Figuring out baseball’s contenders and pretenders

The Pretenders aren’t just a great ’80s band. The name also applies to teams that may look like contenders but lack the chops to stick around through the fall; they’re no Chrissy Hynde, so to speak.

The 2015 season is nearly halfway done, and that’s plenty of time to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Let’s take a look at each league and see which teams will likely be standing in September, and which ones will probably be Back on the Chain Gang.

American League Contenders

80% of the AL East: The Rays, Yankees, Orioles and Blue Jays are all separated by 3 games and the division is completely up for grabs. The Rays have strong starting pitching and stellar defense, and if they manage to add a bat or two at the deadline they could run away with the division. The Yankees are playing the best baseball they’ve played in a few years. The Orioles have been steady all season, and the Blue Jays have a historically potent offense with suspect pitching. The division might come down to whichever team makes the best addition at the trade deadline, and there’s also the possibility that both Wild Card teams could come from this division.

Kansas City Royals: They’re no fluke. Kansas City’s offense is incredibly balanced with solid hitters everywhere you look, and getting a career year from Mike Moustakas and a bounce-back season from Kendrys Morales has lengthened their already dangerous lineup. Shockingly, Edinson Volquez has made up for the loss of James Shields in the rotation and their pitching staff as a whole has been one of the AL’s best. They could still benefit from adding a starter at the deadline, and finding an upgrade to All-Star second baseman Omar Infante wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. The Royals are firmly in the contender category, though. They may even be better than they were last year.

CINCINNATI, OH - JUNE 17:  Miguel Cabrera #24 of the Detroit Tigers hits a pitch during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on June 17, 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

CINCINNATI, OH – JUNE 17: Miguel Cabrera #24 of the Detroit Tigers hits a pitch during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on June 17, 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Detroit Tigers: Their offense alone makes the Tigers a contender. Miguel Cabrera is having another MVP-caliber season, and he’s getting a lot of help in the lineup from Yoenis Cespedes, JD Martinez, Ian Kinsler, and the like. They definitely need help in the rotation – Max Scherzer would’ve been a big help – and a return to health/form for Justin Verlander would be a bonus. But the Tigers are good enough on offense alone to make them a contender, for the Wild Card at the very least.

Houston Astros: Hardly anyone expected them to arrive this early, but the Astros have been one of the best teams in the AL all season and it’s not by accident. They have a powerful lineup that can out-slug just about anyone, and the emergence of Carlos Correa has been a shot in the arm. Dallas Keuchel has positioned himself to be a legitimate Cy Young candidate, and the offseason makeover given to the bullpen has paid off in a big way. The one glaring problem the Astros have is that their lineup has a bunch of boom-or-bust hitters that can be pitched to, but it hasn’t been a problem just yet.

Texas Rangers: The Rangers have been kind of biding their time this year, hanging around the AL West and the Wild Card race without getting much attention. Their numbers don’t jump off the page, firmly in the middle of the pack in both hitting and pitching in the American League. But the Rangers have been strongly linked to Cole Hamels, and if they make that deal it would catapult them to the favorites in the AL West. So consider them a contender based on trade rumor alone; if they don’t land Hamels, they could easily slip to the pretender side of things.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Starting pitcher Sonny Gray #54 of the Oakland Athletics throws against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the first inning at O.co Coliseum on June 19, 2015 in Oakland, California.   The Angels won 12-7. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

OAKLAND, CA – JUNE 19: Starting pitcher Sonny Gray #54 of the Oakland Athletics throws against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the first inning at O.co Coliseum on June 19, 2015 in Oakland, California. The Angels won 12-7. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Oakland A’s: They’re currently in last place, nine games under .500 and ten games behind the Astros in the division. That just screams “contender,” doesn’t it? But take a look at the A’s overall numbers: they’re 4th in the AL in runs scored, 7th in OPS, 5th in batting average, 2nd in ERA, and 3rd in BAA. That goes to show they are not nearly as bad as their record would indicate; in fact, the A’s are 18-11 since May 23 and are finally healthy and playing well. Their defense still gives away too many runs, and that has to be fixed if they hope to make a run. If Billy Beane resists the temptation to sell and instead adds needed help to the bullpen, the A’s will be in the thick of things in a very winnable division. When the weather heats up, so do the A’s.

American League Pretenders

Minnesota Twins: Check out these numbers: 12th in the AL in OPS, 9th in batting average, 7th in ERA, 15th in BAA. The Twins don’t do anything particularly well, yet they sit only 3.5 games behind the Royals and currently occupy one of the two Wild Card spots. It just doesn’t look like they can sustain that kind of success with the way their team is constructed. The Twins will likely end up having a good year, maybe even a winning record, and that will be something they can build off of going forward. But they don’t look like a 2015 playoff team.

CLEVELAND, OH -  JUNE 20: Starting pitcher Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians pitches during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Progressive Field on June 20, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)  *** Local Caption *** Corey Kluber

CLEVELAND, OH – JUNE 20: Starting pitcher Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians pitches during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Progressive Field on June 20, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Corey Kluber

Cleveland Indians: If any team defined the word “meh” with their play this year, it would be the Indians. The trendy preseason pick to win the World Series has looked like anything but a contender, finding themselves near the bottom of their division and looking up at a whole bunch of teams in front of them in the Wild Card race. Unlike the A’s, the Tribe’s numbers don’t jump off the page as a team that should be better than their record. Instead, they’re playing exactly as their numbers would indicate: middle of the pack to low end of things, with spurts here and there but nothing that would indicate they’re capable of a sustained run.

