A look up and down the MLB playoff and wild card standings has become a little clearer in recent days.
As little as a month ago, there were so many teams within earshot of a wild card berth it was hard to tell the contenders from the pretenders. And don’t forget the teams who were and still are sailing into the post-season with very healthy division leads.
On Monday, some of those contenders — some supposed — made significant moves to bolster their shot at the playoffs and maybe even a title.
The deadline wasn’t near as busy as we imagined it would be, but a couple of last minute moves involving Texas Rangers’ starter Yu Darvish and Minnesota Twins’ closer Brandon Kintzler made things interesting.
Therefore, we have enough fodder to grade the contenders (in a couple of cases, we loosely use that term) moves in advance of the Dog Days of August and the impending playoff drive. We gave them good, bad and “meh” grades, starting with bad, then meh and finally good.
15. Minnesota Twins – Bad
Not that long ago, like sometime in June, the Twins were the surprise of the AL Central, leading the division and looking like a contender. They may still be, but they will do it without closer Brandon Kintzler. Apparently, the American League’s second best fireman (he has 28 saves) was feeding a Rhino at the zoo on an off day Monday when he got wind of his trade to the Washington Nationals. With his team still just 4.5 games out of the second wild card spot, that flush everyone heard might just be the Twins post-season hopes going down the toilet. The net for Kintzler was A-Ball lefty Tyler Watson. This move came on the heels of the deal that sent starting pitcher Jaime Garcia, a Twin for all of six days, to the New York Yankees for a pair of low level minor league hurlers. Without a closer, the playoffs are but a dream.
14. St. Louis Cardinals – Bad
Off all teams within a long spit of a playoff berth, the perennially contending Cardinals sat on their thumbs at the deadline and pretty much gave their fans nothing to look forward to. While they are 7.5 games out of a wild card, the Cardinals are still just 4.5 games off the lead in the NL Central held by the Chicago Cubs. And heading into August St. Louis plays division rivals Milwaukee (just ahead of them) five times and the Pittsburgh Pirates (just behind them) four times. In September, the Cards have six games against the Pirates, three more against Milwaukee and seven against the Cubs (who have improved, again). The Cardinals, who sent SS Aledmys Diaz to the minors a month ago, could have used an upgrade at that position, but did nothing on deadline day. Oh well.
13. Seattle Mariners – Bad
As of Tuesday, the M’s sit 2.5 games out of the last wild card spot and have no realistic chance of catching AL West leading Houston Astros, who have a commanding 16 game cushion. Hitting and fielding aren’t much of an issue in western Washington state, but the moves the Mariners made to bolster their pitching were stop-gap, at best. They dealt a slew of prospects (four minor leaguers) to Miami on July 20 for set-up man David Phelps. What they really needed was another starter and should have targeted a veteran like the Marlins Dan Straily. Before getting Phelps, the M’s sent reliable set-up man Steve Cishek to Tampa Bay for former Seattle starter/reliever Erasmo Ramirez. In effect, they neither got better, or worse, which is just bad for their playoff aspirations.
12. Houston Astros – Meh
Not that they really needed to do anything, what with a 16-game lead in the AL West, but the move the Astros made at the deadline had many saying, “so what?” The Astros picked the slowly rotting corpse of the Toronto Blue Jays on deadline day, acquiring left-handed starter Francisco Liriano for left fielder Nori Aoki and AAA outfield prospect Teoscar Hernandez. With nary a hole to fill and a strong starting rotation, picking up an aging Liriano to pitch out of the bullpen is neither good, nor bad. He has had an up-and-down season in Toronto, going 6-5 in 18 starts with a 5.88 ERA and lofty 1.621 WHIP. We think that they could have made a bit more of a splash to get relief help like the Cubs (who got LHP Justin Wilson) or Boston (RHP Addison Reed). Time will tell.
11. Colorado Rockies – Meh
It says something about Jonathan Lucroy that all the Rangers could get for him at the deadline was the dreaded “Player to be Named Later.” Not that he’s a bad catcher, by Lucroy is way, way over-rated. He had one really fantastic season split between Milwaukee and Texas in 2016, where he hit .292 and had 24 HR and 81 RBI. This season, he is a moribund .242 with four dingers and 27 RBI in 77 games. As a catcher, his numbers still solid, so there is that. The Rockies, who are firmly entrenched in a pitched battle with Arizona for home field advantage in the NL wild card game (which will more than likely feature these two clubs), did give up nothing for Lucroy. However, he did zip in the ALDS against Toronto last year (1-for-12) and has been quite invisible this season. What saves them from a bad grade was the acquisition of veteran reliever Pat Neshek (for minor leaguers).
