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Breaking Down MLB's Biggest Pennant Race X-Factors, Storylines

Matthew SmithCorrespondent IIIAugust 8, 2014

Breaking Down MLB's Biggest Pennant Race X-Factors, Storylines

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The 2014 MLB season has given us plenty of interesting storylines.

    Chicago White Sox rookie Jose Abreu is filling up the stat sheet on a nightly basis. New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka took the American League by storm before landing on the disabled list.

    Multiple clubs, including the Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks, fell victim to a rash of injuries that largely ended their seasons before they had a chance to get started. And who can forget the action that went down at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline?

    There are many more, of course, but a larger point remains: Major League Baseball is as intriguing as ever.

    And it's not over.

    The final weeks of the season produce their own set of talking points as teams fight for a division title or a wild-card spot.

    So what are the biggest storylines of the pennant race? And who are some of the most important X-factors on contending ballclubs?

    Let’s take a look.

Will the Toronto Blue Jays Regret Not Being More Active at the Deadline?

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    M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

    Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos decided against making any moves at the July 31 MLB trade deadline other than the addition of Danny Valencia on July 28. How that decision plays out is going to be one of the better storylines in the game.

    To be sure, Anthopoulos had a couple of good reasons to do what he did.

    First off, the need to add another starter diminished considerably with the emergence of Marcus Stroman. Since getting moved into the rotation, he is 6-3 with a 2.66 ERA and a 1.070 WHIP. He's been that good.

    The success he’s found as a starter was rather unexpected given the fact that he was battered as a reliever. In five appearances out of the bullpen, Stroman had a 12.79 ERA with a 2.211 WHIP and was getting handled to the tune of a .441 batting average and 1.151 OPS against. It was as bad as the numbers indicate.

    The Blue Jays are also hoping to get Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie back from the disabled list shortly. In other words, Anthopoulos is hoping that the addition of three starters will do more that adding another bat via trade.

    Truth be told, he’s probably right.

    That said, Anthopoulos may end up regretting not being willing to move any of his prospects for an upgrade in the outfield or in the rotation.

    Let’s not forget that as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approached, he made it clear that he valued his top minor leaguers to the point that it dictated the type of player he was even considering when looking at roster upgrades, per CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman.

    Whether or not the Blue Jays can get back to playing the type of baseball they did in the beginning of the season is a question that must be answered. If they don’t, though, the lack of movement at the non-waiver deadline is going to be something the fanbase has a hard time forgetting.

X-Factors: The San Francisco Giants Battery of Jake Peavy and Buster Posey

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Of all the players the San Francisco Giants need to step up over the next seven weeks, Jake Peavy and Buster Posey stand at the front of the pack.

    Peavy, in particular, needs to become a pitcher who manager Bruce Bochy can count on every five days.

    As it stands, the Giants’ starting rotation ranks seventh in the National League in ERA (3.71), eighth in batting average against (.252) and seventh in earned runs allowed (289), per splits over at ESPN.com. In essence, they are good enough to be competitive, but need to be better.

    Peavy can help change that.

    To this point, however, the results have been mixed. In two starts since his acquisition from the Boston Red Sox, he has given up seven earned runs and lost both decisions but has a glowing 0.923 WHIP and a very nice 2.67 FIP (fielding independent pitching). Seeing as how those last two metrics are better indicators of pitching effectiveness, Peavy is on the right track.

    Regarding Posey, his ability to round back into form is of the utmost importance to the lineup.

    As Blecher Report’s Jacob Shafer wrote on Wednesday, “a patented Posey hot streak could go a long way toward healing the Giants' ills.” And “ills” there are.

    As of game time on Thursday, for example, Hunter Pence was the only regular with an OPS over .800. Michael Morse had hit four home runs with a .253/.303/.376 slash line since May 30, per splits over at Baseball-Reference. And let’s not forget about the struggles the middle infielders have endured at the plate all season.

    None of this is to say that Posey is having a poor season. To the contrary, he is having a fine season, slashing out at .285/.349/.440 with 13 home runs and 57 RBI.

    It’s just that Posey will need to do more to make up for some of the shortcomings in the lineup. If history serves as our barometer, however, he is up to the task.

    So as the Giants try to track down the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, these two players are the X-factors for Bochy and company. How they respond over the next 46 games will determine what the 2014 season is remembered for.

Storyline: Will the Oakland A's or the Detroit Tigers Have a Better Rotation?

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    USA TODAY Sports

    There was a race to assemble the best rotation in the American League between the Detroit Tigers and the Oakland A’s. So much so that after trading for David Price, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski sent A’s GM Billy Beane a text saying the latter was on the clock “to acquire Chris Sale,” via MLB.com’s Jane Lee.

    Ah, fun times.

    To be sure, other factors will play a role in determining who ends up making it further in the postseason (it is safe to assume that both will be playing into October), but the performance of each group will be widely watched in the coming weeks.

    Let’s take a minute to look at the stats of the top starters in each rotation to this point in the season. 

    A's

    Tigers
    Lester11-7, 2.59 ERA, 152 KScherzer13-4, 3.24 ERA, 171 K
    Gray12-5, 2.87 ERA, 131 K Price11-8, 3.11 ERA, 199 K
    Samardzija*2-1, 3.09 ERA, 30 K Verlander10-10, 4.57 ERA, 115 K 
    Kazmir12-4, 2.53 ERA, 118 K Sanchez8-5, 3.93 ERA, 99 K

    *Jeff Samardzija's statistics reflect his time in the American League. Statistics accrued with the Chicago Cubs are not included.

