World Series Champs And World Series Chumps (Contenders and Pretenders)
With the July 31st trading deadline behind us, it seems fitting to take a look at where teams stand in Major League Baseball. Rosters more or less resemble what they will around October, barring a major injury or a rare blockbuster August waiver deal. A wrinkle in this year’s playoff picture is, of course, the extra wild card in each league. To this point in this season (and can you believe it’s already August 1st?!), that addition has served its purpose, as there are a number of teams that have not tasted the playoffs in years, even decades, that are very much still in races.
Currently, there are 16 teams that are either leading their A) division, B) league’s wild card (one of two spots), or C) are within 4 games of either. With more than half the league still in contention, it is important to separate the contenders from the pretenders; the “to be’s” from the “not to be’s”, to steal from the biggest baseball fan ever Bill Shakespeare. For me, these 16 teams get divided into two categories. World Series Champs versus the World Series Chumps. That is, the teams that have a legitimate shot of getting to the Fall Classic and winning, and then those that should begin to think about Opening Day 2013. The teams are ranked in no particular order, because frankly, in Major League Baseball this season, no team stands out in any particular order.
World Series Champs
New York Yankees- The Yankees are currently in the midst of their toughest streak of the season, and still have a comfortable lead in the East. Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira, after slow starts, have delivered big hits and have led a Yankee attack that has been bitten by injuries recently. Despite everyone’s concerns with how many home runs they hit, the Yankees postseason success or lack thereof will come down to what it does seemingly every year: starting pitching. New York will, if everything goes accordingly, get Andy Pettitte back in roughly a month, which should help solidify their rotation. A four-man group of CC, Kuroda, Nova, and Pettitte could very well lead New York back to the World Series. Throw in a back-end of the bullpen that has been strong even without Mariano Rivera, the Yankees, like every year, look like very good bets to go deep into October. Yankee fans I’m sure would feel a lot better, however, if the team improved with RISP.
Chicago White Sox- If you were to tell people back on Opening Day that on August the 1st, a team other than the Detroit Tigers would be in first in the AL Central, they would have looked at you the same way if you told them Albert Pujols wouldn’t homer until May. And while the Tigers faulty play in the first half is at least somewhat responsible, the White Sox have played better than just about anyone thought they would. Robin Ventura has managed this club remarkably well, and his job is even more impressive considering he’d never managed at any level before this year. Paul Konerko is having one of his best seasons, and will in any other year that Mike Trout didn’t appear in, would be getting MVP consideration. The ChiSox are also getting huge contributions from Alex Rios and AJ Pierzynski, and adding Kevin Youkilis can never hurt. The pitching will have to stay consistent for the Sox to make a run, headed by Chris Sale and the resurgent Jake Peavy.
Texas Rangers- Early on in the season, it looked as if the Rangers might run away not only with the AL West, but the entire American League as a whole. However, they have only played roughly .500 baseball since Josh Hamilton’s 4 home run game on May 8th, and suddenly find themselves only a few games ahead of the surging Angels. The team with the most runs in baseball this year scored the fewest in all of baseball in July, and if the Rangers are to make a push for a third straight trip to the Fall Classic, the offense will need to bounce back. They have wayyyy too many good hitters for that not to happen, however. The loss of Neftali Feliz to Tommy John surgery hurts, but the addition of Ryan Dempster minutes before the trade deadline certainly helps off-set that. The Rangers have the luxury of having a very solid back end of the bullpen, featuring Alexi Ogando, Mike Adams, and Joe Nathan. Yu Darvish has not looked quite as good his 2nd and 3rd times through the league, but is still someone Ron Washington should have faith throwing out there in a 5 or 7 game series. The Rangers have certainly come back to the pack a little bit, but should still be a team feared in October.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim- Now we come to the team I think might be the best suited for a deep run in the playoffs. The Angels have been one the best teams in the league since the call up of the one, the only, Mike Trout, your future AL MVP and of course, Rookie of the Year. The Halos looked like a historic bust of a team before Trout was summoned from the minors, and now, look like a team to really be reckoned with. After his bewildering start, Albert Pujols has righted himself, and his on pace for a typical King Albert season. Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson have come as advertised, as both starters have sub-2 ERA’s. The addition of Zach Greinke makes this team just that much more formidable, with a 1-2-3 as strong as any team in the league. The question with the Angels will be can one of Ervin Santana or Dan Haren right the ship in time for October? Few teams can win the World Series with 3 starters; the Yankees got away with it in 2009 but have struggled with it outside of that. The Angels feature another good bullpen, highlighted by Ernesto Frieri, who has come out of nowhere to dominate as a closer. The Angels aren’t the best team in the AL, maybe not even their own division, but are put together to make a run.
