Thursday, August 7, 2014

The 2014 MLB Playoff Chase - American League

It’s early August, and baseball fans know what that means …

It’s playoff chase time!

So who’s a shoo-in? Who’s teetering? Who will be left on the outside looking in?

Here’s one baseball fan’s perspective:

American League

Detroit Tigers

In the American League, the cream of the crop has got to be the Detroit Tigers.

With apologies to the Oakland Athletics, who have owned baseball’s best record almost all season, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Tigers, in my opinion, will be a little too loaded for its competitors come playoff time.

Tigers starting pitcher David Price - acquired July 31
Detroit just signed longtime Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price, adding baseball's strikeout leader (199 and counting) to a supremely talented staff also featuring the past two Cy Young award winners and the 2012 AL MVP. And beyond Price, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, the team has a pair of other hurlers who could be a No.1 or 2 start for several other teams in the majors in Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello.

Sure, Verlander has not been his six-time All-Star self yet – having a well out of character 4.66 ERA and 1.42 WHIP. But he’s 31 years old, he’s healthy and when he finds his groove again the Tigers will be all the better for it.

As for the Tigers bullpen – well documented as its weak link in recent years – the addition of Joakim Soria will help solidify its corps enough to protect late leads … Joe Nathan, as with Verlander, has had a rough go this year as well (5.31 ERA, 5 blown saves) and despite his struggles, he’s remained the team’s closer. It’s my belief, though, that Soria usurps Nathan as closer. But I do think the wily, 39-year-old will find himself again and he will join Joba Chamberlain (2.93 ERA in 50 appearances) to become a valuable bridge to Soria down the stretch.

As for Detroit’s offense: The Tigers look like a well-oiled machine poised to destruct any opposing pitcher that stands in its way.

Tigers designated hitter Miguel Cabrera
Miguel Cabrera remains one of the most imposing offensive forces in baseball. The reigning MVP currently holds a .311 batting average, has 36 doubles and 83 RBI. But as excellent as he’s been, I think his best is yet to come for Cabrera – that’s just how good a hitter this guy is.

The Tigers have plenty of pop surrounding Cabrera as well.

Victor Martinez is having quite the renaissance year. The 11-year vet is batting .324 with 23 homers and 66 RBI. His on-base percentage is .383 and he’s struck out a mere 33 times in 373 at-bats. It’s been the best season Martinez has looked since 2010 (the end of a four-year stretch in which he made three All-Star appearances), and batting fourth, one spot ahead of Cabrera, V-Mart is providing superior protection to his team’s superstar.

In the five spot, Torii Hunter has been hitting very well of late (.364, 6 HR, 24 RBI in July). Batting sixth, Tigers late-April pickup J.D. Martinez has been a pleasant surprise – batting .312 with 15 HR and 48 RBI in 247 at-bats.

Detroit holds a 4.5-game lead on Kansas City in the Central. But while KC is having a fine season, I expect the Tigers to extend its lead to 10 by season’s end. The Tigers, currently 62-48, finish the season as AL Central champs at 92 wins, 70 losses.

Oakland Athletics

The A’s have set the bar in the American League this season. The team has the most wins (69), the highest run total (551) and the second-highest ERA (3.13).

Athletics starting pitcher Jon Lester - acquired July 31
On top of this, the A’s just stole away Boston ace Jon Lester to add to its already supremely talented rotation. Yes, Oakland has dominated on the field and in the minds of many of baseball’s top experts this season.

Oakland, as always seems to be the case (at least in recent memory), will be very, very tough to score runs against. Lester is expected to headline a rotation featuring three starters in the AL’s top ten in ERA – Scott Kazmir (fourth place, at 2.53), Lester (7th, 2.59) and Sonny Gray (9th, 2.87). The team also has Jeff Samardzjia (2.91 ERA) and Jason Hammel, both acquired July 5 from the Cubs.

(An interesting note on Samardzija: Samardzija began the season as the world’s preeminent hard luck loser. Boasting a 1.46 ERA through his first 10 starts despite an 0-4 record, he set a major league record for winless pitchers through their first 10 starts of a season ... So far with Oakland, he’s 2-1 with a 3.09 ERA in six starts.)

In the A’s bullpen, closer Jim Johnson did not turn out as expected – he was a disaster, in fact (a 7.14 ERA in 40.1 innings pitched). But the team remedied Johnson’s failure by promoting Sean Doolittle, who has filled in admirably with a 2.49 ERA, a microscopic 0.63 WHIP and 71 strikeouts in 50.2 IP.

