Contender or Pretender for All 30 MLB Teams at the One-Quarter Mark
It's no secret how an MLB team lands a playoff spot.
It all starts with the starters. Last year, eight of the October-bound squads ranked in the top 10 in terms of starter's ERA. Meanwhile, the final two, the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians, finished No. 11 and No. 14, respectively.
Of course, there are other factors that go into the equation. Most notably, a prolific lineup and a lockdown bullpen are key components. Plus, the strength or weakness of a given team's division is an important consideration.
Still, without a high-quality rotation, there's no chance of making a run at the World Series. With those observations in mind, let's separate the contenders from the pretenders as all 30 teams hit the one-quarter mark in the MLB season.
Record: 15-26; fifth in National League West
Already 11 games off the pace in the NL West, the Arizona Diamondbacks aren't contending or pretending; they're simply not in the race.
Since losing Patrick Corbin to Tommy John surgery, the club's starting staff has been a mess. Arizona's starters have posted a collective 5.51 ERA, which is the worst mark in all of baseball. The Diamondbacks also own the worst home record in the league at 3-16.
Record: 21-16; first in NL East
The starting rotation has absolutely carried the Atlanta Braves in 2014.
Julio Teheran (1.71 ERA) and Ervin Santana (1.99) both check in with sub-2.00 ERAs. However, it's worth noting that the whole group has been incredible. The club's starters have posted a 2.60 ERA, which is the best in baseball.
One big concern, though, is the lineup's inability to drive in runs. The Braves currently rank 29th in runs scored.
Record: 20-16; first in American League East
Just as expected, the AL East is one of the most competitive divisions in all of baseball.
For now, the Baltimore Orioles sit atop the standings, but the team will need to get much stronger performances out of its starting staff. Ubaldo Jimenez is definitely taking a step in the right direction. After a terrible first month of the season, the right-hander has allowed just one run in his last two outings.
However, the loss of catcher Matt Wieters with right-elbow discomfort is a major problem. The backstop will attempt to rehab over the next six weeks, but he could be destined for surgery if that fails, according to Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com.
Boston Red Sox
Record: 19-18; tied for second in AL East
With a 19-18 record, the reigning World Series champs have not exactly enjoyed a flying start to the season.
The club has struggled to get consistent production at the plate outside of Mike Napoli and David Ortiz, and a trade to pick up an extra bat could be in order. Nonetheless, the Red Sox still have an excellent chance to lock down the top spot in the division.
The crucial factor is that Jon Lester, Jake Peavy and John Lackey provide Boston with the most formidable starting staff in the AL East.
Record: 13-24; fifth in NL Central
Widely predicted to finish in the cellar in 2014, the Chicago Cubs certainly haven't challenged those expectations. Of course, it's also not exactly fair to call them pretenders.
With seven home runs and an .867 OPS, Anthony Rizzo has been a bright spot for the Cubs at the plate. Third baseman Mike Olt has gone yard eight times but owns just a .187 average.
On the mound, Hector Rondon has stood out. The right-hander has posted a 1.47 ERA and leads the bullpen with 21 punchouts.
Chicago White Sox
Record: 19-21; third in AL Central
After dropping 99 contests a season ago, the Chicago White Sox are off to an encouraging start.
Led by Jose Abreu, the White Sox have scored the most runs in the AL. Conversely, the rotation has been one of the least effective and wildest in all of baseball.
White Sox starters have issued the second-most walks in MLB and own a 5.07 ERA. It hasn't helped the club's cause that Chris Sale has been limited to just four starts due to a strained flexor muscle in his throwing arm, which sent the left-hander to the DL.
Record: 17-19; third in NL Central
Along with the AL East, the NL Central is one of the most crowded divisions in baseball. The Cincinnati Reds currently sit in third, but the club has the potential to move up the ranks.
The key for the Reds is the brilliance of the starting staff. Nobody has been more impressive than Johnny Cueto. The right-hander tops all of baseball with a 1.43 ERA and has also piled up 68 strikeouts in his first eight outings.
