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  • They're the hottest team in baseball and are approaching a record-breaking winning streak: There is no other logical choice for the top spot other than the Indians.
By Jonah Keri
September 11, 2017

Scott Hatteberg and Miguel Tejada. Billy Beane and Art Howe. A bestseller and a Brad Pitt movie. Twenty in a row. These are the figures that Cleveland’s trying to take down as it makes a run at history.

Cleveland’s 18 straight wins highlight what could be an eventful September in the American League. The home-run race is a barnburner, featuring two sluggers who are also approaching all-time strikeout levels. The MVP and Cy Young races are among the most wide-open that we’ve seen in years. And the battle for the league’s second wild-card spot might very well go down to the final day of the season.

This is the AL version of The 30.

30 Philadelphia Phillies (54-89 record, minus-121 run differential, last time: 30)

29 San Francisco Giants (56-89, minus-145, LT: 27)

Is Avisail Garcia one of the greatest breakout stories in baseball this year, or a player who built a splendid season out of luck, setting up a crash in 2018?

The case against Garcia: He’s batting a white-hot .386 on balls in play, tops in the American League. The league as a whole is batting .300 on balls in play this season, suggesting that Garcia’s performance is an extreme outlier. Meanwhile, the same iffy on-base skills that made him make too many outs earlier in his career (.309, .305, .309, and .307 on-base percentages in 2013-2016) haven’t improved: Garcia’s struck out four times more often than he’s walked this year.

The case for Garcia: Well, normally you’d look for a surge in hard contact to explain a massive run-up in batting average on balls in play. About that…

2016 hard-hit rate: 34.3%

2017 hard-hit rate: 34.3%

OK, but a jump in line drives could also add legitimacy to a batted-ball bonanza. Yeah, thing is…

2015 line-drive rate: 24.5%

2016 line-drive rate: 21.7%

2017 line-drive rate: 20.3%

The White Sox have assembled an exciting collection of young talent as their rebuild starts to gain steam. Just don’t count on Garcia being a big part of that rebuild, unless he shows real skills gains, not just a random BABIP blip.

OK, that’s a lot of negativity for one team. Here, enjoy:

27 Cincinnati Reds (62-82, minus-94, LT: 26)

26 San Diego Padres (65-79, minus-144, LT: 29)

Though we love advanced stats at The 30 Headquarters, there’s still room to appreciate the old classics. To wit: Khris Davis is one home run away from becoming just the fifth player this decade to crank 40 homers and knock in 100 runs in two straight seasons.

But Davis is also closing in on more ignominious territory. With 19 games left in the season, he’s on pace to strike out 210 times this year, putting him on pace to finish with the sixth-most strikeouts in a season. Or at least it would, if Aaron Judge weren’t on pace to whiff 214 times in his own right. Meanwhile, with three weeks left in the season, the leading home run total in the American League is 41 by Judge ... two ahead of Davis.

Let the Dave Kingman Derby commence!

24 New York Mets (63-80, minus-78, LT: 24)

23 Atlanta Braves (64–78, minus-80, LT: 23)

Justin Verlander’s gone. So too are Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez. Ian Kinsler’s a prime trade candidate this offseason, and can test free agency at the end of next season even if the Tigers hang onto him for some reason. Likewise, Victor Martinez’s 2018 campaign will likely be his last in Detroit, if the Tigers don’t ship him elsewhere before that. That leaves Miguel Cabrera as the last man standing from the Tigers powerhouse that won four straight AL Central crowns from 2011 through 2014.

Figuring out what to do with Cabrera overshadows all of those other decisions. For starters, there’s the money. Every year from 2018 through 2021, Cabrera will make $30 million. That number rises to $32 million in 2022 and 2023. If he finishes in the top-10 in 2023 MVP, his 2024 and 2025 club options ($30 million apiece) become guaranteed; otherwise, the Tigers can buy him out for 2024 at another $8 million. Even if Cabrera’s only declined a bit from his prime at that point, that’s a bigger financial burden than most teams will be willing to take.

The bigger problem, though, is performance—and by extension, age. We don’t have to wonder when Cabrera might start to slip, because his decline is well underway already. He’s batting just .250/.333/.404 this season, the worst showing of his career. On a park-adjusted basis, Cabrera’s 2017 performance is right in line with the murderers’ row of Danny Valencia, Yolmer Sanchez, and Max Kepler. Cabrera’s dealt with injuries this year, and batted a very Cabrera-like .316/.393/.563 last year, so it’s possible that his 2017 performance is a fluke, and that he’ll return to all-world status in 2018. But he’s also 34 years old, making $30 million-plus a year through his 40th birthday. The Tigers won’t be motivated to trade a franchise player and future Hall of Famer unless the return is huge, and no other team will be motivated to trade for Cabrera unless he can get back to raking and Detroit picks up a big chunk of his contract.  

