Sizing Up the MLB Pennant Races
The Major League Baseball season is nearing the three-quarter mark with most teams having played a little more than 70 percent of their games. It is the time of year when many fans begin checking the standings more regularly and assessing their team’s chances of making the postseason.
At this point, it would be easy to take a quick look at the standings and assume that there will not be a very exciting conclusion to the baseball season. There are only two second-place teams within four games of first, and most divisions have only two teams which appear to be vying for playoff slots.
But that would be a huge mistake. Here's why.
Looking Forward by Looking Back
If we could jump in Doc Brown’s DeLorean and go back just one year and look at the standings, we would realize that it is too early to jump to conclusions.
As of August 16, 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays were 10 games back in the wild-card standings. They wound up qualifying for the postseason.
On that same date, the St. Louis Cardinals had built a seven-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers. A mere month later, the Cards found themselves five-and-a-half games back of Milwaukee and fighting for a wild-card berth in the playoffs.
The roller-coaster conclusion to 2011 saw St. Louis edging out the Atlanta Braves for the NL Wild Card. Atlanta’s season-ending collapse enabled the Cardinals to move on to the postseason and eventually become World Series champs.
By quickly re-programming the DeLorean to head back to the 2007 season, we could watch the Colorado Rockies win 21 of their last 22 games and move on the face the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
So, let’s take a look at each of MLB’s six divisions and what we may have in store for us over the final weeks of the season.
AL East: The New York Yankees to Lose?
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The New York Yankees appear to have a stranglehold on the AL East with a six-game lead over the Baltimore Orioles and a seven-game advantage on the Rays, although we have seen as recently as last year that anything can happen.
Boston and Toronto, miracles notwithstanding, are theoretically out of the mix.
The Orioles have been winning with smoke and mirrors all year, achieving a 64-53 record with a run differential of minus-41. While this is a talented bunch—with more to come from its solid farm system—it would be quite the trick for the Orioles o keep pace with the Yankees and Rays.
The Rays appear to be a solid contender for an AL wild-card berth. With another strong finish, they could push the Yankees for the division title.
AL Central: Can Adam Dunn's Resurgence Carry the White Sox?
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The Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox appear to be locked in a two-horse race in the AL Central, with the Indians, Royals and Twins left out of the picture already. This could be one of the more interesting pennant races come season’s end.
Detroit would appear to have the edge in talent. But Chicago has put together a solid couple of months and could hold on to its two-game advantage to capture a divisional title for rookie manager Robin Ventura.
AL West: Three-Peat in Store for Ron Washington and the Rangers?
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The Texas Rangers lead both the Oakland A’s and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim by six games in the AL West standings, with the Seattle Mariners bringing up the rear 13.5 games out of first.
After a superb month in June, the talent-laden Angels are below .500 since July 1 and need to turn things around quickly to challenge the Rangers.
The Athletics put together a 19-5 mark in July, but have come back to earth in August. Like the Angels, Oakland would need to catch a few breaks to provide any competition for Texas.
NL East: What to Do with Stephen Strasburg?
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The Atlanta Braves have put together a 27-15 mark since July 1, but have not gained an inch on the red-hot Washington Nationals in the NL East standings. With the eminent shutdown of Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg, the Braves may be able to inch their way into first place.
The Philadelphia Phillies were the division’s preseason favorite, according to many pundits. But there is simply not enough offense in Philly to put together any kind of surge over the last quarter of the season.
The Miami Marlins and New York Mets, likewise, find themselves clearly out of contention in the division.
NL Central: Can the Reds Continue to Win Without Joey Votto?
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The St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates would find themselves right in the thick of the pennant race in most other divisions. But the Cincinnati Reds have an MLB-best mark of 71-46, and it seems like they are in a great position to wrap up the division, barring any sort of late-season collapse.
The Milwaukee Brewers have conceded the season, having traded away their ace (Zack Greinke). The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros are clearly well out of the picture.
NL West: Pitching, Not Melky Cabrera, Key to the Division Title
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While the Arizona Diamondbacks, at six-and-a-half games back, have an outside shot at making a run at the division, it would seem the NL West will come down to the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies (13.5 and 19.5 games back of the Dodgers) will be watching the postseason from home.
The Dodgers started the season on fire. But after a lackluster June and July, they found themselves looking up at the Giants in the division. A solid start to August has vaulted Los Angeles back to the top of the NL West standings.
Just one game back, the Giants have been relatively consistent all season, and that consistency may wind up winning them the division. The recent loss of outfielder Melky Cabrera to a drug suspension will definitely have a negative impact on San Francisco’s playoff hopes, but solid pitching could be the key to a postseason berth.
Wild Cards: Let the Madness Ensue
Experience has shown us that picking division winners at this point in the season is an iffy proposition at best, and this is even more so the case with the wild-card races.
There are five American League clubs in contention—among those not presently leading their respective division. But this could change quickly. Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Oakland and the Angels are all within one-and-a-half games of each other.
In all likelihood, the two AL wild-card winners will come down to the last couple games of the regular season.
Similarly, the National League has four teams in contention for the two wild-card berths. Atlanta holds a four-game edge over St. Louis, and Pittsburgh has four-and-a-half game advantage over San Francisco.
So, there it is. Your 100 percent non-guaranteed and premature look at the playoff picture for the 2012 season. While we don’t have many thrilling races at this point, one can only hope for a conclusion to the year like 2011.
Which team will surprise us this year? One way or another, there is sure to be excitement.
Thanks for reading. Follow Mark on Twitter @EbbyCalvin37.