Although October is considered by many to be the second season during each passing Major League Baseball league year, the month of September is a season all by itself.
All games count the same in the standings, but the ones at the back end of the regular season schedule carry additional weight for those aiming to play more than the allotted 162.
Presented are the clubs that possess the talent and intangibles necessary to reach the next level—only to be on the outside looking in when October arrives.
5. Kansas City Royals
While most attention was given to the Pirates’ run of 20 years without a winning record, there is an even lengthier drought in Kansas City. The Royals haven’t experienced the postseason since Game 7 of the 1985 World Series. Maybe they used up all their luck in coming back from a three-games-to-one deficit and benefiting from a blown call in Game 6.
Karma hasn’t been the only element of the Royals’ losing formula. A low payroll, a lack of talent, and poor management are much more credible factors in why K.C. has had a tough time even sniffing the playoffs. They don’t stink anymore now.
The Royals had their best winning percentage since 1994, giving the teams and their fans reason to believe that their October jinx can be snapped. Additional optimism was brought about by the signings of Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante—two players they could afford with ease.
For an offense that ranked 11th in the AL in runs scored, getting a pair of hitters that can stabilize the top of the order was crucial. That’s especially true for those who’ll follow them. Billy Butler is due for improvement after a lackluster performance in 2013, while Eric Hosmer is emerging into a star.
While Kansas City’s offense struggled, the pitching didn’t. In fact, the Royals ranked fifth in the AL in earned run average (ERA) among starters (3.87)—mostly because of James Shields. The former Ray came through for his new club, winning 13 games with nearly 200 strikeouts and a 3.19 ERA.
The bullpen was even better (2.55 ERA), but will have to deal with the loss of setup man Luke Hochevar to Tommy John surgery. Helping prevent runs for their pitchers is left field standout Alex Gordon and catcher Salvador Perez.
Kansas City can at least equal the 86 wins it accumulated in 2013. A small step on the road back to retaining respectability—just not the giant leap they need to return to the playoffs. At least it’s better than the depths to which they had sunk not too long ago.
4. Cincinnati Reds
In three of the past four years, the Reds won 90 games and earned a playoff berth. However, they failed to get out of the opening round in each attempt—the latest coming in a NL Wild Card loss to Pittsburgh last season. That was enough for the Reds’ heads to say bye-bye to Dusty Baker.
Now in the Cincinnati frying pan is new manager and former pitching coach Bryan Price, who has his shot at maintaining the Reds’ high quality of play. It’ll be a tall order with the departures of Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo in the winter.
Choo’s replacement at the top of the lineup brings about a lost art in the game of baseball—speed. Billy Hamilton has quickness to swipe more than 80 bases this year. The only question is: Can he get on base enough to do it? In 547 plate appearances in Triple-A, he had just a .308 OBP.
Hoping Hamilton can be a solid table setter is the lefty-swinging tandem of Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, who will make up the middle of the order.
The pitching staff is solid from top to bottom. However, the bullpen took a slight blow when Aroldis Chapman suffered a mild concussion when a line drive struck him near his left eye on March 19. Aside from the stark reminder of how dangerous and vulnerable it is to be a pitcher, the injury means Cincinnati will be without its fireball closer for maybe two months.
— Brandon Phillips (@DatDudeBP) March 23, 2014
Despite what appears to be a weaker team, the Reds should hang around in the top-heavy Central with the Cardinals and Pirates. Last year, each team made the playoffs. This year, Cincinnati is going to experience the disappointment of falling short late in the regular season, rather than in the postseason.
3. Los Angeles Angels
From 2002 to 2009, there was no team more consistent than the Angels—reaching the playoffs six times in that span and winning a World Series.
All of those successes came under Mike Scioscia. Now in his 15th year as manager, his seat on the beach is a bit warmer. The team has failed to make the postseason since ’09 and, despite the influx of talent that was present for 2013, the Angels stumbled out of the gate—ultimately finishing a distant third in the AL West race (78-84, 18 games back).
The loss of No. 1 starting pitcher Jared Weaver in April sunk L.A. right away. When he did return, he wasn’t the ace that we’re accustomed to seeing (11-8 in 24 starts). With the possibility of a Weaver decline, general manager Jerry Dipoto dealt Mark Trumbo for additional arms. In the trade, the Angels picked up Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs from Arizona. Dipoto’s thinking is in the right place, but neither has the capability of making the rotation much better.
