Boston Red Sox: 5 Reasons They’re the New Team to Beat in the AL

The Boston Red Sox have been a contender all season, and lately they've looked like the team to beat in the American League

Since July 31, Boston has won 12 of games, including an eight-game winning streak. Their 69-51 record entering play Wednesday gives them a 4.5-game cushion over the New York Yankees in the AL East and puts them five games back of the slumping Houston Astros for the best record in the Junior Circuit.

Boston still has issues, including the uncertain status of David Price's pricey left elbow. 

Let's accentuate the positive, though, and run through five reasons why Boston could be the AL's new alpha dog.

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2017 Playoff Odds for Every MLB Team at the Three-Quarter Mark

This will come as news to no one, but the MLB season is long.

We're entering the stretch run of the 162-game slog, though, when legitimate contenders gain separation and stake their October claims. 

As we arrive at baseball's three-quarter pole, let's take stock of every franchise and assess their postseason odds, based on current standings, the latest injury news and a dollop of gut feeling. 

We'll begin, unfortunately yet inevitably, with the franchises whose October hopes reside somewhere between slim and none.

Begin Slideshow

2017 Playoff Odds for Every MLB Team at the Three-Quarter Mark

This will come as news to no one, but the MLB season is long.

We're entering the stretch run of the 162-game slog, though, when legitimate contenders gain separation and stake their October claims. 

As we arrive at baseball's three-quarter pole, let's take stock of every franchise and assess their postseason odds, based on current standings, the latest injury news and a dollop of gut feeling. 

We'll begin, unfortunately yet inevitably, with the franchises whose October hopes reside somewhere between slim and none.

Begin Slideshow

Willson Contreras Injury Could Be Death Blow to Cubs’ Playoff Chase

If 2016 was about overcoming curses for the Chicago Cubs, 2017 has been about overcoming adversity.

Their starting rotation wobbled like a Ferrari with a flat, forcing president of baseball operations Theo Epstein to jettison top prospects in a trade for left-hander Jose Quintana. Key offensive cogs—including outfielder Kyle Schwarber and super-utilityman Ben Zobrist—have struggled.

Now, their burgeoning franchise catcher is out with a strained hamstring.

The injury, which Contreras suffered on the basepaths Aug. 9, could shelve him four to six weeks, per Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago.

The Cubbies have a tenuous hold on first place in the National League Central at 62-55, 1.5 games up on the surging St. Louis Cardinals and 2.5 games ahead of the upstart Milwaukee Brewers.

This isn't how the script was supposed to read for the champs.

Prior to his injury, Contreras was slashing .274/.342/.519 with 21 home runs and 70 RBI. He hit .321 in July with a 1.019 OPS and was hitting .361 with a 1.185 OPS in August while flashing his trademark howitzer arm.

"Obviously, he's been carrying us," manager Joe Maddon said, per Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. "Any kind of offensive resurgence we've had has been primarily centered around him and his contributions. And then his versatilityhe can pick you up at first base. He can pick you up in the outfield. All the different things that he doeshis energyall that stuff is vital to us."

Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune captured the gut reaction of Cubs nation when he wrote, "...the first response to Willson Contreras' hamstring injury is to go all Chicken Little. The sky is falling. The dream of a back-to-back World Series titles is dead. Tip your waitstaff and drive home safely, everybody."

That's a tad dramatic. Veteran backstop Alex Avila, acquired at the trade deadline from the Detroit Tigers, owns an .856 OPS between the Motor City and the North Side and is a better pitch-framer than Contreras, per StatCornerThe Cubbies can also turn to rookie Victor Caratini.

Oh, and they've gone 3-1 since Contreras' hammy went haywire, outscoring opponents 32-16 in the process.

"Vic is a great catcher. Avila is a great catcher as well who is very experienced and has learned how to catch the arms we have in a short time span," right-hander Jake Arrieta said, per the Chicago Tribune's Mark Gonzales. "I think we're capable of holding down the fort..."

General manager Jed Hoyer added, per Mooney: "We're glad we acquired Alex at the deadline. That helps lessen the blow of Willson's injury a lot. Obviously, he was basically platooning for Detroit and catching a lot. He'll continue to do that here."

Still, the loss of Contreras peels another layer off the Cubs' veneer of invincibility. They came into the season as a juggernaut, coated in champagne and confetti and the air of dynastic inevitability. 

Now, they're struggling to win their division, let alone challenge the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals for NL supremacy. 

Unless Contreras returns ahead of schedule, he will miss most of the remaining regular season.

The Cubs play Game 162 on Oct. 1. If Contreras comes back on the early end of his timeline, he will have roughly three weeks to get ready for the postseason. 

If he suffers any setbacks, the 25-year-old could be getting his legs under him in the division series, assuming Chicago makes it that far.

It's no guarantee.

FanGraphs gives the Cubs an 80.7 percent chance of winning the Central and an 87.6 percent chance of snagging a wild-card slot at least. 

