'Contender or Pretender' for All 30 MLB Teams at the Halfway Point

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistJune 24, 2014

'Contender or Pretender' for All 30 MLB Teams at the Halfway Point

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    It's time for the latest edition of America's favorite baseball-related game show, "Contender or Pretender."

    The way it works is simple: We take a broad look at our 30 contestants, primarily focusing on their offense and pitching staffs, and come to a conclusion as to whether they are legitimate playoff contenders or merely pretending to be.

    If there's one thing that year after year proves itself to be true about the playoff races in MLB, it's this: You can't contend if you don't have quality pitching.

    Let's take a look at how each team fared.

    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and are current through games on June 22. 

Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Record: 32-47, fifth place in the National League West, 14.5 GB

    Despite hovering around .500 (23-25) since getting off to a 9-22 start, dreams of Arizona contending for a playoff spot will have to be shelved until at least next year. 

    The Diamondbacks have been outscored by 66 runs, the worst run differential in baseball, and are heading into the next month with plans to listen on trade offers for anyone on the 25-man roster not named Paul Goldschmidt, according to The Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo.

    “We’re meeting on it,” Diamondbacks chief baseball officer Tony La Russa (pictured above, right, with team president Derrick Hall) told Cafardo. "Figures we are sellers, not buyers.”

    Verdict: Pretender

Atlanta Braves

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Record: 38-37, second place in the National League East, 2 GB

    Atlanta may still rank next to last in the National League when it comes to scoring runs, but we've seen signs of life from the Braves moribund offense in June.

    The team's 78 runs scored in June puts the Braves in a tie with their fiercest competition in the NL East, Washington, for the ninth-most on the Senior Circuit in June.

    Skipper Fredi Gonzalez's decision to drop leadoff hitter Jason Heyward to fifth in the order has paid dividends, with the uber-talented outfielder looking far more comfortable, hitting .294 (5-for-17) with a pair of doubles and an .866 OPS.

    Playing in a mediocre division, coupled with an improving offense, a very good rotation and a bullpen that aside from the seventh inning is solid, will be enough to keep the Braves in contention throughout the season.

    Verdict: Contender

Baltimore Orioles

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Record: 40-35, second place in the American League East, 1.5 GB

    Sure, Baltimore doesn't have a true front-of-the-rotation arm and would benefit from adding an established veteran at the trade deadline, but if there's one thing we've learned about the Orioles this year, it's that the team shows up when it is playing a division opponent.

    Owners of a 21-13 record against the rest of the AL East, Baltimore's pitching staff has a 3.25 ERA and 1.32 WHIP against the division. Against the rest of baseball, the pitching staff's ERA jumps to 4.53, its WHIP only slightly higher at 1.37.

    That improvement, however, doesn't carry over to the thoroughly disappointing Ubaldo Jimenez, who has gone 1-5 with a 4.70 ERA and 1.80 WHIP in seven starts against divisional foes. If the Orioles do add a starter at the deadline, Jimenez should be the one that gets bumped from the rotation.

    Even if the Orioles stick with their embattled free-agent addition, so long as the rest of the team continues to shine when playing in the division, there's no reason to believe that Baltimore won't be in the thick of things until the end of the season.

    Verdict: Contender

Boston Red Sox

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Record: 35-42, fourth place in American League East, 7.5 GB

    If I told you before the season that Boston and Houston would have scored the same number of runs halfway through the season, I'd have been laughed out of the room.

    But that's the reality that the defending World Series champions are facing, and much of the blame can be put on the team's inept outfielders, who have combined for a .652 OPS, next to last in all of baseball. 

    It's only a matter of time before hotshot prospect Mookie Betts (pictured) gets a crack at the center field job, and he certainly can't do much worse than Jackie Bradley Jr., whose .592 OPS is the lowest among qualified center fielders.

    Despite their offensive woes, the Red Sox sit only six games out of a playoff spot and have the financial wherewithal and high-ceiling prospects to make a major addition at the trade deadline if they choose to do so. 

