Each MLB Team's Most Encouraging Sign for the Future
With the exception of the American League Central, where the Kansas City Royals are boat-racing the field, the rest of MLB's division titles and wild-card chases are up for grabs as the stretch drive ramps up.
With 17 teams within six games of a postseason trip, the future is now for more than half of baseball. Looking around the league, there are all sorts of encouraging signs for those October hopefuls.
The San Francisco Giants aren't in playoff position right now, but they still have seven games left against the Los Angeles Dodgers, whom San Francisco has made a habit of beating up. Even for the reeling Washington Nationals, the future is looking up, as they could soon get their spark plug back.
For squads such as the Oakland Athletics and the Boston Red Sox, who have already toppled out of the postseason hunt, finding those encouraging signs requires more digging. The key is to look out to the horizon and to focus on rising stars like Sonny Gray, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The rise of the young core of position players.
With a 58-60 record, the Arizona Diamondbacks have been surprisingly competitive in manager Chip Hale's first season in the dugout.
The rookie skipper has his fingerprints all over the turnaround, but a ton of credit needs to go to the emerging core of young position players. Paul Goldschmidt (27), who has been battering Senior Circuit pitchers all season long, headlines the group, but he's far from the only standout.
Leadoff man A.J. Pollock (27) was a much-deserved All-Star, as he has swatted 28 doubles and stolen 29 bags. We can't forget about David Peralta (28), who has an .887 OPS. Plus, Yasmany Tomas (24) has made a smooth transition to the bigs, posting a .296 average in his first season in the desert.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The team's stockpile of young arms.
The Atlanta Braves have been a non-factor in the playoff discussion in 2015, but make no mistake about it—John Hart has a plan.
Ever since the offseason, the Braves' president of baseball operations has been acquiring high-upside arms in trade after trade. Dating back to the winter, Hart has picked up hurlers like Matt Wisler and Max Fried from the San Diego Padres, Mike Foltynewicz from the Houston Astros, Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins from the St. Louis Cardinals and Touki Toussaint from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In the process, Hart has set up the Braves to thrive for years to come. Miller has a 2.43 ERA in 2015, while Toussaint (No. 3) and Jenkins (No. 5) are both top-five prospects, per MLB.com.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The power surge of Chris Davis.
Chris Davis has been en fuego since the All-Star break.
In the second half, the Baltimore Orioles masher has clubbed 15 bombs in 30 games, which gives him a .752 slugging percentage. On the year, Davis has now gone yard 34 times. As ESPN Stats & Info noted, he should actually have even more homers, as he's been robbed an MLB-most four times.
Perhaps Davis, who is set to become a free agent at the end of the season, is just in the midst of the epic contract drive. There's no question the 29-year-old has already earned a mint with his recent run. But the O's aren't complaining, as Davis' home run surge has helped power them within half a game of the second wild-card spot.
Boston Red Sox
The Most Encouraging Sign: The emergence of the 22-year-old stars.
Just about everything has gone wrong for the Boston Red Sox in 2015, but two players who have completely bucked that trend are Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts.
The shortstop and the center fielder have earned some lofty praise from Red Sox legend David Ortiz.
"I think when you have that caliber of talent of those two, I think the future of the organization is in good hands," Ortiz said, via Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald.
Big Papi is spot on in his assessment. Bogaerts and Betts have shone at two of the most athletically demanding positions on the diamond and have also stepped up at the plate. Bogaerts is swinging at a clip of .312, while Betts has piled up 44 extra-base hits. The best part of all for the Red Sox is that neither rising star will turn 23 until October.
The Most Encouraging Sign: Kyle Schwarber's monster August.
From Addison Russell to Kris Bryant, 2015 has been the year of the rising star at Wrigley Field.
But right now, Kyle Schwarber is the man of the moment for the Chicago Cubs.
The 2014 first-round pick, who started the season in Double-A, has been on a tear in August. This month, the 22-year-old has clubbed six bombs on his way to posting a .686 slugging percentage and a 1.080 OPS. For his part, he is simply focused on taking care of business.
"I'm just trying to keep my head buried," Schwarber said, via Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. "Once I start pressing and try to do things I can't control, that's when I start getting into slumps or start being a bad teammate. It's all about being a good teammate and helping the team win."
That approach is definitely working for Schwarber, as he's helped power the Cubs to eight wins in their last 10 contests.
Chicago White Sox
The Most Encouraging Sign: Chris Sale continues to prove that he's ready to carry the club if it ever gets to October.
