Buchholz's return from the DL could allow the Red Sox to move Ryan Dempster to the bullpen for the stretch run.
We've officially reached the point of the season that is often referred to as the "home stretch," where the remaining contenders fight for a playoff spot and jockey for home-field advantage. These are also the "dog days of summer" and players are fighting the heat after more than five long months of baseball. There is no doubt a lot of these guys are wearing down. Depth can be key to reaching the postseason and making a run deep into the playoffs.
A relatively injury-free season can also help—see the Giants and Tigers of 2012—but it's hard to find a team who hasn't been bitten by the injury bug in 2013. Tigers star Miguel Cabrera is battling an injury to his abdomen. Jason Heyward has a fractured jaw, forcing the Braves to go with Jordan Schafer, who is currently in a 14-for-69 slump. The Dodgers have been without Matt Kemp for most of the season. The Bucs are without leadoff man Starling Marte. St. Louis has lost several pitchers for the season. The Red Sox have lost two closers. The list goes on and on.
With 14 teams either holding on to a playoff spot or within 5.5 games of one heading into today, here is a look at four teams—two from each league—that are in very good shape based on their dynamic roster depth.
The O's are still four games out in the wild-card race with two teams even closer. Still, they've done a terrific job in adding roster depth over the past couple months and it could start to pay off if a few other teams begin to fade.
Right-handed hitter Michael Morse (pictured), acquired from Seattle last week, fills a season-long void in Baltimore. The 31-year-old has battled injuries and has struggled to get going, however, since hitting eight homers in April. But if he can heat up—he's 3-for-7 in two starts—the Baltimore lineup could be one of the deepest in baseball.
Manager Buck Showalter also has the option of going to rookie prospect Jonathan Schoop over veteran Brian Roberts, who has a .615 OPS over his last 30 games, to fill the other major hole in the lineup. While he has yet to go this route since the 21-year-old was called up two days ago, it wouldn't be a surprise if Schoop began to get some playing time soon in the hopes he can provide a spark as Manny Machado did late last season.
Schoop's numbers weren't great in Triple-A (.697 OPS in 70 games) but Machado wasn't exactly dominating down in Double-A when he got the call either. Their talent levels are not comparable, although Schoop was ranked as the team's No. 3 prospect by Baseball Prospectus heading into the season.
The bullpen is also deep after the additions of Francisco Rodriguez, acquired in a July trade with Milwaukee, and rookie Kevin Gausman, a to pitching prospect who has allowed four earned runs in 14.1 innings of relief. There is also terrific balance in the group of pitchers bridging the gap to closer Jim Johnson with side-armer Darren O'Day, lefties Brian Matusz and Troy Patton and hard-throwing Tommy Hunter, who has settled nicely into a bullpen role with a 2.72 ERA in 57 appearances.
Today's return of Jason Hammel from the disabled list also gives the rotation another solid option to go with Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Scott Feldman and Miguel Gonzalez. If the team wins a wild-card berth, Showalter should have several choices for the one-game playoff.
By trading for Jake Peavy in late July, the Sox not only improved their rotation for at least the next month and beyond, the anticipated return of Clay Buchholz from the disabled list—as early as next week—could indirectly give the bullpen a boost as well.
The logical move with a rotation spot needing to be cleared for Buchholz is to shift Ryan Dempster, the Cubs' closer from 2005-07, to the 'pen. With only one right-handed setup option in Junichi Tazawa, the addition of Dempster would add terrific balance to a left-handed-heavy group of relievers currently being asked to hand a lead over to closer Koji Uehara.
Offensively, the call-up of top prospect Xander Bogaerts gives the team another option on the left side of the infield to give shortstop Stephen Drew the occasional rest and just in case the red-hot Will Middlebrooks reverts back to his early season form (.617 OPS through June 20) before he was banished to Triple-A.
The outfield depth also remains strong with Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino continuing to put up solid numbers while Mike Carp, Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava continue to produce when penciled into the lineup. More speed has also been added to the equation with Quintin Berry part of the September call-ups and top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. also expected to join the team in the near future.
The depth of the Dodgers' pitching staff quickly disappeared early in the season because of several injuries, including one to Zack Greinke, who ended up missing over a month with a fractured collarbone. The lack of position player depth after Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez sustained injuries buried the Dodgers even further.
And yet, here we are a few months later and this is the best team in baseball since late June (53-12 since June 22) and possibly one of the deepest. Yasiel Puig's arrival helped, especially considering he's turned out to be better than anyone could've anticipated, as did the return of Greinke and Ramirez.
General manager Ned Colletti, who appeared to be on the hot seat prior to the team's hot streak, made a terrific move when he acquired starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco (2.27 ERA in 11 starts since trade) from the Marlins in July, in addition to under-the-radar additions to the bullpen—Carlos Marmol (9.2 scoreless innings in August) and Brian Wilson (5.0 scoreless innings since his Dodgers debut)—and last week's acquisition of Michael Young to give the team another option at third base.
The final piece to the potential championship puzzle could be the return of Kemp, who is close to returning from the disabled list. Last month, I broke down what Kemp's return could mean to the team.
The Bucs were already emerging as one of the most talented teams in the majors with a farm system beginning to produce key contributors. The July 31 trade deadline came and went without any additions to the roster or any major backlash from the fanbase.
But it turned out general manager Neal Huntington wasn't standing pat. Three veteran players—catcher John Buck, first baseman Justin Morneau (pictured) and outfielder Marlon Byrd—were acquired in August to give an already strong team more talent and experience heading into the final month of a season that will result in the team's first winning record since 1992 and likely its first playoff berth since the same year.
The pitching staff, despite injuries to starters James McDonald and Wandy Rodriguez and closer Jason Grilli, had held strong behind several young relievers, including Bryan Morris (3.07 ERA in 46 appearances), Tony Watson (2.62 ERA in 57 appearances) and Justin Wilson (2.52 ERA in 52 appearances), along with a few unlikely contributors like Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro, and a rotation led by veterans A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano.
The return of Grilli, who will be eased back into the closer's role, and the potential returns of McDonald and Rodriguez, also help by possibly easing the workloads of a still very young team before the playoffs begin.