    You can't count a team like that out at the halfway point of the season.

    Verdict: Contender

Chicago Cubs

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Record: 31-43, fifth place in the National League Central, 14 GB

    It feels disingenuous to call Chicago "pretenders" when the Cubs had no illusions of contending in the first place. While the team's pitching has been better than expected, posting MLB's ninth-lowest ERA (3.53), the offense has struggled to score runs (280), sitting 28th out of the 30 major league clubs.

    Shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo have established themselves as cornerstone pieces for the club's ongoing rebuilding process, answering two of the bigger questions surrounding the team heading into the season.

    The biggest remaining question revolves around the future of staff ace Jeff Samardzija, who, according to Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi, recently turned down a five-year contract extension worth slightly more than $85 million.

    What the Cubs are able to extract in a package for Samardzija, along with how top prospects Javier Baez and Kris Bryant develop over the second half of the season, will go a long way toward determining how the team fares on next year's edition of this list.

    Verdict: Pretender

Chicago White Sox

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Record: 35-42, fifth place in the American League Central, 7.5 GB

    Like their counterparts across town, the Chicago White Sox weren't expected to contend heading into the season. But the White Sox have hung around thanks to a high-powered offense that ranks fifth in the American League with 333 runs scored, which is seventh in all of baseball.

    But Chicago's rotation goes only three deep (two if the club trades John Danks, pictured), and the team has unsuccessfully tried to replace Addison Reed as closer, currently using setup man Ronald Belisario, who has blown five of his 12 save opportunities. 

    Aside from Danks and a handful of veteran relievers, including Belisario, two of the team's most potent bats, Adam Dunn and Alexei Ramirez, could be traded to obtain more pitching. While promising for the club's future, such moves would end any chance of the ChiSox making a late-season surge into a playoff spot.

    Verdict: Pretender

Cincinnati Reds

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Record: 38-37, third place in National League Central, 7.5 GB

    Between Joey Votto's disappearing power and Cincinnati's struggles to put enough runs on the board to support one of the better starting rotations in baseball, it'd be easy to write the Reds off as pretenders.

    But the Reds are playing their best baseball of the season and only recently got Mat Latos, one of the better starting pitchers in the game, back in the rotation after he missed the first two-plus months of the season.

    Perhaps more notable than Latos' return to action has been the development of leadoff hitter Billy Hamilton. The speedster seems to have finally figured things out at the plate, hitting .324 with a .354 on-base percentage, .881 OPS, nine extra-base hits and 11 stolen bases over his last 19 games.

    If Hamilton can continue to become a consistent presence on base ahead of Cincinnati's biggest bats, the Reds will make a run at a playoff spot.

    Verdict: Contender

Cleveland Indians

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Record: 37-39, third place in the American League Central, 5 GB

    We've watched Cleveland's high-scoring offense make up for a mediocre rotation and keep the Indians in contention despite getting little in the way of production from Carlos Santana (pictured) or Nick Swisher.

    While Swisher continues to struggle, Santana's bat has woken from its slumber, producing a .333/.441/.632 slash line with five home runs and 12 RBI over 57 at-bats in June. As a result, you would've expected Cleveland's playoff chances to increase.

    But that hasn't happened. 

    Maybe it's become cliche to repeat the mantra "pitching and defense wins championships," but it's been proven to be true time and time again. Unfortunately for the Indians, they're severely lacking in both departments, and it's for that reason that the Tribe can't be considered serious contenders.

    Verdict: Pretender

Colorado Rockies

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Record: 34-42, third place in the National League West, 11 GB

    Troy Tulowitzki might be the best all-around player in the National League, but not even a perennial MVP candidate, providing MVP-caliber production in the middle of one of the game's most potent lineups, is enough to keep Colorado's early-season playoff hopes alive.

    A recurring theme throughout this exercise is how a lack of quality pitching can doom even the most talented team's postseason chances, and perhaps it's never been more evident than it is in Colorado. Since posting a respectable 4.29 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in April, Colorado's starting pitchers have combined for a 5.57 ERA and 1.56 WHIP.