Despite their recent feline-aided run, the Cards are flawed, and it appears the bloom is off the Brewers' rose for now.

The issues keep piling up for the Cubs, though, and merely sneaking into the postseason isn't adequate. After burying the billy goat last year, it's another Commissioner's Trophy or bust.

A healthy, productive Contreras brings them closer to the trophy.

His absence nudges them in the direction of bust. 

             

All statistics current as of Monday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Steven Souza Jr. is Saving One of Baseball’s Worst Recent Trades from Disaster

In December, 2014, the Washington Nationals, Tampa Bay Rays and San Diego Padres pulled off a three-team, 11-player deal.

In hindsight, the most relevant players involved were Trea Turner and Wil Myerswho left the Friars and Rays and headed for Washington and San Diego, respectivelyand Steven Souza Jr., who went from the Nats to Tampa Bay.

At first blush, the trade was rightly regarded as among the most lopsided in recent memory. 

The Nationals got Turner, a speedy up-and-coming stud who finished second in National League Rookie of the Year balloting in 2016.

The Padres netted Myers, who blasted 28 home runs and made the All-Star team last season.

Souza, meanwhile, hit .225 and .247 in his first two seasons with Tampa Bay and underwent hip surgery in September 2016.

Now, suddenly, Souza is making the swap look far less egregious for the Rays. 

Through 107 games, he's slashing .267/.367/.510 with 24 home runs and boasts 3.3 WAR, per FanGraphs' calculation. 

He didn't qualify for the Midsummer Classic, but he should have if you ask his skipper.

"We've been talking about All-Stars a lot lately, and he was probably right on the borderline of putting together an All-Star first half," said Rays manager Kevin Cash, per Roger Mooney of the Tampa Bay Times. "What he's done offensively, defensively, I don't know where we'd be without him."

Here's what Tampa Bay has done with Souza: Amass a 58-57 record, which puts it just one game off the pace for the second American League wild-card slot.

Not bad for baseball's perennial small-market underdogs, who are duking it out with the big-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox out East.

If you're looking for the key to Souza's success, it's plate discipline. 

The 28-year-old has hiked his walk rate from 6.6 percent in 2016 to 12.7 percent this year, while shaving his strikeout rate from 34 percent to 28.7 percent. He's also making hard contact 36 percent of the time, compared to 32.4 percent last season.

On defense, meanwhile, he makes plays like this:

On Sunday, he launched a walk-off home run against the Milwaukee Brewers that left his bat at 113.9 mph, the hardest-hit home run by a Rays player in the Statcast era, according to MLB.com's Connor Mount

"In those situations, I've really just tried to stick with my approach and hit nice line drives up the middle, and whatever happens, happens," Souza said after the epic dinger, per Mount.

Those are the type of platitudes you expect from an elite player, which Souza is fast becoming.

Opponents are taking notice, as SB Nation's Joshua Morgan explained on Monday:

"Souza is being shown the respect you would expect of one of the best performers this year. Pitchers are throwing almost five percent fewer pitches in the zone and 10 percent fewer first pitch strikes. This has led to Souza being in a hitters count for 31.7 percent of pitches he's faced."

Turner has been sidelined since late June by a fractured wrist. Myers is hitting .174 since the All-Star break. Suddenly, Souza looks like the best player in that maybe-not-so-lopsided 2014 trade.

That could change. Turner may yet blossom into a perennial All-Star, for example. Myers has flashed MVP potential. These things are always in flux.

Likewise, the Rays might not catch New York and Boston in the AL East, rendering Souza's exploits a mere footnote.

For now, though, he's riding highlighting up Statcast, convincingly embodying the role of a player on the rise and bringing Tampa Bay with him.

            

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

2017 World Series Odds for Every MLB Contender with Trade-Season Dust Settled

As we steamroll through August and set our gaze on September, the race for the 2017 MLB title is getting real.

That's especially true with the non-waiver trade deadline behind us.

Sure, seismic swaps could go down provided players clear waivers. For the most part, however, contenders' rosters are set.

As such, we can calibrate World Series odds with a degree of confidence, allowing for the usual fluctuations that come with hot streaks, cold spells and, above all, injuries.

For reference, our odds are juxtaposed against those proffered by OddsShark.com. And we're defining a "contender" as any team with a 30 percent chance or greater of qualifying for the postseason, according to FanGraphs' calculation (sorry, Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners et al).

Begin Slideshow

2017 World Series Odds for Every MLB Contender with Trade-Season Dust Settled

As we steamroll through August and set our gaze on September, the race for the 2017 MLB title is getting real.

That's especially true with the non-waiver trade deadline behind us.

Sure, seismic swaps could go down provided players clear waivers. For the most part, however, contenders' rosters are set.

As such, we can calibrate World Series odds with a degree of confidence, allowing for the usual fluctuations that come with hot streaks, cold spells and, above all, injuries.

