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Lessons Learned About Each MLB Team at the Halfway Mark

Matthew SmithCorrespondent IIIOctober 6, 2016

Lessons Learned About Each MLB Team at the Halfway Mark

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    The 2014 MLB season is at the halfway mark, and things are starting to get sorted out.

    For example, the parity that gripped the game early on is slowly giving way. Teams that thought they were in contention just a few weeks ago are starting to realize that they don't have the firepower needed to make a push for a wild-card spot. 

    Meanwhile, clubs that got off to better-than-expected starts, like the Milwaukee Brewers and Miami Marlins, have proved their legitimacy and are perhaps a player or two away from making an extended run into the postseason.

    So, what else have we gleaned over the first half of the season? 

    Before we lift the lid here, it must be noted that in an effort to look at the brighter side of things, this will be as positive as possible. For some teams, of course, it's impossible to be incredibly positive, but every attempt was made to focus on things each club does well.

    Let’s take a look around MLB and highlight one lesson that has been learned about each team.

Arizona Diamondbacks: A.J. Pollock Can Play

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers had enough confidence in A.J. Pollock that he traded Adam Eaton to the Chicago White Sox as part of a three-team trade with the Los Angeles Angels to acquire Mark Trumbo.

    The faith is paying off, because Pollock is proving that he can flat-out play the game of baseball.

    He'll miss an extended amount of time after fracturing his right hand when he was hit by a Johnny Cueto fastball. He will be back this season, though, and there is little doubt that he will pick up where he left off.

    Before going on the shelf, the right-handed hitter had a .316/.366/.554 slash line with six home runs, 28 runs scored, eight stolen bases and a 151 wRC+ in 192 plate appearances. Couple those stats with fantastic defense, and he was one of the few bright spots on the Diamondbacks.

    Pollock has been so good that he “is one of just five true center fielders worth six WAR since the start of 2013,” according to Mike Petriello from FanGraphs. Petriello did point out a couple of metrics, such as batting average on balls in play, that are likely unsustainable, but he added that other areas of Pollock’s game indicate the regressions will not be as dramatic as it has been with other players.

    Manager Kirk Gibson said that Pollock had been “huge” for the Diamondbacks, via Nick Piecoro from AZCentral.com.

    Gibson’s right. The kid can play the game.

Atlanta Braves: Tommy La Stella Is the Real Deal

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    USA TODAY Sports

    After dealing with years of woeful production from Dan Uggla, Atlanta Braves general manager Frank Wren was finally forced to pull the trigger and promote Triple-A sensation Tommy La Stella.

    It was certainly worth the wait.

    La Stella looks like he could be at the keystone position for quite a long time.

    True, he doesn’t have the type of power that Uggla did, but that matters little. The Braves need baserunners in front of Evan Gattis, Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton, and the rookie compiled a .407 on-base percentage across parts of four seasons in the minor leagues.

    In the majors, he hasn’t skipped a beat.

    In a limited sample, La Stella had a .329/.391/.367 slash line before play began on Saturday and was recently moved up to the leadoff spot in manager Fredi Gonzalez’s batting order. On top of getting on base, the left-handed hitter has been dynamic in the field. It has been quite a start for the former eighth-round pick.

    With La Stella taking over at second base, Wren can address other areas of need as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches. The Braves could use help in the bullpen, for example, and finding someone to take Uggla should be a priority, no matter the cost.

Baltimore Orioles: Zach Britton Should Have Been in the Bullpen Years Ago

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    USA TODAY Sports

    After a rather inauspicious start to his career, Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton has turned into one heck of a closer. 

    Since taking over for the embattled Tommy Hunter on May 16, Britton has blown only two saves as of Saturday and has given manager Buck Showalter a reliable option to get the last three outs.

    Per Pitch/FX data from FanGraphs, Britton has completely remade the type of pitcher he is. In years past, for example, he relied on four pitches—fastball, two-seam fastball, slider, changeup—with little success. This season, he has dropped the changeup from his repertoire almost entirely.

    The increase in velocity (V) and general decrease in contact percentage (CP) of the three pitches he still throws is evident.

