The Road to October: How MLB's Remaining Season Plays out
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Well it is officially June, and there are still plenty of questions to be answered regarding the 2011 MLB divisional races.
This season has been surprising to say the least—case in point: the Cleveland Indians. Who would have honestly thought at the beginning of the season that on June 2nd the biggest divisional lead would be held by the Cleveland Indians? Not to mention that they have the best record in the bigs, and are on top of the AL Central by five games!
On the other end of the spectrum, the Minnesota Twins currently hold the league's worst record, a year removed from winning 94 games and the AL Central. The National League's best record is currently held by the Philadelphia Phillies, which doesn't come as a surprise to many. However, what is surprising is that the Florida Marlins are right on their heels only trailing by two games.
The 2011 season has already had many surprises and promises to hold many more in store. Now let's find out how the divisional and the wild-card races play out!
Check in early next week for AL and NL awards, and to see how the playoffs turn out!
Will the Additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez help bring a divisional crown back to Boston?
As play begins on June 2nd, the AL East leaders are the New York Yankees. Usually this would not come as a surprise at all, and probably still doesn't to many, but many thought that this position would be held by the Boston Red Sox.
Aside from maybe the Phillies, its hard to argue that anyone had a better offseason than the Red Sox did, by signing Carl Crawford and trading for Adrian Gonzalez, both of whom have finally seemed to find their swing.
However, the Red Sox started the season off by losing their first six and 10 out of their first 12. They have stormed back, and are currently only two games back of the AL East lead despite a recent four-game slide.
The Yankees have been pretty consistent all year aside from a six-game losing streak a few weeks back. Aside from Derek Jeter, the Yankees are getting it done like usual, with solid production from their veteran players. However, two veterans that are really exceeding expectations are center fielder Curtis Granderson and pitcher Bartolo Colon, both having one of the best years of their careers.
Last year's division champs, the Tampa Bay Rays, are still right in the hunt as well. Only trailing New York by 2.5 games, the Rays are also succeeding with help from some veterans, and 26-year-old Matt Joyce is quietly having himself an MVP-caliber season leading the AL in batting average at .361.
The Blue Jays are also in the hunt at only four games back. They are currently being powered by super slugger Jose Bautista, considered by almost everyone to be the leading AL MVP candidate. Bautista is batting .360, while leading the big leagues with 20 home runs.
The Buck Shoawalter-led Baltimore Orioles haven't exactly been bottom feeders either. Currently six games back of the Yankees, the Orioles have shown promise and, at times, the capability to be a good team.
The AL East will go down to the wire, and could possibly see all five teams finish above .500, again cementing the division as the best in baseball.
Final AL East Standings
1. Boston Red Sox
2. New York Yankees
3. Tampa Bay Rays
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles
Eventually, the Yankees and Red Sox will pull away from the rest of the division and I believe it will come down to their final series against each other, which happens to be the next-to-last series for each team.
With Crawford finally starting to swing the bat the way everyone knows he can, I just don't see how the Boston Red Sox don't win this division. The pitching has been there in parts, and if the rotation can all finally get their stuff together, it could be scary for the rest of the AL East.
Can the surprising Indians continue their success throughout the rest of the season?
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The Cleveland Indians are without a doubt the biggest surprise of the 2011 MLB season. Not only are they leading the AL Central, but they also have the best record in the major leagues.
One reason that the Indians have the record that they do is their dominance at home; they are currently 19-6 at Progressive Field. Asdrubal Cabrera has been great in the field as usual, and he has also really come alive at the plate, batting .306 with 10 homers and 39 RBI.
Pitcher Josh Tomlin has also been great; he currently has a 2.74 ERA with a record of 6-2. With the recent return of Grady Sizemore from the DL and Shin-Soo Choo starting to regain form, these Cleveland Indians are starting to look more and more like a team bound for October.
The only other team above .500 in the AL Central is the Detroit Tigers, although they're only three games above that mark. Miguel Cabrera has been impressive as usual, batting .311 with 11 homers and 40 RBI so far. Justin Verlander has also been as advertised this year, boasting a 3.12 ERA a 5-3 record and a no-hitter so far.
