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6 Hot MLB Teams That Will Not Look Back This Season

Ian CasselberryMLB Lead WriterDecember 17, 2014

6 Hot MLB Teams That Will Not Look Back This Season

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    The weather hasn't been the only thing that's running hot around the country this July.

    A handful of major league teams seemingly can't lose right now, and that recent success has lifted those clubs into playoff contention or first place in their respective divisions. And for two first-place teams, their hot streaks have helped them to strengthen their current leads.

    With the midpoint of the season now passed and the trade deadline less than a week away, the truly good teams are beginning to separate themselves from the mediocre and terrible clubs in baseball. Those that have turned red-hot in July aren't just winning, but they're getting better and ready to add reinforcements through deadline deals. 

    Here are six teams that just keep on soaring and won't be coming back to earth. (Apologies to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have won seven of their last 10 games, but are not included on this list.)

Washington Nationals

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    The Washington Nationals have been one of the surprise teams of the 2012 season.

    They were expected to be a sleeper contender in the NL East, but with the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves looking strong, and the Miami Marlins adding big free-agent pieces in the offseason, the competition was going to be tough.

    As we know now, of course, it hasn't quite worked out that way. On the strength of the best pitching staff in baseball, the Nats surged to first place in the division and haven't really ever looked back.

    There was a brief period in mid-May when they fell behind the Braves, but never by more than 1.5 games. But since regaining first place, the Nationals haven't given up their hold on the division lead. 

    Washington is 14-7 in July as of this writing, led by a scorching Ryan Zimmerman who's batting .388/.447/.800 with nine home runs and 22 RBI for the month. Since taking a cortisone shot in his sore right shoulder, Zimmerman has exploded and become the offensive force the Nats needed him to be all season. 

    The Nationals have expanded their lead over the Braves to 4.5 games while the Mets and Marlins have tumbled out of the race. Davey Johnson's team currently has the best record in the National League (percentage points ahead of the Cincinnati Reds) and could very well carry that into October.

San Francisco Giants

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    At the end of May, the San Francisco Giants were 7.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for first place in the NL West and looked like the postseason would be out of their reach this season. 

    However, the Dodgers fell into a deep pothole with injuries to Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Mark Ellis and Ted Lilly. The Giants capitalized on the opportunity to gain on their archrivals and by the end of June had overtaken the Dodgers for the top spot in the division.

    Since climbing to the top, the Giants haven't given up their hold on first place. An 11-8 record in July helped them build a slight lead over the Dodgers. 

    Melky Cabrera has continued his season-long breakout, hitting .380/.418/.592 in July, joining Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval to give the Giants the offense they so badly lacked last season. And you can always count on the Giants for excellent pitching. Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong form a top starting three that can dominate any opponent.

    Following the All-Star break, Bruce Bochy's club has won nine of its past 12 games and don't look like they'll be cooling off. General manager Brian Sabean is looking to bolster the roster by picking up a middle infielder and a closer, which will make them even tougher to beat. 

    With the addition of Hanley Ramirez and rumors of more trades to come, the Dodgers are going to make a run at the Giants. But the Giants also look plenty capable of holding their ground as NL West leaders. 

Detroit Tigers

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    The Detroit Tigers began the season as one of the more disappointing and frustrating teams in baseball.

    A seemingly unanimous favorite to win the AL Central, the Tigers lethargically proceeded through April and May, falling six games back behind the Chicago White Sox for the division lead and looking up at the Cleveland Indians as well. 

    After rallying to overtake the Tribe for first place and surging into the playoffs at the end of the season, the Tigers had the look of a team that early-season struggles could be shaken off and a switch could be flipped to begin playing good baseball. There was no sense of urgency. 

    As the season reached its midpoint, however, the Tigers apparently realized that they needed to start playing better—and quickly.

    Players such as Brennan Boesch, Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta broke out of season-long slumps to provide Austin Jackson, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder with some help in the lineup. Max Scherzer has emerged as one of the best strikeout threats in the league, while Doug Fister has recovered from an oblique injury to form a strong top starting three with Justin Verlander. 

    The Tigers have gone 15-5 in July, and with that surge, general manager Dave Dombrowski has kicked in with his usual midseason effort to bring in reinforcements. This week's trade with the Marlins to get Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez fills the two glaring holes on Detroit's roster. 

