MLB Contenders or Pretenders: Separating the Legitimate Threats from the Rest of the Pack (Part I)

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By Mike Edwards – Last Word on Baseball

July is already upon us, meaning that we have past the midway point of the 2017 MLB season. As is usually the case right about now, the crowded chase for each league’s two respective Wild Card spots has begun to heat up. But which teams currently in the hunt are there for the long haul, and which are likely to taper off as the second half unfolds?

This article examines a handful of surprise teams in order to evaluate the odds of them sustaining their first half success. Therefore, teams that were expected to be in the playoff mix at the outset of the season will not be included. Rather, the teams that have seen sizable improvements in the first half of the season from their 2016 campaigns will be analyzed.

Pretender: Milwaukee Brewers

44-40, 1st NL Central (+2.0 GB)

The Brewers are another surprise club who have ridden a number of strong individual first halves en route to their first place status in the NL Central. But regression is very likely on the way for a number of their standout performers including Chase Anderson, Eric Thames, and Travis Shaw. Moreover, the Brewers have also been incredibly healthy, with the third fewest total days spent on the DL in the Major Leagues. That’s bound to even out.

Another factor into the Brewers first half success has been their ability to take advantage of the rest of their division middling around the .500 mark. But in what is traditionally one of the most competitive divisions in baseball, odds are that is going to change in the second half. The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates are hanging around, while the Chicago Cubs appear ready to pounce at any moment with the obvious talent they possess. It’s only a matter of time before the Cubs find their 2016 form, and when they do the Brew Crew will be in trouble. With one of the better farm systems in the MLB, the future is certainly bright in Milwaukee, but they have at least another season yet before they should be considered legitimate contenders.

Contender: Houston Astros

56-27, 1st AL West (+14.5 GB)

The Astros are the best team in baseball, and they are showing no signs of slowing down. Most teams consider themselves fortunate to have one player as gifted in the field and at the plate as Carlos Correa, George Springer, or Jose Altuve. Houston has all three. Add to that a dominant ace in Dallas Keuchel – the odds-on favorite for his second AL Cy Young Award in three seasons assuming he is able to come back reasonably soon from his neck ailment – and it makes up a pretty darn special four cornerstone pieces of a franchise.

The ‘Stros just have too much talent on both sides of the ball to fathom a second half decline. In fact, there may even be room for improvement with the return of Collin McHugh in the near future, as well as an uptick in productivity at the plate from Alex Bregman and Carlos Beltran after disappointing individual first halves. Furthermore, with a number of top prospects still remaining in the organization, GM Jeff Luhnow is in pole position to add multiple significant pieces at the trade deadline to make his team even better. The rest of the AL has probably taken notice by now, but it’s time for the NL to follow suit – this Astros team has World Series written all over it.

Pretender: Minnesota Twins

41-40, T-2nd AL Central, T-3rd AL Wild Card (0.5 GB)

The young Twins have raised eyebrows by situating themselves right in the thick of both the AL Central and Wild Card races at the season’s midpoint, but it’s difficult to envision things staying that way in the second half. Miguel Sano has carried the Twins attack at an MVP pace, but it’s unrealistic to ask one player to continue to be responsible for such a big share of the offense. Likewise, Ervin Santana appears to have found a new gear this season, but there are still plenty of concerns with the remainder of the pitching staff.

The Twins sat atop the AL Central for a while, but have since fallen outside of the two Wild Card berths and a decline further down the standings could be in order. The Kansas City Royals seem to have turned the corner, and the Cleveland Indians are arguably better now on paper than their ALCS-winning squad from a year ago. Like their inter-league rivals across the boarder in Wisconsin, Minnesota has plenty to look forward to in the future including number one overall pick Royce Lewis in the recent 2017 MLB First Year Player Draft, but reaching the postseason isn’t a realistic feat quite yet.

Contender: Tampa Bay Rays

43-41, 3rd AL East, 2nd AL Wild Card (+0.5 GB)

Joe Maddon may have invented the Rays unique brand of baseball, but Kevin Cash has picked up right where Maddon left off excluding a one year hiccup in 2016. The Rays know their identity and they get the most out of all 25 players on their roster, which has once again allowed them to compete night in and night out in the vaunted AL East division.

Thanks to Corey Dickerson’s consistently hot bat atop the order, plus the starting rotation boasting the second best team ERA in the American League, the Rays currently find themselves holding down the AL’s second Wild Card spot entering play Monday. But more impressive, however, is the fact that they have done so while constantly having to cope with the injury bug.

The Rays have blown the rest of Major League Baseball away with a whopping 960 days (most in MLB) spent on the Disabled List across 20 different players (2nd most) so far this season, but they are only getting healthier moving into the second half. Wilson Ramos recently made his debut after missing the first three months of the season recovering from a torn ACL, while the Rays are also in for a big boost with Matt Duffy and Kevin Kiermaier both expected back in early-to-mid August. The fact that they have battled through all of the injuries in the first half is a testament to their depth and roster balance, two key ingredients needed to win a Wild Card race. The Rays are definite contenders for one of the AL’s two Wild Card spots, or at the very least should hang in the race right to the end.

Stayed tuned for the second half of this article as we look at more possible playoff teams and separate the pretenders from the contenders.

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