6 MLB Teams Poised for Big Late-Season Surges

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 21, 2013

6 MLB Teams Poised for Big Late-Season Surges

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    There may only be about 40 days left in the regular season, but that's plenty of time for a team like the Arizona Diamondbacks to put together a late-season surge to make the playoffs.

    Don't believe me?

    On August 20, 2012, both the Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants were desperately fighting for a playoff spot. The Tigers were two games behind the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central and 1.5 games behind Baltimore Orioles for the second wild-card spot. The Giants, meanwhile, held a half-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West and had the same record as the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were at that time still in possession of the second wild-card position.

    The Tigers then went 24-17, winning the AL Central and eventually making it into the World Series where they lost to the surging Giants, who finished out the regular season with a 27-13 record.

    The Oakland A's didn't do quite as well in the playoffs, but they went 29-12 over the final six weeks of the season to overcome the six-game lead that the Texas Rangers held over them in the AL West.

    Several teams are going to put together inspirational runs over the next few weeks. Based on upcoming schedules, players returning from the disabled list, struggling players who should turn things around and September call-ups, these are the six teams that would seem to be in the best position to win at least 65 percent of their remaining games.

     

    All statistics on the following slides are courtesy of Fangraphs and ESPN and are accurate through the start of play on Tuesday, August 20.

    Strength of schedule excludes current series, focuses on August 23 through end of season.

Oakland Athletics

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    Strength of schedule: Fairly average

    With 13 games remaining against Texas, Detroit and Tampa Bay and 11 games remaining against Houston and Minnesota, it's neither a murderers' row that will keep Oakland from putting together a September surge nor a cream puff schedule that will propel them to home-field advantage.

     

    Impact players returning from DL: Brett Anderson and Bartolo Colon

    Anderson is chronically on the disabled list, so don't hold your breath about him coming back or staying healthy.

    The A's desperately need Colon back in the rotation, though. Not only was he their best pitcher in terms of Fangraphs' WAR, but losing Colon forced the A's to recall Tommy Milone just two weeks after they demoted him.

     

    Players struggling in second half who should bounce back: Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick

    From July 30 through August 7, Reddick went six straight games without a hit. He then hit five home runs over the span of his next two games but hasn't hit one in the nine games since. He has occasionally shown signs of snapping out of what has amounted to a season-long funk but is still batting just .216 since the All-Star break.

    Crisp's batting average is even worse than Reddick's since the All-Star break—and this coming after he was the only starting outfielder who could hit the ball during the first half of the season. It's hard to believe all of their outfielders are going to bat below .250 for forever, and my money's on Crisp to break that trend.

     

    Key potential September call-ups: Michael Choice

    Addison Russell is their top prospect, but Choice is the one most likely to get a September call-up. If nothing else, he could provide the team with an outfielder that actually gets on base once in a while. His .387 on-base percentage in 120 games at Triple-A is more than 60 points better than any of the current outfielders in Oakland.

Texas Rangers

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    Strength of schedule: Almost identical to Oakland's

    They'll neither gain ground nor lose it to the A's based on their schedule. They each have 13 games remaining against likely playoff teams (six against each other), three games against a potential playoff team (Baltimore vs. Oakland, Kansas City vs. Texas), three games against the Mariners and several games against the dregs of the AL West and AL Central.

     

    Impact players returning from DL: Lance Berkman, Neftali Feliz and Nick Tepesch

    Feliz and Tepesch are unlikely to even sniff the starting rotation again this season. Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Matt Garza obviously aren't going anywhere, and Martin Perez has been lights out for the past three weeks. That leaves Alexi Ogando as the only potential odd man out, and I'd rather take my chances with him.

    Still, both Feliz and Tepesch could come back and contribute to the bullpen.

    For a while there, it looked like Berkman's career might be over. Now, it seems he's just sitting around and waiting to get called back up on Sept. 1. If he's anything close to what he used to be, he could help the Rangers in their eternal battle to fill the void left by Nelson Cruz's suspension—though, based on the beatings they've given Seattle and Houston in recent days, you would think they have nine Lou Gehrigs in their lineup.

     

    Players struggling in second half who should bounce back: Matt Garza, Ian Kinsler, Mitch Moreland and David Murphy

    Garza is better than he has pitched in his most recent outings with the Rangers. The numbers show it and my gut says it, but we'll see whether his remaining eight or so starts is a large enough sample size to exhibit some positive regression. I'm guessing this weekend's start against the White Sox will be a big step in the right direction, though.

    Meanwhile, where are thou, Kinsler and Moreland?

    Moreland was one of the team's biggest offensive catalysts in the first half of the season, but he has an AL-worst .164 BABIP since the All-Star break. Whether you're a staunch believer in BABIP or not, the lowest second-half BABIP in the AL in 2012 was Colby Rasmus' .227, so I have to believe Moreland will inevitably find some fortune over the remainder of the season.