For reference, our odds are juxtaposed against those proffered by OddsShark.com. And we're defining a "contender" as any team with a 30 percent chance or greater of qualifying for the postseason, according to FanGraphs' calculation (sorry, Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners et al).

Begin Slideshow

Corey Kluber is as Good as Ever, So Beware the AL’s Most Dominant Big-Game Ace

In his August 3 outing against the New York Yankees, Corey Kluber spun nine innings of three-hit, one-run, 11-strikeout ball, overshadowing Yankees trade-deadline acquisition Sonny Gray in the process. 

Kluber looked like an ace. He threw like an ace.

He is an ace.

That's a comforting and undeniable truism for the defending American League champion Cleveland Indians as they enter the stretch run and seek to end baseball's longest active title drought.

Kluber has eclipsed 200 innings and 200 strikeouts in every season since 2014, when he won the AL Cy Young Award. 

Last year, he authored a postseason tour de force by putting up a 1.83 ERA with 35 strikeouts across 34.1 frames. 

This season, there was a blip in the Klubot's programming. On May 2, he owned a 5.06 ERA and subsequently landed on the disabled list with a back injury.

Since returning to action on June 1, however, he's been an absolute beast. During that span, as FanGraphs' Travis Sawchik noted, "Kluber has struck out a ridiculous 40.7 percent of batters. He owns a sparkling 36 percent K-BB%, 1.61 FIP and 40 ERA-. Since coming off the disabled list, Kluber has been [Los Angeles Dodgers closer] Kenley Jansen—only Jansen as a starting pitcher."

With his 11 punch-outs against the Yankees, Kluber joined Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Pedro Martinez on an elite list of pitchers who have fanned at least eight batters in 12 consecutive starts. 

Not coincidentally, those other three dudes are Hall of Famers.

"Pretty cool isn't it? Pretty cool," Indians skipper Terry Francona said of his stud's accomplishment, per Ryan Lewis of the Akron Beacon Journal. "He won't say anything about it. There's nothing wrong about being modest, but that's why we like to brag about him a little bit because he probably won't."

Humility aside, there's no denying Kluber's stature.

At age 31, his average fastball velocity has ticked down from a career high of 94.6 mph in 2014 to 93.1 mph this year.

He's learned to wield his breaking and offspeed offerings, however, to devastating effect.

"Sometimes you'll see some of his pitches start to back up, but he's able to come up with another pitch and make it the best pitch of his day," catcher Yan Gomes said, per Zack Meisel of Cleveland.com.

Then there's Kluber's affordability. The Indians owe him a scant $7.7 million this season, and he's locked into a bargain contract that could run through 2021 with a couple of club options. 

Add it up and you've got one of the best bang-for-your-buck hurlers in either league, a decorated No. 1 on a legitimate World Series contender with October bona fides already under his belt.

At 59-50 entering play Tuesday, the Indians aren't running away with anything. They do, however, hold a three-game lead over the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central.

Assuming Cleveland climbs back on baseball's autumn stage and makes another run at a long-overdue champagne-and-confetti celebration, Kluber will be the backbone. 

Lefty relief whiz Andrew Miller can build on his own playoff legend. On offense and defense, shortstop Francisco Lindor will have his chance to shine.

Kluber, though, is the only established Indians starting pitcher with an ERA south of 4.00 (it sits at 2.77).

The Junior Circuit features multiple aces. Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox leads the pack with 216 strikeouts but has never made a playoff start. The Houston Astros' Dallas Keuchel sports a 2.15 ERA but has battled injuries and is coming off a down 2016 campaign.

If you go by FanGraphs' WAR calculation, only Sale (23.1) has been more valuable than Kluber (22.4) since 2014. And, again, there's the matter of postseason experience to consider.

Kluber is the guy who combines the numbers and track record. He's the horse you want to ride with everything on the line. 

"We rely on him so much, and he knows that," Francona said, per Matthew Florjancic of WKYC.com. "It's nice to put his name in there every five days."

Nice, in this case, being a truism and an understatement. 

   

All statistics current as of Monday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

10 Years After No. 756, Can Any MLB Slugger Take Down Bonds’ Tainted HR Record?

On August 7, 2007, Barry Bonds took a characteristically compact swing and sent a baseball soaring into the foggy San Francisco night, as he'd done so many times before.

This baseball carried history with it over AT&T Park's right center field wall along with 108 crimson double stitches. Here, let's relive the moment:

When Giants play-by-play man Duane Kuiper said, "Bonds stands alone," it resonated in more ways than one.

In a literal sense, that blast—No. 756 of Bonds' career—moved him past Hank Aaron and into sole possession of MLB's all-time home run record. 

In another way, Bonds already stood alone. He was the poster boy for baseball's steroid era, putting up cartoonish, unbelievable stats while marooned on an island of controversy.

Thanks to the performance-enhancing drug expose Game of Shadows and the BALCO investigation, Bonds' misdeeds became part of public record, even though he was never suspended or, ultimately, punished for any crime.

