Predictions for the 2012 MLB Playoff Races
We are entering crunch time in the 2012 MLB season, and teams are looking to make one last push to ensure that they'll have a spot in the postseason.
This will be an interesting playoff race, as there are two wild cards in each league up for grabs for the first time. As a result, more teams than ever are legitimate contenders entering the season's final month.
We love making predictions here at Bleacher Report, and what follows are my predictions on how the rest of the baseball season will play out.
Included are predictions on how each division's standings will look at the end of the season, which eight teams will make the playoffs, which September call-up will make the biggest impact for all 16 teams still in the running for a playoff spot and, finally, how the playoffs themselves will shake out.
Projected AL East Standings
1. New York Yankees
2. Tampa Bay Rays
3. Baltimore Orioles
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Boston Red Sox
It doesn't look like anyone is going to catch the Yankees in the AL East, and once they get CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte back, they should be able to win the division without any problem.
It gets interesting below them, though, as the Orioles are still very much in the running for a postseason spot, and the Rays have made a big charge coinciding with the return of superstar Evan Longoria.
At the bottom, the Blue Jays will get Brandon Morrow back later this week and should see Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie return at some point, so I expect that to be enough for them to overtake the Red Sox for fourth place.
Predicted Playoff Team: New York Yankees
The Yankees have battled through inconsistent starting pitching, season-ending injuries to Brett Gardner and Mariano Rivera and a bevy of injuries to key players throughout the season.
At the end of the day, though, they've been in first place since June 11, and they have proven to be the cream of the crop in the AL East. Expect them to win the division by a sizable margin.
Predicted Playoff Team: Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays were as many as 10.5 games out of first place as recently as July 18, as they were just two games over .500 at 47-45.
However, the return of Evan Longoria has been astronomical for them, as the team is 25-10 on the season when he is in the lineup and 10-2 since he returned from the disabled list on August 7. Their offense is still suspect, but they could very well ride their pitching and current momentum to the postseason.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: CF Melky Mesa, New York Yankees
While it would seem as though pitching would be the Yankees' biggest area needing an upgrade down the stretch, the returns of CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte go a long way towards rectifying that situation.
Instead, expect Mesa to make the biggest impact, as he will fit the role of defensive replacement in the outfield and pinch-runner.
New York has an old, slow bench made up of Andruw Jones, Casey McGehee, Chris Stewart and Jayson Nix, so Mesa fills a distinct need down the stretch and could play his way into a key role.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: LF L.J. Hoes, Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles have employed a revolving door in left field this season, with their latest starter being reclamation project Nate McLouth.
Hoes has a line of .297/.382/.396, 5 HR, 52 RBI, 20 SB between Double- and Triple-A this season, and the 22-year-old could get an extended look in left field down the stretch. He's not currently on the 40-man roster, but the Orioles have plenty of reason to put him there and give him a shot down the stretch.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: SP Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays rotation is set moving forward, as Alex Cobb (16 GS, 7-8, 4.74 ERA) has made an unexpectedly big contribution this season and held his own in the rotation.
Should someone go down with an injury, Chris Archer is next on the totem pole to start, and he was solid in two starts earlier this season, posting a 3.86 ERA and striking out 14 in 11.2 innings. Even if there is no injury, he could play a big role out of the bullpen.
Projected AL Central Standings
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Chicago White Sox
3. Kansas City Royals
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Cleveland Indians
The AL Central has been shaping up to be a battle between the White Sox and Tigers for months now, and the two teams remain separated by just two games entering play on Wednesday.
In the end, I think the Tigers come away with the division title, albeit by no more than a couple of games, and the White Sox have to rely on the wild card to make the postseason.
The Royals have played some of their best baseball in August, as they are 13-7 thus far in the month, and they have put themselves in a good position to finish third. The Twins and Indians will battle it out for last place in the division and the worst record in the AL.
Predicted Playoff Team: Chicago White Sox
The White Sox entered the season expected to begin the rebuilding process, but instead, they find themselves right in the thick of things thanks to unexpected performances up and down the roster.
Alex Rios, Adam Dunn and Jake Peavy have all enjoyed bounce-back seasons. A.J. Pierzynski is having a career year across the board offensively, and Chris Sale has gone from setup man to staff ace.
They hold a slim two-game lead on the Tigers, and while I think Detroit catches them, they should be able to capture one of the wild-card spots in the AL.