    Of the two clubs, the A's added more to their rotation than the Tigers did. Removing Jason Hammel from the conversation, the additions of Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox and Jeff Samardzija from the Chicago Cubs give manager Bob Melvin a radically different group than the one that opened the season.

    Of course, that was out of necessity, considering the Tigers already had Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez on the roster. Price’s addition only makes their unit stronger.

    The value of the deals each club made in advance of this season’s July 31 non-waiver trade deadline will forever be linked to how well their starting pitchers finish the season. Joakim Soria, Sam Fuld and Jonny Gomes can fail to meet expectations for their respective team and still not gather as much press as each of these rotations will.  

    That is what blockbuster trades are all about, though. Deals are graded out on the success of the biggest names that switched teams. And there were some big names.

    Watching this thing play out is going to be one of the biggest storylines for the rest of the season in the American League.

X-Factor: Atlanta Braves Shortstop Andrelton Simmons

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Entering play on Thursday, the Atlanta Braves trailed the Washington Nationals by 4.0 games in the National League East. As strange as this may sound, that isn’t going to be the biggest storyline in their drive to the playoffs.

    Rather, the Andrelton Simmons saga is going to grab everyone’s attention.

    First off, there is the injury to consider.

    As he was covering third base on Tuesday evening against the Seattle Mariners, Simmons somehow rolled his ankle. And as of Thursday, the word was that the club hoped to avoid putting him on the disabled list and that "he is considered day to day," per MLB.com's Adam Lewis

    Unfortunately, the prognosis isn’t good.

    As David O’Brien from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote, the chance that he would be ready for Friday's tilt against the Nationals “seemed to worsen after the game when Simmons’ ankle swelled again soon after he removed an ice bag from it.” More will be revealed in the coming days, of course, but this is an unfortunate development.

    Regardless of his injury status, Simmons isn’t playing very well. Sure, he is still making highlight-reel plays in the field, but at the plate, his production has plummeted.

    Going into action on Thursday, he was hitting .249 with a .297 on-base percentage. True, that is remarkably close to the .248 batting average and .296 OBP he put up all of last year, but his power numbers have all but disappeared.

    Comparing an entire season’s worth of statistics versus 107 games isn’t fair, however, so let’s dig a bit deeper. In the first 107 games in 2013, he had 11 home runs and was slugging .370, per splits over at Baseball-Reference. This season, he has five long balls and a meager .340 slugging percentage.

    The decline in power is at the heart of an offensive WAR that has fallen from 2.2 in 2013 to 0.5 this year. Make no mistake: It is hurting the offense as a whole.

    The lack of production and potential DL stint bring us to the fun stuff. What are the Braves going to do if Simmons isn’t healthy? And if he is healthy, but remains unproductive, does general manager Frank Wren make a move?

    One option is to call up No. 1 prospect Jose Peraza.

    Currently at Double-A Mississippi, Peraza is a burner on the basepaths and has a .358 OBP in 172 at-bats after his promotion from Single-A Lynchburg. Bringing him up wouldn’t be ideal by any stretch of the imagination, but he could provide the same type of offensive lift that Tommy La Stella did when he was promoted to replace Dan Uggla.

    Another option is to move the newly acquired Emilio Bonifacio to shortstop and make Simmons the reserve infielder. That limits Bonifacio’s value as a utility player, though. Part of the reason he was acquired was that he could play in the infield and the outfield.

    Any way we look at the Braves, Simmons is the X-factor as the playoffs draw closer.

What Impact Will the Latest Biogenesis Fallout Have on the Playoffs?

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Tony Bosch and the Biogenesis scandal will not go away.

    Most recently, Bosch surrendered to the DEA and will plead guilty to “conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids,” per ESPN’s T.J. Quinn. Along with that news comes word that new names of players who dealt with Bosch may be released to MLB. 

    Citing Quinn, CBS Sports’ Mike Axisa sheds some light on the subject:

    … five new players have been identified as having ties to performance-enhancing drugs during the DEA's investigation into Biogenesis. We recently heard more players may be named after ex-Biogenesis chief Anthony Bosch surrendered to the DEA.

    Major League Baseball has asked the DEA for the identities of those five players so they can start the process of disciplining them, according to the DEA. It is unclear if those five players are even on big league rosters at this time. MLB and the DEA butted heads during their simultaneous investigations into Biogenesis last year.

    As you can see, there are a lot of unknown variables at play. And it will likely be some time before the names are revealed, but there is no mistaking the fact that MLB wants them released as soon as possible so that it can levy suspensions against the individuals mentioned.

    The impact on the pennant races could be significant.

    Just consider the damage losing a star performer would have on a fringe playoff team. Conversely, teams solidly in the race could end up without the services of a key player down the stretch and find it impossible to overcome. 

    To be sure, the players named in the investigation could all be minor leaguers or out of baseball altogether. Then again, several high-profile contributors could miss the rest of the year.

    Either way, the Biogenesis fallout will be the biggest story for the remainder of the 2015 season.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and are accurate as of game time on Thursday, August 7. Transaction, prospect and injury information are courtesy of MLB.com. Contract information pulled from Cot's Contracts.

    Follow @MatthewSmithBR

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