This has already been quite the entertaining season; the AL East looks strong as expected, with the Rays and Yankees battling for the best record in baseball. As for almost everything else, very little has gone how most pundits, myself included, expected pre-season.
The defending NL pennant winning Phillies were playing merely passable ball for most of the season, but their current hot streak now has them only 2 games back of the resurgent Braves, playing under Bobby Cox for the last time. The young Cincinnati Reds are finally living up to their potential, and are 2 games ahead of the Cardinals in the NL Central.
And the NL West, typically a crapshoot that has been home to some of the most mediocre playoff teams in the last decade, has been strongly competitive, with the Padres stunning almost everyone outside of San Diego by holding the best record in the National League, the Giants leading the Wild Card (and only two games behind the Padres), buoyed by a surging offense and pitching, and the Dodgers and Rockies recently in the race (though both have fallen victim to slumps).
The other two divisions in the junior circuit have also been fun to watch. The White Sox became the third team in MLB history to take their first division lead on the last day of play before the break and are now holding on by a half game over the Twins, while the Rangers (along with new acquisition Cliff Lee) lead the Athletics (not the Angels) in the West by a whopping 7.5 games.
And, of course, no good recap could go without mentioning this “Year of the Pitcher” we seem to be in the middle of. With three perfect games (Dallas Braden, Roy Halladay, and Armando Gallaraga*), along with three other no-hitters (Ubaldo Jimenez, Edwin Jackson, and Matt Garza) and three other no-nos broken up in the ninth, more pitchers have dominated single games than almost any other year. Also, 47-year-old Jamie Moyer is still doing pretty well for himself…
Pretty much only two other things have gone according to plan. Though the Nationals are still in last place, Stephen Strasburg has been a jolt of energy and his strikeout totals were amazing...too bad injury slowed his season. And the Pirates…well they still suck.
I thought about trying to do this after the all-star break, but I realized that a better date may very well be after the trade deadline; lineups are more concrete and teams have proven their real mettle much better in July than May or June. I’ll just get right to it then…one note though. Just about every preview I’ve ever read starts with the AL East. Being a Giants fan from the West Coast, I think it’s high time to give the Pacific side of the country a chance. So, I’m starting with the…
1. San Diego Padres (2nd in NL) – For this entire season, I’ve been waiting for the Padres to collapse. It’s August. They’re clearly not going anywhere. The question is, do they have enough to hold on against the Giants? When I combine the skittishness I feel whenever I try picking one of my teams to succeed with the Padres’ effectiveness all season, I get the feeling that San Diego might just hold on, though in this case I’d love to be wrong.
But can this team win the pennant or the World Series? Honestly, I’d put them 7th out of the 8 teams I have in the playoffs in teams of championship likelihood. Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Tejada should help their offense, but probably not enough to take the top record away from an Oswalt-infused Philly.
2. San Francisco Giants (NL Wild Card) – The Giants’ offense has been surging in July, and if they can manage to keep that up, they should be able to make the playoffs over St. Louis. Unfortunately, the odds are that whether the Padres are first or second, the Giants would have to play the Phillies in the NLDS, and that’s a tough matchup. Aubrey Huff has been an MVP-caliber offensive threat for the Giants, and even though they didn’t pick up a bat at the deadline, they bolstered their bullpen, and if the lineup can get back to being as hot as they were in July, an extra bat won’t be necessary.
3. Colorado Rockies – This spot was a toss-up between the Rockies and Dodgers. I don’t expect the gap between first and fourth to grow any larger than what it is now; in fact, it will probably shrink a bit…so this should be a very entertaining race. I just don’t think they have another late-season run in them, though I’m sure the Rockies will scare some teams for a few weeks.
4. Los Angeles Dodgers – They’ll play just well enough to think they have a chance, but not well enough to actually make the postseason. Ted Lilly just isn’t enough. But hey, at least Angelenos will have a football team to watch in the fall, right?
