Each day this week, The Baseball Zealot will be featuring special guest bloggers who will be giving their predictions on the 2009 MLB end-of year-awards and postseason matchups. Today, James Bailey gives us his take on the AL divisions.
James Bailey is a former editor of Baseball America and is now editor and major contributor to a new baseball blog, Hardball Cooperative. You can thank Bailey whose idea of more collaborative work between baseball blogs which gave me the idea for this week-long guest blogging project. When pressed, Bailey says he followed the Seattle Mariners but like a lot of us admits to mostly following his fantasy league players now. Ah, the times we live in.
Every time it looks like things are about settled in the American League, one of the down-and-outers sneaks back into the picture. A week ago the Tigers were on the brink of backing into the Central Division crown. They woke up Thursday morning with a 4.5 game lead, down from 7 games just 10 days earlier. The Twins, who have won four games in a row, are growing ever closer in Detroit’s rear-view mirror. The teams have seven head-to-head matchups remaining, starting with a three-game set this weekend.
The Central may be the tightest race in the AL, but it’s not the only one left to be decided. We technically have open contests in the East and West as well, though the Yankees and Angels hold leads of 6.5 and 6 games, respectively. The gap in the wild-card race is stretching out, though the Rangers, at 6.5 games behind the Red Sox, aren’t giving up hope quite yet. They have two different routes to the postseason. Both are dependent upon them winning at close to a .750 clip and getting help from above. Considering Michael Young and Josh Hamilton are spending more time on the trainer’s table than in the lineup, their odds are staggering. Still, with seven contests remaining against the Angels, they have the opportunity, at least on paper, to make headway.
While the Twins and Rangers are still breathing, it’s looking more and more like we’ll see some familiar matchups in October. If the standings hold the way they are now, the Red Sox and Angels will meet for the third consecutive year. Boston won that series both times. The other divisional series would match the Yankees and Tigers.
Here’s a breakdown of the races in each division:
The Yankees, who were three games behind Boston at the break, have gone on a tear since then, winning at a .729 clip (43-16). Their+89 run differential is the best in baseball over the second half. They looked to be pulling away from the Red Sox until Boston’s 7-game winning streak pulled them to within a stone’s throw of a miracle. There’s no one else to worry about, however, as the Rays were eliminated from the East race over the weekend.
The Yanks lead the majors in runs, and it’s not close. Their 843 runs are 45 more than the Angels, the next closest team. It’s not all a product of Yankee Stadium, either. They have tallied 414 runs on the road and 429 at home. If there’s an area of concern for the AL’s best team, it’s the starting rotation, where only C.C. Sabathia owns a sub 4.00 ERA. Andy Pettitte (13-6, 4.14) will be there when it matters, but the Yanks have to be getting a little nervous about A.J. Burnett, who has gone 1-5 with a 6.14 ERA in his last nine starts. That includes four games in which he’s allowed six or more earned runs. Joba Chamberlain has been even worse since the start of August, going 1-3 in eight starts with a 7.09 ERA in 33 innings. If they have a lead to hand to their bullpen, Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera are likely to hold it for them. But they’ll need more than Sabathia and Pettitte to get them through the playoffs.
It’s been pitching that has spurred Boston over the last week. In six of their last nine games they’ve allowed 1 run or less (two shutouts). Even Daisuke Matsuzaka, who missed most of the season due to injury, has contributed, with six scoreless innings on Tuesday. Boston has the best team ERA of any legitimate contender, and they figure to get even stingier when they pare down to their playoff rotation. Their offense has heated up over the second half, scoring 165 runs in August alone.
New York: None. Pettitte missed his start this week due to shoulder fatigue, but the Yankees are hopeful that won’t linger.
Boston: None. Kevin Youkilis has battled back spasms this week. He expects to be back to full strength soon.
New York: Seattle (3), Los Angeles (3), Boston (3), Kansas City (3), Tampa Bay (3)
Boston: Los Angeles (1), Baltimore (3), Kansas City (4), New York (3), Toronto (3), Cleveland (4)
It’s Detroit’s to lose, and they just might do that. The Twins are closing the gap, thanks to a four-game winning streak, and the White Sox are lingering because the Tigers refuse to close the door on them.