The A’s also have plenty of arms surrounding Doolittle in the pen. Fernando Abad has made 53 appearances with a 1.83 ERA, Luke Gregerson has a 1.84 ERA through 53.2 IP, and Dan Otero has been a stalwart with a 2.25 ERA and a team-high 64 innings pitched.

Offensively is where Oakland could begin to crumble a bit.

Not that the A’s will go from league leaders to pushovers, but …

Ex-Athletics outfielder Yoenis Cespedes
In acquiring Lester, the A’s surrendered a really valuable chip. The team gave up its cleanup hitter, home run derby champ Yoenis Cespedes. The 28-year-old defector of Cuba batted .256 with 17 home runs and 67 RBI prior to his July 30 trade to Boston. But while those are nice power numbers, it’s his presence that Oakland will miss. Brandon Moss (23 HR, 72 RBI) has been great, but Cespedes’ cannon in the outfield and menacing plate presence is irreplaceable.

By season’s end Oakland will most likely finish with baseball’s best pitching staff. And with the additions of Lester and Samardzija, that is obviously the plan.

Yes, pitching wins in the postseason and the A’s sure are loaded … But, will the team’s offense be good enough to stack up against the Tigers and or the team’s division rival Los Angeles Angels?

Oakland outlasts the Angels for the AL West pennant. The team makes it to its third consecutive postseason, finishing its regular season with a 94-68 record.

Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim)

After a relatively slow start to its season, the Angels are on fire as of late – winning 15 of its past 24 games and narrowing its gap against division-leading Oakland to a mere one game.

The team’s strength is undoubtedly its offense. Led by its star centerfielder, Mike Trout, LA has led the majors in runs scored since the beginning of July.

Trout has been sensational of late. The 25-year-old leads his team in nearly every offensive category. Moreover, his on-base percentage (.394), slugging percentage (.586), home runs (25), runs (78) and RBI (81) all rank among the top five in the AL. He’s also batting .305 and ranks second in the league with 33 doubles.

Angels centerfielder Mike Trout
One more Trout note and then I’ll move on … Trout’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) – a measurement of a player’s overall value to his team (including defense and speed) - tops MLB at 6.3. That’s a healthy .7 margin above second-placed Troy Tulowitzki of Colorado.

Hitting behind Trout, Albert Pujols seems to be healthy and is enjoying and fine season. The nine-time All-Star first baseman is batting .277 with 21 HR and 70 RBI. Other than Pujols fellow infielders second baseman Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick have contributed nicely as well: Aybar, a first-time All-Star this year, has 23 doubles, 12 stolen bases and 52 RBI. Kendrick has a .283 BA with 24 doubles and 47 RBI.

More offense? Right-fielder Kole Calhoun has blossomed in his second year, batting .280 with 11 homers and 32 RBI in 293 at-bats … and then there’s former AL MVP Josh Hamilton. Hamilton missed most of April and all of May, but he has provided steady production overall – batting .283 with 8 HR and 35 RBI in 244 at-bats. If Hamilton finds his power stroke, the Angels will be all the more formidable for it.

The Angels pitching has been okay this season. The team ranks 14th in the majors in ERA (sixth in the AL), but, it has been improving.

Taking the reigns as the team’s unofficial ace, Garret Richards leads LA with 12 wins a 2.58 ERA. Jared Weaver, the team’s more official ace, shares Richards’ win total, but it’s Richards who’s shown the most dominant this season.

Angels starting pitcher Garret Richards
Los Angeles’ first-round pick in 2009, Richards has progressed impressively from last year. In 2013, his first season of any tangible workload (145 innings pitched), Richards made 17 starts. He finished 7-8 with a 4.16 ERA, a 1.35 WHIP and 101 strikeouts. This season, he currently boasts a 1.02 ERA and has 152 strikeouts already. The man has been impressive; most recently evidenced by his complete-game win over Zack Greinke and the Dodgers this past Monday.

Leading the Angels pitching with Richards is Weaver, whom I meant no disrespect for earlier. Weaver’s definitely had fine campaign as well. The team’s three-time All-Star is 12-6 with a 3.59 ERA in 150.1 innings pitched. Behind him and Richards, the Angels rotation is decent; but it’s not the kind that rivals either Detroit or Oakland.

The Angels bullpen had its struggles earlier this season, but has been shored up of late. The team signed Jason Grilli in late August. The team then really made a splash, signing Padres closer Huston Street on July 18th. Buried in the depths of a poor Padres team, Street has been dominant this year – saving 30 games in 31 chances. So far with the Angels, he’s 6 for 6 in saves with no earned runs allowed.

