THE YEAR OF THE BUCS
By this time next week, the MLB trade deadline will have passed, and with it, the fate of many MLB teams. With the advent of the Wildcard, more teams are in the hunt for a playoff berth. And with the addition of a second Wildcard a few years ago, it feels like EVERY team is still in the playoff race.
As of today, the American League has 11 of 15 teams within four games of qualifying for one of the five-playoff slots. The National League isn’t quite as tight, where only eight of 15 teams are fighting for those five slots. In fact, four of the five spots are in effect, already a foregone conclusion. The Dodgers and Nationals are running away with their divisions, while the Wildcard matchup seems to be a sure thing with the Diamondbacks squaring off against the Rockies.
The four other teams in the NL still in the hunt are dueling over the NL Central division title. One team will prevail, while the other three will go home. The Milwaukee Brewers have had a strong grasp of the division all season, but it was only a matter of time before the sleeping giant, and defending World Series Champion Chicago Cubs’ woke from their winter slumber. They just acquired needed pitching in lefty Jose Quintana, and have gone 8-2 in their last 10 games and find themselves only ½ game out of first place. The surprising Pittsburgh Pirates have had a strong second half and have vaulted into third place, only 2.5 games behind the Brewers. While the always dangerous St Louis Cardinals are hanging around, four games off the pace.
While it can be debated that the AL East with the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays; or the AL Central with the Indians, Royals, and Twins all within three games are more competitive, I stand by my assessment that the NL Central will be the most exciting and intriguing heading down the home stretch.
There are so many reasons for this. First, we’re talking about four teams compared to those other divisions which have three competitive teams. Second, those four teams are vying for one spot. In the AL races, the Yankees, Rays, Royals, and Twins will all be battling for Wildcard spots if they don’t ultimately win their divisions, creating a minor safety net for them. Third, there is the intrigue of how the defending World Series champions handle the pressure of having to defend their title. Fourth, there is the intrigue of how the upstart, underdog Brewers handle the pressure of trying to hold them off. Fifth, there is the surprise of the Pirates making a run. Similar to the Royals in the AL Central, this was supposed to be their swan song, and at the start of the season, most prognosticators thought each team would be sellers at this time. Sixth, there is the Cubs/Cardinals rivalry. For years, the Cards dominated, but now that the Cubs are world champs, the pendulum has swung their way. What did the Cardinals do to steal some of that thunder? They signed free agent Dexter Fowler in the off season.
To me, the best team of the bunch, and the team which will ultimately emerge, is the Pittsburgh Pirates. They have been knocking on the door for years. They have many players who all came up together through the program and are now seasoned veterans. They have a decent top three starters in Ivan Nova, Gerrit Cole, and Jameson Taillon; and the best one through six hitters in the National League consisting of the versatile Josh Harrison, youngster Josh Bell, steady Jordy Mercer, powerful Greg Polanco, electric Starling Marte, and resurgent Andre McCutchen.
Why will this season be different for the Bucs? In years past they knew they were destined for the Wildcard game, however this season is different. They know a season ending push will win the division and allow them to play in a full series, not just a one game play-in scenario. They have a steady manager in Clint Hurdle who the players respect, and who isn’t intimidated by a playoff run.
To close the deal, they should make a move to ensure putting them over the top. Although Nova, Cole, and Taillon are serviceable pitchers, having one more for the stretch run, and into the playoffs is important. They could also use a versatile utility-man similar to Ben Zobrist with the Royal and Cubs. The Pirates can also use another bullpen arm, as could most teams.
Enter, the Oakland A’s.
I’ve been trading Sonny Gray all year, so sooner or later I have to be right. I initially thought Theo Epstein would pursue Gray, but they went with Quintana. I can’t imagine Gray being an A’s pitcher beyond next Monday. Another pitcher I’ve had destined to be traded, Justin Verlander, is too expensive for the Pirates, but Gray isn’t. The A’s also have Jed Lowrie, who is a poor man’s Zobrist; and they have Santiago Casilla.
If the Pirates can pull that trade off, not only will they win the NL Central going away, I won’t be surprised if they win the whole thing. With Stephen Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw’s injuries this week, all of a sudden those two teams don’t seem invincible. This could very well shape up as the year of the Bucs.
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