It sure would be fun to see what Chris Sale could do if he ever made it to the postseason.
When the lefty is locked in—like he was in his 15-strikeout showing against the Chicago Cubs on Sunday—Sale is one of the nastiest pitchers in baseball.
"I don't know, not too many times he's been better than that," manager Robin Ventura said, via Doug Padilla of ESPN.com. "He's had some that were close to it, but right from the start of the game, when he strikes out the side in the first inning, you're feeling pretty good about it. He was darn near unhittable for the time he was in there."
The White Sox haven't been to the playoffs since Sale joined the club back in 2010. With the wild-card chase far from settled, there's still the slimmest of chances that he could finally break that streak this season. Even though the South Siders are 55-62, the team isn't completely buried, sitting six games out of the second wild-card spot.
Sale is the kind of pitcher who could completely take over a playoff series. He's taken over plenty of games in 2015. As Padilla noted, Sale has already set a franchise record by posting double-digit strikeouts in 11 contests.
The Most Encouraging Sign: Eugenio Suarez's strong showing at the plate.
With the Cincinnati Reds stuck in fourth place in the NL Central, one of the club's primary goals down the stretch is to determine which players figure into the organization's plans in 2016 and beyond.
Eugenio Suarez, who has stepped in for the injured Zack Cozart, has demonstrated that he has a role to play at Great American Ballpark. The 24-year-old has not only hit for average (.293) but has also hit for power (eight home runs and a .478 slugging percentage).
With Cozart expected to be back in the picture at shortstop next spring, it remains to be seen where Suarez's long-term defensive home will be. But the way he's hit this summer, the Reds will have to find one for the second-year player.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The promising play of Francisco Lindor in the field and at the plate.
Francisco Lindor can flat-out pick it at short.
The 21-year-old has been making highlight-reel plays ever since debuting with the Cleveland Indians in June, but he is focused on keeping an even keel as he adjusts to the rigors of the big leagues.
"I work to have success," Lindor explained, according to Paul Hoynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group. "I understand that it's not going to happen every day. I just have to continue to do whatever it takes to keep me in the lineup and to show the team and [manager Terry] Francona that I'm doing everything in my power to help the Indians win."
While his play in the field has stood out, the rookie has also been chipping in at the plate. After hitting just .211 in June, Lindor has pulled up his average all the way to .290.
The Most Encouraging Sign: Nolan Arenado's emergence as a MVP-caliber player.
A two-time Gold Glove winner in his first couple of seasons in the majors, Nolan Arenado has always been a star in the field. He's continued that trend in 2015, as the Colorado Rockies third baseman leads all player at his position with 15 runs saved, per FanGraphs.
The 24-year-old has also taken a big step forward at the plate. Arenado has already hit a career-high 29 home runs and is on the way to posting the best OPS (.881) of his tenure with the Rockies. A defensive wizard in the field and an emerging force in the plate, Arenado has the look of a future MVP.
The Encouraging Sign: The farm system just got way better.
Right before he got the ax, Dave Dombrowski spun a few deals to provide the Detroit Tigers with some desperately needed young talent.
In his final days in Motown, Dombrowski shipped out David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria in exchange for a bounty of prospects. Thanks to those moves, the Tigers jumped from No. 30 to No. 20 in Bleacher Report's farm system rankings.
The Tigers reeled in a whole slew of high-upside arms including Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd and Jairo Labourt. But the most impressive addition of all was lefty Daniel Norris. Just 22 years old, he is already a member of the big league staff at Comerica Park.
The Most Encouraging Sign: George Springer is on the mend.
The return of George Springer is on the horizon for the Houston Astros. The 25-year-old has been missing in action since fracturing his wrist on July 1, but Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle reported the outfielder could be back in the lineup by late August or early September.
For Springer, the end of his stint on the disabled list can't come soon enough.
"There's a bunch of stuff I have to do first and a bunch of tests I have to pass," Springer told Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Chronicle. "We'll obviously take it one slow day at a time."
For Houston, which is clinging to a 2.5-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels and a four-game edge over the Texas Rangers, the return of the dynamic right-handed hitter can't come soon enough either.
Kansas City Royals
The Most Encouraging Sign: The brilliance of the club's trade-deadline acquisitions.
Dayton Moore, the GM of the Kansas City Royals, crushed the trade deadline.
Last month, the exec had two big bullet points to cross off the organizational to-do list: Find an ace and bring in some insurance for the lineup. Moore slashed off both of those items by importing Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist.
