With the month of June winding down, the talk around baseball right now is about the upcoming All-Star Game and the looming July 31 trade deadline as teams try to decide whether to be buyers or sellers.
As playoff races and pennant pushes start to heat up, here is a look at our current division leaders as the 162-game marathon is about halfway over.
East: Boston Red Sox (45-28)
Strengths: offense, defense, starting rotation, bullpen, pitching depth
Weaknesses: Daisuke Matsuzaka, defense at shortstop
Top competition: New York Yankees (41-32), 4.0 GB
After a busy off-season in which General Manager Theo Epstein made many money-smart additions to the team; mainly improving the bullpen and adding a remarkable amount of pitching depth. With all the upgrades made, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that the Red Sox stand in first place, four games ahead of the Yankees.
Scoring runs hasn't been a trouble for this team, as Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell, Jason Bay, and Jason Varitek have all hit over 10 home runs each, as J.D. Drew has contributed nine more and David Ortiz has busted out of his slump.
Jacoby Ellsbury has improved upon his numbers from last year, hitting .307 with 30 stolen bases. Nick Green has been a pleasant surprise filling in at shortstop, hitting .284 with four home runs. Finally, we have reigning MVP Dustin Pedroia, who leads the team with 52 runs, and is also hitting .289 with 12 steals.
From the mound, Josh Beckett has reverted back to the dominant pitcher he was in 2007, compiling an 8-3 record with a 3.74 ERA and 88 strikeouts heading into his Friday start against Atlanta. Jon Lester has heated up on the hill, and Tim Wakefield and Brad Penny have time and time again left the Red Sox in position to win games.
Capitalizing on the solid work of the rotation has been one of the league's best bullpens, led by fireballers Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen, and Josh Bard, along with the ever-crafty Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, and the versatile Justin Masterson. Closing games is the lights-out Jonathan Papelbon.
Along with the great performance of the pitching staff at the Major League level, the Red Sox still have yet to unleash Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden on the hill, as both have been dominating hitters at AAA for Boston's affiliate Pawtucket. If any injuries befall the big league staff, the Sox can call up one of these kids for a-quick fix.
One issue for the Red Sox, who own the second best record in the league, has been Daisuke Matsuzaka. Dice-K is currently on his second stint on the disabled list, and has been downright dreadful when off it.
In eight starts, Matsuzaka is 1-5, with an 8.23 ERA. He has been shut down indefinitely, and will soon start rehabbing a sore shoulder in the Minor Leagues, which manager Terry Francona expects to be a long process.
Shortstop has been a slight issue, but not so much as of late. Early on, Jed Lowrie did horribly on offense, hitting .056 while trying to play through a wrist injury, and is currently on a AAA rehab assignment.
At first, fans witnessed a Nick Green/Julio Lugo platoon, which was expected to be a showcase of ineptitude on the diamond and at the plate. However, Green has been swinging a hot bat this year, and his defense, which was sloppy at first, has picked up as of late.
The Red Sox have a pretty comfortable lead with the way they are playing, but they can never be too careful about the Yankees, or both the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays. This could very well be a four-team playoff race, and the leader today could be in third place next week.
Central: Detroit Tigers (41-32)
Strengths: offense, infield defense, starting rotation, bullpen
Weaknesses: injuries, Magglio Ordonez, back end of rotation
Top competition: Minnesota Twins (38-38), 4.5 GB
Coming into the season, I was not alone in projecting the Detroit Tigers to finish near the bottom of the American League Central. I am now eating my words, as the Tigers have been playing great baseball, and currently sit atop the Central division.
Offense has not been a problem for this team, which is led by a triumvirate of sluggers. Brandon Inge and Curtis Granderson each have 17 home runs, and All-Star first baseman Miguel Cabrera has added 15 of his own.
Last year, abysmal defense was a major contributor to the lackluster performance of the Tigers. During the off-season, and during last year's regular season, that defense has been shored up by moving Cabrera to first base, and signing shortstop Adam Everett last winter.