Predicted Playoff Team: Detroit Tigers
The duo of Miguel Cabrera (.331 BA, 31 HR, 104 RBI) and Prince Fielder (.309 BA, 22 HR, 88 RBI) has lived up to the hype as the game's most productive one-two punch. The team also has a third elite hitter alongside those two with the emergence of Austin Jackson (.309 BA, 13 HR, 53 RBI) this season.
It's the pitching that remains a question mark, as the rotation is mired in inconsistency beyond ace Justin Verlander and Doug Fister, and the bullpen has been much more hittable this season after dominating last season.
Still, I think they have enough to overtake the White Sox and win the AL Central.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: 1B/DH Dan Johnson, Chicago White Sox
Last season, Johnson hit the biggest home run of his life as a Ray when he launched the game-tying shot in the bottom of the ninth in the season's final game against the Yankees. However, he was unable to find a big league job this offseason and wound up in the White Sox organization.
He's hit .266 with 27 home runs and 80 RBI this season in Triple-A, and while he has never hit for a high average in the majors, he has hit some clutch home runs in his career and could serve as a proven bat off the bench for the White Sox down the stretch.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: RP Bruce Rondon, Detroit Tigers
A 21-year-old out of Venezuela, Rondon began the season at High Single-A and was recently promoted to Triple-A, as he has risen quickly through the system.
With a fastball that touches triple digits, there is no denying his stuff, and he has dominated minor league hitters this season with a 1.31 ERA over 47 appearances and 62 strikeouts in 48 innings of work. He'll get a chance to play a major role in the Tigers bullpen down the stretch.
Projected AL West Standings
1. Texas Rangers
2. Los Angeles Angels
3. Oakland Athletics
4. Seattle Mariners
Despite a sketchy starting rotation, the Rangers continue to hold a solid six-game lead in the AL West, and with their high-powered offense, I don't think anyone will catch them for the division title.
Second place in the division could be among the best battles in baseball, as the A's continue to exceed expectations while the Angels have come up well short of their own expectations, especially following the acquisition of Zack Greinke.
The Mariners are playing their best ball of the season right now, as they have won eight of their last nine games, and with 21 games remaining against the Rangers, Angels and A's, they could play a big part in deciding how things shake out in the division.
Predicted Playoff Team: Texas Rangers
The Rangers rotation has been shaky all season, as 11 different pitchers have started a game, and one of the best of that group, Colby Lewis, is out for the season.
Matt Harrison has emerged as the staff ace, and Yu Darvish has been solid, but beyond those two, it is hit and miss as to whether you will get a quality start or not.
Luckily, their high-octane offense is still around and averaging an MLB-best 5.06 runs per game, and that alone should be enough for them to hold onto their current six-game lead in the AL West and win the division.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: RP Steven Geltz, Los Angeles Angels
The Angels bullpen has been a question mark this season, even after the team added lights-out closer Ernesto Frieri, and the veteran group will benefit greatly from some fresh arms come September.
Of the group of potential reinforcements, the 24-year-old Geltz appears to be in the best position to make a notable impact. After dominating Double-A to the tune of a 0.31 ERA in 25.1 innings of work, he has been solid in Triple-A as well, and he's tallied 10 saves on the season.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: IF/OF Grant Green, Oakland Athletics
Green was the team's first-round pick back in 2009, and while he was originally drafted as a shortstop, he has seen action all over the field in recent years, playing everywhere but first base, catcher and pitcher.
His power has not developed as the team hoped it would following a 20-home run season in 2010, but he has still posted solid numbers this season with a .296/.341/.454, 13 HR, 67 RBI line. He could help out immediately down the stretch, as second base and shortstop are both incredibly weak at the big league level.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: SS Jurickson Profar, Texas Rangers
Squarely in the argument for best prospect in baseball right now, Profar has a line of .278/.361/.456, 14 HR, 62 RBI, 15 SB as a 19-year-old at Double-A this season.
The Rangers already called up another highly-touted prospect in slugger Mike Olt, and the team is reportedly giving some serious thought to calling Profar up as well (h/t Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas). Where he factors in with Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus manning the middle infield remains to be seen, but it would be a significant move regardless.
Projected NL East Standings
1. Washington Nationals
2. Atlanta Braves
3. New York Mets
4. Philadelphia Phillies
5. Miami Marlins
No division in baseball has a bigger gap between the top and bottom teams, as the Mets, Phillies and Marlins are all at least 20 games out of first place, while the Nationals and Braves have two of the three best records in the NL.
