The question was asked in April, and it will be repeated throughout the summer: Is this team really a contender?
By nature of its long seasons, baseball tends to police itself in the sense that hot and cold streaks generally offset each other as the year draws to a close. The ‘pretenders’ get washed away as the cream rises to the top.
Over the past few weeks, the focus was on those teams who started the season with unsustainable opening acts, good or bad. Teams like the Nationals and Angels have made their expected moves towards the top of their respective MLB divisions, while the Yankees and Reds have begun to topple.
What about the rest? At what point do we accept that certain teams — especially newcomers to the ‘winning record club’ — are here to stay?
Memorial Day typically acts as the unofficial quarter-point in the Major League Baseball season. Teams have now played at least 40 of their 162 games, and most of the kinks have been worked out. From now until September, those who can hang in the long race will begin to prove their worth. But really, some already have.
Here are five teams expected to contend for a playoff berth by season’s end.
New York Mets
‘Pitching wins championships.’ Whether or not the adage is true, it gets repeated throughout baseball circles across the country. As the San Francisco Giants tend to prove on a bi-yearly basis, pitching certainly helps win a short series, but the 2015 New York Mets are attempting to prove that the same strength will translate to an abundance of wins from April to September, as well.
Why not? Ace Matt Harvey is easily one of the best, most dominant pitchers in the game. The team, as a whole, ranks third in the National League in ERA, fifth in Major League Baseball. But they have clearly needed all the help they have received from the mound, as only the Phillies have trotted out a worst offense in the National League than the Mets.
The Mets have pitched their way to a winning record over the first eight weeks of the season, despite a complete inability to score runs. Any additional boost they receive from their bats is purely icing on the cake, as the pitching remains good enough to keep them in the race.
Kansas City Royals
It was easy — almost lazy — to consider the Royals a fluke, last year. A few weeks into their encore, they remain as dangerous and dominant as they looked in the postseason.
The amazing part of the Royals’ instant emergence into last season’s American League Pennant race is that their methods for victory are relatively future-proof. Basically capable of winning a game by any means necessary, their weapons of choice continue to be impenetrable defense, power arms and speed. These traits rarely take games off.
It took until the World Series for people to buy into the Royals, even though they had shown signs of legitimacy all season long. They won’t fool anyone, this time.
Even writing the words might tilt the balance of karma currently working in Chicago’s favor, but the Cubs are officially legitimate contenders. The reality is, this should come as no surprise.
The eventual emergence of the Cubs eerily mirrors that of the Royals, and has arguably been in the works for a longer period of time. The only clear difference between the teams is that the Royals tend to lean more heavily on speed on bullpen strength while the Cubs spent their money on starters and power. Either way, the pieces are in place, and the puzzle is starting to assemble.
The Cubs will receive resistance from their St. Louis rivals, but the full-on attack of all their prized prospects at once – Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, etc. – officially marks the beginning of the new Chicago regime.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The New York Yankees of the early 21st century were known to bring an open checkbook to the negotiating table. Fans dubbed this process “buying a championship,” although it more accurately bought consistently winning seasons, with arguably only one title — 2009 — falling under this category. Since then, the Yankees have curbed their spending.
Los Angeles picked up where New York left off. With the highest payroll in Major League Baseball, the Dodgers have not been shy when attempting to acquire talent. As such, they appear to have struck gold with international signings such as Yasiel Puig and Alex Guerrero, and hold a potential winning lottery ticket with Hector Olivera.
Of course, the Dodgers are built on more than just their recent additions of Major League-ready talent. They still trot baseball best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, to the mound every five days, and appear well on their way to developing a future star in the form of Joc Pederson.
There’s a difference between spending money and spending it right, and Los Angeles is built to last.
If the Chicago Cubs discovered a long-lost twin now residing in the American League, it would be the Houston Astros. Built on power bats, the Astros are the extremist in the family, essentially approaching every at-bat with a ‘home-run-or-bust’ mentality. For the first few weeks of the season, however, they looked dead in the water.
As each member of the formerly slumping Astros began to resurrect his season — most notably, Chris Carter and Evan Gattis — the team followed suit. Amazingly, the collective rise of the tide carried the entire boat forward, as the sudden power surge was not done in vain. With a ten-game winning streak, Houston soared to the top of the American League West standings.
As of this writing, they now sit atop the Major League Baseball standings with the most wins in the league. This sets up an important, noteworthy paradox — fans and analysts will still refute the success of the Astros, but Houston is already a title contender.
In addition to the aforementioned bats, the Astros, anchored by current Cy Young-favorite Dallas Keuchel, tout the eighth-lowest team ERA. Once again, comparing a team to last season’s Royals, the Astros feature a few lockdown arms in their bullpen, as well as groomed prospects finally given a chance to perform. To think, there is still one more about to slug his way to the Major League club.
Top shortstop prospect Carlos Correa has been tearing up each level of Minor League pitching en route to his eventual callup. Rumors have circulated that the Astors will likely wait until early June for extra contractual control, but Correa’s career appears imminent.
Even without Correa, the Astros are one of the league’s top teams. The shortstop would give them a big boost in a position that is currently lacking, but it is a relatively small weakness in an otherwise strong club.
Take notice, now. The Houston Astros are here to stay.