Early this season, the Mariners were considered a playoff team and, at the start of the season, looked the part despite the struggles of critical players. Then came a rough May and 1st half of June before a significant turnaround since mid-June. The Guardians, the re-brand of the century. Okay, not really, but it is at least better than whatever the Washington Football Team, aka the Commanders, did. The Guardians looked to be a 3rd place team with upside but not a contender. Then we have the Orioles, the basement dwellers of the AL East, the walking mat, the AL, and most of the MLB. The Orioles are pests of the AL East and some other playoff contenders and often play spoiler. Now, we look at each of these teams, and we could be looking at the three most unlikely wildcard teams of 2022.
The Mariners and the Orioles have impact rookies helping reshape the franchise. The Guardians have finally had another rock-solid year from Jose Ramirez but have gotten returns from the pieces of the Francisco Lindor trade. So how did each of these teams get to the point where they are now considered contenders. Has it been luck? Has it been true talent? Weak divisions? There are plenty of reasons why I believe in each of these teams, so let's dive in, starting east in Baltimore.
The Baltimore Orioles currently sit at 45-44 and are 16.5GB of the Yankees in the AL East, which is expected when the Yankees are a 60+ win team. However, they sit 3.5GB of the Rays, 3GB of Red Sox, 2GB of the Blue Jays, and 2GB of the 3rd Wildcard. The O's, going into the game on 7/13, is riding a 9-game win streak(10 now after today's win), their longest since 1999, more than 20 years ago. In 2021 when the O's reached 44 wins, they had 93 losses as well. The context of how well the rebuild has gone in Baltimore is unmatched as they have gone from deadline sellers to potential buyers to ride the hot streak and go for it.
The veteran leadership of Trey Mancini on this team is unmatched and is an intangible reason for the winning and the turnaround of the franchise. One of the biggest reasons for the O's success is rookie C Adley Rutschman. When the young cornerstone made his debut on May 21st, the team was below .500, in last place in the AL East, and already looking out of the contention picture. Since the debut of Rutschman, the team is 27-20. Rutschman hasn't been stunning stats-wise, posting an: 0.8War, 93wrc+, .241BABIP, 90.2 Z-contact, 2/9CS, .986FLD%, and ZERO passed balls which stands out to me. From the stats of the last 11 games, the offense is slashing .243/.318/.391 with a .709OPS and has scored 50R.
However, the pitching staff has allowed a 3.28ERA, 36R, 99K-25BB, another nod to Adley for the way he has been calling games. With the Rays dealing with all the injuries possible, the Blue Jays are in disarray and firing Montoyo. The competition is against the Red Sox, who could be the peskiest birds in the nation and put holes in all the Red Sox. Veteran leadership, solid play up and down the lineup, Adley calling great games, the Os are buying at the deadline and contending the rest of the way.
Let's move to the middle of the country. The Cleveland Guardians of the AL Central. The same Guardians are in 2nd place in the AL Central and only 3.5GB of the division and 2GB of the wildcard. The Guardians have an excellent pitching staff; they have a consistent 3B who is always discussed in the MVP discussion in Jose Ramirez. However, they have something different this year in 2B Andres Gimenez and SS Amed Rosario, the two key pieces from the Francisco Lindor trade. Gimenez is the crucial player to highlight alongside Ramirez as they both were named all-stars, and Gimenez was a finalist for the starting spot against Jose Altuve. Gimenez is posting a .291/.349/.463 slash for a .813OPS and 113OPS+ and 2.8War. Rosario has a 2.0WAR. Contributions from rookie Steven Kwan in the lineup haven't gone unnoticed either.
The Guardians are a young team, with Ramirez being the elder statesman at 29yo among the regular starters. The offense is middle of the pack in most offensive categories in the AL, except they are first in the AL with the least number of strikeouts offensively, which means they are all being smart with the bat and not going for every pitch overly aggressive. I mentioned the pitching staff; they have a modest 4.01ERA/4.12FIP with 700K-258BB and have surrendered 339ER/379R on the season. July hasn't been the most kind for the Guardians pitching through 13 games as they are 4-9 with a 4.85ERA, 60ER, with 97K- 40BB. However, OBA is .255, which shows they aren't being hammered. The June numbers sign of life with an 18-10 record with a 3.93ERA, 111ER, and 243K-86BB, holding opposing batters to a .256BA.
The offense has been league average in July, posting a .256/.328/.372 for a .700OPS. However, the pitching struggles of giving up 60ER have boded not healthy for the offense, which has produced 46R in July. The offense also wasn't unique in June, as they posted a .247.305/.369 for a below-average .674OPS and scored 118R. The Guardians aren't built on a powerhouse offense but on youth, energy, great pitching, and an actual MVP candidate that carries the offense. The central is winnable for the Guardians, and they are good enough to contend for the Wild Card and play spoiler to other teams' hopes and dreams based on pitching alone.
Now, out to the West coast, aka the best coast. Being a Seattle native and a die-hard Mariner fan, I was in on the Mariners this season with a lineup with multiple all-stars, Haniger coming off a career year, and new additions who looked to be the perfect fits to get the team over the hump. However, injuries to Haniger, Lewis, and Sadler threw off the plans early. Early struggles by Kelenic, Ray, J-Rod, and others on the team showed that maybe we needed to come back down to earth and temper expectations. A rough May had the entire fanbase calling for trades, upgrades, and for Scott Servais to be canned.
However, a brawl that was sparked by the Angels and meant to invigorate baseball's most disappointing team only lit the flames for the Mariners, who since have gone 13-2 while the Angels have gone 3-10. The Mariners bounced back from under .500 to above .500, tied for the 3rd wildcard spot and 2nd place in the AL West, and have a 10-game winning streak. Julio Rodriguez, aka J-Rod, has been nothing but a catalyst for this team all season, fueling it with energy. However, the more significant impact is 1B Carlos Santana. The team is 10-1 since the trade and has praised him for the leadership he has brought to the clubhouse.
The pitching staff was terrific in June as the starters put together nearly 25+ starts of 6IP and 2ER or fewer allowed. Robbie Ray has found his mix again and is looking like the CY Young winner. The bullpen has been the best in the MLB, if not top-3 at worst. The Mariners are expecting to get Haniger, Kyle Lewis, and an improved Kelenic all back after the all-star break. With the leadership of Haniger/Santana mixed with a pitching staff with a 1.95ERA in July and a .232OBA, the bat of Kyle Lewis, and the offensive depth of Dylan Moore, Sam Haggerty, and others each clicking within their roles, the Mariner's only direction forward now is up. Chaos ball is officially back in North West.