Joe Smith (4-0, 1.83 ERA) and Kevin Jepsen (1.74 ERA, 56 K in 46.2 IP) have been reliable relievers for Los Angeles as well.

I’m buying the Angels as a wildcard with a decent shot of making some noise in the playoffs this year. LA finishes with a 92-70 record, 2 games behind the Oakland.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles have been on quite a tear lately. After spending its first half of the season in mediocrity, the team’s won 21 of its last 31 games.

While the O’s have a very talented lineup, it's the team’s pitching that has led the way as of late and that could lead them to wins in the postseason.

Orioles starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen
Baltimore’s pitching staff has no big names whatsoever. The current rotation, however, does have five guys who’ve been pretty effective in recent weeks.

Led by the efforts of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and closer Zach Britton, Baltimore ranked fourth in baseball for team ERA in the month of July.

Tillman has given up three earned runs or fewer over his last 11 starts. Chen leads the team in overall wins (12) and earned wins for five straight starts prior to Wednesday. Norris, meanwhile, has been steady all season - posting nine wins and owning the best ERA among O’s starters at 3.68.

As for Britton: Since being promoted to closer in mid-May, the 26-year-old has 23 saves in 26 attempts with a 2.16 ERA.

Nelson Cruz leads the Orioles offense with 29 home runs and 77 RBI. However, the All-Star slugger has cooled off mightily since the All-Star break – batting .104 (just seven hits in 67 at-bats!) since July 18. Fellow All-Star Adam Jones has not been too hot either – batting .133 with 2 RBI over his past seven games.

Orioles outfielders Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz
I have no doubts, however, that Baltimore’s offense will be stronger again as the playoffs approach … Cruz and Jones will eventually re-emerge. Also, if Chris Davis – who has 19 homers and 54 RBI, but a .197 batting average – can pick up his hitting consistence overall, the O’s offense will be all the more dangerous for it.

I’m picking Baltimore to finish 85-77 and AL East champs. However, I think the team’s pitchers have overachieved a little and it might a challenge for them to match up with the wildcard winner.

Seattle Mariners

I’ve pondered my second wildcard choice over and over (and over) again. And as much as I’d love to see my Kansas City Royals get it, my scales of reality eventually tipped to Seattle.

Yes, the Mariners make the postseason and Felix Hernandez finally makes his first playoff appearance.

Hernandez has been one of – if not thee – most consistent pitchers in baseball for nearly a decade now. The problem has been his surroundings – an offense mired toward the bottom of baseball nearly every season. But, this season there’s been just enough Felix, just enough complementary starters and bullpen, and just enough offense to nab that elusive playoff bid.

Mariners ace pitcher Felix Hernandez
King Felix – as he’s known among baseball followers – has always been excellent. However, he’s been especially spectacular as of late …

Following his start Tuesday against Atlanta, Hernandez has 15 consecutive starts throwing seven-plus innings while allowing no more than two earned runs – setting a new MLB record for a streak of such pitching prowess. Hernandez now not only holds the record– a record formerly held by Hall-Of-Famer Tom Seaver (12 games in 1971) – he’s eclipsed Seaver by two games … Talk about consistency! It’s simply remarkable. (Note: King Felix will go for 16 straight this Monday, when Seattle hosts Toronto.)

As you could imagine, Hernandez leads Mariners pitching in almost every statistical category imaginable. As for the American League overall rankings, he’s either at the top or very near it – Hernandez leads the lead in ERA and WHIP, at 1.97 and 0.88, respectively, and ranks second in both innings pitched (179.1) and strikeouts (186).

Mariners starting pitcher Chris Young
Pitching in around Felix (pun unintended) are fellow starters Hisashi Iwakuma (9 wins, 2.94 ERA) and Chris Young, as well as relievers Tom Wilhelmsen (2.21 ERA in 61 IP), Dominic Leone (2.14 ERA, 46.1 IP), Yoervis Medina (17 holds, 2.31 ERA) and closer Fernando Rodney (31 saves, 2.36 ERA) … Young – a nine-year veteran – is having his best season since his lone All-Star appearance, in 2007. Young is currently 10-6 with a 3.27 ERA through 134.2 innings pitched. In ’07, the crafty righthander posted a 9-8 record with a 3.12 ERA for the Padres.

Seattle’s offense currently ranks 26th in all of baseball. So as good as their pitching is, the Mariners offense is bound to slow them down come October.

I’m predicting a final record of 84-78 for the M’s. Thereby edging out the Royals, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays for AL wildcard No. 2.

* Note: All statistics in this column are as of end of play on Wednesday, August 6th.

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