Cabrera is continually improving his defense at first, and Everett is doing exactly what he was brought in to do, which is play great defense. Everett is also hitting .265, and the Tigers may talk to him about an extension before he hits free agency after the season.
Along with the defense, the pitching for this team has performed a complete 180-degree turn from 2008's performance. Justin Verlander has led the team, going 8-3 with a 3.31 ERA. Complimenting their ace, Edwin Jackson has won six games, compiling a 2.40 ERA.
Rounding out the dominant trio at the top of the Tigers rotation is rookie Rick Porcello, a contender for the Rookie of the Year award. Porcello has gone 8-4 with a 3.55 ERA.
Complimenting the efforts of the rotation has been a very solid bullpen, which, like the Red Sox, can bring the heat. Joel Zumaya has been hard to hit, and Fernando Rodney continues to emerge as a reliable closer.
Brandon Lyon and Bobby Seay have handled hitters as well, but swingmen Zach Miner and Nate Robertson have struggled.
Injuries have taken their toll on players that the Tigers could use contribution from, though, as Carlos Guillen, Jeremy Bonderman, and Dontrelle Willis are all currently on the shelf. However, these guys weren't producing before they were hurt, so the three could arguably count as addition by subtraction.
One weak spot of the offense has been Magglio Ordonez. While he is still hitting a respectable .274, Maggs hasn't been living up to his purpose as a run producer, as he only has three home runs and 24 RBI at this point.
Just a few years ago, Ordonez was a premier slugger, but he has now found himself benched indefinitely, much to the chagrin of Scott Boras.
The back end of the rotation has been a trainwreck for the Tigers, as last year's pleasant surprise Armando Galarraga has gone 4-7 with a 5.65 ERA this year. Unfortunately, it's been even worse for Detroit's fifth starter this year.
Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman have shared the role, and they have both done terribly. Bonderman only got one start under his belt, notching a 13.50 ERA in a four-inning start. Willis looked to be launching a comeback from obscurity, but he eventually imploded.
Willis is currently on the DL with an anxiety problem, and has compiled a 1-4 record with a 7.49 ERA and a hideous 17/28 K/BB ratio.
The Tigers don't have a lot of competition to deal with, but if they don't watch out, they could be bitten in the behind by the Minnesota Twins, otherwise known as the piranhas if you ask Ozzie Guillen circa 2006.
West: Texas Rangers (40-32)
Strengths: offense, defense, bullpen
Weaknesses: starting pitching, depth, too aggressive at the plate
Last year, Texas had the best offense in the league. Counterbalancing that, they also had some of the league's worst pitching and defense. That was changed this winter, as the Rangers signed Omar Vizquel, and giving the starting shortstop job to Elvis Andrus.
Andrus, along with Ian Kinsler, Chris Davis, and Michael Young, has helped Texas improve vastly upon last season's sloppy infield defense. In center field, Marlon Byrd has provided great range and defensive effort in the absence of Josh Hamilton.
Obviously, offense still hasn't been a problem for this team. Even without All-Star Josh Hamilton, the Rangers offense has been tearing the cover off the ball. Nelson Cruz leads the team with 18 home runs, 45 runs batted in, and 11 stolen bases.
Second baseman Ian Kinsler has been doing even better, with 18 homers, 50 RBI, and 16 stolen bases, while also hitting .272.
Michael Young, who has been moved to third base, is hitting .307 with 10 home runs, while both Hank Blalock and Chris Davis have knocked 14 dingers each.
The bullpen has been about equivalent in success to the offense this year. Eddie Guardado has struggled, but everyone else is picking up the slack. Swingman Jason Jennings has worked 40 innings, amassing a 3.83 ERA.
Darren O'Day, C.J. Wilson, and Frank Francisco have been lights out at the back end of the 'pen. O'Day has struck out 24 batters in 26 innings, earning a sterling 1.38 ERA.
