World Series 'Contender or Pretender?' for All Teams in the MLB Playoff Race
Even with less than a week to go in the regular season, there's still an unusual amount of contenders in Major League Baseball this season. The crowd is thinning out more and more every day, but at this point, over half of MLB's 30 teams are still in the playoff picture in some form or another.
The addition of an extra wild card berth in each league is part of the explanation for all the madness. Aside from that, there's simply more parity in MLB this year. Never a bad thing in my estimation.
However, nothing will change in the end. MLB can make as many tweaks to its playoff system as it wants, but only two teams can go to the World Series and only one can win it.
As such, asking which teams are good enough to make the playoffs is not quite the same as asking which teams are good enough to win the World Series. Making the postseason is the easy part. Collecting 11 (or 12, if you're a wild card team) wins once you're in the postseason is the hard part.
So which contenders around MLB actually have the goods to go all the way this year? For that matter, which teams don't have the goods to go all the way?
The answers lie ahead of you. It's time for a little game of "Contender or Pretender?"
Note: Stats come courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
The Diamondbacks are only a day or two away from being excluded from this discussion altogether. But for now, their path to the World Series is still long and winding rather than blocked completely.
Arizona's record certainly says it's not a World Series-caliber team. The D-Backs entered Thursday just a game over .500, and the fact that they've been right around .500 for most of the season suggests pretty bluntly that a .500 team is that they really are deep down underneath in their gooey center.
When it comes to teams like the D-Backs, one is behooved to go looking for features that will make them dangerous in October if they can manage to get in. After all, regular season records are moot points as soon as the postseason arrives.
The D-Backs can definitely swing the bats. They rank 10th in MLB in runs scored this season, which is impressive seeing as how Justin Upton has had a down year after his brilliant 2011 campaign. Jason Kubel, Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Montero and Aaron Hill have done a lot of the heavy lifting, and they're still going strong these days. Upton has come around too, much to Arizona's liking.
Arizona's pitching, on the other hand, is hard to have faith in. Though he's rebounded nicely in September, Ian Kennedy hasn't been the consistent force that he was in 2011. Rookie lefty Wade Miley looks worn out. Trevor Cahill has had good year and has been good lately, but his tendency to pile up baserunners (1.31 WHIP) won't play well in October.
The D-Backs also don't have the same swagger that they did in 2011. The cast of characters has undergone some changes over the last 12 months, and it's just plain hard to develop swagger when you're not winning games on a consistent basis.
The Diamondbacks are not a bad team by any stretch of the imagination, but "good enough" appears to be their ceiling.
The Braves won only nine games last September, ultimately fumbling away a wild card berth that seemed to be pretty deep in their back pocket at the start of the month.
They've told a different tale this September. The Braves are 16-7 so far. And if you don't already believe it, you better believe that they are a team to be feared.
The big difference between 2011 and 2012 for the Braves is that they actually have some reliable starting pitchers to turn to this time around. Kris Medlen has an ERA of 1.04 in 11 starts since moving into Atlanta's rotation. Tim Hudson is still a model of consistency. Mike Minor has a 2.33 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP since the All-Star break. Paul Maholm has been solid for the Braves since coming over from the Cubs.
Atlanta's bullpen is even more dangerous than its starting rotation. Craig Kimbrel has my vote for baseball's nastiest closer, and the bridge to him is very strong. As a whole, Atlanta's bullpen has an MLB-best 1.52 ERA in September.
The Braves aren't going to wow anybody offensively, but they feature one of the game's best leadoff hitters in Michael Bourn and one of the game's best all-around players in Jason Heyward. Guys like Martin Prado and Freddie Freeman have been quietly productive.
Then there's Chipper Jones, who is clearly intent on ending his career with a bang. To boot, his teammates would seem to love nothing more than to help him do so. If the Braves win it all this year, they'll be winning it for Chipper.
Great pitching? Solid offense? A cause?
What more could you ask for?
