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  • The Dodgers and Astros headline this edition of our power rankings, but the focus is on the unlikely cluster that is the AL wild-card race.
By Jonah Keri
August 14, 2017

Being a baseball fan usually means rooting for excellence. We cheer for tape-measure home runs and dominant pitching performances. Ten-game winning streaks. No-hitters. The rare hitting streak that can even start to threaten DiMaggio. This is usually what we want to see.

But this season, baseball’s biggest source of excitement is emanating from an entirely different place: mediocrity. Eight teams teams sit within four games of each other in the race for the American League’s second wild-card spot. That dizzyingly close race stems not from half the league playing exemplary baseball. The current leaders in that chase, the Angels, sit just three games above .500. Five of the eight teams within that four-game threshold have actually lost more games than they’ve won this season.

And all of it is glorious. The next seven weeks will feature meaningful and exciting baseball in a passel of cities that might not get that jolt in a different playoff system. So while three of the divisional races were already decided weeks ago, fans of 2016 also-rans like the Angels, Twins, Royals, Mariners, and Rays could be looking at games with playoff implications every night until October. That’s a helluva thing.

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This is the AL version of The 30.

30. Philadelphia Phillies (43–72 record, minus-98 run differential, last time: 30)

29. San Diego Padres (51–66, minus-155, LT: 28)

28. San Francisco Giants (47–72, minus-107, LT: 29)

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The Chris Sale trade. The Adam Eaton trade. The Jose Quintana trade. The trades of Todd Frazier, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Anthony Swarzak, and Melky Cabrera. All of these moves to rebuild a barren and long-neglected farm system. They were made with both eyes squarely trained on the future.  

That future is arriving ahead of schedule. Reynaldo Lopez, one of the two prized pitching prospects acquired from the Nationals last winter for Eaton, held his own in his White Sox debut Friday night. The 23-year-old right-hander fired six innings against the Royals, striking out six and allowing just two runs on four hits. Lopez caught a few breaks, giving up two home runs and three walks but escaping major damage by scattering those pitching lapses rather than succumbing to one big, bad inning. Still, we’re talking about a pitcher with a fastball that sits at 96 and touches the high-90s, plus a curveball that scouts love, hurling six competitive innings in his first time out, during a season in which that qualifies as a minor miracle for the Pale Hose.

Meanwhile, Yoan Moncada has also started to impress. The key cog in the Sale blockbuster got off to a horrific start as a White Sock, batting .105 with 16 strikeouts in his first 12 games. He’s shown a much more refined approach since then, batting .314/.442/.457 with eight walks in 10 games, plus some electrifying late-game heroics.

Two players do not a roster make, and the White Sox could use big performances down the road by Lucas Giolito, Blake Rutherford and other newly-acquired prospects if they hope to complete a successful rebuild over the next few years. Still, with the Sox now bottoming out in their quest to rise again, the first small signs of optimism are some of the sweetest.

26. Cincinnati Reds (49–69, minus-91, LT: 26)

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Much ink has been spilled over Major League Baseball’s home-run revolution. We’re on pace for more homers than any other season in the sport’s history. We’re already well past the entire total of long balls for the 2014 season, and it’s just mid-August.

The A’s saw this coming long ago. Five seasons ago, Oakland quietly started hoarding flyball hitters, seeking to win with power, and get the jump on a commodity that would later cause other clubs to make rash, overzealous moves in search of home runs. The A’s have kept that trend going, not only leading the league in flyball percentage back in 2012 and 2013, but continuing to do so in 2017.

Matt Chapman is now part of that lineage. Oakland’s first-round draft pick out of Cal State Fullerton in 2014, Chapman since day one of his pro career has embodied the swing-for-the-fences approach that the A’s favor. In 2016, he blasted 36 homers across the Double- and Triple-A levels, posting sky-high flyball rates but also the expected high strikeout rates, fueling a .237/.328/.519 line that would fit perfectly on, say, A’s outfielder Khris Davis’ Baseball-Reference page. Chapman’s up to the same tricks since getting called up to the majors earlier this summer: He’s batting .228/.305/.507 with eight home runs in 40 games.

