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Playing World Series Contender or Pretender with MLB Playoff Hopefuls

Ely SussmanCorrespondent IDecember 26, 2016

Playing World Series Contender or Pretender with MLB Playoff Hopefuls

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    The 2013 MLB playoff picture is still blurred with just under eight weeks remaining in the season, but we can at least differentiate the true contenders from the overly optimistic pretenders.

    The following slides only address relevant teams, a subgroup comprised of barely half the league.

    So where did we draw the line?

    Teams that are double-digit games from postseason spots entering August 5 understandably didn't receive mention. 

    If any of the listed "pretenders" somehow defy logic to make it into October, you'll have full permission to write mean things.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Pretender

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    2013 Record: 56-55

    At least the Arizona Diamondbacks made an effort to improve at the non-waiver trade deadline. They dumped Ian Kennedy to get Joe Thatcher and bolster the bullpen.

    Of course, that does nothing to help their struggling offense, which has only scratched across 22 runs in the past eight games. Didi Gregorius and Jason Kubel have been mired in mega-slumps, and Miguel Montero just landed on the disabled list.

    Arizona hasn't taken a series from a winning team since June 21-23.

Atlanta Braves: Contender

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    2013 Record: 67-45

    For the first time all summer, the uber-talented outfield of Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton is both healthy and productive. If there were any remaining doubt that the Atlanta Braves would get back into the playoffs, the presence of that trio erases it.

    Examine the left side of every infield in baseball, and you might not find a more valuable pair than Chris Johnson and Andrelton Simmons. The former leads the National League in batting, while Simmons has the tools and intellect to be one of the best defensive players of his generation.

    The Braves bullpen looked very formidable one week ago, but the addition of lefty reliever Scott Downs truly prepares this team for any late-inning situation.

Baltimore Orioles: Pretender

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    2013 Record: 61-51

    The real Chris Davis has finally revealed himself. He's been less selective at the plate and prone to striking out, which is partially why the Baltimore Orioles have scored three runs or fewer in nearly half of their games since the beginning of July.

    In that time, we've seen Manny Machado's batting average on balls in play come back down to earth and learned that the O's can't find an internal candidate to competently serve as designated hitter.

    Meanwhile, July acquisition Scott Feldman has reverted to his pre-2013 mediocrity. With Jason Hammel on the disabled list (and equally ineffective), manager Buck Showalter can only sit back and hope for the best. It's also only a matter of time before Wei-Yin Chen fails to maintain a sub-3.00 ERA, considering his strikeout-to-walk ratio is worse than the league average.

    Baltimore already regrets overpaying for Francisco Rodriguez. After trading away Luis Ayala and Pedro Strop, there isn't enough bullpen depth to hide him from high-leverage situations.

Boston Red Sox: Contender

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    2013 Record: 68-45

    At a non-waiver trade deadline that saw very few players change uniforms, the rich still found ways to get richer.

    In two separate deals with the Chicago White Sox, the Boston Red Sox acquired Jake Peavy and Matt Thornton to bolster their pitching staff. It's as if disabled stars Clay Buchholz and Andrew Miller never even existed.

    Boston has held on to first place in baseball's deepest division for the vast majority of 2013. Avoiding losing streaks longer than three games has had a lot to do with that.

    The Red Sox already own one of the sport's best offenses, but there will be no disputing their No. 1 status once Will Middlebrooks gets his bat back on track. Thanks to Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., they have the young talent to cope with a significant injury down the stretch.

Cincinnati Reds: Contender

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    2013 Record: 61-51

    With Jonathan Broxton and Ryan Ludwick extremely close to returning to the active roster, the Cincinnati Reds should be able to stabilize their slumping ship.

    During a season in which several young players have regressed, Tony Cingrani, Mike Leake and Devin Mesoraco are all impressing. Even following Sunday's blowout at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincy's pitching staff ranks among the best in the Senior Circuit in terms of earned run average, batting average against and strikeout-to-walk ratio.

    Jay Bruce and Joey Votto have provided the same outstanding power production that we've come to expect. Meanwhile, Shin-Soo Choo and his .281/.416/.461 batting line completely fill the void that used to exist atop the Reds lineup.

Cleveland Indians: Contender

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    2013 Record: 62-49

    Anybody who thought Yan Gomes, Scott Kazmir and Ryan Raburn would be integral contributors on a legitimate contender deserves free drinks and a pat on the back.

    You can't make this stuff up.

    Even castoffs like Jason Giambi and Drew Stubbs have proven that they belong on the active roster.

    The Cleveland Indians defense is extremely dependable. The basis for that observation might be influencing the pitchers, who have thrown far more strikes since the All-Star break, coinciding with a fiery hot streak.

