Evan Longoria celebrates the Rays' improbable run to the playoffs last September.
If the last day of the 2011 MLB season taught us anything, it's that the cliche of "It's not over 'til it's over" holds true now more than ever. With an additional wild-card berth up for grabs in each league, let's take a look at four teams who are poised to do what last year's Rays did in historic fashion.
Can Anibal Sanchez take some of the pressure off Justin Verlander?
Let's start in the American League, where the Tigers are currently tied for the wild-card lead with Oakland. There's no denying the Tigers' star power, with the game's most dominant starting pitcher, Justin Verlander, leading the way. Miguel Cabrera is having another MVP-caliber season, and has clearly benefited from the offseason acquisition of Prince Fielder.
The question remains though...do they have enough of a "supporting cast" to overtake the White Sox for the division lead? If not, can they hang on to one of the wild-card spots for which there are five other teams within five games of their lead?
The answers to those questions may largely hinge on the contributions they get from Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante.
As Stan McNeal of The Sporting News pointed out:
"General manager Dave Dombrowski did his work early, filling his club’s most glaring needs with one trade with the Miami Marlins. The Tigers gave up their top pitching prospect, Jacob Turner, but, clearly in a go-for-it-now mode, upgraded at second base with Omar Infante (though he has struggled since the trade) and in the rotation with Anibal Sanchez."
With the experience they gained in last year's run to the ALCS, as well as the additions they've made before and during the season, the Tigers figure to be playing games in October once again.
Will Zach Greinke prove to be the best pickup at this year's deadline?
Only a half-game behind the A's and the Tigers for the wild-card lead, the Angels certainly seem like the most dangerous team that would be on the outside looking in if the playoffs started today. Another roster that's overloaded with talent, the Angels look to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
With Rookie of the Year lock Mike Trout hitting a league-leading .349, Mark Trumbo (last year's runner-up for ROY) belting 28 HR and Albert Pujols playing like, well, Albert Pujols, the Angels have the depth and power that their lineup has been missing for some time now.
Combine that with a starting rotation that just added Zack Greinke, and you have a pretty good recipe for success come October.
There's no denying Greinke struggled in his first playoffs last year with Milwaukee, so his success or lack thereof in the last two months of the season should be a good indicator as to whether he's ready to step up come playoff time.
C.J. Wilson was another who struggled mightily in the 2011 playoffs, so unlike most of Mike Scioscia's tenure as skipper of the Angels, this year's version may be counting more on their hitting to get them "there."
The Cardinals continue to succeed even without Albert.
Moving to the National League, does anyone want to doubt the resolve of the defending champs? It's difficult anytime a team parts ways with its best player. When that player is Albert Pujols, though, difficult seems like the understatement of the year.
Count me as one who thought the Cards would suffer some post-Pujols struggles this year after losing the best offensive baseball player of the last decade. Yet here they are, two-and-a-half games back of the Braves and Pirates for one of two wild-card positions.
I can't find it in me to predict that the Pirates, who haven't had a winning record in 19 years, are going to beat out the reigning champs for any playoff spot, let alone an extra one this year. And need I remind anyone of the Braves' collapse in the final month of the season last year, when they blew an 8.5-game lead to these Cardinals?
The phrase "minus Pujols" will keep them from repeating, but good starting pitching and clutch hitting will at least give the Cardinals the chance to win a round in October.
The Dodgers have the best chance of any of these four to win their division.
Sitting a half-game back of the Giants for the NL West lead, the Dodgers were clearly the biggest buyers at the deadline. Hanley Ramirez was thought to be the cornerstone of the Marlins and was second in MVP voting just three years ago. The Dodgers certainly needed an upgrade at the leadoff position as well, so they also took on free-agent-to-be Shane Victorino.
Yet what might be the most intriguing move is no certainty.
According to Jon Heyman of Baseball Insider:
"Cliff Lee was claimed on waivers by the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the teams have two days to try to work out a trade."
No matter what happens with Lee, if Matt Kemp can regain his early-season form and Ramirez plays like it's 2009, the Dodgers should have enough to win the division and make the playoffs for the first time in three years.