So while the Tigers embark on their rebuilding efforts, one of the most recognizable and impactful players the team has ever had will likely be the last (old) man standing.

 

 

 

 

 

The Blue Jays have endured many problems during this cellar-dwelling season. Perhaps none more acute than their outfield problem.

In right field, they’ve got Jose Bautista, who can’t field, can’t run, and nearing his 37th birthday, doesn’t look like he has much left to offer with the bat either. Ezequiel Carrera’s enjoying the best offensive season of his career. But he’s built those numbers on an unsustainable .368 batting average on balls in play, and wields less power than almost any other corner outfielder in baseball. Neither Carrera nor his platoon partner Steve Pearce produce anything close to playable defense either.

Now here’s the good news: Help is on the way. For starters, Teoscar Hernandez figures to win one of the starting jobs. Inexplicably stolen from the Astros for a couple months of lousy Francisco Liriano innings, Hernandez broke out with a two-homer game on Sunday, and figures to receive regular playing time down the stretch. Meanwhile, 23-year-old rookie Anthony Alford dazzled with a .310/.406/.429 line at Double-A New Hampshire this year, and possesses the combination of on-base ability and speed that could lead to him becoming the leadoff man the Jays have sought for a while. Alford has only played in seven games above the Double-A level and might not be as polished as Hernandez, so the Jays might wait a bit before giving him a clear shot at an everyday job in the majors. But there’s a real possibility that both Hernandez and Alford could be starting for the Jays at some point next year.      

None of that addresses what the Jays might do with Kevin Pillar. Arguably the best homegrown position-player prospect the team has shepherded to the majors in two decades (exactly, yikes), Pillar’s made his reputation as a Gold Glove-caliber gloveman who makes far too many outs at the plate. But with Pillar arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter and showing no signs of progress with the bat, the Jays could try to trade him and look for help outside the organization to complement their coming kids.  

However this all shakes out, one thing seems clear: The Jays outfield of 2018 won’t look anything like the Jays outfield of 2017. Given how this year’s group performed, that’s a very good thing.

20 Pittsburgh Pirates (67-77, minus-71, LT: 20)

19 Miami Marlins (68-75, minus-38, LT: 15)

 

 

In the midst of their 2008–2013 glory years period, the Rays accomplished something that’s jarringly rare in modern baseball: They went 2 ½ years without any of their starting pitchers hitting the disabled list. With that streak now long over, they’re back to experiencing the same worries as every other team. Namely, wondering if a little twinge or a bad outing could be a sign of something more grave.

It’s tough not to feel at least a little concerned about Chris Archer at the moment. On Sept. 2 against the White Sox, Archer left his start in the first inning due to forearm tightness. That condition can often be a precursor to Tommy John surgery, so it was obviously cause for alarm. Team orthopedic surgeon Dr. Koco Eaton examined Archer’s arm, found no structural damage, and pronounced him fit to make his next start. Then the Red Sox lit him up for eight runs and nine hits.

Maybe that was just a coincidence. The Red Sox offense has been erratic at times this season, but certainly has the talent to put up a bunch of crooked numbers. Moreover, if Archer was hurting when he faced the Sox, you couldn’t tell it from his fastball velocity, which was actually up slightly on Friday night, at an average of 96.5 mph. Still, with their playoff hopes slowly fading into the rearview mirror, the Rays can ill afford a major injury to their staff ace, even less so when his contract could keep him around through 2021 at rock-bottom prices.

 

 

With a farm system that sometimes struggles to churn out talent and a budget that’s healthy but still below the top-spending teams in the league, the Orioles often need to pull off shrewd, under-the-radar moves to keep up in the perpetually loaded AL East.

Count the signing of Welington Castillo as one of those moves. Despite a paper-thin market for free-agent catchers, the O’s somehow reeled in Castillo for just one year and $6 million guaranteed (plus a $7 million player option for 2018). For that paltry sum, Baltimore’s scored a .293/.330/.505 line from Castillo, with their starting backstop having already tied his career high with 19 home runs. By park-adjusted offense, only Willson Contreras, Gary Sanchez, Alex Avila, Buster Posey, and Robinson Chirinos(!) have been better (minimum: 250 plate appearances).

If anything, you could look at this Orioles season, see Castillo rake for next to nothing; Tim Beckham lay waste to the American League after being nabbed at the deadline for nothing; Jonathan Schoop break out and become of the most devastating hitters in the league; the bullpen do a lot of the same excellent work in the late innings that they’ve been doing for years; see the team below .500 ... and realize just how truly awful the Orioles are at building a starting rotation.  

 

 

Eric Hosmer is on fire. After an ugly start to the season, he’s now batting .328 for the season, trailing only Jose Altuve among American League hitters. With free agency just a few weeks away, Hosmer’s putting up the best numbers of his career, and keeping a thin Royals team on the fringes of the wild-card race.