"This record is not tainted at all. At all," Bonds told reporters at the time. "Period. You guys can say whatever you want."

Ten years after Bonds re-calibrated one of sports' most hallowed milestones (he finished with 762, if you forgot), it's worth asking: Will anyone ever take his (cough) tainted home run crown?

Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels is the active home run leader with 608. The 37-year-old three-time MVP hit 31 last season and has 17 so far this year, but he would need to sustain a 30-homer average through 2020 just to sniff 700.

The Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera is second among active players with 459 and is only 34 years old. He's battled injuries of late, however, and hasn't tallied 40 home runs since 2013.

The only other current big leaguers in the 400-homer club are 38-year-old Adrian Beltre (454) and 40-year-old Carlos Beltran (434).

To find a legitimate challenger for Bonds, we must cast our gaze on the game's younger generation.

It begins with the Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper, who's sitting on 149 home runs at age 24. 

If Harper averaged 40 homers for the next 10 years, he'd be at or past 550 entering his age-35 season. For perspective, Bonds had 445 homers entering his age-35 campaign.

Bonds also went on a (cough, allegedly) chemically aided fence-clearing binge in his MLB twilight, but at least Harper's got a shot.

So does the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout, who turns 27 on August 7, the anniversary of Bonds' Aaron-surpassing bomb.

With 189 long balls to date, Trout would have to sustain 40-homer pop into his early 40s, a tall order but also a distinct possibility considering his generational skill set.

If health weren't a factor, the leader in the clubhouse would be Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins, who has smacked 244 home runs at age 27.

Stanton also hasn't played 120 games since 2014 due to a litany of injuries, but he's on pace to change that this season and has an MLB-leading 36 dingers entering play Monday.

The home run is back in a major way across both leagues, despite the advent of PED testing. Maybe it's revised hitting strategies and beefier players, maybe it's a juiced ball.

"We are in a period where we have bigger, stronger, faster athletes—like all sports," Commissioner Rob Manfred recently told reporters.

Either way, the odds that someone will claim the mantle from Bonds are real. 

Possibly he's a hitter yet unborn, or taking his first hacks in tee-ball. Perhaps it'll be a just-christened slugger such as the New York Yankees' Aaron Judge or Los Angeles Dodgers' Cody Bellinger.

If we're putting money on an established big leaguer, it's Stanton, because of his raw power and the assumption his disabled-list luck will turn around. 

It won't happen this season, the one after that or the one after that. At some point, though, someone could send a baseball and its 108 stitches soaring into the night.

Hopefully, the word "tainted" will have nothing to do with it.

         

All statistics current as of Sunday and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Sonny Gray Is an Ace, but He Can’t Solve Yankees’ Problems

So much for Sonny Gray the savior.

In his hotly anticipated debut with the New York Yankees, the 27-year-old right-hander flashed ace-like moments and finished with a perfectly respectable line: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 6 SO, 3 BB.

The Yanks, however, lost 5-1 to the Cleveland Indians on Thursday at Progressive Field and displayed the flaws that make them an imperfect postseason contender, with or without Gray.

They committed three errors, all in the first inning, an inauspicious welcome for their trade-deadline prize, acquired from the Oakland Athletics for a package that included outfielder Dustin Fowler, infielder Jorge Mateo and right-hander James Kaprielian, lauded prospects all.

More damningly, New York's lineup managed a scant one run on three hits with 11 strikeouts in Gray's first outing.

As George A. King III of the New York Post put it, "Nobody could have blamed Sonny Gray for checking to see if he was really wearing a Yankees' road uniform instead of the green, yellow and white outfit he left in Oakland."

Granted, it was against Indians stud Corey Kluber, who can make even the best hitters look hapless. But the Yankees were shut out Wednesday by the woeful Detroit Tigers and Jordan Zimmermann, who lowered his ERA to 5.35.

The division-rival Boston Red Sox, meanwhile, are rolling, having plated 27 runs in their last three games, all wins. 

The Yankees maintain the best run differential in the American League East at plus-112 (the Sox sit at plus-70). But the Bronx bunch is headed in an uncertain direction, despite laying claim to the Junior Circuit's top wild-card position.

To be fair, Gray isn't the only cavalryman general manager Brian Cashman acquired.

He also engineered a deal with the Chicago White Sox that brought in bullpen right-handers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle and slugging infielder Todd Frazier.

Gray was the big fish, though, the one reeled in on the final day of the non-waiver trade deadline. His mandate was clear: propel New York back to the October promised land.

As Cashman himself put it after the trade, per ESPN.com, "We're trying to go from good to great."

Gray seemed to embrace it in a piece penned for The Players' Tribune:

"The pennant race … that’s something I’m especially excited about. I’m not much for talking about myself—but if there’s one thing I could say as an introduction to Yankee fans, I think it would be this: I’m a competitor. I love to compete. And when I get on the mound, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to compete, and I’m going to come at guys. I’m going to challenge guys, straight-up—with my best stuff against their best stuff."

