If you gamble on Major League Baseball, we respect your fortitude. Every year, heavy favorites collapse due to pressure, general underachieving, crushing injuries, or a combination of all three. There is simply no way for MLB prediction models to anticipate these variables (yet). By the end of the season, most fans’ minds are blown at what took place over the past six months.
Heck, even the MLB insiders who spent their lifetimes in and around the game cannot predict baseball with any degree of certainty. It doesn’t just happen with preseason predictions, either. Any fan who read second-half forecasts at the All-Star Break may have wondered how the experts saw the future so clearly. For example: The teams slumping before the break could make trades before the deadline, right?
In fact, the trade storm already began in earnest with the Cubs, Yankees, and Washington Nationals making big moves in mid-July. Elsewhere, teams who looked dead as recently as June have stormed back into the race with their players finding their way through slumps. Consider it our annual reminder to take nothing for granted in baseball. Here are six teams we thought were buried but still have a shot at the playoffs in 2017.
6. Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are an odd team in several ways. Tampa hitters strike out a ton and are middle-of-the-pack in batting average. But their home-run hitting keeps them among MLB’s offensive leaders. On the pitching end, a strong rotation offsets the impact of a mediocre bullpen. Meanwhile, the Rays defense is among the worst in baseball. But lots of preseason predictions said the Rays were playoff-bound.
Around the middle of May, Tampa found themselves three games under .500 with an even run differential. Since then, the Rays clawed their way back with the best record in the AL East since May 11 (33-24). Boosted by Alex Cobb and Jacob Faria, the Rays leapfrogged the Yankees in the standings and seem to be getting stronger. This team definitely can make a run and might sneak into first before August if those Red Sox keep sliding.
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
If you wanted to see a team dead in the water, you only needed to glance at the Pirates on June 8. The club was nine games under .500 (26-35) and had been outscored by 40 runs. Last place seemed realistic, even though the terrible Reds were still overachieving at that point. Since that date, Pittsburgh has the best record in the NL Central (20-13) and sits a mere four losses behind the first-place Brewers.
Certainly, four games is nothing with over two months to play, but the Pirates have reinforcements coming, too. All-Star Starling Marte rejoined the club on July 18. Meanwhile, any team with a few hot streaks in it has a shot at the NL Central title in 2017. Until someone knocks the hot Pirates down a few pegs, fans should feel free to dream of stealing the division.
4. Seattle Mariners
Injury and ineffectiveness dimmed Seattle’s hopes early in the season. An 11-15 April left the club in last place, and by the start of June, the Mariners still reeked of mediocrity (25-30) on all fronts. From that point on, only the high-flying Astros have outplayed them in the AL West, and Seattle showed it can blow out teams with regularity as well as pitch with them on a good day.
Heading into the trade deadline, the Mariners were only a few games out of the wild-card chase as the club put pretenders in the rearview mirror. We cannot see this team taking off without a strong second half from Felix Hernandez (or another starter), but the offense and bullpen have the capacity to steal games down the stretch.
3. St. Louis Cardinals
You can’t get more average than the Cardinals through the first two months of the season, when they played exactly .500 (25-25) ball. Since mid-June, however, St. Louis has played (15-10, +37 run differential) like a team with designs on a winnable NL Central. Indeed, with all that mediocrity on the record, the Cards trailed the Brewers and rejuvenated Cubs by a few games as the trade deadline approached.
The return of Adam Wainwright (4-0, 3.52 ERA after June 19) might be the most encouraging trend for this club, and Michael Wacha’s shutout at Citi Field was enough to give fans hope for the second half. A series in Chicago from July 21-24 should give everyone a better picture of where St. Louis (and the Cubs) stand with the division up for grabs.
2. Kansas City Royals
When we looked at the Royals’ situation in June, we saw a club looking into the abyss. Kansas City was tied in the loss column (26-34) for last in the AL Central and had been outscored by 60 runs. But management ignored the calls to sell and the team caught fire. Since that darkest hour, they have the league’s best record (19-12).
Alcides Escobar and Eric Hosmer turned around their seasons in mid-June. The rejuvenated bullpen has fans believing that old K.C. formula might work one last time. Unfortunately, Jason Vargas does not look like the ace to lead them into the playoffs. However, if management is serious about its claims that it will buy at the trade deadline, arms are available to make the Royals’ return official.
1. Chicago Cubs
You can’t repeat as World Series champion with your starting rotation in shambles. The Cubs addressed that need with a trade for Jose Quintana over the All-Star break. The lefty gave the team a boost in his first start, and Chicago romped through Baltimore and Atlanta for a five-game win streak to reassert its relevance. Even after a horrendous record (12-16) for the defending champs, the Cubs found themselves one game back of Milwaukee in the loss column on July 19.
Making the playoffs will require more than Quintana every fifth day, of course. Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta will have to regain some of their past greatness to make it happen. The same goes for the offense that ebbs and flows too often for comfort. (In the case of Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell, it’s mostly ebbed.) Given the strength of Arizona and Colorado in the wild card, it will make the NL Central an exciting division to watch.