As the news and sports media obsess over an outdated steroid “scandal” that has no effect on our lives, baseball fans I know are focused on 2013. Outside of the National League Central race and perhaps a last push from Arizona, the NL is becoming somewhat anti-climactic, but the American League has very good races. Perhaps the best stories, however, are three overachieving Midwest teams.
Though they didn’t make the World Series, the 1990-92 Pirates won nearly 100 games in each of those three seasons. Pittsburgh has not had a winning campaign since. I watched the Indianapolis Indians (Pirates Triple-A ream) up close from 2006-2011, so I saw the franchise’s progress, but it’s been laborious.
Last year’s Buccos were rolling to a winning season, and likely a playoff berth, before collapsing in August and September. While the team won 79 games — their most in 20 years — this was an epic tease. On Aug. 19, Pittsburgh was 67-54, but a stunning disintegration made the 2012 version the only team in MLB history to be 16 games over .500 after two-thirds of the season, yet finish with a losing record.
Though they’ve dropped seven of nine, Pittsburgh stands at 72-51 today, and has a one-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. The Bucs were helped by taking five of eight from St. Louis in two recent series.
Success comes mainly from the pitching of young studs like All-Star Jeff Locke, former No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole, along with comeback seasons from veterans A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and even Wandy Rodriguez, who still hopes to return this year. Even with the temporary loss off All-Star closer Jason Grilli, the Pirates bullpen has been fantastic.
The offense, at times inconsistent, is led by outfielder Andrew McCutchen, and aided by the emergence of Starling Marte and Neil Walker. National League home run leader Pedro Alvarez is obviously talented, but he also tops the NL in strikeouts, errors and hits .230. He has Ryan Howard-like shortcomings – but at nearly $20 million per season less.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals’ futile streak is nearly as sad as Pittsburgh’s. Though K.C. had a winning campaign in 2003, that’s the franchise’s only such effort the past two decades. The Royals finished third in the AL Central last season but still lost 90 games, so their 2013 success (64-59 as of this writing) is arguably more impressive than what the Pirates are doing. Even if Kansas City fails to capture a playoff berth, a winning season will do wonders in western Missouri, especially following a blockbuster offseason trade lambasted by many in the national media.
Pitching was the concern addressed in that deal, and while James Shields has been a durable leader, so have Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie and especially journeyman Bruce Chen, who was undefeated with a sub-2 ERA until Sunday’s setback in Detroit. All-Star Greg Holland has burst on the scene as one of the game’s best closers as well.
The offense, inconsistent for the first two months of the season, was invigorated by the hiring of Hall of Famer George Brett as the team’s hitting coach onMay 30. Players noted that the Royals legend helped them relax and stop pressing. Since the coaching move, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler, in particular, have led the charge. Both are hitting well over .300 since June 1. A career .225 hitter off lefties coming into 2013, Hosmer is hitting a remarkable .331 off southpaws in 2013.
Many think the Indians have been subpar since their remarkable run of five consecutive AL Central titles from 1995-1999. That is simply incorrect. The Tribe not only claimed the AL Central in 2001 and 2007, but the latter season included a 96-win campaign, a dispatching of the Yankees in the ALDS, and they were one victory over Boston away from heading to a very-winnable World Series and a chance for the city’s first baseball championship in six decades.
Cleveland has not had a winning year since, though they won 81 games in 2008 and 80 in 2011.
Last season was good through July before a historic collapse where the Indians went 5-24 in August, tying a century-old franchise record for most losses in a month. The team was an atrocious 24-53 after the All-Star break, finishing with 93 losses.
Enter new manager Terry Francona, a solid first four-and-a-half months, a 52-44 mark at the All-Star break and a current 66-58 record. Few picked Cleveland to finish very high in the standings, yet they are in the thick of the AL Wild Card race.
No particular Tribe player stands out, but as Asdrubal Cabrera suffers through a career-worst season, second baseman Jason Kipnis has emerged as an All-Star, while Michael Brantley, Ryan Raburn and Carlos Santana have become consistent all-around players. Justin Masterson again anchors a reputable starting staff, which includes Zach McAllister, the much-maligned Ubaldo Jimenez, and Comeback Player of the Year candidate Scott Kazmir.
The moral of this piece and others like it?
Predictions are fun, but generally a silly and arrogant exercise. Therefore it’d be nice if ESPN’s “experts” — who gushed over the Nats, Angels and Blue Jays in March – revisited their flawed projections in November. I won’t hold my breath.