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The Strike Zone

Signs of weakness: Flaws that could derail AL contenders

Jim Johnson, Orioles The struggles of closer Jim Johnson could prove fatal to Baltimore's playoff hopes. (Mark Goldman/Icon SMI)

On Monday, I examined the various weaknesses of half a dozen National League contenders that still have realistic shots at reaching the playoffs. The field in the AL is more wide open, with nine teams retaining at least a significant chance. That's according to the current Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report, which uses a Monte Carlo simulation to account for run differential, strength of schedule, expected distribution of playing time and performance (via PECOTA projections).

What follows is a quick look at the factors most likely to derail each AL contender on the way to the playoffs and the World Series. The teams are listed in reverse order of their current BP odds. All stats are through Monday.

Kansas City Royals (64-59, 0.2% division/3.3% wild card/3.5% playoffs)

The Royals are 21-10 since the All-Star break, but with five losses in their last seven games, including a five-game series loss to the Tigers, they remain dark horses at best. Any notion that last week's acquisitions of Emilio Bonifacio and Jamey Carroll would be used to address their ongoing Vortex of Suck at second base in the wake of Miguel Tejada's injury and suspension seems to be on the back burner. The duo has been limited to third base and leftfield to cover for injuries while Chris Getz (.230/.299/.290) continues to devour outs.

Any improvement the Royals can get there, or a correction to the drastic offensive underperformances of Mike Moustakas (.236/.293/.369), Alcides Escobar (.241/.267/.310) and Salvador Perez (.273/.307/.377), would be a significant boost to an offense that's still averaging just 3.98 runs per game. But the biggest problem the Royals face is simply heavy traffic. Beyond the Tigers, the other seven teams here all have wild-card routes into the playoffs available to them; even at 6 1/2 games out in that race, Kansas City still has to pass four other teams to reach the postseason for the first time since 1985.

New York Yankees (64-59, 0.4%/4.5%/4.8%)

The Yankees have a similar logjam to battle. They are tied with the Royals and have three other teams between them and a wild-card slot. New York also has the worst run differential (-7) of any contender in the league. Warts and all, the returns of Alex Rodriguez (.319/.407/.489), Alfonso Soriano (.306/.337/.612) and Curtis Grandeson (.275/.389/.438) have at least helped shore up the offense; the team has averaged 4.94 runs per game this month.

Alas, the rotation that kept the Yankees afloat for so long has picked the wrong time to collapse. While Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova have combined for a 1.87 ERA and 10 quality starts out of 11 since the All-Star break, Phil Hughes, Andy Pettite and CC Sabathia have combined for a ghastly 6.30 mark and six quality starts out of 17. The latter trio has averaged just 5.3 innings per start in that span, failing to complete five innings five times. Any hope that the rehabbing Michael Pineda could provide a boost is dwindling given that he hasn't pitched since Aug. 2. Even if he is throwing on flat ground again and has been eyed by general manager Brian Cashman as a late-season contributor, he's running out of time to get work in at the minor league level, which would be necessary before he could reach New York.

Baltimore Orioles (67-57, 3%/14.4%/17.4%)

The Orioles are just 20-20 since July 1, making them longshots in the AL East race. They've also got a crowd to navigate in the wild-card race, not to mention the toughest remaining schedule of any AL contender, with an average opponent record of 65-58; of their 10 remaining games outside the rough-and-tumble AL East, seven come against the Indians and A's, which isn't exactly a respite.

At the moment, the most glaring problem Baltimore has -- besides its schedule -- is closer Jim Johnson. He has blown an MLB-high nine saves, eight of which his team has eventually lost, and two of which came in last week's three-game sweep by the Diamondbacks. Had the O's won four of those, they would be tied for the second wild-card spot. Alas, the most obvious solution -- installing the recently-acquired Francisco Rodriguez (304 career saves, 2.10 ERA and 10.7 K/9 this year) as closer -- is on hold given the minor groin strain he suffered on Friday.

Elsewhere the offense still cries out for a DH given the .209/.270/.383 performance the team has gotten at that spot thus far. With second-half callup Henry Urrutia hitting just .269/.269/.308 in 52 PA, it's worth revisiting the possibility of a waiver deal for Justin Morneau, Kendrys Morales, or somebody else with at least some track record of production.