Set-up man and part-time closer, Wilson has finally gotten over the control issues that have plagued his short career. Wilson has a 2.67 ERA, while also slamming the door for seven saves filling in occasionally for the closer Francisco. Francisco only has 12 saves, but in 22 innings, he has struck out 23 batters with 1.23 ERA.
The Rangers starting pitching has been a bit shaky, though. Despite Kevin Millwood leading the way with eight wins and a 2.64 ERA, inconsistency has plagued the rest of the rotation.
Vicente Padilla has a 4.48 ERA with five wins, and Scott Feldman owns a 4.06 ERA with five wins. Those two have been decent, but Matt Harrison and rookie Derek Holland have been up and down all year. Currently, Harrison's ERA is upwards of 6.00, and Holland is just under at 5.77.
The aggressive approach at the plate has been crippling to this team at times as well. Chris Davis' struggles have been prolific, as he has hit just .210, striking out 105 times in 233 at-bats. At this point, Davis, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Nelson Cruz have combined for 237 strikeouts and a .242 batting average.
When perhaps the three guys that Texas were relying on most to drive in runs this year with Hamilton on the shelf, it will be very hard to score runs when these guys are making worse contact with Julio Lugo, especially with Chris Davis looking primed to set the single-season strikeout record.
After hitting .280 last year, what has happened to Davis' ability to make contact with the ball?
Texas is playing some very good baseball this year, but their division is by no means a lock. They currently sit just a half game ahead of Los Angeles, and Seattle is lurking not too far behind, three and a half games out.
This is one of the most wide-open races in baseball, so Texas needs to keep up this high rate of play to hold off the Angels.
East: Philadelphia Phillies (38-34)
Strengths: offense, depth, defense
Weaknesses: pitching, unwillingness to trade prospects
The defending champs certainly haven't been playing like it this year. The pitching has been dreadful, and that's putting it lightly.
The offense has been alright, but overall, this team looks a step or two below the level they played at last year to take home their first championship since 1980.
Offense hasn't been a problem for this team, with the white-hot Raul Ibanez, former MVP Ryan Howard, All-Star Chase Utley, and right fielder Jayson Werth all ripping the cover off the baseball. Jimmy Rollins has struggled, however, as his batting average sits at just .211.
Shane Victorino has lived up to his moniker as the Flyin' Hawaiian, batting .297, while scoring 49 runs and stealing 12 bases. Pedro Feliz, a defense-first type of third baseman, has also contributed, hitting .285 with 36 RBI.
The defense played by this team, primarily Feliz, Rollins, and Utley, has been at a high level all season. Howard is still sloppy at times, but he is showing promise as he tries to bring his defense near the level of his otherworldly abilities with the bat. Victorino adds more defense patrolling center field as well.
Depth and flexibility is evident with this team, not only offensively but defensively. John Mayberry and Matt Stairs are two very solid pinch-hitting options, as both can come off the bench to perform in clutch at-bats late in the game.
Greg Dobbs and Eric Bruntlett also give the team a pair of defensively talented infielders who can be stopgaps in case of injury to Rollins, Utley, or Feliz.
The starting rotation has had more than its share of troubles this season, though. Ace Cole Hamels is currently 4-4 with a 4.44 ERA, hardly acceptable numbers from your team's best pitcher. Joe Blanton, the second pitcher, has added four wins and a 5.06 ERA.
Jamie Moyer, the crafty lefty, has been far from crafty, as he has been tagged for 5.97 ERA to go along with his 5-6 record.
Brett Myers, the opening day starter, is out for the season with a hip injury, and in his place, rookie Antonio Bastardo has gone 2-3 with a 6.75 ERA, compared to Myers' 4.66.
Brad Lidge as been abysmal in the closer role, notching a 7.86 ERA while also having spent some time on the disabled list.
Continuing the trend of sub-par performance, Chad Durbin, Jack Taschner, and Chan Ho Park combine for a 5.36 ERA in 117 innings.
J.C. Romero has been effective since his return to the league, but faced a 50-game suspension from baseball to start the season due to testing positive for a banned substance.
