The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.
Baltimore Orioles – Pretender
Baltimore has been defying the odds all season, playing well above their negative run differential. Baltimore has been outscored by 40 runs this season, giving them the profile of a 61-70 team, not the one that’s currently 73-58. That’s an extreme difference in record, and it’s due in big part to their superb, best in the AL, bullpen. The unit, led by Jim Johnson (41 saves, 2.93 ERA), Luis Ayala (2.71 ERA), and Pedro Strop (1.86 ERA), has helped the O’s to a 24-7 record in 1-run games, by far the best mark in baseball. It will be tough for Baltimore to keep that up however, because their starting pitching outside of Wei-Yin Chen (3.79 ERA in 163.2 innings) and Miguel Gonzalez (3.31 ERA in 10 starts) has been shaky. Baltimore’s offense also leaves a lot to be desired, ranking 10th in the AL in runs scored, and 12th in on-base percentage. I think Baltimore will finish better than .500 for the first time since 1997, but a playoff spot just isn’t in the cards.
Chicago White Sox – Contender
This team can do just about everything well, ranking in 12th in baseball in runs allowed per game while ranking 7th in runs scored. They have the ability to flash the leather with the best teams in baseball too, ranking 5th in team defensive efficiency. Jake Peavy (3.28 ERA) and Chris Sale (2.81 ERA) make for an imposing 1-2 punch in the rotation, but after Jose Quintana the rest of the staff has been a little flat. On offense the Sox have been sparked by trading for Kevin Youkilis, who’s 12 homeruns have been a big upgrade over Brett Morel and Orlando Hudson. Adam Dunn is still doing Adam Dunn things, leading baseball in homers, strikeouts, and walks. Alex Rios is developing into a 2-way star and Paul Konerko is still chugging at 36 (OPS+ of 133). This team is another serious contender, especially if Chris Sale can keep dealing even as his innings continue to climb well past his previous career-high.
Detroit Tigers – Contender
The Tigers have been one of the most top-heavy teams in baseball this season, relying almost entirely on their 4 best players (Fielder, Cabrera, Jackson, and Verlander) for most of the teams production. Recently however, Max Scherzer has started to pitch a little better, dropping his walk rate, allowing his naturally superb strikeout ability to shine through. The upgrade of Omar Infante at 2nd base has thus far played out nicely, as the former Marlin has hist .272 with 3 homers while playing excellent defense. The other half of that trade, Anibal Sanchez, well, not so much. He’s got an ERA north of 5.00 with a 2-4 record thus far. Detroit will continue to need a big dose of Justin Verlander, the Major League strikeout and inning leader, as well as Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Austin Jackson, the team’s 2012 breakout star. If Cabrera continues to put up MVP-type numbers (.329, 33 homers, 109 RBI thus far) Detroit will take the AL Central title.
Los Angeles Angels – Pretender
It’s a shame that Los Angeles’ pitching staff has completely fallen apart, because it’s taken some of the shine off of Mike Trout’s potential MVP season (.335/.399/.580, 25 HR, 42 steals). Los Angeles sits just 3 games out of a Wild Card spot, and if the pitching staff can right the ship anything can happen. I just don’t think a playoff berth is in the cards for the off-season champions this year. Pujols, Trout, Hunter, and Trumbo give LA a powerful offensive club, one that ranks 3rd in the AL in runs scored, 2nd in steals, and 5th in homers but that hasn’t been enough to make up for what has been a terrible pitching staff in the 2nd half. Los Angeles pitchers have a combined 5.24 ERA since the All-Star break (only Houston and Cleveland have been worse), and deadline acquisition Zach Greinke has been the worst of the bunch. He’s just 3-2 with a 4.85 ERA since coming back to the AL, not exactly what LA had in mind. Los Angeles just isn’t playing good enough baseball right now to truly compete in such a deep field of AL competitors.
New York Yankees – Contender
The Yankees have led the American League East for 81 consecutive days and have established themselves as one of the elite teams in baseball. They lead the entire league in homers, rank 3rd in runs scored per game and rank 11th in runs allowed. The only issue right now is injury, which has reduced the teams normally star-studded lineup to a collection of veterans and scraps. Robinson Cano is still healthy and slugging the ball, with a .304/.369/.543 slash with 28 homers. Derek Jeter has also been solid at the plate, leading the league in hits with a .320 average. If Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Andy Pettitte can get healthy by October this team will be very dangerous. They are deep with sluggers (8 players on the roster have 200 or more career homeruns), the rotation has been solid in the middle, and the bullpen is still deep, even without the great Mariano Rivera. I think the Yankees will win the AL East, especially with a schedule heavy on 2nd place Baltimore and 3rd place Tampa Bay (13 of their next 16 games are against the pair).
Oakland A’s – Pretender
Even with all that’s going on in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the most surprising story in baseball is happening in Oakland. Nobody, I mean nobody, thought Oakland would even make it to .500, and you can forget about finding a pundit who thought they’d be in playoff contention come September. The A’s are currently in the driver’s seat in the Wild Card chase, holding a 3 game lead over 3rd place Tampa Bay, and the biggest reason for their status as a contender is their starting pitching. Oakland has the 3rd lowest team ERA in baseball, but they are missing one of their key cogs in Bartolo Colon, who was suspended for the season after failing a drug test. If Brandon McCarthy (8-5, 3.10 ERA), Tommy Millone (11-9, 3.73 ERA), and Jarrod Parker (9-7, 3.72) can hold down the fort, Oakland has a chance. If those pitchers can’t do the job, I think the A’s will be on the outside looking in, because they don’t have much on offense. Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick can crush the ball, but otherwise the team ranks in the bottom 1/3rd in baseball in batting average, OBP, slugging, and runs scored. I think they will ultimately finish just outside of the playoffs, finishing with 90 or so wins, just behind Tampa Bay and Chicago.
Tampa Bay Rays – Contender
The smartest front office in baseball has once again built the most affordable winning team in the league. Tampa Bay once again has a talented and deep pitching staff, which ranks 1st in the American League in ERA and strikeouts, while allowing the fewest hits in the league. David Price (16-5, 2.53 ERA, 8.8 K/9 inn) is once again a Cy Young candidate who’s dominating hitters with his 95 mph+ fastball. James Shields (3.91 ERA), Matt Moore (3.58 ERA), and Jeremy Hellickson (3.41 ERA) have the ability to dominate their opponent any given outing as well, allowing Tampa to successfully go 4-deep in the rotation in the playoffs without missing a beat. If Evan Longoria can continue to find his form he could give the hapless Rays’ offense just the spark it needs. Remember, this is a team that absolutely dominates if they score more than 4 runs, and I think they are going to be very dangerous in October – if they make it out of the Wild Card round.
Texas Rangers – Contender
The 2-time defending American League champions are once again no worse than co-favorites to make the World Series. They have the inside track on the best record in the American League (3 games up on New York), and the offensive firepower to make that a reality. No one in baseball has scored more runs than Texas this year, thanks to Josh Hamilton (36 homers, 112 RBI) and Adrian Beltre (.316, 25 homers). The rest of the lineup isn’t too shabby either, with Ian Kinsler (.268, 16 HR, 21 steals), Elvis Andrus (.299, 19 steals), and Nelson Cruz (21 homers, 78 RBI) among others. The pitching staff has been a little underwhelming this year, but still has some excellent starters led by Matt Harrison. Harrison is 15-8 with a 3.30 ERA, which has him on pace for the finest season of his career. This team will enter the playoffs as AL West champ and the rightful favorite in the American League, but as we all know, anything can happen in October.
NL edition coming later today/tonight.