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The 30: Putting a Pin in the Champs

The Indians, Royals, and Dodgers are still fighting to crack the 2014 postseason. For the defending World Series champion Red Sox, it’s time to look ahead to 2015.

Normally, this is where I’d offer an elaborate intro to capture the drama that’s sure to ensue during the season’s final days. With the chilly pennant-race air settling in, however, there are bigger priorities.

Like keeping your face warm:

angels-beards

Letting loose:

https://twitter.com/MLBGIFs/status/509743557775605760/

And never being afraid to take a leap of faith:

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With only two weeks remaining, the most prudent course of action is to get ready for a surprise!

It’s Week 24 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

As the new interim manager of the Houston Astros, Tom Lawless won’t be taking part in this year’s postseason. But 27 years ago, Lawless blasted a memorable playoff home run. It was memorable because it broke a 1-1 tie in Game 4 of the 1987 World Series, leading the Cardinals to a 7-2 win that tied the series. It was memorable because Lawless had hit only one homer in his entire career to that point. And it was memorable most of all because of Lawless’s reaction: a leisurely stroll halfway up the first-base line that culminated in the most dismissive bat flip that a banjo-hitting utilityman could possibly conjure.

https://twitter.com/MLBFanCave/status/507188891041140736/

AL Least

The AL East’s two best teams in 2013 are now bottom-feeders.

30. Texas Rangers (57-92, -156 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Colorado Rockies (59-90, -87, LW: 29)
28. Arizona Diamondbacks (61-88, -107, LW: 28)
27. Minnesota Twins (63-86, -68, LW: 27)
26. Chicago Cubs (65-84, -87, LW: 22)
25. Boston Red Sox (66-84, -81, LW: 26)
24. Houston Astros (66-83, -90, LW: 25)
23. Chicago White Sox (68-81, -89, LW: 24)
22. Philadelphia Phillies (69-80, -59, LW: 23)
21. Cincinnati Reds (71-79, -11, LW: 21)
20. San Diego Padres (68-80, -52, LW: 20)
19. Tampa Bay Rays (72-78, +4, LW: 18)

According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Red Sox are 12 games away from becoming the first team in baseball history to complete a bizarre and dubious feat: a last-place finish, followed by a first-place finish, followed by another last-place finish.

That ignominy aside, falling out of contention as early as they did gave the Red Sox one luxury: ample opportunity to audition players for next year. And after showcasing various bodies, the consensus among Boston enthusiasts seems to be that the Sox have too many outfielders heading into 2015.

Unsurprisingly for a last-place team, however, the real picture isn’t quite that rosy. Having too many players for the allotted roster spots isn’t the same as having too many truly qualified everyday options. Depending on how they handle hot stove season, and depending on how healthy certain players look heading into 2015, the Sox actually might not have enough outfielders.

Yoenis Cespedes probably seems like a lock to start for the Red Sox on Opening Day, as he’s the best all-around player among the outfielders the Sox have queued up for 2015. However, he’s also carrying a .302 on-base percentage this season, making him less valuable than the Home Run Derby highlights and overall hype might suggest. His reputation slightly exceeds his real-life value, he has just one year remaining until free agency, and he plays for a team that will have multiple holes to fill this winter. Even though they just acquired him for Jon Lester, trading Cespedes might make sense for the Red Sox, the rare big-revenue team that constantly makes moves with long-term goals in mind.

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The Sox also have fellow Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo, whom they recently signed to a seven-year, $72.5 million free-agent contract. While Castillo didn’t put up the kind of mind-boggling numbers that Jose Abreu posted in Cuba before joining MLB, Boston’s new signee still offers a broad skill set, with defense and athleticism complementing a promising bat that could become more potent now that the 5-foot-9 right-handed swinger has reportedly bulked up to 205 pounds. On the other hand, stats-inclined analysts like Baseball Prospectus alum Clay Davenport worry that Castillo might not hit well enough to justify an everyday center fielder’s job in the big leagues, let alone the biggest contract ever given to a Cuban free agent. The Red Sox obviously believed in Castillo enough to lock him up through the end of the decade, and seem exceedingly likely to start him on Opening Day 2015, despite sending him to the minors following last month’s signing. Still, despite Castillo’s upside, we don’t know enough yet to declare him a sure thing. With the Sox reportedly set to call him up early this week, we should find out more soon.

