Heading into MLB's Second Half, Only One Division Seems Settled

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Heading into MLB's Second Half, Only One Division Seems Settled

Parity is usually a word reserved for the cash-leveled playing fields of the National Football League. In Major League Baseball, the "haves" are supposed to run away with all the choicest pieces of the 162-game season, while the "have-nots" are left to nominate one or two of their rank to represent them in the postseason.

Since that's frequently the way it shakes out each season, the reputation of skewing toward the big market clubs is warranted.

But 2009 looks like a different animal.

Outside the National League West, where the big-money Los Angeles Dodgers have stuffed themselves a nice cushion to carry into the All-Star break and beyond (seven games in the loss column at the moment), everything is absolutely up for grabs.

In the American League West, everyone thinks they've got a legitimate reason to believe, and everyone but the Oakland Athletics is right. The Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels are trading the top spot, while the Seattle Mariners are within hailing distance.

In the NL Central, you have the Houston Astros (shockingly), Milwaukee Brewers (also kind of surprising given their starting pitching), St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, and Chicago Cubs all separated by two losses.

Technically, the Pittsburgh Pirates are still alive—once word filters down to the players that management is already playing for the future (again), we can officially refer to their contention in the past tense.

The AL Central is almost as muddled—the Detroit Tigers lead the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins by two defeats, while the Kansas City Royals' hopes are on the fade (despite a three-game win streak) and the Cleveland Indians never answered the bell.

Out in the NL East, the Philadelphia Phillies have opened up a bit of a gap by winning four straight, but the Florida Marlins, New York Mets, and Atlanta Braves are all clearly visible in the rearview mirror. The Washington Nationals?

Not so much.

After a sluggish start for the three-headed monster in the AL East, the beast is stirring.

A four-game losing jag by the Tampa Bay Rays proves the free-for-all isn't hitting on all cylinders yet. However, they're still a streaky club, so neither the division-leading Boston Red Sox nor the New York Yankees—nestled right up against the BoSox' hindquarters, a single loss back—are getting too comfortable.

With everyone so intimate and familiar, it seems like a good time to look forward a bit and see which post-break races will be most intriguing. I paid special attention to potential shifts in power via acquisition or return to health.

 

6. Stick a Fork in It Division—NL West

Like I said, the Bums have a big lead, and they just got an important piece back. For the life of me, I can't remember the clown's name, but he'll definitely help them keep their lead.

When the mystery man got the boot for 50, I wrote the San Francisco Giants (La La Land's closest rival) had to close the space between, which was five losses. It's now seven.

Let's just move on; the Senior Circuit's left-most quintet belongs to the Dodgers.

 

5. Anyone's Pennant and Who Cares?—AL Central

This one is sure to ruffle some feathers, and the complaints will be somewhat deserved. I'm not gonna lie—I'm in the West and a National League guy, so this division could be fantastic and I might not know.

But as far as I can tell, these teams are just boring. They're fatally flawed and, thusly, difficult to take seriously as postseason threats.

The Tigers have the inside track while persevering under a Disabled List heavy with names like Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson (who just had elbow surgery), and Carlos Guillen.

None of those guys figures to make a huge difference, and considering how much scratch Detroit has shredded on Gary Sheffield and Magglio Ordonez, they won't add expensive names for the stretch.

The Twinkies are never buyers at the deadline and just placed 2009 staff ace Kevin Slowey on the shelf. Of course, Francisco Liriano has been a shadow of the hurler they thought they had, so a ship-righting would help the cause.

Still...

The Pale Hose have to be the favorites heading into the Dog Days and September.

The ChiSox are right there, waiting on Carlos Quentin and his plantar fasciitis (he's on a rehab assignment as I type), and can probably plan on a better finish than start from Alexei Ramirez.

Chicago might even go window shopping before the deadline. Nevertheless, barring a monumental purchase, even this squad doesn't figure to be a contender once in the second half of the season.

 

4. Could Be Fun to Watch the Bottom Fall Out—NL East

With all due respect, I'm skipping the Fish and the Bravos.

Florida's around because everyone else is struggling, and it's playing a little over its head. That should change pretty soon.

I've never been a believer in Hotlanta—Derek Lowe was an overrated acquisition, as was Kenshin Kawakami.

Tommy Hanson looks to be the real deal, but that's good news for 2010.

That means it's going to come down to the usual suspects—the Phightins and the Mutts.

This rivalry is the mortgage bust to the Yankee-Red Sox Internet bubble—instead of two franchises gunning for each other and catching everyone else in the crossfire, these antagonists follow a more slapstick approach.

Usually, the Phils lie in wait as the Metropolitans start off with both hands on the pennant. In 2007 and 2008, New York found incredibly novel and entertaining ways of dropping the flag.

In 2009, the baseball gods are sparing New York the trouble—instead of mental anguish on the back side, they're sending physical agony early and often. Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Oliver Perez, John Maine, J.J. Putz—and those are only the key injuries.

There are more.

Philly, meanwhile, hasn't been playing great baseball, and that's the worst news yet.

While Cole Hamels struggled, Brad Lidge scuffled, Jimmy Rollins sputtered, J.C. Romero served his substance suspension, Brett Myers went down for the year, and the injury bug bit Raul Ibanez. Meanwhile, the rest of the division has...done nothing.

Now the Phillies are threatening to click. Romero's back, and Ibanez' return is imminent. They might grab a starter from a seller before the deadline, but this is your NL East division winner even if they stand pat.

 

3. Would Love to See a Tight One, But...—AL West

I almost put the Wild Wild West at numero dos. Unfortunately, doing so would require betting on Texas, and I just can't do it.

