4 MLB Teams Primed for a 2nd-Half Surge into the Playoffs

Zachary D. RymerJuly 22, 2022

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With Major League Baseball back from the All-Star break, it's "down the stretch they come" for teams in the playoff race. And lest anyone forget about Atlanta's run from last season, it's not a good idea to rule out the underdogs at this time of year.

From our perspective, four teams could pull off a similar run in the run-up to the 2022 postseason.

These clubs are on the periphery of the playoff races in the American League and National League for now, but factors such as injury returns, potential breakouts and strength (or lack thereof) of schedule give each the potential to get hot and rise up the ranks.

Let's take a deep dive on these teams one at a time, starting with the one that has the worst record and ending with the one that has the best.

Chicago White Sox

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Record: 46-46

Current Playoff Position: 3.0 GB in AL Central, 3.5 GB in AL Wild Card

This isn't the follow-up season that the White Sox envisioned after winning the AL Central with a 93-69 effort in 2021. And contrary to popular belief, it's not all manager Tony La Russa's fault.

It's not on La Russa that the South Siders have been struggling on offense basically all season. Nor is it his fault that the injury bug has been snacking on the team's roster like Homer Simpson on doughnuts from an automated feeding machine. According to Spotrac, only three teams have sunk more money into players while they've been on the injured list.

Yet there is at least one reason to believe that the White Sox have a second-half run in them: At .467, the combined winning percentage of their remaining opponents is the lowest for any American League team.

The obligatory caveat here is the White Sox are thus far an unimpressive 18-14 against losing clubs. They'll have to actually improve their play to take advantage of their soft schedule.

This will be doable if their offense finally lives up to its billing, which will happen if they can get Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez and Yasmani Grandal all hitting at the same time.

Anderson is hitting .310 overall and has a hit in 10 of his last 11 games, while Abreu has been hot with a 1.014 OPS since June 13. And after disappearing for much of the first half, Moncada hit .324 with a pair of home runs in nine games leading into the break.

Chicago White Sox @whitesox

Back-to-back blasts! 💥 <a href="https://t.co/zfp5ej8Dzk">pic.twitter.com/zfp5ej8Dzk</a>

As Robert (lightheadedness) and Jimenez (leg tightness) are banged up and Grandal (back spasms) remains on the IL, health will be the deciding factor where these three are concerned. But if they can stay on the field, all three are potential impact hitters.

The White Sox are already mostly set on the mound, where their hurlers have a better ERA than the New York Yankees over the last 30 days. They'll be even more set if Lucas Giolito, who pitched to a 4.69 ERA in the first half, picks up where he left off after logging at least six innings and allowing no more than two runs in three of his last four starts before the break.

St. Louis Cardinals

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Record: 50-44

Current Playoff Position: 0.5 GB in NL Central

Though the Cardinals have one more win than the Philadelphia Phillies, they also have one more loss. That puts them percentage points off the pace for the NL's third wild-card spot.

In any case, the last month of the first half was an up-and-down affair for St. Louis. Oli Marmol's club was up 2.5 games in the NL Central race as recently as June 14, but it then went 13-17 over its next 30 games.

Perhaps uncoincidentally, this slide started right about when the Cardinals put veteran backstop Yadier Molina on the IL with knee inflammation. Center fielder Harrison Bader (plantar fasciitis), right-handers Jack Flaherty (shoulder strain) and Dakota Hudson (neck strain) and slugger Juan Yepez (forearm strain) are also on the IL.

Even more so than the White Sox, however, the Cardinals' schedule is about to lighten up. At .453, their remaining opponents' winning percentage is easily the lowest in MLB.

This is an advantage in and of itself, and then you add in that the Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers are the only NL clubs with better records against losing teams than the Cardinals (27-13). Those are also the only two NL teams that boast a better ERA against losing clubs than the Cards' 3.21 ERA.

The pending returns of Molina and Bader, both of whom are Gold Glovers, will only help the Cardinals continue their stifling of lesser clubs. In which case, all they would need is more consistent work from their offense.

On that front, the Cardinals can ask no more of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. It's up to the club's other regulars to pick up more slack, for which there's already a promising development in motion. After managing just three home runs in his first 25 games, rookie slugger Nolan Gorman then cranked out six homers over his next 26 to end the first half.