     FB VFB CPTS VTS CPSL VSL CP
    201291.687.592.283.081.550.0
    201391.488.591.591.478.862.2
    201494.1100.094.272.481.544.4

    Simply put, it seems as though Britton has found a home. And considering that he isn't scheduled to become a free agent until after the 2018 season, general manager Dan Duquette may not have to worry about the closer's role for some time.

    Don't forget that after he traded Jim Johnson to the Oakland A's, Duquette explored options like Grant Balfour (who has since lost the closer's job with the Tampa Bay Rays) and Fernando Rodney before Showalter settled on Hunter to open the season.

    It was an arduous road for the left-hander, but it seems that he has found his calling. It's a shame he didn't find it sooner.

Boston Red Sox: Manager John Farrell Could Be One Bat Away

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell will deal with just about anything.

    Truth be told, he doesn’t have much of a choice. After all, he can only work with the players on the 25-man roster, and this season, that isn’t saying much.

    Consider that the offense ranks near the bottom in runs scored, batting average and slugging percentage. It has been as bad as the numbers indicate. The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo went so far as to call it “mind-imploding” before adding that “there’s no end in sight.”

    It is a situation general manager Ben Cherington needs to address at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. At the top of the list is finding a corner outfielder with some pop (think Matt Kemp), since the problem in center field seems to be solved following Brock Holt’s move to the position.  

    The only saving grace for Farrell and the Red Sox to this point has been the pitching staff, particularly John Lackey, Jon Lester and the back end of the bullpen. Unfortunately, that isn't enough this season. If Cherington can add that bat, however, Farrell may have a roster capable of going on a run.

Chicago Cubs: Chris Bosio Is One of the Best Pitching Coaches in MLB

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood, Jeff Samardzija, Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel are among the names of pitchers who have thrived under Chicago Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio.

    Arrieta, for example, pitched to the tune of a 5.46 ERA and 4.72 FIP over the course of 69 appearances (63 starts) for the Baltimore Orioles. Since coming over to the Cubs in the Feldman trade last season, he is 7-3 with a 2.83 ERA and a 3.65 FIP.

    Hammel was, at best, a mediocre pitcher before joining Bosio’s staff, but he has blossomed into an above-average starter. This season, his strikeouts per nine innings (8.6) and walks per nine innings (1.9) are the best he has ever posted. Likely to be traded this season, Hammel is at the top of his game.

    The list could go on to include relievers and dig into Samardzija’s metrics, but the point has been made. Bosio is making it known that he is one of the best pitching coaches around.

    And with an influx of young pitchers sure to be added to the 25-man roster when general manager Jed Hoyer inevitably trades away some rotation pieces, Bosio will get to prove it—again. Don’t forget, his staff has been “gutted” and “reconstructed” the last three seasons, via Gordon Wittenmyer from the Chicago Sun Times.

    In other words, he’s used to it.

Chicago White Sox: Rick Hahn's Plan Is (Sort Of) Working

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    Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

    Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn has a plan. Namely, he needs to make the club younger, faster, more athletic and, of course, able to win games.

    He is stuck in the middle on all four counts.

    Yes, the White Sox are a younger team with the additions of Adam Eaton, Adrian Nieto and Jose Abreu, They still have Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko on the roster, however. True, neither will be back next season, so the team is on the path toward getting younger.

    The White Sox aren’t really a faster or more athletic team, either. Sure Eaton and Alexei Ramirez can run, but the rest of the batting order is largely a collection of station-to-station lumberjacks. Getting Avisail Garcia back next season will be huge, and the club has several minor leaguers who can burn, meaning next year’s squad figures to be much faster.

    As far as winning baseball games is concerned, the White Sox are making progress. True, they struggle to stay around .500, but they are dynamic, energetic and have made a habit of scoring runs late in games, which is the hallmark of a competitive team.

    There is progress being made, however, and it earned Hahn the praise of Jesse Spector of Sporting News, which recently ranked him No. 13 among MLB general managers. Spector wrote:

    Charged with the task of a potentially painful rebuild, Hahn got a good return last year for Jake Peavy and added a potential franchise-changing international player in Jose Abreu while his counterparts in rebuilding in Chicago whiffed on Masahiro Tanaka. While there is no doubt the White Sox are still some time away from being contenders, they have an entertaining team in the meantime that is fostering an organizational identity that will serve them well, with the knowledge that building a successful bullpen will be the last piece of the puzzle.  

