Archive for July, 2016

Last year, the Toronto Blue Jays were really, really good. Their 93-69 record was second in the AL to the Kansas City Royals’ 95-67, and their +221 run differential was best in MLB by 99 runs. They scored 891 runs, which means they had an offense that was only slightly worse than Boston’s stacked lineup this year. But while the Red Sox have allowed the ninth most runs in baseball this year, last year’s Blue Jays were the 11th best team at preventing runs. It was a great team, which made the ALCS loss to the Royals all the more disappointing. This year, the 57-45 Blue Jays have certainly been good. The preseason AL East favorites will likely make the playoffs, either as wild card winners or as repeat AL East champs. But I included them on my list of the six best teams in baseball because I think they have the talent to morph back into the top-level team they were last season and challenge for the World Series.

This is a pretty similar team to the one that dominated baseball last year. Josh Donaldson, last year’s AL MVP, has been even better this season. Along with Mike Trout and Jose Altuve, he’s in the conversation to win the award for the second consecutive season. Once a defensive specialist, Donaldson has developed into a prototypical slugger. He’s hitting .301/.411/.589. He’s hit 25 homers, one year after slugging 41. He has tremendous plate discipline, as he swings at just 24.6% of pitches that are outside the zone (that ranks near the top of the league. For reference, plate discipline god Joey Votto ranks first at 18.6%, while Salvador Perez is last at 43.9%). He has 67 walks and 74 strikeouts, a BB/K ratio of .91 that ranks sixth in baseball. And remember how I said he was once a defensive specialist? Well, he’s still pretty darn good, with 15 defensive runs saved since the start of 2015, fifth among 22 qualified third basemen in that time. But one player does not a contender make. Just ask Mike Trout.

Hitting right behind Donaldson in the lineup is bopper Edwin Encarnacion, who ranks second in baseball in homers since the start of 2012 with 178. Encarnacion has 27 home runs this season, and he’s again providing his usual great bat while splitting time between DH and first base. More good news for the Blue Jays: over the last few years, Encarnacion has been much better after the all-star break than before it. Last year, Edwin had a 112 wRC+ before the break and a 201 wRC+ after it; for his career, he’s hitting .260/.345/.489 before the break and .274/.360/.508 after it.

A few days ago, Jose Bautista, the team’s cornerstone player for the last half-decade, returned to the lineup after missing more than a month with turf toe. Bautista is a tremendous hitter (he ranks fourth in baseball in wRC+ since the start of 2010, behind only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, and Votto), and adding him to an already-good lineup could elevate the Blue Jays into the upper echelon of offensive production. The Blue Jays now roll out a lineup with Bautista, Donaldson, and Encarnacion atop the lineup, something that I’m sure will keep pitchers up at night.

Thanks to a surprising season from Michael Saunders and resurgences from Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin, the horror for opposing pitchers doesn’t end with Encarnacion. Saunders, a 29 year old career .239/.311/.407 hitter, has come totally out of nowhere to hit .284/.364/.546 with an OPS above .860 in each month of the season. Maybe it has something to do with getting out of the pitcher-friendly confines of Safeco Field in Seattle, or maybe it’s a fluke, or maybe something has just clicked for Saunders, but he’s provided a huge boost to the lineup while hitting in the cleanup spot. He’s pretty bad defensively, which might explain why the Jays felt the need to trade for Melvin Upton — an average hitter who can provide valuable defense in left field — but he and Bautista don’t really need to be good defenders simply because the guy playing between them (Kevin Pillar) is so darn good. So while Bautista and Saunders provide the offense, Pillar can struggle at the plate and still fit perfectly into the lineup because he’s easily the best defensive centerfielder in baseball. Seriously, Pillar has destroyed every other CF in defensive metrics across the board. He’s first in Ultimate Zone Rating at 18.6, which means he’s saved 18.6 runs with his range according to UZR. Lorenzo Cain is second among centerfielders at 9.8. He’s first in Defensive Runs Saved, a totally different metric, at 15. Cain is tied for second at 10. And he’s first in a metric called Out of Zone, which measures the number of plays made out of a normal fielder’s zone, at 78. Cain is second at 70. While I don’t know which defensive metrics are most accurate, the fact that they all paint the same picture is pretty telling. Especially when the eye test tells the same story. Just watch this video.

On May 27th, 31 year old shortstop Troy Tulowitzki hit the DL after going 0-4 with four strikeouts. For the season, he was hitting .204 with a .672 OPS. Meanwhile, 33 year old catcher Russell Martin was hitting .179 with a .479 OPS. To add insult to injury, these were both players the Blue Jays had invested pretty heavily in. Martin is in the second season of a five year, $82 million deal, while the Jays had to trade three legitimate prospects for Tulowitzki, who is under contract through 2021, last season. One might have thought that neither a 33 year old catcher nor an injury prone shortstop would be likely to rebound much after such horrid starts. Luckily for Toronto, the fifth and sixth hole hitters in the lineup have done just that. Neither player has great numbers for the entire season, but both have picked it up hugely. Martin’s hitting .276/.393/.440 since Tulowitzki hit the DL, while Tulo is hitting .300/.338/.542 with eight homers in 130 plate appearances since he returned to the lineup on June 18th. Given that the team still gets above-average fielding from both aging players, it’s fair to say that both Martin and Tulowitzki have gone from being replacement level players to providing all-star production from tough-to-fill positions. Again, that makes things easier for a poor hitter like Pillar, who can keep his spot in the lineup solely by lifting the Blue Jays from defensive mediocrity up near the league’s best defensive teams.