There will be plenty of competition in the NL Central, but Cueto, Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon will help the Reds climb into the race.
Record: 18-20; fourth in AL Central
It's difficult to know what to make of the Cleveland Indians.
The offense ranks No. 19 in baseball in OPS, and the rotation checks in at No. 22 in ERA. Despite those underwhelming numbers, Cleveland is just two games under .500.
Catching up to the Detroit Tigers is going to be quite a challenge, but a wild-card spot is still an obtainable goal. Plus, it's impossible to bet against a squad led by 2013 AL Manager of the Year Terry Francona.
Record: 23-17; second in NL West
The Colorado Rockies have the best offense in baseball, but that doesn't mean the club will be contending in 2014.
The biggest issue facing the Rockies is that NL West rivals the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers are more well-rounded teams. Both of those squads have multiple aces, while Colorado's top arm in 2014 has been the unheralded Jordan Lyles.
The powerful lineup should keep the Rockies in wild-card contention for at least another month, but ultimately the lack of quality pitching will catch up to the team.
Record: 22-12; first in AL Central
The Detroit Tigers aren't just the top team in the AL Central, but also the best team in all of baseball in terms of wins and losses.
Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are dealing atop the rotation, and Miguel Cabrera is returning to his MVP form. After posting a .735 OPS through April, the right-handed hitter has a .968 OPS with three home runs in May.
There could easily be a couple of AL Central clubs that land playoff spots. Still, the Tigers already appear to be running away from the pack.
Record: 12-27; fifth in AL West
Just like the Chicago Cubs, the Houston Astros can't be considered contenders or pretenders.
Already 12 games back of the Oakland Athletics in the AL West, the Astros clearly have their focus trained on 2015 and beyond. The club's farm system is loaded with talented young players. However, in 2014 the Astros are on pace for a 100-loss season for the fourth year in a row.
Kansas City Royals
Record: 18-19; second in AL Central
The Kansas City Royals were a trendy pick to land a playoff spot entering the 2014 campaign.
While the offense has sputtered so far—totaling just 16 home runs on the year—a wild-card spot remains obtainable. The best reason to be optimistic about Kansas City's chances is the success enjoyed by the club's top three starters.
Veterans James Shields (2.70 ERA) and Jason Vargas (3.04 ERA) have excelled, while Yordano Ventura (2.34 ERA) has been one of the most electric rookies in baseball.
With the offense slowly starting to kick into gear, the Royals are serious contenders in the AL playoff race.
Los Angeles Angels
Record: 19-18; tied for third in the AL West
The bullpen has been far from effective for the Los Angeles Angels in 2014.
However, the club is off to a strong start to the season despite the inability to close out games. Much of that success is due to an impressive ability to score runs. The Angels own the second-best OPS in baseball and rank fifth in runs.
The rotation has also been far better than expected. Tyler Skaggs, picked up in an offseason trade, has impressed with his new club. Meanwhile, with a 2.80 ERA, Garrett Richards has been the top starter on the staff.
The bullpen clearly needs to improve, but the combination of a powerful lineup and a surprisingly effective rotation means the Angels will be right in the middle of the wild-card discussion.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Record: 21-19; third in NL West
Sitting in third place in the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers have definitely disappointed in 2014. Still, there's no doubt that the club is a serious contender.
Clayton Kershaw has made just three starts in 2014, but the Dodgers remain two games over .500 thanks to the strong early-season performances of Zack Greinke, Dan Haren and Josh Beckett.
The Dodgers have some question marks in the lineup to be sure. Of course, with seemingly limitless funds, it's difficult to imagine the team won't add a player or two as the trade deadline approaches.
Record: 20-19; third in NL East
The Miami Marlins were shaping up to be a great dark-horse story in 2014.
Now that narrative is on hold the with news that Jose Fernandez will likely require season-ending elbow surgery, according to Juan C. Rodriguez of the Sun-Sentinel.