    You simply can't contend in any of baseball's six divisions with numbers like that, especially in the NL West, where two of the game's premier rotations reside in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

    Verdict: Pretender

Detroit Tigers

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Record: 40-32, first place in the American League Central

    It'd be a lot easier for Detroit to contend if Justin Verlander was pitching like, well, Justin Verlander, and Joe Nathan remembered how to shut down the opposition in the ninth inning, but the Tigers remain atop the AL Central in spite of their struggling All-Stars.

    They still have two of the game's premier bats in Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez (pictured) to go along with a pair of the game's premier starters in Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer and a mix of savvy veterans (like Torii Hunter and Ian Kinsler) and some young up-and-comers (Nick Castellanos, Drew Smyly).

    Division champions three years running, the Tigers aren't about to go down without a fight. But unlike past seasons, when it was a foregone conclusion that Detroit would reign supreme, the Tigers have to contend with an improved division and perhaps the most dangerous challenger to their division superiority in years.

    Verdict: Contender

Houston Astros

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Record: 33-44, fifth place in American League West, 14.5 GB

    Is a team a pretender when nobody had any expectations of it?

    Not really, which makes designating Houston as pretenders a bit ludicrous, but that's what side of the fence the rebuilding Astros fall on.

    While the team has a chance to avoid its fourth consecutive 100-loss season, it also has a chance to play spoiler down the stretch. Astros starters have pitched to a 3.84 ERA, the sixth-lowest in the AL, and while its offense has been erratic, it's not completely inept, with veterans Jose Altuve and Dexter Fowler producing and youngsters Jon Singleton and George Springer (pictured) improving.

    Verdict: Pretender

Kansas City Royals

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    Duane Burleson/Getty Images

    Record: 40-36, second place in American League West, 2 GB

    With a 10-game winning streak in mid-June, Kansas City was sitting atop the standings in the AL Central for a few days. Though the Tigers have regained the division lead, the Royals are hot on their heels. 

    While the Royals offense lags behind its pitching staff—Seattle being the only AL club with a lower team OPS than Kansas City's .686—the Royals have outscored their opposition by 16 runs this year, the best run differential in the division.

    Billy "Country Breakfast" Butler (pictured), who looked like a shell of himself early on in the season, seems to have regained his All-Star form in June, hitting .342 with eight extra-base hits, 11 RBI and an .867 OPS, a great sign for the club going forward.

    The Royals will have to improve their record against divisional foes (14-16) if they hope to not only revisit but remain in first place between now and the end of the season, but there's no doubt that Kansas City is a legitimate challenger to Detroit's throne.


    Verdict: Contender

Los Angeles Angels

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Record: 41-33, second place in the American League West, 5 GB

    That Los Angeles has been able to remain in contention despite having one of baseball's worst bullpens is a testament to just how good the team's starting rotation and offense have been.

    Angels starters have pitched to the American League's third-best ERA (3.53), due largely in part to the continued development of Garrett Richards (pictured), who has been one of baseball's best starters (11 QS, 2.79 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 9.03 K/9), and the consistency of veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.

    The best all-around player in the game, Mike Trout (.306 BA, 16 HR, 53 RBI, .988 OPS), paces the American League's third-highest scoring offense, but if the Angels are truly going to remain in contention, GM Jerry Dipoto must address his bullpen situation.

    Angels relievers are converting only 57 percent of their save chances, the second-worst mark in the AL and a surefire way to miss out on opportunities to put some distance between themselves and the league's other wild-card contenders.

    As long as the Angels bolster the back end of their pitching staff, they'll be right in the thick of the playoff race for the rest of the season.  


    Verdict: Contender

Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

    Record: 42-36, second place in the National League West, 4 GB

    That Los Angeles owns baseball's highest payroll and isn't sitting atop the standings in the NL West might be disappointing to some, but the Dodgers sit with a nearly three-game lead in the Senior Circuit's wild-card race, which should serve as some consolation.

