Every year in the weeks leading up to March Madness, ESPN releases their “Bubble Watch” for teams that may be involved in the Dance. Here at Sconnie Sports Talk, we’ve adapted that same formula and applied it to Major League Baseball. As the season begins to wind down and teams inch closer and closer to October, here’s who you may be seeing and hearing from in the postseason.
The “For Sure’s”
Kansas City Royals (current record: 68-45, 1st in AL Central)
Kansas City ain’t going nowhere. The Royals look as hot as ever, and with some really key acquisitions at the trade deadline, they’ve secured their spot as the near-definite top-AL team. In 12 games with the Royals, Ben Zobrist is batting close to .280 with with 3 HRs and 8 RBIs. Johnny Cueto has also been great, going 1-1 with a 2.05 ERA in 3 starts and allowing just 5 earned runs in 22 innings of work. The end of their rotation (Yordano Ventura-Danny Duffy-Jeremy Guthrie) really needs some work, as the three have ERAs of 4.97, 4.19, and 5.84 respectively. But, closer Greg Holland (besides last night) has had another good season, and the 5.5 game lead over the rest of the AL looks pretty rock solid as of right now.
Toronto Blue Jays (current record: 64-52, 1st in AL East)
Can you say trade deadline gone right?! The two obvious names that the Blue Jays acquired were Troy Tulowitzki and David Price, so let’s just start there. Beyond the fact that the Jays have won every game Tulowitzki has played in, he’s doing ok. In 14 games, his numbers look similar to Zobrist’s – .231, 3 HRs, and 6 RBIs. In two starts, Price is 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA and 18 K’s in 15 innings. That’s remarkable. What the Jays were missing before was pitching, and it seems like things are better overall for their staff. R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle are starting to fall into form, and Price has been an absolute catalyst. Staring into the eyes of an 11-game win streak, I don’t see the Jays having too much trouble keeping the slim lead they have on the Yankees in the East right now. Their run differential – +140 – is the best in the majors by a long shot, and no one is even close to their 615 runs scored this season.
Houston Astros (current record: 62-53, 1st in AL West)
The Astros are 12-11 in the second half, which outwardly doesn’t seem so bad. They were aided recently by a White Sox sweep of the 2nd place Angels. But, after an astronomical (pun intended) start to the season, the Astros are falling back to earth (another pun). Jose Altuve, usually a contender for league-high batting average, is hitting .298, which for anyone else would be a great season. The team is batting a pretty uninspiring .242, and since the first of July, former powerhouse Luis Valbuena has only hit two HRs. Pitching wise, the ‘Stros have two stars (Dallas Keuchel and Scott Kazmir) with ERAs under 2.50, but Luke Gregorson’s 3.35 ERA isn’t great for a closer, and the Scott Feldman-Collin McHugh-Mike Fiers bunch is relatively average. Basically, this is a team that should and very likely will make the playoffs, but they’re probably a year or two away from a deep run. I’m excited to see what the young guns (see: Carlos Correa) can do, but unless I’m missing something, this team is missing just a few pieces.
New York Yankees (current record: 62-51, 2nd in AL East)
First, the good news: the Yanks are only a half game out of 1st in the East. Now, the bad news: the first place Blue Jays are playing the best baseball any team has played all season and that doesn’t seem likely to end. The Yankees don’t have an ace starter right now, and Ivan Nova leads the starters with a 3.52 ERA. This was a concern the Pinstripes should’ve addressed at the trade deadline. Instead, they stood idle, and now face losing out while teams that were active are getting better – much better. The Yankees have allowed the most runs this season of any above-.500 AL team, and that doesn’t look likely to change. Therefore, their hitting has to get better – will it? A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, and Brett Gardner are all having really good seasons, and may be bright spots. But, like the Astros, the Yankees are 13-11 since the Break and are not playing well as of late. They’re left asking themselves: “where did our huge lead go?”
In The Hunt
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (current record: 59-54, 2nd in AL West)
The Angels were just swept by the White Sox, who, to be fair, would have probably been out of the playoff conversation had it been the other way around. But, the Halos have been struggling. To be fair, they’re playing pretty good baseball overall considering their roster. Andrew Heaney, their youngest gun, is 4-1 with a 2.86 ERA since July 1st, and Mike Trout continues to be…well, Mike Trout. They have lost a lot of close games – in their last 6 losses, 3 were in extras. Like the Yankees, the Angels didn’t do too much near the trade deadline, which was surprising considering how real the playoffs should seem to them right now. They hold a 1.5 game lead on the next Wild Card team (Rays), but how will they get better? Hitters not named Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Kole Calhoun might need to start stepping up.
Work Left to Do: Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Baltimore, Texas, Detroit, Chicago
If any of these teams are still in it, I’d say the Rays have the best chance. I would watch out for the Rangers as well, as they have the lineup and an ace in Cole Hamels to compete. Minnesota and Baltimore also could make a late surge with their streaky hitters. Chicago and Detroit both continue to hang on by a thread, and the only reason the White Sox even make this list is because they just swept the Angels. The key for all six of these teams is they need to start beating bad teams and each other. Once they don’t, they’re done for.