    And that’s just it. There is an identity growing on the South Side and a light at the end of the tunnel.

    Whether or not the White Sox become a perennial contender is a question that will be answered in due time, but there is no mistaking the fact that Hahn has his club heading in the right direction.

Cincinnati Reds: Joey Votto Isn't the Same Player He Once Was, and That's OK

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto isn’t the same player he once was.  

    In 2010, for example, Votto slugged .600 and finished with a 1.024 OPS. In 2012, he once again finished with an OPS over 1.000, albeit in only 111 games. This season, his OPS is down considerably from those levels, but he is still quite productive.

    Yes, he was only hitting .267 entering play on Saturday, but he also had a 137 wRC+, a .405 on-base percentage and was slugging .438. Again, each of those metrics is below his career averages, but the numbers are still impressive. The man creates runs regardless of whether or not he is hitting prodigious home runs.

    True, it’s unlikely he’ll live up to the massive extension he signed that guarantees him $25 million per season from 2018 through 2023, but the four-time All-Star and former MVP can still help the Reds win.

    Isn’t that what matters?

Cleveland Indians: Lonnie Chisenhall Was Worthy of the Hype

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    After maxing out as MLB.com’s No. 36 prospect in 2011, Cleveland Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall has emerged as one of the best young hitters in MLB.

    Entering action on Saturday, he was slashing out at .366/.423/.581 with eight home runs, 33 RBI and 31 runs scored. More impressive than those statistics, however, are his 185 wRC+ and 21.6 offensive rating, which takes baserunning into account when quantifying a player's worth to a lineup.

    It took a lot of patience on the part of the Indians. In 203 career games entering the season, Chisenhall had a rather meager .244/.284/.411 slash line with 23 home runs and 74 RBI, per splits over at Baseball-Reference.

    His emergence could be a due to an altered stance, or it could just be simple maturation. Whatever the reason, the Indians have a legitimate offensive force at third base that won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2017 season.

Colorado Rockies: Offense Just Isn't Enough

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Entering play on Saturday, the Colorado Rockies were first in the National League and third in MLB in offense with a team WAR of 13.7.

    True, much of that is due to the efforts of Troy Tulowitzki, Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado and Justin Morneau, but even the bench players have had an impact on the unit’s success. Unfortunately, the firepower has not translated into the number of wins necessary to stay relevant in the NL West.

    And the responsibility for that falls squarely on the shoulders of the pitching staff.

    It is a well-worn tale, of course. Pitching in Coors Field is a fool's errand, they say, since the park is meant for offense given its geographic location.

    The Rockies pitching staff is bad anywhere, however, and we can tell this because of metrics like xFIP that have been neutralized, bringing home run rates (naturally high due to Coors Fields’ elevation) down to league average.

    On the season, the Rockies are the worst team in the NL with a 4.09 xFIP. On top of that, they are allowing a staggering 3.36 walks every nine innings. It’s been disastrous.

    It may be time for general manager Dan O’Dowd to leverage some of his offensive weapons in an effort to improve the pitching staff. The Rockies are a fantastically entertaining team, but must address their hurlers.

    Again, it’s a tale as old as the organization, but it can be corrected.

Detroit Tigers: Even the Best Plans Can Go Awry

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    When the Detroit Tigers failed to make it to the World Series last year, general manager Dave Dombrowski set out to overhaul the roster.

    In a surprise move, he dealt starting pitcher Doug Fister to improve roster depth and give Drew Smyly a spot in the rotation. He also sent Prince Fielder packing to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler to solidify the top of the order and allow Miguel Cabrera to move to first base, making the Tigers more athletic on the infield.

    In a series of signings that were supposed to solve the bullpen’s ills, he bought in Joe Nathan to be the team’s closer and added Joba Chamberlain to serve as his bridge.

    On paper, the moves made the Tigers a better team than the one that won 93 games in 2013. Not so much on the field, however.