"It's huge, obviously," Giancarlo Stanton said about Fernandez's injury, per MLB.com's Joe Frisaro. "I don't know how long he will be out for or anything. It's one of those things that's out of our control. He just has to rehab and get it better, however long it has to take. We'll have to do without him."
Quietly, the Marlins have put together one of the more productive rotations in the NL. Nathan Eovaldi has posted a 2.86 ERA, and Tom Koehler has produced a 2.57 ERA. However, if the club loses Fernandez for the rest of the year, the Marlins will tumble out of the playoff race.
Record: 24-14; first in NL Central
The Milwaukee Brewers definitely have the pitching to contend for a playoff spot.
After a blazing start, the Brewers are just 4-6 in the past 10 contests. Still, the club holds a 5.5-game edge in the NL Central standings.
While Milwaukee brought in Matt Garza to bolster the starting rotation, the veteran has actually been the worst pitcher on the staff. Closer Francisco Rodriguez has dominated out of the bullpen, allowing a single run in his first 20 outings.
Meanwhile, the Brewers have one of the more productive lineups in the NL, led by Carlos Gomez and the often overlooked Jonathan Lucroy.
Record: 17-19; fifth in AL Central
With a 17-19 record, the Minnesota Twins are off to a surprisingly strong start.
Even though the club is just two games under .500, the Twins are still languishing in last place in the AL Central. That's likely where they will remain thanks primarily to a rotation that has been among the worst in all of MLB. The starting staff owns a 5.36 ERA, which ranks No. 29 in baseball.
New York Mets
Record: 18-19; fourth in NL East
The New York Mets currently rank 29th in MLB with a team OPS of .658. Considering how poor the offense has been in 2014, the Mets are actually doing quite well at 18-19.
Much of that success is due to the strong early showings of starters Jon Niese, Dillon Gee and Zack Wheeler (aside from one rough outing against the Colorado Rockies). Still, the Mets find themselves in fourth place in the NL East.
With such an inability to score runs, the Mets will likely spend the summer battling the Philadelphia Phillies to stay out of the NL East basement.
New York Yankees
Record: 19-18; tied for second in AL East
The New York Yankees' starting staff has been decimated by injuries.
Currently, 60 percent of the club's Opening Day rotation is on the shelf. Normally, that would be more than enough to knock a team out of playoff contention. However, that's not the case with the Yankees.
The AL East is stacked with contenders, but no team has demonstrated the ability to run away with the division. With an offense that has the third-best average and eighth-best OPS in baseball, the Yankees have the bats to hang around until the starting rotation heals.
Record: 24-15; first in AL West
The back-to-back division champs, the Oakland Athletics are once again leading the way in the AL West.
At the plate, the key to Oakland's success is the remarkable patience of the club's hitters. The Athletics absolutely wear down the opposition and have drawn the most walks in baseball.
On the mound, the team has excelled despite the fact that Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin are both out for the season. The AL West is undoubtedly one of the more wide-open divisions in all of baseball, but the Athletics are right in the middle of the conversation.
Record: 17-19; fifth in NL East
The Philadelphia Phillies are just 3.5 games out of first place in the NL East, but the club is also in last place in the division.
The Phillies don't have the bats or arms to remain around .500, let alone in the playoff race. The club ranks No. 22 in OPS in all of baseball. Meanwhile, the starting staff ranks No. 12 in the NL in terms of ERA.
Record: 16-21; fourth in NL Central
The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the most difficult teams to peg in all of baseball.
After a terrible start to the season, Pittsburgh is slowly beginning to climb back into the race in a fiercely competitive NL Central. Over the past 10 games, the club is 6-4.
The difficulty, however, is that the Pirates simply aren't as talented as the three teams that stand above them. In particular, the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds all have superior starting staffs.
San Diego Padres
Record: 18-21; fourth in NL West
With a 18-21 record, the San Diego Padres are hanging around .500.
Still, with a complete inability to score runs, there's no way the club will be able to keep up with the top three teams in the NL West. The Padres own the worst OPS (.623) in MLB and have also scored the fewest runs.
San Diego has the look of a team that will fall out of the race before the trade deadline and become sellers rather than contenders for a wild-card spot.