Yet we’ve still buried the lead here. Hosmer has banged out eight hits in his past eight at-bats. He’s two hits away from being tied for second-most consecutive hits in major league history, and four away from the record of 12, set by Walt Dropo in 1952.

Next up? White Sox right-hander Reynaldo Lopez in a series opener against the White Sox. Hosmer’s been even better against right-handers this season, batting a huge .341 against them. Buckle up.

Nelson Cruz since his 2013 suspension for PED use:

2014 (age-33 season): .271/.333/.525, 40 homers (led league), 107 RBI, 137 wRC+

2015 (age-34 season): .302/.369/.566, 44 homers, 93 RBI, 158 wRC+

2016 (age-35 season): .287/.360/.555, 43 homers, 105 RBI, 146 wRC+

2017 (age-36 season): .286/.371/.535, 32 homers, 107 RBI (leads league), 141 wRC+

 

 

Hey, so back to that whole Robinson Chirinos has been the best-hitting catcher in the league thing ... Robinson Chirinos has been the best-hitting catcher in the league!

Chirinos’ 17th homer of the year Sunday (in just 224 at-bats) raised his season line to a massive .260/.380/.558. That home run extended Chirinos’ on-base streak to 24 straight games, second-longest by any catcher this year.

Moreover, it served as a reminder that sometimes the best thing a team can do is trade a player away to make room for a talented understudy. The A’s are finding this out at first base, where Matt Olson is annihilating American League pitching ever since Oakland traded away Yonder Alonso. And the Rangers, still clawing for a playoff spot, have definitely found that out since trading away the struggling Jonathan Lucroy.

 

 

Mike Trout, Andrelton Simmons, and smoke and mirrors. The Angels owe their ability to stay in the thick of the AL Wild Card race to those three factors, and to a mediocre field of competitors. Because their starting pitching is hanging by a thread.

On Saturday, Andrew Heaney had to leave the game against the Mariners in the third inning with a shoulder injury. He lasted just 2 ⅓ innings, allowing two runs. In the process, Angels’ starters ERA ballooned to 6.56 over a span of 21 games. Even with Trout and Simmons thriving, Justin Upton added to the mix, and the bullpen coming through, it’s tough to stay in the race when a bad starting five becomes a quintet of punching bags.

Credit Parker Bridwell for putting out the fire. The 26-year-old rookie came through on Sunday, yielding just two runs in six innings en route to a 5-3 win. That victory prevented a three-game sweep in Seattle. It also continued a roller-coaster ride for Bridwell. In his previous eight starts leading into Sunday, he’d allowed one, four, one, one, four, two, seven, and six runs, making him one of the most volatile pitchers in the league—not a huge surprise for a pitcher with the seventh-lowest strikeout rate among all AL starters with as many innings pitched.

Winning with little starting pitching is still feasible, as the Royals of recent vintage proved. But the Angels are testing the limits of the theory. If Garrett Richards is going to return to his ace form of 2016 following months on the DL and an encouraging (if short) 3 ⅓-inning return last week, it had better happen fast.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

If the Twins complete their turnaround from last place to October darlings, they’ll have done it the hard way. Trading away their closer (Brandon Kintzler) and one of their top starters (Jaime Garcia) at the deadline wouldn’t seem like a formula for success.

Yet here we are. Even after dropping two straight to the Royals over the weekend, Minnesota leads the race for the second wild-card spot by one game. On July 31, the Twins sat at 50-53, having allowed 72 more runs than they’d scored. Since then, they’ve gone 24–16 with a gigantic +62 run differential.

For that, the Twins can thank a variety of contributors, including Kyle Gibson, purveyor of sudden quality innings and Trevor Hildenberger, who continues to shut batters down out of the bullpen. But the driving force has been an explosion in the team’s offense. Byron Buxton’s crushed nine home runs in the past month. Buxton, Jorge Polanco, and Robbie Grossman are all slugging better than .600 over that span. Brian Dozier’s scored 28 runs and clocked an on-base percentage above .400, while Joe Mauer’s batting a cool .411.

But wait, there’s more. Miguel Sano could be days away from returning to the lineup as he heals from a shin injury, which would give the Twins back their biggest power bat of all. If Sano hits the ground running, one of the hottest offenses in the league could become downright scary. And if that happens, Minnesota could go dancing again.

11. Milwaukee Brewers (75-68, plus-24, LT: 10)

10. St. Louis Cardinals (75-68, plus-74, LT: 11)

9. Colorado Rockies (78-65, plus-49, LT: 9)

Corey Perrine/Getty Images

Remember when Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman criticized and benched Gary Sanchez for his passed-ball problems, and his teammates rushed to his rescue?