Theoretically eliminated: Seattle, Cleveland, Oakland, Boston
The “For Sure’s”
St. Louis Cardinals (current record: 73-41, 1st in NL Central and MLB)
Let’s start with this fun tidbit: Lance Lynn has the worst ERA of any of St. Louis’ starters…at 2.95. On almost any other MLB team, a 2.95 ERA would qualify as the best for a starter. As a team, the Cards have a 2.60 ERA, which, if they can keep if up, would be the third-best team ERA of any team in the MLB since the 1960’s. It’s also strange because no hitter on this team stands out in any particular way: of the five qualified batters, none is batting more than .290, none have more than 17 HRs or 60 RBIs, and Matt Carpenter’s batter-leading 3.1 WAR doesn’t even crack the top 40 in the MLB. If the rotation of John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and Jaime Garcia can keep up what they’ve got, this team is simply unbeatable. They’ve even gotten better in the second half, with a 16-8 (.667) record.
Los Angeles Dodgers (current record: 64-50, 1st in NL West)
The two pitching acquisitions for the Dodgers, Mat Latos and Alex Wood, certainly have not panned out so far – Latos is 0-1 with 7 ER in 10 IP and Wood is 0-1 with 7 ER in 11.1 IP. Thankfully, the Dodgers have three other really good starters – Brett Anderson, whose 3.43 ERA has been a bit of a surprise, and Zack Grienke and Clayton Kershaw, maybe the best 1-2 punch in the MLB right now. Hitting wise, the Dodgers could be doing more. Joc Pederson, early thought to have been in the NL ROY race, has faded – his abysmal .161 BA since July 1st has been accompanied by just 2 longballs and 5 RBI’s. Yasiel Puig is also batting under .200 since July. The Dodgers hold a relatively secure 3.5 game advantage over the Giants, but San Francisco has been known to be pretty good late in the season. I’m not too worried about the Dodgers, who have great bats in Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzalez, Howie Kendrick, and the sleeper Yasmani Grandal. But beyond making the playoffs, I’m not sure how far this team will go with a weak bullpen.
Pittsburgh Pirates (current record: 66-46, 2nd in NL Central)
Ah, to be in a division with the Cardinals. The Pirates know what this feels like first hand after narrowly avoiding a sweep by St. Louis on Thursday. Despite this, they’re playing some pretty good baseball. Pittsburgh is 13-10 since the All Star Break, but the production they’ve been getting in the summer months from their hitters has been a nice surprise. Before the recent acquisition of veteran Aramis Ramirez, no qualified hitter on this team was older than 30; so, the vet may be a nice catalyst come October. In the month of August, Andrew McCutchen is batting .367 with 6 extra base hits (3 HR’s), 10 RBI’s, and 8 runs. Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte are also having really nice seasons. With a recent injury to AJ Burnett, the pitching rotation beyond Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano could use some work. But, overall, the Pirates have the pieces together.
Chicago Cubs (current record: 65-48, 3rd in AL Central)
The Cubs have the 4th-best record in the entire MLB right now at 17 games over .500. Still, they’re in third in their division and will likely be looking at the 2nd Wild Card spot if the Pirates don’t start losing. The good news is this team is playing by far its best baseball of the season and that doesn’t look too likely to change. The Cubs are 18-7 since the All Star Break, and their rotation is gleaming right now. Jake Arrieta (13-6, 2.38 ERA, 0.99 WHIP) looks like he’s going to be an elite pitcher by next year – in fact, according to ESPN’s Cy Young Predictor, Arrieta would be in 3rd place in Cy Young voting in the AL, but currently is stuck in 8th in the NL behind names like Wacha, deGrom, and Kershaw. On the hitting side, this team is all about the young bats. The four team leaders in batting average since July 1st are Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler, and Addison Russell – none is a day over 25. The Cubs should rule the NL over the next 5-7 years if they can keep most of their core. Unfortunately, it’s looking like they’re going to have to settle for the 1-game playoff if nothing changes this year. Their lead in the second Wild Card, though? Five full games over the Giants.
New York Mets (current record: 63-52, 1st in NL East)
The Mets, like many NL teams, have a lot to be excited about in the future. Their top 3 starters, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndegaard, all hold ERA’s right at or below 3.00. Jacob deGrom’s season is truly remarkable – in just his second full big league season, the phenom is 11-6 with a 2.03 ERA (second-best in the MLB), 0.89 WHIP (third-best in the MLB), and 152 Ks (top 12 in the MLB). All of this plus the surprise work of closer Jeurys Familia has led the Mets to a staff ERA of just 3.18, second-best in the MLB. Hitting wise, the team has a lot more to be desired. Big names like Curtis Granderson and the recently-acquired Yoenis Cespedes have been hitting well, but others need to step up. With the Nationals beginning to sputter, the Mets are likely to capitalize. They’re 16-9 since the break, and are cruising as of right now.
More Work Left: San Francisco, Washington
In the AL, the Giants would be a playoff team. But in the NL, they’re stuck behind the Dodgers for their division and the stacked NL Central for the Wild Card. Their best bet now is to try and catch up to the Dodgers, but that doesn’t seem too likely. Since July 1st, only Bryce Harper holds a batting average above .275 for the Nationals, who are majorly sputtering with a 9-16 record since the All Star Break.
Theoretically eliminated: Arizona, San Diego, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Colorado, Milwaukee, Miami, Philadelphia