MLB's Biggest Winners and Losers at the 3-Quarter Mark

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2014

MLB's Biggest Winners and Losers at the 3-Quarter Mark

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    We've reached the three-quarter mark of the 2014 MLB season, and the postseason push is really starting to heat up, with just a month and a half of games left to be played.

    At this point in the season, the vast majority of players and teams around the league could be pegged as a "winner" or a "loser" for one reason or another, so what follows is by no means an all-inclusive list. Instead, it's meant to simply be a brief look at some of the biggest winners and losers of the 2014 season here in the middle of August, as crunch time is officially upon us.

    So take this list for what it is, a quick glimpse at some of the best and worst of the season so far, with plenty more to come on both sides of the spectrum between now and the end of the year.

Loser: Minnesota Twins' Attempt at Improving the Starting Rotation

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    It was no secret that the Minnesota Twins needed to upgrade their rotation heading into the offseason, as their starters turned in an MLB-worst 5.26 ERA in 2013.

    Still far from a major-market team, the Twins opted to go the mid-level starter route, signing Ricky Nolasco (four years, $49 million) and Phil Hughes (three years, $24 million) to what ranked as the two biggest free-agent signings in team history.

    The result has been a minimal improvement to a 4.97 ERA as a rotation, ranking the Twins ahead of only the Colorado Rockies (5.05 ERA) and Texas Rangers (5.10 ERA).

    With an up-and-coming team, the decision not to spend big on pitching made some sense. But why sign mid-level guys to multiyear deals as opposed to just bargain hunting for one-year placeholders if that was their approach?

    Hughes (12-8, 3.88 ERA) has been a nice low-cost signing, but Nolasco has been a disaster (5-7, 5.90 ERA), and Mike Pelfrey (0-3, 7.99 ERA) has hardly justified the two-year, $11 million extension he was given.

    Now, the team is stuck with a handful of mediocre arms once again next season while it tries to work guys like Trevor May, Alex Meyer and the newly acquired Tommy Milone into the mix.

Winner: Cleveland Indians' Decision to Extend Michael Brantley

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    What would Michael Brantley command on the open market if he were to hit free agency at the end of this season?

    Something like the five-year, $90 million deal Hunter Pence received last season doesn't seem at all far-fetched, with six figures not out of the question given the limited market for bats.

    Instead, he'll be making just $36 million over the next five seasons, as the Indians jumped his breakout season by a year and signed him to a very team-friendly four-year, $25 million deal that includes an $11 million option for 2018.

    The 27-year-old hit .284/.332/.396 line with 26 doubles, 10 home runs, 73 RBI and 17 steals last season, good for a 2.4 WAR and enough for the Indians to decide he was a part of their long-term plans.

    A year later, he's hitting .325/.383/.517 with 32 doubles, 17 home runs, 78 RBI and 13 steals in 103 less at-bats than he had all of last year, posting a 4.9 WAR in the process.

    Not too shabby for a guy who was essentially a throw-in as part of the CC Sabathia-to-Milwaukee trade back in 2008, ranking as just the No. 24 prospect in the Brewers' system at the time of the trade.

Loser: San Diego Padres' Inept Offense, Undermining a Terrific Pitching Staff

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    At 3.25 runs per game, the San Diego Padres are currently on pace to score just 526 runs this season. That would represent the third-lowest total of the past 20 years, trailing only the 2010 Seattle Mariners and 2013 Miami Marlins, both of whom tallied 513 runs over their 162-game slate.

    The difference between this year's Padres team and that aforementioned offensively inept duo is that the Padres actually had a chance to contend this year if it weren't for their bats.

    The 2010 Mariners and 2013 Marlins both reached the 100-loss mark, but this year's Padres team is only five games under .500 with a record of 57-62. That leaves the team just six games out of the second wild-card spot.

    Imagine if the Padres were scoring even the league average of 4.09 runs per game. They'd be well over .500 and right in the thick of things for a playoff spot. That's because they have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, ranking second in overall ERA (3.05), sixth in starter's ERA (3.43) and first in bullpen ERA (2.29).

    A relatively unknown cast of characters in Tyson Ross (11-10, 2.63 ERA), Jesse Hahn (7-3, 2.52 ERA) and Odrisamer Despaigne (3-3, 2.72 ERA) have led a rotation that's been without ace Andrew Cashner (2-6, 2.32 ERA) for much of the year.

    Meanwhile, closer Huston Street was moved at the deadline, but the team still has a terrific crop of bullpen arms led by Joaquin Benoit (48 G, 1.64 ERA), Dale Thayer (54 G, 1.98 ERA), Alex Torres (53 G, 2.06 ERA) and Kevin Quackenbush (40 G, 2.41 ERA).

    Yes, the blame falls squarely on the offense in San Diego, and it's a shame, because the Padres' unheralded pitching staff could be one of the better stories of 2014 if they were winning.

