As we enter the final month of the Major League Baseball regular season, the National League playoff teams have already been determined. The New York Mets hold a small but comfortable lead in the East (thanks to web gems from Bartolo Colon), the St. Louis Cardinals are still the best team in baseball (like they usually are) over in the Central, and the Los Angeles Dodgers have plenty of holding room between themselves and the San Francisco Giants in the West. The Wild Card teams appear to be coming out of the Central as well with the Pittsburg Pirates and Chicago Cubs as the top two contenders. It’s likely going to stay that way as the next closest team, the Washington Nationals, is 7.5 games back.
The American League, however, is still fairly wide open and features some of the most exciting and unlikeliest success stories of 2015. In the East, the Toronto Blue Jays hold a narrow lead over the New York Yankees and haven’t seen a playoff game in 22 years. In the Central, the Kansas City Royals reached the World Series last year (and stand to go back again), yet it’s not often that lightning strikes twice for a small market team. In the West, the Houston Astros have taken the lead and look like a professional ball club for the first time in almost a decade.
If you haven’t gathered, I’m a sucker for any losing franchise that can turn it around and create a winning season (except for the Philadelphia Phillies, they can stay right where they are). One of the greatest things about sports is the story of the underdog going from worst to first, and right now the American League standings tell such a story.
The Blue Jays are proof that you can put together a winning team on the trade block and free agent market. They already had winning pieces with Edwin Encarnación and Jose Bautista slugging home runs, and Roberto Osuna lighting it up in the bullpen (amongst a well-rounded staff), but they could do better and they knew it. In the offseason, Toronto scored promising starting pitcher Marco Estrada and talented rookie Devon Travis, who is unfortunately on the disabled list after an explosive start. The biggest offseason win, though, came in the deal with the A’s for Josh Donaldson, and with the MVP numbers he’s putting up (36 HR, 114 RBI and a .302/.370/.953 line), that deal immediately looks like one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos then picked up Russell Martin off the free agent market and claimed the surprising Chris Colabello off waivers. Anthopoulos didn’t stop there, however, and closed off the trade deadline with a bang by acquiring Troy Tulowitzki, Mark Lowe, Ben Revere and David Price in deals that somehow still left the team with prospects to spare. In Tulowitzki, the Blue Jays received a player who will play like a Greek God of Baseball (when healthy), and they managed to ship off defensive deadweight Jose Reyes in the process. Revere complements their outfield on both offense and defense, Lowe makes a scary 1-2 punch in the bullpen with Osuna, and in Price, they acquired the definite ace their rotation was lacking.
The Blue Jays’ 22-year playoff absence is the longest streak in all of North American professional sports. The most games they won in a season during that span was 88, and they’re now only 10 wins away from tying that mark. Toronto has 26 games left to play, and 23 of those will come against division rivals. Even though they hold the lead now, they’ll have to continue to best those knocking at the door. The good news is that Toronto has gone 28-24 against division rivals this year, including a promising 8-4 record against the closest contender, the Yankees. Holding the top spot shouldn’t be a problem, especially if Toronto’s 21-6 August is any indicator.
With the Royals, should we really be so surprised that a 2014 World Series team is playing like they could do it again? Well, when it’s a small market team like Kansas City, the answer is yes. Typically, when you watch a losing franchise turn things around like the Royals did last year, you’re watching years of calculation and luck crescendo to success, and then it all drops off pretty quick afterwards. Why? To put it simply, the players that teams develop become too expensive, so the organizations have to spend years rebuilding again. That hasn’t been the case with the Royals, as GM Dayton Moore has taken the necessary measures to keep the swift decline from happening. Even though he lost key pieces of the 2014 campaign like James Shields, Norichika Aoki and Billy Butler, he made offseason moves to offset the deficit. He signed some low-risk contracts with Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios to beef up the offense and signed Edinson Volquez to fill the rotation spot left by Shields. It worked, as the Royals jumped off to a winning season from the start, kicking it all off with a 15-7 April.
