Monday, August 12, 2013

Getting That Playoff Feel: Pennant Teams

Most of the content in these electronic pages are musings about my beloved Twins. But frankly, they're not an interesting team. It's easy for me, and I'm sure many other fans of struggling franchises, to forget how enthralling it is to plunge into the ups and downs of a pennant race. I vaguely recall some of these feelings from 2010, though they've been numbed by the seasons since.

As a remedy to my growing indifference, I'm going to start on a project here at Pitcher's Duel. I've picked 3 teams with interesting rosters and historic goals to follow in the months of August, September and October and plan to write about at least one of them each day. That's seven days a week. As a douchey athlete might proclaim on twitter: No Days Off.

I'll admit, this is as much an attempt to teach myself some discipline as it is to spark my (and hopefully your) interest in the dog days. That said, I won't be posting game recaps you can find anywhere on the internet. My hope is to bring in some analysis and my access to the greatest thing ever ( in order to search for something essential to the races; whether it be minor roster tweaks that make all the difference or unannounced hot streaks that shake up the entire baseball landscape.

There are so many riches to be mined in these months that it would be a shame to spend in wallowing along with Joe Mauer. However, unlike Mr. Mauer, we're not chained to a sinking ship. I've jumped off the titanic and grabbed a hold of an iceberg headed straight for October! (If you can make sense of that twisted metaphor, good on you). Without further ado, I introduce my teams for the remainder.

Pittsburgh Pirates (70-47)

The Pirates aren't hard to root for. They haven't won more than 80 games since my age was counted in months, not years (1992). That little factoid has been bantered about plenty over the past 14 months, but often ignored by those of us outside of Pittsburgh is the three seasons preceding in which a young Barry Bonds led them to the NLCS three consecutive years only to lose all three games (two in game 7) and eventually their biggest star in Bonds.

This season, the Pirates are a virtual lock to win 80+ games and good bet to make the post-season. With a 70-47 record, Pittsburgh is on pace for 97 wins and possess a small lead over St. Louis (3 games back) and Cincinnati (5 GB) in the NL Central. Although, with the addition of a second wild card team, that lead is a lot more comfortable than it might look: the next challenger for their playoff spot is Arizona at 59-57.

So Pittsburgh has put themselves in position to make the playoffs barring any all-time collapses. But how did they get here?

Pitching and defense. Basically, GM Neil Huntington's gamble on AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano came up snake-eyes as they both have been absolutely dominant, they're getting insane (and wholly unsustainable) work from Jeff Locke and shutdown work from a brilliant bullpen. Not to mention the mid-season infusion of former No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole firing 98 mph bullets in the middle of the rotation.

Going forward, it'll be Burnett, Liriano, Cole and pray for rain. Locke, of the 2.43 ERA, is bound to regress to his mediocre self, but should be able to show up and give his team a chance every fifth day, as should Charlie Morton. Wandy Rodriguez may return from a forearm injury in early September and could be an upgrade as a fourth starter entering the playoffs. In addition, highly regarded prospects Jameson Taillon and Stolmy Pimentel wait in the wings in AAA.

The defense has been anchored up the middle by an elite catcher and supplemented by good athletes filling out the rest of the diamond. Russell Martin has proven to be another worthy gamble from Huntington as he's continued to be top tier defensive catcher. Surrounding him are above average gloves like Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Starling Marte that have provided the pitching staff with an NL leading defensive efficiency of 0.726 (rate of balls in play converted to outs).

The offensive side of the ball is an accurate mirror of the defense: one star and then solid, above-average contributors. In this case, it's Andrew McCutchen. He's developed into a five-tool superstar since the beginning of 2012 hitting .313/.386/.507 and stealing 24 bases to just 6 times caught. Beyond McCutchen, Starling Marte and Neil Walker are setting the table nicely in the top two slots in the batting order and Pedro Alvarez is displaying his power potential with an NL leading 28 bombs so far. The bottom four in the lineup is the most serious weakness for the Pirates and should have been addressed at the trading deadline, ideally. With little help on the horizon, look for the Pirates to ship out for power hitting right fielder or first baseman through waivers.

Oakland Athletics (67-50)

Just another ragtag bunch of A's sneaking their way into the playoff picture. This time, it's harder to peg the source of their success. They've had decent starting pitching, good relief help and an unorthodox but not outstanding offense. Like the Pirates, much of their success has stemmed from an incredible ability to turn hits into outs.

Oakland's defensive efficiency sits at .730, making them the only unit better than Pittsburgh at preventing baserunners. Gold Glove candidates Eric Sogard (2B) and Josh Donaldson (3B) provide top-notch defense flanking their below average (arguably misplaced) shortstop, Jed Lowrie. Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick back them up to provide one of the premier defensive outfields in baseball - which is necessary in the spacious Coliseum (yes, that's the actually name).

I mentioned earlier that Oakland has an unorthodox offense. I don't mean they've invented a new way to score, but that they're getting great hitting from positions that normally lack any type of significant production, namely second base, shortstop and third base. Unfortunately for the A's, they haven't been able to produce at offense-first positions like first base, designated hitter and right field.

Although the A's pulled out a win in the top of the ninth today (Aug 12), the team will have to fight to remain in the playoff race amid competition from Baltimore, Cleveland and Kansas City (can't believe I just typed that). The struggle will be as much their own doing as that of the competition. Their rotation is falling apart (I'm sure I'll touch on this on a later day) and their stars of the first half, Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie and Coco Crisp, have slowed down considerably since July.

Boston Red Sox (71-49)

I know nobody enjoys rooting for Boston, but this is a legitimately fun team to watch. And they're doing it the old-fashioned way, not with this pitching and defense crap. They're mashing.

David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia are all hitting like stars they've been in the past. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes have provided some extra pop towards the end of the batting order. Stephen Drew and Shane Victorino have done the impossible and stayed healthy enough to contribute their own above-average production. This is as complete a lineup, top to bottom, as you'll see in baseball.

This offense shouldn't have surprised a single soul. What has surprised is the rotation. Despite an injured Clay Buchholz and ineffective Jon Lester, the rotation has been held together by Felix Doubront and, back from the dead, John Lackey. With Ryan Dempster and Lester behind those two, the rotation is serviceable enough to keep most games within reach of Papi and co. However, the addition of Jake Peavy is massive for this club. Now instead of running promising young arms Allen Webster and Brandon Workman out their to see if they can make it, they have a bona fide mid-rotation horse to count on every fifth day.

Another key factor for Boston is their bullpen. Like Oakland and Pittsburgh, it's been absolutely stellar. The only reason I focus a paragraph on it for Boston is because it's been unexpected. Koji Uehara has been among the best closers in baseball with Craig Breslow and Jiunichi Tazawa doing nice set up work. Unfortunately for Boston, they now have a DL's worth of equally talented pitchers: Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Miller and Matt Thornton. The depth of this 'pen could be a major factor in how the rest of the season shakes out and will be worth keeping an eye on.

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