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Wild Card: Underachievers, Part II
Having revisited my early-season list of overachieving teams last week, it though it would be interesting to check up on my list of underachievers as well. Here's how those seven teams were doing when I dubbed them underachievers back in May and where they stand today:
There are no Mariners-like outliers here. In fact, the only team that hasn't gotten meaningfully better is the Twins, who remain a .500 ballclub despite dropping Sidney Ponson from the roster and Ramon Ortiz from their rotation. That lack of improvement is due in part to the underwhelming performances of rotation replacements Scott Baker (5.30 ERA) and Kevin Slowey (5.84). Slowey has since been returned to Triple-A Rochester and replaced in the rotation by Matt Garza, but that move has been counterweighted by the sprained right thumb that has forced right fielder and cleanup hitter Michael Cuddyer to the disabled list, leaving the Twins languishing on the outskirts of contention.
The most compelling of these teams are the Yankees, Cubs, and Phillies. The Yankees are baseball's hottest team having won six of their past seven, 12 of 16 since the All-Star break, and 17 of 23. True, 12 of their past 16 games have come against the last-place Royals and Devil Rays, but they've also taken three of four from those .500 Twins and Blue Jays and two of three from the first-place Angels over those last 23 games. Meanwhile, they haven't been merely defeating those last-place teams, they've been destroying them. Before dropping the series finale to the Royals last night, they had won six in a row by a combined 70-19 score (or an average game score of roughly 12-3).
It remains to be seen if the Yankees will run out of gas by the time they hit the considerable mid-August bump in their schedule that pits them against the Indians, Tigers, Angels, and Red Sox, but it looks like they just might be in range of the Wild Card (currently four games behind Cleveland in the loss column with three head-to-head games remaining) and possibly even the AL East (currently seven behind Boston in the loss column with six head-to-head games remaining) when that part of the schedule comes around. More good news for the Bombers: überprospect Phil Hughes, last seen no-hitting the Rangers through 6 1/3 innings, and slugger Jason Giambi are both on minor league rehab assignments and could be activated from the disabled list in the next week or two.
The Cubs have been nearly as hot as the Yankees, winning 21 of their past 29, including two of three from first-place Milwaukee. They've gained 6.5 games on the Brewers over that stretch and currently stand just two games back in the NL Central and one game behind in the Wild Card race. A huge part of their recent success has been the resurgence of Carlos Zambrano who has gone 8-2 with a 1.56 ERA over his last ten starts after starting the season 5-8 with a 5.62. Ted Lilly has joined the party in July, going 4-0 with a 1.98 on the month. Together, Zambrano and Lilly have 12 of those last 21 wins. That can't keep up, but there are still reasons to be hopeful for Cub fans. Derek Lee only hit six home runs in the first half, but he also hit .330 with a .411 on-base percentage, and power tends to be the last thing to return after the sort of wrist injury he suffered (see Hideki Matsui, who hit eight homers through the end of June and has ten more since). Lee had 26 doubles in the first half and already has three round-trippers since the break despite serving a five-game suspension. It's not a stretch to expect more of those doubles to turn into homers in the second half, which could result in some monster production from Lee down the stretch.
Meanwhile, Baseball Prospectus's Will Carroll has been reporting great things about Kerry Wood's rehab. Wood's injury record is such that it's difficult to have any real optimism about his potential contribution, but word via Carroll is that he's throwing mid-90s and could rejoin the Cubs relief corps as soon as next week.
As for the Phillies, they're doing their usual job of getting close enough to be in the playoff discussion, but staying far enough back not to be a real threat. The Phils are just 2.5 games behind in the Wild Card race, but they have four teams ahead of them, including the Cubs and the Braves, the latter of whom stand between the Phillies and the first place Mets in the NL East. The Phils will be getting Brett Myers back soon, but the team will continue to use him as a closer despite Tom Gordon having preceded his return to action and the fact that Jon Lieber is out for the season, Freddy Garcia could very well be, and Jamie Moyer has posted a 6.26 ERA since mid-May. The Phillies have had the worst pitching in the National League this season, but are getting by on the league's best offense, which has scored more than a half-run per game more than the Rockies’s second-best attack. That took a blow yesterday, however, as Chase Utley's right hand was broken by a pitch in the Phillies' loss to the Nationals. There's little remaining hope for improvement here. Ryan Howard recovered from his poor April to slug .695 with 26 homers and 72 RBIs over the last three months, Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Aaron Rowand are having career years, and even Pat Burrell, who is getting on base at a career-best .408 clip in an otherwise disappointing season, has caught fire in July, hitting .433/.562/.717. Having already maximized the potential of their offense and exhausted their pitching reinforcements, the Phillies have likely hit their ceiling, even if they were to wise up and put Myers back in the rotation.
That leaves the Cubs and the Yankees to provide us with a thrilling come-from-behind pennant chase. The Cubs have been one of the most curious teams in baseball ever since they dropped a combined $285 million on Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, and Mark DeRosa over the winter and tossed out another $10 million to make Lou Piniella their manager. That they flopped out of the gate, fought in the dugout, and prompted some classic Piniella press conference material only makes their recent surge all the more compelling. The Yankees have been nearly as compelling, as their own early-season struggles have threatened the franchise's streak of 12-straight playoff appearances despite Alex Rodriguez's all-world season and the return of Roger Clemens. Now both are playing their best baseball just in time for the pennant races to heat up. It seems unlikely that either club will make the postseason, but they sure will make things interesting.
Labels: Wild Card
posted by SI.com | View comments |
> It seems unlikely that either [the Yankees or Cubs] will make the postseason
Nonsense. The odds of each individual club making the postseason may be less than 50%, but the odds of one of the two making it are certainly far better than 50%. Think before you write.
Anonymous @ 12:05--
"Think before you write" is a rude way to conclude your unjustified assertion. If you really want to be quantitative about things, suppose that the Yankees and Cubs each have a 25% chance of qualifying for the postseason. Then the chance that at least one of them will make it is only 44%. It's not such a sure thing after all. If both teams have uphill battles to October, it very well could be likely that both will fail.
Presently Baseball Prospectus gives the Cubs a 54.8 % chance of making the playoffs, and that was before Sunday's win and the Brewers loss putting the Cubs a half game behind the Brewers. The Brewers have a very poor road record, while the Cubs have both a positive road record and home record. Based on away records, the Cubs should win the division, not merely a wild card spot.
“It seems unlikely that either club will make the postseason, but they sure will make things interesting.”
Really, who takes the NL Central?
1. The Brewers only look good as front runners with a big lead. That’s a young team that has never been in a Pennant race. They choked some big leads watching the scoreboard.
2. The Cubs are playing solid defense the infield is as good as any in the game.
3. Pitching, who could get decent relief / closer help without spending an extra dime or moving a prospect? The Cubs through a reasonably healthy Kerry Wood. (Yea, save it and wait a week or so.)
4. The Cards, Reds, Astros have too many flaws to truly be contenders.
The lone fact that I can see in the Cubs not making the playoffs is the six games in a row against the rival Cards late in the season.
As for the Yankees, I hate the East Coast Bias and would love for anyone other that them and the Red Sox to make the post season out of the east.
I think Yanks will have harder time reaching the WildCard because of the competition from the Indians, Tigers, Mariners. As of today Yanks are 2 games behind Indians. As a DieHard Yanks fan I would love to see them getting the wild card. i would like to see Indians get the division. i hate the Tigers. I think CUBS are the hottest team in NL. I think they can easillllllllllllyyyyyyyyy take the division and probably NL champ. Seeing my Cubs VS Yanks -------------Priceless
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