At the trade deadline, Moore decided they could still stand to gain more from the trade market and made one of the biggest acquisitions of the deadline in nabbing flamethrower Johnny Cueto from the Reds and Ben Zobrist (a fantasy baseball dream) from the A’s. The verdict is still out on Cueto given he’s struggled since coming to Kansas City, but the trade shows tenacity from Moore to help keep the Royals in the playoff hunt. Zobrist has put up explosive offensive numbers since coming to the Royals, his line a strong .326/.409/.913 with Kansas City against a previous .268/.354/.801 with the A’s. Moore recently capped off his dealings by acquiring high heat reliever outfielder Jonny Gomes to hit off the bench (and maybe complement the lights out bullpen duo of Wade Davis and Greg Holland). In Moore’s hands, Kansas City isn’t a one-hit wonder, as the GM is aiming to sustain a winning franchise, and it’s looking good so far. The Royals have 26 games left in the season, and only 19 of them will be against division rivals. Thankfully, they currently own a 32-20 division record, so they shouldn’t expect too much turbulence on their way to the playoffs.
Just last year, I saw a guy with an Astros hat and had to stop myself from pointing and laughing — that’s how pathetic they have been for almost a decade. Their only World Series appearance was back in 2005 when they were swept by the White Sox in four games. Since then, Houston has been struggling to recreate a winning environment, but under GM Jeff Luhnow’s guidance and years of patience, the rebuilding process has come to fruition in a strikingly quick turnaround. Just last year, the Astros posted a 70-92 record, a step up from their abysmal 51-111 2013 season, yet still a long way from a winning record. Their turnaround didn’t happen overnight though, as Luhnow spent years acquiring and developing the team’s stars. Just last year, Jose Altuve became the first Astro to win a batting title with a monstrous .341 average and now stands as one of the best second basemen in the game. Aces like Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh are homegrown products, while rookie Lance McCullers is making his mark on the franchise. A player like Chris Carter is Adam Dunn reincarnate — homers and strikeouts — and rookie Carlos Correa is already one of the best shortstops in the game and the current favorite for Rookie of the Year. So many pieces of this team came from within, and those pieces are still under team control for multiple years to come. Expect Altuve and Correa to be tearing it up in Houston for a while.
Luhnow cherrypicked the other pieces of his team during the offseason and at the trade deadline to strenghten Houston’s momentum. He signed Colby Rasmus to fill out the outfield, beefed up the bullpen by signing Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, and he also signed utility infielder Jed Lowrie to fill in the gaps as needed. Luhnow then traded some prospects to the Braves for Evan Gattis, and Houston has reaped the immediate benefits of that deal with Gattis able to slug as a catcher, outfielder and a designated hitter. The Astros also picked up complementary development pieces like Luis Valbuena and Hank Conger from the trade market. The tide was shifting for the Astros in the offseason, and Luhnow kept it going at the trade deadline. He acquired Scott Kazmir from the A’s to add a veteran presence to the rotation and made a deal with the Brewers for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers to beef up the outfield and rotation. Houston gave up prospects to make this happen, but their repository was already so deep that they could afford to shed a few. The Astros have 25 games left to play, 22 of them against division rivals. They’ve gone 28-23 against division rivals so far this season, and they don’t have as comfortable a lead in their division like Kansas City (the Rangers are only two games behind), so they’ve still got plenty of baseball to play before reaching the playoffs, but that’s what’s so exciting.
The National League’s postseason teams are pretty much a forgone conclusion at this point, but every game in the AL still counts. The Yankees and the Rangers — the current leaders in the Wild Card chase — are only a few games away from leading their division, and just behind lie several teams like the Minnesota Twins, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Tampa Bay Rays and even the Cleveland Indians. We’re already experiencing a thrilling final month of baseball in the American League, and it only stands to get more intense as the last games play out.
Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.