Rolling right through the dog days of August, the Major League Baseball playoffs are indeed right around the corner. With that said, several teams throughout the big leagues are getting closer and closer to punching their tickets for October baseball. But that is not the case for many other teams that are fighting every game just to end up in a win-or-go-home play off for the wild card spot.
This year’s trade deadline confirmed a few conceptualized theories that have stuck with baseball’s recent history. First and foremost, teams that were in a position to make a long surge through the post-season often gambled, sacrificing future success for player rentals – an action that will be explored in detail later on. Secondly, teams on the brink of playoff contention that should have added an extra key piece did just the opposite. Where improvements could have been made to a team’s roster, potential contenders were not willing to pay the asking price even in this year’s “buy-low” market for most players excluding the likes of pitching aces David Price and Jon Lester.
Post trade deadline, here are the bonafide contenders and sleepers for this year’s World Series.
Oakland Athletics (Contender)
While they continue to flip flop between first and second place in the American League West, the Oakland A’s are a deadly team to play against. Even though the offense took a hit with the departure of slugger Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland flaunts a rotation of pitchers that can come in and slam the door on the opposition nightly.
Acquiring Jon Lester was a great move by general manager Billy Beane to help bolster the rotation. And while it contradicted the “money-ball” philosophy that he had established, it was a gamble that needed to be made. The only negative of the trade was losing Cespedes. Although his batting average does not jump off the page (.261 for his career), his power simply makes hitters around him better. Since Cespedes shipped up to Boston to join the Red Sox who seem to be in a pre-rebuild mode for next season, the bats in Oakland have fallen asleep, not giving the pitching staff proper offensive productivity to compensate the solid outings by Jeff Samardzija, Scott Kazmir, Jason Hammel, and other proficient arms.
Nevertheless, the Angels have given the A’s an unbelievable opportunity to usurp the division lead with the season-ending injury suffered by ace Garrett Richards (which will not serve the Angels well as the season progresses, as we have seen what has happened to the Angels when they are without adequate pitching). Whether or not Oakland is forced into a wild card playoff will not ultimately decide where they can take themselves in the playoffs. But wining their division will add to an already convincing argument of why this team seems ready to take home a World Series title after pushing all in this season.
Los Angeles Dodgers (Contender)
Pitching and hitting. Hitting and pitching. Either way you put it, the Dodgers have elevated themselves in every which way this year. While they do not have a strong hold on the National League West, the season-ending injury to the Giant’s Matt Cain should keep the star-studded pitching staff in Los Angeles at full advantage.
The Dodgers have one thing that each playoff contender wishes they had: Clayton Kershaw. Despite not getting the nod for starting duties at the All-Star Game, Kershaw has gone on to prove exactly why he should have been given the honor. Not to take away from Adam Wainwright’s great statistics, but Kershaw simply carries himself better than any pitcher around the league at this point in the season. His actions have done more than provide efficient outings for his squad. His swagger has resonated to other players within the clubhouse, creating a unique motivation to win the World Series right here and right now.
With a superb pitcher heading an effective rotation followed by some powerful bats in the lineup, the Los Angeles Dodgers should look to be one of the biggest threats coming out of the National League to win the World Series.
St. Louis Cardinals (Contender)
Experience is key in terms of postseason success, and the St. Louis Cardinals have a lot of it.
While the Cards gave up hard-hitting outfielder Allen Craig to the Red Sox, the return of the deal in John Lackey was quite a reward. Paired with Adam Wainwright, John Lackey and the rest of the Cardinals’ rotation should be in good shape moving towards the playoffs, even though they currently do not sit in the first place spot of the division. Like Wainwright, Lackey’s track record has proven that he throws a lot of innings, which should help the Cardinals’ bullpen staff in terms of keeping them rested and prepared for short yet effective appearances.
Finally, while the lineup is certainly not the same without Albert Pujols, Allen Craig, or David Freese, guys throughout the batting order have stepped up to produce when necessary, getting themselves on base and into scoring position while bringing those before them home. The Cardinals flaunt a lot of postseason experience and success, something that most teams around the MLB simply do not have.
Detroit Tigers (Contender)
David Price. Max Scherzer. Just Verlander.