    Not only do the Dodgers have as much talent on their major league roster as any team in the game, but they're one of the few clubs that has both the high-end prospects and financial wherewithal to make a major trade at the deadline, should they choose to do so.

    Bolstering the bullpen would be a good place to start, as Dodgers relievers have gone 4-15 with a 3.78 ERA, the 12th highest in the National League.

    Even if the club stands pat, with a rotation that features the best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw (pictured) and a lineup that includes one of the most explosive athletes in the game, Yasiel Puig, you simply cannot count the Dodgers out until they've been mathematically eliminated.


    Verdict: Contender

Miami Marlins

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    Rob Foldy/Getty Images

    Record: 38-38, third place in the National League East, 2.5 GB

    You've got to tip your cap to the Miami Marlins, a team that has managed to stay in contention despite the early-season loss of its ace, Jose Fernandez.

    The Marlins weren't supposed to be contenders for at least another year, with journeymen and reclamation projects like Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee being counted on to produce at key positions.

    But they've been surprisingly productive around Giancarlo Stanton (pictured), who has stayed healthy and is having the MVP-caliber season that everyone associated with the game knew would eventually come.

    With Marlins GM Dan Jennings recently telling ESPN's Jim Bowden that owner Jeffrey Loria is ready and willing to "open the checkbook" at the trade deadline, it's clear that Miami believes it is a contender in a mediocre NL East.

    You should believe, too.


    Verdict: Contender

Milwaukee Brewers: Contender

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Record: 47-31, first place in the National League Central

    Milwaukee has slowed down a bit after its scorching 20-8 start to the season, going 27-23 over its next 50 games, but it's been good enough to keep the Brewers in first place in the NL Central, a division that many believed would be the most hotly contested heading into the season.

    The Brewers have gotten solid production from their pitching staff, but it's the team's offense, which has scored the second-most runs in the National League, and excellent defense that has given the club some distance from the rest of the field.

    Five regulars sit with an OPS above .800, led by Jonathan Lucroy (.917) and Carlos Gomez (pictured, .902), arguably the best center fielder in baseball. Only one of the team's everyday players, Jean Segura, has an OPS below .700.

    That's pretty remarkable.

    Verdict: Contender

Minnesota Twins

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Record: 36-38, fourth place in the American League Central, 5 GB

    Minnesota clearly believes that it can contend in 2014, otherwise the team wouldn't have signed free agent Kendrys Morales in early June.

    While the Twins have one of the better bullpens in baseball and an offense that has been surprisingly productive (even before Morales' arrival), they lack the quality starters a team needs to stay in the playoff hunt deep into the season.

    Only Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes (pictured) have been able to deliver quality outings with any consistency, while veterans Kevin Correia and Ricky Nolasco have done more harm than good to the team's playoff chances.

    Things are looking up in Minnesota, but the Twins aren't going to contend for much longer given the state of their rotation.

    Verdict: Pretender

New York Mets

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    Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    Record: 35-41, fourth place in the National League East, 5.5 GB

    New York has been able to weather the loss of ace Matt Harvey, with a rotation and bullpen that have been better than people expected, but it's the team's erratic offense that will ultimately force the Mets out of contention.

    Curtis Granderson, the team's biggest offseason addition, is playing his best baseball of the season in June, hitting .344 with more walks (17) than strikeouts (14) and a 1.026 OPS, but not even a resurgent Grandy Man is enough to carry the Mets through the rest of the season.

    When a club is heavily reliant on 40-year-old Bobby Abreu, who couldn't find work in the major leagues a season ago—and when Abreu is outperforming David Wright, the team's highest-paid player and the face of the franchise—talk about contending should come to an immediate end, even in a mediocre division.

    Verdict: Pretender

New York Yankees

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Record: 39-36, second place in the American League East, 2.5 GB

    If it wasn't for Masahiro Tanaka (pictured), the New York Yankees would already be out of contention in the AL East.

