Surprise contenders may have staying power


We have been captivated by the youth and energy of these surprise contenders.

To understand this, watch the Pirates outfielders slap balls in the gap and run the bases. Or maybe check out the joy with which center fielder Odubel Herrera goes about leading the Phillies. Or take a peek at second baseman Ozzie Albies and left fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. at the top of the lineup helping the Braves to first place in the National League East.

We have been captivated by the youth and energy of these surprise contenders.

To understand this, watch the Pirates outfielders slap balls in the gap and run the bases. Or maybe check out the joy with which center fielder Odubel Herrera goes about leading the Phillies. Or take a peek at second baseman Ozzie Albies and left fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. at the top of the lineup helping the Braves to first place in the National League East.

Maybe we should have seen a season like this one coming, with surprise contenders popping up all over, and young stars emerging at warp speed. At the moment, 17 of baseball’s 30 teams are within two and a half games of first place. Two and a half games? That’s nothing. Blink of an eye in the standings.

To see these teams — Phillies, Braves, Pirates, A’s — back in contention has given this season a cool and unexpected twist. If you’re discounting them, you may have forgotten about last season when the D-backs, Rockies and Twins made the playoffs and the Brewers got close with 86 victories.

With almost 75 percent of the season still to be played, which of the surprise contenders has the most staying power?

Let’s rank them.

(If you’re looking for the Blue Jays, Twins, Angels, Mariners, Cardinals, Brewers, D-backs, Rockies or Giants, they’re ineligible. In an era of historic parity, the list of surprise contenders is a short one.)

1. Phillies

None of the surprise contenders has more staying more than the Phillies. This is a franchise that had a smart game plan and stuck to it. In averaging 95 losses the previous three seasons, they were able to provide experience for future stars like Herrera, right-hander Aaron Nola, third baseman Maikel Franco and others. This experience could serve them well over the long haul. In addition, the Phillies added veteran right-hander Jake Arrieta to the top of a rotation loaded with potential and talent. Arrieta provides not just production, but also an example for the youngsters to follow in terms of preparation, composure and professionalism.

Video: MLB Tonight: Herrera’s historic on-base streak

2. Braves

We rightly focus on the youngsters, not just Acuna and Albies, but also kid pitchers Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka and Luiz Gohara. There’s another wave of pitching in the Minor Leagues. That’s the story of Atlanta’s first-place team with the NL’s highest-scoring offense. At some point, it’s OK to make it about talent instead of experience, and few teams have more of it than the Braves. Yes, some of those kids are likely to hit a wall sometime over the next five months. On the other hand, what gets overlooked about the Braves is how many productive veterans they have. Right fielder Nick Markakis and first baseman Freddie Freeman are having All-Star-caliber seasons. Third baseman Ryan Flaherty was part of two playoff runs in Baltimore, and catchers Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers are both on the other side of 30. In the end, the Braves are leaning on a lot of young players who have not been through the grind of a pennant race. But there’s more to the Braves than just that.

Video: CHC@ATL: Albies laces a triple to right-center

3. Pirates

We were so focused on the trade of the franchise’s two biggest stars (Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole) that we may have overlooked how much talent the Pirates still have. GM Neal Huntington’s Minor League system has produced a steady stream of players who helped the Pirates to three straight postseason appearances (2013-15) for the first time in two decades. Young players like outfielder Gregory Polanco, first baseman Josh Bell, third baseman Colin Moran (acquired in the Cole trade with Houston) and Jose Osuna have helped fuel an offense that has scored the second-most runs in the NL. But they’re mixed into a lineup with veterans like catcher Francisco Cervelli and outfielders Starling Marte and Corey Dickerson. If the young rotation — led by Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl — stays healthy, the Pirates are going to be in the mix until the end.

Video: SD@PIT: Rodriguez on Pirates’ successful homestand

4. Athletics

The A’s are 52-50 since July 29, which was shortly after third baseman Matt Chapman joined first baseman Matt Olson in a lineup that may be good enough to make a postseason run. Like a lot of Oakland teams, it’s a nice mix of veterans and youth. And like a lot of Oakland teams, the A’s staying power will come down to starting pitching in an American League postseason race that could have the A’s fighting it out with the Angels, Mariners, Blue Jays and Twins for the second Wild Card berth. Oakland has three solid starters in Sean Manaea, Daniel Mengden and Trevor Cahill. And if Kendall Graveman can get on track — and the A’s believe he will — this is a team that could make things interesting.

Video: OAK@TOR: Olson extends A’s lead with a 3-run homer

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.



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