No regular season accomplishment matches the feeling of winning your division
The All-Star Break is officially over, and teams are back to playing ball today. Thus, the timing is perfect to forecast where teams will finish the season.
We will start with the league that won the All-Star Game and has home-field advantage in the World Series. (Truth be told, I would have done this anyway because the National League is the only one that plays real baseball, but that is a story for another day.)
Each team's slide represents the three division winners in order they will be seeded, followed by the Wild card team. This weekend's piece will contain picks for each playoff series all the way to the Fall Classic.
The Philadelphia Phillies have the league's best starting rotation and statistically, its best staff overall. They also have a potent lineup, regardless of their struggles with consistency.
The Phillies have the experience to know what to do down the stretch. One of their rivals, the New York Mets, have already signaled an upcoming fire sale, dumping reliever Francisco Rodriguez. Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran are likely to follow him out of the Big Apple.
Philadelphia does have the second-best team in the National League in their division, so they will still face stiff competition. But if they have the best record in the league now, and it will only get better since fewer NL East teams can stay in the race, unlike the other two divisions.
Note: An extended version of the material in this slide appears as its own article on the Giants page of Sports Haze Bay Area.
The San Francisco Giants will win their division even if they keep their roster as is. They will get Freddy Sanchez back before the end of the season, adding another needed bat to the top of their lineup.
Nevertheless, they will still lack offense. This is why it is likely they will add at least one capable bat to their lineup. There are plenty of choices out there, and the Giants are deep enough in youth and pitching—two highly sought after assets—to make it happen.
But even without big bats, they tend to get timely hits. This is nothing new, as the team scored 32 of 63 runs last postseason with two outs.
That is why the Giants have an uncanny knack for closing out games, winning about two for every loss in one-run affairs. And they have a lot of those games because they have a top-three stable of starters and the best bullpen in the league.
Other teams in the NL West also lack staying power. Colorado was the hottest team in baseball until the first time they ran into the Giants. Arizona has struggled against San Francisco and possesses the fifth-worst team ERA on the senior circuit, not to mention a mediocre pitching staff.
The rest of the division is weak, and that will help the Giants pile up enough wins to take this division by more than their current three-game lead.
As they come back from the All-Star break, the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals are tied for the lead in the NL Central. They have both played a similar ratio of home and away games, and both added talent to their rosters.
St. Louis has gotten MVP-caliber slugger Albert Pujols back from the disabled list. Milwaukee has added Francisco Rodriguez to shore up pitching, which remains a weakness for both teams.
K-Rod may not be the player he was a few years ago, nor is he worth the eight-digit salary. But as the former closer on a championship team, his presence can only help. So while Milwaukee already possesses a solid closer in John Axford, they now have another in the 'pen.
They also have starting pitching that should be better than they have performed to date. Shaun Marcum (7-3 record, 3.39 ERA), Randy Wolf (6-6, 3.65) and Yovanni Gallardo (10-5, 3.76) provide a good three-man rotation for the playoffs, and Zach Greinke (7-3, 5.45) figures to be working toward his former Cy Young-level play the further he gets from his preseason injury.
Brewers' hitters played a prominent role in the All-Star game, from the contest's MVP Prince Fielder hitting a three-run home run, to lead-off hitter Ricky Weeks scoring the next run as insurance. With fellow All-Star Ryan Braun in the middle of the order, that compares to the Cardinals' lineup on paper, even though they are in the middle of the league in batting average and runs scored.
In short, the Brewers do not seem to have been playing their best and are still tied with the Cards atop the division. With only one playoff appearance since 1982 (in 2008), they should be hungrier and thus, should pass them.
The Atlanta Braves are the obvious choice to win the Wild Card. They five games up on the combination of Arizona, Milwaukee and St. Louis for the Wild Card spot, leaving all three teams more within reach of their own divisions than Atlanta.
But that is not all. The Braves have by far the best pitching staff among the group, and unlike any of the other teams, they proved they could take the pressure when they made the playoffs last season.
True, they will be without future Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones for the foreseeable future, but he has not been at his best for some time. They have also been without a healthy Jason Heyward for much of the season.
Furthermore, the All-Star slight to Tommy Hanson will only motivate him further. The Braves will benefit from the the Mets' drop-off in their division and maybe even from Philadelphia having everything wrapped up by their season-ending series.
There were many foolish people proclaiming the end for the Boston Red Sox early this season.
They started out with six straight losses, and 10 in their first 12 games. No team had ever done either and came back to make the playoffs.
But no team had come back from a 3-0 series deficit to advance in the playoffs until Boston did it a few years ago, either. Most of us saw they had too much talent not to turn it around, as they did when they followed that 2-10 start by winning eight of their next nine contests.
(Check this link to my early season playoff predictions to see more. Please ignore the fact that I have now changed two of my eight teams and the order of a few picks—that is why I called them "Way Too Early Playoff Projections." Of course, that does not explain how off-base I was about David Ortiz being washed up...)
Now Boston has asserted themselves as the team to beat not only in the AL East, but all of baseball. With the edge they have had over their primary nemesis to date, they should be able to stay atop the toughest division.
After being involved in the tragedy that cost a fan his life, it would be understandable to think that former addict Josh Hamilton would suffer a relapse. At the very least, one might think it will negatively affect his game on the field.
However, I saw this team's character first-hand last season while working in Dallas, and I believe in my fellow brother-in-Christ to draw strength from his faith.
The Rangers also have the elements of a successful division defense: weak opposition, solid pitching and potent offense.
They have only one team, the (California) Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (of Orange County in the Valley—is that not part of the official name?) seriously contending with them. That will help this division-winner stay in front of the front-runner from the AL Central.
The Rangers have three starters possessing an ERA of 3.20 or lower and a fourth under 4.50. They have three relievers with more than 25 appearances and an ERA under 4.00, as well as a fourth reliever with 30 saves and a 4.38 ERA.
Texas has six dangerous hitters in the lineup, which has given them baseball's second-best batting average and allowed them to finish fourth in runs scored.
The Tigers have a solid offense, ranking fifth in batting average, though in the middle of the pack in runs scored. Their itching—on paper—is also better than it has performed to date.
Enter the best coach in the division and possibly the American League. Jim Leyland will get this team almost as many wins in the 70 remaining games as they had in the first 92.
Contrast that to the Indians, who have been playing way above their heads, and the Sox, who have a coach whose message and antics are growing tired and will have lower results. Expect a run from the underachieving and talented Minnesota Twins, but they are too far back to overtake Detroit.
This adds up to a solid four-team race well into September, but the Tigers will take the division with a couple games to spare.
The pressure of Derek Jeter's chase for 3,000 hits is over, but the pressure of covering for him in the lineup is just beginning.
Just when the Bronx Bombers get Jeter and his solid but no longer spectacular play back, they lose Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod had not been himself as he was struggling through injury, but having him out of the lineup entirely is going to hurt.
No longer does this team have the horses to simply plug in another starter to replace one who goes down. And it has been years since they have had the pitching staff to hold teams down when their bats are silent.
With the difficulties they have head-to-head with Boston, the injuries and aging in key positions, and the fact that Boston is just plain better, the Yankees will not catch their rivals. They will have to settle for the second or third-best record in baseball.