At this point, people should know better than to bet against the Orioles. They may have a pitching staff of no-names and a lineup that features riveting names like Nate McLouth and Chris Davis, but they've been too good for too long this season for their success to be a complete fluke.
That is, unless you believe the math. The Orioles have allowed more runs than they've scored, which typically isn't a great recipe for success. Hence the reason they have an expected win-loss record of 78-78, whereas their actual record is 89-67.
Assuming the Orioles make it to October, the part of the team that will be under the microscope the most is its starting pitching staff. It's been better than you probably think recently—Orioles starters have a 3.89 ERA this month—but it's going to be hard to have faith in guys like Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, Joe Saunders and Chris Tillman when they're matched up against guys like Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Yu Darvish and so on.
To be sure, it is possible to go to the World Series with merely OK starting pitching. The Cardinals did it in 2006, and the Rockies did it a year later in 2007. All you need is a good bullpen, a solid offense and a little bit of momentum.
The Orioles have all three of those things. Their bullpen has been one of the best in the American League all season long, their offense leads the AL in runs scored in September and the O's have had momentum on their side for weeks at this point. They're 34-18 since the first of August, and all the winning has definitely bred confidence.
As great as Baltimore's bullpen is, it has a lot of miles on it. Only two bullpens have worked more innings than Baltimore's pen this season. And as hot as Baltimore's offense has been, it relies a lot on the long ball to score runs. When the homers aren't coming, the Orioles aren't winning games.
For the sake of pleasing the long-suffering fans in Baltimore, I want to see it. Alas, I just don't.
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox aren't doing themselves a ton of favors these days. They looked like they were on their way after knocking off Detroit in a crucial game way back on September 17, but they've since lost seven of eight to fall out of first place in the AL Central.
The explanations for Chicago's swoon are plentiful. Its offense is struggling mightily to put runs on the board, especially when its hitters aren't knocking the ball over the fence. Its starting pitchers are responsible for 10 of the team's 14 losses this month, posting a pedestrian 4.59 ERA along the way.
Not helping matters is the fact that the White Sox don't really have a stopper these days. Chris Sale is nowhere near as untouchable as he was before the All-Star break, and the same is very much true of Jake Peavy. Francisco Liriano and Jose Quintana both have ERAs over 6.00 this month.
The worst part is who the White Sox are losing to these days. Getting swept by the Angels in Anaheim isn't such a huge crime, but the White Sox can't be losing series to teams like the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians at this stage in the game.
It could get even worse. The White Sox are opening up a huge four-game series against the streaking Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday night, and they're slated to face James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and David Price before it's over.
If the White Sox win this series, their playoff chances will be alive and well. Even then, it's hard to see this White Sox team tearing its way through the postseason like the 2005 team was able to do. Whether we're talking on the mound or at the plate, these White Sox just don't have the same personnel.
You can argue that they've been the most consistent team in the AL Central all season long, which is surely worth some consideration.
Counterargument: The White Sox are a .500 team since the break, and the AL Central stinks.
The Reds are the best team in the baseball that nobody seems to care about all that much.
I presume that this is because the Reds have been so good for so long that people have just kinda steadily lost interest. The Reds won 19 games in both July and August, and they have a shot to do so again this month. If that's not consistency, then the word "consistency" needs a new definition.
Pitching is at the root of Cincinnati's success this season. The Reds have been at or near the top of the ERA charts for virtually the entire season. Presently, their starters rank seventh in baseball with an ERA of 3.75, and their relievers rank first with an ERA of 2.68.
The Reds bullpen is a sight to behold. Aroldis Chapman pitches in the hundreds on a good day, and he has several other hard-throwers setting up for him. Comparisons to the "Nasty Boys" of the early 1990s are unavoidable, and some have gone so far as to say this group is even better.
Any team that has at least two excellent starting pitchers has a chance to go far in the postseason, and the Reds have two very good ones in Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos. Cueto is sitting on 19 wins and a sub-3.00 ERA, and Latos has been one of the best pitchers in either league ever since late June.
