With the 2015 MLB playoffs right around the corner, a slew of teams who once toiled in mediocrity are beginning to generate steam as legitimate contenders for baseball’s top prize.
After falling short of the postseason last year, the Toronto Blue Jays, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, New York Yankees, New York Mets and Chicago Cubs all look to be on the verge of returning to the playoffs.
While big budget teams such as the Yankees and Rangers — who have the ability to simply buy back into contention after being dealt a bad hand the previous season — are returning after a very brief postseason hiatus, the Astros, Cubs, Blue Jays and Mets have traversed a significantly longer road to back to the promised land.
What will these upstart teams do with their long-awaited opportunity? Well, when it comes to October baseball, anything can happen.
The North Remembers
After weathering more than two decades of futility, the Blue Jays will soon be returning to the postseason for the first time since Joe Carter’s three-run walk-off home run in the 1993 World Series capped off a pair of back-to-back titles.
An offensive juggernaut in an era dominated by exceptional pitching, the Blue Jays currently lead the majors in both runs scored (818) and home runs (209). Their imposing lineup boasts three players with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion — a feat that has been accomplished only 26 times in major league history.
Donaldson, who could very well be named this year’s American League MVP, was acquired by Toronto on Nov. 28, 2014, in exchange for Brett Lawrie, Sean Nolin, Franklin Barreto and Kendall Graveman. And although they’ve made several other key roster additions throughout the season, including procuring pitching ace David Price from Detroit at the trade deadline, it was Donaldson’s arrival that sparked the Blue Jays’ resurgence.
The Curse Killer
On a quest to conquer yet another daunting curse, Theo Epstein and the Cubs will look to capture their first World Series title in over 100 years as the organization prepares to return to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
Epstein, who was named Chicago’s president of baseball operations in 2011 after helping end a similar championship drought in Boston, has artfully crafted the Cubs’ current roster by refurbishing the team’s farm system through savvy trades and a series of successful drafts.
The Cubs hit a home run when they selected 20-year-old college slugger Kris Bryant as their No. 2 pick of the 2013 draft. The NL Rookie of the Year frontrunner, Bryant recently blasted his 25th homer of the season to tie Billy Williams’ rookie club record, set in 1961. On the mound, Jake Arrieta, whom Epstein acquired from the Orioles in 2013, has pitched himself into Cy Young contention with a 19-6 record and 1.96 ERA.
A New Miracle
Left for dead after a disastrously slow start to their 2015 campaign, a second-half surge has put the Mets in a position to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Already in possession of one of the league’s top pitching duos in Matt Harvey and reigning NL Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, a shaky lineup looked as if it would keep the Mets from reaching the top of the NL East. That was, however, until the team sent minor league pitchers Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for enigmatic slugger Yoenis Cespedes minutes before the July 31 trade deadline.
Cespedes, who has played on four teams in two years, has led the Mets to a 31-14 record since being acquired from Detroit by way of towering home runs and an infectious bravado. The Cuban-born outfielder, who currently boasts a .290 batting average with 35 home runs and 103 RBI, will need to remain hot if the Mets hope to make a deep playoff run.
Houston, We Have a Problem
No longer a lock to make the playoffs, the Astros will need to fend off the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Minnesota Twins down the stretch to capture a postseason berth for the first time since being swept out of the World Series in 2005.
After being at or above .500 in each month of this season, the Astros hit a wall in September and now trail the surging Rangers by 1.5 games in a tight race for the AL West. The main problem for the Astros has been how they’ve fared outside of their own friendly confines, posting a 29-46 record away from home.
There is reason to believe the Astros can hang on, however, as All-Star Dallas Keuchel leads one of most prolific pitching staffs in baseball with 17-8 record, 2.56 ERA and 197 strikeouts. A seventh-round pick in the 2009 draft, Kuechel is one of many talents developed within the organization that currently make up Houston’s promising young core. No matter what happens this season, it’s clear that the Astros are on the rise.