This is it. After nearly six months of battling for MLB’s 30 teams, we’re now down to the final week of the season. It’s time to make plans.
This week’s four featured teams are preparing for all kinds of different outcomes. The Brewers are focused squarely on 2017 and beyond. The Yankees hope to build around unlikely Rookie of the Year candidate Gary Sanchez. The Jays’ plans could include another playoff berth, and maybe an ALDS rematch with Texas. The Cubs’ plan involves erasing any mention of 1908, forever.
Players plan, but the baseball gods laugh. It’s Week 25 of The 30.
Best GIF That Will Make You Laugh, Smile and Cry: Jose Fernandez
Read this. Then watch this.
Rest in power, Jose. We will never forget you.
A needle-in-the-haystack rookie and other shrewd finds offer hope for an also-ran Brewers team.
30. Minnesota Twins (56–100 record, minus-169 run differential, last week: 30)
29. Arizona Diamondbacks (64–91, minus-154, LW: 28)
28. Cincinnati Reds (65–90, minus-140, LW: 27)
27. San Diego Padres (66–90, minus-79, LW: 26)
26. Oakland A’s (67–88, minus-96, LW: 24)
25. Philadelphia Phillies (70–86, minus-169, LW: 25)
24. Atlanta Braves (63–92, minus-143, LW: 29)
23. Tampa Bay Rays (65–90, minus-32, LW: 22)
22. Los Angeles Angels (69–87, minus-30, LW: 23)
21. Milwaukee Brewers (70–86, minus-62, LW: 21)
When baseball teams try to rebuild, the traditional route typically entails crushing the draft and the international free-agent markets, then developing that young talent into major league stars. The 2016 Brewers have gone a different route: Some of the best stories on a team that’s going to finish below .500 for the third time in four years are players Milwaukee nabbed off the scrap heap.
Much of that success has shown up on the base paths. In Jonathan Villar, Hernan Perez and Keon Broxton, the Crew plucked three undervalued players off other teams’ rosters for next to nothing. That trio has fueled a fearsome running attack that leads the majors in stolen bases by a wide margin, on pace for the highest total by any team in seven years. Villar in particular has been an incredible find. A David Stearns favorite during his time in the Astros’ organization, the Brewers acquired Villar after Stearns took over as Milwaukee’s GM. The 25-year-old shortstop has rewarded them by batting .280/.366/.439, playing solid defense at a premium position and leading the majors with 59 steals.
But when it comes to unlikely journeys to major league success, Junior Guerra trumps all those guys. This coming Sunday will mark the 15-year anniversary of Guerra signing as an international free agent with the Braves … as an outfielder and catcher. After five years of failing to develop, he converted to pitching over the following winter, only to get released just before Opening Day 2007. No major league organization touched him that entire season, until the Mets took a flyer in October of that year. He pitched a year and a half there, got suspended for 50 games for violating baseball’s drug policy, then got released again.
Then he fell off the map completely. First, Guerra sat out an entire season of baseball. He returned in 2011 with the best gig he could find: playing for an independent league team in Wichita, Kans. After Wichita came a stint in Yucatan, Mexico, then Wichita again, then Italy. While circumnavigating the globe, he developed a new pitch, learning the split-fingered fastball from Giants reliever Jean Machi in the Venezuelan Winter League. Guerra finally made his big league debut last season at age 30 for the White Sox, but pitched four ugly innings over three appearances and got released yet again.
This year, against all odds, everything has clicked. On Sept. 14, Guerra fired six shutout innings against the Reds. That outing ended his season, with the Brewers opting to be cautious given an elbow injury that sidelined him for much of August and concern over too big a workload jump this year. Still, you can’t argue with the results: Guerra flashed a 2.81 ERA over 121 2/3 innings, led by a now-deadly splitter that yielded just 11 hits all season. An 8.7% walk rate and 79.4% strand rate suggest Guerra got away with a few mistakes. Still, if the haul here is merely a league-average starter making the league minimum, Guerra’s 2016 campaign ranks as one of the greatest success stories of the year for any player, or team.
On a Yankees team lacking impact talent, rookie Gary Sanchez offers the promise of a better future.