Youth has also been on show in Detroit, with 24-year-old Alex Avila having a breakout season batting .281, while 26-year-old Max Scherzer has an impressive 6-2 record.
The disappointing Chicago White Sox are currently third in the AL Central. Many thought with the signing of Adam Dunn that this team might power their way to an AL Central crown.
But 8.5 games back just two months into the season is somewhere almost no one thought the White Sox would be. The bullpen has just been awful, which is really hurting their chances of competing.
However there is hope ahead: Jake Peavy just returned from the DL, and Phillip Humber is starting to show flashes of greatness.
After a hot start, the Kansas City Royals have again fallen to the bottom half of the division. The Royals are currently nine games out of the division lead and at times this season have been a good team. They might be alright if they could play all of their games at home, seeing as how they have an abysmal 6-16 record away from home.
The Minnesota Twins have definitely been this year's big disappointment in baseball; their winning percentage at .315 is so bad that if it were a batting average it wouldn't even rank in the AL top five. Although Joe Mauer is hurt, he is supposed to catch an extended spring training game today, so there is hope ahead. Being 16.5 games back, I don't know that even Joe Mauer can help this team catch up.
Final AL Central Standings
1. Cleveland Indians
2. Chicago White Sox
3. Detroit Tigers
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Kansas City Royals
I think that this division will finish a lot closer than it is now; I just don't see the Indians giving it up though. Although they haven't been great in years past, they really have some good talent on the roster.
The Central will be a three-team race til the end: The White Sox will eventually figure out their bullpen problems and some of the veteran Tigers will come around.
The Royals just don't have the firepower to keep up quite yet, and with the troubles to Soria, it's only getting worse. With Mauer coming back and some more key players getting healthy, the Twins will be better than they are now—they have to be.
However, both the Royals and Twins will be so far out of it come September, we will probably see some younger guys get an early call-up.
Will the Rangers get another shot at a championship?
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The AL West is currently the closest divisional race from top to bottom. That is the complete opposite of how the 2010 MLB season finished, with the Rangers winning the West by nine games, the largest margin in baseball.
The Texas Rangers again hold the AL West lead but this time, their cushion is definitely not so big. The Seattle Mariners are right on their heels, only trailing by 1.5 games.
The Rangers are again hitting the ball very well, currently in the top 10 in the majors in runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Plus, Josh Hamilton is still getting back to 100 percent from a broken arm so things are only looking up for the Texas Rangers.
The surprising Seattle Mariners are currently in second in the AL West, and Felix Hernandez hasn't even been the best pitcher in their rotation so far. That honor would belong to AL Rookie of the Year frontrunner Michael Pineda.
Pineda has been lights-out with a 2.30 ERA and a 6-2 overall record. The Mariners are still well in the hunt and Ichiro is batting under .300, but with the sixth-best overall ERA in the majors, Seattle is doing all they can to give the Rangers a run for their money.
Currently in third are the Los Angeles Angels, coming in right at .500 with a 29-29 record. Jared Weaver got off to one of the best starts in MLB history, but has cooled off a bit here of late. Howie Kendrick started off hot as well with a .322 average, however a recent trip to the disabled list has slowed the Angels down a bit, although Kendrick is scheduled to be activated Saturday.
Coming in last in the West at only 3.5 games back are the Oakland Athletics. Trevor Cahill has been great so far with a 6-3 record along with a 2.31 ERA, and at only 23 years old, he and 25-year-old Gio Gonzalez are giving the A's hope for many years to come.
Final AL West Standings
1. Texas Rangers
2. Oakland Athletics
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Los Angeles Angels
With the power that the Texas Rangers possess, I just don't see how anyone could overtake them.
The surprise here may be the Angels finishing last. The reason that the Angels will finish last is because of age and fatigue. They rely too much on older veterans that are more than likely to fall apart by season end.