The Reds aren't a powerhouse offensively, with their biggest problem being a lack of a true leadoff hitter. The biggest question mark in their lineup right now, however, is where Joey Votto's power has gone. He's still one of the best pure hitters in the world, but he has yet to go yard since coming off the disabled list in early September.
But since the Reds don't really need Votto to hit for power in order to win games, it's hard to point to his power outage as something that will keep them from going to the Fall Classic. They're too strong of a team to be derailed by a single player.
Few teams have been more maddening to watch this season than the Tigers. They have so much talent on paper, but it just hasn't translated into a nice pile of victories out on the field for a variety of reasons.
Chief among those reasons is the fact that a lot of Detroit's talent is one-dimensional. Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera are great hitters, but neither of them is a great fielder. They're part of the reason why the Tigers rate as one of the worst defensive teams in the league, as FanGraphs has their DRS (defensive runs saved) at a cringe-worthy -41.
There's also not a lot of depth in Detroit's lineup beyond Cabrera, Fielder and underrated leadoff man Austin Jackson. Finding the right mix around these three guys has been a struggle for Jim Leyland all season long.
Here's the thing, though: The Tigers don't need much more than Jackson, Cabrera and Fielder to frighten pitchers. They're dangerous enough to alter game plans with menacing stares alone, never mind their bats.
There's a lot to like about Detroit's pitching too. Justin Verlander is Justin Verlander. Doug Fister has a 2.53 ERA since the All-Star break. Max Scherzer was in the middle of a dominant stretch—1.29 ERA in seven starts—before his shoulder acted up.
The Tigers certainly have their share of problems, but you can rest assured that nobody wants to face Verlander, Fister and Scherzer in a short series while also having to worry about Jackson, Cabrera and Fielder.
The Tigers haven't been a great fit for the long haul. But in October, they could be a very dangerous team.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels can relate to the Tigers. After what they did this offseason, a lot of people expected them to steamroll their way to October too.
This hasn't happened, but the Angels have shown flashes here and there of being exactly the kind of team we all expected them to be.
The Angels are in one of these phases right now. They've won 16 of the 23 games they've played in September, and they've done it primarily with pitching. Their 2.50 ERA this month is the best in the American League, and their starters have a 13-5 record and a 2.62 ERA.
It's happened a lot later than the Angels figured it would, but it's clear that Jered Weaver, Zack Greinke, Ervin Santana and Dan Haren are all feeding off each other. C.J. Wilson hasn't joined in the fun yet, but you have to think the Angels won't be afraid to use him in October given his track record.
In what is a very welcome sight, the Angels bullpen is hot these days too. Ernesto Frieri is still nailing down saves, and guys like Kevin Jepsen and Garrett Richards have established themselves as reliable go-to options.
The Angels are underachieving offensively this month, but it's hard to be worried about an offense that features Albert Pujols and Mike Trout, who takes the cake as baseball's most versatile offensive threat. Kendrys Morales has come alive this month, and it feels like Torii Hunter has driven in every run the Angels have scored this month.
If the Angels get in, they're going to be a team that nobody wants to play. Their pitching staff is as deep as any, and their offense can be lethal when it's clicking.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Sigh...Let's get this over with quickly.
Yes, the Dodgers are still technically in the mix in the NL wild card race at 3.5 games off the pace. They have six more home games on their schedule to help make it easier for them to mount a charge.
But let's face it, the Dodgers were done weeks ago. They're under .500 in September and have generally been a mediocre team ever since their big trade with Boston in late August. And indeed, calling them "mediocre" is putting it lightly.
Their biggest problem is that their high-powered offense hasn't been very powerful. Matt Kemp has a .599 OPS this month. Shane Victorino has a .543 OPS this month. Adrian Gonzalez is heating up, but he's still been a massive disappointment as a Dodger. Hanley Ramirez has cut off the RBI flow.
And so on. The point is that things have been ugly for the Dodgers lately.