The only other bright spot in this 'pen has been Ryan Madson, who owns a 2.97 ERA through 36 innings, also striking out 39 batters.
It has been made well known that the Phillies are looking to add a starting pitcher to try and shore up the biggest problem that has plagued the team this year.
However, the Phillies will have a hard time acquiring an Erik Bedard or Jake Peavy-type pitcher that they have been searching for due to their hesitance to give up a top prospect.
The Phillies' front office has come out and said that they will refuse to listen on top prospects Dominic Brown, Lou Marson, Kyle Drabek, Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, or Antonio Bastardo, only leaving the door open for a potential trade on prospects Michael Taylor and Jason Donald.
It seems the Phillies, who are searching for and are in great need of an impact pitcher, are trying to be beggars and choosers here. It's fine that they want to groom their prospects and give them a future in the Phillies organization, but refusing to listen on any top prospect is no way to conduct trade talks for elite talent. That's my take on it, at least.
If the Phillies want to win this division for the third year in a row, they're going to have to return to the high level of play that they used to put pressure on the Mets during their epic chokes of '07 and '08. The red-hot Marlins are right behind, as are the Mets, who are looking to redeem themselves for failures past.
Central: St. Louis Cardinals (41-35)
Strengths: offense, starting rotation, bullpen
Weaknesses: third base, outfield
The Cardinals are giving everyone a run for their money atop the National League Central, which the Cubs were favored to win yet again coming into this season. The Cardinals, 2006 World Series champions, are tired of playing second pony to the Cubs, and have thus far earned first place in the division.
Offense should never be a problem for a team that has Albert Pujols, who has hit .323 with 26 home runs and 70 RBI to this point. He isn't alone in offensive production, with Yadier Molina hitting .278 with five homers, and rookie Colby Rasmus adding seven home runs of his own.
Tony La Russa's Cardinals are sixth in the National League in runs scored, as well as third in the National League in total bases.
The biggest strength of this club, though, is its pitching. A healthy Chris Carpenter next to the talented Adam Wainwright has proved to be one of the most formidable one-two punches atop any starting rotation.
Carpenter brings five wins and a minute 1.78 ERA to the table, while living up to his status as a control artist by only walking nine batters. Wainwright complements Carpenter's style to the tune of eight wins, a 3.51 ERA and 89 strikeouts.
Also solid out of the back end of the rotation has been Joel Piniero, who has been a victim of poor run support. A control artist like Carpenter, Piniero boasts only 12 walks in 92 innings of work, while also compiling a 6-8 record with a respectable 3.40 ERA.
Ryan Franklin, Kyle McClellan, and Trever Miller have all been lights out for this team as of late. Miller, who is nearing the twilight of his career, boasts a 2.79 ERA and 20 whiffed batters.
McClellan, in only the second year of his career, has been stellar, going 2-2 with a 3.24 ERA. Finally, closing out games has been Ryan Franklin, who has been nearly unhittable this year. With 17 saves, Franklin is also the owner of a 0.96 ERA and a sparkling 0.85 WHIP.
Third base and the outfield have been problem positions for the Cardinals this year. With Troy Glaus, the team's best power hitter not named Pujols, out until at least late July, not having seen any action this season, the Cardinals are platooning Joe Thurston and Khalil Greene at the hot corner.
Among outfielders, both Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel have struggled mightily, and they have both also missed time due to injury. Ludwick, who had monster power numbers last season, is hitting .226 with 11 long balls at this point. Ankiel, who had a comeback for the ages in 2007, is hitting .240 with five homers.
Even fourth outfielder Chris Duncan has struggled. He got off to a good start, but has floundered more recently. His batting average has dipped to .249, and he has hit five home runs, while seeing his way into 69 games this year.
If the Cardinals want to go somewhere in the playoffs, it will require improved play from some of these outfielders.
