Division Check Up – 8/11/12
Major League Baseball has finally entered the home stretch of the season. With less than 50 games remaining until the postseason, division races are still up for grabs. There are many teams that have pulled ahead of the pack, but with the extra wild card spot on the line, there are a lot of teams that refuse to give up down the stretch. We’ve seen historic collapses before, but will there be more this season? Only time will tell, but until then here’s how things are shaping up.
1. American League East
New York: 66-46
Tampa Bay: 60-52
New York has once again (to no one’s surprise) become the clear favorite to win this division. The only question remaining this season, it would see, is how many wins the Yankees can rack up. With 50 left, it’s not hard to imagine a 100-win season. It still ceases to amaze me how well the Baltimore Orioles are doing, though. Despite losing the top spot in the division to the Yankees, Baltimore has held strong in second place. The Rays aren’t too far out, but right now the second wild card spot belongs to the Orioles.
The A.L. East is definitely a macrocosm of baseball as a whole this year. While the best of the best is standing tall at the top of the division, the two wild card spots are still completely up for grabs. Right now Baltimore has one (Detroit, the other), but Tampa Bay is right behind, as is Los Angeles and Oakland. It’s excellent evidence for how good the additional wild card is (and will continue to be) for baseball, giving so many more teams the chance to compete every season.
2. American League Central
Kansas City: 48-64
The Minnesota Twins have to be thrilled that Kansas City has reclaimed its spot at the bottom of the division. It means that the Twins are, in fact, “rebuilding” and preparing for the future. In fact, they have a number of players who are having exceptional years (Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham come to mind). Cleveland has just been worse than terrible recently, losing ten in a row as of this past week. Barring a major collapse, Detroit made sure the Indians were out of the division race last weekend, putting them a solid ten games out of first place.
This division really could end up being a race to the very last day. With Detroit only one game behind the White Sox (and neither team putting together any sort of streak to pull away), it’s anyone’s guess who’ll walk away with the division title. I think most are still betting on the Tigers, especially considering the way they’ve played recently. Another six-game winning streak, a dominating home record, and recent success against some of the best teams in baseball have really given Detroit new life. Add in the fact that the final 13 games of the season for them are played against Minnesota and Kansas City, and you could easily see a big run through the last week of September.
3. American League West
Los Angeles: 60-53
Texas continues its run of the American League West, but it’s not quite the dominant team it was early in the season. While still holding a respectable five and a half game lead, the Athletics have been arguably the best team in baseball the last month, and put together a miraculous run that’s landed them only a half game out of the wild card, and overtaken a much more stacked Angels team. With one bad week for the Rangers (or, maybe, one bad weekend against the Tigers?), the A.L. West could become as hotly contested as the Central for the next two months.
It’s obvious, as well, that Seattle is trying to build toward some success, having traded away franchise player Ichiro Suzuki to the New York Yankees near the trade deadline in July. But they may only be looking as far as next year, and at least staying ahead of the Houston Astros (when they join the A.L. West). Because removing Ichiro and his possible new contract doesn’t necessarily put you in a better position than before.
4. National League East
New York: 54-59
I guess it’s now safe to say that if the Nationals don’t win the N.L. East and end up with possible home field advantage through the World Series, then everyone will be shocked. This Nats team came out of nowhere after some excellent offseason acquisitions, and have made themselves the best in baseball to this point. It’s a great team, and they should stay that way for a few more seasons, at least. But the Braves are doing everything possible (other than making a deal with Satan or something) to give Chipper Jones one final trip to the postseason. Right now, they hold a pretty strong lead in the wild card, so it shouldn’t be too hard to do.
Probably the biggest surprise, though, is how poorly the Phillies and Marlins have done this season. Their hopes of winning are almost zero at this point, but for different reasons. For Philadelphia, it seemed that they became bogged down by expensive contracts of players who really started to show their age this season (Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence, Placido Polanco, etc.), to the point where they had to find others willing to take some of the contracts off their hands. With any luck for the Phillies, they can better prepare for next season now. For the Marlins, it just seems like they’ve yet to find the right groove. A lot of that can likely be attributed to all the changes made in the offseason, including a brand new manager and two big signings that brought a lot of previously unheard of attention to Miami. Maybe with another year behind them, both teams can pick things up next season.
5. National League Central
St. Louis: 61-52
Poor Houston looks like there’s a very real chance it’ll see 100 losses this season. Never a good sign, especially when the team will be entering a division next year that isn’t exactly easier to compete in. The big shock, though, are the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates are in a position to have their first winning season since Jim Leyland was manager in 1986. To go 26 years without a winning season just seems unheard of. But when your division has the most teams, it’s easy to understand that there will be stretches where different teams have multi-season runs. It looks like this is Pitt’s time, though, as it holds strong to that second wild card spot, so not only will they have their first winning season, but it’ll include (as of right now) a trip to the postseason. Not a bad way to make a comeback.
It’s worth mentioning how much more successful the top teams in the National League are than the American League. The Chicago White Sox would barely be third in the N.L. Central, yet they lead the A.L. Central. The Texas Rangers would have a wild card spot, at best, while fighting desperately for the division lead. Whether this speaks to the strength of the N.L. or the weakness of the A.L. isn’t really clear, though. While the senior circuit dominated in the All-Star Game, the junior circuit continually dominates interleague player every year (with 2012 being no different). So why the top teams in the N.L. have so many more wins (or whether that will actually translate to success in the World Series) is anyone’s guess.
6. National League West
San Francisco: 61-51
Los Angeles: 61-52
San Diego: 50-64
San Diego is finally not the worst in baseball, or even the worst in its division! This is a happy day for Padres fans. Colorado has really struggled this season, and is another team that looks to be in real jeopardy of losing 100 games. To have two teams end up as such seems almost beyond belief. But there are plenty of games left for it to happen.
The Dodgers and Giants both made good moves at the trade deadline to strengthen their teams for the stretch run, and that division could be the most hotly contested one the last two months. As I said earlier, it’s still likely to be the Tigers that take a commanding lead in the A.L. Central, but the N.L. West has no clear favorite, which certainly makes choosing a winner tough. I think the Giants have the better all-around team this season, but the Dodgers have been at or near the top all season long. The problem for these two teams is that whichever doesn’t win the division is pretty much out of the postseason entirely. With so many fantastic teams in the East and Central, it’ll be hard for the second place team of this division to get close to a wild card spot.
So, that’s where the divisions stand with 50 games left to be played. How will things change between now and September? Only time will tell for sure. Let’s just follow it and enjoy the ride!