With roughly forty games left to play in the Major League Baseball season, playoffs races around the league are starting to intensify. Here’s a quick look at which teams are in those races and whom we can expect to prevail.
American League East
With Tampa Bay’s struggles to score runs and Baltimore’s inexperience, the AL East division title is once again the Yankees’ to lose. Boston and Toronto are all but out of it, so while the Rays are surging, having won eleven of their last thirteen and are fresh off a four game sweep in Anaheim against the Angels, I’m not sure they’ll have enough to catch the Yankees. Six more games head to head could be the deciding factor, but expect New York to hold off the Rays and Orioles to win their third AL East title in the last four years.
American League Central
In my mind, it’s been inevitable all season long that at some point the Detroit Tigers would overtake first place and go on to win the division. Well, we’re closing in on September and that has yet to happen, but they currently sit just 1.5 games back of the Chicago White Sox. Losers of seven out of their last eleven games, the Tigers have three more series’ before kicking off September against the rival White Sox. The seven head to head games between the two teams are huge, but what could be even more important for Detroit are their sixteen remaining games against AL Central bottom feeders, Kansas City and Minnesota, which includes thirteen straight to end the season. They always say it only matters which team is in first place on the last day of the season. That team should be the Detroit Tigers.
American League West
Much like the AL East is to the Yankees, the AL West is to the Texas Rangers. The Rangers are on a mission to return to their third straight World Series and it all starts with securing the AL West title and home field advantage throughout the AL playoffs. Currently sitting 5 games clear of Oakland and 9 games ahead of the entertaining, but disappointing LA Angels, the Rangers will win the West, the only question is whether or not they’ll appear in their third straight World Series.
American League Wild Card
For the first season ever, each League will have two Wild Card teams, who will face each other in a one-game playoff, for the right to advance to the Divisional playoff round. Right now in the AL, five teams are within 4.5 games of the Wild Cards. While Tampa Bay and Baltimore currently hold the two Wild Card spots, Oakland is ½ game out, Detroit is 2 back, and the Angels are 4.5 out. Who will earn the Wild Card births? Oakland may remain right in the race until the last two weeks of the season when their schedule turns brutal. A nine-game road trip at Detroit, the Yankees, and Texas could spell the end for Oakland. Since my pick to win the AL Central is Detroit, we’ll flip flop the White Sox and Tigers and say that thanks to the luxury of playing eighteen more games against the Twins, Indians, and Royals, the White Sox will earn a Wild Card birth. I have to believe the other goes to the Tampa Bay Rays. Their struggles to score runs came to an end as they scored 37 runs in their four-game sweep of the Angels. If they can continue hitting, their pitching is too good for them not to win.
National League East
The Washington Nationals are in their eighth year of existence. They have never had a winning season, have lost 100+ games twice, and were 148 games below .500, as a franchise, coming into the 2012 season. At 75-46, they are currently the best team in baseball and sit 5 games ahead of the Atlanta Braves for first in the NL East. If you haven’t heard, GM Mike Rizzo is firm in saying he will shut down star pitcher Stephen Strasburg, after he has reached somewhere between 160-180 innings. The reason, Strasburg missed the entire 2011 season recovering from the dreaded Tommy John surgery, which has decimated so many pitchers’ careers. With 139 1/3 innings under his belt, that means Strasburg figures to have about six more starts in him, which would mean Washington would play out the final two weeks of the season and the playoffs without one of the best pitchers in baseball. While Rizzo says his decision is in the best long-term interest of the organization, I feel he is making a huge mistake. In sports, nothing is guaranteed and while Rizzo feels he is keeping Strasburg healthy for many more playoff runs by his Nationals, he is also squandering the greatest opportunity his franchise has ever seen and one that may not come around again for many, many more years. With that said, the Nationals should hold off Atlanta to win their first ever NL East division crown.
National League Central
The second best team in baseball is the Cincinnati Reds. Winners of eight of their last ten, the Big Red Machine is back and looking to win just their second division title since 1995, which is the last year the Reds won a playoff game. Even with former NL-MVP Joey Votto on the disabled list since mid-July, the Reds have been in cruise control and currently sit 6.5 games clear of Pittsburgh, in the division. In Votto’s absence, players such as Ryan Ludwick and Todd Frazier are stepping up to have big years. So, even with their best player laid up for awhile longer, there isn’t much of a race in the NL Central. Cincy should win it easily.
National League West
The tightest race in baseball is in the NL West, where the Los Angeles Dodgers hold a minuscule ½ game lead over the San Francisco Giants, with the Arizona Diamondbacks lurching, just 4.5 out. I found myself wondering the last year and a half how Melky Cabrera was suddenly such a good baseball player. After averaging just 8 HR and 54 RBI with a .266 batting average over his first five full seasons in the majors, suddenly Cabrera hit .305 with 18 HR and 87 RBI for the Royals last season and was hitting at a .346 clip through 113 games this year. And then it all made sense; Cabrera tested positive to a performance enhancing drug and was suspended by the league for 50 games. The loss is a huge blow to the Giants and should end their division title hopes. Look for the Dodgers to hold of the Diamondbacks for the division crown, but Arizona will make a run at it.
National League Wild Card
Much like the AL, five teams are within range of the NL Wild Cards. Atlanta and Pittsburgh currently hold down the spots, with San Francisco a game back, St. Louis 2 games back, and Arizona 5 back. With San Fran out of it, in my book, that leaves four teams. With the Braves and Pirates enjoying a bit more favorable schedules than the others, expect those two teams to hold onto the Wild Cards and meet in a one-game playoff immediately following their three-game series to end the year. A playoff birth would mark Pittsburgh’s first winning season and playoff birth since 1992. Fans whose teams are out of it, such as Twins fans, should be rooting for this team. They have waited a long time to have something to cheer about.