Separating the World Series Contenders from Pretenders

Christopher Benvie@CSBenvie81Correspondent IISeptember 26, 2012

Separating the World Series Contenders from Pretenders

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    Things in Major League Baseball are getting real.

    Though the season has provided fans with an amazing outpouring of quality baseball, drama and an elongated period of time to pray for your team to claim a wild-card slot, the postseason partygoers have just about all received their tickets to the show.

    The problem is, some teams are in for a rude awakening come October. Others will benefit from a long, and increasingly brisk, postseason.

    The question that remains now is simply this: Who is legit and who is not? Which teams can actually make it to the big dance, and which ones are just not good enough?

    Let's take a look.

New York Yankees

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    The New York Yankees have been quietly surging at the right time.

    After posting just average records in July (13-13) and August (15-13), the Yanks have been playing extremely hot baseball in the month of September, posting a 15-9 record through their first 24 games this month. That includes a stretch of seven straight wins.

    What has been particularly impressive about the Yankees' run this season is their perseverance in the face of injuries. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia and Mariano Rivera are just a handful of names that have been sidelined for some length of time or other.

    However, the Empire continues to strike back. Only the Texas Rangers have a better record in the American League.

    Of course, there are weaknesses in the armor. To begin, the team is 11th overall in team batting average at .261. Is that the be-all, end-all for October success? Of course not. However, what should raise a red flag is the fact that they rank 12th overall in team ERA at 3.86. Seven playoff teams own better team ERAs than the Yankees.

    What is mildly concerning is the fact that the Yankees are 26-26 on the season against the Orioles, White Sox, Tigers, A's and Rangers. Yes, they've outscored their opponents 249-239, but fans should be cautious of that "it could go either way" record.

    In the month of September the Yanks are 20th in team ERA at 4.16 (fifth among AL contenders). They also own a .249 team batting average this month, fourth among AL contenders but just 17th in MLB.

    Contenders or Pretenders?

    The 2012 New York Yankees are pretenders.

    In order for the Yankees to be considered serious contenders, one would need to have faith that CC Sabathia is hitting his stride at the right time.

    Quite the contrary. Sabathia had been 0-3 in his last five starts with a 3.60 ERA, but he might be turning it around given Wednesday's eight-inning, two-run effort to get the win.

    That's not all. The rest of the starting pitching staff, in 23 games, is 7-8 with a 5.12 ERA in the last 30 days.

Chicago White Sox

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    There is no debating the fact that the Chicago White Sox are having a great season under new skipper Robin Ventura. The team is 82-73 and held first place in the AL Central for 103 days.

    However, the month of September has not been too kind to them, as they own just their second sub-.500 month on the season with a 10-14 record. The first half of the season saw the team go 47-38. The second half has not been as kind, as the ChiSox have gone just 35-35.

    They've posted a 26-31 record against the likes of the Orioles, Tigers, Dodgers, Brewers, Yankees, A's, Cardinals and Rangers. In that time, they've put up 229 runs, versus the opponents' 233. Recently, Chicago was swept by the Angels in three games and dropped two of three to the Kansas City Royals.

    Paul Konerko, who was a catalyst for the early-season success of the team, has been cold this month. He owns just a .244/.319/.439/.758 batting line.

    The team has posted an ERA of 4.31 in September, which is good enough for 21st in MLB.

    Contenders or Pretenders?

    The Chicago White Sox are pretenders.

    Chris Sale, Gavin Floyd, Jake Peavy, Francisco Liriano and Jose Quintana have combined for 25 starts this month. Over the last 26 days, that has equated to a record of 7-13 with a 5.45 ERA.

    If your rotation isn't clicking and your bats are cold, the fight won't last long.

Texas Rangers

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    Everything is bigger in Texas: the hair, the cars...the expectations. After making it to the big dance in 2010 and 2011 and coming up short, the Rangers are expected to win it all this season. Third time's a charm, right?

    With a 91-64 record, they are the best team on paper in the American League. They've been in first place in the AL West for 151 days, despite cooling off slightly in the second half.

    In the first half, the Rangers posted a 52-34 record, which compelled folks to think this team was easily winning 100 games. The second half of the season has seen the team post a 39-30 record, which is by no means bad, just slightly more down to earth.

