What a second-half it is shaping up to be.
I saw the other day a statistic that said for the first time in Major League Baseball’s history four divisions are separated by no more than a game and a half. Four! So where does that put things for those contenders who are, not only fighting to avoid the Wild Card play-in game, but fighting for the opportunity to be in that playoff conversation?
Did I lose you? Let me try to explain it a better way.
In the National League, for starters, the East has two teams tied atop the division (Atlanta and Washington). The Central has a leader (Milwaukee), two teams a game and a half out of first (St. Louis and Cincinnati), and one team (Pittsburgh) sitting just three and a half behind the leader. In the West Los Angeles sits atop the division but only by a game over San Francisco. What that tells me is that, so far, every team that was expected to contend for a playoff spot in 2014 has weathered the seasons bumps in the road pretty remarkably. Washington survived without Bryce Harper, Atlanta survived without its top starter (Medlen) and poor performances from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, San Francisco weathered Brandon Belt’s injury, Los Angeles righted the ship when Clayton Kershaw returned from injury, and St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati realized they were better than they were letting on.
In the American League things get even more confusing.
For those of us that thought Oakland was going to be a runaway in the West they’re rethinking that assessment. The Angels finished the first half in a blaze winning 25 of their last 35 games and pulling to within a game and a half of the Athletics. The Angels have had a hard time keeping guys on the field and keeping leads safe; well those things seem to be corrected and now the Angels are in position to challenge for the American League West title.
But this isn’t a two team race, folks.
Seattle is putting together quite the 2014 season to this point. Robinson Cano in year one of his ten-year deal has been everything the Mariners could have hoped for and then some. Most importantly for the Mariners has been the reliable starting pitching, which has backed up Ace Felix Hernandez tremendously and given this club a huge boost. All of a sudden the Mariners find themselves a very erasable eight games out of first and sitting in a Wild Card position at the break.
The largest lead in the major leagues belongs to the Detroit Tigers (6.5 games) in the Central, but the Cleveland Indians have been playing at a solid clip of late and you can never count out a Terry Francona led bunch. I don’t see them catching Detroit, but they, along with Kansas City, won’t be going away in the Wild Card races.
In the American League East it would be wise not to draw any conclusions. The Orioles currently lead a division that is loaded with sleeping giants waiting to get hot. Tampa Bay is 8-4 in their last 12 games and seem to be getting set for a surge, the Yankees seem determined to send Derek Jeter out in familiar playoff fashion as they’ve clawed their way back to .500 and within five games of the lead, and I’m not completely ready to count Boston out of the race. Yet. While they sit 9 and a half games back, like the Rays, this bunch is too talented to go down quietly. Did I mention Toronto is second in this division? Their offense is ridiculous, but if they don’t want to lose ground something has got to happen in that rotation because Mark Buerhle isn’t going to replicate his first half success.
Alright we’re caught up. I guess you want a prediction?
I can tell you that the way I see things shaking out it comes down to what it always has: pitching. Based on that here is how I see the division pecking order rounding out:
- Baltimore- I think they hold on and finish the deal in 2014.
- Boston- Something tells me they get hot when they need to and catch everyone but the Orioles.
- Toronto- A lot of things have to happen for the Blue Jays to get over the hump in 2014. One of them (duplicating first-half performances) is something I don’t see happening.
- New York- Injuries to four out of five starters (including Tanaka and Sabathia) crippled the Yankees chances for postseason glory this year.
- Tampa Bay- I don’t anticipate the trade deadline passing without David Price and Ben Zobrist getting dealt out of town. Sad turn of events to a season with so much promise.
- Detroit- Still the cream of the crop in this division. Verlander has to get right if they want to make a run in October.
- Kansas City*- Right in the mix as far as trade talks go, a move to shore up their rotation would go a long way.
- Cleveland- Playing great of late but can they string together enough magic to win 40 of their last 64 games?
- Chicago- 26 of their last 63 games will come against the Indians, Royals, and Tigers. Spoiler is their only role from here on out, sadly.
- Minnesota- Already thinking about 2015.
- Oakland- The A’s are all in this year, and I think they have the arms to hold off the Angels down the stretch.
- Anaheim*- Angels fans can rejoice in making the postseason! But as a Wild Card. Still, if they can stay healthy and their bullpen (Huston Street deal was huge) can hold down the lead they can make noise in October.
- Seattle- I want to give this team the second Wild Card. I really do. Sweeps like the one that happened this past weekend in Anaheim can’t be tolerated.
- Houston- Young guns in Houston are the good news. The bad news in Houston is that bullpen. But at least (I think) they climb out of last place!
- Texas- How the mighty fall. Two World Series in three years, being the cream of the AL West, and well executed moves? Thing of the past. Began with the ousting of Nolan Ryan in the decision-making process, it ends with the Rangers in last place.
- Atlanta- The Braves are making Braves type moves (releasing Uggla contract be damned, BJ Upton being put on the block, etc.). The way I see it, they still have the best bullpen, They still know how to put together a rotation, and under-perfomers from the first are off to a good start. It won’t be easy, but I think they repeat in the division.
- Washington*- The Nationals have been on quite the roll and their (+/-) is the best in the division. I look at other numbers and see underlying issues. Can Jordan Zimmermann finally put together two solid halves of baseball (4.16 career ERA in the second half)? Can Bryce Harper find his stroke (.213 BA in July) AND stay on the field? Does Matt Williams have the managerial chops to finish the season and guide the Nationals to the postseason?
- Miami- Miami had a decent start but have faded of late. They’re in position to make things difficult, especially for the Braves and Nationals; who they play 21 of their final 66 games against.
- Philadelphia- Mentioned as big sellers this trade deadline, they could alter the playoff landscape for a number of teams.
- New York- Another seller at the deadline, Daniel Murphy (All-Star in 2014) and Bartolo Colon are on the block and the Mets could finish in the basement for the first time since 2003.
- St. Louis- Have done well to catch the Brewers, now they’ll finish the job and win the division behind Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright and an offense that finally seems to have found some consistency.
- Cincinnati- Billy Hamilton has been everything the Reds have needed as they get back in the race. He has been scorching hot since June and improved every month, which makes him even more dangerous.
- Pittsburgh- Barring a trade the Pirates don’t have the arms to compete with the Reds and Cardinals in the Central. Gerrit Cole coming back from injury will help but it just won’t be enough.
- Milwaukee- This might be my boldest prediction but I can’t see Milwaukee maintaining what they did in the first half. Someone has to finish fourth, and it might as well be the team with the third best (+/-) in the division and heading in the wrong direction (3-12 in July)
- Chicago- When the prospects arrive, it will be good times in Chicago again.
- Los Angeles- Talent-wise, there aren’t many teams that can hang with the Dodgers. I think the same holds and they win the West in the end.
- San Francisco*- My preseason pick to win the division, they’ve come back to earth of late. Injuries could be the culprit, and that is a shame for a team that can really play.
- San Diego- The Padres are trying to get their front-office in order and with that the most they can do at this point is try to remain competitive in a tough division.
- Arizona– Speaking of plans, Tony LaRussa as the head of baseball operations has Paul Goldschmidt and the hope of Patrick Corbin in 2015. Look for huge changes this offseason starting (possibly) with general manager Kevin Towers and Manager Kirk Gibson.
- Colorado- Another lost season in 2014. At some point they’re going to have to look at their leadership and form a real plan for the organization.
(*)= Wild Card Teams