5. Arizona Diamondbacks – The only team not really in this division…the D-Backs don’t really have much of a chance to do anything significant except play spoiler, and I’m not even really sure how well they’ll be able to do that.
1. Cincinnati Reds (3rd in NL) – Last year I had the Reds winning the NL Wild Card with largely the same team…clearly that confidence was a year premature. In 2010, the Reds have proven themselves to be a formidable young team. My heart says the Reds…my head says the Cardinals. In this case, I’ll go with the hunch and take Cincinnati, especially since the Reds are one of the only teams in the NL with a road record above .500 (the others being the Giants and Padres). Now, the playoffs are another story entirely…but I think they’ll get there, led by MVP-to-be Joey Votto. Actually, I doubt the standings in this division will really change that much.
2. St. Louis Cardinals – Has to be the best team I’ve got out of the playoffs in the NL…their fight with the Giants and Reds is going to be a barnburner. Carpenter may not be at his absolute best, but Wainwright, probably the least acclaimed ace in the majors, is pitching at his consistently high level (with a shot at the Pitching Triple Crown), and the Cards should be in contention straight through to late September.
3. Milwaukee Brewers – The definition of an average franchise should keep doing what it has been doing (i.e. not making the playoffs) this season, just like every season save 2008 in the last 28 years.
4. Chicago Cubs – And the streak goes on…but they’ll have to find someone willing to take over for the legendary Lou Pinella. If they can manage to pull Joe Girardi away from the Yankees, it could be the coup the Cubs need to make a run at the playoffs. Otherwise…we’ll have to wait and see. But regardless, that run won’t be happening this year.
5. Houston Astros – What happened to this franchise? Not too long ago the Astros were in the World Series. Now Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman are gone and Houston is stuck in reverse. I suppose the “glass is half-full” people would point out that now this team can start anew and re-build, but I’ll have to be convinced that whatever they picked up was enough to dump a pitcher 2 wins shy of the all-time team record.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates – The Pirates are horrible again. In other news, the sun rose today and the sky is blue. Some things just never change.
1. Philadelphia Phillies (1st in NL) – OK, so the Braves are much better than I thought they were going to be. But the Phillies finally woke up, and, with Roy Oswalt (who, despite his first start’s struggles, should prove to be an asset for Philadelphia) now on the rotation, I fully expect the 2-time defending NL pennant winners to close the gap and ultimately take not only the division but the best record in the National League (if only because I don’t really trust any other team to take it).
2. Atlanta Braves – The Braves have distinctly overachieved in this, Bobby Cox’ last season, and that motivation could be enough to squeak them into October. But, I feel that in the end, Cox will have to retire knowing that his team still fought above their weight and put up a very valiant effort. Look for the Braves to sit 2nd or 3rd in the Wild Card chase.
3. Florida Marlins – The Marlins are a strange team to peg. They have a fine rotation (anchored by Cy Young favorite Josh Johnson) and a perfectly workable young lineup. If I had to pick one dark horse team to make a Rockies-esque run to the Wild Card (besides the Rockies, of course), it would be this team. But I’m not picking them, and instead expect a probably record right around .500 and another year out of the postseason. Strange note: Three NL teams are over .500 on the road. The Marlins are the next-closest team, only 1 game under .500 on the road as of August 8th.
4. New York Mets – Picking them even over the Nationals inspires a small amount of trepidation. The Mets have a history of underachieving, of not living up to their talent and potential, and I’m not really sure what they’ll be able to pull in these last two months. But I am sure of this…whatever they do won’t get them into the playoffs.
5. Washington Nationals – I feel sorry for this team, I really do. Maybe not in a few years, once Strasburg and phenom Bryce Harper mature. But right now, the only reason people were going to Nationals games was for Strasmus: to see strikeout rookie extraordinaire Stephen Strasburg. But after Strasburg’s injury, the Nationals quickly reverted to barely drawing any fans (they remind me of the Giants post Barry Bonds and pre-dominant Lincecum). Hopefully his comeback can partially revive their turnstile numbers.