I haven’t even mentioned second baseman Devon Travis, who was having a great rookie season last year before injuring his shoulder. Travis didn’t return to the lineup until May 25th, but if you push his two shortened seasons together, he’s hitting .296/.348/.475 in 437 career plate appearances with good defense and 3.9 WAR. Since that 437 plate appearance total handily places Travis near where he would be if he had played consistently this season, we can compare him to other second basemen and see that he’d rank tied for third in baseball with Robinson Cano, behind just Jose Altuve and Daniel Murphy.

So yeah, the Jays are stacked, and that’s without even considering what Upton, a flawed hitter who nevertheless has 16 homers, 20 steals, and a .903 OPS against lefties, can add to the equation. What may happen is that Justin Smoak, a switch hitter who’s much better against righties (112 wRC+) than against lefties (87), will play first against righties, leaving Encarnacion at DH and Bautista in right. Against lefties, Bautista could DH while Upton plays one corner position, Saunders plays the other, and Encarnacion plays first. Or Upton could be used exclusively as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. Regardless of how he’s used, Upton just adds another piece to an already talented offense.

I’ve talked about the lineup a lot, simply because the bats are this team’s strength. As long as the pitching is solid, they can contend. And the pitching is solid, at least right now. The starting pitching has actually been really good, even though ace Marcus Stroman has had a really poor (4.92 ERA) season. Both Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada have sub-3 ERAs, and J.A. Happ has a 13-3 record and a 3.27 ERA despite entering the season as the team’s fifth starter. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey has been bad, but that’s less of an issue in the playoffs, when teams generally carry just four starters. But the Blue Jays are still looking to add a starter before the trade deadline, as manager John Gibbons said explicitly that the Jays were more likely to add a starter than a reliever before the deadline. Why? Because they’re going to move Sanchez, the best starter they have at this point, to the bullpen in order to protect his arm. We can argue over whether that’s a good idea or not, but it certainly isn’t good for the rotation. So is the rotation still solid even if Sanchez moves to the pen and isn’t replaced with someone like Oakland’s Rich Hill? That all depends on Stroman, who for whatever reason hasn’t lived up to expectations or generated the swings and misses his stuff would indicate. He racked up 209 strikeouts in 174.1 minor league innings but has just 230 Ks in 293 innings with the Blue Jays. Which Stroman will we see going forward?

I think of Toronto’s bullpen much like I think of Cleveland’s. It’s a mediocre bullpen and certainly not one that will lead Toronto to the World Series as Kansas City’s did for that team last year, but if the bats and rotation are good enough to get the Jays to the Series, the bullpen won’t stop them. Roberto Osuna is actually a great closer, with 21 saves in 23 chances and a 1.99 ERA, .86 WHIP, and 53 strikeouts in 45.1 innings. And the team has attempted to solidify the rest of the bullpen, trading for both Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit since the start of the season. Grilli has been excellent, with a 2.04 ERA, .96 WHIP, and 27 strikeouts in 17.2 innings. Benoit was just acquired, but maybe he, Osuna, and Grilli can be Toronto’s version of New York’s now broken up Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman. I’m not holding my breath, but a strong bullpen would just be icing on the cake for this team.

After looking closely at this team, I’m more bullish on the Blue Jays than I thought I would be. They may be the second best team in baseball talent-wise and are certainly no worse than fourth. Whether or not they can pull it all together is another question, but I wouldn’t sleep on Toronto’s chances of getting a step or two past where they ended last season.

For the last few years, the Indians have been decent but never really a force to be reckoned with. They have three consecutive seasons with a record better than .500, but they haven’t won the division once in that time. In fact, Cleveland has only won the AL Central twice since the turn of the century after winning five straight to close out the 1990s. This year, though, they’re five games up heading into play tonight and have the best run differential in the AL at +86. So did the Cavaliers break the Cleveland curse once and for all? Can the Indians win the division and make noise in the playoffs? Or is their 56-41 start mainly smoke and mirrors?

