Wednesday, September 17, 2014
AL Playoff Outlook
A look at the American League playoff contenders
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays (along with the Indians) are on the fringe of the last wild card spot. That is still better than the Yankees and Rays are, who are technically still alive. Toronto hasn't been to the postseason since Joe Carter hit a walk off home run to win the 1993 World Series. The Jays were in first earlier in the season, but have not been able to keep it going in the second half. Some of that was due to injuries to Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Reyes, but the pitching has fell off.
The back end of the rotation as well as the bullpen have been trouble spots for the team. Toronto does have the 4th best offense in the AL, which has kept them in contention. The front office didn't make any moves to bolster the pitching staff at the deadline. One has to wonder if that was a mistake for this organization.
Things haven't gone as well for Cleveland as it did last year when Terry Francona led them to the playoffs. The Indians let Scott Kazmir, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Chris Perez go in the offseason. The plan was to rely on younger arms like Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer. Those two have had mixed results, but Corey Kluber has had a brilliant season for the Tribe. Kluber ranks among the league leaders in most of the major pitching categories and will likely finish in the top five in the Cy Young Award voting. Despite letting Perez go and the failure of John Axford, the bullpen has been pretty good for Cleveland with Cody Allen taking the closer role.
The Indians have dealt with several injuries to key players like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Asdrubal Cabrera was dealt in the offseason, and Jason Kipnis has had a down year. However, the Indians have had big years from Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, and Lonnie Chisenhall. Carlos Santana was terrible in the early months, but has been one of hottest hitters in the league during the second half. While the Indians most likely won't make the playoffs, they look to have back to back winning seasons for the first time since 2000-01.
Not many people expected Seattle to contend this season. The Mariners made a big splash when they signed former Yankee Robinson Cano to a ten year contract last offseason. Still, the Mariners didn't have many other hitters to go with Cano. Cano's presence is credited on helping the Mariners improve this season. That is according to his teammates, including Kyle Seager. Seager leads the club with 23 homers and 89 RBI's, and made his first All Star team this year. At the deadline, the front office added Austin Jackson, Kendrys Morales, and Chris Denorfia to attempt to improve the offense.
The offense is better than in year's past, but Seattle is still only 10th in the AL in runs scored. The Mariners rank 11th in the AL in average and slugging, and are last in on base pct. The strength of this team is their pitching. Felix Hernandez has is a leading Cy Young candidate, and has helped the Mariners rank first in the AL in ERA. It isn't just the King Felix show in Seattle. Hisashi Iwakuma is also a pretty good pitcher, and Chris Young has had a comeback year. Rookie leftys Roenis Elias and James Paxton have rounded out a solid rotation. Fernando Rodney has had an All Star season as Seattle's closer, and the Mariners have a very good bullpen. They are looking to make their first postseason appearance since 2001.
Kansas City Royals
Speaking of teams who haven't made the playoffs in a while, the Royals have been on a league worst 29 year drought. They are in position to reach the playoffs for the first time since Bret Saberhagen and George Brett helped Kansas City win the 1985 World Series. For nearly a month, the Royals were in first place in the Central. Now, they are 1.5 games back and currently hold the second wild card spot. The Royals will have another shot at the division title when they play the Tigers this coming weekend.
The Royals win with speed, defense, and pitching. They aren't a high scoring juggernaut. The late inning trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera arguably gives KC the best bullpen in the league. James Shields has had a solid year, and the Royals have had strong seasons from young pitchers like Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura. The Royals lead the AL in steals, but don't hit for much power. However, there are some good hitters like Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez in the lineup. With the Orioles and Angels already punching their playoff tickets, the Royals find themselves in a four way race for three spots. They are competing with the Tigers for the divison, and with the Mariners and Athletics for the wild card.
At the All Star break, the Athletics had the best record in baseball. They also had the most All Stars in the majors with 7. Billy Beane made a big trade with the Cubs to acquire Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in June. At the July 31st trading deadline, Beane traded one All Star for another. He traded his starting right fielder Yoenis Cespesdes to Boston for left handed starter Jon Lester. Beane has also made several other moves with an eye for the postseason.