20. Chicago White Sox (74–81, minus-36, LW: 20)
19. Colorado Rockies (73–83, minus-3, LW: 19)
18. Miami Marlins (77–78, minus-16, LW: 18)
17. Pittsburgh Pirates (77-78, minus-7, LW: 17)
16. Kansas City Royals (79–77, minus-31, LW: 16)
15. New York Yankees (79–76, minus-26, LW: 15)
Something funny happened to the Yankees on Sunday against the Blue Jays. Three straight losses in Toronto effectively ended New York’s season, and losing on Sunday because the slugging Jays somehow small-balled the Bombers into submission was certainly weird.
But the strangest happening came when rookie slugger Gary Sanchez strode to the plate. Every time he did, the lathered-up, sellout crowd at Rogers Center started a derisive chant, one meant to both rattle and mock the Yankees' phenom. Channeling the classic Darryl Strawberry jeer of old, 47,000 Torontonians broke into chants of “Gaaaa-rrrrrry!”
That’s a spectacular sign of respect (and contempt) for a rookie who didn’t become a lineup regular until Aug. 3 of this year. The deadline trade of Carlos Beltran combined with Alex Rodriguez’s retirement opened the door for Sanchez to settle into that Yankees order. The eight-week run he’s gone on since defies belief: Even after Sunday’s serenade netted an 0-for-4 performance, Sanchez is still hitting .322/.397/.706 with an incredible 19 homers in just 47 games.
By the numbers, that incredible start might be the best by any hitter in major league history. Sanchez has been so dominant, some have lobbied for him to win AL Rookie of the Year honors despite strong performances by other first-year players over the span of a whole season—Tigers righthander Michael Fulmer chief among them. Whether or not Sanchez wins any hardware this season, though, this is the first time Yankees fans have been able to get truly excited over a rookie since … maybe Robinson Cano, 11 years ago?
Despite Sanchez’s mashing and the Yankees hanging in the wild-card race until late September, it’ll take a fair bit more for this team to become a true, consistent contender. For one thing, the rotation lacks good options beyond Masahiro Tanaka. For another, the Baby Bombers movement—which some hoped would also see players like Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin turn into big contributors—has been little more than the Sanchez Show so far.
Still, this is a Yankees team with eyes squarely focused on the future, following the big haul GM Brian Cashman got at this year’s deadline as well as the opportunity to pursue young free-agent superstars like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper after the 2018 season. Having a true building-block player in the meantime is a hell of a good start.
OK, Blue Jays
Let’s … play … small ball?!
14. San Francisco Giants (82–74, plus-57, LW: 11)
13. Houston Astros (82–74, plus-38, LW: 14)
12. St. Louis Cardinals (81–74, plus-59, LW: 12)
11. Seattle Mariners (82–73, plus-53, LW: 10)
10. New York Mets (83–73, plus-41, LW: 9)
9. Detroit Tigers (83–72, plus-16, LW: 13)
8. Baltimore Orioles (85–71, plus-22, LW: 7)
7. Toronto Blue Jays (86–69, plus-96, LW: 8)
Squint at the action on the field Sunday afternoon at Rogers Centre, and you’d swear you were watching a Gene Mauch-managed team from the 1960s.
Trailing by a run entering the bottom of the ninth, Melvin Upton Jr. stormed back from an 0–2 count to work a leadoff walk. Kevin Pillar then tried twice in a row to lay down a sacrifice bunt before flicking a little cue shot single to right, advancing the speedy Upton all the way to third. No. 9 hitter Ezequiel Carrera then followed with … a squeeze! The well-placed bunt attempt cashed Upton from third and frazzled Yankees reliever Tyler Clippard so much that the tall righthander threw the ball away, allowing Pillar to make it to third and Carrera to advance to second. After a Josh Donaldson intentional walk, Edwin Encarnacion came up with the walk-off hit—a 17-hopper bounced to just the right spot to produce a game-winning infield knock. Jays win, 4–3.
There are a few instances where bunting can make sense in baseball. No. 8 hitter Pillar laying down a sacrifice bunt earlier in the game against a tough righthander with runners on first and second and nobody out was a defensible move. Carrera’s squeeze attempt also made some sense, given the opportunity to advance two base runners, the element of surprise and Carrera not being a potent hitter. Still, bunting might have sabotaged the Jays’ chances had things gone a little differently. Pillar trying to bunt Upton over committed multiple sins, including letting a wild pitcher off the hook and not allowing the lightning-fast Upton to steal his way into scoring position instead. Pillar’s key single, meanwhile, came only after he made two terrible attempts to sacrifice Upton to second, resulting in two foul balls.