Oakland Athletics- I might look like an idiot in two months for putting them here. Hell, I might even look like an idiot in two weeks for putting them here. But I can’t just ignore one of the great team months in MLB history, with Oakland going 19-5 and forcing their way into the playoff discussion. This team might only be 24th in the league runs, but they score them at the right times. The “Amazing A’s” have registered 12 walk-off wins this season, so their ability to win games late and close will be crucial should they reach the postseason for the first time in 6 years. The A’s are loaded when it comes to good, young starting pitching, staffed by the likes of Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, and Bartolo Colon (just kidding! But Bartolo has held his own so far). That might be a curse, however, as young starters rarely flourish in October (anyone recall how far Arizona got in the playoffs last year?). The A’s, who weren’t picked to surpass 70 wins in 2012, might very well find themselves fighting for a pennant in a matter of weeks.
Washington Nationals- The Nats will find themselves in the “Chumps” division should they actually decide to shut down Stephen Strasburg at some point due to an arbitrary innings limit. Should that happen, it would rival the 1994 strike in the “Things that have cost the Expos/Nationals franchise a shot at winning anything” category. While Washington does have a strong staff even without Strasburg, with Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Edwin Jackson, they can’t finish the deal without their ace. Strasburg becomes even more important with a bullpen that can be faulty at times (Tyler Clippard, while good, isn’t exactly Mariano Rivera), and an offense that can really struggle to score at points. Assuming Stras doesn’t get shelved, which seems to be an increasing likelihood when reading between GM Mike Rizzo’s comments, the Nats are right now the NL favorite’s to play for the World Series crown. But it’s all on that one, crucial choice.
Cincinnati Reds- The Reds could be a very, very intriguing team come October. Assuming Joey Votto comes back from injury and produces at the same rate he did before, they have as a good a shot as almost any NL team to make it to the Fall Classic for the first time in 22 years. Jonny Cueto and Mat Latos present a rather formidable 1-2 for the team with the 2nd best ERA in the league. Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall are as good an 8th and 9th inning combo as there has been in the league this year. Even though they only rank 15th in runs, for some reason, a lineup containing Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Ryan Ludwick, and Todd Frazier would concern me if I’m an opposing pitcher. The Reds might ultimately fall just one starter short, however.
Pittsburgh Pirates- If I mentioned the A’s as a possible World Series team, I kind of have to include Pittsburgh too, right? The darlings the MLB this year find themselves in prime position to make the playoffs for the first time since 1992, and having their first winning year in that same time span as well. Their offense is practically nothing outside of future NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, and a team whose ace is Allan James Burnett, or AJ as you might know him, scares me a lot. But for some reason, this team just continues to win games, and has carried their winning farther into 2012 than they did in 2011 with a similar feel-good first half. Joel Hanrahan is a top closer in the NL, and as long as the Pirates can find ways to score in October, a lead is in good shape with him. But then again, getting leads might be the hard part for Pittsburgh.
San Francisco Giants- Could the Giants potentially make another World Series run despite their former ace Tim Lincecum having one of the worst years in the majors? The answer is surprisingly yes. Matt Cain has been the most dominant he’s ever been, making the Giants look smart for that huge contract they gave him this year. And it’s not even Cain who leads the team in ERA and quality starts. That’s Ryan Vogelsong, who has gone at least 6 innings in his last 10 starts. Throw in Madison Bumgarner, and the Giants starting staff is at the very least very solid, if not lethal. If Lincecum can come anywhere close to his former self, this might be the team to beat in the NL. I love their addition of Hunter Pence, who completes what is now a very good outfield for the Giants. Melky Cabrera is having the year of his life for San Fran, after winning the All-Star Game MVP award, and is currently hitting almost .350. The Melk Man is, in fact, delivering. It also helps when you have Buster Posey healthy for a whole year.