    The problems that face manager Bras Ausmus’ team are myriad, and the club has underperformed to the tune of a 38-32 record entering play on Saturday.

    The Tigers have been here before, though, lumbering away in June and July, only to pull away at the end. Look no further back than 2012, when they allowed the White Sox to hang around into September before locking up the AL Central and making it all the way to the World Series.

    Either way, Dombrowski’s plan has failed to materialize. That said, he isn’t about to stop, and the Tigers still figure to be favorites to win the division, regardless of how well the Kansas City Royals may be playing.

Houston Astros: Jeff Luhnow Knows What He's Doing

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    When the Houston Astros hired Jeff Luhnow to be the team’s general manager at the end of 2011, he was tasked with rebuilding a franchise that had fallen into disrepair. The Astros had finished under .500 three years in a row and had just lost 106 games.

    The situation was dire.

    Luhnow didn’t waste any time, trading away players for prospects and setting up his farm system for an extended run. His strategy seems to be working.

    Last year, for example, the club had 33 wins at the All-Star break. The Astros have already matched that win total this season, and it stands to reason that enduring another 100-loss campaign is out of the question.

    Now, there are some who are critical of the Luhnow’s approach. Evan Drellich from the Houston Chronicle, for example, wrote that his “radical approach to on-field changes and business decisions has created at least pockets of internal discontent and a potential reputation problem throughout baseball.”

    Given the obvious improvements on the field, it is a reputation Astros fans will likely live with. Expect another series of bold moves from Luhnow in advance of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Kansas City Royals: They Are Who We Thought They Were

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    It was only a matter of time before the Kansas City Royals began playing the type of baseball many thought they would before the season began.

    True, they were never more than four games below .500 at any given time, but the offense was absolutely woeful until Dale Sveum was promoted to hitting coach. Since then, the Royals had won 15 out of 21 games heading into action on Saturday and have been tearing the cover off the baseball.

    Now, none of that is meant to overlook the pitching staff, which has been exceptional all year. Look no further than the fact that Jeremy Guthrie’s 3.86 ERA is the rotation’s highest for proof that the starting pitching has been doing its part all season.

    In the bullpen, Greg Holland is up to his usual tricks, while Wade Davis has been reborn since being moved to the relief corps last year, and Kelvin Herrera is turning heads for the third year in a row. More often than not, if the Royals have a lead in the seventh inning, Holland and Co. protect it.

    The Royals are simply playing fantastic baseball lately.

    Whether or not they are good enough to take the AL Central crown away from the Tigers is another story altogether, but they are finally playing to their true potential. 

Los Angeles Angels: The Reports of Mike Trout's Mortality Were Exaggerated

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    Todd Kirkland/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout must have figured it out.

    See, on May 5, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan wrote about Trout’s struggles at the plate, noting that he was striking out in 28 percent of his plate appearances. As Sullivan correctly noted, the increase in strikeouts wasn’t exactly worrisome, but it was something to pay attention to.

    So much for that, huh?

    Since Sullivan published his piece, Trout’s strikeout rate has dipped to 20.1 percent, per splits taken from FanGraphs, which is slightly below his career average. More impressive than the decrease in his strikeout rate is the .321/.414/.664 slash line and 195 wRC+ he has compiled over that same stretch.

    Even by his standards, it is astonishing.

    Bleacher Report’s Zachary D. Rymer recently summed up Trout’s dominance:

    But for now, he can move forward knowing that he’s never been a more perfect MVP candidate than the one he is right now. He is still demonstrating all of the skills that made him a major player for the award in the first place, and he’s also added a whole lot more.

    Well said, sir.

    He isn’t mortal after all. He was just swinging away.

Los Angeles Dodgers: You Can Never Count Don Mattingly's Team Out

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Not long ago, there was talk that the Los Angeles Dodgers had a roster short on unity, and it wasn't the media stoking the fire, it was manager Don Mattingly. 

    From ESPN L.A.’s Mark Saxon earlier this month:

    The most expensive team in baseball history is barely above .500 and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said Wednesday he blames a lack of cohesion among the players.

    ...

