How are teams going to stop the Dodgers’ front two, the Yankees’ bullpen, the Blue Jays’ offense, the Cardinals’ pitching, the Mets’ rotation, the Pirates’ balance, the Royals’ speed and bullpen, the Cubs’ momentum, the Rangers’ recent pitching success, and the Astros’ Cinderella season?
Those are the positives that make those teams potentially tough in the playoffs, and the negatives that could doom them.
Let’s start with the Dodgers.
“Don’t know how you beat [Clayton] Kershaw and [Zack] Greinke, said one American League adviser. “You start out with those two, left, right. That’s tough to overcome.”
Sure, but after that there is Brett Anderson, Alex Wood, and Mat Latos. And then a suspect bullpen and a fair-to-middling lineup. It’s a must that the top two win their starts, and we know the postseason hasn’t been easy for Kershaw (1-5, 5.12 ERA).
The Blue Jays these days are the cherry on top. The Troy Tulowitzki acquisition sparked an avalanche of offense, including home run spurts from Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Josh Donaldson. They’ve also gotten good performances from ace David Price and veterans Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. While improved, the bullpen is still suspect. Roberto Osuna has done a very good job (His last 15 games entering Friday: 0-0, 1.17 ERA, 12 for 13 in save opportunities, 16 strikeouts, two walks), but he’s still just a kid. And they’re also relying on 42-year-old LaTroy Hawkins (0.79 ERA in 12 appearances) for stressful innings. So far, so good.
The Yankees can put up big numbers offensively (though Alex Rodriguez is fading and Mark Teixeira could miss the rest of the season with a shin injury). Their last two relievers are second to none, which is important any time, and certainly in the playoffs. But their rotation has to get them there, and that’s an issue. They probably should have acquired a starter at the trading deadline but passed on Cole Hamels and Johnny Cueto. We’ll see if it comes back to haunt them.
The Astros’ lineup gets a boost with the return of George Springer (wrist fracture). Houston is 46-29 this year with Springer in the starting lineup, 28-32 without. Dallas Keuchel (16) and Collin McHugh (15) have combined for 31 wins. Add Scott Kazmir to the mix and the Astros have a formidable three-man rotation for the playoffs. The bullpen has always been solid.
The Cardinals have been the best team in baseball from Day 1. They have a chance to win 100 games and their offense is scoring runs even with a host of regulars battling injuries. Jon Jay (wrist) has returned, and the Cardinals should get outfielder Matt Holliday (quadriceps), first baseman Matt Adams (quadriceps), and center fielder Randal Grichuk (elbow) back in time for the playoffs. Brandon Moss got off to a slow start after being acquired from the Indians, but he has hit four homers since Aug. 27, and along with rookies Stephen Piscotty and Tommy Pham has helped an offensive uptick. The Cardinals have had the best starting rotation and bullpen all season.
The Pirates’ bullpen has been a strong suit. The last time it lost a game was June 25, and it had won 19 consecutive decisions heading into the weekend. The Pirates’ weakness has been playing National League Central rivals — 22-32, and 8-21 away from PNC Park — and they’re playing the Cardinals in St. Louis this weekend. During the Pirates’ recent five-game losing streak, their unproductive outfield stood out. Gregory Polanco went hitless in 20 at-bats, and Starling Marte went 4 for 35 (.114) over a recent nine-game stretch. Andrew McCutchen has been battling a tight Achilles’. The Pirates also need more out of Josh Harrison, .219 in his first 32 at-bats since returning from the disabled list (thumb).
The Rangers need Josh Hamilton to pick it up now that he’s back from a knee injury. While Prince Fielder has been hitting well, he only had one homer in his last 22 games entering Saturday. Texas really needs to get more power from the middle of the order. Rangers pitchers and catchers also need to reduce the running game, which has really bitten them. Entering Saturday, opponents had converted 20 consecutive stolen base attempts and 32 of the last 35. If they have to face a team such as the Royals, it could be deadly. “We don’t want them to be able to run at will,” manager Jeff Banister said last week. “But it’s not just on the catchers. It’s on me. It’s on the pitchers. We haven’t shut anybody down. The best way to shut the running game down is to get them to put in play the first two pitches. And that’s where most of our focus has been.’’ Also, the Rangers’ bullpen has a 4.46 ERA.
The Cubs will be able to use Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester 1 and 2. Arrieta is having a great season, including a no-hitter, while Lester, who hasn’t pitched as well lately, is a proven postseason stud. What will be interesting is how Chicago’s young players react to the big stage.
