The Biggest Flaw of Every Potential MLB Playoff Team
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Every potential MLB playoff team enters the final weeks of the 2013 regular season with an obvious flaw. The extent to which those weaknesses get exploited will determine who actually participates in October baseball and advances the furthest.
At this late stage of the summer, there's often nothing that can be done to remedy glaring issues. Boston Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, for example, will earn zero respect from opposing baserunners, and the New York Yankees don't have enough major league-ready arms in their farm system to adequately fill in for currently injured veterans.
This sport has never been about striving for perfection, but rather taking advantage of favorable matchups. That's what the following contenders will attempt to do to one another down the stretch.
Atlanta Braves: Offensive Streakiness
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We saw it happen to the New York Yankees during the 2012 postseason, when their star-laden lineup went ice-cold at the most inconvenient time. Although favored to defeat the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS, they were convincingly swept.
These Atlanta Braves will be vulnerable to the same tragic fate because of their batters' tendencies to suffer through extended slumps.
It's been easy to observe this with the Upton brothers throughout their debut seasons with the franchise. Aside from MVP-caliber performances in April and August, Justin has looked like a liability at the plate (including .125/.222/.167 in September). Meanwhile, you'd be hard-pressed to find even week-long stretches during which B.J. maintained excellence.
Evan Gattis has risen from anonymity to folk hero status, so we choose to forget how downright terrible he performed upon returning from the disabled list. In 99 plate appearances from mid-July through the end of August, he homered only once and amassed a miserable .542 OPS, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Leadoff man extraordinaire Jason Heyward falls into the same category. He was virtually an automatic out in April and May, as he totaled nearly as many hit-by-pitches (five) as extra-base hits (six) during those brutal couple of months. Although MLB.com's Michael Radano reports that Heyward is progressing toward a late September return, there's no way of knowing which version of Heyward the Braves will get back.
These weapons and others in Atlanta's lineup have difficulty getting back on track once subtle elements of their swings go awry, and that should make fans very nervous.
Baltimore Orioles: Top of the Rotation
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The Baltimore Orioles at least made legitimate efforts to improve their underwhelming starting rotation prior to the trade deadline. They acquired Scott Feldman and Bud Norris when little else was available, and the former has recently caught fire by allowing two earned runs or fewer in five straight starts (1.36 ERA, .195 BAA in that span).
However, none of Baltimore's rotation options are genuinely feared. Nobody on the O's would qualify as a No. 1 or even a No. 2 starter on other staffs.
Wei-Yin Chen struggles against right-handed batters (.271/.322/.440 with 10 HR), while Miguel Gonzalez is equally shaky against lefties and righties. Although Norris generates plenty of strikeouts, he wastes far too many pitches in doing so. Elevated pitch counts typically prevent him from getting through a lineup three times and surviving into the later innings, hence his zero complete games in 126 career starts.
Chris Tillman comes closest to fitting the mold of a rotation leader based on his durability in 2013 and respectable strikeout rate. Unfortunately, as was the case earlier in his career, the right-hander has yielded too many home runs (fifth-most in AL). There's nothing the stellar Baltimore defense can do about that.
Boston Red Sox: Containing the Running Game
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The combination of superior pitching and chilly weather conditions typically limits offensive production in October. As a result, every baserunner becomes more significant.
This isn't great news for the Boston Red Sox, who often rely on out-slugging their competition and have well-documented problems controlling opposing speedsters.
We can place much of the blame on Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Boston's primary catcher gunned down barely 23 percent of would-be base stealers from 2007 to 2012 and only 19 percent this season.
Cincinnati Reds: Bottom of the Lineup
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It's no surprise that the Cincinnati Reds enjoy most of their offensive success in the first and second innings, per Baseball-Reference.com. The top half of their batting order includes on-base machines Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto, superb slugger Jay Bruce and the unbelievably clutch Brandon Phillips.
The bottom of Dusty Baker's lineup, however, is another story entirely.
Former top prospect Devin Mesoraco has made zero progress as a hitter at age 25. Cincy's alternative behind the plate, Ryan Hanigan, continues to frequently put balls in play, but with minimal power and a batting average that's barely above the Mendoza line, this will go down as his weakest MLB campaign.
The Reds gave shortstop Zack Cozart ample opportunities to establish himself in the No. 2 spot. In 64 games there earlier in 2013, he batted only .254/.284/.367, and dropping into a less demanding role has done nothing to boost his performance.
Cincinnati presumably won't consider making changes considering what these players contribute defensively. Meanwhile, that will compromise the club's ability to sustain big rallies.
Cleveland Indians: Back End of the Bullpen
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Despite the accolades, two-time All-Star Chris Perez hasn't been a solid option in the ninth inning since 2010, when he initially earned the closer's role.