The problem is that, even with Gray, there are questions in the rotation, especially after Michael Pineda underwent Tommy John surgery.

Slugging rookie savant Aaron Judge is in the midst of an inevitable slump. Whatever air of invincibility surrounded the club early in the season is gone, replaced by a tenuous sense of, Welp, we'll see.

Gray was an All-Star and top-three AL Cy Young Award finisher in 2015. He's under club control through 2019, making him a fine addition for a squad seeking to win now and later.

As ESPN Stats & Info noted, he owned the second-lowest ERA (1.37) since June 25 behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw entering play Thursday. 

No single player can smooth over all of a franchise's issues, however, let alone one with only two dominant MLB seasons under his belt.

The Yankees need to click offensively. They need to start playing tighter defense. They need to jell as a unit, including the young players who've never been here before (cough, Judge).

If they can do that, the AL East is winnable, and October could be a lot of fun. If they can't, Gray won't tip the scales. 

            

All statistics current as of Thursday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball Reference.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Sonny Gray Is an Ace, but He Can’t Solve Yankees’ Problems

So much for Sonny Gray the savior.

In his hotly anticipated debut with the New York Yankees, the 27-year-old right-hander flashed ace-like moments and finished with a perfectly respectable line: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 6 SO, 3 BB.

The Yanks, however, lost 5-1 to the Cleveland Indians on Thursday at Progressive Field and displayed the flaws that make them an imperfect postseason contender, with or without Gray.

They committed three errors, all in the first inning, an inauspicious welcome for their trade-deadline prize, acquired from the Oakland Athletics for a package that included outfielder Dustin Fowler, infielder Jorge Mateo and right-hander James Kaprielian, lauded prospects all.

More damningly, New York's lineup managed a scant one run on three hits with 11 strikeouts in Gray's first outing.

As George A. King III of the New York Post put it, "Nobody could have blamed Sonny Gray for checking to see if he was really wearing a Yankees' road uniform instead of the green, yellow and white outfit he left in Oakland."

Granted, it was against Indians stud Corey Kluber, who can make even the best hitters look hapless. But the Yankees were shut out Wednesday by the woeful Detroit Tigers and Jordan Zimmermann, who lowered his ERA to 5.35.

The division-rival Boston Red Sox, meanwhile, are rolling, having plated 27 runs in their last three games, all wins. 

The Yankees maintain the best run differential in the American League East at plus-112 (the Sox sit at plus-70). But the Bronx bunch is headed in an uncertain direction, despite laying claim to the Junior Circuit's top wild-card position.

To be fair, Gray isn't the only cavalryman general manager Brian Cashman acquired.

He also engineered a deal with the Chicago White Sox that brought in bullpen right-handers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle and slugging infielder Todd Frazier.

Gray was the big fish, though, the one reeled in on the final day of the non-waiver trade deadline. His mandate was clear: propel New York back to the October promised land.

As Cashman himself put it after the trade, per ESPN.com, "We're trying to go from good to great."

Gray seemed to embrace it in a piece penned for The Players' Tribune:

"The pennant race … that’s something I’m especially excited about. I’m not much for talking about myself—but if there’s one thing I could say as an introduction to Yankee fans, I think it would be this: I’m a competitor. I love to compete. And when I get on the mound, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to compete, and I’m going to come at guys. I’m going to challenge guys, straight-up—with my best stuff against their best stuff."

The problem is that, even with Gray, there are questions in the rotation, especially after Michael Pineda underwent Tommy John surgery.

Slugging rookie savant Aaron Judge is in the midst of an inevitable slump. Whatever air of invincibility surrounded the club early in the season is gone, replaced by a tenuous sense of, Welp, we'll see.

Gray was an All-Star and top-three AL Cy Young Award finisher in 2015. He's under club control through 2019, making him a fine addition for a squad seeking to win now and later.

As ESPN Stats & Info noted, he owned the second-lowest ERA (1.37) since June 25 behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw entering play Thursday. 

No single player can smooth over all of a franchise's issues, however, let alone one with only two dominant MLB seasons under his belt.

The Yankees need to click offensively. They need to start playing tighter defense. They need to jell as a unit, including the young players who've never been here before (cough, Judge).

If they can do that, the AL East is winnable, and October could be a lot of fun. If they can't, Gray won't tip the scales. 

            

All statistics current as of Thursday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball Reference.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Anthony Rendon Thrives in Bryce’s Shadow as 1 of MLB’s Best Bang-for-Buck Stars

As far as pundits and casual fans are concerned, the Washington Nationals lineup might as well be called Bryce Harper and the Other Dudes. 

Harper has been a magnet for attention since he broke into the league with his brash, outsized personality and preternatural talent. Making five All-Star teams and winning a National League Rookie of the Year and MVP award before his 25th birthday hasn't dimmed his star.

There's another hitter in the Nats' order, however, who is thriving in Harper's long shadow.