    Their deep starting rotation is third in the National League in ERA and their lineup, led byYasiel Puig, is third in runs scored, but the parts have not added up to what Mattingly called ‘traction.’

    Mattingly implied that individual agendas have gotten too much attention. One source of constant discussion around the team is the rotation of four outfielders, three of whom have been All-Stars.

    To be sure, Mattingly had a point, and one of those outfielders may end up getting traded, but it wasn’t like anyone could actually count the Dodgers out because of what he said. If anything, it gave the roster a bit of life. After all, the Dodgers won nine out of their next 15 games and shaved 4.5 games off the San Francisco Giants' lead in the NL West in the process.

    True, the Giants are playing below their capabilities right now, but the Dodgers aren’t letting them off the hook. They are pitching, fielding and hitting their way into the win column.

    Will they go on a 42-8 run like they did last season? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean the roster as it’s constructed can’t continue silencing the critics, even if one of those critics is the team's manager.

Miami Marlins: Age Is Just a Number

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    For the Miami Marlins, age is just a number. Look no further than the roster for proof.

    Four of the starting pitchers—Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney, Henderson Alvarez and Anthony DeSclafani—are 24 years old or younger. The Marlins' other starter, Tom Koehler, will only be 28 on June 29. And yet the rotation went into action on Saturday with a 3.94 ERA and a 1.284 WHIP, per splits over at Baseball-Reference.

    On offense, Giancarlo Stanton is only 24, but he's already established himself as one of the National League’s best right fielders. He is joined by the likes of Marcell Ozuna, Jake Marisnick, Adeiny Hechavarria and Christian Yelich (currently on the 15-day disabled list), who are all under the age of 26.

    It would be reasonable to think that with such a young roster, the Marlins would be struggling to find consistency and stay competitive. The opposite is true, though. They have been at or near the top of the NL East the entire season and don’t appear to be going anywhere.

    What the rest of the 2014 season holds is unknown, but the Marlins are proving many of us wrong.

Milwaukee Brewers: There Is No Mistaking How Good the Brewers Are

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Some of us (I’m raising my hand) didn’t take the 21-9 start the Milwaukee Brewers got off to as seriously as we should have. It’s a shame too, because the Brewers are the real deal.

    On offense, Jonathan Lucroy is legit. He is so good that Jeff Sullivan from FanGraphs recently wrote that “it’s increasingly looking like Jonathan Lucroy is the new best catcher in baseball.” Sullivan isn't underselling it, either.

    Lucroy is not alone, though. Scooter Gennett looks very comfortable batting leadoff. Aramis Ramirez has rediscovered his stroke, and Carlos Gomez is scary good.

    Simply put, the offense has few concerns.

    From a pitching perspective, the Brewers get just enough from the rotation and rely on a select few in the bullpen to lock things down. If manager Ron Roenicke can get to Will Smith, Zach Duke and Francisco Rodriguez, the game is likely over already.

    Now, whether or not they end up holding off the St. Louis Cardinals is another story, but if there is anything we have learned about the Brewers at this point in the season, it is that they aren’t fooling around.

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer's Decline Is Real

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Minnesota Twins first baseman Joe Mauer is going the wrong way.

    His production is down across the board. His slash line going into Saturday’s game against the Chicago White Sox was a career-low .258/.333/.333. His walk rate and batting average on balls in play are at their lowest points since his rookie season. Worst of all, his wRC+ is below 100 for the first time ever.

    It is just plain brutal.  

    Sure, Mauer has raised his batting average with runners in scoring position considerably over the past few days thanks to a steady diet of White Sox pitching, but it does little to hide the glaring deficiencies in his offensive production.

    Could he turn it around? Maybe. More than likely, though, he is on the downside of a remarkable career.

    The Twins may not feel the full impact of his decline for a year or two when the farm system begins to churn out major leaguers, but the payroll is bogged down with the weight of the $23 million salary Mauer is scheduled to earn through the 2018 season.

New York Mets: The Rotation Is in Fine Shape for 2015

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Say whatever you want about the struggles the New York Mets have at the plate. The fact of the matter is that everything you’re thinking is probably true. They just aren’t very good offensively, and the addition of Curtis Granderson has done little to help matters.