Los Angeles Angels: The continued brilliance of Mike Trout and the resurgence of Albert Pujols should make the Angels a contender. But they’re nothing more than pretenders at the moment because of a weak lineup around their two superstars, and a suspect pitching staff that’s been weakened by the recent loss of Jered Weaver to injury. The Angels are sitting around .500, but it’s hard to see them overtaking the Astros or the Rangers in the AL West (and the A’s look like a better team, too). It looks like it’ll be another disappointing year in Anaheim.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 21: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals celebrates after hitting a two run home run in the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park on June 21, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 21: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals celebrates after hitting a two run home run in the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park on June 21, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

National League Contenders

Washington Nationals: They might have both the NL MVP (Bryce Harper) and Cy Young (Max Scherzer) and arguably the best roster top to bottom in all of baseball. But the Nationals are underachieving, currently only five games over .500 and just 2.5 games up on the Mets in their division. Still, the Nats are clearly the best team in the NL East and should start to distance themselves from the pack over the summer. There’s almost no doubt they’ll be in the playoffs once October rolls around and should be considered the favorites to get to the World Series, just like last year. Whether or not they actually make it there this time remains to be seen.

St. Louis Cardinals: Ho-hum, another year, another Cardinals team in contention. St. Louis is a balanced team that sports the best pitching staff statistically in the NL, plus a dangerous lineup with very few holes. It’s not a question of whether or not they’ll make the playoffs this year, but rather how far they’ll go once they get there.

Pittsburgh Pirates: They’ve been one of the hottest teams in baseball since getting off to a slow start, sporting the 2nd best record in the NL and leading the Wild Card race. They’ve gotten stellar pitching to make up for what’s been an average offense, but the Pirates have enough pieces to keep themselves in contention through the season. Whether or not they can overtake the Cardinals remains to be seen.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 19: Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs congratulates teammate Anthony Rizzo #44 on a solo home run against the Minnesota Twins during the fourth inning of the game on June 19, 2015 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – JUNE 19: Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs congratulates teammate Anthony Rizzo #44 on a solo home run against the Minnesota Twins during the fourth inning of the game on June 19, 2015 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Chicago Cubs: The Cubs’ huge collection of young talent has propelled them into the thick of things in the National League and it doesn’t look like a fluke. They’d probably be closer to the Cardinals if Jon Lester was pitching anywhere near what they thought he’d be when Chicago handed him a huge contract last winter, but they’ve managed to stay neck-and-neck with the other Wild Card hopefuls while keeping within striking distance of the division lead. Unless all of their young players hit a wall and go into a prolonged slump, the Cubs look like they’re in it for the long haul.

Los Angeles Dodgers: They’ve underachieved and under-performed, and Clayton Kershaw has looked human. But the Dodgers are still one of the premiere teams in baseball and will be in the pennant race all the way through the fall. If they make a big move – say, trade for Cole Hamels – they’d even position themselves as the favorites in the NL.

San Francisco Giants: The Giants are dangerously close to the pretenders category, but it’s almost impossible to count them out given their history. They’ve suffered injuries to key lineup cogs Hunter Pence and Nori Aoki and lack the depth needed to make up for those losses. Yet the Giants still seem to find a way to win, and they’ve indicated they’ll be buyers at the deadline barring a complete collapse. If they can add another starting pitcher and a hitter, it might be enough for them to keep pace both in the division and the Wild Card.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 16:  Matt Harvey #33 of the New York Mets reacts after the final out of the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Citi Field on June 16, 2015 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 16: Matt Harvey #33 of the New York Mets reacts after the final out of the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Citi Field on June 16, 2015 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

National League Pretenders

New York Mets: Their hot start is a distant memory and their stellar young pitching staff is being negated by a putrid offense. They’ve managed to hang around the top of the division, but that’s more because of the Nationals’ inability to get it together rather than the Mets’ play. They’re better than most probably expected them to be and could flirt with a .500 or better record this year, but once the Nationals start rolling it’s hard to see the Mets keeping up in the division or Wild Card races.

Atlanta Braves: Another team that’s exceeding expectations and hanging around the top of the NL East because of the Nats’ slow start. The Braves have been very good on offense, but their pitching outside of Shelby Miller has been below average and they simply don’t have enough to keep them afloat in the playoff race. They’ve managed to set themselves up nicely for the future, though.

San Diego Padres: The Padres made a ton of big splashes over the winter but that hasn’t translated into much on the field yet. They’ve been hovering around .500 for most of the year and haven’t been able to take advantage of the Dodgers and Giants scuffling at the top of the division. It takes a while to develop chemistry, and by the time the Padres figure it out it’ll probably be too late to make it to October.

About Dave Tobener

Dave Tobener has been writing about baseball for the better part of a decade. He's been to more Giants games than he can remember and was there when Ruben Rivera forgot how to run the bases. Follow him on Twitter: @gggiants

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