Winner: Pittsburgh Pirates' Under-the-Radar Deadline Trade...Back in 2009

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    Clinging to a half-game lead in the NL Central on July 30, 2009, the Chicago Cubs pulled off a trade to acquire a much-needed lefty reliever in John Grabow and some controllable starting pitching depth in Tom Gorzelanny. In return, they shipped a pair of promising young pitchers in Kevin Hart and Jose Ascanio to the Pirates, along with a High-A utility player by the name of Josh Harrison.

    Fast-forward to 2014, and Harrison has become arguably the most valuable player on the Pirates roster, especially now that reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen is on the disabled list with a fractured rib.

    There are few qualities more valuable than defensive versatility, and Harrison has played all over the field this year, spending time at third (37), left field (26), right field (26), second base (16) and shortstop (2).

    Shuffling all over the field has had little effect on his offensive game, as he's hitting .316/.355/.509 with 25 doubles, 10 home runs and 17 stolen bases on the year.

    He was a deserving choice for the NL All-Star team, and his 4.2 WAR does not begin to demonstrate just how much he has meant to the Pirates' success this season.

Loser: Colorado Rockies' Complete Inability to Field a Viable Starting Rotation

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    Pitching wins championships, and reliable starting pitching in particular is paramount to any team reaching the ultimate goal of hoisting the World Series trophy.

    Therein lies the problems for the Colorado Rockies, who continue to struggle with finding five viable arms to fill out their starting rotation.

    Take their starters' ERA for the past four seasons as Exhibit A:

    2011: 4.73, 27th in MLB
    2012: 5.81, 30th in MLB
    2013: 4.57, 26th in MLB
    2014: 5.05, 29th in MLB

    Over that same period of time, their offense ranked as follows in runs per game:

    2011: 4.54, seventh in MLB
    2012: 4.68, sixth in MLB
    2013: 4.36, 10th in MLB
    2014: 4.58, fourth in MLB

    Obviously some of this has to do with playing in hitter-friendly Coors Field, but at the same time, the team has done little to address its rotation.

    Among the arms the Rockies have acquired during that span: Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Clay Mortensen, Kevin Millwood, Jamie Moyer, Tyler Chatwood, Kevin Slowey, Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman, Jeremy Guthrie, Jonathan Sanchez, Jon Garland, Roy Oswalt, Jordan Lyles, Yohan Flande and Brett Anderson.

    That's an unimpressive mix of fringe starters and washed-up veterans, and it's that strategy for shoring up the rotation that keeps them from contending.

    Yet when the team was handed a gold opportunity to claim a high-upside young pitcher off waivers in Jacob Turner, it passed and he was scooped up by the next team in line in the Cubs.

    Right now, this team is banking heavily on Jon Gray and Eddie Butler panning out atop the rotation, and if they don't, a complete overhaul of organizational philosophy and player development may be in order.

Winner: Seattle Mariners' Unheralded Bullpen

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    There is no question that the Seattle Mariners bullpen has improved significantly this season, as the numbers speak for themselves:

    WHIP 1.411.13
    BAA.253 .215
    SV43/66 (65.2%)38/48 (79.2%)

    Signing closer Fernando Rodney to a two-year, $14 million deal in free agency certainly helped shore up the ninth inning, as he's been one of the more reliable starters in the AL this season.

    However, the under-the-radar additions of free agent Joe Beimel and rookie Dominic Leone to the mix have been just as important to improving the pen as a whole.

    Here's a quick overview of the team's bullpen:

    Joe Beimel (L)423-10/081.271.1323.15.1
    Danny Farquhar481-11/3102.661.1452.710.1
    Charlie Furbush (L)501-51/1153.711.2351.99.8
    Dominic Leone425-20/272.061.2083.29.6
    Yoervis Medina494-20/1192.181.1133.98.7
    Fernando Rodney521-535/3802.311.2433.410.3
    Tom Wilhelmsen401-21/362.291.0003.97.7

    It's not a group that has received much fanfare this season outside of Seattle, but it is a huge reason why the Mariners find themselves in contention for their first postseason appearance since 2001.

Loser: St. Louis Cardinals' Trade Deadline Additions

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    With Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia on the disabled list and youngsters Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez proving to be inconsistent options at best in the rotation, the Cardinals aggressively pursued starting pitching at the trade deadline.

    They started by acquiring 2013 All-Star Justin Masterson from the Cleveland Indians, shipping outfield prospect James Ramsey to Cleveland in return.

    That was followed by one of the bigger blockbusters of the deadline, as they sent Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to the Boston Red Sox for veteran right-hander John Lackey.

    Lackey21 GS, 3.60 ERA, 3.56 FIP, 1.231 WHIP2 GS, 8.25 ERA, 6.79 FIP, 1.833 WHIP
    Masterson19 GS, 5.51 ERA, 4.07 FIP, 1.653 WHIP3 GS, 6.00 ERA, 5.26 FIP, 1.533 WHIP

    Give credit to Masterson for his last outing, as he threw seven innings of three-hit, shutout ball, but that was after a subpar debut and a disastrous second start, so it's still hard to peg exactly what to expect from him.