The thing that sticks out to me about the Indians is their tremendous offensive depth. They’ve been without Michael Brantley, who has been the team’s best player for the last few years, since early May. Brantley added 10 WAR in the last two seasons, 13th in baseball and right between Yoenis Cespedes and Miguel Cabrera. Can you imagine the Mets playing without Cespedes so easily, or the Tigers soldiering on without Miggy? Well, the Indians have managed to thrive even without their star because of that depth. Their top six and nine of their top 11 plate appearance accumulators have been at least average at the plate. Some of the producers have been as advertised. Jason Kipnis led second basemen in WAR last year (5.2); he’s on pace to match that total this season as he’s again matched above-average offense with very good defense. Carlos Santana, a lumbering DH who hits atop the lineup, has long been very adept at getting on base. His OBP this year is .352, which is actually just one point better than worst in his career. Santana always manages to rack up a lot of walks while hitting a bunch of homers, which is a good combination. Rajai Davis has been one of the best utility outfielders in baseball for years, providing solid hitting and fielding while serving as perhaps the best pinch runner in baseball. But much of Cleveland’s production has come out of nowhere. Shortstop Francisco Lindor is the obvious headliner. He was a top prospect and was always supposed to be good, but not this good, this fast. He’s eighth in baseball in WAR and has been the second most valuable defensive player in baseball according to Fangraphs. More surprising has been his bat, which has propelled him to a .303/.360/.458 triple slash with more homers already (12) than anyone expected him to hit in a full season. In Lindor, the Indians have a bonafide star, something they haven’t really had since they traded C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee after each won Cy Young awards near the end of the ’00s. But Lindor hasn’t been the team’s biggest offensive surprise. How about Tyler Naquin, an unheralded rookie who’s slashed a monstrous .321/.380/.626, almost entirely as a platoon player against righties? What about Lonnie Chisenhall, a very average career hitter (.263/.312/.416) who’s exploded to the tune of a .303 average this year? And how about Jose Ramirez, a shortstop who’s been pushed to third by Lindor but has rebounded from a .219 hitting by hitting .284 and playing every night?

Of course, there are two sides to this coin. The out-of-nowhere production from Naquin, Chisenhall, and Ramirez has been nice and has spurred the Indians to their surprising start, but it also could vanish at any point. Hopefully (for the Indians) this isn’t a harbinger of things to come, but Ramirez has hit just .188 since the All-Star break, a clear sign of how dangerous it is to rely on unheralded and unproven players and still expect sustained success. On the other hand, Naquin has a 1.241 OPS since the break (with seven extra base hits in eight games). I think that’s a pretty good way to look at Cleveland’s chances going forward. With the roster they currently have, I think they have the highest offensive variance of the six teams I’m looking at. They have — hands down — the lowest floor at the plate; if the unexpected offensive performers slump, they’ll be a below-average offense. But while they might not have the highest upside (those Red Sox have a pretty good offense, you know), imagine what this team could do if their less-heralded players kept up their hitting when Brantley comes back.

The pitching is, perhaps less surprisingly, good. Corey Kluber, winner of the 2014 AL Cy Young, has continued to pitch like the ace he is. Don’t be fooled by the bizarre 16 losses last year, as Kluber ranks second among all pitchers (you’ll never guess who’s first) in WAR since the start of 2014. But after years of investing in pitching prospects (through the draft and trades), Kluber now has some help. All five members of Cleveland’s rotation are in their prime years (they’re all between 25-31), and all five have ERAs below 3.75. This is a rotation with great stuff, hence the fact that they’re fifth in baseball in strikeouts per nine innings. But they also have great control, which is why they’re fourth in MLB in strikeout-walk%. 60 AL pitchers have thrown 80 innings, and all five of Cleveland’s starters rank inside the top-20. Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco have made the biggest jumps since last year. Carrasco has a 2.31 ERA, which is even lower than the number he posted in his breakout 2014 season (2.55). Meanwhile, Salazar may be one of the frontrunners in the AL Cy Young race, with an 11-3 record matched by his 2.75 ERA (70 points better than last year) and 125 strikeouts in 111.1 innings. If you’re thinking that this sounds a bit like their offense (i.e. surprising and maybe unsustainable), you might well be right, as the team’s rotation has an ERA 29 points lower than it did last year. But the difference, I think, is that Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Carrasco have not come out of nowhere. They’ve been around and adding value for a while, and they’ve all had good stuff for a long time. For Salazar and Carrasco, this just feels like a natural progression in their careers. So while there might be a little regression, I think the rotation can continue to be a big strength moving forward.

The bullpen isn’t great. Cody Allen is an oft-dominant closer and setup man Dan Otero has a 1.18 ERA, but they don’t have much support. It’s a fine bullpen, though, one that ranks 11th in ERA and 15th in WAR. It won’t win them many games, but if this is a team that’s offense and starting pitching is good enough to win the World Series, the bullpen won’t keep it from winning the World Series.

The Indians have a clear hole: catcher. The Indians rank dead last in baseball with a -.9 WAR from their catchers, so it makes sense that they’re interested in Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who’s second among catchers in WAR since the start of 2012. But they have a decision to make. Should they sacrifice a top prospect (maybe Bradley Zimmer or Clint Frazier, the 22nd and 23rd ranked prospects in baseball according to MLB.com) for a catcher or third baseman, or should they just roll with what they have and continue to build for the future? If they opt for the former, they can have a real chance at competing with the other five teams I’m talking about. If they don’t make a move for someone like Lucroy, I think they’ll remain near the bottom of the six.

Just How Good are the Washington Nationals?

Posted: 07/23/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

The Washington Nationals were clear World Series favorites before the 2015 season. ESPN polled 88 experts before the season, and a full 37 of those experts (42%!) picked the Nats to win it all. Meanwhile, 85 of the 88 experts picked the Nationals to at least win their division. Of course, the team didn’t even end up making the playoffs. They went 83-79, with a +68 run differential that indicated that they should have been better but still not playoff worthy (six NL teams had better run differentials). As you might have guessed, predictions for the team were less rosy heading into this season. Only one prognosticator, Eno Sarris, picked the Nationals to win the World Series, while two others picked the Nats to make the Series.