    New York's starting rotation is a disaster after Tanaka, with the likes of Vidal Nuno and Chase Whitley being relied upon heavily in the absence of Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia, neither of whom the team has any clue what to expect from if and when they return to action.

    Even the typically steady Hiroki Kuroda has been mediocre, with a 4.23 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and only eight quality starts in 15 games. 

    Of the three big additions the team made to its lineup over the winter, only Jacoby Ellsbury has been worth the investment, with both Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann struggling to produce at the plate. 

    This is a flawed team, one that doesn't have the big-time prospects needed to go out and make significant additions to a mediocre rotation. The Yanks will remain in contention due to the parity that has struck the AL East, but there's no reason to believe that they'll wind up on top when the season ends.

    Verdict: Contender

Oakland Athletics

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Record: 47-29, first place in the American League West

    If you're looking for the best team in baseball, you've found it.

    Owners of baseball's best record, Oakland is a club with few flaws.

    Sure, the A's could use more production out of second base, could stand to add a veteran pitcher to the rotation as insurance and maybe another arm to the bullpen, but they have baseball's highest-scoring offense and one of the game's premier pitching staffs.

    They have the largest lead—five games—of any division leader at the season's halfway point, a further testament to manager Bob Melvin's brilliance, as he seems to know exactly the right buttons to push to give his team the best chance to win every time it takes the field.

    Verdict: Contender

Philadelphia Phillies

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    Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    Record: 34-41, fifth place in the National League East, 6 GB

    The Phillies may sit only six games out of first place, but they're in last place in the NL East, have been outscored by 30 runs on the season and are once again fooling those who believe they can contend.

    Despite a resurgent, All-Star caliber season from Chase Utley (pictured), the Phillies don't have the bats or the pitching to stay within striking distance of the division lead for much longer. Without the prospects needed to bring in young talent with upside, the time for GM Ruben Amaro Jr. to finally blow things up and rebuild is drawing near.

    Verdict: Pretender

Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Record: 38-38, fourth place in the National League Central, 8 GB

    Despite Andrew McCutchen performing at a better pace than he did a season ago, when he was named the National League MVP, and the arrival of top prospect Gregory Polanco (pictured), the Pittsburgh Pirates don't have enough to climb back into contention in the NL Central.

    The team's starting rotation, specifically, has been the major problem, with last year's ace, Francisco Liriano, looking lost on the mound (and currently sidelined with a strained oblique). The teams ahead of their competing against in the division race—Cincinnati, Milwaukee and St. Louis—all have superior pitching and more talent in their respective lineups than Pittsburgh does.

    Verdict: Pretender

San Diego Padres

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Record: 33-44, fourth place in the National League West, 12.5 GB

    Perhaps no team in baseball has been more disappointing than the San Diego Padres, who many (myself included) believed could be a dark-horse playoff contender in the National League this season.

    The Padres have a decent starting rotation and a superb bullpen, but the team simply can't hit, ranking dead last in nearly every offensive category, including runs scored (238).

    With the recent dismissal of GM Josh Byrnes, big changes could be coming to the club as the trade deadline nears, with veteran pieces, including the underwhelming Chase Headley (pictured), moved for younger talent with more upside.

    Verdict: Pretender

San Francisco Giants

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    Beck Diefenbach/Associated Press

    Record: 45-31, first place in the National League West

    San Francisco has had a rough June, sitting with a losing record (9-11) and watching Los Angeles make up some ground in the division, but the Giants remain the cream of the crop in the National League.

    With one of baseball's best pitching staffs and an offense that has been carried by some unlikely players, like Mike Morse (pictured), who leads the team with 13 home runs and an .864 OPS, the Giants won't be fading from the playoff picture anytime soon.

    Verdict: Contender

Seattle Mariners

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    Record: 41-36, third place in the American League West, 6.5 GB

    Seattle has remained in contention despite an offense that hasn't performed nearly as well as anyone expected and a starting rotation that has been without two of its biggest pieces, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, for much of the season.

