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Can Nats, Pirates and White Sox hang on?
In the 17 seasons that have concluded with a postseason since baseball expanded to the three-division format in 1994, 66 of the 102 teams that were in first place at the All-Star break went on to win their division (64.7%). Of the 136 teams in line for a playoff spot, 87 of them actually made the playoffs (64.0%). So, there’s a pretty good chance that four of the six division leaders will hang on to their leads. So which teams are most likely to see their leads vanish?
Here’s a look at how the races might shape up in the second half.
While the Orioles and Rays toyed with fans earlier this season, no one really believed that the Yankees and Red Sox would finish near the bottom of the division. Baltimore is hanging around longer than expected, but the wheels are beginning to come off. Three members of their opening week rotation are now working in the minors. The Rays may have a late charge in them if a healthy Evan Longoria can lift the struggling offense, and the Red Sox are too talented not to find their way into the race. But this is New York’s division to lose, and the Yankees won’t let it slip away in September.
The Detroit Tigers are the most disappointing team in the American League. And Chicago may be the most surprising. Playing with as many as 10 rookies and a rookie manager (at any level), the Sox are beginning to build a little cushion. But Detroit started to put some wins together at the end of the first half and will find a way to win this division. The lineup is potent, the bullpen is sound, and the rotation is good enough. It’s the defense that must improve, and expect manager Jim Leyland to see that it does.
Most fans thought when the Angels signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson that this would be a dogfight to the finish. The Rangers are just too good for the Angels this season. Texas has a deeper lineup and a much better bullpen than their adversaries on the West Coast. Los Angeles had a terrific June but gained no ground on Texas. This could be a runaway for the Rangers.
AL Wild Card
The Angels will secure the first wild card spot, but the second will be up for grabs through the final weekend of the season. Both Boston and Tampa Bay from the East will be in the race, while Chicago or Cleveland could take advantage of a softer division schedule in the Central. Tampa Bay finishes the season with trips to Boston and Chicago before hosting the Orioles in the three series that could determine the final wild card spot. Expect the Rays’ starting pitching to be the deciding factor and give Tampa Bay the final playoff spot.
The Marlins are streaky enough to put together at least one more run. The Mets have provided a great story this season, especially when R.A. Dickey is on the mound. But this isn’t the Mets’ year. Atlanta will hang with Washington behind the Braves’ solid pitching and deep bullpen. The Nationals, who own the best record in the NL, have the best pitching and a talented, energetic lineup. However, the Nats don’t exactly have pennant race experience on the field. But their manager Davey Johnson knows how to navigate pennant races. It will get tense down the stretch, but Washington will hang on and bring postseason baseball to our nation’s capital for the first time since 1933.
This may prove to be the most exciting, free-for-all race in the majors this season. With the division-leading Pirates, the second-place Reds and defending world champion Cardinals, the NL Central could go any of three ways. The Reds, who finish the season with a road trip to Pittsburgh and St. Louis, don’t seem to have enough pitching to win this division, and the Pirates may not have enough offense. Will that open the way for the Cardinals? This race will stay tight, and the two factors that will likely determine the outcome will be health and acquisitions. The Cardinals are the deepest team that can withstand injuries, but also have a roster full of injury-prone players. One or two minor injuries in Pittsburgh could easily derail that team. St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak has shown the moxie to make shrewd deals during the season. It will be interesting to see if the Pirates are willing to part with some young talent and swing a major trade of their own. While we can’t expect magic dust to settle in St. Louis again this season, I’ll still give a slight edge to the experienced Cardinals at the wire.
Over the past few weeks, the Dodgers and Giants have exchanged blows and swapped a little time in first place. Somehow the Dodgers continued to win without Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, who provide the bulk of the Los Angeles offense. With Kemp coming back after the break and strong pitching, the Dodgers will finish in first place.
NL Wild Card
Talk about a real free-for-all that could see lead changes multiple times over the last couple of weeks of the season. The Braves, Giants, Marlins, Cardinals, Pirates, Reds and maybe even the Diamondbacks, Mets or Phillies could be a factor. When it all shakes out, it will be the Giants hosting the second-place team in the Central division. And we’re going with the Pirates, who will make their first postseason appearance since 1992.
Charlie Miller (@AthlonCharlie)