The Cardinals are in first place right now, but winning the division is no sure thing. The Milwaukee Brewers are right on their heels, while both the Cubs and Reds aren't lurking too far behind either. If the Cardinals go on a prolonged skid, it may just be enough to take them out of the race.
West: Los Angeles Dodgers (48-26)
Strengths: offense, defense, starting pitching, bullpen
Weaknesses: Rafael Furcal, Russell Martin, pitching depth
Top competition: San Francisco Giants (39-33), 8.0 GB
Last, but not least, we have this year's best team in baseball. After a late season surge with the acquisition of Manny Ramirez at the trade deadline, the Dodgers were favored heavily to win the NL West this year. The Giants were also speculated to contend, but the Dodgers are just running away with it.
Even with Ramirez on a 50-game suspension, the Dodgers aren't having any trouble scoring runs or winning games. Juan Pierre has been a catalyst at the top of the lineup, batting .329 and stealing 18 bags. Orlando Hudson has been another nameless hero, as he has scored 48 runs and driven in 41 while playing great defense at second.
Matt Kemp has been all that's advertised, as he's hitting .313, with nine homers, 40 RBI, and he has also stolen 18 bases. Casey Blake has added 11 homers and 48 RBI more, but perhaps the glue of this team has been Andre Ethier.
After a stellar three home-run performance last night, Ethier is hitting .268, with 14 home runs and 49 driven in. He has been one of the best run producers on the team, and should only continue to flourish with the return of Mannywood on July 3.
As if the offense hasn't been great, the pitching for this Dodgers team has been as good if not better. Chad Billingsley, just 24 years old, is among the league's best with nine wins and a 3.10 ERA.
Wonder kid Clayton Kershaw is right behind him, going 5-5 with a 3.70 ERA. Kershaw has a knee buckling curveball, which he uses to rack up the K's, but he still gets into his share of issues regarding walks.
However, the tandem of Billingsley and Kershaw has combined for a whopping 182 strikeouts, Billingsley with 99 of them.
The Dodgers have one of the most complete rotations in the league, as they are getting quality outings up and down the list. Randy Wolf has provided a 3.64 ERA, Hiroki Kuroda has contributed a 3.44, and in a handful of starts, Eric Milton has gone 2-0 with a 2.89 ERA.
The bullpen has been equally solid. Spot starter and long reliever Jeff Weaver is 4-2 with a 3.68 ERA, making a comeback from obscurity and ineptitude on the mound. Ronald Belisario has been great, posting a 2.03 ERA through 44 innings.
Ramon Troncoso, setting up for Jonathan Broxton, has been just as good. In 47 innings of work, Troncoso has a 2.11 ERA, while also recording four saves during off-days for Broxton.
Broxton, 25, already looks like one of the best young closers in the game. Broxton is 18-for-20 in save opportunities, and has notched a 2.27 ERA while striking out 57 hitters in 35 innings.
There is weak depth among this rotation, though, and the Dodgers know it. Nobody expected Wolf or Milton to be as sharp as they have been, and if an injury befalls anyone in the rotation there isn't much to replace them. Eric Stults and Jason Schmidt are both on the disabled list, with Schmidt rehabbing currently in AAA.
The Dodgers have had so few problems this year that the problems they have had can be pinpointed to certain players. One of them has been Rafael Furcal. To say Furcal has been mediocre this year would be generous, as he is hitting .238, with three homers, 16 RBI, and four stolen bases.
His offensive stats are nothing to write home about, and his defense isn't making up for it. In 66 games at shortstop, Furcal is sporting a Lugo-like .970 fielding percentage, while also having committed eight errors.
Another issue the team has had is Russell Martin. Once viewed as one of the best catchers in the National League, Martin has been on the decline since his breakout 2007 season. Having played in 66 games, Martin has hit .249, with one home run, 21 RBI, and seven steals.
With the league's best record and one of the most complete teams around the league, look for the Dodgers to make another deep post season run, likely getting farther than the NLCS this go around. As of now, it will take an epic collapse for the Dodgers to lose this division, as they are running away with it.
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