    Let's not overlook the Terry Francona factor either. Aside from creating a comfortable environment for his players, the former first baseman/outfielder has managed two World Series champions, a distinction that puts him in the exclusive company of Bruce Bochy among active skippers.

Detroit Tigers: Contender

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    2013 Record: 64-45

    The American League's longest current winning streak belongs to the Detroit Tigers, who have done most of that damage without their best player.

    However, Chris Iott of MLive.com reports that Miguel Cabrera's abdominal strain is improving. The team expects him to avoid the disabled list.

    After briefly seeing his batting average dip below .300 in June, Torii Hunter has gone back to tearing the cover off the ball. Moreover, Alex Avila and Victor Martinez seem to be finally distancing themselves from season-opening slumps.

    A shaky bullpen prevented the Tigers from sustaining excellence during the summer's first half, but that's no longer a big concern. The addition of Jose Veras has given Jim Leyland an option to trust in late-game situations when Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly need a break.

    Ultimately, Justin Verlander's performance is going to determine whether Detroit gets back to the Fall Classic. The rest of the rotation has pitched better than anyone could have envisioned.

Kansas City Royals: Pretender

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    2013 Record: 56-52

    The Los Angeles Angels were barely able to give away Ervin Santana, yet the right-hander has thrived with the Kansas City Royals, re-emerging as a top-20 starter in the American League.

    However, the back end of the rotation is a problem area. Luis Mendoza has given K.C. sheer mediocrity, and it would be unreasonable to expect much better pitching from Bruce Chen as his workload increases down the stretch. Wade Davis usually cannot command his pitches, while Jeremy Guthrie relies too heavily on balls in play.

    From an offensive perspective, the Royals lack genuine power threats and batters who take enough pitches to wear down the opposition.

    All in all, the Royals will have so many reasons to be excited going into 2014, but this obviously isn't their year.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Contender

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    2013 Record: 61-49

    The Los Angeles Dodgers are so loaded, they couldn't find room on the active roster for Ted Lilly, and there's no pressure to promote Dee Gordon despite his terrific production at Triple-A.

    So long as Yasiel Puig doesn't collide with a brick wall (padded brick walls are fine), L.A. will boast the deepest lineup in the NL West down the stretch. The same can definitively be said about its starting rotation, and since earning the closer label, Kenley Jansen has been untouchable (38 K, 13 H in 25.1 IP since June 11).

    Dodgers ownership is being richly rewarded for trusting manager Don Mattingly through a couple tough months. Among division leaders, only the Atlanta Braves have more separation from their competition.

New York Yankees: Pretender

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    2013 Record: 57-53

    Given their mounting injuries, the fact that the New York Yankees are comfortably above .500 should be applauded.

    That said, Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano can't elevate an offense that was downright abysmal in their absences. The most un-Yankee-like stat ever: This team has been held to three runs or fewer in more than half its games.

    Hiroki Kuroda and Mariano Rivera perfectly suit their titles as ace and closer, respectively. The rest of the pitching staff, unfortunately, has a few too many question marks.

    The Yankees were unable to dump underachievers like Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes at the non-waiver trade deadline. Starters Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia have been way too inconsistent to trust in close contests.

    Barring an August blockbuster that brings Cliff Lee and Michael Young to the Bronx, this club is merely fourth-best in the AL East.

Oakland Athletics: Contender

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    2013 Record: 64-47

    Although Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick have all struggled to replicate their 2012 production, the Oakland Athletics actually find themselves in better position to make the playoffs and advance than they did at this point last summer.

    It's all about pitching.

    Despite being worked to the bone last September, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle have shown no ill effects. They lead one of baseball's best strike-throwing bullpens.

    Right-hander Bartolo Colon has been absolutely extraordinary in 2013, particularly since turning 40 in late May. In 13 starts since then, he boasts a 1.45 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP while averaging over seven innings per outing.

    The A's can win their first pennant in 23 years because, whether it's Colon or Jarrod Parker or Tommy Milone or somebody else getting the starting nod, the games are always competitive. This pitching staff hasn't surrendered more than 10 runs on any date this season, or more than eight in the past month-and-a-half.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Contender

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    2013 Record: 67-44

    These aren't your older sibling's Pittsburgh Pirates.

    Unlike the Bucs from earlier this millennium or even those from the past two seasons, this roster has veteran talent that won't fade down the stretch.

    The depth of Pittsburgh's pitching staff is most impressive. Jason Grilli might be out for another month, but Mark Melancon has seamlessly stepped into his shoes as closer. Even with James McDonald and Wandy Rodriguez injured, the Pirates might actually be better off, thanks to Gerrit Cole and Brandon Cumpton.