There’s no way you can miss his flyball-heavy tendencies either. Among American League hitters with as many plate appearances, only the Rangers’ Joey Gallo has hit a higher percentage of balls in play for flyballs. Scouts have long questioned Chapman’s ability to make contact and hit for average, and he offers little speed despite being a 24-year-old rookie. But Chapman’s combination of power, plus defense, and his swing-for-the-moon approach could make him a valuable asset in Oakland for the next six seasons. Even if the A’s do find another inefficiency to pursue in the meantime.

24. Atlanta Braves (52–63, minus-61, LT: 16)

23. New York Mets (53–62, minus-54, LT: 22)

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This has to be a game of chicken. The Tigers have the best available pitcher in the game on their roster. He’s been placed on revocable trade waivers. Multiple teams could sorely use a pitcher of Justin Verlander’s caliber, especially with the big right-hander thriving lately (22 strikeouts and a 0.86 ERA over his past three starts, covering 21 innings). There’s no logical way to read the current situation other than one: the Tigers are trying to acquire as many quality prospects for Verlander while also shedding tons of payroll, and pitching-needy teams are trying to surrender as little talent as possible and avoid assuming the entire financial burden of Verlander’s contract.

It’s worth asking how onerous that contract truly is, though. Counting the pro-rated portion of his 2017 salary, Verlander’s owed slightly less than $64 million guaranteed through the end of 2019; he’d earn a $22 million vesting option the following season if he finishes top-five in AL Cy Young voting during that 2019 campaign. Pore over this list of pending pitcher free agents—who’s out there who’s better than Verlander? And why would teams want to spend what might be multiple more years and a lot more dollars for pitchers with inferior pedigrees?

That’s not to say that a trade is all that easy, of course. Verlander struggled for much of this season before picking up the pace lately, and that’s got interested teams worried that his Cy Young-worthy 2016 season might’ve been a last hurrah before a steep mid-to-late-30s decline. Wildly successful teams like last year’s Cubs and this year’s Dodgers have also shown how vital elite, homegrown talent is, and giving up one or more potential stars always carries risk, even when the return is a pitcher as potentially dominant as Verlander.

Still, there should be a happy medium here. Even with the AL wild-card race as muddled as it is, the Tigers aren’t making the playoff this year. With a roster (and minor league system) that’s light on impact talent, it’s tough to imagine them making deep playoff runs in 2018 or 2019 either. Meanwhile, Verlander could be a major difference maker for a contending team, both now and through the end of the decade. A properly negotiated trade, with legitimate assets coming to Detroit in exchange for the excellence that Verlander is finally showing again, makes too much sense for it not to happen.

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When your pitching staff’s so badly beaten up that you have Mat Latos, Mike Bolsinger, Casey Lawrence, Nick Tepesch and Cesar Valdez making nearly twice as many combined starts as your staff ace and 2016 AL ERA leader, that’s tough to overcome. When your team defense goes from elite last season to one of the six worst in the league this year, that takes a huge toll. When injuries rip through your roster and sideline everyone from the 2015 AL MVP to important role players up and down the lineup, that’s a major problem.

But with the Jays now eyeing a rebound in 2017, they’ll need to focus on another weakness too: a painful lack of depth. While teams like the Dodgers have plugged in supersubs like Chris Taylor, the Jays’ inability to build true 1-through-25 strength has compounded the team’s injury woes. When your catchers, middle infielders, and outfielders all completely fail to hit, you patch what you can for one last hurrah next season, then get down to the heavier work: rebuilding a farm system that has failed miserably for years to produce top-tier, homegrown hitters.

20. Miami Marlins (56–60, minus-17, LT: 23)

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Manny Machado, first 80 games of the season: .215/.283/.418

Manny Machado since: .360/.396/.588

You can find multiple reasons why the Orioles are still in the AL wild-card race. Dylan Bundy’s finally starting to make good on his incredible potential— he's struck out a total of 20 batters in his past two starts and allowed three runs or fewer in four of his past five; for what seems like the zillionth year in a row, they’re winning a disproportionate number of closely-contested games (the O's are 9–2 in extra-inning affairs); and of course, the competition isn’t very good, which is how a sub-.500 ballclub can retain relevance this late in the season.