The club's pitching is holding up pretty well, but it's anybody's guess as to how many bullets staff ace Clayton Kershaw has left in his arm. Beyond him, Josh Beckett can't be trusted to hold up against top-notch teams, and Joe Blanton can't be trusted to hold up against, well, any team.
The Dodgers are headed in the right direction, but they still have a lot of work to do to get to where they want to be.
It's amazing that the Brewers are even in this discussion after what they went through in the first four months of the regular season. But after a 16-12 month of August and a 17-8 month of September, here they are.
It's not easy to come up with explanations for Milwaukee's hot play over the last few weeks, but one thing the Brew Crew is doing very well these days is swinging the bats. They lead the NL in runs scored in September, and they have a collective .817 OPS this month. Ryan Braun has been characteristically excellent, and he's gotten plenty of support from the rest of Milwaukee's lineup.
Aside from that, the team's starting pitching has been more consistent and the bullpen has generally quit blowing leads. Some of the young players the Brewers have called up in the last few weeks have taken to the big leagues like ducks to water.
Despite all this, the Brewers still don't resemble a World Series-caliber team. They have some scary bats in their lineup, but they don't have the kind of talent in their starting rotation that they need to match up against teams like the Reds, Nationals and Giants.
I'll grant that the Brewers have more momentum than some of the other contenders in the National League, but I have my doubts about whether they have the firepower to keep this momentum alive in a postseason setting. It all feels just too good to be true.
New York Yankees
For a while there, it looked like the Yankees' collective years were finally going to be their undoing. Players were breaking down left and right, and others were just plain struggling.
Nope. Turns out the Yankees are still the Yankees.
Derek Jeter has been proving he can still hit all season long. CC Sabathia has silenced skeptics with two straight dominant performances. Andy Pettitte hasn't allowed an earned run since he came off the disabled list. Ichiro is hitting close to .400 in September.
The Yankees never were going to be an easy team to beat in the playoffs no matter how old or banged-up they were. The fact that they've gotten hot over the last couple weeks is a sign that they're going to be an even tougher team to oust than a lot of people figured.
However, they're still beatable.
Jeter and Ichiro are hot, but there are still a lot of weak links in the Yankees lineup. Alex Rodriguez really has to muscle up to hit for power these days. Robinson Cano's OPS has fallen over 60 points since the All-Star break. Nick Swisher has been hit-or-miss in recent weeks. Curtis Granderson is a strikeout machine. We still don't know if Mark Teixeira's leg is going to hold up when he comes back.
The Yankees pitching will be in decent shape if Sabathia has truly returned to form in his last couple starts, but that's a tough bet to take given how inconsistent he's been this season. Hiroki Kuroda has an ERA over 5.00 in September. Pettitte has been as crafty as ever, but he doesn't have the stuff to beat hitters if he's off by even a little bit. Phil Hughes has been solid, but he's still far from trustworthy.
If the question is whether these Yankees are better than the Yankees of 2010 or 2011, the answer is no. Probably not even close.
Those Yankees couldn't go to the Fall Classic. Try as I may, I can't see why these Yankees can.
There was a time not too long ago when the A's looked like the best team in the American League.
Things are a little different now. The A's didn't show so well in their brutal 10-game road trip over the last week and a half, and they're quickly running out of pitchers. With Bartolo Colon, Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson all out of the picture for the rest of the regular season, the A's are down to a starting staff made up almost exclusively as rookies.
This has a lot of people freaking out, but Oakland's young pitchers deserve a little more faith. The A's have been dealing with a young pitching staff all season, and it has yet to kill them. Their 3.49 team ERA ties them with the Braves for fifth overall in MLB.
As for those who make the argument that the A's don't have an ace, I'd advise you to look at what Jarrod Parker has done recently. He has a 2.83 ERA over his last eight starts, a span that has covered two starts against the Angels and one each against the Rays, Orioles, Yankees and Rangers.