However, the Athletics slumped after these moves. They lost the division lead to the Angels and their offense has struggled. While Lester has pitched very good for the A's, losing Cespedes has hurt Oakland. Not all the blame can be placed on the Cespedes trade. Brandon Moss, Derek Norris, and Coco Crisp have slumped in the second half. The team has had to increasingly rely on All Star third baseman Josh Donaldson for offense. Beane acquired slugging strikeout machine Adam Dunn in late August for help. Dunn is looking to make his first playoff appearance and figures to get a lot of time at DH. With two straight Division Series losses in Game 5, the A's will have to win a wild card game just to get there this year. Beane has placed his bets on Lester being the big game pitcher to win those type of games.
The offseason trade of Prince Fielder to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler has paid off for Detroit this year. It allowed Miguel Cabrera to move from third to first, and has improved the Tigers defense. It also opened up a spot for Nick Castellanos at third base, who has had a good rookie season. Fielder has missed most of the season due to neck surgery. The team has had more than enough offense, with Victor Martinez having arguably a better year than even Cabrera. Kinsler, Torii Hunter, and J.D. Martinez have also had solid seasons. Unlike last season when he was banged up, Cabrera has heated up for the September stretch run.
The Tigers have recently regained first place after a disappointing August. Detroit made a huge splash at the deadline when they acquired David Price. It gave them three former Cy Young Award winners. Max Scherzer has had another terrific season, and will be the most sought after free agent in the offseason. The other former Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander has had a down year. Rick Porcello has had a career year, and has the best ERA on the staff. With Anibal Sanchez's status uncertain for the playoffs, the Tigers are hoping Verlander can re-find is old form. Joe Nathan and the bullpen has struggled mightily, but Joakim Soria could be an X-factor in the playoffs. Rookie manager Brad Ausmus is looking to accomplish something Jim Leyland couldn't do with Detroit, win a World Series.
Most teams would fold if their All Star catcher and third baseman went down for the year. Buck Showalter has kept this team going despite the loss of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado. On top of that, Chris Davis has been suspended for 25 games for amphetamines. Showalter hasn't let the team feel sorry for itself, and the team kept winning with replacements like Caleb Joseph, Jimmy Paredes, and Steven Pearce filling in. Pearce is actually having a much better season than Davis, who has hit below .200 after being an All Star in 2013. Despite the injuries, the Orioles still have a good lineup led by Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and J.J. Hardy.
Baltimore's front office declined to spend money on a name closer in the offseason. Instead, they gave Ubaldo Jimenez a four year deal. Jimenez has been shaky in his first year in Baltimore, but the Orioles have had a solid pitching staff. While their are no dominant aces on this staff, the Orioles have five solid starting pitchers. Chris Tillman is the Orioles best pitcher and figures to get the ball for the first game. Zack Britton took over the closer job from Tommy Hunter early in the year, and has had a terrific season. Hunter has done better as a middle reliever, and along with Darren O'Day and Andrew Miller give Baltimore a solid bullpen. Even with the injuries, the Orioles will be tough in October.
Los Angeles Angels
The trio of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton were expected to lead the Angels deep into the postseason in 2013. It didn't happen and Mike Scioscia was rumored to be on the hot seat. The team kept Scioscia, but made some moves to improve their pitching. One of the big reasons for last season's struggles was the bullpen and the back end of the rotation after Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. The Angels acquired Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago for Mark Trumbo. Then, they have completely remade their bullpen. Fernando Salas, Joe Smith, Jason Grilli, Joe Thatcher, and Huston Street have all been acquired since the end of last season. Garret Richards made a major leap forward this year, but both Richards and Skaggs have suffered season ending injuries. Luckily for the team, Matt Shoemaker has stepped up to fill a void in the rotation.
Besides the improved pitching, the Angels have scored the most runs in the AL this year. Mike Trout has had another monster season, and it is looking like he is going to win his first MVP this year. Pujols is healthy this season, and has had a rebound year. Hamilton got off to a hot start early, then missed two months due to breaking his finger sliding into a base. He hasn't been as good since coming off the DL. Hamilton is a X-factor who could be a difference maker in the postseason. The Halos have also had big years from Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, and Kole Calhoun, and have a lot of depth. While the Angels should certainly be considered a leading candidate to win the World Series, the winningest regular season team rarely does that. Since 2000, only the 2007 Red Sox and 2009 Yankees have accomplished that.