10. Tampa Bay Rays – Meh
The AL East is a snake pit of a division and the penny-pinching Rays have done well to stay in the hunt for a wild card berth. They trail Kansas City by 2.5 games for the wild card and the Yankees by 4.5 games for AL East division honors. We find it kind of odd, then, that their biggest move at the deadline was rental 1B Lucas Duda from the New York Mets. They already have Logan Morrison there (26 HR, 62 RBI) and hot-hitting Corey Dickerson installed at DH (.302, 21 HR, 49 RBI). Thus, that move seems kind of lateral, even though Duda has three homers and four RBI in his first four games. The addition of set-up man Steve Cishek was a good one, as he is very tough on right-handed batters, of which there are plenty in the AL East. We believe, though, that the Rays could have targeted a bottom of the rotation starter to solidify their chances, hence the “meh” grade.
9. Milwaukee Brewers – Meh
Of all the teams on the outside looking in at a wild card berth, the Brewers have the “best” chance at 5.5 games back. However, they have a better chance of catching NL Central leading Chicago, who hold a 2.5 game lead over the Brew Crew. Heading into the deadline, then, the Brewers could either have been buyers (more likely?) or sellers, depending on their overall outlook. The Cubs are in beast mode right now and not looking like they will get caught, while Milwaukee is 3-7 in their last 10 and floundering. There only deal of any minor consequence was re-acquiring right-handed set-up man Jeremy Jeffress. He was solid between Milwaukee and Texas last year, posting a 2.33 ERA and saving 27 games. He has been mediocre this year, though, with a 1-2 record, 5.31 ERA and 1.672 WHIP. Big “meh” here.
8. Cleveland Indians – Meh
Can the Tribe use that old bullpen magic to pull off yet another AL pennant and go to the Fall Classic again? We say, going to that well too often might get one burned, eh Terry Francona. Though they have been hot (8-2 in their past 10), so have AL Central chasers Kansas City (8-2), which puts the Indians in a bit of a precarious position. One 2-8 swing the other way and they could be out of the wild card race, that’s how tight things are in the American League. So, they did the obvious and made that lights out bullpen better by trading a minor league pitcher and second baseman to Toronto for former Indian set-up man Joe Smith. He was terrific with the Jays, going 3-0 with a 3.28 ERA and striking out 51 in 35.2 innings (the first time in his lengthy career he has been over nine Ks per inning, average). Francona managed the heck out of that bullpen last year, but we think he won’t be able to overcome so-so starting pitching for very long come the playoffs this year. A soft “meh” where the Tribe is concerned.
7. Kansas City Royals – Good
After doing well lately to climb back into contention and give the Cleveland Indians the willies, the Royals really pretty much stood pat at the trade deadline — a good move, considering the over-priced help. They are 8-2 in their last 10 games and sit just two games back of the Tribe, while holding down the second wild card position. On July 24, the Royals picked up all kinds of pitching help from the San Diego Padres, getting righties Trevor Cahill and Brandon Maurer along with southpaw Ryan Buchter and sending minor league help the other way. Only Cahill has had a bit of a rough start, surrendering five earned runs in four innings after pitching well for the Pads. Buchter and Maurer have been flawless, so far. On deadline day, the Royals also brought back Melky Cabrera, whose hot bat will replace Alex Gordon’s in left field. Good moves.
6. Arizona Diamondbacks – Good
More so than their wild confreres in Colorado, the Snakes made some astute moves to all but guarantee their participation in the playoffs (at least for the wild card game). The first big one came nearly two weeks in advance of the deadline when they plugged a big hole in the outfield by trading for Detroit’s J.D. Martinez. His batting average has gone down some (from .305 with Detroit to .219), yet his power numbers are off the charts. Five of his seven hits have been for homers and he has driven in 12 runs in just nine games for Arizona. On Monday, the D-Backs shored up their bullpen and middle infield, getting middle reliever David Hernandez from the Angels and veteran infielder Adam Rosales from Oakland. Former Diamondback Hernandez was enjoying his best season since breaking in with Baltimore in 2009, recording a 2.23 ERA and striking out 37 in 36.1 innings. Rosales, who can play short, third and second, was hitting .234 with four homers and 27 RBI in 71 games with the A’s.