    The Rangers own a 27-24 record against potential playoff teams this season—Orioles, White Sox, Tigers, Yankees, A's and Giants—outscoring them 295 runs to 269.

    However, there is reason for Rangers fans to be timid. Despite the fact that the team owns the best batting average in the league this season (.274), they have been slumping this month with a .249 average (16th in MLB).

    The silver lining? Sixteenth in MLB is still third among AL contenders. The team's 4.04 ERA is 16th overall this month and fourth among AL contenders.

    Contenders or Pretenders?

    The Texas Rangers are contenders. The team is getting offense from all over the place. Adrian Beltre is batting .310 this month and has become the late-season MVP of the team.

    Michael Young adds a .326 average, while David Murphy is batting .281. Lest we forget, Craig Gentry has averaged .348 this month as well.

    As for the pitching staff, the starters have gone 13-5 with an impressive 3.06 ERA in 25 games in September. The likely 1-2-3 men of the postseason rotation in Derek Holland, Yu Darvish and Ryan Dempster are 11-1 in 16 starts.

Detroit Tigers

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    The Detroit Tigers have been nothing but full of fight this season. They just seized first place in the AL Central with the White Sox with an 83-72 record and have been in first place for 26 days this season.

    In the first half of the season, the Tigers were barely above a .500 team, posting a 44-42 record. The second half has seen them play a bit better, posting a 39-30 record, while reverting to the .500 ways this month, posting a 13-11 record.

    Against the Orioles, White Sox, Reds, Yankees, A's, Cardinals and Rangers this season, the Tigers are 30-29 and have outscored said opponents 269-267.

    Those numbers don't exactly jump off the page at you, do they? However, the Tigers are just now hitting their stride. In the month of September, the team owns a 3.27 ERA, the best of all AL contenders, while posting a .266 team batting average—eighth in MLB this month and second among AL counterparts. 

    Contenders or Pretenders?

    The Detroit Tigers are going to be contenders. Look at it for what it is: The team has Justin Verlander, a perennial Cy Young Award candidate, and Miguel Cabrera, a perennial MVP candidate.

    Beyond the obvious, as a whole the pitching staff has been incredible. Anibal Sanchez, Verlander, Doug Fister, Mad Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have combined this month to start 26 games and post an 11-9 record with a 3.04 ERA.

    Let me repeat that...a 3.04 ERA.

    As for the offense? Cabrera is batting .315, Austin Jackson is batting .306 and Prince Fielder is batting .277 this month with five homers; it would appear that the offense is doing just fine as well.

Baltimore Orioles

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    The hashtag #BUCKLEUP seems to be extremely appropriate for the 2012 Baltimore Orioles.

    Easily, this team is the best story in baseball this season. From the gutters of 2011, the O's have risen to elite status and are hanging with all the big boys.

    Though they are in second place in the AL East right now, the Orioles own a 89-67 record and have spent 51 days in first place. They started the season strong, posting a 45-40 record, and then made everyone believers this half of the season with a 44-27 record, 17 games over .500.

    Having an 18-9 August followed by a 16-9 September hasn't hurt all that much either. Against the Braves, White Sox, Tigers, Yankees, A's, Rangers and Nationals this season, the O's are 30-27, even though they've been outscored 272 runs to 245. Unconventional? You bet.

    This season, the O's are 15-2 in extra-inning games. They have won 11 consecutive extra-inning games on the road, an MLB single-season record. The team is also 27-8 in one-run games and has won 16 extra-inning games in a row. Only the 1949 Indians won more consecutive extra-inning games, with 17.

    Contenders or Pretenders?

    Typically it is never recommended to bet on intuition. However, that is how I have to lean here—the Baltimore Orioles are contenders.

    The team owns a 3.50 ERA this month, ninth-best in MLB but second-best among AL contenders. Their .267 team batting average is seventh in MLB but first among AL contenders.

    As for their starting pitching, the O's front five were only 8-9 this month in 24 games. However, they own a 3.60 ERA. The offense is clicking with Matt Wieters, Chris Davis and Adam Jones combining for a .314 average.

    The O's have been good, they've been lucky and they've been exciting to watch. With fall baseball, any game could be had, and if it's a close game, the house money will be on the O's.

Oakland Athletics

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    The Oakland A's are another amazing story this season. They are 88-67, second in the AL West, and have just hung around all season long.