Comeback Player of the Year: Aubrey Huff, San Francisco Giants – Huff is a leading MVP candidate a few years after seeming washed up with the Orioles.
Manager of the Year: Bud Black, San Diego Padres – If the Padres hold on, I really don’t know how anyone else could be remotely in legitimate contention for this award. A case could be made for the Giants’ Bruce Bochy or the Braves’ Bobby Cox (who would have the sympathy vote), but Black should run away with this.
Rookie of the Year: Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants – Jason Heyward and Posey should go down to the wire for this; Strasburg’s injury should, I think, take him out of the running. But voters tend to have short memories, and Posey’s late-season surge, combined with his Giants making the playoffs while Heyward’s Braves miss out, should get him this award.
Cy Young Award: Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins – A very crowded race should go to the overall best pitcher in the NL, regardless of what will be gaudier win totals for Wainwright or Jimenez. Other honorable mentions include Mat Latos, Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, and Brian Wilson, whose contributions to the Giants’ fortunes will likely go largely unnoticed when it’s time to vote for this award.
MVP: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds – It still stuns me that Votto wasn’t initially selected to the All-Star game. He leads the National League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, and is third in RBIs. While Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera (for good reason) receive tons of hype for chasing the AL Triple Crown, Votto might still do it in the NL. And with his Reds making the playoffs (and hell, even if they don’t), this shouldn’t be that difficult. Honorable mentions include Aubrey Huff, Albert Pujols, and Adrian Gonzalez.
Also, one more thing…I firmly believe that pitchers deserve to be in the MVP discussion, and this year Mat Latos, Brian Wilson and Josh Johnson, in my opinion, deserve talk, almost as much if not more than they do in Cy Young.
(1) Philadelphia Phillies over (4) San Francisco Giants in 5 – As much as it pains me to not pick my Giants, I have to be realistic here. This is going to be an excellent, very watchable series, with the pitching and the offenses matching up rather well. Ultimately, I just think the Phillies, with their extensive playoff experience, will just be too much for the Giants, who will end the year with high expectations for 2011.
(3) Cincinnati Reds over (2) San Diego Padres in 4 – The Padres have played well over the year, but I think the Reds will kick it into another gear in this series and win without much trouble.
(1) Philadelphia Phillies over (3) Cincinnati Reds in 7 – Both the Reds and the Giants are relatively young, inexperienced teams in many facets, and both have the raw talent to advance and potentially win the pennant. But when Charlie Manuel’s team reaches the playoffs, those young teams need a year to grow, while the guys who have been there before tend to pull things off again. I really wanted to pick the Giants as a fan, and I want to pick the Reds because they’re a fun team. Just like the NL Central, it’s a head vs. heart debate, and this time, I’m going with my head. Once again, the Philadelphia Phillies will win the National League pennant.
NL Pennant Winner
Philadelphia Phillies (Third in a row)
1. Texas Rangers (2nd in AL) – The Rangers are easily the biggest surprise in the American League, and their pickup of Cliff Lee has made them even more ridiculously dangerous (despite Lee’s documented issues with the AL West). Their offense is loaded, their pitching is finally good enough (for years, that’s been the team’s major issue), and they expect to cause some headaches for whichever AL East team they meet in the playoffs. With arguably the best player and (less arguably) pitcher in Josh Hamilton and Lee, the Rangers are legitimate World Series contenders for the first time in years.
2. Oakland Athletics – Yes, the A’s, and not the Angels. The A’s are better at home and give up less runs than the Angels, who just don’t seem to have that run in them.
3. Anaheim Angels – And before anyone points it out, I know what their real team name is; I just consider it stupid and refuse to call them by it. The Anaheim Angels, despite their pickup of a somewhat erratic Dan Haren, don’t have enough to really make a run at this division, and I don’t have very high expectations for them.