5. Chicago Cubs – Good
The defending champs made solid gains before and right up to the deadline and have been hot of late, winning seven of their past 10 to vault into the NL Central lead. The Cubbies kicked things off on July 13, obtaining right-handed starter Jose Quintana from the White Sox for a quartet of low level minor leaguers. He was 4-8, 4.49 with the south-siders but has gone 2-1 with a 2.37 ERA in three starts for the Cubs. Then, on deadline day they plugged two large gaps, catcher and left-handed set-up man by trading for Detroit’s Alex Avila and Justin Wilson, respectively. Avila more than capably makes up for the loss of Miguel Montero to Toronto, giving the Cubs an outstanding platoon behind the plate with Willson Contreras. Wilson doesn’t draw many comparisons to the departed Aroldis Chapman, but had superb stats in Motown, logging a 2.68 ERA, 13 saves and 55 strikeouts in 40.1 innings.
4. Boston Red Sox – Good
Just as it should be, the Red Sox and Yankees will fight it out for the AL Central crown, right down to the last week. Over the course of their last 55 games, the Bosox will play the Yanks 10 times, with seven of those contests taking place at Yankee Stadium (with a key 4-game set in early September being the last). Therefore, adding a key piece at third base in the Giants Eduardo Nunez and closer Addison Reed from the Mets make the Sox a formidable force heading into the dog days. The Pablo Sandoval/Josh Rutledge platoon at the hot corner was solid mess and so far, Nunez has delivered. He has continued his hot-hitting ways, adding two homers and five RBI, along with a .471 average in four games to his .308 average with four homers and 31 RBI in San Fran. Reed, who registered 19 saves in New York, will be a solid set-up man in front of incumbent fireman Craig Kimbrel (1.24 ERA, 28 saves). Fun times in Beantown.
3. Washington Nationals – Good
Realistically, the Nats could have done nothing at the deadline and no one would have raised an eyebrow. With a 14-game lead on Miami in the NL East, they can just about put things on auto-pilot until the NLDS — not that they will, of course. The Nats got a leg up on everyone else on July 16, acquiring southpaw reliever Sean Doolittle and veteran right-handed reliever Ryan Madson from Oakland for RHP Blake Treinen and two minor leaguers. Madson, who won a title with Kansas City in 2005, has been solid, striking out seven in five innings without surrendering a run. Doolittle has had a bit rougher of a go, giving up four earned runs in six innings, but will come around. Late Monday, the Nats solved their closer-by-committee, big time, by trading a minor leaguer and futures to Minnesota for Brandon Kintzler, who had 28 saves and a 2.78 ERA for the Twins. Could this finally be the Nats year?
2. New York Yankees – Good
Happy days are here again in the Bronx. One year after tearing it down the Bombers are again serious contenders, having loaded up before and right up to the last minute of the deadline. The first move they made on July 14 was quiet, but notable, as they traded a minor league pitcher to Milwaukee for up-and-coming 1B Garrett Cooper. He has batted .240 in his first nine big league games, with three doubles and a triple. Four days later, GM Brian Cashman went into overdrive, sending Tyler Clippard and three minor leaguers to the White Sox for 3B Todd Frazier, closer David Robertson (a former Yank) and set-up man Tommy Kahnle. Power-hitting Frazier pushed incumbent 3B Chase Headley to first and Robertson has assumed set-up duties behind closer Aroldis Chapman. Kahnle has been flat out great, striking out 11 in just 6.1 innings of work. Last, and certainly not least, the Yankees served notice to the rest of the American League that they are in it to win it, sending three minor league prospects to Oakland for coveted starter Sonny Gray.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers – (Very) Good
The best team in baseball got even better at the deadline. In the deadline’s most anticipated move, the Dodgers (74-31 and 14 games up on second place Arizona in the NL West) picked the Texas Rangers’ pockets for starter Yu Darvish, at a cost of three minor league prospects. Darvish, who has scuffled a bit with Texas this season, should slot in nicely behind Clayton Kershaw and Alex Wood in what is now baseball’s best rotation. Even with some of his troubles (6-9 record, career high 4.01 ERA) Darvish is still a power pitcher of note, striking out 148 in 137 innings of work and sporting a decent 1.168 WHIP. In two other smaller moves before Darvish’s last minute acquisition, the Dodgers added a lefty reliever in Cincinnati’s Tony Cingrani, as well as fellow southpaw relief man Tony Watson from Pittsburgh. The Dodgers are set to make some noise and it could be deafening.