    When it comes to starting pitching, though, the Mets are a team to be feared in the coming seasons.

    Consider that not only is Matt Harvey set to return next year, but the Mets have Noah Syndergaard waiting in the minor leagues for the opportunity to join Jon Niese, Zack Wheeler and Dillon Gee on the 25-man roster.

    Niese, in particular, has been quite good, posting a 2.67 ERA and compiling a 1.154 over the course of 91 innings pitched when play began on Saturday. He is developing into a pitcher capable of being the ace of the Mets staff. To be sure, he has competition for that honor, but that’s what makes the rotation so special.

    Even the slightest improvement on offense next season, and the NL East could be in serious trouble.

New York Yankees: Masahiro Tanaka Is Worth Every Penny

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    When New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman outbid teams like the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers for the services of Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, the move carried a significant bit of risk.

    After all, the seven-year, $155 million contract Tanaka received was a record amount for a foreign-born pitcher, and no one knew how he would fare against MLB hitting.

    Well, it seems that Cashman was the smartest person in the room. Tanaka could be in line for both the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award if he maintains his current production level.

    Grading Cashman on his two other major offseason acquisitions is another story, though. Brian McCann has been disappointing, compiling a .226/.290/.368 slash line with eight home runs and 34 RBI entering play on Saturday. Jacoby Ellsbury hasn’t been nearly as bad, but he is not living up to the expectations so far.

    Tanaka (11-1, 1.99 ERA, 2.70 FIP, 113 K) is a keeper, though. Cashman deserves a lot of credit for doing whatever it took to land him.

Oakland A's: The Pitching Staff Is No Joke

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Never mind the gifted offense and laser-guided arms in the outfield, the Oakland A’s have a pitching staff that just won’t quit.

    Consider that, going into action on Saturday, the Oakland A’s were only fifth in MLB in pitcher's WAR at 8.9, but they were first in ERA (3.00) and batting average on balls in play against (.266) and had the best left-on-base percentage (77.6) in the game.

    Led by Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, Luke Gregerson, Sean Doolittle and Fernando Abad, the A’s have taken the art of shutting down opposing lineups to another level.

    Add in the fact that they are doing all of this without Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, both of whom underwent Tommy John surgery, and the success is even more amazing. The results are a testament to the work Curt Young puts in with his staff.

Philadelphia Phillies: The End of an Era Is at Hand

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Forget for a moment that the Philadelphia Phillies swept the Atlanta Braves and had won nine out of 11 games heading into play on Saturday. If this season has taught us anything, it is that the window has closed on the current group.

    Thankfully, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. seems to agree and has recently stated his willingness to not only explore trades, but potentially eat salary to get solid prospects in return, via MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki.

    The Phillies have pieces to move too. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley, closer Jonathan Papelbon and reliever Antonio Bastardo are just a handful of the guys who could be traded. It will be difficult to move some of them given contract and tenure, of course, but if Amaro Jr. wants to make a deal, he has the ingredients.

    As it stands, the roster is unsustainable. 

    It really is that simple.

     

Pittsburgh Pirates: They Are One Starter Away from Making a Run

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Pirates are not out of the playoff picture—yet.

    Yes, they are unlikely to win the NL Central given the start the Milwaukee Brewers got off to and the ever-present St. Louis Cardinals, but a wild-card spot is within reach if general manager Neal Huntington can leverage his farm system to grab a starting pitcher.

    And we’re not talking about a front-end guy who would require trading away a number of top prospects. Rather, Huntington needs only improve a collection of starting pitchers that is on the verge of breaking through.

    See, Gerrit Cole should return from the disabled list shortly, Charlie Morton has been solid all season and the rotation as a whole has been pitching well this month, compiling a 3.66 ERA and a 1.181 WHIP going into action on Saturday, per splits taken from Baseball-Reference. In other words, they are close to being good enough that they complement a formidable offense.

    One solid arm should do the trick.

San Diego Padres: The Current Core Can't Compete

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    The San Diego Padres have a core in place that can't compete, and it cost Josh Byrnes his position as executive vice president/general manager on Sunday.