    And Kinsler has been a complete non-entity since his return from the disabled list. He had five home runs in 62 plate appearances by April 18 but only has three dingers in the 252 plate appearances since June 15. When he went on the DL, he was batting .302/.369/.500. Since then, he's batting .242/.321/.342.

    If either Kinsler, Moreland or both can turn things around in September, the Rangers could win the AL West by a half-dozen games.

     

    Key potential September call-ups: Wilmer Font

    Font made a brief appearance with the Rangers in mid-July, but he has a 12.38 K/9 and 0.94 ERA with 14 saves in 48 minor league innings of relief in 2013. You won't find him on any top prospect lists, but he's the most MLB-ready player they have, and he could play a big role in the bullpen down the stretch.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Strength of schedule: Arguably easier than those of Cincinnati or St. Louis

    The three NL Central powerhouses still have a handful of games left against one another. Pittsburgh plays Cincinnati and St. Louis six times each, and the Cardinals and Reds still have seven head-to-head battles remaining. Each team also has six games remaining against Milwaukee.

    After saying a prayer for the Brewers and taking all of those games out of the equation, what's left?

    Well, Pittsburgh has a tough three-game set against the Rangers and 15 games against teams with a winning percentage below .450. Cincinnati's total strength of schedule looks a little easier because it plays three games against Houston, but it still has to face the Dodgers and has a couple of tough series against the Rockies and Mets.

     

    Impact players returning from DL: Jason Grilli, Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider

    For all of the time that I spent before the trading deadline complaining about Pittsburgh's need to upgrade over Snider in right field, he would certainly be a welcomed re-addition to the team as a left-handed bat off the bench.

    Much more than whatever they're looking to get from Snider, though, the Pirates are hoping Grilli can come back without missing a beat. While he was healthy, the Pirates had the second-best bullpen ERA in the majors.

     

    Players struggling in second half who should bounce back: Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata

    Let's temper our expectations with Alvarez and Tabata and recognize that neither guy is ever going to be an annual .300 hitter. Yet they're much better than they have been since the break.

    Alvarez has a .195 batting average and .227 BABIP over his last 134 plate appearances. His career numbers in those departments are .236 and .302, respectively. He's still hitting a fair number of home runs and striking out a ton, but he's been quite unlucky on balls in play.

    Same story, different numbers for Tabata. He has a lifetime batting average of .271, but he's hitting just .219 with a .233 BABIP since the All-Star break. Not only does Pittsburgh need better numbers than that from its starting right fielder, but it should also be getting them sooner than later.

     

    Key potential September call-ups: Jameson Taillon, Andrew Lambo and Gregory Polanco

    Lambo lasted less than a week in the majors before getting sent back down to Triple-A, but he'll be back in September to add some much-needed depth to the Pirates outfield.

    I have my doubts that either Taillon or Polanco gets a September call-up, but they're at least in the running for one.

    Taillon is already at 128.1 IP on the season after throwing 142 innings in 2012. We'll see whether they want to bring him up and stretch him out a little more or just save him for 2014. Polanco probably isn't quite ready to start in the majors—he only got promoted to Double-A a little over two months ago—but his 77 stolen bases over the past two seasons could come in handy as a pinch runner.

Cleveland Indians

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    Strength of schedule: More favorable than most

    From August 27 through September 4, the Indians play nine consecutive games against the Braves, Tigers and Orioles.

    If they can survive that stretch with playoff hopes intact, the final three-and-a-half weeks of the season could be Tribe Time. At that point, their six remaining games against the Royals would seem to more than balance out with their six remaining games against the White Sox, while their other 11 games come against the Astros (four), Twins (four) and Mets (three).

     

    Impact players returning from DL: Corey Kluber, Brett Myers and Josh Tomlin

    Kluber is easily the biggest name they are pining for on this list. He was on fire in his last six starts before landing on the disabled list with a fractured finger, and frankly, he was in the running for MVP of the pitching staff—you know, if awards like that were actually given out.

    Myers and Tomlin might contribute in some positive way to the bullpen if they're able to return, but I can't imagine either would be starting any games over the next six weeks.

     

    Players struggling in second half who should bounce back: Michael Bourn, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana

    All three of these players have been batting below .230 since the All-Star break. Each one is batting at least 49 points below his pre-All-Star break batting average, with Bourn's split of .290 versus .212 being the most difficult to fathom.

    Even without prototypical production from three of the most important components in their lineup, the Indians have played two games above .500 since the break. When they start heating up against inferior opponents, Cleveland could go on quite the tear.

     

    Key potential September call-ups: Trevor Bauer

    He'll almost certainly be called back up in September, but how many people will he walk upon his arrival?