    Second base has been a black hole for the Tigers all season and Infante will fill that capably, also providing some production at the bottom of the lineup. Sanchez gives the Tigers a 200-inning arm that shores up the back end of the rotation nicely. 

Cincinnati Reds

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    Once the Cincinnati Reds overtook the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the NL Central, it initially looked like it would be a two-team race in the division.

    But the Pittsburgh Pirates have emerged as a surprise contender in the NL Central and may end up being the true challengers to the Reds for the division title. More on them later. 

    The Reds have pulled away from the Cardinals thanks to MVP-caliber play from Joey Votto and Cy Young-level pitching from Johnny Cueto. Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips have also provided strong support for the lineup

    On the pitching side, Mat Latos has developed into the top-tier starter Cincinnati hoped it was getting when trading for him in December. Homer Bailey has also began fulfilling the potential the Reds envisioned for him over the past three years. 

    If there was any concern that the Reds might become complacent as they built a lead over the Cardinals, the Pirates fighting them for first place is forcing Cincinnati to stay sharp. The Reds have a 15-6 record and have needed each one of those wins to hold off Pittsburgh.

    With the trade deadline less than a week away, the question becomes whether GM Walt Jocketty will bring in whatever help his team might need. The Reds haven't created much trade buzz over the past few weeks, but they could benefit from another outfielder and starting pitcher. 

    Jocketty doesn't have to make those moves, however. The Reds are playing well and have depth with players like Todd Frazier and Chris Heisey. Maybe this team doesn't need to do much at all except just keep playing well. 

Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The Pittsburgh Pirates looked like anything but a playoff contender early in the season.

    Not only did the Bucs go 10-12 in April, but they couldn't score any runs. With only 58 runs scored for the month, this team looked capable of having a historically bad offense.

    However, the Pirates were also getting good pitching.

    A.J. Burnett was an excellent pickup for a team in need of an ace starting pitcher. But one of the team's incumbent starters, James McDonald, has been throwing like a Cy Young Award candidate as well. Erik Bedard was also a nice veteran addition that helped assemble a rotation far better than the one Pittsburgh had last year.

    Adding Wandy Rodriguez in a trade with the Houston Astros obviously makes the pitching staff even stronger. 

    But the offense has turned around in a big way. Andrew McCutchen arguably had a breakout season last year, but has emerged as a superstar this season. He leads the majors with a .369 batting average and .634 slugging percentage. With 22 home runs and 66 RBI, he's been the Pirates' most consistent offensive thread all season.

    The Pirates don't have a one-man lineup. Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones have provided help. But GM Neal Huntington would like to bring in one more bat. If that happens, this team will stay in contention through the rest of the season.

    If they don't win the NL Central, they look like a sure wild-card winner. 

Oakland Athletics

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    Finally, we have the team that motivated this slideshow to begin with. Has any team been hotter recently than the Oakland Athletics?

    The A's have won seven in a row and compiled a 16-2 record in July. Oakland is almost making the walk-off win look routine, with 11 game-ending victories.

    With that amazing surge, the Athletics have played themselves right into the AL playoff race. As of this writing, Oakland is alongside the Los Angeles Angels for second place behind the Texas Rangers in the AL West.

    While the A's may not have been predicted to finish last in the division, they weren't expected to hang with the Rangers and Angels in the AL West or contend for a wild-card playoff spot. 

    As you might expect, pitching has been the driving force behind the Athletics' breakout. The A's lead the AL in pitching with a 3.38 ERA and are a close second behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the best opponents batting average at .241. 

    That pitching has had to make up for what's still a pretty weak lineup. Oakland is tied for the worst team batting average in the majors at .229. However, Josh Reddick is having a breakout season with 21 homers and 20 doubles. And Yoenis Cespedes is living up to his advance hype with 13 homers and an .894 OPS. 

    A's GM Billy Beane is certainly buying in, as he tried to add Hanley Ramirez this week but couldn't agree on terms with the Marlins. If he can find another bat to play at shortstop, such as Toronto's Yunel Escobar or Colorado's Marco Scutaro, that will provide some needed help. 

     

    Follow @iancass on Twitter 

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