St. Louis Cardinals @Cardinals

Gorman goes yard! <a href="https://t.co/4o6rXq2w42">pic.twitter.com/4o6rXq2w42</a>

Tyler O'Neill looms as another potentially significant X-factor. He's been injured and ineffective in 2022, but it wouldn't be for the first time if he finished on a strong note. Of the 34 home runs he hit in 2021, half came in August and September.

Philadelphia Phillies

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Record: 49-43

Current Playoff Position: 8.5 GB in NL East, Hold 3rd NL Wild Card

This is arguably cheating on account of how the Phillies are already in line to make the playoffs, but what we're saying is this: Don't count them out for a run at the NL's top wild-card spot, or even for the NL East title.

The Phillies are already hot, having won more games than all but three teams since they showed veteran manager Joe Girardi the door back on June 3. Interim skipper Rob Thomson should take a bow for how the club's pitching has improved during this stretch, as noted by Matt Gelb of The Athletic:

Matt Gelb @MattGelb

Maybe it's a coincidence. But, since Rob Thomson took over, Phillies relievers have faced 2nd-fewest batters in MLB. They've been better, but also less exposed. Third-time-through-the-order penalty be damned: <a href="https://t.co/QtL4pdkJu7">https://t.co/QtL4pdkJu7</a>

For Phillies relievers, the difference is especially stark in their before/after totals for win probability added:

Where the Phillies are relatively weak right now is in their lineup. Two-time MVP Bryce Harper (broken thumb) and two-time All-Star Jean Segura (broken finger) are both out with injuries, while $100 million free-agent signee Nick Castellanos has been slumping all year.

It nonetheless helps to have Kyle Schwarber and Rhys Hoskins. The former's 19 home runs since May 30 are three more than any other hitter has, while the latter has posted a .903 OPS since Harper went down on June 25.

Further, Castellanos' track record allows for some optimism. He's traditionally more of a second-half hitter than a first-half hitter, and he's another guy who did some stride-finding before the break. He didn't catch fire, per se, but he did hit safely in 13 of his last 14 games.

Castellanos finally living up to his track record as a star slugger would only make it easier for the Phillies to keep thriving until Harper and Segura return, which should be in August.

What absolutely will make that process easier, meanwhile, is the Phillies' schedule.

They're tied for the third-easiest remaining schedule of any MLB team, with the highlights being nine games against a Miami Marlins team that they outscored 16-1 in a three-game sweep before the break and 11 games against a Washington Nationals squad that could soon be without Juan Soto.

Toronto Blue Jays

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Record: 50-43

Current Playoff Position: 13.5 GB in AL East, Hold 3rd AL Wild Card

At the outset of the season, FanGraphs had the Blue Jays as the team to beat in the AL East and the World Series favorite for the American League. Tall orders, to be sure, but they tracked with the excitement that lingered from Toronto's 91-win campaign in 2021.

How they've gone from that to fighting for their playoff lives largely falls on an offense that hasn't been as explosive as it was in 2021 and on a pitching staff that hasn't got what it bargained for from key hurlers, including Jose Berrios and Yusei Kikuchi.

And also, of course, on manager Charlie Montoyo, who was ousted after a 1-9 stretch between July 2 and 10. He seemed like a harmless presence in the clubhouse and dugout, but it may have been just that which led to his undoing.

Yet for all this drama, the Blue Jays could be heading into the home stretch in worse shape.

Their offense, especially, still feels primed for a proper explosion. Save for during the month of May, one thing that hasn't been lacking from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., George Springer and company this season is hard-hit balls:

If the runs and home runs indeed start coming in more frequent bunches for the Blue Jays, they'll merely need their pitching staff to hold steady. Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman have been doing that all season, and even Berrios has been coming around of late.

The right-hander exited June with a 5.86 ERA through 15 starts. His four outings in July have yielded a 3.09 ERA with 29 strikeouts over 23.1 innings.

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

José Berríos, 94mph Two Seamer and 83mph Curveball, Overlay. 😳<br><br>Two Seamer = 20 inches of run<br>Curveball = 17 inches of break <a href="https://t.co/QTauIjvCM3">pic.twitter.com/QTauIjvCM3</a>

While the Blue Jays' remaining schedule isn't exactly light, it is the second-easiest among AL East clubs. And that's counting Toronto's nine remaining games against the Boston Red Sox as a tough slate even though the former has won seven of 10 head-to-head matchups this season.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.


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