Cueto has been as good as advertised in his brief stint with the Royals, holding the opposition to just six runs in his first four starts. In his first outing at Kauffman Stadium, the righty ripped off a shutout. Per Fox Sports 1, Cueto is one of just four starters to throw a shutout in both leagues in the same season dating back to 2002.
Meanwhile, Zobrist has been just what the club needs as Alex Gordon remains on the shelf. In 17 games, the super-utility man has hit .344 for Kansas City.
Los Angeles Angels
The Most Encouraging Sign: The emergence of C.J. Cron.
The light-hitting Los Angeles Angels haven't been able to buy a run this month. With much of the lineup scuffling, the Halos have dropped to 62-57 on the season, which leaves them 2.5 games off the lead in the AL West and holding a half-game advantage for the second wild-card spot.
One player who's been doing all he can to help lift the Angels out of their funk is C.J. Cron. The 25-year-old has been hammering the AL for much of the summer. Cron checked in with a .343 average in July and is hitting .361 in August.
Andrew Heaney is another young Angel who's been a bright spot during the recent slide. With a 3.28 ERA in his last six starts, the lefty has been the most consistent starter at the Big A over the past month.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Most Encouraging Sign: Kenley Jansen's return to form.
The Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen has been a gas can in 2015. The relievers rank third-to-last in the NL in ERA (4.18), and for a while there, the usually nasty Kenley Jansen was part of the problem.
As noted by Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times, the right-hander slogged through a six-game skid last month in which he served up five runs in five innings. With the Dodgers desperately lacking in reliable relief arms, Jansen's funk was the last thing the NL West front-runners needed.
Fortunately for manager Don Mattingly, the 27-year-old is back on track. In his last six outings, Jansen hasn't allowed a run and has piled up 12 punchouts. On the year, he has reeled off a remarkable ratio of 16.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The squad's injury luck can only get better in 2016.
Suffice it to say that 2015 hasn't gone to plan for the Miami Marlins, owners of the third-worst record in baseball.
"Thank God there's no Prohibition in baseball," joked manager Dan Jennings when asked about the team's disastrous campaign by Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald.
One of the central problems for the Fish is that the team simply hasn't been able to keep its big names healthy and on the diamond.
Leadoff man Dee Gordon has spent time on the DL, and franchise faces Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez are on the shelf right now. Henderson Alvarez, Jarred Cosart, Carter Capps and Christian Yelich, among others, join those stars on the injury report. Every team deals with health problems, but for the Marlins, the injury bug just keeps biting.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The recent success of Jimmy Nelson and Taylor Jungmann.
With the Milwaukee Brewers languishing in the cellar in the NL Central, it's no easy task to find reasons for optimism.
The Brew Crew has dealt with myriad issues in 2015, but one of the underlying problems is that the team just can't string together quality starts. On the year, the starting staff has recorded the fifth-worst ERA (4.47) in the majors.
Jimmy Nelson and Taylor Jungmann have been doing all they can to help lower that figure and prove that they have a role to play in 2016 and beyond. In his last seven starts, the 26-year-old Nelson is sporting a 1.70 ERA, while the 25-year-old Jungmann's mark stands at 2.06.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The incredible rookie season of Miguel Sano.
Miguel Sano has always been confident—really confident.
"I remember when I signed [in 2009] and I told [Joe] Mauer, 'I'll [bat] behind you and with [Justin] Morneau, in the middle,'" Sano said, via La Velle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune. "He told me, 'Really?' I said, 'Yeah.'"
Morneau has long since departed, but Sano was right about protecting Mauer. The 22-year-old has proved to be a giant in the middle of the Minnesota Twins lineup. In his first month-and-a-half in the bigs, Sano has batted .291 and clocked nine home runs and 10 doubles. All those extra-base hits give him a .567 slugging percentage.
Even with the team mired in a second-half funk, the Twins (59-60) are only three games out of the second wild card. If Minnesota manages to steal a playoff berth, a lot of credit will have to go to the powerful rookie.
New York Mets
The Most Encouraging Sign: The team's stable of young aces.
This was an easy call to make. For the New York Mets, the most promising aspect of the franchise's future is the wealth of starting pitchers who reside in Queens.
After a recent series against the Colorado Rockies, Nolan Arenado gave his take, per Adam Rubin of ESPN.com: "The Mets have four No. 1s. We saw all four of them." As Rubin pointed out, that's not even true, as the Rockies missed Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler, who are both on the DL.