As these things often turn out, though, the Nationals are having the type of season that they were expected to have… one year later. They’re 57-40 with a +112 run differential that’s second in baseball. Fangraphs gives Washington a 95.7% chance to make the playoffs. It’s a pretty similar roster to the one that disappointed last season on the surface, but there are some notable differences. Last year’s second and third highest plate appearances accumulators — SS Ian Desmond and 3B Yunel Escobar — are gone. Escobar, who hit .314 and was arguably the Nats second most important offensive player, is now hitting .316 on the Angels. Meanwhile, Desmond really struggled in 2015, posting a .674 OPS and ending a streak of three straight 4+ WAR seasons. But this year, after signing with the Rangers, Desmond moved to centerfield and now has the fifth best WAR in baseball (4.7). He’s slashing .316/.369/.529 with great defense in center and has an outside chance of having a 30 home run/30 steal season. The Nats also lost Denard Span, an oft-injured CF who finished fifth among Nationals hitters in WAR despite playing just 61 games. And they lost starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, a 30 year old workhorse with a career 3.37 ERA who provided valuable innings in the middle of the rotation.

After having a disappointing season and losing four of their top nine WAR accumulators, you would think that the Nationals would be preparing for a rebuild. But they’re better this year for a number of reasons. Anthony Rendon, a former top prospect who missed much of last year due to injury, has adequately plugged the hole that Escobar left at third base. He’s not living up to the expectations he set in 2014, when he added 6.5 WAR, but he’s been a solid third baseman. Danny Espinosa, an ex-second baseman, has moved over to short to fill the hole left by Desmond and has defended very well while posting the best OPS of his career. And Trea Turner, a top prospect, has been called up to start at second base. These are all holes that the Nationals filled without needing to look outside the organization for help. But the single biggest move Washington made was the signing of Daniel Murphy away from the rival Mets. Murphy has played second and is now at first after the injury to Ryan Zimmerman, but he’s provided far more value at the plate. Hitting right in front of Bryce Harper, he’s slashing .348/.387/.612, good for a 162 wRC+, sixth in baseball.

That’s a pretty big bat to add to the lineup, but is it enough to explain such a big uptick in team wins? Not really, especially since Harper, obviously key to any longterm success the Nationals may have, had an all-time great season last year and has been markedly worse this year. His wRC+ has dropped 73 points, while his triple slash line has gone from .330/.460/.649 to .248/.390/.473. He’s set to be worth about 5.5 WAR this year after his 9.5 WAR season. That 4 WAR is a huge drop; the Nationals have basically lost an all-star caliber player. Given that 1 WAR is worth about $7 million on the open market, Harper’s decline in play has cost the Nationals $28 million of on-field production. I find it hard to believe that Murphy’s outstanding play alone has made up for Harper’s precipitous drop in production… and then some.

S0 what else has been different? Well, it helps that Jayson Werth has gone from being one of the worst players in baseball last season (terrible defense, terrible offense) to at least a competent left fielder who has been hitting second in the lineup pretty consistently. The defense is still poor, but Werth’s rediscovered at least some of his old hitting ability in his age-37 season. Given that he generally hit in the middle of the lineup last year also, the fact that he hasn’t been detrimental at the plate has clearly been huge for the offense. But an even bigger improvement has come from catcher Wilson Ramos, who has followed up the worst season of his career with the best one. Last year, Ramos hit .229/.258/.358 with a 63 wRC+, third-worst in baseball. This year, he’s hitting .334/.386/.526 with a 144 wRC+, 12th-best in baseball. Ok, so this is like adding another Murphy, but perhaps even more valuable given that it’s coming from the catcher. Now I can kind of see why the Nationals have been so much more consistent this year despite losing a few key hitters and getting far less out of Harper. The average wRC+ of the top nine Nats in plate appearances last year was 101.9, very similar to this year’s 103.7. But that number was driven way up by Harper’s outlandish 197; the median wRC+ of the top nine was 94 last year and is 102 this year. That’s approximately the difference between the 10th and 20th best offenses in baseball. That the Nationals were a below-average offense last year even as they got the best offensive season out of a player since Barry Bonds is shocking, but after the disappointment of last year it makes sense that they’ve relied on a more balanced offensive attack. Even though Harper has not been as prolific, pitchers are surely warier of the Harper-Murphy-Ramos middle of the order this year than they were of a Harper-Werth-Desmond murderers row last season.

As for the pitching, ace Max Scherzer, who threw two no-hitters last season, hasn’t been quite as dominant this season as he was last year, but he’s still been pretty darn good. But Stephen Strasburg has been noticeably better this season than he was last year, and Tanner Roark has been very good in his return to the rotation, which calls into question why the Nationals took him out of the rotation after his 15-10, 2.85 ERA season in 2014. It was a good rotation last year, and it figures to be at least equally good this season. If any 1-2 starters in baseball can match up favorably with Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, it may well be Scherzer and Strasburg. And Roark and Joe Ross have ensured that the loss of Zimmermann hasn’t been noticed too much.