That would be Anthony Rendon, one of the top third basemen in the game and one of MLB's best bang-for-your-buck stars at any position.

Yeah, we could have aimed our focus on second baseman Daniel Murphy, who is hitting .329 with 17 home runs. Or, we could have honed in on first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and his .309 average and 24 homers.

Washington is running away with the NL East for a reason.

Rendon, however, surpasses Murphy, Zimmerman and even Harper, according to FanGraphs' WAR calculation

Zimmerman sits at 1.9 WAR, Murphy is at 2.7 and Harper owns a mark of 4.9. Then there's Rendon and his 5.4, the third-highest total among position players in either league.

WAR isn't a perfect measure of value. As a shorthand, however, it does just fine. In this case, it highlights Rendon's unheralded prowess. 

The sixth overall pick by the Nationals in 2011, Rendon made his big league debut in 2013. The following season, he won a Silver Slugger award and finished fifth in NL MVP balloting.

An injury-plagued 2015 and fine-but-unspectacular 2016 followed. It was worth asking if Rendon would ever live up to his potential. Four months into the 2017 campaign, consider that question answered. 

The 27-year-old is slashing .314/.419/.578 with 21 home runs and is the best defensive third baseman in the game, according to FanGraphs

Somehow, Rendon was left off the NL All-Star roster, a snub that sparked a protracted Twitter battle between the Nationals and Colorado Rockies, whose own third baseman, Nolan Arenado, started the Midsummer Classic.

In addition to Arenado, an unassailable stud on offense and defense, the Senior Circuit is blessed with some elite third basemen, including Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs and Justin Turner of the Los Angeles Dodgers

Despite his prodigious output, Rendon is the forgotten man.

"I think he's highly underrated in this league, especially when everybody talks about the third basemen," Nats manager Dusty Baker said in April, per Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post

"He's a pretty quiet guy," Zimmerman added. "Doesn't really do anything to draw attention to himself that much. So, when you do that, I don't want to say he flies under the radar, but you can do what he does and not get as much 'pub' as you should."

The best part, for Washington, is that Rendon is eminently affordable. He's making just $5.8 million this season, and while that will surely tick upward in his next year of arbitration eligibility, he's under club control through 2019.

For more context on Rendon's exploits, we turn to The Ringer's Michael Baumann:

"Since April 30, Rendon's walked 45 times and had 41 extra-base hits and just 32 strikeouts. '[Joey] Votto at a tougher defensive position' is a good way to describe that level of production. You might also try Jose Altuve with less speed and more walks, but after that there really isn't a great reference point for what Rendon is doing, and how he’s doing it."

The next test for Rendon and the Nationals will come in October. They're a virtual lock to win the NL East, but the franchise has never advanced past the division series.

It's not all on Rendon; Washington has a deep, balanced attack on the mound and in the batter's box.

If he keeps shining on the playoff stage, however, he may finally get the recognition he deserves. Heck, the Nats might even be known as Bryce Harper and the Other Dudes Featuring Anthony Rendon.

                 

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Selling High: Top Acquired Prospects Who Will Become Future MLB All-Stars

The MLB trade deadline always features two distinct storylines

The first and most immediate is the buyers' story. Which stars changed hands, and how will they impact the various postseason races?

The second story, however, is weightier and more intriguing going forward: Which of the traded top prospects will blossom into MLB studs?

Hindsight is the only true arbiter. But based on our own analysis, MLB.com's prospect rankings and a sprinkling of gut instinct, here are five blue chips who swapped uniforms ahead of the July 31 non-waiver deadline and appear ticketed for big league stardom.

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Wild-Card Delusions: July 31 Trade Deadline No Longer Works for MLB

So far, the 2017 MLB trade season has been a lot of smoke and very little fire.

Rumors have swirled. Speculation has simmered. And, yes, a few significant deals have gone down, thanks mostly to the Chicago White Sox, who dealt left-hander Jose Quintana to the Chicago Cubs and a package including relief ace David Robertson and slugger Todd Frazier to the New York Yankees.

By and large, however, the weeks leading up to the July 31 non-waiver deadline have been duller than a drizzly day at the beach with the sniffles and no swim trunks. 

The culprit is obvious: The advent of the second wild card means more teams harbor postseason dreams.

The solution is equally obvious: Push the trade deadline deeper into summer.

As of Friday, 18 teams were within six games or fewer of a playoff spot. That's nearly two-thirds of MLB's franchises. 

According to FanGraphs' calculation, 13 clubs have at least a 15 percent chance of ascending the October stage.

Some of those teams are deluding themselves. Yet, the possibility of reaching the wild-card play-in, getting hot and running the table is tantalizing.

Consider the 2014 San Francisco Giants, who won 88 games and barely grabbed the second National League wild-card slot, but rode clutch hitting and a historic performance by ace Madison Bumgarner to a third Commissioner's Trophy in five seasons.

Any squad hanging around .500 in late July can be forgiven for hoarding its trade chips and hoping for a scalding streak.