Seems like ancient history now. Sanchez still has work to do to refine his pitch-blocking; he’s also blasted 13 homers in his past 28 games, raising his total to 30 for the year, and boosting his season line to to .280/.349/.541. He’s also thrown out 36% of would-be base-stealers, well above the league average of 26%.

All of us—talent evaluators, media, fans—sometimes fixate on a player’s weaknesses, and ignore his strengths. Gary Sanchez is 24 years old. He’s a beast of a power hitter who might have 40-homer upside as he consolidates his skills. And while he’s far from perfect defensively, he’s capable enough to stick behind the plate, making his offense exponentially more valuable at a position where mashing is anything but the norm.

Aaron Judge might be the face of the Baby Bombers. But Sanchez is one hell of a second banana, and a huge reason why the Yankees are on the verge of just their second playoff berth in five years.

7. Chicago Cubs (77–66, plus-71, LT: 8)

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Chris Sale vs. Cleveland, 2017: 8 IP, 8 K, 4 BB, 15 H, 14.63 ERA

Chris Sale vs. everyone else, 2017: 187 ⅔ IP, 270 K, 34 BB, 132 H, 2.25 ERA

According to Fangraphs, Sale leads all American League players—pitchers or position players—in wins above replacement by a wide margin. You can make a strong case that his off-the-charts numbers, while pitching as a lefty in front of the Green Monster for half his starts, makes him worthy of the AL Most Valuable Player award. But Sale’s horrendous numbers against Cleveland, combined with Cleveland staff ace Corey Kluber’s astonishing performance since his June 1 return from the disabled list (194 strikeouts in 138 ⅓ innings, 1.89 ERA), could mean that Sale doesn’t win either of the AL’s two biggest awards.

Of course, that’s just hardware. Sale matching up with Cleveland and Kluber in the ALCS, with redemption and a trip to the World Series on the line, would make for some fascinating theater.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks (83–60, plus-137, LT: 7)

Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

It’s not as extreme a case as it is with the Dodgers, who’ve gone from challenging for the best record in MLB history to losing 10 in a row and 15 of 16. Still, the Astros were swept by the lowly A’s this weekend, are now just 26-–8 in the second half, and they’ve relinquished the top seed in the American League to a historically hot Cleveland squad.

Once the winningest team in baseball, Houston’s limping to the finish line of the season, fortified by the acquisition of Justin Verlander but still struggling to win consistently. With momentum pointed in the wrong direction and Cleveland surging ahead in the standings, should Astros fans worry that their team peaked too early?

In a word, no. Studies of teams that came into the playoffs hot, or cold show ... no definitive pattern one way or another. Teams like the 2016 Cubs have rolled into the postseason riding a wave, then charged through the playoffs and won it all. But so too have teams like the 2006 Cardinals, who went 25–32 to end the season, eked into the playoffs with an underwhelming 83–78 record, then went on to win the World Series themselves.

In acquiring Verlander, the Astros addressed their biggest weakness. Despite a recent pullback, the offense remains the most productive in baseball. The bullpen and bench are both deep, offering potential matchup advantages come October. Once the playoffs start, nothing that happened before makes a difference.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers (92–51, plus-168, LT: 1)

2. Washington Nationals (88–55, plus-157, LT: 3)

Top six fun facts about Cleveland’s 18-game winning streak:

6. Cleveland has hit 37 home runs during the streak. Its opponents have scored a total of 32 runs.

5. As great as Edwin Encarnacion, Francisco Lindor and others have been lately, the team’s top second-half hitter, by far, has been Carlos Santana. He’s batting an outrageous .312/.423/.597 since the All-Star break.

4. Since we did this with the Twins, let’s do it with Cleveland too. On June 14, Cleveland stood at 31–31, having scored 11 more runs than the team had allowed. Since then: 56–25, +198.

3. The pitching’s been pretty damn great.

2. Saturday’s game against the Orioles was the only time Cleveland hasn’t scored first during this 18-game streak.

1. The following players have spent significant time on the DL during the streak: Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, Abraham Almonte, and Lonnie Chisenhall. Which reinforces a point that’s been valid all year, from that slow 62-game start to the current blitzkrieg on the league: This year’s roster is better than last year’s.

Carlos Carrasco is healthy and dominating, Edwin Encarnacion is a significant upgrade over Mike Napoli, Bradley Zimmer’s shagging flies in center, and last year’s deep bullpen is even deeper this year. Kipnis, Brantley, and Miller could all be back within a week. When that happens, the team that went all the way to extra innings in Game 7 of last year’s World Series will be fully intact, and better equipped to win it all this year than it was last year.

In the meantime, Cleveland’s just three wins away from breaking the record for longest winning streak by any AL team, breaking the record set by the Moneyball A’s. History awaits, with only the lowly Tigers standing in the way. Stay tuned.

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