If the Mets can hold on to the top spot in the NL East, they will have the ability to put together a filthy postseason rotation. Currently, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jon Niese are all rolling along. Plus, Matz, who is working his way back from a lat injury, is expected back at the beginning of September, according to Mack Burke of the New York Daily News.
New York Yankees
The Most Encouraging Sign: The early work of Luis Severino.
The arrival of Luis Severino in the Bronx was just the summer splash the New York Yankees needed.
In his first three outings, the 21-year-old has posted a 3.18 ERA and recorded 18 punchouts in 17 innings. As the Yanks look to hold off the charging Toronto Blue Jays, the Dominican has caught the attention of Blue Jays skipper John Gibbons.
"That's as good of an arm as we've seen all year," Gibbons said, via Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. "Good quick arm, and he's a strike-thrower."
That's high praise considering Gibbons made those comments a day after Masahiro Tanaka threw a complete game in Toronto while dishing out just a single run.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The rise of Sonny Gray.
In what has been a train wreck of a season for the Oakland Athletics, Sonny Gray has been a rare bright spot for the last-place club. And what a bright spot he's been.
Gray has impressed ever since landing at the O.co Coliseum in the summer of 2013, but he's taken his game to a new level this season. The 25-year-old leads the AL with a 2.04 ERA and has reeled off three complete games for Oakland.
Gray has posted a 1.71 ERA in his last seven outings, and Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated recently tabbed him as the front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award.
Table-setter Billy Burns is worth an honorable mention. He has asserted himself as a dark-horse candidate for AL Rookie of the Year honors, hitting .291 with 24 steals.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The rise of the kids.
The rebuild is well on its way in Philly.
The Philadelphia Phillies are still languishing in last place in the NL East, but they have laid the groundwork for a far more successful future.
By shipping Cole Hamels to the Texas Rangers, the front office drastically improved the farm system. In that swap, the Phils brought back starter Jake Thompson, outfielder Nick Williams and catcher Jorge Alfaro.
Thanks to those additions, the Phillies now have the majors' 10th-best farm system, per Bleacher Report. The jewel of the system is shortstop J.P. Crawford, whom MLB.com dubbed the No. 5 prospect in the entire minor leagues. Pitcher Aaron Nola checks in at No. 21 on that list, and he's not the only kid who's already made it to Citizens Bank Park.
No one ever mentions Maikel Franco in the NL Rookie of the Year conversation, but the third baseman has proved to be an extra-base hitting machine. In 77 games, the 22-year-old has 22 doubles, one triple, 13 home runs and a .490 slugging percentage. Unfortunately for the Phillies, Franco has hit the DL with a fractured wrist and could be done for 2015, according to Jake Kaplan of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The impending return of Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer.
Help is on the way for the Pittsburgh Pirates, as they angle to hold down the top wild-card spot or potentially even topple the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.
According to Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, manager Clint Hurdle expects to have both Josh Harrison (left thumb surgery) and Jordy Mercer (left MCL sprain) back on the roster before the calendar flips to September.
Getting the versatile Harrison back will be an especially big lift, as the 28-year-old will provide the Bucs with cover in both the infield and the outfield. The right-handed batter was also rolling along before landing on the shelf, hitting .301 in his last 30 games.
San Diego Padres
The Most Encouraging Sign: Matt Kemp's resurgence.
Matt Kemp has been far from brilliant in his first season at Petco Park. The 30-year-old is hitting .267 for the San Diego Padres, but he's starting to show signs that he could return to his old ways.
The vet had a .907 OPS in July and checks in with a .901 OPS in August. Interim manager Pat Murphy has taken notice, explaining that the turnaround started during the series against the Pittsburgh Pirates a week before the All-Star break.
"I can't remember the time it happened, I think it was sometime in Pittsburgh," Murphy said, via Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I just thought, 'This guy is as good as there is out there.' He's put together some great at-bats, he’s played every day. He's been awfully good."
After his wobbly start to the campaign, Kemp's resurgence is exactly what the underwhelming Pads need, as the right fielder won't be going anywhere anytime soon. Kemp makes $21.25 million this year and is under contract at $21.75 million per year from 2016 to 2019.
San Francisco Giants
The Most Encouraging Sign: The club still has seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
With a 65-54 record, the San Francisco Giants have some work to do if they are going to defend their World Series title from a season ago. The squad sits two games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West chase and trails the Chicago Cubs by three games for the second wild-card spot.