The Rangers will again run away with the division in the later part of the year, although the A's and Mariners' pitching staffs will keep it interesting for awhile.
Can the Florida Marlins and their young studs make a run in the NL East?
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To almost no one's surprise, the Philadelphia Phillies are atop the NL East. The Phillies also own the best record in the National League, and Roy Halladay has been—well, Roy Halladay.
Placido Polanco has also done his part and then some over at third base. Polanco is currently hitting .319 and has 29 RBI. Ryan Howard is continuing to show that he is still a dominant power hitter, and currently has a .836 OPS. The Phillies have also been bit by the injury bug early on: Chase Utley made his season debut last week and is still working to get back to full health from a knee injury, and Shane Victorino is on the 15-day DL.
Still, through all of this, the Phillies have pieced everything together and lead the East by two games.
Right on the heels of the Phillies are the surprising Florida Marlins. Josh Johnson has been dominant as usual with a current ERA of 1.64; however, he finds himself on the disabled list.
Youngsters Logan Morrison and Chris Coghlan have been a great source of power for the Marlins and so too has Gaby Sanchez. Florida is hoping that Omar Infante will be the player they traded for, and Hanley Ramirez is bound to return to his old self at some point during the year. Rumors are that Johnson could return from the DL as early as next week which should be another big boost for these upstart Marlins.
In third trailing by 2.5 games are the Atlanta Braves. Pitching has been the story in Atlanta so far in 2011 with a league-best team ERA of 3.01. Jair Jurrjens is looking like a second coming of Greg Maddux, and Tommy Hansen has been nothing short of incredible himself. Brian McCann is making his case as best catcher in the National League, and Freddie Freeman sure hasn't been bad for a 21-year-old.
The problem points for Atlanta so far have been injuries and Dan Uggla. Young phenom Jason Heyward is on the DL with no signs of a quick return, and it seems like someone is missing a start due to a nagging injury almost every night. Dan Uggla has been almost as painful to Atlanta as some of the injuries they are dealing with. Uggla is batting an abysmal .175 with only seven home runs.
Thankfully for Atlanta, Omar Infante has done nothing so far either, so at this point neither team is a clear winner in this trade.
The New York Mets come in at 26-30 after today's victory over Pittsburgh. Although the Mets have shown at times this season that they can compete in this division, it just doesn't seem like it's going to all come together.
Carlos Beltran is almost certainly on his way out come trade deadline time, and Jose Reyes is more than likely to join him. K-Rod looks like he has returned to his form of old but with sparing chances to record a save, the Mets are not able to utilize his talents very often.
When the highest batting average in terms of qualifying for league leaders on your team is .255, you know things aren't going so well. This is the case in Washington, and that average belongs to Jayson Werth. At this point, Nationals fans are looking forward to next year and the return of Stephen Strasburg and hopefully the emergence of young phenom Bryce Harper.
Final NL East Standings
1. Atlanta Braves
2. Philadelphia Phillies
3. Florida Marlins
4. New York Mets
5. Washington Nationals
Pitching wins championships, and that will be on full display in Atlanta come September. Although the Phillies are supposed to have the best rotation of all time, the Braves have out-pitched them so far this season.
Atlanta will get on a hot streak and barely hold the Phillies off towards the end of the season. The Marlins will stay in the hunt for a while, but are probably one more year and one more pitcher away from the playoffs.
Will the Cardinals keep the division lead in what could be Albert's last year in St. Louis?
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The St. Louis Cardinals are quitely having one of the best seasons in baseball right now. The Cardinals currently own the third-best record in the majors, and Albert Pujols has yet to play like Albert Pujols.
The Cards currently rank first in the majors in batting average and on-base percentage and are second in runs. Lance Berkman has been a great surprise, and Matt Holliday has a NL-leading .342 batting average.
However, the Cards were given some bad news today as it looks as if Holliday will have to spend some time on the DL with a quad injury. Kyle Lohse is doing his best to fill in for the injured Adam Wainwright, and Jaime Garcia is having a great sophomore season.