Why the A's grabbed Scott Hairston, I do not know—the likable bunch from the East Bay are done. Somebody tell the suits.

The M's have been loitering around the edges to date, but I just can't believe Russell Branyan and company will keep it up. In truth, this could still be the dark horse though. Adrian Beltre and Erik Bedard have been dinged up, while Jose Lopez and Brandon Morrow have been ice cold.

Still, I think they remain a year away.

Which leaves the Rangers as the only sincere challenger to the Halos' throne.

There are reasons to believe for supporters of one of the triumvirate of organizations remaining to have never played in a Winter Classic. All-world outfielder Josh Hamilton is back, and the offense is good as ever, if not better.

However, the pitching—though improving under the tutelage of Nolan Ryan—is still a tad shaky. Kevin Millwood is still going strong, and Scott Feldman has been impressive in the early going. After those two, however, the going gets a little ugly.

Especially since the trade winds are dry.

There is the matter of Derek Holland in the bullpen (and spot starting), as well as Neftali Perez waiting for his shot at the Big League brass ring. But counting on such green talent to carry you through a skirmish with a veteran clan like Anaheim (yes, Anaheim) is optimistic.

Make no mistake—the division blew it big time when they let the Angels off the floor in the beginning of the year. No John Lackey, no Ervin Santana, no Kelvim Escobar, Howie Kendrick playing like trash, and relying on guys like Matt Palmer created a huge window of opportunity that has slammed shut.

Now, those guys are back (except for Escobar) and rounding into form. Lackey's starting to look like himself, Santana threw well at times last time out, and Kendrick has...well...returned to the Majors.

The final nail? If anyone figures to add a significant piece, it's these guys.

And yet, don't count out the Rangers, and keep an eye on the Mariners.

You never know.

 

2. I Have No Freakin' Clue, Which Is Always Great Drama—NL Central

Okay, here's where I'm going to really anger some people—namely, fans of Houston and Milwaukee.

Sorry folks, but I just don't see either team sticking around, so I'm taking the other three for a spin. The Brewers' starting pitching is too soft after Yovani Gallardo, who's camping-trip filthy, and you just can't win with one quality starting arm.

Houston is in the same boat with Roy Oswalt, except its offense can't hang with Milwaukee's, which means they're farther off the pace.

So it comes down to the Redbirds—already buyers this trade season—the Cubbies, and the Redlegs.

There's a lot to like about each.

Cincinnati has all the pieces, but I don't think they're ripe.

Jay Bruce has been struggling with contact and should get better. Joey Votto shouldn't miss as much time in the second half, Edinson Volquez is throwing again, and Johnny Cueto appears to have taken another step forward.

I just don't think they're going to leverage a bright future to add the pieces necessary to hang with the other two large footprints.

St. Louis has Albert Pujols, and that means they've got the best player in the game. Colby Rasmus' presence for the duration will be a nice addition, Kyle Lohse should be back shortly, and Troy Glaus is on the mend. Mark DeRosa will be around as new blood, and his acquisition proves the Cards are willing to dabble in new wares.

The pitching is a question mark beyond Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, but so far so good, and that's a common refrain behind Dave Duncan.

And then there are the Cubs—the once lovable losers turned Daddy Warbucks punch line.

Carlos Zambrano's temper tantrums, Rich Harden's inconsistency, bullpen issues, Aramis Ramirez' long stint on the DL, Geovany Soto's putrid opening act, Alfonso Soriano's brutal slide, and Milton Bradley doing exactly what was expected (outside of hitting) have all "conspired" to drag down the prohibitive preseason favorite.

Yet, through all the carnage, Chicago has managed to ride guys like Derrek Lee, Ryan Theriot, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, and Kosuke Fukudome. Consequently, they're right there with the cream of this division's crop.

Better yet, there's a deal in place to sell the team, so maybe purse strings have been opened even further.

So what does it all mean?

No clue—logic still says the Cubs, but my gut says St. Louis, and I can't totally discount the "Nati." Shoot, the Brew Crew and even the 'Stros might pull a real shocker.

 

1. The Three Horsemen of the MLB Apocalypse—AL East

Where else would you go?

The Sox are already playing the best ball of the bunch, and they figure to get boosts down the stretch from a rounding-into-shape John Smoltz, the expected return to form of Daisuke Matsuzaka, and a healthy Mike Lowell (however long it takes and lasts).

In addition, the deep pockets in Beantown are always a threat to shake things up via trade before the deadline. Oh yeah, Clay Buchholz is apparently throwing invisible pellets down on the farm.

Nice to have options.

And if options are what you like, let me introduce you to these fellas in pinstripes.

The Yanks have lost Xavier Nady for the year and now have to wait out yet another stint on the shelf for Chien-Ming Wang. On the flip, Damaso Marte should be returning soon, and the Bombers are already cranking up the trade gears (acquiring Eric Hinske, who went yard on Monday).

Raise your hand if you think Brian Cashman and the Original Evil Empire are done.

Nobody in Tampa is making the stretch, I can promise you that.

The Rays face the big uphill because they don't have the budget to acquire shiny new trinkets like the other two, and unless Akinori Iwamura beats the odds, they don't figure to get any substantial boosts from new/rested blood.

Nope, says here that Boston and New York go bare knuckles to the wire with the Sawks grabbing the flag, which leaves the Wild Card for the Yankees.

It means yet another "Fall of East Coast" infatuation from our favorite networks, but such is the price for radiant baseball. And that's sure to come.

I can't wait.

**www.pva.org**

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