How is it almost July, and no one is talking about the playoff lock that is the San Francisco Giants? It’s slipped our collective minds that 2016 is an even-numbered year. But beyond that, how can an eight-game winning streak seem so under the radar? Make no mistake: this is the team absolutely no one wants to face in the National League playoffs.
We can talk ad nauseam about the brilliance of the Chicago Cubs and their record-setting pace, but the Cubbies haven’t really done anything yet. Neither have other contenders like the Washington Nationals and (maybe) the Los Angeles Dodgers. All the Giants have done is win three World Series in the last six years.
As we delve into our division-by-division breakdown, we’ll examine some other hot clubs that are making waves as the All-Star break fast approaches:
American League East
This is going to be one fun race. No one looks poised to run away with it, yet none of the three legitimate contenders appear likely to drop back of the pack, either. The Red Sox have baseball’s most prolific offense and a hot David Price. The Blue Jays have a potent lineup and good enough starting pitching to stay in the hunt. And the Orioles may be trying to hide their starting rotation, but can mash with anyone in baseball and also have one of the game’s deepest bullpens. While the Yankees and Rays aren’t officially toast, this looks like a three-man show. The Orioles gave themselves a boost this week by taking a series against both Boston and Toronto after losing three of four to the Jays last weekend. There is no clear-cut favorite, which makes for an exciting summer… and fall.
American League Central
The Royals are, hands down, the best home team in the American League. There is some serious magic going on at Kauffman Stadium, but the problem is Kansas City has been awful on the road. That Jekyll-and-Hyde split will keep things interesting, even if there only might be one team legitimately vying for the crown in the Indians. The Detroit Tigers continue to disappoint and underachieve, and the White Sox have been one of baseball’s worst teams since the calendar flipped to May. The injuries have not really affected the Royals the way people thought, and they have a lethal bullpen. But give Cleveland the nod with its starting pitching, and its strong run-differential indicates that its offense can be potent. Detroit could make a push, but it is a club that doesn’t do the little things right and has major bullpen issues.
American League West
How good are things going in Arlington? The Rangers just completed an 8-2 roadtrip and have won a franchise-record nine straight series. They won late the last two days in St. Louis against a normally-stout Cardinals bullpen and seem to be firing on all cylinders. Considering that Yu Darvish is on the shelf and Prince Fielder is hovering around the Mendoza line, things may still get better yet. Matt Bush is an incredible story of redemption and he has been lights-out in the eighth inning, while Sam Dyson has held his own as the new closer. The Rangers could be in the market for bullpen reinforcements, but things are looking pretty rosy right now. The only team that may even push for a playoff spot in the West is the Mariners, and they are dealing with some big injuries right now, notably Felix Hernandez. Even if some guys heal up, it’s likely the Mariners will have to settle for making a push for a wild card spot.
National League East
What is going on with the Mets lately? Perhaps it’s the offense’s inability to score without the home run catching up with them, or Matt Harvey’s fall from grace. But like the Mariners, the Mets may be looking at a wild card berth at this point if they want to defend their NL pennant. Washington is getting by in the absence of Jonathan Papelbon and a virtual abyss in the bullpen, because the starting rotation and offense — how about the year by Wilson Ramos? — are outstanding, or at least playoff-caliber. And then there are the Miami Marlins, quietly now 37-32 and in a playoff position at the moment. Things looked bleak for the Fish after Dee Gordon was suspended 80 games for PED use, but the team has responded under first-year skipper Don Mattingly. Jose Fernandez is a Cy Young candidate, and A.J. Ramos has yet to blow a save. Just imagine if Giancarlo Stanton could even look like half the $325 million player he’s getting paid to be.
National League Central
The Cubs are looking historically good right now, simply toying with teams on most nights. The starting rotation is deep and dominant, and the offense continues to mash. The bullpen could use some help, but it isn’t really an Achilles’ heel, either. With a 12 1/2 game lead on St. Louis, who comes to town tonight for a three-game set, it’s really just about playoff positioning for the Cubbies. Still, with all the accolades being handed down, this team went just 4-5 in nine postseason games last year despite advancing to the NLCS. It will be under a lot of pressure after what looks like it will be a historical regular season. After the Cubs, there are the Cardinals and Pirates, heading south in a hurry. It was predictable for the Pirates in light of a rash of injuries, namely ace Gerrit Cole and battery-mate Francisco Cervelli, not to mention a poor season from face-of-the-franchise Andrew McCutchen. But the Cardinals? They are a head-scratcher. They have a big-time run differential (plus-65) and have played great on the road, but continue to be stung late in games and by the league’s upper-echelon teams. The biggest surprise isn’t the struggles of the starting rotation, nor the top-scoring offense in the NL, nor the home struggles, nor the stunning minor-league demotions of Kolten Wong (since recalled) and Randal Grichuk. Rather, it’s the bullpen, as Trevor Rosenthal may be one more bad outing from losing his closer’s spot to Kevin Siegrist or Seung Hwan Oh. Still, both the Cards and Bucs are very much alive for a wild card spot, even if the division is already out of reach.
National League West
Blink, and it’s June and the Giants, in an even-numbered year, are running away with the NL West. And it’s no fluke, either. Baseball’s best manager, Bruce Bochy, is doing it again, and this may be his finest job yet. The Giants are missing several key guns in Hunter Pence and Sergio Romo, but have won eight straight and enter tonight 44-26. Equally impressive is their 22-13 road record. This is a franchise that has won nine consecutive postseason series, and just keeps finding a way. The free-agent additions of outfielder Denard Span and specifically starting pitchers Johnny Cueto (10-1, 2.10 ERA) and Jeff Samardzija (8-4, 3.14) are paying major dividends. The bullpen has been outstanding even in Romo’s absence. Santiago Casilla is still the closer despite his mini-meltdown in Phoenix earlier this year, but Cory Gearrin leads all relievers in ERA (2.37) and has a pair of saves. Once this team gets healthy, look out. But, that said, they are already pretty dangerous — especially in October. Down south, the only other playoff-contending division, the Dodgers, need some reinforcements. Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen are stars, but not superhuman individuals that can single-handedly bring LA to the promise-land. The Dodgers likely need at least another starter and definitely need another late-inning relief arm. The offense will have to suffice, with plenty of potential but maddening inconsistency. One major advantage for the Dodgers in the event of a wild card game appearance is Kershaw. There is no one single pitcher more dangerous in such a spot than Kershaw, despite some October shortcomings. But at this point, that’s a best-case scenario for the Dodgers.