    The Cardinals are now 6-6 since the trade deadline. They have failed to make up any ground on the division-leading Brewers to this point and still trail them by two games.

    There is still a lot of baseball to be played, and the NL Central looks like it will come down to the wire, but the Cardinals' aggressive deadline moves have not paid off to this point.

    That makes the potential September return of Michael Wacha that much more important, as the team desperately needs a third reliable starter to join Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn atop the rotation.

Winner: Oakland Athletics' New Ace Jon Lester

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    Jon Lester is not the best pitcher in baseball right now. That honor belongs to Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez. However, he may be having the best all-around season of any player in the game.

    Allow me to explain.

    From a statistical standpoint, he's been great, going 13-7 with a 2.51 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 164.2 innings of work. That was enough to land him the No. 24 spot on my recent list of the top 100 players this year, and I'll admit that may have been a bit low.

    However, when you consider that he's putting up those numbers in a contract year, it puts him in as enviable a position as anyone in baseball heading into the offseason.

    As Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports pointed out, you have to go back 1998, when both Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson hit the open market, to find starters who put up better numbers than Lester in a contract year.

    He turned down a four-year extension in the $70-$80 million range this past offseason, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. That was a lowball offer if ever there was one, and Lester should at least be able to match the six-year, $144 million deal Cole Hamels received from the Phillies.

    It's not all about money for Lester, though, according to what he said in a Boston Herald article from John Tomase.

    In the greater scheme of things, we’re talking about just a stupid amount of money. I want to be happy. I want my family to be happy. I want to be comfortable. If that means taking less money, it means taking less money. If it means going to the highest bidder, it means going to the highest bidder, but that’s not going to dictate where I’ll be happy.

    Add to his upcoming riches the fact that he was traded from the last-place Boston Red Sox to the first-place Oakland Athletics at the deadline, and it's hard to draw out a better season for the 30-year-old left-hander than the one he's enjoying here in 2014.

    He's been terrific in the playoffs throughout his career, and another strong showing in October would only add to his standing as one of the best pitchers in the game today.

Loser: Atlanta Braves' Second-Half Slide

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    If only the Atlanta Braves could play 162 games against the Washington Nationals, they'd be a lock to win the NL East. Unfortunately, there are those pesky 28 other teams that have to come along and muck things up.

    The Braves have once again dominated their division rivals, going 9-4 against them head-to-head. Those are great results against a very good team, but that also means they are just 52-55 against the rest of the league.

    They closed out the month of July by being swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that was the start of what would be an eight-game losing streak.

    All told, they are now 9-16 since the All-Star break.

    The team is still just five games back in the NL East standings and 2.5 games out for the second wild-card spot, but there is no contender trending harder downward right now than the Braves.

    The pitching staff that had been such a strength early is now a serious concern. Mike Minor has been terrible all season, and Julio Teheran has a 5.24 ERA in his last seven starts. The bullpen continues to be wildly inconsistent outside of the late-inning duo of Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel.

    Offensively the Braves are still as streaky a team as any in baseball, and while Jason Heyward has heated up in the second half, there are still far too many free-swinging holes in the lineup.

    They may very well still sneak into the playoffs here in 2014, but it's hard to see the Braves pulling off anything more than a first-round exit come October.

Winner: Kansas City Royals' Second-Half Surge

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    The Kansas City Royals' deficit in the AL Central standings reached a season-high eight games when they lost to Chris Sale and the Chicago White Sox July 21.

    Looking back, that may very well have been the turning point in their season, as they've rattled off an impressive 17-4 record since, bumping the Detroit Tigers out of the top spot, and they cling to a half-game lead heading into play Thursday.

    "We're capitalizing on just about every opportunity we get right now. It's fun to watch," manager Ned Yost told Dick Kaegel of after the team took over first place.

    It's not as though the Royals went out and made a splash at the trade deadline. In fact, they didn't do much of anything, as their trade of Danny Valencia to the Toronto Blue Jays for Erik Kratz and Liam Hendricks was their only action at the deadline.

    Not only that, but they also lost first baseman Eric Hosmer to a fractured hand, an injury that looked like it could be a serious blow at the time for the offensively challenged Royals.

    Instead, they have rallied around it.

    Designated hitter Billy Butler dug his first baseman's glove out of his locker and apparently found his bat while he was in there, as he is coming off of Player of the Week honors. The rest of the offense has followed suit, as the Royals are averaging 4.38 runs per game during their current 21-game hot streak, a significant improvement over the 3.97 mark they had put up prior.

    The starting rotation has been good all season—and really one of the best in baseball since the team decided to swap Bruce Chen for Danny Duffy. Behind it is a bullpen that is again a strength and features perhaps the best one-two punch in baseball at the back end in Wade Davis and Greg Holland.

    Throw in the recent addition of Josh Willingham to fill the glaring need of a right-handed power bat in the outfield, and this team looks to have all the pieces to continue on and reach the playoffs for the first time since 1985.


    *All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and current through Wednesday, August 13.


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