Cleveland Indians (67-58, 1.9%/19.4%/21.3%)

Continuing its rollercoaster season, Cleveland has just an 8-10 record in August, including a 1-6 mark against the Tigers and A's. Indeed, the Indians' 29-41 record against teams .500 or better is the worst among contenders in either league and a serious impediment if they want to reach the playoffs, let alone advance. That said, they have the easiest remaining schedule in the AL, with an average opponent record of 58-65, and just four series (all three-gamers) remaining against winning teams.

All of that is already baked into their long odds, however. While the offense has fared surprisingly well, scoring 4.62 runs per game (fourth in the league overall ), the lousy second-half performances of Nick Swisher (.248/.311/.421), Asdrubal Cabrera (.196/.235/.321), Michael Bourn (.211/.286/.327) and Lonnie Chisenhall (.186/.238/.254), among others, have knocked that down to 4.10 runs per game since the All-Star break.

Oakland Athletics (71-53, 36.2%/44.3%/80.5%)

The seesaw race in the AL West currently finds the A's a half-game down with a slightly tougher remaining schedule than the Rangers. Oakland's offense has produced 4.40 runs per game, which is more impressive given the context of its pitchers' park environment than Texas' 4.48 per game in a hitters' park, but the A's nevertheless have got some significant causes for concern. For one, their outfield production remains abysmal. The unit has hit .222/.297/.387 as a whole, worst in the league for any team besides the Astros. While Yoenis Cespedes (.229/.293/.431) and Josh Reddick (.218/.302/.372) have shown signs of life in recent weeks, neither has given much reason for anyone to expect them to produce at the level they did last year, and alternatives such as Seth Smith (.241/.315/.367) and Chris Young (.197/.279/.387) have been even worse.

A pair of recent injuries poses problems as well. Catcher John Jaso (.271/.387/.372), who hasn't played since July 24 due to a concussion, is still experiencing symptoms and could miss the rest of the season, leaving 28-year-old rookie Stephen Vogt (.246/.309/.377 in 69 PA) to pair with Derek Norris in a platoon. In the rotation, Bartolo Colon suffered a groin strain while throwing on flat ground on Friday. Even in the wake of a two-start skid over which he had allowed 10 runs in 6 2/3 innings, the 40-year-old righty has put up team bests in ERA (2.97) and quality start rate (79 percent). Replacement Tommy Milone (4.30 ERA, 48 percent quality start rate) is a step down, and Brett Anderson -- who hasn't pitched in the majors since April 28 due to a stress fracture in his foot -- is still a couple of rehab starts away from being a viable alternative.

Texas Rangers (72-53, 63.8%/26.6%/90.4%)

The Aug. 9 acquisition of Alex Rios has given the Rangers a body to fill in for Nelson Cruz, but holes in the team's once-formidable offense aren't hard to find. Elvis Andrus (.256/.320/.308) has failed Tablesetting 101. First baseman Mitch Moreland has hit just .189/.269/.308 in 182 PA since returning from a hamstring strain and is down to .244/.307/.448 overall. Ian Kinsler (.266/.339/.408) isn't the force he used to be. Leftfielder David Murphy is hitting just .223/.284/.382. The DH spot (.252/.322/.395) still begs for a return from even a half-able Lance Berkman.

If there's good news here, it's that Texas has survived a seemingly endless wave of pitching injuries to rank fourth in the league in run prevention at 3.95 per game. Now for the bad news. The recent setback of Matt Harrison, who left a rehab start after 60 pitches due to numbness in his throwing hand, has ruled him out for the season, and Alexi Ogando just went back on the disabled list for the third time this season, this time due to nerve inflammation in his shoulder. He has just six starts since May 15, none of them quality starts. With Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Matt Garza and Martin Perez as their front four, the Rangers still have enough depth for a playoff rotation, but Ogando's versatility as a reliever would be a nice addition to the staff.