The Braves have played well in the second half and look like serious contenders, but the Nationals have been the best team in baseball to this point, and even with the impending shutdown of Stephen Strasburg, they have the horses to win the division.
That said, expect Atlanta to be the top wild card in the NL and to be an incredibly tough draw for whoever takes the second wild-card spot.
Predicted Playoff Team: Atlanta Braves
The Braves have had their problems this season, specifically in the starting rotation, but the trio of Ben Sheets, Kris Medlen and Paul Maholm has been phenomenal in shoring up the staff.
Offensively, they will benefit greatly from the return of Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, and while Dan Uggla and Brian McCann are struggling through down seasons, the team still has enough to make the postseason.
Once there, the team is backed by one of the best bullpens in baseball and can rally behind the fact that this is Chipper Jones' final season.
Predicted Playoff Team: Washington Nationals
The Nationals have been the best team in baseball to this point, and it is on the strength of the best pitching staff in all of baseball.
Even with Stephen Strasburg set to be shut down, the team has a capable starter in John Lannan ready to step in and will still have a pair of ace-caliber starters in Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez.
Offensively, Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse have turned it on in the second half, and Ian Desmond is back after an oblique injury. They shouldn't have any problems hitting enough to back their terrific pitching, and they are in a great position to finish with the best record in the NL.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: RP Cory Gearrin, Atlanta Braves
In his third full season at Triple-A, the 26-year-old Gearrin has been terrific since the start of 2011 with a 1.50 ERA and 10.89 K/9.
He earned a 12-game look earlier this season and posted a 0.79 ERA in 11.1 innings of work before being optioned back to the minors when Tommy Hanson was activated. The back of the Braves bullpen is strong, so he won't be relied on to be more than a middle reliever, but he should give Atlanta another reliable arm.
Contender's Top September Call-Up, SP John Lannan, Washington Nationals
Lannan may be the single most important September call-up in all of baseball, as he will be asked to step into Stephen Strasburg's rotation spot once he is shut down for the season.
Not many teams have the luxury of someone like Lannan waiting in Triple-A for his chance, as he ended up being the odd man out in the Nationals rotation this season despite a 10-13 record and 3.70 ERA last season.
Projected NL Central Standings
1. Cincinnati Reds
2. Pittsburgh Pirates
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Chicago Cubs
6. Houston Astros
Even without Joey Votto, the Reds have pulled ahead of the pack in the NL Central. They currently hold a seven-game lead over the Pirates and an eight-game lead over the Cardinals; it would take a serious collapse for them to not win the division.
The Pirates and Cardinals are an interesting pair, as it is a matchup of the young, inexperienced upstart against the defending champions and all of their postseason experience.
In the end, I think the Pirates hold on and take second in the division, but regardless, the Central division has a legitimate chance at sending three teams to the playoffs.
Predicted Playoff Team: Cincinnati Reds
The Reds have benefited greatly from the health of their starting pitching, as 123 of their 124 starts on the season have been made by their Opening Day starting rotation.
The lineup has not been so lucky, as they have been without superstar Joey Votto since July 15, but in his absence, Todd Frazier (.294/.351/.562, 18 HR, 55 RBI) has stepped up big-time.
Once Votto returns—as long as the pitching stays healthy—the Reds should run away with the NL Central. They have to be viewed as one of the favorites for the NL pennant.
Predicted Playoff Team: Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates rode what appeared to be an over-performing pitching staff and the offensive production of Andrew McCutchen to an impressive first half, but few expected them to maintain that level of play.
Flash forward to August, and the pitching staff, led by A.J. Burnett (15-4, 3.54 ERA), still ranks among the best in baseball. McCutchen, meanwhile continues to carry the offense, and he has gotten some help from Neil Walker, Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez.
In a similar position last season, the Pirates collapsed, but they look to have the pieces to make a legitimate run at the postseason. If they can hold off the Cardinals in their own division, they should be able to take the second wild-card spot in the NL.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: SS/PR Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds
Perhaps the most talked-about minor leaguer of 2012, Hamilton has stolen an absolutely ridiculous 143 bases on the season, but he's also hit a solid .318/.415/.435 as his offensive game has taken a big step forward this season.
There are some things working against him as far as a call-up is concerned, and chief among them is his shaky glove. He's tallied 31 errors on the season and could offset any good done by his wheels with costly defensive miscues.