All of this has been accomplished without the great Albert Pujols or Chris Carpenter performing near their normal levels; it's only a matter of when—not if—these guys return to normal form and that could spell trouble for the rest of the National League.
The Milwaukee Brewers are currently in second, 2.5 games back of St. Louis. The Brew Crew have been hot of late, and after a slow start have really regained form quickly.
Zack Grienke spent the first month or so on the DL, but has been well worth the wait since being activated. Sluggers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are again the driving forces behind this offense, and Shawn Marcum and Yovani Gallardo are proving themselves to be great No. 2 and 3 options. As long as things keep rolling along like so in Milwaukee, it could be a great race to the finish in the central.
Last year's NL Central champs currently find themselves in third. The Cincinnati Reds are four games back of the division lead. Joey Votto has had a strong follow-up to his MVP season in 2010 so far, and Jay Bruce has broken out the big bat this year knocking in 17 homers so far in 2011.
Hitting hasn't neccesarily been the problem in Cinci; instead, it's been pitching. The top qualifying ERA for the Reds is a scary 5.05 belonging to Travis Wood. If the Reds want to make another run at an NL Central crown, they're going to have to figure out the pitching issues.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are not in fourth place—this is a typo: The Pittsburgh Pirates are actually in fourth place. Although fourth is obviously not the ideal place, it's a start for the Pirates who are used to being cellar-dwellers in the central. The Andrew McCutchen-led Pirates are only three games back of .500 and continue to show signs of improvement.
It looks like this again will not be the year for the Chicago Cubs. Another year, and more misery for the Cubs and their faithful fans. There hasn't been too much to cheer about at Wrigley so far this year outside of Alfonso Soriano, who at the time of this article, finds himself on the disabled list.
In sixth place in the only six-team division in the majors are the Houston Astros. Although only 10.5 games out, it's not all terrible for the Astros. However, Hunter Pence has been their best player so far and many believe him to be on the move come July. Michael Bourn has been dangerous once on the basepaths, but getting him home has seemed to be troublesome.
Look for the Astros to be sellers once again at the deadline, and their depth in the division to continue to fall.
Final NL Central Standings
1. Milwaukee Brewers
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Cincinnati Reds
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Chicago Cubs
6. Houston Astros
Surprise, surprise: Look for the Brewers to keep the Cardinals from the division crown for a second year in a row. This division will be one to watch down the stretch, with the Cardinals and Brewers trading blows and look for the Reds and the Pirates to keep it interesting.
In the end, the Cardinals just have too many key injuries to get the crown, and the Reds just don't have the pitching to repeat in the NL Central.
Are the Diamondbacks legit contenders for the NL West crown?
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To almost everyone's surprise, the Arizona Diamondbacks are leading the NL West—that's right, I said the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The scorching-hot D'Backs have overcome the defending World Series champs to take the division lead for the first time since '08. Winners of 15 out of their last 17, and the sixth-best scoring team in baseball, Arizona is currently the talk of the baseball world. Although no stellar offensive performers so far, the pitching staff is continuing to prove that if the other team can't score, they can't win.
Ian Kennedy has been stellar with a 6-2 record along with a 3.16 ERA, and J.J Putz trails only Leo Nunez for the MLB lead in saves. The main question is: Can they ride this hot streak to a divisional crown?
The defending champs find themselves half-a-game back in the NL West divisional race. At 30-25, the Giants are continuing to prove that you don't have to score a lot to win. In fact, the Giants rank 27th in runs scored in the MLB, yet still have the seventh-best win percentage in the bigs.
Big Time Timmy Jim has again been phenomenal, and Brian Wilson is again proving himself to be almost as awesome as his beard. The scary news in San Fran is the fact that their best offensive player is more than likely out for the year in Buster Posey. Posey has been the talk of water coolers all over America after he broke his leg from a home-plate collision, causing his agent to publicly question the sanity of the rule.
The Giants will now be forced to answer the question: Can pitching alone win you a divisional title?