    Despite the addition of Robinson Cano (pictured), Seattle has mustered only a .674 team OPS, the lowest in the American League. Even without big-time offensive production, the Mariners have gotten the quality pitching that it needs to stay in the thick of the playoff picture, currently tied with Baltimore for the last AL wild-card berth.

    If Paxton and Walker are able to return and strengthen the back end of the team's rotation, and if someone in the lineup (Dustin Ackley, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison) can raise the level of his game in the second half of the season, there's no reason why the Mariners won't be a serious contender for a wild-card berth at the end of the year.

    Verdict: Contender

St. Louis Cardinals

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Record: 42-35, second place in the National League Central, 4.5 GB

    Perhaps no team in baseball has been as maddening as the St. Louis Cardinals.

    With baseball's best rotation (though Michael Wacha's injured shoulder is a major concern), a solid bullpen and a talented offense, the Cardinals find themselves leading the National League wild-card race.

    But that's a disappointing result for Cardinals fans, who expect their club to be contending for division crowns on a yearly basis. The kings of hitting with runners in scoring position a year ago (.865 OPS), the Cardinals have managed only a .680 OPS in the same situation this season.

    Yet they have one of baseball's deepest farm systems, and whether they decide that reinforcements are needed for the rotation (especially if Wacha is out for an extended period of time) or the lineup (they could slide Matt Carpenter, pictured, over to second base and acquire a third baseman, for example), they have the ability to go out and get them.

    Verdict: Contender

Tampa Bay Rays

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    Record: 31-47, fifth place in the American League East, 12 GB

    The Rays have dug themselves into such a deep hole that the talk surrounding the team has shifted from what moves the team could make to get back into contention this year to what moves the team can make to get back into contention next year.

    David Price's future will continue to dominate the headlines until the Rays trade the ace of their staff, who the club can barely afford this season and certainly can't keep long term. As is the case with the Chicago Cubs, what kind of package the Rays land for their ace will go a long way toward determining their fate on next year's edition of this midseason overview.

    Verdict: Pretender

Texas Rangers

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    Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    Record: 35-40, fourth place in the American League West, 11.5 GB

    Injuries have absolutely destroyed any chance the Texas Rangers had of contending, and the team's outlook at this point is to continue developing some of its young talent (like second baseman Rougned Odor) while fielding offers on nearly everyone on the 25-man roster not named Yu Darvish (pictured).

    How badly have injuries hurt the club? Consider this: Texas recently put its third first baseman, Mitch Moreland, on the disabled list.

    That's tough to overcome, especially in a division featuring the league's best team (A's) and two other contenders (Angels and Mariners). 

    Verdict: Pretender

Toronto Blue Jays

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Record: 43-35, first place in the American League East

    Toronto has taken advantage of a wide-open AL East and powered its way into first place, hitting more home runs (102) than any other team in baseball. 

    Yet for all the team's offensive firepower, the Blue Jays are in desperate need of reinforcements on the mound, both in the rotation and bullpen. Mark Buehrle (pictured), who has thrown perhaps the best baseball of his career over the season's first half (10-4, 2.32 ERA, 1.23 WHIP), can't do it by himself.

    So long as the Blue Jays don't sit pat at the trade deadline, as they did over the winter, there's no reason why they couldn't win their first division crown in more than 20 years.

    Verdict: Contender

Washington Nationals

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Record: 40-35, first place in the National League East

    Washington has pitched its way into first place in the NL East with one of the game's premier starting rotations and bullpens. Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann have been their usual dominant selves, while Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano may be baseball's most dominant late-inning trio.

    But the offense remains a work in progress.

    While the recent return to action by third baseman-turned-left fielder Ryan Zimmerman has helped, he'll head back to the hot corner once Bryce Harper (pictured) gets back on the field. The Nationals need a healthy Harper producing in the middle of the lineup if they hope to not only stay atop the division, but also make a deep playoff run.

    Verdict: Contender