But for the likes of manager Bruce Bochy, ace Madison Bumgarner and MVP candidate Buster Posey, now is not the time to panic. The Giants still have plenty of chances to do damage against the Dodgers, as the rivals will square off seven more times. Based on the way the season series has played out so far, that's far from ideal for the Dodgers.
The Giants have topped the Dodgers nine times in 12 clashes, including a pair of sweeps at AT&T Park. It just so happens the teams will face off in San Francisco in the second-to-last series of the season for a four-game set, which could end up determining the outcome of the race.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The emergence of Ketel Marte.
In what has been a lost season for the Seattle Mariners, it's hard to find many reasons for optimism. But after digging through the wreckage, Ketel Marte stands out as one of the few bright spots.
The 21-year-old earned a promotion to Safeco Field by hitting .321 and stealing 20 bags in 68 minor league games. So far, the sample size on the big league stage has been small, but the early results have been impressive.
The Dominican is a smooth defender at short, and he's held his own at the plate. In 16 games for the M's, the switch-hitter has logged a .286 average. With the fourth-place Mariners in evaluation mode, one of the goals down the stretch should be to see if Marte is a keeper for 2016 and beyond.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Most Encouraging Sign: The pitching staff just keeps getting better.
The St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff is so good that it's not even fair.
The NL Central leaders have posted the lowest ERA in the bigs (2.58), and the crazy part is that the team's pitchers just keep getting filthier.
Since the All-Star break, the group has ripped off a 2.21 ERA. All-Stars Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez have continued to give hitters fits, posting a 2.61 ERA and 2.83 ERA, respectively, in the second half. But no one has been more dominant than Jaime Garcia, who has allowed just four earned runs in his last four starts while limiting the opposition to a .161 average.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Most Encouraging Sign: The offense has finally started to wake up.
Getting on the board has not been the strong suit of the Tampa Bay Rays, the wild-card contender that nobody ever talks about. On the year, the AL East squad is second-to-last in the AL in runs.
But that's started to change as of late. In August, the Rays are second in baseball in average (.302) and OPS (.825). No one has played a bigger part in the offensive resurgence than Asdrubal Cabrera. This month, the vet is hitting .464 with a 1.203 OPS.
Now is a great time for the Rays offense to start showing signs of life. Even though Tampa Bay is sitting at 59-60, the club is just three games out of the second wild-card spot.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The relentless offense.
The Texas Rangers just won't go away.
As Richard Justice of MLB.com noted, the Rangers were 9.5 games out of first place on May 20. Now, they are just four games back of the first-place Houston Astros. The bats have had a lot to do with the Rangers' ability to stick around in the race. Dating back to the All-Star break, only the Boston Red Sox have scored more runs than Texas.
Rougned Odor (.938 second-half OPS) and Adrian Beltre (.820 OPS) have been two of the leading figures for the high-powered Rangers, but the team has also received some serious production from an unlikely source. Since the All-Star break, Shin Soo-Choo is batting .333 with a 1.048 OPS and 14 extra-base hits.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Most Encouraging Sign: The turnaround of the pitching staff.
Everybody knows the Toronto Blue Jays have the most dangerous offense in baseball. On the year, they have scored 63 more runs than any other team and 193 more runs than the Chicago White Sox, who are last in that department.
What has made Toronto so scary as of late is that the pitching staff is suddenly one of the most effective in the majors. Before the All-Star break, the Blue Jays had run up a 4.18 ERA, which ranked No. 23. Since the Midsummer Classic, the team is sporting a 2.52 ERA, which is second only to the St. Louis Cardinals.
David Price, who has only allowed four runs in his first three outings for Toronto, generates all the buzz. But the problem for the rest of baseball is that nearly all of the Blue Jays pitchers have been dealing for the past month.
The Most Encouraging Sign: The potential return of Denard Span.
With a 59-59 record, the Washington Nationals have been the single biggest disappointment of 2015. As Joel Sherman of the New York Post wrote, the Nats are in danger of becoming "the best team that never was."
No single factor explains why Washington has been such a bust, but the absence of leadoff man and tone-setter Denard Span is right at the top of the list. As Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports noted, the team is 35-24 when the center fielder is in the lineup and just 24-35 when's out of the mix.
The good news is Span is rehabbing from his back injury in the minor leagues. But as he told Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post, the 31-year-old knows he has to play it smart.
"I can't rush it. I need to make sure that when I do return I'm able to contribute," Span said. "There's no point in rushing it and then not doing my job."
That's sound reasoning from Span, but with the Nats trailing the New York Mets by 4.5 games in the NL East, time is running out for the vet to make any impact at all.
If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.