He can bear the ace label, and the A's have another pitching depth beyond him to avoid total embarrassment in October. Besides, Anderson and Colon could both be back eventually.
The talent of Oakland's pitching staff doesn't end at its starting rotation. The A's have a highly underrated bullpen as well, and Bob Melvin knows how to work matchups as well as anybody.
Offensively, no team has hit more homers than the A's since the All-Star break, and the homers have tended to come from all over. They have three players with 20 home runs, and a total of eight with at least 10.
The degree to which the A's rely on the long ball to generate runs is a little concerning. To that end, they're to teams like the Orioles and the Yankees.
The difference between the A's and those two teams, however, is that they have a more well-rounded pitching staff, youth be damned. The A's also get points for their swagger, and I can't help but escape the notion that they may be due.
Like the Diamondbacks, the Phillies are just a day or two away from being out of this discussion altogether.
The Phillies are in this discussion in the first place because they finally got healthy and rolling in August, earning win after win largely on the strength of their pitching staff.
Cliff Lee has looked much more like himself in his last nine starts, posting a 1.95 ERA over 64.2 innings. Cole Hamels has a 2.71 ERA since the start of August. Kyle Kendrick has a solid 3.55 ERA since moving into the rotation. Roy Halladay was rolling for a while there as well.
In September, Philly's offense has been solid. The Phillies have scored 114 runs in 23 games, with their main power source being Jimmy Rollins. He has a .944 OPS and eight home runs this month.
What's more, Philly's bullpen has even come around to post a 1.93 ERA this month. It helps that Philly relievers haven't had to work as many innings thanks to the good work being done by the team's starting staff. The status quo of 2011 has returned.
In a lot of ways, this is the same Phillies team that we saw last year and that we expected to see this year. It's not going to be easy for them to sneak into the playoffs, but teams will be wary of them if they do manage to get in.
The issue with the Phillies is that their offense is still a unit that is less than fearsome. As good as Rollins has been lately, he's been up and down all season. Ryan Howard strikes out a ton. Carlos Ruiz isn't the offensive force he was earlier in the season.
The other issue with the Phillies is that Halladay's health is a little too shaky to take it for granted that he'll be able to dominate in the postseason if the Phillies get there.
So the Phillies may look like the same team we saw last year, but it all has the feel of an illusion.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants are so good they don't even need a .346 hitter for their postseason run.
They obviously think so, anyway, as they announced on Thursday that Melky Cabrera won't be rejoining the team at any point in the playoffs, according to the San Jose Mercury News. They've moved on from their suspended All-Star.
It's hard to blame them. The Giants have played better baseball since Cabrera was suspended for testosterone use. What's surprising is that they've actually hit better too. They're scoring over five runs per game these days, whereas before, they were scoring about 4.25 runs per game.
I'll wager that the Giants are a better offensive team this season than they were when they won the World Series in 2010, and they still have a strong starting pitching staff. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner can match up with any other one-two combo the National League has to offer, and Tim Lincecum has done enough in the second half to prove that he can handle Game 3 duties.
Where the Giants aren't so strong is in their bullpen. Bruce Bochy has done a nice job of making pitching changes based on matchups, but the Giants don't have a shutdown closer like they did in 2010 when Brian Wilson was at his peak.
Still, if the trade-off for a downgraded bullpen is an upgraded offense, the Giants will gladly take it. Combine that with their dangerous pitching, and you get a team that could easily do some damage in October.
St. Louis Cardinals
This time last year, the Cardinals were smack in the middle of a playoff push that ended up taking them all the way to their second World Series title in five years.
This year, the Cards are kinda doing the same thing. They've won eight out of their last 10 games, opening up a sizable lead in the wild card chase in the process.
But let's be honest. It's hard to get that excited about the Cards' chances knowing that these wins have come against the likes of Houston and Chicago. The Cardinals haven't proved that they're a great team. They've just proved that they don't suck.