    The A's went 43-43 over the first half of the season. The record was enough to make one raise an eyebrow, but not quite enough to take the team seriously. Then, of course, the 45-24 second half of the season happened. You know, the one that saw the team go 21 games over .500, ignited by a 19-5 July.

    Against the Orioles, White Sox, Tigers, Dodgers, Yankees, Giants and Rangers, the A's are just 29-27, and like the O's, they have been outscored, by a total of 241 to 239 runs.

    The team has a .240 batting average in the month of September. If you're wondering, that is 22nd in MLB. On the flip side, they also own a 3.72 ERA this month, which is 13th in MLB but third among AL contenders.

    Contenders or Pretenders?

    This is a tough call, but the Oakland A's are going to be contenders. Yes, the team ERA is not the greatest, and the bats, in general, have fallen silent. However, there is plenty of hope in Oaktown.

    Before Wednesday's action, Brandon Moss was batting .357 this month. Cliff Pennington was batting .308, and Jonny Gomes added a .294 average.

    Their starting pitchers—consisting of Tommy Milone, Brett Anderson, A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker and Dan Strailey—were 13-6 in 24 games with a 3.25 ERA.

    That, my friends, is inspiring.

Washington Nationals

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    The leaders of the new school, the Washington Nationals are 94-61 this season and have spent 142 days in first place in the NL East.

    They started the season with a 49-34 record and have added a 45-27 record this second half. The fewest wins the Nats have this season in a complete month was April, when they went 14-8.

    Against the likes of the Braves, Orioles, Reds, Dodgers, Brewers, Yankees, Giants and Cardinals, the Nats have gone 32-26 while outscoring opponents by a margin of 282 runs to 217. Looking a bit closer at those totals, facing just NL contenders, the Nats are 30-19 with a 256-185 run differential.

    In the month of September, the team is fourth in all of Major League Baseball in team batting average at .281, second among NL contenders. Their pitchers have been OK as a whole with the 11th-best ERA in September at 3.57, fourth among NL contenders.

    Contenders or Pretenders?

    So, do the Nats have enough Nattitude to make it to the World Series this season? I believe so. The Washington Nationals are contenders.

    Over the last 30 days before Wednesday's action, the offense has been powered by the likes of Ian Desmond, who is leading the team with a .354 average, as well as Chad Tracy, Kurt Suzuki, Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper—all of whom own averages over .300 in September.

    As for the pitching staff, yes, they lost Strasburg. So what? In 23 games, Ross Detwiler, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan have combined for a 3.68 ERA and an impressive 13-3 record.

    Gonzalez has cemented himself as a legit top-of-the-rotation starter. He is 3-1 this month with a 1.08 ERA in four starts. Opponents should be thanking the Nats for shutting down Strasburg.

Cincinnati Reds

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    The Cincinnati Reds sit just behind the Washington Nationals for the best record in all of baseball at 93-62. They have been in first place of the NL Central for 107 days and counting.

    To start the season, the Reds went 47-38 and followed it up with a 46-24 second half to date. In other words, they've been really, really good this season. Oh, and they did it with their MVP, Joey Votto, on the shelf for a large chunk of the season.

    Against the Braves, Tigers, Dodgers, Brewers, Yankees, Giants, Cardinals and Nationals, the Reds have gone 30-28 with a bite-size run differential deficit of 204-210. Against just NL contenders, that margin stays about the same: 27-25 with a 179-184 differential.

    In the month of September, the Reds are sixth overall in ERA at 3.24, which is second among NL contenders, but they are 28th in team batting average at .229.

    That's the lowest of the remaining playoff hopefuls.

    Contenders or Pretenders?

    Don't be mistaken—the Cincinnati Reds are very much contenders.

    In the 30 days before Wednesday's action, they have gotten significant bat support out of Xavier Paul, who is batting .323, Dioner Navarro and his .326 average and, of course, Joey Votto's .315.

    The Reds starting pitchers have posted a 12-6 record over the last 25 games with a 3.66 ERA, led by Mat Latos and his 3-0 record and 2.52 ERA in five games.

    Across the board, this team has far too much talent to go home early.

San Francisco Giants

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    The San Francisco Giants dominated the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012. The Giants are 90-65 and firmly in first place in the NL West, a place they've been for 72 days this season.