If you wanted a better example of effective small-ball, the eighth inning was it. AL MVP and Bringer of Rain Donaldson opened the inning with a walk, then stole second easily after getting a huge jump off gigantic Yankees righthander Dellin Betances. Donaldson scampered to third on a soft grounder to short, then scored on a solid Jose Bautista single up the middle. That inning not only reinforced what the Jays can do with aggressive tactics in occasional, well-chosen situations, but it also showed how Donaldson and Bautista now look like they’re back to full strength after both dealt with lingering injuries earlier this summer. Bautista’s homer on Sunday, as well as his electrifying three-run blast in the eighth inning of Saturday’s game, further underscored that point.
The return to health for those two big guns—combined with exceptional setup work by dirt-cheap pickups Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit and what now might be the deepest rotation in the AL with Marco Estrada and Marcus Stroman pitching better lately—point to a Jays team that might be just as dangerous this season as it was coming off its bludgeoning of the AL East last year. Granted, Toronto will almost certainly need to win a wild-card play-in game to make it back to the ALDS this year. But if the Jays can win that one, a rematch with the Rangers might await. Wouldn’t that be something to flip over?
Plans On Plans
Erratic offense? Pitcher workload concerns? The Cubs hope to have alternate solutions for any potential playoff issue.
6. Cleveland Indians (90–65, plus-104, LW: 5)
5. Texas Rangers (92–64, plus-11, LW: 3)
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (90–66, plus-104, LW: 6)
3. Washington Nationals (91–64, plus-159, LW: 2)
2. Boston Red Sox (92–64, plus-192, LW: 4)
1. Chicago Cubs (99–56, plus-240, LW: 1)
They won 99 games for the first time since 1935. They lead the majors in run differential by a wide margin. They have pitching and defense, power and versatility. They head into the 2016 playoffs as the favorites to win the World Series—which, as you may have heard, would be a big deal.
Here are two factors we’ll be watching us as the Cubs seek to end their 108-year drought.
1. Can the offense come through against tougher playoff teams’ pitching?
Over the past month, the Cubs have been decidedly ordinary at the plate, ranking 16th in park-adjusted offense. Javier Baez is a defensive whiz who’s also a potential offensive liability, with seven times more strikeouts than walks this season. Ben Zobrist has hit .179 and slugged just .269 in his past 100 plate appearances, which makes you wonder if this is just a slump or if he might be slowing down at age 35. Jason Heyward has been awful offensively all year long.
The Cubs’ biggest strength is clearly their run prevention. But when other teams trot out aces like Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw against the Cubs’ weaker hitters, with their run prevention edge advantage disappear?
2. Will Jake Arrieta hit a wall again, like he did in last year’s playoffs?
The Cubs' ace dominated the world last year, striking out 236 batters, flashing a 1.77 ERA and winning the NL Cy Young award. He also struggled in his final two starts of the season, a pair of playoff outings that resulted in eight runs scored off him in 10 2/3 innings. All the way back in spring training, manager Joe Maddon talked about limiting Arrieta’s regular-season workload so the big righty could be fresher for the playoffs. Mission accomplished: With one start left in the regular season, Arrieta figures to finish about 30 innings shy of last year’s 229 2/3 total.
None of this guarantees anything, of course, given how imprecise forecasting based on workloads can be, the tougher hitting competition in the playoffs and even the fact that Arrieta didn’t exactly get torched in those last two playoff starts last year; he largely fell victim to one-bad-inning syndrome. But if a little more rest combined with a deep bullpen allows Maddon to get his ace in and out of big playoff games with less damage done this fall, that could play a key role in a deep postseason run coming to pass.
This is nit-picking to some extent, of course. The Cubs’ rotation is even deeper than it was last year, with Kyle Hendricks creating the possibility of a second straight Cy Young winner for the team. The bullpen is now fortified with the addition of unhittable closer Aroldis Chapman. The defense is by far the best in baseball by every advanced metric, and one of the best by any team in recent memory.
Then again, when the competition consists of elite opponents every night instead of regular jousts with sad-sack teams like the Reds, it’s not unreasonable to look for roster holes, even if they are relatively small ones. Even as the clear favorites to win the World Series, the unpredictable nature of the playoffs make Chicago something like a 1-in-4 chance to win it all. The good news? Even if something like lineup dead spots or an Arrieta slowdown occur, no team has taken more aggressive steps to find backup solutions than have the Cubs. If they don’t reach the Promised Land, it won’t be because they didn’t try hard enough to build contingency plans.