    Don't take that the wrong way. There is plenty of talent on the roster.

    Andrew Cashner, for example, has been one of the better right-handers in the game for the past couple of years. Seth Smith is another player who is putting up fantastic numbers, and Huston Street is arguably the best closer in the National League. They may all be traded this season (along with Ian Kennedy), however, leaving the roster largely devoid of talent.

    Sure, Cameron Maybin is a nice piece, and there are a couple of relievers who are quite good, but with Chase Headley, Jedd Gyorko and Carlos Quentin bogging down the product on the field—not to mention the payroll—the amount of work that needs to be done to become competitive in the NL West is considerable.

    On a positive note, the Padres farm system was ranked No. 11 this season by Baseball Prospectus, so there is a base in place for the future. Aside from that, whoever takes over as GM has quite a bit of work to do. 

San Francisco Giants: They Live and Die with the Starting Rotation

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    Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

    The San Francisco Giants are suddenly a team on the defensive thanks to the starting pitching.

    Simply put, the month of June has been a disaster for the rotation. All told, the group had gone 5-7 with an unacceptable 5.10 ERA when play began on Saturday. And this was on the heels of going 13-6 with a 2.85 ERA in the month of May, according to splits courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

    As a result, the Giants are in the midst of a free fall, during which their lead in the NL West has gone from 9.5 games on June 8 to a mere 4.0 games after Friday night’s loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

    It just goes to show that no matter how much attention Michael Morse, Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval get, the Giants are built around starting pitching.

    General manager Brian Sabean isn't known for making impulse trades, so adding another starter right now seems unlikely. And besides, there is no reason to think that the rotation won't come around on its own. That said, if July rolls around and the staff is still struggling, look for Sabean to leverage some Double-A pitching for a front-end starter.

Seattle Mariners: Robinson Cano's Game Has Changed, and That's OK

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    On June 20 last year, the Seattle Mariners were 32-42 en route to a 91-loss season. To improve his team's chances in the ultra-competitive AL West, general manager Jack Zduriencik went all-in on Robinson Cano, outbidding everyone else by quite a bit.

    Cano has put up solid numbers—if taken at face value.

    See, while his .337/.397/.448 slash line heading into play on Saturday seems to be quite good, it’s actually a bit concerning.

    As CBS Sports’ Dayn Perry recently noted, “In the end, Cano is still one of the most productive middle infielders in baseball, but the ‘un-Cano’ way in which he’s arriving at that productivity raises some worries moving forward.”

    What Perry is referring to is an exaggerated drop in power and a correlating increase in the number of ground balls Cano is hitting. Simply put, his production could plummet in no time given the unlikelihood that his .370 batting average on balls in play can be sustained.

    Despite this, however, the Mariners are right in the middle of the wild-card race. It is a testament to the pitching staff in general, but more so to the top of their rotation and the back end of the bullpen.

    If Cano falters, however, no amount of pitching will be enough for this team to stay competitive for the rest of the season. 

St. Louis Cardinals: There Are No Guarantees

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    After making it to the World Series last year, the St. Louis Cardinals said goodbye to Jake Westbrook, Carlos Beltran, Chris Carpenter and John Axford while saying hello to Jhonny Peralta, Peter Bourjos, Mark Ellis and Pat Neshek.

    All things considered, it looked like the Cards were in better shape than the year prior given the rotation’s depth and the positional talent on the roster.

    Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out quite as well as general manager John Mozeliak had hoped. True, the Cardinals are still quite good, but they have a couple of holes, including one at second base, and only Neshek and Peralta have added substantial value to the team’s overall production.

    Then word came on Sunday that Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia were going on the disabled list with shoulder injuries, per The Associated Press (h/t ESPN).

    The hits just keep coming for manager Mike Matheny. Never fear, though. Mozeliak has a talented farm system and a couple of major leaguers he could part with in order to shore up the rotation and add a stick to the lineup.

    Either way, the 2014 season hasn’t turned out the way most suspected it would. The roster is too talented to stay in the doldrums for long, though. Expect Mozeliak to make a couple of moves in advance of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Offense Needs to Be Addressed Immediately

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Rays are woeful on offense, ranking last in the American League in runs scored and near the bottom in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. It’s a bad situation that won’t improve on its own.