I was surprised to see that the Nationals have the best bullpen ERA in baseball at 2.87. Until Sammy Solis hit the DL with knee inflammation a couple of weeks ago, the Nationals had the same eight man bullpen for the whole season. Four of those relievers (Shawn Kelley, 2.78 ERA; Matt Belisle, 1.93 ERA; Oliver Perez, 4.40 ERA; Yusmeiro Petit, 2.27 ERA) were signed this offseason, which is how the Nats have been able to replace capable relievers Drew Storen and Matt Thornton. With that being said, the Nationals are still reportedly looking to add a closer, as Jonathan Papelbon has long proven to be very inconsistent. If they can add, say, Aroldis Chapman, they’ll have a legitimate claim to a top bullpen.

I usually overlook the manager, but I think Dusty Baker deserves to be mentioned here too. It’s fair to wonder whether the team’s biggest change has been an improvement in team chemistry and morale. After the team fell apart under Matt Williams, with a dugout fight between Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon serving as evidence, maybe this team just needed a player’s coach like Baker, who I’ve never considered to be a particularly good tactical manager, to improve the clubhouse dynamic. The players certainly think so.

Bottom Line: It makes sense to me that the Nationals are set to be one of the biggest trade deadline buyers. They’re playing really well right now, but I’m not sure they have the overall talent to compete with the Giants and Cubs in the NL. The wild card, of course, is Harper. If the Nationals can supplement their much improved overall lineup with 2015 Bryce Harper, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with. If either of those elements is missing, this is still a really good team but one that will rely heavily upon Scherzer, Strasburg, and the bullpen. That could work, but I it’ll likely take some improvement from Harper, who currently ranks just 25th in WAR, for the Nationals to become the best team in baseball. With that being said, this definitely feels like the season everyone thought they’d have last season, and it’ll likely end with at least an NL East championship.

In May, a few sportsbooks put up a “Over/under 116.5 wins” prop bet, giving bullish Cubs fans 10/1 odds on the over, which would have been the best record of all-time. For most sane fans the bet seemed crazy even at the time, but many people were happy to bet on history being made. The Cubs, after all, moved to 25-6 with a +103 run differential after a win on May 10 and seemed set to cruise to the best record in baseball and triple-digit wins (if not 117 victories). Alas, the Cubbies are just 32-31 since they beat the Padres a little more than two months ago, although their run differential in that span is a still-impressive +48. Their overall resume (57-37, +151 run differential) is still plenty impressive, but they now just barely hold the best record in baseball thanks to a win and a Giants loss today. To break the wins record, they’d need to close the season on a 60-8 spurt. Luckily for the Cubs, though, this post isn’t a referendum on whether the Cubs are the best team of all-time. Rather, I’m just trying to determine whether or not the Cubs are the best team in baseball right now and/or will be through October.

This is a team without many holes. It’s easy to forget that they lost young slugger Kyle Schwarber (.842 OPS in his rookie season) to an injury after just one game this season, a true testament of their offensive depth. The offensive stars are undoubtedly 3B/RF Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who hit second and third in the lineup respectively. Neither Bryant nor Rizzo has celebrated his 27th birthday, but both have established themselves as terrific hitters and all-around players. Bryant is one of four hitters lapping the rest of the field in Fangraphs WAR, joining Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, and Jose Altuve above 5 WAR when nobody else has reached 4.5. That’s pretty solid company to be in, and Bryant deserves it; he’s a capable and versatile defender who has built on his promising rookie campaign, already coming within one homer (he’s at 25) of last season’s tally while cutting down on his strikeouts by about 25% and moving from about 36% to 49% above average as a hitter according to Fangraphs. A lot has been expected of Bryant since he was drafted second overall in the 2013 draft, and everything we’ve seen from him so far has suggested that he is already the superstar many pundits said he could become. But while Bryant is probably the most talented hitter on the team, Rizzo is both the team’s best hitter and a key leader in the clubhouse. He’s slashing a monstrous .292/.403/.596 and has been nearly unstoppable at the plate since the start of June while playing solid defense at first. When the only bad thing you can say about a guy is that he isn’t stealing as many bases (Rizzo has two steals this year after swiping 17 last season) as he once did, you have yourself a pretty valuable player. So yeah, Bryant and Rizzo are two pretty good players to have in the middle of your lineup. But the really scary part of Chicago’s lineup is its depth. I mentioned that Schwarber’s absence has gone almost unnoticed. That’s because of guys like Wilson Contreras, who, ironically, like Schwarber moved from catcher to the outfield. When the Cubs needed outfield help, they turned to Contreras, who immediately shocked the entire organization (Ben Zobrist, for example, says Contreras is “nothing short of amazing”) by playing solid defense in a totally foreign position and hitting .291/.376/.515 in his first 117 plate appearances, numbers that the Cubs might have hoped for from Schwarber. And Contreras isn’t the only role player coming up huge for the Cubs. Zobrist, who signed a modest four year, $56 million deal this offseason, has recently been alternating between the leadoff and cleanup spots in the lineup while playing all over the field on defense and posting a .377 OBP and more walks than strikeouts. Dexter Fowler, who nearly left the team after last season before re-upping t0 a one-year deal. Fowler’s on the DL right now, but the Cubs are surely happy that he left money on the table to come back to Chicago, because he’s served as the leadoff hitter when healthy and has a .398 OBP and very good defense in centerfield. I haven’t even mentioned 39 year old catcher David Ross, who doesn’t play very often but who has six homers and a .779 OPS in 139 plate appearances. Nor have I mentioned important depth pieces Matt Szczur (.777 OPS) or Tommy La Stella (.805). You know what the scariest thing might be for opponents? Big money free agent signing Jason Heyward (eight years, $184 million), who was coming off of back-to-back 5+ WAR seasons and who was expected to push the Cubs over the top, is slashing just .234/.325/.323, which puts him in the bottom 10% of everyday players with a 79 wRC+ (so he’s been 21% below average at the plate). If Heyward rediscovers the swing that propelled him to 11th among hitters in WAR last season, watch out. If he doesn’t? You still have to watch out simply because the team has so many other weapons.

