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MLB's Contenders and Pretenders

by Photo of Sam Cohen

Which of MLB’s most surprising teams will continue to win and which are bound to fall apart?

MLB's Contenders and Pretenders

As the first half of the 2014 MLB season draws to a close, teams generally have a good sense of whether they are in a position to make a run at a championship or not. There are, of course, teams in first or second place that were expected to be there, such as the Washington Nationals or the Detroit Tigers. There are also teams that were not expected to be anywhere close to playoff contention that find themselves at or near the top of the standings at the halfway point of the season. 

So which of this season's surprising teams are true contenders and which of those teams are bound to fall apart?

Oakland Athletics- Contender

The Oakland Athletics have won their division two years in a row and have the best record in baseball, so why are they on this list?

The A's always seem to be underdogs and this year is no different. They were expected to be good, but there were questions regarding whether the team could make it out of a very strong A.L. West. It wouldn't have been surprising if any of the four teams in the division made it to the playoffs. Oakland, however, has been by far the best team in the division.

The A's have an offense that leads the league in runs and ranks second in on-base percentage. The pitching staff that leads the league in WHIP and batting average against, while ranking second in ERA. The team is led by one of the best managers in the game in Bob Melvin and so long as the team stays relatively healthy, they should be a contender not only this year but for years to come.

San Francisco Giants- Contender

The Giants have had an up and down season but still find themselves ahead of the heavily favored Dodgers for first place in the N.L. West. After finishing May as the best team in baseball, June has been a little different, as the Giants haven't been playing great baseball.

The Giants have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball and while Tim Lincecum is still a question mark despite his no-hitter, the other four starters are seasoned veterans that should have no trouble continuing to pitch well. Their lineup is also strong, but filled with players who struggle to stay on the field. Angel Pagan is never healthy and he and Brandon Belt are currently on the DL, while Michael Morse, Buster Posey, and Pablo Sandoval have had their fair share of injury problems the past few years.

I think that the Giants will contend, but I don't feel great about it. It's hard to bet on a team that has so many injury-prone hitters, but a healthy Giants team is definitely a contender. We will have to wait and see.

Milwaukee Brewers- Pretender

Who would've thought that at this point in the season, the Brewers would be 4.5 games ahead of the Cardinals and have a sizable lead over the Pirates and Reds? Not many, but the Brewers have been getting it done. Their rotation has pitched the most innings in baseball and is second in quality starts. Their hitters, meanwhile, are in the top ten in runs scored, batting average, and slugging percentage. Jonathan Lucroy has been one of the most important players in baseball, as he is hitting the cover off of the ball while playing excellent defense behind the plate. The Milwaukee outfield has also been one of the best in baseball, as Carlos Gomez is having another MVP-caliber season and Ryan Braun and Khris Davis have been excellent.

This won't keep up. While their pitching has been great, this isn't the type of staff that a team should want if they plan to contend. Yovani Gallardo's sabermetric statistics suggest that he will regress, Marco Estrada has been awful, and Matt Garza has a pedestrian 4.01 ERA. The hitting should still be good, but Lucroy's .350 batting average on balls in play is bound to come down soon. Same with Gomez's ridiculous .383 BABIP.

It is also important to point out that the Brewers play in the same division as the Pirates, Reds, and Cardinals, three teams that made the playoffs last year. While all three have been disappointing thus far, the Pirates are starting to get hot and everyone is just waiting for the Reds and defending champion Cardinals to go on a tear. The Brewers have been great, but I just don't see them going anywhere this year.

Miami Marlins- Pretender

The Miami Marlins have been the biggest surprise in baseball. A team that many predicted to be the worst team this season, the Marlins find themselves five games behind the first place Braves in the struggling N.L. East.

Don't get me wrong, it's great to see the Marlins do well. They have been a joke of a franchise for a few years now, especially after spending so much money a couple seasons ago on a bunch of players that they ended up trading less than a year later. But their success thus far does not mean they can contend.

The Marlins have such a young outfield and while the future is very bright, it is hard to expect 23-year-old Marcell Ozuna and 22-year-old Christan Yelich to play well for a whole season. Giancarlo Stanton has been an absolute monster, but he has had only one healthy season in his career. Their infield is also filled with a bunch of mediocre players, most of whom should be in the minor leagues. Besides Casey McGehee, who is a cleanup hitter with one home run, an infield made up of Adeiny Hechavarria, Donovan Solano, Garrett Jones, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia is not going to help any team contend.

I haven't even gotten into their pitching. Behind a very good Henderson Alvarez and a decent Nathan Eovaldi, the team has no reliable options to start. Jose Fernandez isn't coming back this season and 23-year-old Andrew Heaney has two starts under his belt and cannot be relied upon to figure out how to pitch in the majors in just his first year. He also probably wouldn't be available if the Marlins were in playoff contention at the end of the year due to an innings limit. The Marlins have been a great story, but this is not a contending team yet.

Kansas City Royals- Contender

The Kansas City Royals are finally a contending team and there is no doubt about it. In my article last week about the difference hitting coach Dale Sveum has made, I discussed how great the Kansas City hitters had been since he took over. Nothing's changed since, as Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Alcides Escobar, Sal Perez, and Jarrod Dyson continue to dominate opposing pitchers. The pitching staff has also been excellent, as Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, and Jason Vargas have all been spectacular. Yes, every single member of the pitching staff has contributed in a big way.

This team had a great June and their pitching staff should continue to excel. The question is whether the hitters can continue to hit the ball well. Most of the Kansas City hitters were top prospects and they seem to finally be living up to their potential. There is also a clear correlation between the hiring of Sveum and the success of the Royals' lineup, as the Royals hitters look so much more comfortable at the plate than they were before. The Royals are locked and loaded and ready to compete.

Toronto Blue Jays- Pretender

It's so hard to call a team with such a powerhouse lineup a pretender, but I have to. The Blue Jays' lineup has been nothing short of amazing, as Jose Bautista is having his usual MVP kind of season and Edwin Encarnacion is tied for the MLB lead in home runs (24) and is second in the MLB in RBI (63). The lineup as a whole ranks third in runs, third in slugging percentage, fifth in average, fourth in on-base percentage. Simply put, they can hit the ball.

The problem for the Blue Jays is they have no pitching. Behind Mark Buehrle, who is really more of a number 2 or 3 pitcher than an ace, no starter has an ERA under 4.00. R.A. Dickey is not the pitcher the Blue Jays hoped they were getting and J.A. Happ and Drew Hutchinson are just not reliable starters. With a pitching staff that ranks near the bottom in ERA, WHIP, and batting average against, Blue Jays pitchers would get crushed in the playoffs. Not to mention that their bullpen is kind of a mess, as relievers have combined for a 4.50 ERA.

The Jays need to get at least two starters and at least two bullpen arms by the July 31st trade deadline. If they can make some major moves to upgrade their pitching, they can contend. If not, it will be another lost season for Toronto.

It will be interesting to see if some of these teams make any big deals before the July 31st trade deadline. Trading for one player could make a pretender a contender, so each of these teams should be followed closely. Baseball fans are in for an exciting second half of the season.

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