According to fWAR and FIP, the right-hander is enduring the worst season of his career. That's primarily due to a bloated home run rate, which can be attributed to lost velocity. Averaging 92.5 miles per hour on his fastball—down from his typical 94.0 mph—means that opposing hitters can make better contact on his mistake pitches.
Moreover, setup man Vinnie Pestano doesn't fit the dominant description we created for him entering this season. He posted a 4.05 ERA and 5.1 BB/9 through the end of July, spent some time at Triple-A and returned to the Cleveland Indians this past weekend.
Following yet another rocky performance, he expressed his discouragement to Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer:
I've been battling all year. As soon as I think I've got something figured out, I go out there and the results are the same. It's getting really frustrating. I'm still the same pitcher in my head, I'm just not throwing the same way I used to.
Two players who kept the Tribe vaguely relevant during the past few unsuccessful years now seem to be sabotaging their chances of qualifying for the playoffs.
Detroit Tigers: Baserunning
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In terms of Speed score, Ultimate Base Running (UBR) and other advanced statistics that FanGraphs uses to quantify what goes on between the foul lines, the Detroit Tigers receive unfavorable ratings.
That should come as no surprise for a team that starts slow-footed sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez on a daily basis.
The Tigers don't pressure their best athletes into aggressive decisions either. Jose Iglesias has only one stolen base in 32 games with the club, while center fielder Austin Jackson is on pace for a career low in steals with only seven through 111 contests.
Relying on older starters also tends to depress the impact from baserunning. Torii Hunter and Omar Infante, for example, seldom work out their legs.
In scenarios when this lineup cannot make solid contact or expose the opposition's soft middle relief, it'll most likely suffer a defeat.
Kansas City Royals: Inexperience
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Many old-school analysts overemphasize the importance of experience, but the factor certainly shouldn't be ignored either.
Now that Miguel Tejada has been lost to an amphetamines suspension, the Kansas City Royals no longer have any MLB playoff experience among their starting position players. The only bench contributors with postseason experience, Jamey Carroll and Carlos Pena, figure to see limited action down the stretch.
K.C. already faces long odds of sneaking into October as a wild card. Adding to that adversity is the fact that so many of its key individuals aren't accustomed to dealing with the heightened pressure that pennant contention generates on and off the field.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Baserunning
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The Los Angeles Dodgers have more athleticism to work with, but no reason to flaunt it and steal bases.
At least, that's what Carl Crawford told Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. The left fielder perennially led the American League in stolen bases while a member of the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He has only swiped 13 in 103 games this summer, insisting, "I don't have to run so much" because the stars batting behind him have the ability to drive him in from any base.
Rookie phenom Yasiel Puig, meanwhile, has precisely the opposite problem. He has attempted more thefts than Crawford in significantly less playing time, succeeding barely half the time. Too often, Puig seems to be running for the heck of it rather than in situations when doing so significantly improves L.A.'s chances to score.
According to FanGraphs, the Dodgers rank third-to-last among NL teams with a minus-7.1 UBR.
New York Yankees: Bullpen
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This development is quite ironic for the New York Yankees considering that stellar bullpen work kept them competitive through the first four months of 2013.
At this point, however, even Mariano Rivera cannot be wholly trusted. The MLB immortal is limping toward retirement with five blown saves since in his past 11 opportunities. That's largely because he's surrendering home runs at an uncharacteristically high rate (four homers allowed in past 16 innings pitched).
Optimists who suggested that Joba Chamberlain would improve in his second season back from Tommy John surgery were proven false on Opening Day. A 4.54 earned run average from the right-hander probably understates his mediocrity. Instead, consider that he has allowed one or more baserunners in 17 of his past 21 appearances, issuing 13 walks in that span against only 14 strikeouts.
Boone Logan had already been slumping since the All-Star break (2.16 ERA, 12.6 K/9 before, 5.27 ERA, 9.2 K/9 after). Like most prominent Yankees this season, he's now fallen victim to injury, specifically soreness in his biceps.
Logan received a cortisone shot, according to Andy McCullough of the Star-Ledger, which will keep him sidelined throughout a pivotal upcoming series versus the Baltimore Orioles. Eighth-inning man David Robertson will also receive several days off to mend his ailing shoulder.
On top of that, strikeout artist Shawn Kelley is struggling of late due to a dependency on fly balls, while rookie Preston Claiborne owns an astronomical 6.55 ERA and .847 OPS against since the start of July.
Oakland Athletics: Designated Hitter
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This is the second straight year in which Seth Smith has split time at left field and designated hitter for the Oakland Athletics, and it's his fifth straight season seeing significant playing time at the major league level.