Still, if the O’s want to crash the playoffs with a Cinderella run the rest of the way, they’ll likely need Machado to keep hitting like Machado. That, or keep stealing good players off other teams’ rosters while offering nothing in return.

18. Pittsburgh Pirates (58–60, minus-38, LT: 19)

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We can’t just mention Joey Gallo’s gonzo season in passing, as part of a capsule on another team. Let’s take a moment to appreciate exactly what he’s doing.

He’s whacked nearly 59% of his balls in play as flyballs, the highest mark for any hitter in the majors.

He has 67 hits all season. Very nearly half of those (32) have been home runs.

The “three true outcomes” in baseball (i.e. the ones only affected by hitter-pitcher matchups that have nothing to do with defense) are home runs, strikeouts, and walks. Fifty-nine percent of Gallo’s plate appearances this season have ended in a home run, strikeout, or walk. Gallo thus leads the majors in both strikeout rate and three-true-outcomes rate.

Despite his 32 homers (the third-highest total in the American League), Gallo has driven in just 61 runs—the most skewed rate of homers-to-RBI in the majors for anyone with anywhere near that many roundtrippers.

Joey Gallo is Rob Deer, just much younger, and in much better shape. We are all witnesses.

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The Mariners' starting rotation, already hanging by a thread, suffered a huge blow when staff ace James Paxton hit the disabled list with a chest injury. Considering Jerry Dipoto’s thirst for trading, one potential trade looks enticing if Seattle wants to keep pace in the playoff race. The Blue Jays' Marco Estrada offers a combination of a recent hot streak, pending free-agent status, and a spot in the rotation of a team that’s just about out of the playoff race (or at least as out as any team can be in this insanely crowded wild-card race). Estrada-to-Seattle would be an extremely logical trade some time in the next few days. Losing four straight at home to the Angels only makes the need more urgent.

Even if they do make a pitching move, the M’s will likely need to lean on offense to bounce back from a rough weekend and take aim at a wild card. Kyle Seager has led the recent charge, finally starting to duplicate his 2016 breakout campaign. The lefty-swinging third baseman hit a meager .248/.320/.404 in the first half of this season, managing just 10 home runs in 332 at-bats. But he’s raked since the break, batting .277/.347/.580 with eight long balls in 112 at-bats.

The M’s might not have envisioned a bunch of 9–7 wins as their path to the playoffs. But given how thin their pitching is and how deadly the middle of their lineup is when Seager’s mashing, Coors Field-style baseball might be their best bet.

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One of several teams to hold that second wild-card spot in the past two weeks, the Rays quickly relinquished that perch thanks to a brutal 0-for-31 stretch with runners in scoring position. Given that level of failure in big spots, it’s no surprise that the Rays’ first half-to-second half runs-per-game chart looks like the life and times of Pets.com’s stock.

The good is that neither the Rays nor any team lacks magic clutch pixie dust; their numbers in high-leverage spots will bounce back on their own. Even if you ignore context, though, Tampa Bay’s still been worse than any other team offensively since the All-Star break. It would help if they could get something—anything—out of the catcher position.

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Wilson Ramos looked like a savvy signing last winter, a player coming off a monster .307/.354/.496 campaign in 2016 who was acquired on a dirt-cheap two-year deal because he blew out his knee just before the end of the season. Ramos made his Tampa Bay debut on June 24 and has been horrendous from day one. His numbers since the break? .134/.147/.149, a great way to hamstring the upstart Rays’ playoff chances.

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The notion that Eric Hosmer might be seeking (or might deserve) a 10-year, $200 million contract has always been ridiculous. Conventional baseball wisdom might appreciate a player who often hits for decently high averages, stays healthy enough to rack up pretty good counting stats, and wins three Gold Gloves because despite some recent improvements in the system (because most of the people who vote on that award still don’t know how to interpret advanced defensive stats, which have long rated Hosmer a worse-than-average fielder). Throw in how desperate teams are to avoid paying big bucks for less-than-elite players in their 30s and how easy it is to find first basemen who can hit relative to mashers at other positions, and even Hosmer’s enormously savvy agent Scott Boras can’t pull a $200 million rabbit out of this hat.