    To be sure, this isn’t the first time someone has pointed out the serious need for improvement at the plate.

    Gary Shelton from the Tampa Bay Times recently argued that general manager Andrew Friedman should begin rebuilding immediately. After acknowledging that there isn't one unit to blame for the team's struggles, Shelton wrote:

    That said, the pressure on Friedman is as great as ever, because this doesn't just look like a team having an off season. This looks like a team whose shortcomings have caught up with it. This looks like a team that doesn't have enough power, enough speed or enough clutch hitting to survive. This looks like a team where the focus fades in and out like bad radio reception. This looks like a team that has worked very hard for last place.

    We shall see what Friedman is able to accomplish at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. If he demonstrates the same type of shrewdness and aptitude for talent evaluation that has earned him a fantastic reputation, the Rays could be in business as soon as next season.

    Whoever Friedman trades for, however, had better be able to get on base and drive the ball. Those are the two areas where the Rays have struggled most this season.

Texas Rangers: Rougned Odor Can Hang

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor is the real deal.

    True, he got off to a rather slow start, compiling a meager .194/.219/.290 slash line with no doubles and only two RBI over the course of his first 33 plate appearances. From that point through Friday night’s contest, however, Odor has been hitting the ball all over the field, putting up a .348/.370/.565 slash with three doubles, three triples, two home runs and 15 RBI.

    He has been sensational at the plate and in the field, where he has already made several highlight-reel plays.

    Simply put, it seems as though the Rangers are in good shape at second base for some time.

    Yes, the rest of the season for the Rangers has been littered with injury and disappointing results, but the fanbase can take solace in the fact that Odor was worthy of the hype.

    Now, what this means for Jurickson Profar is unknown, but that is a question for another day.

Toronto Blue Jays: Mark Buehrle Is Immortal

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Mark Buehrle is a man with a plan. And by plan, of course, I mean he gets the ball, throws the ball and repeats the process.

    To be sure, there is more to it, but that's what it looks like to the outside observer. And after a down season last year (it was just the second time since 2007 that he finished with an ERA over 4.00) Buehrle's resurgence has fueled the Blue Jays' run to the top of the AL East.

    In 15 starts this season, he is 10-4 with a 2.32 ERA and a 3.45 FIP, and he is stranding 80.7 percent of all baserunners. Buehrle has been so good this year that he has only allowed more than three earned runs twice. That is dominance defined.

    The bottom line is this: Regardless of how much offensive firepower the Blue Jays haveor how well Drew Hutchison and the rest of the rotation has pitched at timesthey wouldn’t have a lead in their division if it weren’t for Buehrle.

Washington Nationals: The Atlanta Braves Are Their Achilles' Heel

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The Washington Nationals rank second in MLB in fielding independent pitching. They are also second in both ERA and pitcher's WAR. Yet for all that mound dominance, they have failed to pull away from the pack in the NL East, specifically the Atlanta Braves.

    Now, part of that is because Bryce Harper has missed an extended amount of time with a torn ligament in his left thumb. And with Harper’s return—as early as the first week of July—the offense should see an increase in on-base percentage, slugging and general effectiveness.

    The problems run deeper than Harper’s absence, though. There is an epidemic of swinging and missing with runners in scoring position against the Braves.

    The Washington Post’s Neil Greenberg elaborated after a 3-0 loss to the team's division rival last Thursday night:

    Among the Nats’ eight position players, only Danny Espinosa has had any success putting the ball in play against Atlanta with runners in scoring position (5 for 16). As a whole, they are 32 for 215 with just 12 extra-base hits — all home runs. Small-sample-size caveats apply, but if you can’t move runners over you won’t be able to score many runs.

    You got that right, Neil. We shall see what Harper’s return means to the offense, but if the Nationals can’t find a way to beat the Braves, the season will not end well.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of FanGraphs and are accurate as of game time on Saturday, June 21. Transaction, injury and game information are courtesy of MLB.com. Contract information was taken from Cot’s Contracts.

    Follow @MatthewSmithBR

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