Detroit’s +7 run differential hardly becomes a division leader. Since June 1, the Tigers have actually been outscored 450 to 412. Their pitching, led by Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson, has been among the best in the league. The offense is another story. The Tigers rank 10th in the AL in scoring, with just 668 runs. Miguel Cabrera is having a fine season, but he’s the only well-rounded threat in the lineup. Curtis Granderson and Brandon Inge have hit for power, but they’re hitting just .250 and .233, respectively. Magglio Ordonez, who has his average up to .291, has done most of his damage against lefties.
Joe Mauer is one of the leading contenders for AL MVP honors, and a dramatic run to the division title would certainly enhance his case. He lost his best protection when Justin Morneau bowed out this week, though he hasn’t stopped hitting. Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer need to get hot and stay hot over the next two weeks if the Twins hope to sustain their charge. A rotation that includes Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing hardly seems up to the task at hand, but stranger things have happened.
The White Sox have posted losing records in two of the first five months of the season and were no better than two over .500 in any of the others. Yet they’re mathematically breathing in the Central. Maybe, just maybe, this division doesn’t deserve a representative in the postseason.
Detroit: None. Joel Zumaya is done for the year, but he wasn’t a key player this season for the Tigers.
Minnesota: Morneau was diagnosed this week with a stress fracture in his back and he’s finished. That leaves a huge hole in the lineup, though the Twins are winning without him. Kevin Slowey has missed the second half of the season and won’t pitch again this year.
Chicago: It’s hard to call Jake Peavy a key injury, as he has never thrown a pitch for the Sox, though they must have envisioned him in the rotation when they pulled the trigger at the deadline.
Detroit: Kansas City (1), Minnesota (7), Cleveland (3), Chicago (6)
Minnesota: Detroit (7), Chicago (3), Kansas City (6)
Chicago: Seattle (1), Kansas City (3), Minnesota (3), Detroit (6), Cleveland (3)
The season hardly unfolded the way any Angel fan would have hoped, with the death of pitcher Nick Adenhart and the sluggish start by the team. But in the end they found their way to the top of the division, where everyone expected them to be all along. The West looked to be a division with a front-runner and three favorites for fourth place, but the Rangers stepped up and have given the Angels something of a challenge. They’re too far back now to make a charge with some of their key offensive weapons barely upright.
If the Angels can push hard for another week or so, they should clinch early enough to rest their starting pitchers a little going into the first round of the playoffs. It’s their offense, however, that could use some reinvigoration. They’ve scored more than three runs just four times in 15 September games. MVP candidate Kendry Morales has just four RBIs in September after hitting 10 homers and driving in 33 runs in August. Bobby Abreu, who is second on the team with 96 RBIs, has picked up some of that slack, hitting .347 with 10 RBIs this month.
It’s been an up-and-down year for the Rangers, but if they finish too far on the down side of that to make the postseason, they won’t have any shortage of reasons. Their collective health will be near the top of the list, but the three losing months on their resume haven’t done them any favors (10-11 in April, 11-15 in June, 14-15 in August). They have looked like one of the best teams in the AL at times, when they’ve had the offense and their young pitching in synch. Scott Feldman (16-5, 3.65) and Tommy Hunter (8-3, 3.23) have exceeded all expectations on the mound. Veteran Kevin Millwood looked rejuvenated early in the year, but over the second half he’s just 2-3 with a 5.32 ERA in nine starts and is averaging only five innings per game. His tank appears to be near E.
Los Angeles: They’re as healthy as they’ve been all year, though their pitching staff would look deeper with Kelvim Escobar and Scot Shields in the pen.
Texas: Josh Hamilton’s season has been one injury after the next. He’s missed the past two weeks due to back troubles, and now he’s got a tight glute to deal with. It’s possible he’ll play again, but considering how long he’s been out he’s unlikely to contribute much. Michael Young has also missed most of September with a hamstring injury. He’s close to returning, but not to full strength. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is done for the season and faces surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.
Los Angeles: Boston (1), Texas (7), New York (3), Oakland (6)
Texas: Los Angeles (7), Oakland (4), Tampa Bay (3), Seattle (3)
Thanks, James for the great analysis. Tomorrow we will have our last installment in our guest blogging series with David Pinto looking at the National League. Stay tuned for that. Check out all the great articles from our previous guest bloggers from this week.