For some teams, 2013 is—and in a few cases, always was—an exercise in futility. This season in particular, they’re playing out the string, running out some rookies to see how they do, experimenting with various combinations and permutations of lineups, positions, starting and relief pitchers, all with a view toward 2014 and beyond.
For the teams currently off the pace but within shouting distance of the playoffs, they have to retain the optimism of Lloyd Christmas. The battle certainly is uphill, but the fight isn’t over yet.
First, we’ll dispense with the pretenders before giving odds on the fringe contenders.
Sorry, Lloyd, but no
The Houston Astros knew this season was pointless before it began. With their run of success a few seasons in the rearview mirror, it was time to strip down and start over. They dumped pretty much everyone making any money last winter, and they purged the remaining few last month.
In Miami, the dream of renewed contention lasted through only part of 2012. With last year’s miserable finish, it was time for the Marlins to conduct another fire sale. Having shipped the bulk of their salaries to Canada, the Fish quickly sunk to the bottom of the standings.
Slightly less despondently, the Chicago Cubs didn’t expect much of this campaign. Their grand plan is focusing on 2015 and beyond, when their top minor leaguers should be ready to contribute, so there was little sense making a major push to compete now.
The Minnesota Twins still have Joe Mauer, and they’re still paying him $23 million a season, but they know their chances of challenging for the American League Central title will improve greatly once they get Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and their slew of prospects to the big leagues. They’re sort of the Cubs of the AL, without the 105-year World Series title drought.
The Seattle Mariners were pretty confident they could finish ahead of the Astros. Anything more would have been a pleasant surprise. Well, a third-place finish remains possible, which should be seen as a small step in the right direction.
Down but not out
Few in San Diego expected the Padres to contend this season, but stranger things have happened in the National League West. However, strange things don’t always happen, and the closer fences couldn’t make up for an overall lack of talent on the roster. The Friars need to generate more than stellar relievers; they need hitters and starting pitchers, too.
Colorado was predicted to battle for the cellar with San Diego, but the Rockies were in the running for the division for the first few months. Reality set in as their record fell below .500, and it’s back to the drawing board once again as the front office tries to figure out how to contend while playing 81 games a mile above sea level.
It might be a stretch to think that things could have worked out well enough for the New York Mets to make the playoffs, but we all know wacky things occur. if Johan Santana comes back healthy, David Wright bops 40 homers with the fences pulled in, and Matt Harvey becomes a stud—hey, one of of three ain’t … no, that’s not what Meatloaf said. It is, and they are, bad. But that with that young starting pitching coming along…
Gimme a break
The White Sox were in first place after 154 games in 2012. Too bad for them the schedule was extended to 162 contests over 50 years ago. Since that Game 154, it’s been a free-fall to the cellar, a place Chicago has been stuck in since mid-June. It wasn’t so long ago that they were in the running, but it’s now so far away…
Remember the 2011 postseason, when the Brewers were in the NLCS? Yeah, that seems like a distant memory, too. Milwaukee was viewed as the third- or fourth-best team in the NL Central heading into this campaign, but it’s not like things couldn’t have turned the Brewers’ way. Instead, they’re battling the Cubs for last place with their best player suspended for the season’s final 65 games.
I coulda been a contender
Remember that mountain of salaries Miami unloaded over the winter? It landed in Toronto, and the Blue Jays also dealt for R.A. Dickey. Sounds like a winning strategy, right, collecting a bunch of good players and adding them to the good players a team already has? Seems reasonable, and many people expected Toronto to lay a beat-down on the AL East this season. Well, the Jays were at least expected to contend.
The reality? The Blue Jays have wallowed in last place for most of the year as the players they acquired have been a rather ugly combination of injured and ineffective. Maybe next season will be better, when those expensive players are a year older and closer to retirement. Um, sure. Given their division competition, it has to be tough to be a Toronto fan.