Cespedes and Castillo aren’t the only Red Sox outfielders who bring their share of doubt along with their share of promise. Few Boston fans will begrudge the three-year, $39 million contract that Shane Victorino got after the 2012 season, considering Victorino was a driving force behind Boston’s 2013 World Series run. Still, betting on him to be next year’s everyday right fielder is a huge reach following a 2014 season in which he played just 30 games. He’ll be 34 years old in November and has a litany of injuries under his belt, making decent part-time contributions a more realistic goal. And then there’s Allen Craig, whom the Sox acquired at the trade deadline, and who combined to hit better than .400 with runners in scoring position as a Cardinal in 2012 and 2013 while posting a .352 batting average on balls in play. With his RISP luck drying up this year and his BABIP plunging to .270, Craig now looks like a potentially bad investment, an injury-prone, no-speed, bad-defense, moderate-power player who’s owed $25.5 million over the next three years.

The Red Sox have plenty of other options to consider, but those options also come with question marks. The Sox signed Castillo in part because Jackie Bradley Jr. has gone from being a player some regarded as a Mike Cameron clone to being a complete nonfactor at the plate this year; it remains unclear if his Gold Glove–caliber defense will be enough to compensate for his offensive struggles. Daniel Nava rediscovered his on-base skills after a rough start to the season, but he was also so bad early that he earned a demotion to the minors, and is no longer considered a championship-level starter. Brock Holt opened some eyes as a super-utility rookie, but he’s cooled off as the year has progressed, and he hasn’t shown enough power in the minors or majors to suggest he can be an above-average major league corner outfielder.

The most upside might belong to rookie Mookie Betts, who won’t turn 22 until next month, and who’s already looking good in The Show, batting .289/.365/.444 in his first 40 major league games. Even Betts might prove more useful in a utility role next season, however, should the Sox choose to be more cautious with Dustin Pedroia for health reasons and spot Betts at second base throughout the season.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Boston’s 2015 chances, from the team’s worst-to-first run in 2013, to inevitable improvements from talented young players like Xander Bogaerts, to Red Sox chairman Tom Werner’s recent comments to WEEI that he expects the team to be a major player on the free-agent market this winter. Boston’s ability to replicate last season’s outfield magic, however, could be as big of a factor as any in the team’s quest to again bounce back quickly.

Running Out of Time

The dwindling schedule is working against these long-shot teams.

18. Miami Marlins (72-76, -18, LW: 17)
17. New York Mets (72-78, -12, LW: 19)
16. Atlanta Braves (75-74, -1, LW: 12)
15. New York Yankees (76-72, -29, LW: 16)
14. Cleveland Indians (76-72, +6, LW: 11)
13. Milwaukee Brewers (78-72, 0, LW: 13)
12. Toronto Blue Jays (77-71, +34, LW: 15)

The Tigers finally started playing like the Tigers again this weekend, sweeping the Indians and more or less killing Cleveland’s slim chances of making the playoffs. Still, the Tribe’s ability to stay on the fringes of the race for this long underscored a strength that bodes well for 2015: The Indians have a lot of young, talented starting pitchers, potentially enough to challenge for the AL Central crown next year.

We already know about Corey Kluber. The 28-year-old right-hander posted promising peripheral numbers last season, and has put it all together this year, emerging as arguably one of the three best pitchers in the American League behind Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale. The Indians control his rights for four more years, but will presumably approach him with a long-term contract offer, even if only to lessen the sting of some potentially large arbitration offers in the coming seasons.

Then there’s Danny Salazar. Amid some solid breakout picks this spring (Anthony Rendon, Drew Smyly, Derek Norris, Giancarlo Stanton), I also tossed out a couple of stinkers, and Salazar was the biggest whiff. The 24-year-old right-hander entered this season looking primed for big things following 10 great starts last year while wielding an electric arsenal of pitches including a fastball that often touched the high 90s. But instead of producing a breakout, Salazar laid an egg to start this season, posting a 5.53 ERA through his first eight starts and earning a demotion to Triple-A. He’s been much better since returning, flashing a 3.30 ERA. For Salazar, the adjustment mostly came down to command: He walked 17 batters in his first 40.2 innings and caught too much of the plate when he wasn’t walking batters, surrendering eight home runs and far too many hits in those first eight starts. Since returning, he’s chopped his walk, hit, and home run rates significantly, while still firing those electric pitches that make him a strikeout-per-inning pitcher. Might as well make room for him in next year’s breakout predictions.