A few short weeks ago, the Kansas City Royals looked like obvious sellers. They were buried in the American League Central and featured a roster laden with impending free agents.

Now, K.C. holds the Junior Circuit's second wild-card position after reeling off a nine-game winning streak and appears primed for one more run.

Even seemingly lost causes such as the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Angels are within shouting distance.

Why not move the trade deadline into mid-August and give the market more time to crystalize?

That's not a fringe fantasy. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred suggested it two seasons ago.

"I think that the July 31 deadline is something that we may want to revisit in the context of the revised playoff format," Manfred said in July 2015, per Sporting News' Jesse Spector. "Obviously, when you have two additional opportunities to be in the playoffs, you have more teams in the hunt, and they may want to wait a little longer before they make decisions."

The NBA and NHL, as Spector noted, have their trade deadlines deeper in the season. The model is in place. 

Baseball is a sport steeped in tradition, but it has shown a willingness to adapt, implementing instant-replay challenges and toying with a pitch clock among other innovations.

It's not as if the non-waiver deadline is some hallowed cornerstone, either. It's a procedural detail most casual fans are probably unaware of. 

When the July 31 deadline was cemented in 1986, there were 26 teams and four playoff spots. It was win your division or stay home.

Times have changed since then, as FoxSports.com noted in 2014:

"The date of the trade deadline has never been sacrosanct, and it has changed many times to accommodate the norms of the present day. With MLB making structural changes to keep teams in the race longer, it makes sense to also give them more time to evaluate whether to buy or sell. We're not wearing acid wash jeans and listening to hair metal bands anymore, so maybe we shouldn't be forcing Major League teams to decide whether or not they're in or they're out in late July anymore either."   

In the here and now, 10 teams get to play beyond game 162. 

The laws of trade-season supply and demand have fundamentally shifted. It's time for MLB's rules to catch up.

         

All standings and postseason odds current as of Friday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Ranking the Top Stars Still Available at the 2017 MLB Trade Deadline

The July 31 MLB trade deadline is careening toward us like a Statcast-busting Aaron Judge home run. Buyers and sellers are working the phones, and the balance of power is about to shift in both leagues.

While we wait, let's rank the top six stars remaining on the board. 

A few points of clarification before we dive in:

  • "Star" is a nebulous term, but we're focusing on players with multiple awards and/or All-Star appearances on their resumes.
  • To warrant inclusion, a player needs to be on a team that's in or heavily leaning toward "sell" mode and be featured in recent, credible rumors.
  • Rankings are based partly on pedigree, but also how much the star in question could help a contender down the stretch.

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It’s Time for $252M Dodgers to Go All-In, Not Blow Golden World Series Chance

The Los Angeles Dodgers have the best record in baseball. They own MLB's gaudiest payroll at $251,078,603 million, per Spotrac (round it up to $252 million).

Most essentially, they haven't won the World Series since 1988.

Add it up, and you've got a franchise in win-now overdrive that should accelerate pedal-to-the-floor into the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Sure, the Dodgers could coast. They enjoy a 12.5-game cushion in the National League West and have a 99.9 percent chance of winning the division, according to FanGraphs' calculation

Los Angeles has been there and done that, grabbing four straight division crowns. During that run of dominance, however, the club hasn't advanced past the National League Championship Series. 

Merely getting to the dance isn't enough. L.A. wants to bathe in champagne and confetti.

All this becomes especially important after Clayton Kershaw's injury. The ace left-hander is on the disabled lost with a lower back strain and could be out four to six weeks, according to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times

Kershaw missed more than two months in 2016 with back trouble. Cue the alarm bells at Chavez Ravine. 

And cue reports that the Dodgers are sniffing after Texas Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish, including this one from SportsDay's Evan Grant:

"Among the teams the Rangers have spoken to regarding Darvish are the Los Angeles Dodgers. [General manager Jon] Daniels sent a key evaluator to see Los Angeles' Triple-A team on Friday. Center fielder Alex Verdugo could be a key figure if talks were to advance."

Verdugo is the Dodgers' No. 2 prospect, per MLB.com, while Darvish is an impending free agent.

There's an argument for Los Angeles keeping its MiLB chips, particularly with its track record of developing hitters.

The stronger argument, however, says the Dodgers should go all-in.

"Every team in baseball would like Yu Darvish," manager Dave Roberts told reporters, per Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. "Whether it happens or not, I just can't speculate. It's a fact we would be better with him, as would 29 other teams." 

Kershaw is 29 years old and, as his recent health issues attest, won't be the best pitcher on the planet forever. 

On offense, youngsters Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger are just coming into their own, but key cogs such as All-Star third baseman Justin Turner (age 32) may be at their zenith.

L.A. could also use reinforcements in the bullpen behind closer Kenley Jansen and has expressed interest in Baltimore Orioles stud Zach Britton, per FanRag Sports' Jon Heyman.