Financial maneuvering aside, though, Hosmer’s having the best offensive season of his career, his .313/.374/.493 line grading out as 30% better than league average. That season-long strength doesn’t fully capture what Hosmer’s done to power the Royals back the playoff hunt. After starting the season by hitting a pitcher-like .195/.253/.247 in his first 20 games of 2017, he’s batted a terrific .337/.398/.526, simultaneously smacking line drives all over the park and also going on one of the biggest power jags of his seven-year career, with 40 extra-base hits in 97 games.

The Royals’ recent five-game losing streak knocked them out of the lead for the second wild-card spot. But Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Jason Vargas and Alcides Escobar still have enough time for one last stand, before that loaded Royals core of free agents-to-be tests the open market. If the Royals have one more back-from-the-dead run to summon, now would be the perfect time for that to happen. 

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It’s amazing how quickly everything can change. When the Rangers beat the Twins 4–1 on Aug. 5, Minnesota fell to four games under .500. They looked listless at home, watching helplessly as Cole Hamels went the distance to beat them with a four-hitter. A realistic take on the Twins’ situation at the two-thirds mark of the season would have been to brace for more losses, and wait ‘til next year.

The very next day, the Twins fell behind 5–0 to that same Rangers team ... only to rally for a heart-stopping 6–5 victory. That marked the first of six straight wins for Minnesota, a run that has the club right back in the thick of that wild wild-card race.

One of the biggest catalysts, of all people, has been Eddie Rosario. A notoriously streaky hitter who’s often struggled badly to control the strike zone, plate discipline has suddenly become his friend, and the results have been stellar. Starting with that Aug. 6 win, Rosario has gone 12-for-32, smashing five home runs, knocking in 10 runs, and scoring 11. By the time you read this, there’s a good chance he’ll have won his first-ever Player of the Week award. Better still, Rosario might start piecing together more good streaks than bad, thanks to an improved ability to lay off pitches out of the zone.

In this completely wacky season, having an unheralded fourth-round draft pick who made far too many outs in his first two big league campaigns suddenly become the spark for a 103-loss Twins team to rebound and make the playoffs the very next year seems almost too perfect to imagine. 

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Ladies and gentlemen, your impossibly unlikely leaders in the race for the second wild-card spot ... the Angels!

Seriously, what kind of odds would you have given a team with just one playoff berth in the past seven seasons ... coming off a 2016 campaign in which it lost 88 games ... with a de facto staff ace pitching for his fifth team in four major league seasons ... all during a season in which their best player (the best player on the planet) spent a month and a half on the disabled list?

Give a ton of credit to Andrelton Simmons for these shockingly good tidings, which includes a six-game winning streak. After a slow start to the season, Simmons has batted a terrific .334/.382/.526 over his past 58 games. Meanwhile, Simmons continues his reign as the best defensive player in baseball, making highlight-reel play after highlight-reel play.

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It’s that defensive dominance that’s made Simmons a viable MVP candidate: Even though his offensive numbers lag well behind the likes of Jose Altuve, Aaron Judge, and Trout, his glove might save 30 more runs than the average shortstop this season. In fact, we can raise the ante here. Simmons shouldn’t merely considered a darkhorse pick for Most Valuable Player this year. His Ozzie Smith-like defense should prompt us to take a closer look at his burgeoning career. Because it has been, and continues to be, pretty damn impressive.

11. Milwaukee Brewers (61–59, plus-14, LT: 5)

10. St. Louis Cardinals (61–57, plus-55, LT: 14)

9. Chicago Cubs (61–55, plus-42, LT: 11)

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The baseball world never fails to craft its share of stupid narratives. The Great Gary Sanchez Panic of 2017 ranks among the stupidest.

Yes, Sanchez has allowed 30 wild pitches and a league-leading 12 passed balls this season. That’s not good. Sanchez a young catcher in his second major league season, and his pitch-blocking certainly needs work.  

That this weakness in Sanchez’s game blew up in the tabloids and led to a high-profile benching, however, defies all logic. Manager Joe Girardi moaned publicly that Sanchez needs to improve. GM Brian Cashman regaled the media with a theory about Sanchez’s defensive shortcomings, positing that Sanchez gaining muscle over the winter might’ve hurt his flexibility and made it more difficult for him to jump in front of errant pitches. Answering reporters’ questions with a quiet, ‘we wanted to give him a day off to regroup' apparently wasn’t an option. Neither, it seems, was leaving a catcher who now has 39 home runs in 138 career games played in the lineup, when the alternative (Austin Romine) is a backup who’s hit like Bubba Crosby, if Bubba Crosby were still playing today.