The Mets have a young staff and thus fatigue concerns late in the season. Will Matt Harvey hold up? This is a real issue for the Mets, whose lineup has improved with Yoenis Cespedes in the middle of the order. The offense is right behind Toronto’s since the All-Star break with 63 homers and a .266 average.
If pitching decides who advances, it’s hard to beat the Cardinals. The Dodgers have the most dominating twosome, the Mets could blow teams away with young velocity. The Royals, Yankees, Cardinals, and Pirates have bullpen advantages. And the Blue Jays can wow with offense.
Not easy to juggle responsibilities
The pressure on general managers has reached an all-time high given the high price of players, analytics, the involvement with the manager, and a relationship with the owner. It all has to mesh, and when it doesn’t the GM gets fired. And so, we look at the current landscape.
Seattle Mariners — There will be no baseball person above whoever gets hired as Seattle’s president of baseball operations or GM. It will be like a Dave Dombrowski/Andy MacPhail/Theo Epstein situation. Ownership also has big resources, so that could be a plus. Candidates include Jerry Dipoto (who was runner-up when the Mariners hired former GM Jack Zduriencik), Ben Cherington, Ken Williams, Larry Beinfest, Dan Jennings, and Kevin Towers.
Milwaukee Brewers — Mark Attanasio may be a hands-on owner, but by all accounts a good man to work for who gives his GM wiggle room, though with a strict budget. Attanasio has publicly stated he wants a GM who is analytically oriented. That would make Dipoto a good candidate. Others: Cherington, Doug Harris, Mike Hazen, John Coppola, and Dan Evans.
Los Angeles Angels — Perceived or not, the reality is that the new president of baseball operation will have to live with Mike Scioscia, who is not crazy about sabermetrics. It led to Dipoto walking away. Best candidates would be Williams, J.P. Ricciardi, Towers, Jim Hendry, Bud Black, Dan O’Dowd, and Ned Colletti.
Cincinnati Reds — No sign yet that Walt Jocketty would be moved upstairs, but it’s definitely a possibility. Towers, who is Jocketty’s main adviser, would seem the best choice to take over, though Towers prefers the West Coast. Others to be considered would be Ricciardi, Hendry, and Colletti.
Philadelphia Phillies — There’s always the possibility that MacPhail retains Ruben Amaro given the success he had moving the veterans at the deadline. If not, MacPhail could turn to someone younger, such as Matt Klentak, the Angels’ assistant GM whom MacPhail hired in Baltimore. Former Reds GM Wayne Krivsky, now a special assistant in Minnesota, also has worked for MacPhail.
Boston Red Sox — This job may be classified as GM, but it would really be an assistant GM. We know of Dombrowski’s relationships with Frank Wren and Hendry. He could go younger by leaving Hazen in place.
Baltimore Orioles — Some believe there may be a breaking point between manager Buck Showalter and GM Dan Duquette, both of whom are under contract through 2018, so we’ll see. Probably too early to call this one.
Toronto Blue Jays — We’re assuming new team president Mark Shapiro will keep Alex Anthopoulos in place for the time being after he pulled some major deals that have thrust the Jays into first place.
Apropos of nothing
1. What happened to the Orioles? Their rotation never materialized, resulting in a bunch of No. 3 and 4 starters. Chris Tillman never regained his ace status. And boy do they miss Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz. Going forward, they’re probably going to miss Chris Davis and Matt Wieters. The Orioles already have lost more games (69) than they did all of last season (66).
2. The Orioles’ Manny Machado is the only major leaguer on pace to play every game this season. Four did it last year. Entering Saturday, Machado had played 134 consecutive games.
3. Sunday is the 20th anniversary of Cal Ripken Jr. playing his 2,131st consecutive game, breaking Lou Gehrig’s record streak. Ripken ultimately went 2,632 consecutive games. The Orioles celebrated the 20-year anniversary last Tuesday since they are on the road this weekend. Ripken, 55, recently flipped over the handlebars of his bike and hurt his right shoulder, so he wasn’t able to properly throw the first pitch. Asked if he thinks the record will ever be broken, Ripken said, “I sit in an interesting seat because I did it. And so if I can do it, somebody else can. But if you look at it, and if you look at the mind-set, the mind-set is a little different now.”
4. A really neat dedication of Bowie Kuhn Field will take place Sept. 30 at St. Joseph Academy in St. Augustine, Fla. The field contains a Green Monster-like wall (but in right field) constructed by St. Joseph coach Bryan Hinman, a labor of love built board by board. Kuhn’s widow will attend.