To be sure, the Cardinals still look like a dangerous team on paper. They have five guys who have hit at least 20 home runs, and they have a pitching staff that features both Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter for the first time since the 2010 season. Kyle Lohse has one of the best ERAs in the majors (which boggles the mind).
What the stuff on paper doesn't show is that the Cards are a little banged-up at the moment. David Freese has a bad ankle (again). Matt Holliday has a bad back. Yadier Molina has a back problem of his own. Carlos Beltran hasn't looked so great recently. Wainwright appears to be wearing down.
It was always stupid to bet against the Cardinals when they were under Tony La Russa's control, as he was the kind of manager who could turn a loss into a win by pulling a few strings. Though he's generally done an admirable job in his first year as La Russa's successor, Mike Matheny doesn't seem to have the same wizardry as La Russa.
For the first time in what feels like a long time, the smart money isn't on the Cardinals.
Tampa Bay Rays
In the middle of the month, the Rays lost seven out of eight. They looked doomed.
In fact, they basically needed a long win streak in order to stay in the race. Given the way they were going, that didn't seem likely.
Oh, right. These are the Rays we're talking about. We should have know that they would reel off seven wins in a row.
Because these wins have come against the likes of Boston and Toronto, though, they have to be taken with a grain of salt. The Red Sox and Blue Jays may be the two worst teams in the American League at this point. That makes Tampa's hot streak very similar to St. Louis' hot streak.
What's different about the Rays is that it's a lot easier to buy into the success of their pitching staff. They've always had excellent talent in their starting rotation, and their bullpen has turned out to be way, way better than advertised.
Tampa's starting pitching is what other teams fear most. David Price is a legit AL Cy Young candidate. James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson both have ERAs under 3.00 since the All-Star break. He's struggled recently, but Matt Moore has electric stuff, and everyone remembers what he did to the Rangers in Game 1 of the ALDS last year.
You can go far in the postseason with great pitching, and the Rays proved back in 2008 that they can go far when B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria are both swinging hot bats.
And so far this month, Upton already has 10 home runs and Longoria has a solid .872 OPS.
Let's see, the Rangers were the best team in the American League in both 2010 and 2011, and they're on track to be the best team in the AL once again this season.
It's no big coincidence. Josh Hamilton is still really good, and Adrian Beltre has been even better in 2012 than he was in 2011. David Murphy has emerged as one of the best hitters on the team. Mike Napoli has looked much more like himself since coming off the DL. The Rangers still have an excellent infield duo in Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler.
Oh, and their pitching is good this year too. Yu Darvish has held hitters to a .151 batting average in his last seven starts. Matt Harrison has a well-deserved total of 18 wins. Ryan Dempster has turned things around with a 2.93 ERA over his last seven starts.
In the bullpen, the Rangers have a shutdown closer in Joe Nathan and a solid core of setup men in Alexi Ogando, Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Robbie Ross.
Yeah, I think they're still good.
The Nationals were a great story in the first half of the season, going 49-34 and heading into the All-Star break in first place in the NL East.
They've been even better in the second half, and that's largely thanks to the fact that their offense finally got healthy. Only two teams have scored more runs than the Nats since the break, and only four teams have hit more homers.
The Nats have hit more homers than anybody in September. Adam LaRoche has hit nine, and Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond all have at least five.
The Nats have exactly the kind of offense that could do some damage in the postseason. On that front, they're set.
Ironically, the bigger question where they're concerned is whether they have enough pitching. Their pitching staff hasn't been very sharp in September, and everyone knows that the Nats are going to try to tackle October without arguably their best starter in Stephen Strasburg.
Fortunately for them, they still have a pretty good tandem to fall back on in Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Edwin Jackson has a solid 3.58 ERA in July, so the Nats could do a lot worse for a Game 3 starter than him.
The trouble is that the questions don't end at the starting rotation. Washington's bullpen has been a hit-or-miss unit all season long, and right now, you have to wonder how much they can trust guys like Tyler Clippard, Ryan Mattheus and Sean Burnett.
I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I'm doing so with some slight hesitation.
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