Welcome to the latest installment of 3 Up, 3 Down, our weekly stock watch of who’s streaking and who’s slumping throughout Major League Baseball. Our latest edition includes notes on the scuffling Cubs, Ketel Marte’s offensive explosion the next great Yankees infielder.
↑ Gleyber Torres Punishing Pitchers ↑
Gleyber Torres bashed his 35th homer of the season against the Red Sox Sunday night, and his second-inning dinger placed him with talented company. New York’s phenom became the second middle infielder in baseball history to hit 35-plus homers in a season before turning 23, joining Alex Rodriguez. Torres’s next homer will make him one of three middle infielders to hit 60 bombs before turning 63, joining Rodriguez and Carlos Correa. (Quick aside: Nobody will match young A-Rod, who hit 106 homers before turning 23, and tallied two 35-homer seasons before his 23rd birthday.)
Aaron Judge will be the face of the Yankees in the 2020s, but Torres could potentially be the franchise’s most valuable player.
↑ New Star in the Desert ↑
Simply put, Diamondbacks centerfielder (and second baseman!) Ketel Marte has been one of the best hitters in the game this season. The 25-year-old All-Star leads the National League in hits and ranks third in batting average, posting a .982 OPS that trails only three NL players. Marte’s 6.3 Offensive WAR is already the third best single-season mark in DBacks history. He should trail only Luis Gonzales among Diamondbacks for the most total bases in a season by next week. Last year was an encouraging step for the former Mariner. This year has been an explosion.
Marte’s star turn hasn’t occurred in a meaningless summer. Arizona has won 11 of its last 14 games to move within 2.5 games of the second NL wild-card. The Diamondbacks have risen from below .500 to dive headfirst into the playoff race with a plus-80 run differential. Marte is their tone setter, and he’ll need his hot hitting to continue for Arizona’s second playoff appearance since 2012.
↑ Rays Bury Bottom Feeders ↑
Navigating your way to the postseason is difficult in any given year when tasked with 19 games each against the Yankees and Red Sox. So how have the Rays planted themselves atop the wild-card standings? By beating up on bad teams.
Tampa is cruising in that department as we approach mid-September. The Rays buried the bottom of the AL East last week, winning six of seven over Baltimore and Toronto, respectively. Kevin Cash’s squad is 24–11 against the aforementioned teams in 2019, and the Rays sport .600-plus winning percentages against Seattle, Miami, Detroit and the White Sox. That’s taking care of business.
Tampa Bay has remained strong against the rest of the American League as well, at least recently. The Rays swept the Indians in a crucial wild-card battle to end August, and they buried Boston with a sweep to close July. Tampa has six straight contests against sub-.500 teams starting Tuesday. It closes the season with three games in Toronto. The path to the postseason is clearly there for the Rays. They just need to survive an eight-game gauntlet against the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees between Sept. 17 and 25.
↓Cubs Falter Outside Wrigley ↓
The 2016 Cubs were road graders en route to the franchise’s first World Series since 1908. Chicago went 46–34 away from Wrigley Field–the second-best mark in baseball behind St. Louis–then won a Game 7 in Cleveland to secure the title. Joe Maddon’s 2019 squad bears little resemblance to the championship crew. The Cubs enter Tuesday 29–42 away from the friendly confines, a road record that only stands ahead of Miami, Cincinnati and Colorado.
A trip to Milwaukee continued the Cubs’ road woes over the weekend. A Thursday night win was quickly erased with three straight defeats at Miller Park, including a Christian Yelich walk-off on Saturday. Three teams are within two games of the Cubs’ second wild-card spot, and the team ends the season on a six-game road swing in Pittsburgh and St. Louis. I’m sure the Cardinals wouldn’t mind keeping their NL Central rivals out of October.
↓ The End of King Felix’s Reign ↓
We’re several years removed from the last gasp of Felix Hernandez as an ace, but his struggles in 2019 may signal the official end for the greatest pitcher in Mariners history. King Felix sports a 6.96 ERA in 2019, and the results since returning to the mound in August after a shoulder injury have been increasingly poor. Hernandez has an 8.04 ERA in four starts since Aug. 24, allowing a .677 slugging in 15 2/3 innings. Seattle’s former ace hit a nadir on Sunday as the Astros pummeled Hernandez for 11 runs in two innings of a 21-2 rout. With his seven-year, $175 million contract expiring after 2019, Hernandez’ baseball future appears in doubt.
Hernandez has battled injuries over the last four seasons, so we shouldn’t pile on. Conversely, it’s worthwhile to take a look at just how effective King Felix was at his peak. The burly righthander finished in the top 10 of the AL Cy Young vote in five of six seasons from 2010-15, and he claimed the 2010 Cy Young with a 13–12 record. Hernandez won the AL ERA title in 2010 and 2014. From 2010-15, only Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer threw more innings. Hernandez was an ace in every sense of the word; his No. 34 should be honored at Safeco Field in the next decade.
↓ Acuña’s Brief Blip ↓
If we’re being honest, this column has previously served as a Ronald Acuña fan forum. And why not? The 21-year-old sensation may be the most exciting player in baseball, and he enters the final weeks of September with a chance to join Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco and Alfonso Soriano in the famed 40-40 club. But Acuña’s current slide may halt him of the historic mark.
Acuña has been in a relative tailspin in his last 16 games prior to Monday night, slashing .145/.239/.258 with just one home run in 71 plate appearances. It appears as though even the National League’s answer to Mike Trout goes through slumps, and the high strikeout rate should be at least a touch concerning to manager Brian Snitker. The good news for Atlanta? Well, pretty much everything else. The Braves are cruising with nine wins in their last ten, holding a 9.5-game lead in the NL East with 17 to play. They’ll likely avoid the dreaded Dodgers in the NLDS, and potentially win their first playoff series since 2001. If Acuna gets back on track, the Braves are true World Series contenders.