However, even after Sunday's three-run bomb raised his 2013 batting line to .241/.317/.375, this has been his weakest season at the plate. Smith is striking out at a high frequency and failing to exploit right-handed pitching like he's done previously.
When the soon-to-be 31-year-old doesn't DH, the responsibility typically goes to Yoenis Cespedes or Coco Crisp. For whatever reason, neither has contributed up to his usual standards when allotted these half-days.
Overall, as these MLB.com team splits indicate, the A's haven't made effective use of their designated hitter spot. They'll be at a big disadvantage come playoff time unless they spend the next few weeks deciding who works best in that role.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Top of the Rotation
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The Pittsburgh Pirates have a legitimate opportunity to win the 2013 championship thanks to their starting rotation depth.
Charlie Morton has pitched better than ever upon returning from Tommy John surgery (Sunday's mess notwithstanding), and rookie Gerrit Cole flaunts a terrific 3.47 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Not bad for No. 3 and No. 4 options.
However, Pittsburgh is ill suited to win an elimination game, whether it be the one-game Wild Card playoff or something later on in October.
Left-hander Francisco Liriano leads the Bucs in earned run average, so let's envision him getting the starting nod. The risk of implosion is dangerously high. In four of his 10 outings since the All-Star break, Liriano has failed to survive through five innings. Ignoring a pair of complete games, he has averaged fewer than six innings per start this season.
Meanwhile, A.J. Burnett is considerably more consistent and experienced in October. Unfortunately for the Pirates, their 36-year-old has slumped since the beginning of August, and he doesn't perform nearly as well away from PNC Park (4.17 earned run average on the road since 2012).
Choosing between those two is Clint Hurdle's nightmare scenario.
St. Louis Cardinals: Left Side of the Infield
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With great results at the plate on Sunday afternoon (2-for-3, 2B, BB), shortstop Pete Kozma boosted his 2013 batting line to .218/.276/.275. That means the St. Louis Cardinals wouldn't lose much by regularly using Adam Wainwright in that role (.520 career OPS).
Understandably, manager Mike Matheny began losing patience with Kozma's ineptitude last month and expanded Daniel Descalso's role. The problem is that Descalso barely produces above replacement level, and his ordinary fielding negates his offensive contributions.
Besides searching within their own organization for alternatives like Ryan Jackson, the Cards seemingly have little choice but to endure more mediocrity from this vitally important position.
This topic and numerous others have overshadowed David Freese's drop-off.
Keep in mind, the third baseman entered 2013 with a lifetime .296 batting average and .809 OPS. He's only producing a .265 batting average and a .727 OPS this summer while hurting the team with his glove (minus-13 Defensive Runs Saved).
Tampa Bay Rays: Powerless Lineup
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Although they once seemed like the most complete team in the American League, the Tampa Bay Rays now find themselves scrapping for a postseason berth.
That's largely because their offense is slumping. Averaging merely 3.4 runs per game since embarking on an early August West Coast road trip has culminated in a 12-19 record.
An inability to hit home runs leaves the Rays vulnerable to the fluctuations of BABIP. Should they qualify for the playoffs, they'll primarily face elite defensive teams and continue experiencing very limited success at the plate.
Besides Evan Longoria, none of their other batters consistently reach the outfield seats.
Wil Myers brought a lot of excitement at the time of his midsummer call-up. Although he seems to be emerging from a slump, Myers has contributed only three home runs during the aforementioned 31-game dry spell. It would be naive to rely on a rookie to produce in a pennant race.
Ben Zobrist hasn't demonstrated much over-the-fence power in 2013, and James Loney never swings with any sort of uppercut. Kelly Johnson crashed after beginning this season with two spectacular months, while Matt Joyce is only effective against right-handed pitching.
Tampa Bay's lineup is actually rather deep, but it's ill suited to take advantage of mistake pitches.
Texas Rangers: Top of the Lineup
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Texas Rangers skipper Ron Washington has shown tremendous trust in Elvis Andrus by regularly inserting him toward the top of his lineup.
The shortstop's hitting hasn't been in sync since the beginning of 2013, and no, effective baserunning doesn't compensate for negligible power and a career-worst .327 on-base percentage. Andrus primarily starts second in the batting order, so he's responsible for the Rangers' 26th-ranked OPS from that spot.
Double-play partner Ian Kinsler is another guy that Washington rewards based on reputation rather than recent results.
When healthy, the Arizona native has alternated between the No. 1 and No. 3 lineup spots. However, his slugging percentage and OPS have never been more pedestrian, and even Kinsler's impact on the basepaths has diminished.
Opponents will be grateful if Andrus, Kinsler and Leonys Martin continue getting games started for the Rangers down the stretch. It presents the opportunity to escape the first inning without facing any of the team's legitimate impact bats.