    Scheduling favors this team, which has 17 games against the NL West (none vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers). All of Clint Hurdle's best weapons should be available Sept. 12-22, when the Pirates get to play 11 straight games at PNC Park.

Seattle Mariners: Pretender

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    2013 Record: 52-59

    Encouraged by a mini surge immediately before and after the All-Star break, the Seattle Mariners decided not to sell any of their many desirable trade candidates last month.

    In hindsight, that doesn't look like it was a wise decision.

    Starting pitchers Aaron Harang, Erasmo Ramirez and Joe Saunders alternate between strong and putrid performances. The late-inning duo of Oliver Perez and Tom Wilhelmsen hasn't come close to maintaining its excellence from the first few months of 2013.

    Poor fielding is the biggest reason why the M's have allowed their most runs per game since 2008. When defensive wizard Brendan Ryan rides the bench and Raul Ibanez and Mike Morse regularly patrol the outfield, that's exactly what you'd expect.

St. Louis Cardinals: Contender

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    2013 Record: 65-45

    Any optimism for the remainder of this season hinges on NL MVP candidate Yadier Molina's full recovery from knee inflammation. St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny says that the catcher could return when eligible to come off the disabled list or shortly after, according to MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch.

    The starting rotation has come back to earth after surreal performances throughout April and May, but there are few guys you'd rather have on the mound than Adam Wainwright.

    The St. Louis lineup gets runs in bunches without relying on home runs. So many of the position players understand how to use the whole field, especially with runners in scoring position.

    Perhaps most importantly, the Cardinals farm system has a surplus of MLB-ready contributors like outfielder Oscar Taveras, starting pitcher Michael Wacha and second baseman Kolten Wong. Should a glaring weakness be revealed this month, they would have the ammunition to complete an impact trade.

Tampa Bay Rays: Contender

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    2013 Record: 66-45

    Outfielder Wil Myers has been as impressive through his first two major league months as any position player prospect in Tampa Bay Rays history.

    He has had plenty of help carrying the offensive load.

    Offseason acquisitions Yunel Escobar and James Loney have enjoyed strong bounce-back seasons, while Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist continue to produce as the back of their baseball cards say they should.

    David Price, the ace of Tampa Bay's starting rotation, needs no introduction. Per Baseball-Reference.com, here's his game log since returning from the disabled list last month:

    Not too shabby.

    There's also quite a bit of depth behind him.

    Rookie Chris Archer boasts a 2.65 earned run average and has already tossed two complete-game shutouts. Although Matt Moore recently landed on the disabled list with elbow soreness, Andrew Astleford of Fox Sports Florida reports that he has already started throwing again. Meanwhile, right-hander Alex Cobb, who took a line drive to the head in June, is on the verge of returning, according to MLB.com's Sam Strong.

Texas Rangers: Contender

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    2013 Record: 62-50

    Although Nelson Cruz undoubtedly improves the Texas Rangers, they will remain capable of qualifying for October baseball in his absence. Should they get there, any possible 50-game suspension would have expired, and Cruz would get to rejoin the lineup.

    The progression of Derek Holland and acquisition of Matt Garza have given this team three starters who would match up favorably with any opponent during a short series. Texas could use a steady No. 4 option to complete a deep playoff run, and right on cue, as he nears a return to the rotation, southpaw Matt Harrison "felt really good" in his latest minor league tune-up, according to MLB.com's Master Tesfatsion.

    On the offensive side of things, Mitch Moreland is gradually finding his stroke again after a lengthy stretch of inconsistency, while Elvis Andrus is simply too talented to continue scuffling.

    Moreover, don't forget about the possibility of the Rangers bringing in more hitters this month. With a winning percentage inferior to those of the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics (among others), this club will have opportunities to negotiate with sellers, or at least block talent from getting to the AL division leaders.

    Finally, we can't speak about Texas without praising the bullpen. Five different relievers own sub-3.00 earned run averages, and Neftali Feliz is mere weeks away from reinforcing the group.

Washington Nationals: Pretender

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    2013 Record: 54-57

    These underachievers need to win about two out of every three games the rest of the way to sneak into October.

    Despite obvious talent, the Washington Nationals face plenty of adversity.

    They have question marks at the back end of the starting rotation, with Ross Detwiler injured and Taylor Jordan closing in on his innings limit. The bullpen's depth is inferior to most, and the bench players have been completely impotent at the plate.

    Most of their remaining matchups involve the NL East. Although three of four division rivals own mediocre records, they have refrained from trading away productive veterans, so victories won't come easily.

    Few teams seem better poised to contend in 2014, but this year's pennant is almost certainly out of Washington's reach.

     

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