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September Surprises

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It's getting late in the season. So what didn't go at all the way we thought this year?

So close, and yet so far away. Still, a damned fine game, Peter.
So close, and yet so far away. Still, a damned fine game, Peter.
Dilip Vishwanat

I was doing the radio thing yesterday morning, talking Cardinals on the ESPN affiliate in Quincy, Illinois. There was some brief bit of banter to begin the segment; we discussed how completely the Brewers have collapsed, to which I replied something about the hot start and the .500 record since and the fact most people and projections had them right around .500 before the season, and something about Denny Green and they are who we thought they were, etc.

The conversation then moved on to the Cardinals' rotation, and the question was asked: could Marco Gonzales play a big role down the stretch and into the playoffs this season the way Michael Wacha did last year? Maybe not to the same extent, but could he have a hand in determining how this whole thing shakes out?

My response: "I think it's more than the question of could he; I think at this point the Cardinals are going to need him to."

It was an off the cuff response, and one I hadn't necessarily had in mind before saying it. And my immediate inward thought was, "Huh. That's probably true, and really a surprise. I definitely wouldn't have called that one before the season."

And so I decided I would write about Marco Gonzales and his potential contributions down the stretch this morning. Unfortunately -- at least for my easy piece I was planning on throwing together -- my colleague Fourmerstick beat me to the punch with a Marco post yesterday, and while it isn't exactly the same angle I was planning on taking with my article, I would still feel stupid going down even a similar road the very next morning. It's part of the problem with producing such an enormous amount of content (one of the many problems, actually); at some point, you really are going to just run out of shit to talk about, even when covering a topic which constantly produces new results and narratives on a daily basis. But, hey, that's the death spiral of content we currently find ourselves in as a culture, and it doesn't appear there's any stopping this train to Fuckedville we're riding. (Please don't read this as an attack or criticism of either Eric or this blog. It's a much more general thing I'm talking about here.)

So instead of writing about Marco Gonzales's possible impact or the surprising nature of seeing him in this role, I'm going to walk back my thought process one step and go over the surprising nature of, well, all kinds of things. It's been, frankly, kind of a weird baseball season here in 2014, Plenty of things I didn't see coming have, in fact, come, leaving me with egg on my face, if only in my own mind, because I doubt anyone else either remembers or cares enough about any of the stuff I've ever said to look askance at me for being so very wrong.

I've got five big surprises of this season, things I never would have guessed would happen. And I mean really surprising things; stuff like the Cardinal offense going largely AWOL or Justin Verlander coming down with a very sudden and nasty bout of the declines didn't make the list. Sure, the Cards' offense was brilliant last season, so perhaps it would have been strange to think of it dropping to one of the most anemic run-scoring attacks in all of baseball just one year later, but let's face it: the lack of power was a real concern even last season, particularly in the playoffs, when we saw some definite cracks in the armour, and we all knew the RISP luck dragon wasn't going to bless our boys (cross-blog promotion, of a sort!), with the same sort of fortune they enjoyed in 2013. It's a little surprising to see just how much trouble the Cards have had scoring runs for much of the season, but no one should be shocked about the drop itself. Likewise, while I don't think many, or any, would have predicted Verlander to be one of the worst pitchers in baseball this year, at least in terms of overall run prevention, but there were plenty of signs last year that he was starting to really slip. His overall season numbers ended up very solid, but remember, from mid-May through the end of June in 2013, Verlander had an ERA of 5.53, and has seen his velocity pretty steadily decline since his absolute peak as a pitcher in 2009. Plus, I mean, let's be honest. Would anyone here be shocked to find out Kate Upton is, in fact, some sort of succubus who's been draining his vitality? Real people don't look like that; only demonic seductresses.

No, what I'm talking about are really surprising things that I never would have thought coming into the season, or at the point said thing happened. And without further ado, here's my list:

5. Angels In The Outfield Playing Infield Behind the Plate On The Mound

Have you looked at what the California Angels (seriously, I really could not care less what they call themselves), are doing this year? I thought they would be contending team, probably a wild card winner, and much-improved over last year's disaster. As we head into the final two weeks of the season, though, the Angels have the best record in all of baseball, a commanding division lead, and what's most surprising of all isn't how good their record has been. It's the fact the Angels' rotation has been such a big part of their success this season, and the two biggest contributors to that rotation have been a pair of pitchers by the names Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker. I at least knew who Richards was heading into the season, if only because I was aware he threw really hard. Shoemaker, though, I honestly don't know if I had ever heard of before this season, and he's currently 18-4 with a 3.04 ERA and 3.26 FIP on the year. Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, the two "names" on the Angels' staff, have both been pretty terrible, and yet the rotation as a whole has been at least a moderate strength for this club. I believe I wrote way back doing season previews that I thought the Angels would ultimately be undone in 2014 by a lack of depth on the pitching staff. Instead, the top of the rotation has been brutal, and it's been the unknown guys stepping up to carry the load.