He's also not currently on the 40-man roster, meaning some finagling would need to take place to call him up. That said, the Reds may throw caution to the wind and call up the 21-year-old, even if it's to use him as nothing more than a pinch-runner.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: RP Victor Black, Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates have a handful of relievers on the 40-man roster who will likely see time in September, including Bryan Morris and Evan Meek.
However, it is a pitcher not currently on the 40-man roster that could make the biggest impact in Double-A reliever Victor Black. The 2009 supplemental-round pick has posted a 1.86 ERA and eight saves along with 77 strikeouts in 53.1 innings in his first season at Double-A. He profiles as the team's closer of the future.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: SP Shelby Miller, St. Louis Cardinals
When Miller opened the season in Triple-A, it seemed inevitable that he would make his big league debut in 2012, but he has struggled to a 5.04 ERA over 25 starts.
However, he is 4-0 with a 3.31 ERA and 12.4 K/9 over his past five starts, as he is once again showing the lights-out stuff that made him one of the best pitching prospects in baseball entering the season.
He won't start, but he could have a Lance Lynn-type impact out of the bullpen down the stretch, though his role will largely depend on where the Cardinals find themselves in the standings come September 1.
Projected NL West Standings
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
2. San Francisco Giants
3. Arizona Diamondbacks
4. San Diego Padres
5. Colorado Rockies
The loss of Melky Cabrera was a major blow to the Giants. It has to push the Dodgers into the position of favorite in the NL West.
With the Braves and either the Pirates or Cardinals looking like the front-runners for the two wild-card spots, it will likely take winning the division to make the postseason in the NL West.
The Giants still have a phenomenal pitching staff, but the Dodgers are starting to put things together with their midseason acquisitions. They appear poised to overtake the Giants.
The Diamondbacks remain on the fringe just five games back, and don't count them, out as they gained valuable experience in their surprise postseason run last season.
Predicted Playoff Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers were as active as anyone at the deadline, and while Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton are off to slow starts in Los Angeles, they struck gold with the acquisition of Hanley Ramirez. The Marlins cast-off has a .310 BA with five homers and 28 RBI in 25 games with the team.
His addition gives the Dodgers another impact bat alongside Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, while catcher A.J. Ellis continues to enjoy a breakout season.
The rotation could be stronger, but with ace Clayton Kershaw leading the way and Chris Capuano, Chad Billingsley and Aaron Harang all posting ERAs below 4.00, the rotation is in solid shape. Pair that with a lights-out bullpen, and the Dodgers are in a good position to win the NL West.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: SP Tyler Skaggs, Arizona Diamondbacks
The prize of the Dan Haren trade back in 2010, Skaggs is among the top pitching prospects in all of baseball and has reached Triple-A this season at just 20 years old.
Over two levels, he's gone 9-6 with a 2.87 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 122.1 innings of work. He has dominated every step of the way.
The Diamondbacks rotation is more or less set with Patrick Corbin filling the No. 5 spot, but Skaggs could still make an impact out of the bullpen or in case of injury down the stretch.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: SP Stephen Fife, Los Angeles Dodgers
Fife made three starts earlier this season, bridging the gap between the team trading Nathan Eovaldi and acquiring Joe Blanton on waivers.
The 25-year-old pitched well, posting a 2.16 ERA in 16.2 innings over the three starts, although he did walk nine batters compared to just seven strikeouts.
Still, with Blanton struggling mightily (4 GS, 0-3, 7.71 ERA) since joining the team, Fife could very well find himself making some key starts down the stretch in what should be a tight race for the division title.
Contender's Top September Call-Up: LF Gary Brown, San Francisco Giants
Brown announced himself as a top prospect in his first full pro season last year, as he hit .336 with 14 home runs, 80 RBI, 115 runs and 53 stolen bases at High Single-A.
With the recent suspension of Melky Cabrera, the Giants are in need of a short-term solution in left, and that may very well be Brown, who has held his own in Double-A this season.
A center fielder his entire pro career, Brown has not so coincidentally been seeing time in left field since Cabrera was suspended (h/t SF Bay), and it could be only a matter of time before he's in the big league lineup.
NL Wild Card Matchup: Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Atlanta Braves
Winner: Atlanta Braves
The pitching matchup for this one is a pair of seasoned veterans having very good seasons in A.J. Burnett and Tim Hudson, and runs are at a premium with guys pitching on top of their game.
Brian McCann, who has struggled all season, comes through with a big two-run double in the eighth inning giving the Braves a 4-2 lead, and this time Craig Kimbrel slams the door in the ninth for the save.