Tampa Bay Rays (71-52, 41.3%/49.3%/90.6%)

From June 19 through July 30, the Rays went an AL-best 27-8, climbing from seven games back in the AL East race to a half-game up. Since then, they've gone just 7-9, inclduing 1-6 against teams .500 or better. At this writing, they trail the Red Sox by one game in the division, but are just 34-39 against teams with winning records -- the second-worst record among this group -- compared to Boston's 37-34. They'll have to do better than that to go deep into the playoffs.

For all of Tampa Bay's vaunted pitching depth, the team is allowing 4.03 runs per game. While that mark ranks fifth in the league, its 3.83 ERA in a pitcher-friendly environment translates to a 100 ERA+, the definition of league average. Among the team's five starters, Roberto "Fausto Carmona" Hernandez (5.00 ERA) and Jeremy Hellickson (4.91) have both struggled, and Matt Moore (3.41) has been out since July 28 due to elbow soreness. Rookie Chris Archer has delivered a 2.95 ERA in 15 starts, helping the team cover for Hellickson's absence and those of David Price (triceps) and Alex Cobb (concussion). The latter two pitchers are now back, but if Moore, who's targeting an Aug. 30 return, experiences any setbacks, the team would need one of the underperformers -- or the inexpienced Alex Colome or Jake Odorizzi -- to serve as a fourth starter in a playoff series.

Also of concern: closer Fernando Rodney, whose seven blown saves rank second among all closers; he's walking 5.5 per nine, and his 3.91 ERA translates to a 99 ERA+. It might behoove manager Joe Maddon to cobble together a better solution from among righties Joel Peralta and Jamey Wright and lefties Alex Torres and Jake McGee.

Boston Red Sox (74-53, 55.3%/37%/92.3%)

The Red Sox have held first place in the AL East for most of the season but they've lost seven of their past 11 to the Royals, Blue Jays, Yankees and Giants, reducing their lead to a single game. Ranking second in the league in runs scored (5.00 per game) and seventh in run prevention (4.17 per game), they're a well-rounded team with only a few weaknesses, the most glaring of which is third base, which has been a problem for much of the year. They've gotten just a .242/.292/.387 showing from a group that includes a disappointing Will Middlebrooks (.222/.272/.422), the since-traded Jose Iglesias and others. That said, Middlebrooks has hit .444/.543/.667 in nine games since returning from a seven-week banishment to Triple-A, and 20-year-old top prospect Xander Bogaerts played 10 games at the position at Pawtucket before being recalled this week.

Meanwhile, the current rotation features just three pitchers with ERAs below Jake Peavy's 4.41 (including his time with the White Sox): John Lackey (3.22), Felix Doubront (3.95) and Jon Lester (4.09). Ryan Dempster has been rocked for a 4.77 mark, while Clay Buchholz (1.71) hasn't pitched since June 8 and may not be back until early September. Like Tampa Bay, the Red Sox need a solid fourth starter to step up, and but unlike their closest pursuers, they lack an obvious big-game option such as Price should they wind up in the wild-card game.

Detroit Tigers (73-51, 97.9%/1.3%/99.1%)

As noted in the piece that inspired this series, the Tigers' big problem has been their bullpen, a headache for manager Jim Leyland for most of the season. The situation has stabilized in recent weeks, with Joaquin Benoit shifting from setup man to closer and converting all 16 save opportunities while delivering a 1.57 ERA for the season. Meanwhile, spring closer designate Bruce Rondon and July trade acquisition Jose Veras have provided better setup support than the likes of Phil Coke (5.00 ERA) and Al Alburquerque (5.18 ERA). There's still hope that Octavio Dotel could help, though he was rocked for four runs in his most recent rehab outing. Also receding is concern regarding Miguel Cabrera, who's hitting .371/.443/.823 with eight homers in 70 PA this month despite missing time due to an abdominal strain.

Of more concern are the summer slump of leadoff man Austin Jackson (.229/.284/.410 over 206 plate appearances since July 1) and the status of catcher Alex Avila, who has been on the 7-day concussion disabled list since August 11. He's hit just .198/.288/.340 this year, but his previous work with the bat makes him a better bet to contribute to the offense than rookie Bryan Holaday, who's backing up a surprisingly effective (at least with the bat) Brayan Pena (.305/.328/.417).

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