4. Seattle Mariners – And then there are the Mariners. There’s really not much I can say about this team except that the end of the season can’t come quickly enough for them. But hey…at least they’re not the Pirates or Orioles, and they’re guaranteed a higher finish in their division.
1. Chicago White Sox (3rd in AL) – There are three major contenders for the AL pennant that will be in the playoffs. The White Sox are not one of them. Kudos for their run, and they should be able to just hold off the Twins. But let’s be honest here…the odds that they can beat the Rays, Rangers, or Yankees are miniscule at best.
2. Minnesota Twins – The Twins have enough quality players that their MVP candidacies might just cancel each other out. Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, and Delmon Young are certainly able to help the Twins push for the division title. But ultimately, they’ll fall just short of the White Sox.
3. Detroit Tigers – Practically the definition of mediocre, this Tigers team, one of the best at home and one of the worst on the road, at least have something to watch with Cabrera’s Triple Crown hunt. Other than that, well…good luck.
4. Kansas City Royals – Hey, nice to see this team out of the basement. I know it’s a little bright way up in 4th place, but don’t worry, they’ll get used to it.
5. Cleveland Indians – Pretty sad that Cleveland fans now have to rely on the Browns to get them some wins…
1. Tampa Bay Rays (1st in AL, MLB) – I firmly expect this race to come down to the final weekend. The Rays and the Yankees play each other 7 times over the course of 11 days in late September (4 in New York, 3 in Tampa Bay), and I think this series will probably be 4-3…whichever team has the advantage, the lead won’t be very large at all. The difference is this: in the final 3-game series, the Rays play the Royals in Kansas City, while the Yankees play the Red Sox in Fenway.
Expect the Sox to take at least one and possible two of those final games to and the Rays to sweep on their road to the division crown. I would not be at all surprised if this division was tied at the end of the season…a 1-game playoff would be an utterly amazing game.
2. New York Yankees (AL Wild Card) – The Yankees are playing quality baseball and expect nothing less than a repeat and their 28th championship. But the Rays can and will nip them at the line in the division, and they’ll have to work quite hard in the playoffs to complete the repeat.
3. Boston Red Sox – Sure, they’ve fallen off a bit from the all-star break, but the Sox are still a dangerous team that will cause some headaches in the last two months of the season, even if they aren’t going to make the playoffs. Beltre, Beckett, Buckholtz…Boston is the new home of the Killer B’s.
4. Toronto Blue Jays – Oh, how they miss Roy Halladay. But Jose Bautista is entertaining enough for this now-perennially 4th place team…but Brandon Morrow at least has made things interesting.
5. Baltimore Orioles (Worst in AL, MLB) – Buck Showalter certainly has his work cut out for him. I think he’ll be enough of a helpful boost to keep the team out of record-breaking futility (i.e. the 2003 Tigers), but the Orioles are still a horrid team whose best accomplishment might be finishing with more wins than the amount of games they’re out of first place…and even that’s not a sure thing. But Showalter definitely has them on the right track.
Comeback Player of the Year: Adrian Beltre, Boston Red Sox – I remember earlier this season, I saw a Beltre highlight and thought, “Oh, I remember him, he used to be good with the Mariners.” A few months later, Beltre is back to being very good, and deserves some acclaim.
Manager of the Year: Ron Washington, Texas Rangers – The Rangers have improved in each year under Washington and this will be the most important jump yet. Much like with Bud Black in the NL, no one else should even come close to this award.
Rookie of the Year: Brennan Boesch, Detroit Tigers – I’ll admit it: I just had to look at the stats and pick someone whose line seemed good enough. Boesch fit the bill. Feel free to fill me in on better contenders.
Cy Young Award: Cliff Lee, Texas Rangers – A case can be made for quite a few pitchers: David Price and Andy Pettitte are the AL East prerequisites, while Oakland’s Trevor Cahill might just have the second-best argument. But, assuming he doesn’t completely collapse, Cliff Lee should run away with his second Cy Young. His WHIP is an insane 0.89, he leads the AL in ERA with 2.40, he’s got a Halladay-esque 9 complete games, and he’s managed a 9-4 record when he was a Mariner for most of the season. But, if Lee for some reason struggles…I’d give it to Cahill.
