The American League definitively and thoroughly defeated the National League in the All-Star Game, despite maximum effort from Mike Matheny, Adam Wainwright, and the senior circuit. That means it’s time for an obligatory recap of the first half (read: 56-60%) of the baseball season and a look forward at the stretch run. Let’s use Fangraphs’ projected standings as a starting point, since they reflect both what we’ve seen before (current records) and what we might expect based on objective assessments (ZIPS projections) of the true talent of each team’s available players.
Blue Jays 83-79
Red Sox 78-84
What a dumpster fire this division turned out to be. The Orioles have a three-game lead despite a National League-quality pitching staff at best, and underperformance from Chris Davis and Manny Machado. Fangraphs sees them as a .493 team going forward, likely due to regression from Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce, but that should be enough to win a division in which the two best teams (per ZIPS) are each 9.5 games out of first.
The Blue Jays have the talent to win the division, and might become favorites with a David Price or Cole Hamels in the rotation, but at four games out, they’ll need to recapture some of that May magic to pass the other birds. ZIPS sees the Yankees as a .477 team going forward, and it’s hard to see them even being that good unless Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda come back healthy and soon. This team should be a seller at the deadline and a 90-loss team, but the Yankees don’t operate that way, so the range of potential outcomes is probably bigger for them- say, 68 to 90 wins- than it is for most teams.
ZIPS has been slow to admit that the Red Sox really can’t hit, assuming until their most recent nosedive that they had the talent to come back and win the division. Now that the youth movement has begun (expect a few more moves in that direction), the Sox project to win 52% of their games for the rest of the year, good enough for, well, last place. The Rays project as the best team in the division for the rest of the season, but that’s (1) not enough to make them a playoff team and (2) not realistic with the impending departure of David Price. We could be in for a three-team scrum at the bottom of the AL East standings between the three teams that usually contend for the title.
White Sox 75-87
Ladies and gentleman, the other AL East. Except there’s a good team this time. The Tigers have the arms and bats to win the title this year, and are rounded enough that they’re unlikely to make any significant moves at the deadline. The biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s, aside from Ian Kinsler giving them a little defense, is that Justin Verlander looks like a fourth starter/postseason bullpen piece, while Rick Porcello seems ready to take his place near the front of the rotation.
Kansas City as been a great story, and they’re Wild Card contenders, but don’t expect them to make a run at the division. Ditto Cleveland, who somehow projects as a .525 team for the rest of the season. Minnesota and Chicago should be selling off useful parts with eyes on the future.
Now here’s an interesting division. The best team in the league, the team with the best player, the most intriguing team, the worst team, and the most injury-ravaged team. The Angels chasing the A’s could make for the best drama in the AL this fall, as Oakland’s first-round playoff bye has seemed preordained most of the season. If the Trouts can steal the division, Oakland may have to face Felix Hernandez (or David Price, for some team) in a winner-take-all-game, then take out the Tigers and Angels to reach the World Series. There’s lots of incentive for the A’s to play well down the stretch.
Seattle making the playoffs could be the best feel-good story of 2014. ZIPS has them as a better-than-.500 (.505) team going forward, with Hisashi Iwakuma stepping up behind King Felix in the rotation and Kyle Seager joining Robinson Cano as a force in the middle of the lineup. They still don’t hit enough, but given all the wins they’ve banked, they could be a real contender with one or two more pieces.
The Astros are showing some of the promise we expected to see in 2015 or 2016, with Dallas Keuchel, George Springer, and Jon Singleton emerging and Jose Altuve and Jason Castro evolving into the veteran leader roles. The Rangers, on the other hand, are Darvish and Beltre and pay for effective Tommy John surgeries. If any team is going to lose 100 this year, it might just be the Rangers.
On the surface, it would appear that all three NL races should go down to the wire in thrilling fashion, but ZIPS sees one team as well ahead of the pack in each division, most notably the Nationals, whose .577 ROS projection is the best in either league. Washington’s pitchers have more of a track record than Atlanta’s, and a healthy Bryce Harper could be a difference-maker for Washington. I see this one as closer than four games, with both teams likely jockeying for position into the final days.
After the post-Fernandez Marlins faded, this division settled into a more predictable order, with two contenders and three teams that should be looking to next season. Will this be the year when Ruben Amaro finally realizes the Phillies are going nowhere and puts Hamels and maybe Cliff Lee on the block? Time will tell.
Here’s the best race we’ve got in 2014, and it involves every team except the one that had the NL’s best rotation until the recent Samardzija/Hammel trade. St. Louis sits one game behind Milwaukee and projects to win at a .520 clip going forward- far less than the pace they’d expect with a healthy Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia in the rotation. That opening may let the Brewers stay on top despite true talent well under .500 (.479), or it could open doors for the Reds or Pirates, both of whom played in last year’s Wild Card game and returned similar rosters in ’14.
I see the Cardinals overtaking the Brewers soon and never looking back, likely with a new reclamation project for Dave Duncan in the rotation, but all four teams are certainly contenders, both for the division and for the Wild Card spots.
ZIPS tends to be conservative, which helps explain the modest projection for the loaded Dodgers, but doesn’t explain why their ROS expectation (.554) is less than that of the Nats and A’s. It’s hard to imagine a Kershaw/Greinke/Ryu/Beckett rotation and a Puig/Ramirez/Gonzalez/Kemp lineup not running away with the West. Then again, they’ve lost 44% of their games to-date and were stuck in second place into July. Such is baseball.
The Giants hit a ton of homers, and Madison Bumgarner is an emerging ace, with Tim Lincecum still showing signs of life. As ZIPS suggests, this may make San Francisco the favorites to win the first Wild Card. There’s not much else to look at in this division, unless you think MVP frontrunner Troy Tulowitzki will get traded, which could render much of the above data and projection moot.
It’s hard to argue with objective projections, but they don’t know much about players’ health, trade possibilities, or the way teams tend to play in September when there’s more variance in motivation to win, so I’ll take a stab at my own projections. These teams will finish .500 or better:
Blue Jays 85-77
Wild Card Games
Angels over Brewers
Giants over Braves
A’s over Orioles
Tigers over Angels
Nationals over Cardinals
Dodgers over Giants
Tigers over A’s
Dodgers over Nationals
Dodgers over Tigers
The playoffs are a coin-toss, of course, so this prediction is more “the Dodgers and Tigers have ridiculous pitching staffs” than “the Dodgers and Tigers will beat the Nationals and A’s in October”. Either way, whoever emerges from the sure-to-be-fascinating NL division/Wild Card scrum, the playoffs are likely to be light on usual suspects, with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rangers all thinking about 2015. None of the four teams I pick to make the LCS has won a title in the last 23 years, and only the Tigers have even played in the World Series in that time.
Unless the Giants find their way again or the Cardinals blow by everyone in September or October, we’re getting some fresh blood this fall. Let’s enjoy it.