Of course, Richards is out for the year now with a knee injury, but that hasn't stopped the Angels from winning yet.

4. The Death (Metaphorically Speaking) of David Wright

Oy. Do you know who my pick for National League MVP was this year? That's right, it was David F. Wright. (You know what the F stands for.) I thought 2014 would be Wright's last great hurrah as an in-his-peak potential Hall of Famer (seriously; look up his career numbers. He's not as far away as you might think, mostly because the Mets have been wretched for the vast majority of his time in the big leagues), and he would pull out an MVP win before beginning to really slide in 2015 and beyond.

Instead, Wright's power has completely disappeared, he's been plagued by a nagging shoulder issue all season (which could very well be related to the power outage), and as a result his wRC+ has dropped 57 points this season, from 156 to just 99. "David Wright, League-Average Hitter," is not something I ever would have expected to hear before this season began.

3. Oakland's Remade Rotation Disaster

Remember, say, two months ago? You looked at the AL West, and there at the top of the standings was the Oakland Athletics. They had an historically great run differential, the best record in baseball, and they looked to be the culmination of everything Billy Beane had been trying to build toward the last several seasons. Things were looking might rosy for the green and gold.

And then the A's went out and improved their team. Dramatically.

Oakland completely remade their rotation over the course of the summer, trading for Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammels, and Jon Lester to bolster their postseason chances. Suddenly, what had been one of the biggest concerns for the club looked to be perhaps its greatest strength, as running Samardzija and Lester out along with Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir looked absolutely terrifying. And so, of course, the Athletics have absolutely collapsed over the past month, falling completely out of the division race and facing the possibility they might miss the playoffs entirely.

It's rare that an amazingly good team can go out, pick up some of the best talent available on the market, and somehow come out of it much, much worse. But, the A's have managed it this year.

2. The Phillies and the Rockies: Still Not Selling

The Philadelphia Phillies and the Colorado Rockies are really, appallingly bad baseball teams this year. They also happen to be two teams with some really valuable pieces laying around, surrounded by the garbage heap of broken dreams and mislaid plans their teams are largely composed of these days. And yet, seemingly denying every bit of good logic in the universe, both teams seem completely unable to recognise their respective plights and utilise those still-brilliant assets they might have to try and kickstart rebuilding processes which seem to be going nowhere fast.

I will admit, the unfortunate timing of Cliff Lee's elbow issue may very well have torpedoes the Phillies' plans to try and move him at the trade deadline, but there were plenty of teams asking about him earlier in the season, when it was already apparent the Phillies were not contenders, and yet Ruben Amaro held onto him. Chase Utley is still a Phillly, perhaps even more damningly, as even at his age Utley is an extremely attractive asset for some team in contention. Carlos Ruiz could have real value to a team, even if I personally think he's likely to become a liability over the next couple seasons. Perhaps Jonathan Papelbon's contract is so onerous as to make him a very tough sell, but if Philadelphia would have been willing to eat a decent chunk of salary, they likely could have pulled a very nice return in exchange for the former all-star closer.

Colorado is even more of a mess; they had arguably the most valuable commodity in all of baseball on their hands for the first half of the season in Troy Tulowitzki; the return on him alone could have constituted half a rebuild. Instead, the Rockies held onto him until he got hurt (again), and are now doubling down on 33 year old Jorge de la Rosa, signing him to a new two-year contract extension instead of having moved him in the middle of summer when some team in need of rotation help might very well have been willing to part with solid value for the ininings-eating lefty.

Sure, it might not be that surprising that the Rockies and Phillies are terrible this year; I think many of us saw that coming. But I honestly believed that this was the year when we finally saw these teams wise up and get their rebuilding processed headed in the right direction in a big way. I didn't think there was any way in hell these clubs could continue to be so obtuse in the face of repeated, year after year results of the exact same sort.

But, hey, turns out I was wrong.

1. The Boston Red Sox

Need I say more?

The whole thing. The whole shebang. The Sawx were in the World Series less than a year ago, sending our Cardinals home to another winter of regret after losing a chance at the franchise's twelfth world title. Now Boston sits in the basement of the AL East, eighteen games below .500 and a shocking 25(!) games behind the Baltimore Orioles.

I really don't know what happened. This wasn't how it was supposed to go for the Red Sox this year. And I never, ever would have guessed it would have.

The Rays get an honourable mention as well, because I thought they would be fighting it out, tooth and nail, with the Red Sox for the AL East division crown this year. But for sheer shock value, they can't beat what has happened to Boston this season.

Whoops.