Major League Baseball 2014: Five Contenders And What They Need To Fix For A Playoff Push

The Braves Tommy La Stella (.343 BA, .410 OBP in 19 games) has warranted a spot in the top third of Atlanta's lineup)
The Braves Tommy La Stella (.343 BA, .410 OBP in 19 games) has warranted a spot in the top third of Atlanta’s lineup)

We’ve passed the point of its early. You’re either a “contender” at this point or you’re not. Of course there are teams that can put together a run, but generally they have the talent on their roster to be considered a team to watch as we head into the All-Star break in the next four weeks.

Some teams, though, have some things to work on if they want to continue their aspirations from Spring Training. We’re going to focus on five teams (all of which made the playoffs in 2013) that are still in the hunt but need to get things together in a hurry if they want to play ball when the leaves change in October.

  1. St. Louis Cardinals (39-33, 3.5 GB NL Central)- It isn’t as easy as pitching when it comes to what has held the Cardinals back this far into the 2014 season. They have all of the pieces, but what is really hurting them is consistency. The Cardinals can put together stretches of brilliance (8-2 since June 7th) but they will also have stretches of confusingly mediocre baseball (19-20 from April 1 through May 13). One thing that needs to get corrected in a hurry is the Allen Craig/Johnny Peralta on-base issues. Craig (.311) and Peralta (.313) can ill-afford to lead the team in strikeouts while not getting on base. Especially when there are black holes in the lineup in the form of  Kolten Wong (who they confusingly keep trying to shove down Cardinals fans throats). They will need to get a lineup balance that can stick or risk not being able to make up the ground necessary to catch the Brewers.
  2. Boston Red Sox: (34-38, 6.5 GB AL East)- In 2013 the Boston Red Sox led all of baseball in runs (893), runs batted in (819), on-base percentage (.349), and were second in batting average (.277). In 2014 the Boston Red Sox are 23rd in runs (278), 23rd in runs batted in (265), 23rd in batting average (.244), and are tenth in on-base percentage (.323). Are you seeing what I am getting at here? For all intents and purposes the Red Sox bread and butter lie in the production of their lineup. When that lineup doesn’t produce, the issues with their pitching come to light that people overlooked when they were batting at a record pace. Their WHIP (better put: how many hitters they allow on base per inning) ranks 17th in all of baseball at 1.31. Why do I point that statistic out? Well, the purpose of the pitcher is to get three outs in an inning. It makes things very difficult when you allow over a batter an inning to reach base AND you are giving up the sixth most hits in all of baseball (647). When you put it that way it really isn’t rocket science. So how do they fix it? They’re going to have to produce at the plate. You know what Pedroia, Ortiz, and a healthy Mike Napoli are going to give you; but with Shane Victorino on the disabled list, Johnny Gomes playing poor defense and hitting for a low average as his replacement, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. not being quite ready to replace what Jacoby Ellsbury gave them in years past then you have a problem. I assume they will look to make a move as the trade deadline approaches, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Minnesota’s Josh Willingham or the excess of Outfielders the Dodgers have are serious options.
  3. Los Angeles Dodgers: (40-34, 4.0 GB NL West)- Clayton Kershaw’s no-no aside, the Dodgers might want to start considering rounding out who they are going to move forward with on their roster. The reason I say this is because they have an obvious logjam in their outfield with Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson (knocking on the door at triple-A), Scott Van Slyke, and Carl Crawford. I understand the injury history of both Kemp and Crawford, but for the sake of  lineup continuity when all are healthy they need to relieve this situation. The Giants (whom I picked to win the NL West in 2014) have the pitching and offense to finish the job in the division, so it is important that the Dodgers make the appropriate moves to better their team from a cohesive standpoint. My fix? Obviously you’re not getting rid of Puig or Pederson; so that leaves everyone else on the block (which it should). As much as it might pain the Dodgers executives to face Kemp will get you the biggest return. That doesn’t mean you trade him, however, that means you understand that the bullpen or rotation might be the area you need to upgrade and that Ethier can get you that piece in the right trade.
  4. Detroit Tigers: (37-32, 0.5 GB AL Central)- The Detroit Tigers are 6-10 in June and have lost 20 of their last 29 games. The Kansas City Royals have caught and passed them in the standings which seemed almost unthinkable when the calendar turned to June. But as we sit here, 19 days after the Tigers had as large as a 6.5 game lead on the Royals (who were in third place and two games under .500), we are now left to wonder what is going on with a team that many considered the cream of the American League Central. Well I’ll start by pointing out that the only players in the Tigers lineup producing anything of note are Miguel Cabrera (duh) and Victor Martinez (17 HR, .332 BA, .385 OBP). Torii Hunter is showing his age (.290 OBP, 38 K’s, 1 SB), Austin Jackson’s offensive replacement value has plummeted (3.0 oWAR in 2013, -0.9 oWAR in 2014), and they are getting next to nothing from anyone playing shortstop (.213/.276/.307). Then there’s Justin Verlander. The Tigers ace has been unreasonably awful recently and it is starting to get confusing. In the last month Verlander is 1-5, with a 22 K’s, 17 BB’s, and has given up 33 earned runs in 37.2 IP. Look no further for a fix than getting the 2011 American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner back on track. That is going to be an important start if the Tigers hope to slow down the Royals offense and the mini surge by the Cleveland Indians.
  5. Atlanta Braves: (36-35, 1.5 GB NL East)- The Braves are in serious trouble. Here’s the thing: I get the injuries to the rotation but for the most part that has been a surprisingly good part of the team. The offense has its problems but Jason Heyward is coming around, Tommy La Stella has (finally) replaced Dan Uggla, and Evan Gattis, Freddie Freeman, and Justin Upton continue to produce. The problems are with three hitters (BJ Upton, Andrelton Simmons, and Chris Johnson) and the Braves bullpen. BJ Upton, Simmons, and Johnson have to have a place in this lineup that doesn’t relegate an entire third of the order a liability. Simmons makes contact and doesn’t strikeout, which makes him a perfect candidate to bat eighth. Always. Chris Johnson (when he’s right) takes the ball the other way and should hit seventh. Always. BJ disrupts the flow of the offense. He hasn’t shown consistent enough production to hit high in the order (which renders his speed moot), and he doesn’t make enough contact to play for a sacrifice at the bottom of the order. La Stella’s production (.343 BA, .410 OBP since being called up May 28) is wasted anywhere but second in the order with Heyward hitting. But Fredi Gonzalez is reluctant to bat him there and risk being vulnerable to three consecutive lefties at the top of the order. Then there is the bullpen. One of their best relievers in 2013 (David Carpenter) isn’t right and is on the DL, Jordan Walden just returned from the DL, and Luis Avilan is making a case to not be in the mix anymore with the way things have gone for him. The Braves, if they want to repeat in the East, have to mix things up at the top of their lineup (Heyward-La Stella- Justin Upton-Freeman maybe?) and they are going to have to trade for a reliever at the deadline to have any shot.

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