Heading into mid-June, the Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays have the best records in the American League, just as everybody predicted. Similarly, the San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Brewers have the top marks in the National League. The A’s are less of a surprise than the other three teams, but pre-season losses in the starting rotation were cause for concern.
Other teams are heating up and making a charge in the standings. The Cleveland Indians have won nine of their last 10. Since May 18, the Indians have made up 8.5 games in the AL Central going from 20-25 to 33-31 while the Tigers fell from 27-13 to 33-27. Another team trending upward is the Seattle Mariners, who have gone 7-1 in June with a +22 run differential. Perhaps most impressive is that they went 6-1 on a seven-game road trip that included a make-up game on an off day in New York City. Over their last seven games, the pitching staff has combined for four shutouts.
Since returning from the disabled list, Hisashi Iwakuma is 4-2 with a 2.66 ERA and a 36/4 K/BB ratio. The Mariners took a chance using Roenis Elias in the rotation after just 22 career Double-A starts and it has paid off as he has thrown 81.2 quality innings. Felix Hernandez is still an ace. Chris Young has given the Mariners some good work, especially at home where his fly ball tendencies can play up and Erasmo Ramirez flashed his potential in his last start against the hapless Tampa Bay Rays. With Taijuan Walker and James Paxton on the mend in the minors, the Mariners rotation will get reinforcements late this month and into July and that makes them an interesting team to watch.
As always, injuries popped up over the past week. Arizona centerfielder AJ Pollock is out at least three months with a fractured hand. The Rockies tried to use Michael Cuddyer at third base for the first time in several years and he fractured his shoulder diving for a ball. He’s out until early August. It’s actually been a rough couple of weeks for the Rockies. Carlos Gonzalez is having exploratory surgery to see what is going on with his index finger issue, highly-anticipated prospect Eddie Butler has been shut down with rotator cuff inflammation, overachieving right-hander Jordan Lyles has a fractured finger on his glove hand, and a thin bullpen took a hit with the news that Boone Logan will be out indefinitely with an elbow injury.
In other injury news, Angels lefty Tyler Skaggs has a hamstring problem that will set him back a couple of weeks. Phillies reliever Mike Adams departs a subpar bullpen with a rotator cuff concern. Pirates starter Gerrit Cole is dealing with shoulder fatigue, a situation worth watching in the Steel City, while second baseman Neil Walker underwent an appendectomy on June 9. The Padres lost one of the few power threats when Jedd Gyorko went on the disabled list with plantar fasciitis. The hits kept coming for the Rangers as well when Rougned Odor jammed his shoulder trying to get back to the bag on a pickoff throw and Mitch Moreland is out indefinitely with a bad ankle. Not an injury, but Manny Machado is going to appeal a five-game suspension for launching a bat in the direction of third baseman Alberto Callaspo during last weekend’s Athletics-Orioles series.
Trade rumors are going to start popping up and that provides some intrigue to some teams over the next couple of weeks. Here are a few teams to keep on your radar because of the situations surrounding the team.
1. Tampa Bay Rays
As mentioned in last week’s MLB Money Report, the Rays have blown your bankroll like a tornado through a farmhouse made of matchsticks. At 24-41, the small-market Rays will need to start looking for the best deals for the future. Keep in mind that the Rays, while in the midst of contention, traded away James Shields for Wil Myers. That puts David Price’s name in the forefront of the rumor mill.
Price’s sabermetric performance overshadows the results he’s seen, so competing teams will be willing to pay up for his services. A trade of Price not only signals the end of the season but may lead to a multi-year rebuild in Tampa. The pieces are in place with exciting young starters like Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi, but it’s a team that clearly has holes. Evan Longoria is signed long-term, but players like David DeJesus, Ben Zobrist, and Matt Joyce could be sent elsewhere to restock the farm system.
A look at the Rays in the month of June is pretty telling. Despite leading all of MLB in pitcher WAR according to Fangraphs entering play on Tuesday, the Rays are 1-8. They have scored a league-low of 3.6 runs per game and have scored 19 runs in nine games this month. With some character concerns in the clubhouse and problem solver Joe Maddon’s hands tied with a lot of players tanking at once, things don’t look to get any better.
The oddsmakers will probably continue to overvalue Tampa Bay because of the expectations placed on a team that has had prolonged success. “They’re a couple wins away from turning it around!” Unfortunately, things may get far worse before they get better because the players will hear more trade buzz and an unsettled clubhouse coupled with on-field adversity never works. See the 2012 Boston Red Sox, for example.
2. Boston Red Sox
Speaking of the Boston Red Sox, they may be entering a rebuilding period of their own. Eleven players are impending free agents and most of them are getting up there in age. The Red Sox have already made a shift to get younger with Brock Holt, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. getting significant playing time. Mookie Betts will probably see some time with the big club at some point this season.
With a major roster turnover on the horizon, some big-priced talent may be attractive to teams in the hunt. The Red Sox aren’t out of it by any means, but at 28-35 with more problems than answers, inquiries will start coming in. Moving high-priced players often takes a financial commitment from the previous team, but the Red Sox already have a solid corps of prospects that they could add to.
Understand that teams that have players that have experienced a lot of success tend to struggle later in the season once the writing is on the wall. Unless the Red Sox get really hot over the next couple of weeks, they’re a team that you’re going to want to fade them whenever possible. It may not be a complete fire-sale, but going the qualifying offer route with certain players is risky because they may accept them and saddle the Red Sox with an unwanted contract that blocks a younger player.
3. Philadelphia Phillies
It’ll feel a lot like being on a juice diet to go against the Phillies the rest of the way, but this is a bad team in a toxic situation. They are awful defensively, mediocre in a lot of areas, and have players with uncertain futures. Manager Ryne Sandberg and shortstop Jimmy Rollins butted heads in Spring Training and Sandberg’s hard-ass tendencies are going to make life difficult on the veterans as the season goes on.
General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. should have been fired already and his mismanagement of the Cliff Lee situation has diminished his value, especially with his current DL stint. There aren’t a whole lot of tradable contracts on the Phillies, so it may be even worse than the situations in Tampa and Boston. A lot of players will feel stuck and their performance will show through. Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels make up $73.5M worth of contracts. Chase Utley might bring back a big return on the trade market, but, other than that, this is going to be a long, miserable summer in Philadelphia.
With a bad bullpen, an aging AJ Burnett clogging up the rotation, and no money available for depth since Lee and Hamels make close to $50M, there’s not much to be excited about. Maikel Franco could come up and play third base, but there aren’t many exciting prospects outside of that. More spats between veterans and Sandberg are a major possibility and the organization is going to have to rebuild from the ground up as contracts expire. That resonates from the front office on down and it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Phillies pushing 95 losses when all is said and done.
On the other side, there are some teams to keep an eye on for backing over the next couple of weeks.
1. Cleveland Indians
The Indians are in the midst of a 10-game road trip, which will give them six more road games than home games on the season. The Indians are 21-11 at home but just 12-20 on the road. The team seems to have navigated through their early-season funk and should be on your radar in the upcoming weeks. Once this road trip ends, 17 of Cleveland’s 26 games before the All-Star Break are at home.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates are quietly making a charge in the NL Central. They’re 12-8 over their last 20 and are the fourth-best offensive team in June after being the fifth-best for the entire month of May. The starting rotation has some questions with Gerrit Cole out and the inconsistencies of Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez, but Gregory Polanco will provide a bigger shot in the arm for the offense and this remains one of the game’s top bullpens. Including this current series against the Cubs, the weeks leading up to the start of July include series against the Cubs twice, the Marlins, Reds, Rays, and Mets. The schedule softens up in a big way.