This won’t be a surprise to anyone, but the rotation that finished first in WAR last year and returned its four best starters while adding John Lackey is still pretty darn good. Even before Kyle Hendricks twirled 6.1 shutout innings tonight, the Cubs’ starters had a 3.01 ERA, miles ahead of #2 Washington (3.35). Jake Arrieta hasn’t been post-All-Star break 2015 JAKE ARRIETA, but he’s still been pretty darn good. But everyone knows that Arrieta (2.60 ERA) is good and that Jon Lester (2.89 ERA) is good and that Lackey (3.75 ERA) is very solid. More surprising, though, have been the performances from Jason Hammel (3.34) and, especially, Hendricks, whose gem today lowered his ERA to 2.27, third-lowest among starters behind currently injured Clayton Kershaw and Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. Hendricks has never had electric stuff, but he’s now compiled a 3.13 career ERA in three seasons and is just entering his prime. This is a rotation without a weakness. I’d guess that Hammel will be the odd man out come playoffs, as Lackey is a proven playoff performer and the other three seem entrenched atop the rotation, but the Cubs can’t really go wrong with any of their five starters.

If the team has a weakness, it’s the bullpen. And it’s a weakness that Theo Epstein and the front office recognize, because today they traded for Mariners lefty reliever Mike Montgomery. Montgomery, a converted starter, has been excellent in the bullpen, posting a 2.15 ERA in the pen in 50.1 innings. One of only six pitchers with 50+ innings pitched out of the bullpen, Montgomery is a workhorse, and I think he’ll be important for the Cubs going forward. They could still use another reliever (maybe Andrew Miller?), but Montgomery is a very good start. As for the relievers who already pitch on the Cubs, Hector Rondon has been a very good closer and Pedro Strop is a solid setup man. With a middle-of-the-pack 3.82 ERA, the bullpen is in no way a disaster, but the rest of their team is so good that the pen is basically all there is to nitpick.

Bottom Line: Of late, the Cubs haven’t been the dominant team they were to start the season, but I think that’s as much a byproduct of complacency and a lack of focus as it is anything else. That complacency should dissipate as the playoffs draw nearer, and I still think the Cubs have the best collection of talent in baseball. They don’t have the overall offense that the Red Sox can boast or the two dominant aces the Giants have, but I still believe that the Cubs will be a major factor in October and are probably the World Series favorite. Of course, being the nominal favorite doesn’t mean that the Cubs have a great chance at winning the title, simply because the postseason is generally a crapshoot (five of the last 14 champions have been wild card teams). Nor does it mean that the Cubs are easily the best team in baseball, because both the Giants and the four other teams I’ll write about have legitimate claims. But those who are panicking about the 32-31 stretch should stop right now, because I’m confident that the Cubs will pick up their play when the games really matter.

The easiest prediction to make before the year started might have been that the Cubs would be good. But if that was the easiest one, a close second would have been predicting a bounce-back season for the San Francisco Giants after they finished eight games out of the playoffs last year. It’s an even year, after all, and the Giants own even years. They won the World Series in 2010. They won it in 2012. They won it in 2014. And now they lead baseball with 57 wins and lead the Dodgers in the NL West by 5.5 games with a 57-36 record. The even year magic doesn’t seem to be wearing off just yet.

If the Giants are the best team in baseball, it’s certainly not by a landslide. Their run differential is +67, which is good but not great (seventh in baseball). The Giants are really good for a number of reasons, some of which are more obvious than others. Obvious is the talent of middle-of-the-order hitters Brandon Belt and especially Buster Posey, easily the best catcher in baseball. Belt is hitting .290/.395/.502 while Posey is slashing a modest (for him) .289/.360/.480. Also obvious is the fact that the Giants have the luxury of being able to throw out a bonafide ace 40% of the time (and 50%+ in the playoffs). Madison Bumgarner is the undisputed #1 as he has been for a number of years, but San Francisco’s signing of Johnny Cueto has had a huge impact on what would otherwise be a very thin rotation. Bumgarner is 10-5 with a 2.12 ERA, a .98 WHIP, and 155 strikeouts in 135.2 innings. His 3.2 WAR is sixth best among pitchers according to Fangraphs. Cueto, though, is even higher on the list with 3.4 WAR. He’s 13-2 with a 2.64 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP that are fully backed up by the underlying numbers (few walks allowed, few homers allowed, a lot of ground balls). Neither Bumgarner nor Cueto has come out of nowhere; both have great pedigrees and have excelled in the World Series. Cueto threw a complete game gem with the Royals last year, while Bumgarner has been famously good in postseason and specifically World Series play (he’s 4-0 with a save in five career WS games and has given up just one run in 36 career WS innings). So yeah, having two starters like Bumgarner and Cueto is helpful, in the regular season and especially in the playoffs.