Sal-Slider

Next there’s Trevor Bauer, whom Kevin Towers and the Diamondbacks got so sick of that they traded him for light-hitting shortstop Didi Gregorius. After a year of development, Bauer has lived up to his vast potential and rewarded the Indians’ faith in him, fanning 135 batters in 142.2 innings and getting better as the year has progressed, with a 3.35 ERA over his last seven starts. The Indians control his rights through 2019, and the trade could become more lopsided in Cleveland’s favor with each passing year.

Those three were supposed to eventually succeed. The bigger surprise has been the recent performances of two pitchers long considered little more than back-of-the-rotation stopgaps. Lefty T.J. House, a 16th-round draft pick in 2008, completed his unlikely journey to the big leagues by making his MLB debut on May 17, at the age of 24. After some rough early results, he’s been very good over his last seven starts, holding opponents to zero or one run in five of those seven outings, with a 2.14 ERA, 41 strikeouts, seven walks, and two homers allowed in 42 total innings. Meanwhile, Carlos Carrasco was once a highly regarded prospect, ranked no. 41 by Baseball America and no. 37 by Baseball Prospectus in 2007. Then the Phillies flipped him to Cleveland in 2009 as part of the Cliff Lee trade, Carrasco’s numbers sputtered in the minors and majors with the Tribe, and Tommy John surgery in September 2011 seemed to close the door on his upside. He’s proved the doubters wrong in 2014, spinning a high-90s fastball and high-80s slider into gold: 110 innings pitched, 109 strikeouts, and just 90 hits, 24 walks, and seven home runs allowed, with a 2.86 ERA.

Add it all up and you have a starting rotation that has ranked fourth in the majors in ERA and first in Fielding Independent Pitching since the All-Star break. Pull off a couple of value-based acquisitions and promote shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor as part of a teamwide effort to upgrade a miserable defense and the Indians could be downright scary in 2015.

Raise the Jolly Roger …

… to our second tier, where the Pirates are now in strong position to return to the playoffs.

11. Kansas City Royals (81-67, +20, LW: 7)
10. Pittsburgh Pirates (79-70, +34, LW: 14)
9. Seattle Mariners (80-68, +100, LW: 8)
8. St. Louis Cardinals (83-67, +10, LW: 9)
7. San Francisco Giants (82-67, +65, LW: 6)
6. Oakland A’s (83-66, +162, LW: 5)

There are a million moments that shape a team’s season. Given all of the pitches that miss by an inch, grounders that take a bad hop, and long drives that curve just foul, harping on one particular play might seem unfair. Still, there’s no sugarcoating what happened Sunday afternoon, when Ned Yost quite possibly pissed away the Royals’ season.

royal-face

K.C. led the Red Sox 4-3 in the sixth inning when starter Jason Vargas started to struggle. He allowed consecutive singles to Betts and Bogaerts, then a David Ortiz flyout that advanced the runners. The tying and go-ahead runs were now in scoring position, in a crucial mid-September game that the Royals would need to win to stay a game behind the front-running Tigers and in step with the A’s and Mariners in the wild-card race.

If baseball were played entirely on paper, and if Royals closer Greg Holland were significantly better than everyone else in K.C.’s bullpen, the move might have been to bring Holland in to face Cespedes in that huge spot, even though it was only the sixth. But Holland had just returned from a triceps injury, and the Royals’ pen is stacked, and every manager in baseball (not just Yost) goes out of his way to preserve his closer for save situations. All of which made it logical for Yost to turn to one of the team’s quality setup men in an effort to douse Boston’s rally.

That’s not what Yost did. With the game on the line, he didn’t use Wade Davis, his eighth-inning specialist with the 0.70 ERA who’s been better than any other reliever in the league this year.1 He didn’t go to Kelvin Herrera, the right-hander who’d allowed one run in his last 34 innings. He chose Aaron Crow, the righty who pitched so poorly in August that K.C. sent him to the minors rather than hang on to him until rosters expanded. This is the same Crow who’d surrendered two runs on two walks and a hit in his most recent outing, also against the Red Sox.


1.

Other than maybe Dellin Betances, depending on how much you want to credit Betances for throwing more innings with slightly weaker results.

