trade isn’t one of the biggest disasters in franchise history is that the young pitchers they gave up for him haven’t panned out, at least not yet. Turning over every rock to upgrade the pitching staff would seem to be the obvious move. Except for this: The Indians have also scored fewer runs than all but one AL team. That problem might be more easily fixed in-house, with several key contributors having down years. Carlos Santana has the talent to do this 30 times a year. Get Jason Kipnis to replicate his huge early-season numbers, Asdrubal Cabrera to rebound to 2011 levels, and Lonnie Chisenhall to start to fulfill at least some of his prospect hype, and the Indians will have something to build on.
27. Minnesota Twins, 58-82 (624 RS, 722 RA) (last week: 28)
The second-worst AL run-prevention team has suffered from a dearth of pitching talent, with a cavalcade of soft-tossing right-handers failing to offer any upside. Though it’s common practice to see teams place even star players on waivers in August, it was interesting and a bit shocking to see Joe Mauer’s name surface. The most likely scenario has Minnesota trying to rebuild around Mauer. But you have to wonder what kind of bounty the Twins might get if they dangled their franchise player for real. Of course, at age 29 and with only one season with more than 13 homers on his résumé, more than $140 million left on his contract, and a fan base that could rebel if the hometown hero ever got traded, Mauer might have more value to the Twins than anyone else.
28. Colorado Rockies, 56-83 (654 RS, 750 RA) (last week: 27)
A healthy Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, Josh Rutledge, Wilin Rosario, Nolan Arenado, and an innovative if risky pitching plan could make this team interesting sooner than you might expect.
29. Chicago Cubs, 54-86 (530 RS, 653 RA) (last week: 29)
The new(ish) management team led by Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein has already acquired Anthony Rizzo, Arodys Vizcaino, Jorge Soler, and other intriguing talent, locked up Starlin Castro in a deal that could generate tens of millions in profit, and avoided doing anything stupid with Jeff Samardzija, Brett Jackson, and other holdover young talent. Building with that group and supplementing wherever possible (Matt Garza trade?) could also produce quicker-than-expected dividends.
30. Houston Astros, 44-96 (507 RS, 709 RA) (last week: 30)
Ditto but with a lot more work to do to assemble the kind of talent the Cubs already have. Competing against the wealthy and talented Rangers and Angels every year starting in 2013 merely raises the stakes.