Less obvious but perhaps equally important is San Francisco’s tremendous defensive play. According to Fangraphs, the Giants are the best defensive team in baseball. The advanced defensive stats still aren’t all that great, but San Fran is certainly one of the best defensive teams in baseball. Leading the way defensively is shortstop Brandon Crawford, the guy who might be the most underrated player in baseball (let alone on the Giants). Crawford has long been a great defender, but this year he’s been Andrelton Simmons-esque. He leads baseball with 18 defensive runs saved, is second in range rating and ultimate zone rating, and has added 20.6 runs of defensive value according to Fangraphs, 3.3 better than anyone else. But what makes Crawford special is that he’s also a plus offensive player, ninth among 26 qualified shortstop with 112 wRC+ (12% above average offensively). Aside from Belt at first base, it can be argued that the Giants have plus defenders at every position. That’s an overlooked strength, but it’s a huge strength nonetheless. Just look at last year’s Royals, who relied on tremendous fielding (they were far and away the best defensive team in baseball, with the Giants running a distant second) and ended up winning the World Series.

So the Giants are a Royals-esque fielding team with a great offensive player (Belt), a great defensive player (Crawford), and a great all-around player (Posey). They also have two aces (Bumgarner and Cueto). How come they aren’t the obvious favorites? First of all, this team has almost no power. Even Belt, who at 6’5″, 220 pounds looks like he should be mashing homers, has hit just 10 bombs. As a team, the Giants have hit just 80 dingers, which ranks ahead of only the Marlins (who have three guys with 52 combined homers and 26 bombs otherwise) and the Braves (who have hit an abysmal 56 homers all season). That lack of power isn’t necessarily a death knell for the offense, but it definitely narrows the margin of error for them. Hitting 29 triples (second in baseball) and drawing 333 walks (fifth) certainly helps, but I don’t think the Giants will ever have an elite offense. Again, you don’t need an elite offense to win a World Series, but when teams like Chicago, Boston, and Toronto have super explosive offenses, it hurts a lot to be missing that elite power and offensive talent.

But the Giants still rank seventh in wRC+ at 104, which means that their offense is plenty good enough to support the two aces (hence the combined 23-7 record for the two). It’ll be even better when injured starters Hunter Pence, Joe Panik, and Matt Duffy return to the lineup as they should within the next few weeks. The pitching staff (outside of Bumgarner and Cueto), though, is a major concern. Jeff Samardzija is a fine if inconsistent #3, but neither Jake Peavy nor Matt Cain belongs in a big league rotation at this point in their careers. That’s less of a concern in the playoffs because the rotation is shortened come October, but the Giants need at least another solid starter for me to start feeling confident about their overall rotation.

The bullpen is another concern, one that the Giants clearly recognize. They’re trying to make a splash, as they’ve contacted the Yankees, showing interest in relief studs Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. It remains to be seen if the Giants can improve the back of their bullpen, but for now it’s pretty shaky. The Giants are 27th in bullpen WAR, with very few pitchers who can be relied upon in high leverage situations. Santiago Casilla has been a shaky closer, with a 3.38 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. Hunter Strickland shows flashes of dominance but is sometimes unreliable. Cody Gearrin seemed set to be a key cog down the stretch but hit the DL after his ERA rose from 2.16 to 3.89 over the course of a week. Even lefty specialist Josh Osich has been shaky, with an ERA of 3.95, nearly twice as high as it was last year in his rookie season. I said that part of the Royals’ formula was terrific fielding. Another huge part of that formula was a dominant bullpen. The Giants have the advantage of having a better offense and top of the rotation than the Royals, but their bullpen will have to improve if they want to be considered the clear World Series favorite.

Bottom Line: I don’t know if I’ll end up ranking the Giants first, but the fact that they have the best record in baseball despite having three key everyday starters (Pence, Panik, and Duffy) on the DL certainly reflects well on their chances to win their fourth straight even year World Series. They have a good enough offense, a great defense, and two terrific starters. The question now is whether the back of the rotation and the bullpen will be good enough to support another run to the World Series.