MVP: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers – Apologies to Josh Hamilton and Robinson Cano, both of whom could walk away with the trophy without much complaint. But ultimately, Cabrera’s numbers have to be taken into account, and they’re collectively a doozy. Cabrera is first in RBIs, on-base and slugging percentage while second in home runs and batting average. Those simply can’t be ignored, and unless he falls off or Hamilton/Cano go on an absolute tear, he should take this. Plus, if you look at things from a “valuable” perspective, the Rangers and Yankees are far better teams than the Tigers, and could live without their top players better than the Tigers could without Cabrera.
As for pitchers, David Price and Cliff Lee both should be in the discussion, and Price, frankly, is as good a candidate in my book as the big three above.
(1) Tampa Bay Rays over (3) Chicago White Sox in 3 – Look for the Rays to make short work of the Sox and breeze through to the ALCS, barely breaking a sweat.
(4) New York Yankees over (2) Texas Rangers in 5 – This series is going to be one hell of a way to start the postseason. Lee, Hamilton and the Rangers will go toe-to-toe with Jeter, Rivera and the Yankees. Much like the Phillies-Giants series, I think that experience (and quality) will topple the more exciting, exuberant new-to-the-playoffs team. I would love to see the Rangers pull this off. But it just might be too tough.
(1) Tampa Bay Rays over (4) New York Yankees in 7 – Both championship series should, this year, be amazing series the whole way through. While Phillies-Reds would match up an experienced powerhouse with potentially a new superstar, this series would give us the two stalwarts of the AL East that have been favored to get here practically all year. With Game 7 in Tampa and this young team firing on all cylinders, expect the Rays to topple the defending champs and clinch a 2008 World Series rematch with the Phillies.
AL Pennant Winner
Tampa Bay Rays (2nd overall; First since 2008)
2010 World Series
Philadelphia Phillies (NL) vs. Tampa Bay Rays (AL)
Though the Phillies haven’t been quite as historically dominant as the Detroit Red Wings (and there’s been a year in between meetings), I feel that this series could be very similar to the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, which was a rematch of the previous years’ Finals between the Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the 2008 Finals, the Red Wings came in as favorites and dispatched the upstart young Penguins, much like the 2008 Series between the Phillies and the out-of-nowhere Rays. But in 2009, the Penguins, led by captain Sidney Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (Evan Longoria and David Price, if you will) came back and toppled the Wings, despite the Wings’ home ice advantage.
In this World Series, I believe that the Rays have matured enough and are certainly good enough to exact revenge on the Phillies for their painful 2008 Series loss and win their first crown. Both teams have all the tools, and there really aren’t many weaknesses to speak of. This will mostly end up coming down to intangibles and some truly great performances. Longoria, Peña, Crawford, Price, Rafael Soriano…all of these players will have a phenomenal Series and the Tampa Bay Rays (still weird to think of them as this good) will win their first World Series.
It’s not going to be easy, though…the Phillies will fight tooth and nail for this title, and that lineup isn’t going down quickly. Oswalt won’t be the easiest to hit off of either. But, in the end, that home-field advantage that should be the Rays (by virtue of their better record) won’t matter, because this isn’t going 7. Let’s just hope that the weather (I’m looking at you, Philadelphia) doesn’t muck up this series like it did back in 2008. Final Verdict: Rays in 6.
World Series MVP: David Price, Rays – Their whole offense will pitch in wonderfully, but Price’s two victories, including the deciding one in Game 6, will be enough to boost his Rays to a championship and Price to a World Series MVP trophy.
World Series Champions
Tampa Bay Rays (First championship)
*Perfect games subject to MLB's lack of instant replay*