World Series Chumps
Baltimore Orioles-The Orioles usually perform well in April, only to fade in May. Well, this year they’ve made it to August, but a strained bullpen will be their downfall. They are in 2012 where the Pirates were in 2011. Give ‘em one more year. I love Matt Wieters.
Tampa Bay Rays- Had Matt More not been the disappointment he has been this year, in the sense people expected him to be David Price, Tampa would be the Champs of the division. But the Rays just don’t hit, coming into action on August 2nd with a batting average ranking 29th in the league (injury of Longoria is partially responsible). Hard to win when you can’t score, and they are a starter short from being able to overcome that lack of offense.
Boston Red Sox-The Sox may very well make a late push, but I think it’ll come too soon, too late, and to no real fault of their own. It’s hard to be really competitive when their key players have very rarely been healthy all at the same time this year. However, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett (who I’m actually surprised didn’t get dealt) will have to pitch like themselves for Boston to have any shot.
Detroit Tigers- Probably the best team on this list. While the Tigers might very well overtake the White Sox in the central, they just don’t have the same pitching they did last year this year. Justin Verlander, as much as Jim Leyland might want him too, can’t pitch every game. The bullpen hasn’t been anywhere as good as it was last year (seems to be the theme in the MLB this year: if your closer was good last year, he’s not this year). Frankly, they’ve been a little disappointing offensively as well. Not much fear in that lineup outside of Austin Jackson, Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. A season filled with so much hope might end before the playoffs starts for the Tigers
Atlanta Braves- The Braves can hit as well as any team in the NL, we know that. I just don’t know where the pitching would come from to get them towards the World Series. If they, and not the Rangers, had traded for Ryan Dempster, then we have a different story. But with Tommy Hanson on the DL, Mike Minor with an ERA in the 5′s, and Ben Sheets just 4 starts back from injury, the Braves starting staff is shaky at best. Jason Heyward has finally shown the promise he showed in his rookie year in 2010, but will that be enough to get Atlanta into the postseason one last time for Chipper?
St. Louis Cardinals- Interestingly enough, it is the reigning World Series champion Cards who have the greatest run differential in the league. At no point in the last 10 years did the team with the greatest run differential miss out on the playoffs, so the Cards might be in the midst of a historic season-but for wrong reasons. Honestly, I can’t figure out why the Cardinals aren’t better. Great lineup (tied for the league lead with 518 runs scored) and 9th in the league in ERA. But something’s just missing. Maybe it’s a true ace, because Lance Lynn is not one. I love the Edward Mujica pickup in the bullpen, but something’s just missing. Lot of runs scored, but still a streaky team at the plate.
Los Angeles Dodgers- A team with a great chance of coasting to the playoffs got really screwed over by injuries to Matt Kemp (twice) and Andre Ethier. Even with those two back now, the Dodgers still rank 26th in runs and 30th (!!!!) in slugging percentage. There is no team that could have used Ryan Dempster than LA, and while the Hanley Ramirez should help them, he’s still a guy who was hitting terribly when he was dealt. Clayton Kershaw has had another great year, and a surprise year from Chris Capuano has helped, but Chad Billingsley hasn’t shown me enough to think he can be counted on in October.
AL East: Yankees
AL Central: Tigers (I really, really want to pick the White Sox, though)
AL West: Angels
Wild Cards: Rangers, White Sox
MVP: Mike Trout
Cy Young: Jered Weaver
NL East: Nationals
NL Central: Reds
NL West: Giants
Wild Cards: Braves, Pirates
MVP: Andrew McCutchen
Cy Young: R.A. Dickey (he won’t get it, but 100% should)
AL Champion: Angels
NL Champion: Reds
World Series: Angels in 6
Note: It really pains me to pick the Angels to win it all, because I thought they were drastically overrated before the year began. So, eggs on my face I guess.