Three of the last American League Cy Young Award winners now grace the rotation of the Detroit Tigers. If Anibal Sanchez can regain his health and Rick Porcello can keep his momentum of solid outings on track, the Tigers will possess the deadliest rotation heading into October baseball. There is just one problem for the Tigers right now in terms of their division – the Kansas City Royals, a premiere sleeper to make a stunning run in the 2014 playoffs.
Despite the absence of Jim Leyland, Detroit manager Brad Ausmus has created a calming environment for his clubhouse, keeping everybody relaxed and in check while the Royals continue to have a type of success that has avoided them for over twenty years. Along with the winning mindset that Jim Leyland had instilled during his tenure with the Tigers, Ausmus’s philosophy towards the game has been crucial to keeping the motor city team on a path towards the playoffs despite the recent success of their Midwest rivals.
Like their pitching, the Tigers are used to hitting the ball fairly well this year, flaunting at least five hitters with a .280-plus batting average on at least three hundred (300) at-bats. If Detroit can advance over the Royals to win the division, they should be in good shape for the playoffs. But if they find themselves in a playoff for the wild card spot, Ausmus might have a tough decision to make between his three aces, one that could haunt Detroit if they do not click on all cylinders.
Baltimore Orioles (Sleeper)
Perhaps the team with the greatest success this year in Major League Baseball but with the least amount of publicity is the Baltimore Orioles.
A year removed from knocking fifty-three (53) home runs, Chris “Crush” Davis’s 2014 campaign has been unbelievably disappointing, putting up just twenty one (21) home runs with a .189 batting average as we close into the finally month of regular season baseball. Based on these statistics, one might say that the O’s could not be having a very good season. But guys up and down the order like Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and J.J. Hardy have stepped up in a big way to produce in light of Davis’s inefficient stat line. Another player who deserves recognition with Baltimore is outfielder Nelson Cruz, who was acquired by the Orioles in free agency this past winter. While Cruz is only hitting .255, he has bombed thirty-four (34) homeruns this season, tallying eighty-seven (87) RBIs and a slugging percentage of .514. Those are some pretty effective numbers if you ask me.
While Baltimore does not present the most imposing rotation, the pitchers for the ball club have been more effective than most could have anticipated, helping the O’s to a 36-24 home record and a 39-29 road record with a multi-game cushion in front of the second place New York Yankees. Barring any major setback for the Orioles, the AL East is theirs to lose and could position themselves for an intriguing matchup in the playoffs.
Kansas City Royals (Sleeper)
Wow. They just keep playing solid baseball.
While a slight division lead over the Detroit Tigers might not be comfortable, the Kansas City Royals have been one of the best teams in baseball as of late and look to continue that trend through September. Manager Ned Yost and company have established an attitude in the locker room directed towards winning the division and advancing far into the playoffs, which seems to have been received by the players.
Hitters have been efficient and the pitchers have had more than a fair share of quality starts. There is just something about this team that goes beyond a statistical standpoint. The Royals just carry themselves unlike most teams in baseball. They know that they have been counted out before, but they just keep in knocking without any intentions of stopping any time soon. In fact, the Royals might be comparable to the 2002 Oakland A’s, who are still using traditions from twelve years ago to win the World Series today. Perhaps some of their magic and swagger has made it’s way to Kansas City by the looks of the squad out of Kauffman Stadium.
Milwaukee Brewers (“Sleeping Contender”)
A “sleeping contender” – well that sounds odd, but it characterizes the Milwaukee Brewers perfectly.
Many people have forgotten about the Brewers because of the reputation that the St. Louis Cardinals have for winning in the National League; however, let us not forget that Milwaukee currently holds a slight lead in the NL Central standings. They have chosen to write their story in their personal agendas rather than on the chalkboard for everyone else to take advantage of.
Effective hitting has been the story of the Brewers’ season. A year after a disappointing suspension that left the locker room in disarray, Ryan Braun has returned to play some solid baseball, while not drawing any negative attention to himself. Carlos Gomez, Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Scooter Gennett continue to have success in the batter’s box while the Milwaukee pitching staff has put the team in a position to win night in and night out.
We know that the National League has some true contenders this year. But those who have not taken a hard enough look around the league better watch out for the Brew Crew, because they are ready to win now if they keep up their success.
Written by Alex Floch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
I am currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Growing up in a sports family, I have formed a distinct love for the industry. I enjoy writing about sports in my free time and hope to one day be able to pursue it as a career.