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How The NL West Race Could Play Out
With the Padres and Dodgers surging, two best records in baseball currently reside in the NL West. Both these clubs have had their stretches this year that made us scratch our heads, but these are arguably the two most talented teams in baseball, and they look like it.
This division race is going to be fun. FanGraphs currently has it coming down to the last series of the season. 538’s model has the Dodgers winning 102, and the Padres at 97 wins. I wanted to look at the most likely ways this could play out.
1) The Dodgers win by a few games
This is the most likely scenario, and probably the least controversial. Neither of these teams have been fully healthy in 2021, but when they are, the Dodgers should be better. If the division is going to come down to just a few games, it means the head-to-head matchups will decide the winner. The Dodgers, partly due to their starting pitching, will be favored in most of those games. The Padres staff is really good, maybe elite, but what the Dodgers have with Kershaw, Bauer, Buehler, and Urias is the best in the league. That should give the Dodgers just enough to edge out the Padres in September.
2) The Dodgers injury issues persist; allowing San Diego to pull away
The Dodgers have some major health issues at the moment. Cody Bellinger has not played since the first couple weeks of the season, Corey Seager is out until July, and Mookie Betts has had nagging back and shoulder issues. On the pitching side, Dustin May went down for the year, Tony Gonsolin has yet to pitch, Cory Knebel isn’t coming back anytime soon, and Brusdar Graterol returned only to head right back to the IL. Those are all impact players, many of whom will return this year. The issue then becomes how close to 100% will those guys be.
Recovering from injuries at any point isn’t easy, it’s much harder to do in season. There’s a chance some of these guys come back and just aren’t themselves. Mookie Betts’ issues have already resulted in some slumps this year. There’s no promise the same won’t happen to others. In this scenario, the Padres stay healthy and the Dodgers can’t keep up. It’s worth nothing, that even with Seager and Bellinger out, the Dodgers have won 11 of 12. That likely isn’t sustainable unless their stars get healthy and start performing.
3) The Dodgers do what the Dodgers do and run away with it
I don’t expect this to happen, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. The Dodgers haven’t lost the division since 2012. Aside from a few close calls, they have run away with it most years. I discussed the possibility of injuries preventing the Dodgers stars from finding their groove, well, it’s also possible they come back as good as ever. Their core group is still in their prime and this has been a club that usually gets better as the year goes on.
The Dodgers rotation is proven, and Kenley Jansen is pitching like he’s in the middle of his prime. If Bellinger and Seager return and start hitting like we know they can, it won’t matter what the Padres do. This is a Dodger team capable of some scary stuff, and if things click, this division is over.
Never Count the Rays Out
The Tampa Bay Rays have been one of the most interesting organizations in baseball for over a decade. They have been a model for small market teams, taking what the Athletics did with Moneyball and doing it better. Even big market teams have tried to mimic Tampa Bay. Andrew Friedman, the man responsible for a lot of the Rays’ innovation, has turned the Dodgers into what they are.
Despite all that, they’ve only made it to the ALCS twice since they came into being in the late 90’s. Both those times, they won to advance to the World Series, where they ran into star powered teams they just couldn’t keep up with.
We didn’t know what the Rays would look like this year. A lot of people said the Yankees would run away with the division. That hasn’t happened. Tampa has won 15 of their last 20 and holds the third best run differential in the AL. They sit just a game back of the Yankees in the AL East.
After trading Blake Snell, it looked as if this might be a bit of a reset year. They have the best farm system in baseball, and it would have made sense to say. “Okay, let’s focus on development this year and we’ll be right back in contention in 2022.” It’s possible that’s what they did say, and it’s possible they could come down to earth this summer and finish around 82 wins, give or take a few.
But, if that doesn’t happen, I won’t be shocked. They have ways of getting guys like Joey Wendle to show up and hit to the tune of a 150 OPS+. A 30-year-old Mike Zunino is hitting the ball better than he ever has. Tyler Glasnow has put himself squarely in the Cy Young conversation. Maybe, it’s something in the water in Tampa. Maybe, some of Joe Maddon’s magic potions are still lying around. Maybe, this is just a damn good ball club. As long as the Rays continue to be run by the right people, we should expect they won’t field anything less than a competitive ball club. With that aforementioned farm system, they may be entering the greatest stretch in the history of their young franchise.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is Better than Imagined
Vladmir Guerrero Jr has been one of the most hyped talents in baseball for some time now. Even before you knew anything else about him, you knew that name. You knew he was Vladmir Guerrero’s son. He’s a little bit more than that now. He’s making a name for himself. With Mike Trout going down, Guerrero Jr has become, at least in my mind, the favorite to win AL MVP.
He leads the majors in home runs while walking more than he strikes out. In today’s MLB, even at this point in the season, that’s exceptionally rare. There’s nothing flukey about any of these numbers. His hard rate is 99th percentile. He’s smart about what he swings at, rarely chasing outside the zone. It doesn’t matter what you throw him either, he’s crushing fastballs and breaking balls.
Sure, his defense isn’t great and maybe he’s a future DH, but the dude can hit and he’s only 22-years-old. Top billed prospects don’t always live up to the hype, especially at this age, but it appears Vlad Jr has.
- Few teams have been bit harder by the injury bug this year than the Mets. The good news is, Jacob DeGrom is back. The bad news is, Micheal Conforto and Jeff McNeil are still weeks away from returning.
- Cody Bellinger began a rehab assignment in AAA ball over the weekend. In a mid game interview with Fox on Saturday, Dave Roberts said we can expect to see Bellinger back within the next week.
- Carson Kelly was activated by the Diamondbacks on Monday evening. No player in baseball has a better xwOBA than Kelly this year.
- Kenta Maeda was placed on the IL over the weekend. It’s not considered serious and Maeda is expected back soon. Given Maeda’s injury history, he is worth keeping an eye on.