MLB Teams It's Way Too Early to Give Up on

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistJune 21, 2014

MLB Teams It's Way Too Early to Give Up on

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    We are closing in on the midway point of the 2014 MLB season, and the entire postseason picture still appears to be wide open in both leagues, as no team has really separated itself from the pack at this point.

    The Oakland Athletics look like the best team in the American League by a decent margin, while a recent slide by the San Francisco Giants has left the National League without a clear top dog, though the Milwaukee Brewers have been consistent atop the NL Central all season.

    The point being: Things are still far from sorted out here in the middle of June, and we could have an awful lot of clubs falling into the category of "buyer" when trade season rolls around.

    Teams at or near the top of their respective division are obviously in the running for a playoff spot, but there are also a handful of teams further back in the rankings that cannot be counted out just yet.

    What follows is a look at four teams who are no less than seven games back in their division but still more than capable of making a push for the postseason.

Boston Red Sox

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Record: 34-40

    Standings: Fourth in AL East, 7.5 Games Back

    Why It's Too Early to Give Up on Them

    It's safe to say that things have not gone according to plan for the reigning champs so far in the first half, but in what still appears to be a wide-open AL East race, the Boston Red Sox are not sunk by any means.

    What was the highest-scoring offense in baseball last year currently ranks 24th in MLB at 3.82 runs per game, and a complete lack of production from the outfield is a big reason why.

    While the Red Sox have gotten decent numbers from left field (.724 OPS, 15th in MLB), the other two outfield spots have been a disaster, as the combination of guys playing right field (.561 OPS, 30th in MLB) and center field (.599 OPS, 28th in MLB) has been among the worst in baseball.

    Getting Shane Victorino healthy and keeping him healthy could go a long way toward turning things around for the lineup as a whole, and if the Red Sox can add a viable platoon bat to pair with Jackie Bradley in center field, their outfield production could improve significantly.

    As far as the rest of the roster is concerned, the rotation has benefited from swapping Clay Buchholz for Brandon Workman, and the team has enough impact arms in the system to put together a staff that works.

    It's simply a matter of getting things in order at the plate. But even though it has been a rough start to the year offensively, the Red Sox still have a lot of firepower on their roster.

    With the Toronto Blue Jays sliding and both the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles far from the best in the business as far as starting pitching is concerned, the Red Sox are one hot streak away from being right back in the thick of it.

Cincinnati Reds

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 35-37

    Standings: Third in NL Central, 8.5 Games Back

    Why It's Too Early to Give Up on Them

    To say that a team has been ravaged by injuries and not be talking about the Texas Rangers is slightly unfair, as any team's health issues are relatively minor compared to what the Rangers have been through this year. But the Cincinnati Reds have seen plenty of key names hit the disabled list themselves.

    Mat Latos (66 games), Aroldis Chapman (35 games), Joey Votto (23 games), Devin Mesoraco (23 games), Tony Cingrani (14 games) and Jay Bruce (14 games) have all missed significant time with injuries so far this season.

    In fact, when Latos was finally activated from the disabled list June 14, it was the first time their entire projected roster had all been healthy together this season. With that in mind, the fact that the Reds are just two games under .500 is impressive.

    The results have been better of late, as they are 12-8 over their last 20 games, and if there is any team that looks to have its best baseball ahead of it, it's the Reds.

    There was already a good deal of talent on this roster heading into the year, but breakout seasons from guys like Todd Frazier, Mesoraco and Alfredo Simon have made the Reds that much better.

    The Reds are never overly aggressive at the trade deadline, so it will likely be up to the in-house talent to pull them back into contention. That means the high-priced veterans stepping their game up alongside those aforementioned budding stars.

    The pieces are certainly in place for this team to be a factor in what looks to be a wide-open NL wild-card race. Cincinnati just needs to stay healthy and play up to its potential.

Pittsburgh Pirates

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 35-38

    Standings: Fourth in NL Central, 9.0 Games Back

    Why It's Too Early to Give Up on Them

    After finally ending a 20-year playoff drought last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in danger of watching the playoffs from home once again this year if they don't turn things around.

    It will be an uphill battle, as what was already a deep NL Central is even better now that the Brewers have established themselves as bona fide contenders.

    The Pirates dug themselves an early hole with a 9-16 month of April, but they are three games over .500 since. And with their next 15 games against teams with losing records, they have a golden opportunity to further chip away at that early deficit in the standings.

    The biggest X-factor here may very well be outfielder Gregory Polanco, who has been as good as advertised in 10 games since being called up, going 18-for-49 (.367 BA) and injecting some much-needed excitement into the fanbase.

    On the pitching side of things, Jeff Locke has looked sharp in three starts since being recalled from the minors, posting a 2.14 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and .181 BAA with three quality starts. If he can keep pitching at a high level and the current rotation can hold down the fort until Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole get healthy, the staff could once again be a strength in the second half.

    The health of second baseman Neil Walker is also important, as he had been the team's second-best hitter—behind Andrew McCutchen—before landing on the disabled list following an appendectomy. If he returns with the pop he showed in the early going and the speedy duo of Polanco and Starling Marte continue to do a good job setting the table, this team could make some serious noise offensively as well.

Seattle Mariners

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Record: 38-36

    Standings: Third in AL West, 8.0 Games Back

    Why It's Too Early to Give Up on Them

    Considering their offense has again been one of the worst in the American League (4.01 RPG, 12th in AL) and the highly touted duo of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton have made a combined two starts this year, the Seattle Mariners have done a terrific job remaining in contention thus far.

    Pointing to a team that is currently two games over .500 as one it's too early to give up on may seem like a no-brainer. However, in a deep and talented AL West division, that puts Seattle on the outside looking in at a full eight games back.

    In fact, the Mariners are further behind in their division than teams with losing records like the Philadelphia Phillies (34-38), New York Mets (33-41), Minnesota Twins (34-38), Chicago White Sox (35-39) and the Red Sox (34-40) are in their respective division races.

    It would be easy to say that the Mariners have taken a step in the right direction this year and leave it at that, but this team still has a chance to make some serious noise and earn a playoff spot in 2014, though it will likely come via the wild card.

    Once Walker and Paxton inevitably return to what has already been one of the best rotations in the American League, the Mariners' pitching will be a serious weapon. It will need to be, because the offense may not get much better unless they add another power bat.

    The onus still falls on young guys like Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino and Brad Miller to finally turn potential into production or, at the very least, stop being offensive liabilities. If they can build some confidence and make strides in the second half, this team may just have enough to sneak into the postseason.

    All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted. All injury information via MLBDepthCharts team pages.