San Francisco Giants
Record: 25-14; first in NL West
It's always a good sign when a club wins a lot of games away from home.
In 2014, that's exactly what the San Francisco Giants have been doing. The NL West front-runners took three out of four games from the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend and now have a 14-9 mark on the road, which is third-best in the NL.
With the top record in the NL and the second-best mark in all of baseball, the Giants are definitely contenders in 2014.
Record: 20-18; second in AL West
The Seattle Mariners brought in Robinson Cano to revitalize the club's lineup. With a team OPS of .675, so far that plan hasn't worked out too well for Seattle.
Despite the lack of offensive production, the Mariners are making a compelling case for a playoff spot. Even though Taijuan Walker and James Paxton are both on the DL and Hisashi Iwakuma has only made two appearances, the Mariners have received a ton of quality starts from the rotation.
The Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers still look to be the top two teams in the division, but the Mariners are definitely in the wild-card mix.
St. Louis Cardinals
Record: 19-20; second in NL Central
The St. Louis Cardinals clearly haven't hit their stride just yet in 2014. That's especially true at the plate, as the club ranks No. 23 in all of baseball in OPS.
While the Cardinals have struggled to get consistent production in center field and at second base, nobody has been a bigger disappointment than right fielder Allen Craig, who owns a .222 batting average. Of course, Craig is a career .298 hitter, and he's been showing that skill as of late. Over his past 10 contests, Craig is hitting .300.
Even with the below-average start, there's a lot to like about this team—especially the starting rotation. With the Milwaukee Brewers beginning to cool down, it should only be a matter of time before the Cardinals overtake their division rivals for the top spot in the NL Central.
Tampa Bay Rays
Record: 16-23; fifth in AL East
Under manager Joe Maddon, the Tampa Bay Rays have made a habit of consistently overperforming.
This year, though, it's not looking good for the Rays. Tampa Bay has slumped to 16-23 after dropping seven of the club's past 10 contests. Nonetheless, the Rays remain just 5.5 games out of first place.
Tampa Bay's struggling rotation could soon be getting a major boost. Alex Cobb is set to begin a rehab assignment Saturday, according to Josh Vitale of the Charlotte Sun.
Record: 20-19; tied for third in AL West
The Texas Rangers have done an excellent job of navigating through a ridiculous onslaught of early-season injuries.
Plus, the club has had to deal with serious underproduction from Prince Fielder, who is batting .236 on the season. However, the slugger does appear to be returning to form, as he's hitting .324 in his last 10 games.
On the mound, the Rangers pitching staff is only getting stronger. Matt Harrison has impressed in his first three outings since rejoining the rotation, and the club can look forward to the return of Derek Holland later this summer.
Manager Ron Washington's squad has clearly demonstrated that despite all the injuries, the Rangers will be a serious factor in the AL West race.
Toronto Blue Jays
Record: 19-20; fourth in AL East
The Toronto Blue Jays have a ridiculously powerful offense.
Six players on the roster have five home runs or more, and as a team the Blue Jays have the second-most home runs in baseball. However, all that power can't outweigh how poorly the pitching staff has performed.
Of the club's starters, only Mark Buehrle has consistently turned in quality outings. Meanwhile, Toronto's bullpen sports the second-worst ERA in baseball. With such an ineffective pitching staff, it's only a matter of time before the Blue Jays fall out of the playoff race.
Record: 20-18; second in NL East
The Washington Nationals have been plagued by a deluge of injuries in 2014.
Catcher Wilson Ramos has played just five games courtesy of a broken hamate bone. Meanwhile, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche are all currently on the DL. LaRoche is the most recent casualty, hitting the DL on May 11 with a strained right quad muscle, per Chase Hughes of CSN Washington.
The injuries haven't been limited to the lineup either. Doug Fister has made just a single start with his new club, as a right lat strain delayed his debut.
Despite all the missed time by prominent players, the Nationals sit two games over .500 and just 1.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves.
Note: All stats courtesy of MLB.com.
If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.
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