Crow worked carefully against Cespedes, eventually walking him. He then fell behind Craig before battling back to strike him out on a 3-2 count. With the bases loaded and two outs, switch-hitter Nava strode to the plate. Nava had been a much better hitter against right-handers this season, batting .286 against them compared to just .153 against lefties heading into that at-bat. Even if Yost wasn’t going to use Holland, and even if he wasn’t going to mess with the rote style that tells him Herrera must pitch the seventh and Davis must pitch the eighth, Yost had better options than Crow at his disposal. He had rookie lefty Brandon Finnegan, who’d thrown only 3.2 innings in the majors but has electric stuff, and who would have been a better matchup given Nava’s struggles against southpaws. He had lefty Francisley Bueno, who lacked lights-out numbers but still offered that favorable matchup, even if fielding Bueno likely would have prompted Red Sox manager John Farrell to call on a pinch hitter. And even if Yost wanted to use a righty against Nava for some strange reason, he had at his disposal a rested Jason Frasor, a veteran with strong numbers who was acquired two months ago specifically to bolster the Royals’ already formidable pen.

But Yost stuck with Crow. And then this happened:

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… and the Royals lost.

Now, as painful as watching this kind of managerial blunder might be, it’s possible that a skipper’s most important job really is keeping his team ready and motivated to play over the course of a grueling, 162-game season. It would be foolish to dismiss the value of a manager who does that well, even if we can’t fully quantify the importance of that ability, or assess which managers might be best at it. This is why the Manager of the Year award is so silly: It’s a reverse-engineered quasi-honor in which writers eyeball the standings, determine which teams surprised the most, and assign credit to the managers.

So, maybe Yost deserves tons of credit for guiding the Royals into the thick of a pennant race and for getting them closer to the promised land than they’ve been in 29 years. Maybe his many years of experience, his accumulated wisdom, and the lessons learned from his last gig2 all helped build the kind of leader a contender would want at the helm when the chips are down.


2.

In which the Brewers fired him with 12 games to go in the season before making the playoffs under Dale Sveum.

Here’s hoping. Because even in a league in which most skippers look about the same tactically, Yost consistently manages to stand out. And not in a good way.

Turnaround Tigers

After struggling with bullpen woes and injuries, Detroit returns to our top tier.

5. Detroit Tigers (83-66, +55, LW: 10)
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (85-64, +82, LW: 4)
3. Baltimore Orioles (89-60, +100, LW: 3)
2. Washington Nationals (85-63, +118, LW: 2)
1. Los Angeles Angels (93-56, +157, LW: 1)

As the Dodgers vie to protect their three-game lead in the NL West and hopefully position themselves for the playoffs, they know they have a clear top three in the rotation. They’re obviously in great hands every time Clayton Kershaw takes the mound. As second banana behind the best pitcher on the planet, Zack Greinke gets overlooked, but a long track record of success cements his reputation as one of the best pitchers in the National League in his own right. And after an erratic first four months, Dan Haren has been nearly unhittable over his last seven starts, with a 1.70 ERA and an opponents’ batting line of .197/.228/.296 over that span.

Everything after that, however, is a mystery. That means a three-game lead isn’t as safe as it might seem with only two weeks left in the season, and it means the Dodgers have reason to be concerned if they do make the playoffs and get into deeper series that require a fourth starter.

Hyun-Jin Ryu figured to be that fourth arm during the stretch run and in the playoffs, but he exited Friday’s start after one inning with a shoulder injury. Ryu said after the game that the injury felt similar to the one that shoved him to the disabled list for 23 days in late April and May. If he misses a similar amount of time again, the Dodgers’ options will be limited.

Manager Don Mattingly has already tabbed rookie Carlos Frias as Ryu’s replacement if the Korean lefty needs to miss his next start. Frias has made just one MLB start, and while it was a six-inning, no-run gem against the Nats on September 3, his minor league track record (a lukewarm 441 strikeouts and 564 hits allowed in 542 innings pitched) and repertoire don’t bode well for sustained success. Roberto Hernandez hasn’t managed replacement-level numbers in four years. And no one wants to imagine a world in which Kevin Correia is pitching important innings between now and season’s end, let alone in the postseason.

Still, it’s possible none of that will matter. The Giants went into the 2012 playoffs with the very hittable Barry Zito as their fourth starter, got dominant performances from him in the NLCS and World Series, and ended up winning it all. That wasn’t the first time a mediocre pitcher came up big over a limited stint, and it’s always possible that Frias or Hernandez could string together a couple of decent starts when the Dodgers need it most. This is also a team with serious firepower, as the Dodgers showed in their 17-0 demolition of the Giants on Saturday, and as Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez have demonstrated with their recent offensive sprees.

No matter who’s on the mound, though, he’ll have to worry about the guys behind him. Between Hanley Ramirez’s mockery of the shortstop position and Kemp pairing his huge offensive hot streak with some of the league’s worst outfield play, the Dodgers aren’t going to do any of their starters any favors, no matter that pitcher’s pedigree.

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