As we rapidly approach MLB’s trade deadline, the two leagues could not look more different, at least as far as the standings go.
In the National League, the West and East are all but wrapped up, even with the Nats and Dodgers seeing injuries hit the pitching staffs in the persons of Stephen Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw, respectively. Only the Central remains wide open; even the Wild Card is looking firm for the Rockies and Diamondbacks…for the moment.
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Andrew McCutchen: Can he make the Pirates upwardly-mobile, or will he need some help?
And then, over in the American League, everything except the West is wide open. If your preferred team is not leading the Central or East right now, just wait a few days–they’ll probably reach the top before you know it, and then quickly sink back into the very crowded field of contenders.
Two teams, one in each league, are of particular interest. Both teams have been making a push this last week, ascending the ladders in their respective Central divisions rapidly and making it seem, at least for the moment, like they have a shot at real contention in both the regular season and the playoffs. One of them, the Kansas City Royals, looks like a decent bet to be playing in October. The Pittsburgh Pirates, on the other hand, probably still have a long way to go.
Both the Royals and the Pirates entered last weekend at exactly .500 after playing a lot of up and down baseball throughout the first half of the season. Both have since gone on something of a tear; each has posted a 7-3 record in their last 10, with Kansas City currently (as of this writing) riding a six game winning streak. The Pirates sit a meager 2.5 games out in the NL Central, while the Royals are in even better shape, having climbed to within a game and a half of the first-place Indians (who have only maintained their position by winning four in a row themselves).
While neither team can be called a contender on the order of the Dodgers or the white-hot Houston Astros, both probably deserve to be considered “contention-adjacent” at the very least–and for one of them, that position may be close enough to do some real damage.
Having visited both teams in their home parks just last month, I feel vaguely qualified to pass a certain amount of judgment on each team, at least as far as their status as contenders is concerned. While I am inclined to give Pittsburgh the nod as far as their stadium goes–PNC Park just barely edges out Kauffman Stadium as a finer place to watch a ballgame–as far as the team on the field goes, I suspect the Royals are the better bet for postseason play.
“For an upwardly-mobile team at this time of year, ‘contention-adjacent’ might just be the place to be.”
Notwithstanding their recent hot streak, I find myself doubting the Pirates. Their biggest star, Andrew McCutchen, is rounding into form after looking nothing like himself early in the season, but the cupboard looks particularly bare behind him. When your team ranks in the 20s in the MLB in major team offensive categories, you’d better have a late-’90s Atlanta Braves staff to compensate for the weakness…and the Pirates don’t. Ivan Nova and Gerrit Cole are doing decent work, but past them it all looks very ordinary, if not downright questionable.
Now, deficiencies in one area can be addressed through that aforementioned trade deadline, but you have to have something to give up in order to get something. The fact that the Bucs are largely scuffling at the plate, and have little in the way of arms on the major league squad–which implies there’s even fewer quality arms in the farm system–indicates that Pittsburgh does not look like a viable trading partner for anyone who’s willing to deal either a bat or a strong pitching arm.
There’s also the simple fact that, while the Pirates may have reached a couple of Wild Card games in recent years (after that horrendous streak of losing seasons), they simply have not shown the gumption to get over the hump and advance in the playoffs, let alone threaten to win the whole thing.
The same can not be said about the Kansas City Royals. They are only a season and a half removed from winning a title, and as they showed during my recent trip to Kauffman Stadium, they still have a fair amount of that championship juice flowing through the team. Names like Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain still permeate the lineup, bringing a healthy dose of “go all the way” experience to the team. That can be a crucial factor for a seemingly overmatched team, should they manage to get into the postseason–something we saw with the Giants in 2012 and 2014.
And the Royals, as they are currently constituted, are probably overmatched versus the other contenders in the AL (though I did attend them beating the Red Sox, a possible first-round matchup should KC make it into the tournament). It may very well be the case that Kansas City has little more to deal than the Pirates do–but if they can swing a deal, the upside could be considerably greater than anything Pittsburgh could expect.
KC clearly needs another starting pitcher. After Jason Vargas, the veteran tag-team of Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel are simply not cutting it. Perhaps Monday’s trade, which brought Trevor Cahill into the Royals rotation from San Diego, might help one of those underperforming two find his game. Cahill himself has been an enigma in recent years: decent in relief, including for last season’s champion Cubs, but that only after flame-outs as a starter in Arizona. The club surely wants to continue to pursue starting pitcher, if a better option can be had.
The Royals could also benefit from a multiplier factor if they can bring in a big bat. They currently have Brandon Moss struggling in part-time duty, have knocked in only 24 runs with 12 dingers while posting a chilly .206 batting average. Those numbers aren’t that helpful, but if another heavy swinger joins the lineup and puts more pressure on opposing pitchers, KC might see Moss return to some of the hot hitting he did during his stints with the A’s and Cardinals. Suddenly, a punchless offense might start making a much bigger impact–and they’ve already been able to drag themselves to within 1.5 games of the division lead without much hitting going on.
If they could bring in both another starter and another hitter, the sky could be the limit for an experienced team like the Royals. If Cahill–or some other acquisition–performs for KC, and if they get a big bat to help their offense, they might just seize the division and put the Indians and Twins in the rear view mirror.
The Bucs have a tougher row to hoe, but if they can somehow get a few key acquisitions, they too could enjoy a surge to the top of the standings–and it would be interesting to see what Pittsburgh could do in October as a division winner rather than facing a one-and-done situation in the Wild Card game.
For an upwardly-mobile team at this time of year, “contention-adjacent” might just be the place to be. Play ball, and let’s make a deal.