7/31/2013 8:15 P.M. ET
After moves, Rays and Dodgers built for a run
Through contrasting means, clubs in position to enjoy late-season success
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
If you liked the Rays and Dodgers before, you're going to like 'em even more now. They've been baseball's best two teams for a few weeks now, and nothing that happened this last week has changed that fact. See you in October, boys.
OK, that's silly. Half of baseball's 30 teams are within five games of a playoff berth, and the talent level from top to bottom is razor thin. If these last few seasons have taught us anything, it's that pennant races are spectacularly unpredictable.
Did you have the Cardinals penciled in as your World Series champion two years ago? No, you did not.
They made an improbable sprint to the finish line, clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season and rolled through the postseason.
The 2012 Giants? Don't try to tell me you knew where they were headed. They had to win three in a row in Cincinnati to get past the National League Division Series, then rally from a 3-1 NL Championship Series deficit to get by the Cardinals.
When this season started, the Nationals were maybe the only team that seemed not to have a single weakness. Now 10 1/2 games out, they still have a chance, but it's getting late.
So it might be a bit early to punch playoff tickets for the Rays and Dodgers. That said, they seem headed that way.
Did the various moves made by other clubs leading up to Wednesday's 4 p.m. ET non-waiver Trade Deadline change the balance of power? The Orioles got better -- way better. The Tigers and Red Sox got better, too. The D-backs picked up an important bullpen piece in left-hander Joe Thatcher.
In the end, it still looks like we could have ourselves a Rays-Dodgers Fall Classic, and wouldn't that be fun? It would be an amazing contrast between a team that spent wildly, then spent its way back into contention, and a team that annually does more with less than any other.
A few years ago, teams used to do this kind of thing all the time, didn't they? Yep, they did. Then A's general manager Billy Beane came along and showed the world a different way. Money is still important, but contenders can be constructed with smarts, too.
But the Dodgers wanted to bypass little things like the Draft and player development. So they spent. And spent. They took on contracts, bid big for free agents and hammered a roster together. That roster is scary good, but it didn't happen overnight.
The Dodgers were 30-42 and 9 1/2 games out of first place in the NL West on June 21. They entered Wednesday's series finale against the Yankees with a 27-6 record since. They're 18-2 when Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw or Hyun-Jin Ryu start. Hanley Ramirez is hitting .385 during the run. Yasiel Puig has provided energy and production.
If the Dodgers aren't a perfect team, they're very, very close. General manager Ned Colletti did his heavy lifting three weeks ago by acquiring right-hander Ricky Nolasco from the Marlins. He added reliever Brian Wilson this week, hoping the former Giants closer can contribute down the stretch.
The Rays are a similar story. They were 41-39 and seven games out of first place on June 28. They're 23-4 since and have gone from seven games out in the American League East to a half-game ahead. David Price returned from the disabled list and sparked one of the great runs any rotation has had -- 19-3 with a 2.17 ERA. Rookie outfielder Wil Myers made his Major League debut on June 18 and has been perhaps baseball's best offensive player since, batting .331 with seven home runs, seven doubles and 27 RBIs.
Like the Dodgers, the Rays appear to be a team with virtually no weakness. They're slugging it out with the Orioles, Red Sox and Yankees in what is surely baseball's best division. Even with left-hander Matt Moore going on the DL on Wednesday -- the Rays are hopeful he'll miss only two starts -- Tampa Bay appears headed for October.
General manager Andrew Friedman acquired reliever Jesse Crain from the White Sox this week despite Crain's being on the DL. Friedman has no idea what he'll get out of Crain, but he's cautiously optimistic Alex Cobb can return. The right-hander was the Rays' best starter when he took a liner off his head on June 15.
This was a quieter Trade Deadline than usual. For one thing, so many teams believe they're still in contention that they're reluctant to dismantle their rosters. For another, most teams don't allow their best players to get close enough to free agency to consider trading them.
As a result, there was little in the way of offensive help available, and other than Jake Peavy, Matt Garza and Bud Norris, the real competition was for some of the 10 relievers who changed teams in October.
We could be lucky enough to get a third straight wild ride to the postseason, but as July closes, every checklist should begin with the same two teams.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.