AL Wild Card Matchup: Chicago White Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays
Winner: Tampa Bay Rays
In a matchup of dominant lefties and AL Cy Young contenders, Chris Sale outduels David Price over seven innings and leaves with a 2-1 lead.
Brett Myers comes on and pitches a scoreless ninth, but rookie Addison Reed crumbles under the pressure in the bottom of the ninth and blows the save and the game as the Rays come through with some walk-off magic once again.
NLDS Matchup: No. 1 Washington Nationals vs. WC Atlanta Braves
Winner: Washington Nationals
These two teams have met 13 times so far this season, and the Nationals hold a significant 9-4 advantage. Their pitching staff has held the Braves under four runs per game.
I expect it to be more of the same, as the Nationals still have the superior pitching staff, and the offense is more or less a wash at this point. We'll say Nationals in five games, with the team getting just enough sporadic contributions up and down the lineup to win games.
NLDS Matchup: No. 2 Cincinnati Reds vs. No. 3 Los Angeles Dodgers
Winner: Cincinnati Reds
The Game 1 matchup of Johnny Cueto and Clayton Kershaw will go a long way towards determining how this series plays out, as the two rotations are very comparable once you get past the aces.
The two aces will split Games 1 and 4, and the difference maker will wind up being Mat Latos, who silences any remaining critics of his costly offseason acquisition. Latos notches big wins in Games 2 and 5 to give the Reds the series in five.
ALDS Matchup: No. 1 Texas Rangers vs. WC Tampa Bay Rays
Winner: Texas Rangers
This is the classic matchup of offense versus defense, as the Rangers have won despite their starting pitching this season, and the Rays have hit just enough to back their fantastic staff.
You can say pitching wins championships all you want, but this one won't even be close. The Rangers do what they do best and pile up runs on the Rays.
David Price gets the win in Game 1, but he comes back on short rest for Game 4 and gets shelled as the Rangers take the series in four games and head to the ALCS.
ALDS Matchup: No. 2 New York Yankees vs. No. 3 Detroit Tigers
Winner: New York Yankees
In a rematch of last season's ALDS, the Yankees exact some revenge this time around as they bump the Tigers from the postseason.
Justin Verlander will single-handedly make it a tight series, but as has been the case much of the season, no one in the rotation will step up behind him. Doug Fister and Max Scherzer will both get chased early in their starts.
Verlander throws a gem in Game 4, flirting with a no-hitter before settling with a complete-game shutout, to pull the series to 2-2, but the Yankees get to Fister again in Game 5 to advance to the ALCS.
NLCS Matchup: No. 1 Washington Nationals vs. No. 2 Cincinnati Reds
Winner: Cincinnati Reds
The Reds and Nationals have appeared to be on a collision course in the NLCS for some time now, and with the Giants absorbing the Melky Cabrera hit, it seems more likely now than ever.
The Nationals have the edge in pitching, but not by as much as you'd think, as the Reds can shorten games just as well as the Nationals with their terrific late-relief pitching, led by Aroldis Chapman.
The difference here will be which team was hot offensively, and I think Joey Votto will have a big NLCS after a rough showing in the NLDS to take home NLCS MVP honors.
Reds head to the World Series, winning a thrilling series in seven games.
ALCS Matchup: No. 1 Texas Rangers vs. No. 2 New York Yankees
Winner: Texas Rangers
The Rangers have their sights set on finding out whether or not the third time is in fact a charm, and with the offense firing on all cylinders, they roll over the Yankees.
Derek Holland recaptures last year's postseason form and wins ALCS MVP with two dominant starts, but the game of the series is the matchup of Japanese imports Hiroki Kuroda and Yu Darvish as they match zeros through seven innings before the Rangers finally scratch across a run in the ninth against the Yankees pen.
The Yankees will sneak out one win in the series, but the Rangers will capture their third straight AL pennant and send New York packing in five games.
World Series Matchup: No. 1 Texas Rangers vs. No. 2 Cincinnati Reds
Winner: Texas Rangers
After giving everything they had to put away the Nationals in the NLCS, the Reds come out flat in the World Series and drop the first two games in Cincinnati.
From there, it's a cakewalk for the Rangers in front of a raucous home crowd, and they take home their first World Series title in dominant fashion with a sweep.
Postseason juggernaut Nelson Cruz does it again, putting up gaudy numbers over the four games to capture World Series MVP, and the Rangers enjoy themselves for a short time before remembering they have to make a decision about the future of Josh Hamilton.