Currently in third are the powerful Colorado Rockies. The Rockies started off the season on fire; in fact, they got off to their best start in franchise history. Now they find themselves 4.5 games back of the division lead.
The bats have been there for the most part in Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki and Seth Smith but the problem has been the pitching staff. Seems like almost every time someone gets rolling they find themselves on the DL. Things are starting to look up in the Mile High City however, with Ubaldo Jimenez finally getting his first win last night,in a four-hit shutout. It looks like there are promising times ahead for the Rockies.
The Los Angeles Dodgers find themselves in fourth place in the NL West. At the moment, the Dodgers are 5.5 games back of the D'Backs. Aside from Andre Ethier's 30-game hitting streak, most of the talk about these Dodgers has been off the field. From the Opening Night beating of the Giants fan, to the owner's messy divorce, Dodgers fans are rapidly looking to the day when baseball is again the focus.
The San Diego Padres again find themselves at the bottom of the NL West. Although with the way they have played, I bet they aren't terribly upset to find themselves only seven games out of first. Getting rid of Adrian Gonzalez has proved to be a very costly mistake so far for the Padres, and things aren't looking like they might get better any time soon.
Final NL West Standings
1. Colorado Rockies
2. San Fransisco Giants
3. Arizona Diamondbacks
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
5. San Diego Padres
If the World Series champs are going to defend their crown, they're going to have to win the Wild Card to do so. Although the D'Backs are hot right now, there is just no way they can keep it up. The pitching has been good but it's not consistent, and they just don't have the offensive firepower to keep up.
Although the Giants clearly have the best pitching staff in the West, I just don't think they can get it done with the complete lack of offense, especially without Buster Posey. The Rockies will eventually find their stride and make the run that it seems they do every year. With the offensive advantage that the Rockies have, I think they will have this division all but decided with a week to go.
AL Wild Card
Could the AL Wild Card come down to the season finale in Tampa?
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With the current format in the MLB, only four teams from each league can make the playoffs. With this said, that usually means some pretty good teams get left out of the postseason, which will again be the case in 2011.
With the division winners being the Red Sox, Indians and Rangers, some pretty good teams will be looking for that wild-card spot. The main contenders for the 2011 Wild Card will be the Yankees, Rays, Tigers, White Sox and the A's.
Some may be surprised to see the A's on this list, but with their division probably being the weakest of the three, they will have more games against lesser opponents. In the end, the Wild Card will ultimately come down to the Yankees, Rays and A's. Again, I think that the A's will keep it interesting for a while but will bow out with about a week-and-a-half to go.
Now it's down to whoever can finish second in the AL East...again. Boston will eliminate the Yanks from the divisional crown in the second-to-last series of the season when they meet in New York, setting up a final weekend showdown between New York and Tampa for the Wild Card.
When it's all said and done, the Yankees' experience and depth will propel them to win the Wild Card.
NL Wild Card
Will Roy "Doc" Halladay get the chance to throw another postseason no-hitter this season?
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The National League, much like the American League, will leave some pretty good teams out of the postseason in 2011. With the divisional crowns going to Atlanta, Milwaukee and Colorado, some of the best teams in baseball will be fighting for one final playoff spot. Some of these teams include the Phillies, Marlins, Cardinals, Reds and Giants.
In the end, it will come down to the Phillies and Cardinals. The Marlins, as mentioned earlier, are about a year or two away, the Reds just don't have the pitching to contend and the Giants, barring a big trade at the deadline, simply don't have the bats to make the postseason.
The Phillies pitching staff is too good not to keep them in it til the end, and the Cardinals have too much firepower on offense to be a non-factor.
In the end, the Philadelphia Phillies will win the NL Wild Card by at least three games. When it comes down to it, it won't be if the Phillies make the postseason, it will be how.
The divisional race with the Braves will probably be the best in baseball and will almost inevitably come down to the final series of the year. Seeing as how that series will be played in Atlanta, that is the reason the Braves push the Phillies into settling for the Wild Card.
Don't forget to check back early next week for awards and a postseason preview!