The reason Trumbo was expendable was mainly due to the team’s proficiency of power. That is displayed in the form of Mike Trout—all of 22 years old and already one of the best all-around players in the game.
It wasn’t long ago when that honor went to Albert Pujols. His 2013 season—the second spent in an Angels uniform—was a struggle. The ex-Cardinal battled through injuries and ended up with a lowly 17 home runs, 64 runs batted in (RBI) and a .258 average. Josh Hamilton didn’t enjoy his first year on the west coast, either, as he managed numbers far lower that what he accrued in Texas.
If those two can return to form, the Angels will undoubtedly be a top-flight offense.
However, they’ll likely be dragged down by the pitching, enough to put them in third place again—but this time just short of the second Wild Card slot.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates
It’s time for the team to embark on a much more joyous streak. After 20 straight years of losing, Pittsburgh could finally become a winner. The long sting of despair turned into delirium with a postseason berth and advancement into the National League Division Series.
There’s no reason to think that the Pirates will regress back to losing ways anytime soon, but another playoff spot will be just beyond reach in 2014. The offense remains a concern, with a lack of support around the reigning MVP.
The spark for the Buccos—both at the plate and in the field—is unquestionably Andrew McCutchen, a player who has justly earned plenty of accolades. The 27-year-old outfielder hit .317 with 185 hits, 21 homers, 84 RBI and a .404 on-base percentage.
However, it’s hard to find consistent production beyond him. The Pirates scored just 634 runs for manager Clint Hurdle and did little in the offseason to rectify this problem. Pedro Alvarez is the main power source (36 home runs, 100 RBI), but he struck out 186 time and had 48 walks.
On the mound, Pittsburgh is trying to make up for the departure of A.J. Burnett. Left-hander Francisco Liriano is set to step in, with a healthy Wandy Rodriguez and Charlie Morton adding some depth in the starting pitching category.
Gerrit Cole is an ace in the making. At just 23 years old, Cole has already shown that he is more than capable of living up to the lofty expectations that come with being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft. In the 19 starts that made up his rookie campaign, he won 10 times and complied 100 strikeouts.
Cole is just the latest youngster to make an impact in Pittsburgh—and there’s more in the pipeline.
Among the top Pirate prospects is outfielder Gregory Polanco. At 6’4” and 220 pounds at age 22, he is already drawing comparisons to Darryl Strawberry.
Suffice it to say, thanks to player development—and plenty of patience by their fan base—the Pirates will have many good times ahead.
1. Tampa Bay Rays
A decade ago, it would have been laughable to suggest that the Rays are one of the game’s model franchises.
Nobody’s chuckling at them any longer. Tampa Bay can annually be penciled in as a serious contender in the American League despite a lack of financial resources. And it’s all thanks to a savvy front office along with arguably the game’s best manager.
On the field, Joe Maddon and company win with pitching and defense. On the mound, Tampa’s arms keep matters well in hand. The Rays were among the top five in the American League in ERA in three of the past four years. David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner, has been the subject of trade rumors due to his impending free agency and the potentially high asking price. That didn’t distract him in the second half of last season, as the lefty was 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA in 15 starts after the All-Star break.
In all, Tampa had four starters with at least 10 wins. Matt Moore and Alex Cobb (both under the age of 26) have been more than capable in backing up Price. Moore had a team-best 17 victories, while Cobb went 11-2 with a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts.
While pitching may lead this club, the leader of the Rays is Evan Longoria. He’ll be coming off a year in which he had 32 home runs (most in his career) and 88 RBI. The offense in its entirety, while effective, was somewhat lacking in pop. The development of Rookie of the Year Wil Myers can help this group improve from the ninth-best run-producing offense in the AL—as they were this past year.
Overall, the Rays are a balanced club without many weaknesses. So, why won’t they return to the playoffs? Like Toronto and Baltimore, it’s because of their strong competition in a stacked division. Going up against the AL East can take its toll. The Rays snuck into the postseason in 2013. With an improved Yankees team, Tampa won’t be as lucky in 2014, and will barely miss the cut.
This article is the fourth installment in our six-part “MLB Preseason Power Rankings” series. Missed the other three? No problem. Read ‘em (here).