Handicapping the American League Playoff Race
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As we close in on August, the best of baseball is yet to be played. While each division offers its own intrigue for who will win the pennants, the advent of two wild-card spots ensures that even more teams are in on the fun.
Last year, the Tigers won the AL Central and went on to represent the American League in the World Series. This year, they look to be equally strong, but the rest of the league might have something to say about that. The Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland A's and Boston Red Sox, among others, all have legitimate claims as the AL's top contender.
Let's take a look at the divisional races and handicap each contender's chances at playing in October.
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As always, the AL East is one of the MLB's premier divisions. This year, four teams could conceivably make the playoffs from the division. But this writer thinks that it's not worth putting all of your marbles into the Yankees' basket.
It's a three-horse race between Tampa Bay, Boston and Baltimore, with each team having a great shot at making the postseason.
Currently, the Rays carry a half-game lead over Boston and a lead of 4.5 games on Baltimore. They are as hot as can be, but we know all too well that any of these teams could have a late-season surge to take the pennant.
Tampa Bay Rays
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After a slow start to the season, the Tampa Bay Rays are a scalding hot 21-3 in their last 24 games. This streak catapulted the Rays into first place in the AL East and right back into the public eye.
Though the Rays always seem to be forgotten in the offseason, this team retools year after year. This offseason, they dealt a quality starter in James Shields to the Kansas City Royals. In return, they got one of the biggest pieces to their resurgence: Wil Myers. Though he's only been in the bigs for 32 games, Myers is batting .323 and providing great protection for Evan Longoria in the middle of the order.
With the return of David Price and strong play from the likes of Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Chris Archer, this rotation got way more dangerous as well. Add in the sixth-ranked offense in the majors, and you have a recipe for a division title.
The Rays may not keep up this current hot streak, but I fully expect them to capture the AL East crown and make some noise in the playoffs.
Boston Red Sox
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The Boston Red Sox are one of the more perplexing playoff contenders in the American League.
Make no mistake, this team hits the ball like no other, leading the league in runs scored, among other offensive categories. But on the other side of the coin, the pitching staff ranks 16th in the majors with an ERA of 3.88. If the team continues to hit at such an impressive rate, this may not be a problem, but watch out if that bats slow down.
Right now, the Red Sox are pretty healthy and safely hold one of the two wild-card spots in the AL. While I wouldn't count them out for catching up to the Rays, I think Tampa Bay is a more complete team. Regardless, I fully expect the Red Sox to be playing baseball in October thanks to the wild card.
The Baltimore Orioles are young and are a bit behind the pace in the AL East at 4.5 games back of the Rays. Still, this team currently occupies one of the two wild-card spots and, for my money, might have the most dangerous lineup in baseball.
With Manny Machado and Chris Davis manning the corners, the Orioles have two absolute studs in the infield. Add in Adam Jones and Nick Markakis in the outfield, and this lineup looks even scarier. The O's rank first in slugging percentage and third in runs scored, meaning this team can run with anyone.
The biggest concern for the Orioles, though, is their pitching. Not only has Jim Johnson been a brutal closer, but the team ranks 20th in quality starts and 28th in team ERA. If they are to make the playoffs, this will to have to improve.
With the acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez and the possibility of another pitcher coming in at the deadline, I think the O's will shore up their pitching enough to earn a wild-card berth.
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Last year, the Indians finished 20 games behind the first-place Tigers after a strong start to the season. This year, things look to be a bit different. As August approaches, the Indians are only three games back of Detroit.
With a roster that is much less talented than the team they're chasing, can the Indians make up the ground. Will their pitching staff step up to match their fifth-ranked offense? We'll find out these questions as time goes on.
For now, let's look at both teams' chances of making the postseason.
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The reigning American League champions are continuing to do what they've always done: hit the ball. Between Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter and Jhonny Peralta, they are mashing the ball for a league-best team batting average of .279.
What makes the Tigers most dangerous is the fact that they're not one-dimensional. This team can flat out pitch too. It also leads the majors in quality starts with 67.
The Tigers have had problems with their relief pitching this year, which explains the drop-off from being first in quality starts to 11th in team ERA. If they can acquire an arm or two for the 'pen, and you know they will, the boys from Detroit may just become the favorites to represent the American League again in the World Series.
If you're a betting man, you can take it to the bank that this bunch will win the AL Central.
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I know that I already stated my opinion on the fate of the AL Central. I also already handed out two wild-card spots to AL East teams. So I think everyone knows where this is going, but I would be remiss without giving some credit to the Cleveland Indians.
This team has been out of contention for a number of years, but things are starting to come together in Cleveland. The team's offense is strong, powered by the likes of Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana. This core group is fairly young and should be a key part of the team's future success.
Still, I have to explain why the Indians won't make the playoffs. While the Tigers are one reason, my biggest concern lies with their pitching. The Indians rank 22nd in team ERA and 24th in quality starts. For a team whose offense is good but not prolific, that's just not enough in the ultra-competitive American League.
If the Indians can somehow pull off a trade for a big-time starting pitcher, I might reconsider my prognostication. But for now, this improving team shapes up to be on the outside looking in at season's end.
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Though the Angels had another banner offseason, signing Josh Hamilton away from the rival Rangers, they haven't amounted to much of anything. Meanwhile, prognosticators and fans alike underestimated the Oakland A's, who currently carry a five-game lead over the Rangers.
This division is another two-horse race, as the Angels and the Seattle Mariners are 12 games back in third place.
Let's dive in and see what lies ahead for both teams.
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It's almost August, and none of us should be surprised that the A's are in first place. I'll save you the multiple-paragraph diatribe about Moneyball, Billy Beane and all that jazz, but this franchise knows how to draft and put together a team.
The A's have the trademark of most successful playoff teams: deep pitching and timely hitting. The A's staff leads the majors in WHIP, a category that often gets overlooked. However, one of the best ways to keep team off the scoreboard is to keep the runners off the base paths.
In addition, the A's have one of those offenses that doesn't make sense. Ranking 22nd in the majors in batting average and 10th in runs scored, this team is efficient. Led by the likes of Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Coco Crisp and Jed Lowrie, the team is balanced.
One of the keys for the A's to secure their status as a contender should be acquiring another bat. As efficient as they've been, you can't count on the runs to outpace the team's hitting in this way. The A's should be looking for a solid second baseman to replace Eric Sogard, who really doesn't offer much at the plate.
Though the Rangers have the ammunition to make bigger acquisitions like they did with Matt Garza, the A's have a five game lead and staying power. Expect to see these boys back in October.
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Finally, we have the Texas Rangers, a team that we've grown accustomed to seeing in the American League playoffs. This year, the Rangers have a different look than usual, as they no longer retain the services of Josh Hamilton. Still, they have talent up and down the lineup and a stronger rotation.
With the acquisition of Matt Garza, the Rangers upped the ante in the AL West. For a team that lacked a true No. 2 pitcher behind Yu Darvish, Garza was the best the market could offer. Behind them, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and Martin Perez round out a rotation that ranks 22nd in quality starts.
Texas obviously suffers statistically from pitching in Arlington Ballpark, but it will need to be much better to catch up to the A's. Though one shouldn't buy too much into this number, the Rangers are currently given a 34.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN.
If Elvis Andrus picks up his hitting, Nelson Cruz avoids suspension for PED use and the pitching improves, the team stands a shot. But still, the competition in the American League is as stiff as ever, and I don't see it happening this time around for Texas.