As with Darvish, the cost would be steep, assuming the O's are selling.

Imagine a Britton/Jansen two-headed monster buzzing through the postseason, though, similar to the Andrew Miller/Cody Allen twosome that carried the Cleveland Indians to the doorstep of a championship last year.

The Dodgers know all about the doorstep. They lost in the NLCS in 2013, were dropped in the division series in 2014 and 2015 and fell again in the NLCS in 2016.

The franchise formerly known as the Bridegrooms has grown accustomed to the role of bridesmaid.

At some point, you have to get bold if you want to break through. Just ask the Chicago Cubs, the team that knocked the Dodgers off last season and eventually won a championship, partly thanks to a trade that sent top prospect Gleyber Torres to the New York Yankees in exchange for a few months of flame-flinging reliever Aroldis Chapman.

The Senior Circuit is winnable, with the Cubs fending off the upstart Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and the Washington Nationals hoping to shake their division-series demons out East.

Los Angeles has the best record in baseball. It spends the most, and it's winning a lot.

It also hasn't hoisted a Commissioner's Trophy since the Ronald Reagan administration, and it's time to do anything necessary to change that. 

          

All statistics and standings current as of Tuesday and courtesy of MLB.com.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Buyer’s Remorse: Big Mistakes MLB Contenders Must Avoid at the Trade Deadline

The July 31 MLB non-waiver trade deadline is barreling down like an avalanche, or at least a cavalcade of rumor-laced tweets.

As we await the final flurry of activity, let's examine six potential instances of buyer's remorse that contenders should avoid.

In some cases, that means recklessly dealing MiLB chips; in others, it means failing to strike while the trade iron is hot.

Either way, it's about regreta wasted emotion in sports and life.

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Predicting Boom or Bust on Top MLB Trade Splashes Thus Far

With a week remaining before the July 31 MLB non-waiver trade deadline, anything can happen.

That's not literally true—the Los Angeles Angels aren't about to send Mike Trout to the New York Yankees for cash considerations and the ghost of Mickey Mantle.

There are head-spinning deals to come, however. Bank on it.

While we wait, let's gaze back at five trade splashes that have already happened and assess whether they'll be booms or busts.

A couple criteria to keep in mind:

  • We're judging these swaps through the prism of the buying team rather than the seller. So while the price paid in prospects and MLB chips plays a factor, the most important consideration is whether the contender will get a boost.
  • That said, we will award bonus points for deals that help the buyer now and into the future. There's nothing inherently wrong with a rental, but a player locked into an affordable, longer-term contract adds cache. 

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Boston Red Sox: Impact Trade Ideas Without Blowing Up the Farm

Since Dave Dombrowski was named president of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox in 2015, he has raided the club's farm system to construct a win-now roster.

Boston is indeed winning now. Entering play Friday, the division champions are 54-43, three games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays and 3.5 ahead of the New York Yankees for the American League East lead.

The club has acute needs, however, most notably at third base and to a lesser extent in the bullpen. With the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaching, Dealin' Dave must work the phones.

Sox manager John Farrell offered his endorsement, per Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald:

"I think it's always a plus [to make a trade]. It's a strong sign that everyone is aligned to support, add to, fortify, however you want to describe it, an area of need. There's almost an injection of, maybe, that support or, further momentum that's, 'OK, this is going to better equip us to go deep into the season.'"

At the same time, Dombrowski should take care not to blow up a farm system that has suffered seismic damage.

How can he do that while still acquiring impact players? Let's explore five possibilities.

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Chicago Cubs: 5 Trades to Fix the Offense After Jose Quintana Blockbuster

The Chicago Cubs addressed their most glaring deficiency when they acquired left-hander Jose Quintana from the cross-town Chicago White Sox, shoring up a rotation that was wobbling like a jalopy with a slow leak. The Cubbies have also won six straight.

But the fact remains: On July 19, the champions are 49-45, 1.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers.

Let's make a list of pundits, prognosticators and diehard Brewers fans who predicated that eventuality prior to the season:

[List unavailable]

Chicago added a top-tier arm and reeled off a modest win streak. At the same time, they rank 13th in baseball in runs scored and OPS, and they are tied for 22nd in batting average. They haven't been a juggernaut in the batter's box, to put it gently.

After selling off their top two prospects in outfielder Eloy Jimenez and hard-throwing Dylan Cease to acquire Quintana, it's possible the Cubs are done dealing. Or maybe they'll only make moves to further augment the rotation.

"Of course, we're going to work hard and do what we can to improve the team. It may happen; it may not happen," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said in early July, prior to the Quintana swap, per Gordon Wittenmyer Chicago Sun-Times. "But the biggest fixes rest in the talented players that we have."

On the other hand, Epstein signaled his intent to go all-in for a repeat title. Why not do what it takes to buttress the lineup?

Here, then, are five trades the Cubs could consider to jumpstart their offense. Not all of them will happen, but each provides intriguing grist for the MLB swap-season mill.

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