    In case you're wondering about Francisco Lindor, he was already unlikely to be called up in September even before he landed on the DL with a back injury that could sideline him for the rest of the season.

Boston Red Sox

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    Strength of schedule: Pretty difficult

    The Red Sox still play three games each against the Dodgers, Rays and Tigers and have a combined 16 slugfests remaining with the Orioles and Yankees. That's 25 of their remaining 33 games against teams that are above .500.

    Nevertheless, they entered play on Tuesday with the second-best winning percentage in the American League, so they should theoretically be favored in all of those series—even for the early-September showdown with Detroit, as those games are being played at Fenway.

     

    Impact players returning from DL: Clay Buchholz and Matt Thornton

    Buchholz was the ace of the staff—and arguably the ace of the American League—when he last pitched on June 8. It seems he has spent over two months in a perpetual state of being "a few weeks away" from a return, so who knows if he'll actually make it back this season. He would be welcomed back with many open arms if he does return, though.

    Drake Britton has been a train wreck out of the Red Sox bullpen for the past two weeks, Andrew Miller is nowhere near a return from his injury and Franklin Morales just recently returned. Aside from Craig Breslow, who has quietly been one of the few reliable pieces in that bullpen, Thornton would probably become the most valuable left-handed reliever in Boston as soon as he recovers from his oblique strain.

     

    Players struggling in second half who should bounce back: Jonny Gomes, John Lackey, Dustin Pedroia and Brandon Workman

    I won't linger on all of these names, but Pedroia in particular is going to play a big role down the stretch. Since the All-Star break, he's batting .213 with a dreadful .227 BABIP and a 0.0 WAR. Considering he was batting .316 before the break with a WAR of 3.8, that cold spell probably isn't going to last much longer.

     

    Key potential September call-ups: Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Bryce Brentz and Allen Webster

    I'm aware that they already called up Bogaerts, but he still hasn't had a plate appearance in the majors and it's nearly September. Therefore, I'm keeping him on the list. More than enough has been written about him already this season, so I'll just say that he might have the most positive impact of any September call-up in the league.

    Bradley has already disappointed in the majors this season, but Brentz could be a huge add if he's healthy. Brentz had knee surgery in July that could have knocked him out for the season, but he has already returned this week to play a few games with the Rookie League Gulf Coast Red Sox. Prior to the injury, he had 16 home runs in 75 games at Triple-A.

    Webster made a few appearances with the big league club this season but struggled miserably to the tune of a 9.57 ERA in 26.1 innings of work. His last five starts in the minors have been much more promising, and he figures to join the team for a long relief role in September.

Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Strength of schedule: As easy as they come

    No, they don't play all (or any) of their remaining games against the Astros, and yes, they do still have seven games remaining against the Dodgers. But other than those direct opportunities to gain some ground on Los Angeles in the NL West, each of their 36 remaining games is against a team below .500—and 20 of them come against teams below .450.

     

    Impact players returning from DL: Miguel Montero and Eric Chavez

    In small doses, Chavez has been a crucial piece of the puzzle for the Diamondbacks. If he had enough at-bats to qualify, his .299 batting average would be the best on the team. Get him back in September and platoon him at third base with Matt Davidson, and they could have a good thing brewing.

    Montero, on the other hand, has struggled all season, and perhaps some time on the DL will have helped him get back to being the guy who batted .286 in 2012 instead of the one batting .228 this year.

     

    Players struggling in second half who should bounce back: Paul Goldschmidt, Gerardo Parra and Brandon McCarthy

    So here's some scary news for everyone in the National League: Goldschmidt hasn't been playing anywhere near his full potential as of late. Sure, he has nine home runs since the break, but he's batting just .243 with a .254 BABIP after finishing the first half of the season at .313 and .353, respectively.

    Similarly, Parra's batting average and BABIP have plummeted by about 70 points each since the All-Star break. If he can start getting on base again in time for Goldschmidt's BABIP to start correcting itself, it could spell big dividends for the D-Backs.

     

    Key potential September call-ups: Archie Bradley, Tyler Skaggs and Chris Owings

    Skaggs has been in and out of the 25-man MLB roster all season, so it's something of a no-brainer that he'll be around when they expand to the 40-man rosters on Sept. 1.

    The other two names are purely speculation by me, but they could play a huge role.

    Bradley has been destroying minor league competition all season and has a sub-2.00 ERA in nearly 140 innings to show for it. He struggles with control from time to time but has struck out at least seven batters in four of his last five outings. He's looking like the second coming of Trevor Bauer, but Arizona is presumably hoping this one will be able to cut down on his walks in due time.

    Owings is batting .331 with 12 home runs and 16 stolen bases at Triple-A and could be an occasional replacement for Didi Gregorius, who has arguably been the biggest liability in the Diamondbacks lineup.