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MLB's Hottest Teams

by Photo of Kenneth Teape

These 4 teams are all playing out of this world as they make pushes towards the postseason.

MLB's Hottest Teams

The MLB season is starting to enter the dog days of summer as every passing day is getting us closer to playoff baseball. Nothing is set in stone yet in terms of making the playoffs but there are some teams that are coming on strong and making serious cases that they will be there when it is all said and done. The common theme with all these teams coming on strong now is that they had what many experts considered big flaws but they have overcome those problems to place themselves right in the thick of the playoff races.

Kansas City Royals (62-54): At the All-Star Break the Royals looked dead in the water. They had a losing record at 43-49 and would start the second half off with a tough series against division rival Detroit Tigers and the Baltimore Orioles. The Royals responded by going 5-2 against the two AL powerhouses and they have not looked back since.

Barely a month later, the Royals are now sitting in second place in the AL Central, 6.5 games behind the Tigers and four games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the second wild card spot. A nine game winning streak helped propel the Royals past .500 at the end of July and they simply continue to win. They are sporting an 18-5 record since the All-Star break and are mowing down whatever team is in their way.

A big reason for the success in Kansas City has been their pitching staff. Led by offseason acquisition and ace James Shields, the Royals sport the sixth best ERA in the majors at 3.54. Shields may have a losing record but he has been outstanding all season long. He has not been alone in that starting rotation as Jeremy Guthrie and Ervin Santana have helped hold down the rotation as well.

The pitching staff is anchored by one of the best closers in baseball right now in Greg Holland. Holland is sporting a 1.57 ERA and 0.89 WHIP to go with 74 strikeouts in 46.0 innings. He is also fourth in the AL with 32 saves. People were skeptical when the Royals let longtime closer Joakim Soria leave in free agency but Holland has more than filled the void. Holland has some help in the bullpen at the end of games as Luke Hochevar, the former number one overall pick, Bruce Chen and Aaron Crow have all had great seasons out of the bullpen.

The only thing holding the Royals back right now if their offense, as they rank 16 th in the majors in runs scored despite ranking ninth in batting average. The biggest problem seems to be their lack of extra base hits as they rank 23rd in slugging percentage. Things are starting to turn around for the offense though as Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are starting to hit for more power. Justin Maxwell, who they picked up at the deadline from the Houston Astros, has provided a spark as well.

Texas Rangers (69-50): The Rangers started the second half poorly, losing eight of the first 10 games including sweeps at the hands of the Orioles and Cleveland Indians. The Oakland Athletics took over first place in the AL West and the Rangers began sliding in the wrong direction in the standings. To make matters worse, Nelson Cruz was suspended for his role in the BioGenesis scandal.

This all spelled disaster for the Rangers but they have responded as any team with World Series aspirations would. They have rattled off eight wins in a row and won 13 of their past 14 games. They fixed their Cruz problem by trading for the Chicago White Sox Alex Rios once he cleared waivers. Rios has filled in more than fine for the departed Cruz with a .364/.417/.636 slash line in 11 games with the Rangers.

What has really helped keep the Rangers afloat is the performance of their starting pitching staff headed by Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish. Darvish has been masterful all season long and continues to toss gems every time he takes the mound. In his last start he struck out a career-high 15 Astros over eight innings en route to a 2-1 victory. Darvish has received help in the starting rotation from the deadline acquisition Matt Garza and Derek Holland, who has an outstanding 3.07 ERA on the season as the third starter in the rotation. With Alexi Ogando working his way back from injuries this is a starting rotation that can matchup with anyone come playoff time. Their bullpen is as solid as anyone’s as well with Joe Nathan and his 35 saves anchoring it.

Detroit Tigers (69-48): If not for how well the Tigers have played, the Royals would be getting a lot more recognition than they are now. The Tigers are one of the true contenders in the AL thanks to a dominant offense led by reigning MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball and cemented that over the weekend by hitting a home run in consecutive at-bats against the greatest closer of all-time in Mariano Rivera. Players would die to have the numbers Cabrera has put up through August for a full season.

Cabrera is not alone in his assault of opposing pitching staffs as Prince Fielder has 81 RBI of his own. These RBI totals would not be possible if not for the work by the likes of Torii Hunter and Austin Jackson ahead of them. The two are always on base, giving the big boppers in Cabrera, Fielder and Victor Martinez plenty of opportunities to knock in runs.

Just as scary deep as the lineup is the Tigers pitching rotation. The staff has really picked up Justin Verlander, the former MVP and Cy Young award winner who is not having a very Verlander type season. Picking up the slack is Max Scherzer, who sports a 17-1 record and 175 strikeouts in 158.1 innings pitched to go along with his 2.84 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. Anibal Sanchez has pitched well all season long as well to the tune of a 2.58 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. Doug Fister and Rick Porcello round of the Tigers starting rotation that is as deep as any in the majors.

The problem for the Tigers lies in the bullpen where the closer position has been something of a rotating door so far this season. Bruce Rondon was given the job in spring training but did so poorly he didn’t even start the season in the majors. Next in line was Jose Valverde, the former closer, but he struggled as well and was DFA. Joaquin Benoit was given the job and has done very well so far. The Tigers traded for Jose Veras at the deadline for insurance as well. For now the bullpen looks to be more stabilized but at times does rear its ugly head and is really the only thing keeping the Tigers from being unanimous World Series favorites.

Los Angeles Dodgers (68-50): It is hard to believe this is the same team whose manager was in danger of being fired back in May. Don Mattingly was managing an underachieving team that could not get out of its own way. Injuries were shelving some of their everyday players and even the greatness that is Clayton Kershaw could not win games. But then one day a Cuban prospect was called up and everything has changed. Yasiel Puig gave the Dodgers the shot in the arm they needed and they have been on a role since.

In addition to Puig, Hanley Ramirez heated up as well. The oft-injured shortstop finally got healthy enough and showed why he won a batting title with the Florida Marlins in 2009. In addition, Adrian Gonzalez looks like the Adrian Gonzalez of old, knocking in a team high 75 RBI to go along with 16 home runs and a .297/.346/.462 slash line. The lineup was finally taking shape as players began to get healthy and fall into place. This lineup will be even more dangerous if they can get Matt Kemp back in the fold and playing well at some point.

Kershaw is the odds on favorite to win the Cy Young and possibly MVP this season in the NL. No one is on the same planet as him pitching-wise as his 1.88 ERA and 0.87 WHIP are astonishing numbers. His record isn’t the greatest at 11-7 but he has 21 quality starts out of 25 and has given up more than two earned runs in a start only six times all season. Kershaw has gotten support in the rotation from Zack Greinke and rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu. The two have combined for a 21-6 record and low ERA and WHIP numbers. Since coming over from the Miami Marlins Ricky Nolasco has helped stabilize the rotation as well, giving the Dodgers as scary a top four as any team in the majors.

It is hard to pick out a weakness for the Dodgers right now but if forced to pick one it would be the bullpen. Kenley Jansen has done a great job as the closer and setup man and he has some serious help in lefties J.P Howell and Paco Rodriguez in front of him. Right hander Ronald Bellisario throws hard and has had a decent season as well out of the bullpen for the Dodgers. Most of their problems in the bullpen have been put to rest as Brandon League no longer closes games and Javy Guerra is the in the minors. More help for the bullpen is on the way also as the Dodgers signed former San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson to a contract July 31st.

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