Hey, it's that time of the year when almost everybody's a contender and almost everybody's just one player away from being perfect.
Or nearly perfect. Or less imperfect. Because the truth is that every team, even the best of them, has a weakness or three. Below, every American League team with a measurable chance of qualifying for the championship tournament -- as measured by Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds Report -- and its biggest need as we approach the proverbial "trade deadline" ...
Yankees (99%) - Right-Handed Bat
When you've got a 99-percent chance (give or take) of going to the playoffs, it's really all about October. We know third base is now a weak spot because Alex Rodriguez is out of action. But he's supposed to be healthy(ish) in time for the postseason. If the Yankees have obvious room for improvement, it's in left field, where Raul Ibanez has been just adequate, at best. Yes, they've acquired Ichiro Suzuki. But he's little better than Ibanez, especially considering that both bat left-handed. And before you mention Andruw Jones, yes but someone has to DH as well. When Rodriguez is back, the Yankees would be best served by a Jones-Eric Chavez DH platoon, and an Ibañez-Someone-who-bats-right-handed platoon.
Rangers (99) - Left-Handed Bat
As I wrote earlier today, the Rangers have gotten almost nothing from Michael Young this season, mostly in the DH slot. Of course the problem is that they're paying him $16 million this season and $16 million next season. Which makes it difficult and embarrassing to even consider benching the roster's least-productive hitter.
Of course, with Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz both out of action -- though Feliz is currently rehabbing in the minors -- the Rangers are looking for rotation help. Are they really going to give up on Derek Holland, though? He's been their worst starter, but just a year ago was one of their best. It seems to this writer that Holland's merely been the victim of a few extra fly balls that happened to carry the outfield wall.
Angels (78) - Starting Pitcher
The Angels' top three starting pitchers -- Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren -- are solid. Dead solid. But after those guys it gets dicey, and you need four starters in October. If you survive the one-game Wild Card round, anyway. And come to think of it, you've got a better chance of doing that if you have more than three good starters. At the moment, the starter everybody wants to replace is Ervin Santana, naturally enough, considering his 6.00 ERA. But Garrett Richards isn't exactly crushing it, either. He's got a 3.91 ERA, but the rest of his numbers suggest something north of 5, and it's probably just a matter of time. So you may have your pick of those two, but the Angels have to seriously consider replacing one of them.
White Sox (76) - Starting Pitcher
The middle of the White Sox infield is ... well, about the best you can say about second baseman Gordon Beckham and shortstop Alexei Ramirez is they're symmetrical; both have 70 OPS+'s, thanks to sub-.300 on-base percentages. Ramirez, at least, is a solid defender. But the trophy for Worst White Sox probably goes to Phil Humber, who now sports a nifty 6.25 ERA, thanks largely to the 16 home runs he's given up in only 76 innings. Is he really so terrible, though? Maybe not quite. Home runs are subject to luck, as you know. Still, it's easier to find a good starting pitcher than a good second baseman. This summer, anyway.
Tigers (69) - Right Fielder
With Omar Infante in the fold, the Tigers finally have a second baseman they can live with. There are still two soft spots in the lineup, though: right field (Brennan Boesch) and designated hitter (Delmon Young). Neither of those fellows are terrible, exactly. But with Andy Dirks out for a while yet, the Tigers are essentially short at least one bat in most games. Since both Boesch and Young are lousy outfielders, the Tigers could really use a good-hitting right fielder, with those two platooning and DH.
Athletics (28) - Shortstop
Because they don't have one.
Rays (17) - ???
With Hideki Matsui off the roster, it's actually difficult to pick a least-valuable Ray. Carlos Pena's been weak at first base, but there are in-house options; when Evan Longoria and Luke Scott come off the Disabled List, Joe Maddon will have a bunch of options for nearly every spot on the field, including first base. The Rays have plenty of starting pitchers, and their bullpen's been solid. Really, this club doesn't need anything from the outside; they just need the inside guys to get healthy and produce like they have before.
Indians (15) - Starting Pitcher(s)
No, the Indians haven't gotten much from their first basemen or their left fielders. But the starting rotation's actually been sort of terrible, and it's a minor miracle that this team's still got a mathematical shot at all. Consider: Once you get past Zach McAllister and his 3.18 ERA, here are his rotation mates' ERAs:
On balanace, Jimenez has been the worst of the lot, with a low strikeout-to-walk ratio and a high home-run rate. Unfortunately, he's probably also the hardest to give up on, considering just last year the Indians gave up some pretty good prospects to get him. Still, if the Indians are serious about winning, they probably have to improve at least one of the rotation slots. Which they're probably not willing to do, given the cost of such a move.
Red Sox (13) - ?
Speaking of sub-par rotations, how about those Boston Red Sox? They don't have a single starting pitcher with an ERA better than league-average, and that's even accounting for Fenway Park. Felix Doubront and Josh Beckett lead the way with ERA+'s of 96.
Well, among the five guys who have started the most games, but that includes Daniel Bard, now toiling as a reliever in the International League. Aaron Cook has a good ERA in six starts. Aaron Cook also has three strikeouts in six starts. Not three strikeouts per start. Three strikeouts. Period.
So, yes: The Red Sox could really use a starting pitcher. But who would such a beast replace? Cook, the guy with the lowest ERA in the rotation? Logically, yes. Especially since the guys with the worst ERAs are Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, both of whom offer at least the hope of improvement.
Looks to me like the Sox should just keep going with what they've got, and hope the talent finally shows up.
Orioles (4) - Second Baseman
First off - Yes, the Orioles are given a 4-percent chance of qualifying for the championship tournament, even they're just one game out in the Wild Card standings. Why so low? Because they've been outscored by 53 runs, and run differential predicts winning percentage better than winning percentage predicts winning percentage.
The Orioles' starting pitching has been roughly 55 percent terrible this season, but they've actually got some reasons for optimism, with all the youngsters afoot. Maybe Zach Britton and Chris Tillman can pitch well for two months in a row! Maybe Tommy Hunter will stop giving up so many home runs! Maybe!
The Orioles, as much as anyone, could use a new second baseman. Robert Andino was supposed to be just a place-holder until Brian Roberts came back, and then Roberts came back and almost immediately got hurt again and now it's Andino again. And he just can't hit. He can field, though, so isn't the worst player in the league. Still, if the O's are looking to improve, they just might be able to pry Yuniesky Betancourt away from the Royals.*
* Comedy joke.
Blue Jays (2) - Pitching Rotation
Seriously. It's sort of ridiculous, really. The Jays have lost three-fifths of their rotation to the Disabled List, and the remaining stalwarts are Ricky Romero (5.75 ERA) and Henderson Alvarez (4.61). If there's one American League "contender" that really should be thinking about 2012, it's this one.