    Through the first half of the year, they were just above average with a 46-40 record. The second half of the season has seen them assert their dominance with a 44-25 record. Throw in their 16-7 record in September, and the Giants look pretty good on paper.

    Against postseason hopefuls—Braves, Reds, Dodgers, Brewers, Cardinals, Rangers and Nats—the Giants were 25-25 while being outscored 188 to 205. That should be cause for concern for Giants fans.

    In the month of September, the team owns a 3.68 ERA, which is 12th in MLB and fifth among NL contenders. On the flip side, their .296 batting average is first in MLB this month.

    Contenders or Pretenders?

    Tough call. While offensively Giants fans relish the "Melky who?" mentality, watching Marco Scutaro hit .375, Buster Posey hit .354 and Angel Pagan hit .302 this month can do that to you.

    Even looking at the pitching staff, fans should be inspired by the win totals. In the 25 games prior to Wednesday, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito are 12-5 with a 4.86 ERA.

    That's what scares me. Yes, the team is 15-7 in September, but that has come largely against the likes of the Padres, Diamondbacks, Rockies and Cubs.

    I hate to say it, but this season just doesn't feel like the Giants' year. Fire up "Back on the Chain Gang," because the Giants are pretenders.

Atlanta Braves

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    The Braves have had a fine season for themselves. It is nice to see them playing at a high level for Chipper Jones' farewell season.

    The team is 90-65 and has clinched a playoff berth. They've only spent 10 days in first all season long, but with a 46-39 first half followed by a 44-26 second half, the Braves are no easy mark.

    Against postseason hopefuls in the Orioles, Reds, Dodgers, Brewers, Yankees, Giants, Cardinals and Nationals, the Braves are 26-32 while being outscored 214-262.

    Has it been a fine season? Yes. Are those pretty statistics? Nope. That being said, the Braves have a 2.59 team ERA in the month of September, which is the second-best in all of Major League Baseball. But don't get your hopes up; their .230 team batting average places them 27th in MLB this month.

    Contenders or Pretenders?

    Martin Prado is showcasing himself as the MVP of this team. At least that seems to be the case over the 30 days prior to Wednesday night, as he hit .351 in that span. Next in line would be Dan Uggla and his .272 average, and if you're keeping tabs on Chipper, he's batting .261.

    What I like about this Braves team is their starting pitching. Kris Medlen is 9-1 with a startling 1.64 ERA this season, while Mike Minor has put up an impressive 3-0 record with a 2.12 ERA in his last five starts.

    In total, the starting five own an 11-7 record with a 3.60 ERA this month. That should be enough to classify them as contenders, correct? Possibly.

    What concerns me is the fact that Atlanta is just 17-20 this season when facing the Reds, Cardinals, Nationals and Giants.

    That said, cautiously I say that the Braves are contenders. There may still be some magic in that old Chipper Jones yet.

St. Louis Cardinals

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    The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals had a magical season. Can the 2012 incarnation rekindle that same magic? At 84-72 and appearing to have the second NL Wild Card tied up, the Cards will at least have a shot to do so.

    They have the second-best record in the NL Central and spent 44 days in first place. While their season has not been as hot as some of the other teams in the playoff picture (46-40 first half, 38-32 second half), the Cards keep winning.

    When facing the likes of the Braves, White Sox, Reds, Tigers, Dodgers, Brewers, Giants and Nationals, the Cards are 32-28, outscoring the opposition by a total of 264 to 231.

    Keeping with the "what have you done for me lately?" theme, the Cardinals own a team .252 batting average this month, which is 14th overall in MLB and fourth among NL contenders.

    The 3.47 team ERA is eighth in MLB this month.

    Contenders or Pretenders?

    The offense is certainly there. Yadier Molina is leading the charge with a .316 batting average (prior to Wednesday), while Allen Craig (.284) and David Freese (.280) are not all that far behind.

    The pitching is where fans should have concerns. Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, Adam Wainwright, Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn have combined for 24 starts and an 11-10 victory (aided by two relief wins) with a 4.10 ERA.

    That type of pitching won't win you much in this league. Sufficient to say, it definitely won't allow you to win back-to-back championships. The 2012 Cardinals are pretenders.