Sanchez has tons of room for improvement, and both he and the Yankees would like to see him develop into a great all-around catcher. But obsessing over a player’s weaknesses rather than acknowledging his strengths and working quietly to help him improve is a trading that remains alive and well in baseball. With the Yankees in the thick of a pennant race, perhaps the public flogging could be saved for the offseason. Or, you know, maybe don’t flog the guy at all.

7. Colorado Rockies (65–52, plus-42, LT: 8)

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Corey Kluber beat the Rays on Sunday, retaining Cleveland’s 4 ½-game lead atop the AL Central. Kluber allowed three runs on four hits in the game, striking out nine and firing seven strong innings and helping his bullpen out during the dog-days portion of the season.

This, of course, was a massive disappointment.

What else can you say about a pitcher who, in his previous start, became just the sixth pitcher ever to strike out 11 or more batters in five straight starts (the others were Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, Chris Sale and J.R. Richard)? What else can you say about a pitcher who’d twirled consecutive complete games in his previous two starts, when only three other American League pitchers had tossed two or more complete games all season long?

Chris Sale has been an alien in 2017, swooping into stadiums, sucking out hitters’ souls and turning his starts into acts of intolerable cruelty. Otherwise Kluber would be sailing toward his second Cy Young award. A shot at World Series Game 7 redemption, though, remains very much on the table.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks (65–52, plus-108, LT: 6)

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Rafael Devers’s home run Sunday night at Yankee Stadium requires a great deal of context.

— Devers is a 20-year-old rookie, and is also the second-youngest player in baseball. His home run was the fourth of his major league career, in his 15th game.

— The home run came in the ninth inning, with the Red Sox down by one, thus tying the game.

— The home run came off Aroldis Chapman, one of the most successful closers in recent baseball history.

— The pitch from Chapman was a fastball that registered 103 mph on the radar gun. It was the hardest pitch ever hit for a home run since analysts started tracking velocity for such events, in 2008.

— Devers smashed the ball 423 feet. To the opposite field.

— The home run was the first allowed by Chapman to any batter this season.

— It was the first one he’s allowed to a left-handed hitter in six years.

— The homer set the stage for a Red Sox victory, opening Boston’s lead in the AL East up to 5 ½ games.

— Pretty...pretttaaaaaaay good.

3. Washington Nationals (70–46, plus-126, LT: 3)

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Dallas Keuchel calmed things down a little on Sunday, tossing 6 ⅔ innings of one-run ball to beat the Rangers. That was a welcome sight. Keuchel had just been just strafed for eight runs and 10 hits by the lowly White Sox in his previous outing, raising concerns about a pitcher who’s otherwise been excellent this season, but also missed nearly two months with a neck injury in June and July.

Still, the Astros are hardly out of the woods when it comes to their starting pitching. Their No. 2 starter Lance McCullers Jr. was nearly unhittable in his first 14 starts of the season ... before allowing 25 runs in his next 24 innings of work. He hit the DL at the end of July with a back injury, and is coming along slowly in his rehab, having not yet started pitching again off a mound. And none of that addresses the issue of workload, with McCullers having never thrown more than 158 innings in any season of pro ball.

Even if Keuchel’s back to his old ace self ... and even if McCullers does make it back healthy fairly soon ... and even if Charlie Morton continues to pitch fairly well as a mid-rotation option ... and even if Brad Peacock maintains a high strikeout rate ... why would the Astros stand pat with what they have? This is an offense that’s not only been the most productive in the majors this year—it’s been better than any other team’s offense, on a park- and league-adjusted basis, in the past 100 years.

The Royals of 2014 and 2015 showed that teams can win big without having deep and wildly talented starting rotations. But they also were probably an anomaly. Justin Verlander’s sitting out there for the taking. The Astros have 17 days to work out mutually beneficial terms with the Tigers. They have 17 days to make the very obvious, and very correct move for a team with legitimate World Series aspirations.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (83–34, plus-208, LT: 1)

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