5. Larry Lucchino’s bid for a stadium on the Providence riverfront for the Pawtucket Red Sox has gone about as smoothly as a porcupine’s back. The latest stumbling block is the worth of the land Brown University is willing to sell to Lucchino. According to the Providence Journal, Brown is seeking about $15 million, while Lucchino is at about $10 million. Providence’s mayor, Jorge Elorza, is asking the team to provide the city with a “dedicated revenue stream that could amount to millions of dollars that would cover police and fire coverage at the site, widening the road and ensuring the city could respond if fans were to get rowdy outside the stadium, for example, and cause damage nearby.”
Updates on nine
1. Joe Kelly, RHP, Red Sox — If you look at how the Sox pitching staff is constructed, there’s no room for him in the rotation. Dave Dombrowski will likely seek an ace. So if you have the ace, plus Clay Buchholz ($13 million option), Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, and Eduardo Rodriguez, that leaves Kelly, Steven Wright, and Henry Owens out of the picture. Even with Kelly’s recent success, it makes sense to make him closer as Koji Uehara’s broken right wrist could be tough to come back from. According to one AL GM, Buchholz and Miley would have value.
2. Rick Renteria, former manager, Cubs — He was unceremoniously replaced by Joe Maddon in Chicago and could be in the hunt for the few managing jobs that become available. Renteria was a finalist for the job Brad Ausmus got in Detroit. Renteria’s ability to connect with Latin players will make him a prime candidate in Miami if Dan Jennings transitions back to the front office in Miami or elsewhere.
3. Brad Ausmus, manager, Tigers — There’s been much speculation about Ausmus’s job security after a poor season. Even before Dombrowski’s gutting of the team, Ausmus faced an uphill climb. If he’s fired, Ausmus would carefully choose his next job.
4. Jim Leyland, special assistant, Tigers — Would he hook up again with Dombrowski? Leyland managed for Dombrowski in Miami and Detroit and had been a special assistant to him since he retired from managing. What we don’t know is if Leyland’s allegiances are to Al Avila and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch or whether he’d be free to join Dombrowski in Boston. Leyland has indicated in the past that he’s not interested in managing again.
5. Russell Martin, C, Blue Jays — Great note by MLB Network researcher Elliott Kalb, who reports that Martin’s first year with a team usually results in a playoff berth: 2006 Dodgers (71-91 the season before); 2011 Yankees (95-67 the season before); 2013 Pirates (79-83 the season before); and 2015 Blue Jays, who will make the postseason for first time since 1993.
6. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers — Will he escape at season’s end? The Dodgers have been willing to play it out, knowing they have the resources to get a deal done. Greinke feels comfortable in LA, but it’s his right to test the waters. Greinke will be 32 when he becomes a free agent and even with a great season it doesn’t appear he will get any more than five years, according to a major league source. Five years, $150 million? “That seems to be a good starting point,” said one NL GM who predicts it could even higher. “If I were a betting man, I’d say he stays with LA. They’ve got the dough.”
7. David Price, LHP, Blue Jays — Word from team sources is that Price really likes it in Toronto. If new Jays president Mark Shapiro gets the go-ahead from ownership he will likely do all he can to keep him. The Dodgers, Cubs, Yankees, Nationals, and Red Sox are teams that could come after him hard. This one could be north of seven years/$210 million.
8. Jeff Samardzija, RHP, White Sox — He isn’t doing anything for his free agent value with a 8.33 ERA over his last seven starts. “I have enough out there to show what I can do, so I’m not worried about [proving myself in September],” said Samardzija, who is 14-17 with a 4.23 ERA in the AL and 31-42 with a 3.97 ERA in the NL.
9. Alfredo Simon, RHP, Tigers — Another AL-to-NL transition that didn’t work well was Simon, who is 11-9 with a 5.09 ERA. Dombrowski obtained him for the Tigers from Cincinnati for Jonathon Crawford and Eugenio Suarez. Simon was 15-10 with a 3.44 ERA last season with the Reds.
From the Bill Chuck files — “No lefty has ever had a season in which he allowed as many steals as walks issued; right now, Jon Lester has allowed 39 steals and walked 40.” . . . Happy birthday on Saturday to Dave Morehead (73).
A nice month’s work
The Cubs’ Jake Arrieta was having a pretty nice August even before he threw a no-hitter last Sunday. The game against the Dodgers capped a 6-0 month, during which he allowed 19 hits and two earned runs in 42⅓ innings for a 0.43 ERA and 0.686 WHIP. He joins a select group of starting pitchers who have gone 6-0 during one month with an ERA under 1.00 since 1970.