The Nationals, Orioles, and Angels have all clinched division titles this week. If you had told someone before the year that these three teams would win their divisions, that person would've shrugged and said, "Yeah, that sounds about right." And yet, despite the ubiquitous understanding that these three teams would be good in 2014, all three clubs missed the postseason the year before.
What happened in the span of a year that put these clubs back into October? Something magical in the water in northern Virginia? Did someone finally knock on Mike Scioscia's door and remind him he has Mike Trout and Albert Pujols -- just the two best players of the last decade -- on his roster? All this happened, yes. We look at what else happened to usher these teams into October.
After jumping up and snagging a wild card spot in 2012, Buck Showalter's Birds narrowly missed the wild card in 2013. This was an anomaly in itself, as the 2013 O's were better constructed, and carried a higher run differential (+36) than their 2012 brethren (+7). Baltimore didn't make major waves in the offseason, bringing in the PED-sullied Nelson Cruz on a modest, one-year deal, and stretching on starter Ubaldo Jimenez. Cruz has of course been revelatory, leading the majors in home runs. Jimenez has flopped, but the development of Kevin Gausman (2012's fourth overall pick, and 3.31 FIP in 103 innings) and the emergence of Zach Britton (35 dominant saves) has elevated the Orioles' pitching. The real shocker has been journeyman Steve Pearce, who has played first, outfield, and DH'd this year, and played them well. Pearce leads the team with 5.9 WAR, and carries a slash line of .297/.375/.560, with 20 home runs. Pearce will man first while the team is without Chris Davis.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
It is simplistic and reductive to say that Mike Trout and Albert Pujols happened to this team. But it's still a good place to start. After the worst season of his career in 2013, Albert Pujols is hitting baseballs like Albert Pujols again. This return to form was necessary for the Angels, as they made no significant (or insignificant) moves in the offseason to predicate this AL West title run. So while the Angels hoped for a Pujolian renaissance, they also put their hopes in the emergence of their young guys.
26 year-old outfielder Kole Calhoun (4.1 WAR) has jumped up and made a name for himself with a spunky .283/.336/.463 season. Garrett Richards, the now-injured 26 year-old starter, had emerged as perhaps the leading Cy Young candidate before falling to injury, although Matt Shoemaker (the 27 year-old rookie) has been spectacular himself, carrying a 3.26 FIP, 1.07 WHIP, and 5.17 K/BB ratio into the postseason. The Angels have, in recent months, shored up their bullpen, adding Huston Street and Jason Grilli via trade -- but the Angels made their move by not making any, relying on their guys, young and old, to play to their potential.
Like the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, the Nationals' formula for success seems pretty simple: crush the draft. It's hard to argue with a strategy that sees you suck bad enough to get Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Bryce Harper, and Anthony Rendon in consecutive years. And although the Nats are loaded with homegrown, top-of-the-draft talent, Washington has done a little bit of everything else to build a formidable postseason club.
The team made no major adjustments to its lineup in 2014, excepting the small pickup of Asdrubal Cabrera before the deadline. The team instead has relied upon (and gotten) bounce-back seasons from veterans Adam LaRoche (.257/.362/.452) and Denard Span (.299/.352/.413), and solid, just-another-day-at-the-park years from Ian Desmond (23 homers, 22 steals) and Jayson Werth (team-leading .831 OPS). The breakthrough has been Anthony Rendon (5.9 WAR), and his ability to make fans completely forget about Ryan Zimmerman, who has missed most of the season with injury.
Strasburg (10.2 K/9) and Jordan Zimmerman (team-best 6 K/BB ratio) have long been rotation mainstays, and this year Washington added Doug Fister (2.55 ERA), and have seen rookie Tanner Roark (2.85 ERA, 1.10 WHIP) emerge. With the Nationals' abundance of drafted talent, unexpected contributions from key veterans, smart free agent signings, and emergence of prized young players, it's no wonder they stand as the first National League squad to clinch a playoff berth.