Good fortune was foretold for Washington, as well. With a strong starting rotation, a full year of Bryce Harper, and a bullpen full of one-time closers, the Nats were the trendy pick to capture the NL East crown and possibly win it all. Instead, it would take a tremendous surge just to get on the fringes of playoff contention.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Phillies were a dominating force in the NL East, winning five straight division titles from 2007 to 2011. Last year’s .500 record could have been viewed as a blip, but instead—like another team you’ll be reading about soon—their old, expensive veterans quickly got older and more expensive. The result is the morass Philadelphia finds itself in now.
Even more recently—you remember last season, don’t you?— the Giants were on top of the world for the second time in three years. General manager Brian Sabean subscribed to the theory of keeping the band together, but that’s often a recipe for disaster.
Duking it out for the division basement certainly isn’t what San Francisco fans had in mind coming off a World Series parade. Unfortunately for them, the starting pitching generally has been awful, and the hitting has scored fewer runs than about three-quarters of the teams in baseball. Not many teams can stay on top for long, and the Giants are proving to be no exception.
Let’s see, spend $17 million a year on a supposed ace starting pitcher, pair him up with a certain $24 million-per-year Hall of Fame-caliber first baseman, and bring in a $25 million-a-year slugging outfielder. Sounds like a contender, doesn’t it? Well, the reality is that C.J. Wilson, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton haven’t led the Los Angeles Angels to better than a third-place finish thus far.
Livin’ on the edge
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. It appears that for only the second time in 19 seasons, the Yankees will be playing golf instead of baseball once the regular season ends. As with Philadelphia, New York has sunk tens of millions of dollars into players who have been injured and/or performed poorly, with a little something about a potential 211-game suspension to add to the chaos.
Few outside of Gotham will feel sorry for the Bronx Bombers if they miss the playoffs, though their fans may have to get used to it. With the Steinbrenner brothers looking to slash costs but few places to make those cuts, the Yanks may have to soldier on with their decrepit roster for a few seasons.
Odds of the Yankees reaching October: 1 in 25.
Heading into Monday, the Royals had the same record as the Yankees. How bizarre is that? The decision to deal the farm (including Wil Myers) for James Shields and others has a slim chance of working out this season, but with Kansas City desperate for a winner, you can almost—almost—understand the decision. Almost, but not quite.
Odds of the Royals reaching October: 1 in 22.
There’s really only one chance for the NL postseason lineup to fluctuate from its current status, and that opportunity rests with Arizona. The Diamondbacks are five games back of the Reds for the second Wild Card, though their run differential of +16 pales compared to Cincinnati’s +87.
Maybe Kirk Gibson can inspire his charges to make a run at the playoffs, but if not, the three-way battle among Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati for the NL Central title and Wild Card seeding will be about the only excitement the senior circuit will be providing over the last several weeks.
Odds of the D-backs reaching October: 1 in 10.
In the history of the AL Central, the only place in the standings Cleveland has never finished is last. Okay, that’s irrelevant here, but it’s interesting. The Indians certainly won’t end that streak this season, and if they can make a strong run through September, the Tribe could be in the postseason for the first time since 2007.
The only lineup regular with an OPS+ below 88 is Lonnie Chisenhall, every starting pitcher has an ERA+ of 87 or above, and the bullpen has few weak links. The Indians may not have a single superstar on the roster, but there are enough solid contributors to make things interesting.
Odds of the Indians reaching October: 1 in 5.
Remember when the Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games last year, and how everyone expected regression to the mean to kick them in the butt? Well, they’re winning fewer than half of their one-run contests, but Baltimore currently sits only three games out of a playoff spot.
There’s probably some Buck Showalter magic at play in the pen’s excellent performance, and a certain Chris Davis is lighting up the scoreboard. Beyond that, the O’s are following the Tribe’s example of a balanced all-around performance, of everyone contributing at various times.
It may not be the sexiest path to victory, but fans love an underdog, and the AL East has another team to join the Rays in that category.
Odds of the Orioles reaching October: 1 in 3.1415926536.
References & Resources
Baseball-Reference proved its worth once again. Thanks, Sean!