Right around baseball’s All-Star break every year, it dawns on me that the dog days of the summer have really begun. The NBA draft is over, and free agency’s biggest moves were made nearly two weeks ago. Sure, Dion Waiters is still available, but he’s about the only one, and, let’s be honest, he’s not all that good. Even Summer League, with quality of play worse than most high school leagues, is winding to an end, which means we soon won’t be able to talk about the excitement generated on the court by Ben Simmons or D’Angelo Russell or Kris Dunn for a while. So we’re about to reach the dead zone in the basketball season, and there are still a couple of weeks before football really starts ramping back up. Hockey, which saw a few shockingly big moves made a couple of weeks ago (see: Subban, P.K. and Weber, Shea), has also been rather quiet since the start of July. And for those who like soccer, Euro 2016 and Copa America Centenario are over and domestic campaigns don’t start for a few weeks, which means that fans must spend their time scouring the internet for transfer news, realistic or (usually) otherwise. So yeah, I’d argue that sports-wise these last two weeks of July are as boring as it gets. Unless, of course, you’re a diehard baseball fan, because there’s always baseball. And since I consider myself to be a diehard baseball fan, I’m actually excited to spend the next few weeks devoted to writing about baseball, because this is the time of year that baseball really begins to ramp up.

I’m going to start by trying to figure out who the best team in baseball is. A month ago, this wouldn’t have been a debate; the Cubs were miles above everyone else with an insane run differential and a chance to cruise to their first World Series in forever. But the cursed Cubbies have lost 16 of their last 24 games, and they no longer own the best record in baseball (the Giants are a game up). Alas, things are never easy for Chicago’s North Side club. And Chicago’s struggles have opened up ample room for a debate over who is the best team in baseball on July 17 and over who has the best chance at being the best team in baseball at the end of October. From my vantage point, there are six teams who could either be the best team right now or the best team going forward. I’m taking record and run differential into account, but I’m also using the eye test and the way I see these teams, which is why neither the 55-38 Rangers nor the +90 run differential (third in baseball) Cardinals makes my list. The six teams are the Cubs, Giants, and Nationals from the NL and the Indians, Red Sox, and Blue Jays from the AL. I’m not including the aforementioned Rangers or Cardinals, nor do I have the AL East leading Orioles or either of last year’s World Series participants (KC and the Mets) on my list. Heck, I’m not even mentioning the Astros, who are 33-14 in their last 47 games and who I expect to overtake the Rangers in the AL West. There are a lot of good teams in MLB this year, but I think one of the bolded six is the best. That doesn’t mean one of the six will win the World Series, because the playoffs are a crapshoot, but I’m pretty confident that these are the six best teams in baseball.

I don’t want to start talking about any of these teams tonight, so I will say that, of the teams that missed, the Houston Astros were the toughest to omit. They’re playing .702 baseball since May 22, which is more indicative of their talent level than the .378 baseball they were playing before May 22. After all, this is the team that was pegged to win the AL by a bunch of experts, including by a plurality of ESPN’s 31 preseason predictors. And they’re certainly a very talented team. They certainly have the best second baseman in baseball in Jose Altuve, and it’s very possible that the best shortstop in baseball (Carlos Correa) is playing right next to him. Altuve, who’s generously listed at 5’6″, is awesome and ridiculously good. Last year, I worried that he was being overrated a little bit as a classic high average (.313), low power (15 homers, which was more than twice his previous career high) and on-base percentage (.353) sparkplug. I was wrong. This year, Altuve has evolved into a bonafide MVP candidate. He’s fourth in baseball in Fangraphs WAR, with above-average defense at second base and 24 steals against three times caught stealing. But the real shocker is his offensive production. He’s hitting .346, but he already has 15 homers and 42 walks, nine more than he had last season. His triple slash line is .346/.417/.551, and I think he’s probably a co-MVP frontrunner, as he’s been a bit worse than Mike Trout but has the narrative factor (career year, good team vs. ho-hum year, bad team for Trout) strongly in his favor.

So yeah, the Astros have THAT ^^ in addition to Correa, who’s clearly one of the best shortstops in the league and is only 21 years old. When you have two guys that good in the middle of your lineup, you’re going to have a decent offense. The Astros also have what I consider to be the third best bullpen in baseball behind the Yankees and Orioles. They rank first in bullpen WAR by a mile. Will Harris has a 1.62 ERA and a .95 WHIP. Chris Devenski has given up five runs in 41.2 innings from the pen (1.08 ERA). Luke Gregerson has a 3.35 ERA and a .89 WHIP. Ken Giles, who was supposed to be the closer before struggling early on, has a 1.62 ERA and a .96 WHIP since the start of June with three walks and 24 strikeouts. This is a filthy good bullpen, and good luck coming from behind against this team.

With all of that said, I still don’t think Houston can even argue that they are a top team, at least not at the moment. They need to make a move for a starting pitcher, because their rotation just isn’t good enough. Dallas Keuchel was the AL Cy Young last season and now has a 4.80 ERA. That really, really hurts, although it means that there’s room for improvement moving forward. Just look at the WHIPs of the five starters. Keuchel’s is 1.37. Doug Fister’s is 1.25, Mike Fiers’s is 1.35, Collin McHugh’s is 1.45, and Lance McCullers’s is a scary 1.64. These guys allow a lot of hitters to get on base, which generally will come back to bite pitchers. The Astros rank 10th in WAR among starting pitchers so far, but I don’t believe that will remain true going forward. They need some help in the rotation, and if they can get it, I think they can be in the conversation. For now, though, I’m sticking with the other six over Houston, St. Louis, Texas, etc. just because I think they are a tier ahead talent-wise.

Tomorrow, I’ll start looking at the top six.