MLB Playoff Picture: Predicting the Division Winners and Wild Cards
As the calendar flips to August, so too does our attention.
We begin to waiver from the well played out trade drama of late July to the various pennant races that are beginning to take shape in front of our eyes.
Make no mistake about it, the 2011 stretch run is certain to keep us, the fans, on the edge of our seats until game 162.
Everywhere you look, there seems to be a potentially epic chase in the making. Will the Cardinals catch the Brewers? Can the Giants hold off the surging Diamondbacks? Will the Braves maintain their wild-card lead?
The American League isn't short on the potential for dramatics, as each division leader holds no more than a three-game lead on their counterparts.
So, who will win these races and ultimately secure themselves a spot in the 2011 MLB playoffs?
Keep reading and find out.
National League East: Philadelphia Phillies
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In what is probably the easiest divisional race to predict, the Phillies appear well on their way to locking up their fifth-straight NL East title.
Their lethal pitching staff has lived up to the hype, leading all of baseball with a 3.10 ERA.
They've received surprising contributions from unlikely sources, such as rookie pitcher Vance Worely, whose surge into the major league rotation has given the Phillies yet another arm they can turn to down the stretch.
They're also expecting Roy Oswalt to return from the disabled list sometime this month. Oswalt has been sidelined since June 24th with lower back inflammation.
Offensively, the deadline acquisition of outfielder Hunter Pence from the Astros will provide the Phillies with much needed protection in the middle of their order.
National League Central: Milwaukee Brewers
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I'm going to go with the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.
Why? Because the stretch run comes down to pitching. More specifically, the bullpen.
The Brewers went out and acquired Francisco Rodriguez from the Mets to form a deadly back end to their 'pen.
Along with set-up man Rodriguez and stud closer John Axford, the Brewers boast LaTroy Hawkins (1.89 ERA in 2011) and former Cy Young contender Takashi Saito as their other late-inning options.
With one of the most fearsome offensive arsenals in baseball and a top-tier bullpen, the Brewers appear to be the slight favorite heading down the stretch in the National League Central.
National League West: San Francisco Giants
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Sure, the Arizona Diamondbacks are hot on the trails of the defending World Series champions, but that shouldn't be a cause for concern in the Bay Area.
The Giants have the experience, and it can't be stressed how important that is during the stretch run. While other teams would normally put added pressure on themselves and panic, Bruce Bochy's crew knows how to stay loose and perform to expectations late in the season.
They found themselves in a heated pennant race just a year ago, and they prevailed with flying colors.
Their pitching cannot be overlooked, as they boast the second-best ERA in the National League at 3.18. Brian Wilson appears to have worked out some of the troubles he experienced earlier in the season—and that's bad news for the rest of the league.
Offensively, the addition of Carlos Beltran to the middle of the Giants lineup is just what they needed to replace the gaping hole that existed in Buster Posey's absence.
Not to mention, he knows a thing or two about carrying a team down the stretch and in the postseason.
What's not to like about the Giants out west?
National League Wild Card: Arizona Diamondbacks
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While the Arizona Diamondbacks may not catch the San Francisco Giants in the NL West, they're certain to overtake the struggling Atlanta Braves in the NL wild-card race.
The Diamondbacks are getting hot at the right time, and that's what the stretch run is all about. Take those first four months and throw them out the window; these are the two that matter.
There are a plethora of reasons why the Diamondbacks are now the favorites to win the NL Wild Card.
For starters, their deadline acquisition of Jason Marquis not only strengthens their starting rotation, but also their bullpen. The move allows Micah Owings to return to his more comfortable role as a reliever.
But perhaps the most important reason the Diamondbacks will continue their hot play down the stretch is Justin Upton.
Upton is just beginning to scratch the surface of his star potential—and he's carrying the Diamondbacks on his back while doing so.
In the past 10 games, Upton has clubbed six home runs, 19 RBI and scored 12 runs.
Expect Upton to continue producing to this tune, while the Diamondbacks continue their leap of the Atlanta Braves in the NL wild-card picture.
American League East: Boston Red Sox
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Since the calendar flipped to June, the Red Sox have played the way most expected them to coming out of spring training.
There's no reason to believe they won't continue to hold off the Yankees in the AL East, especially if they keep getting a big-time contribution from Jacoby Ellsbury.
Ellsbury has given the Sox yet another power threat in their lineup that already features sluggers Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkulis and David Ortiz.
Sure, there's some concerns with their pitching staff, but the Red Sox offense is potent enough to mask those deficiencies.
Expect the Sox to keep slugging their way to their first AL East title since 2007.
American League Central: Detroit Tigers
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For a while, it appeared as if the AL Central was the Cleveland Indians' division to lose.
However, the Indians have fallen off of their initially torrid pace, making room for a more familiar face atop the Central in the Detroit Tigers.
So, it's the Tigers' division to lose now. With the deadline acquisition of Doug Fister from Seattle, the Tigers strengthened their rotation in a big way.
Not to mention, the Tigers boast the third-ranked offense in the American League.
American League West: Texas Rangers
Similar to the situation stirring in the National League West, I'm going to pick the Texas Rangers here, in large part to their experience.
The defending American League champions know what it takes to finish strong down the stretch and expect that knowledge to propel them to their second-consecutive AL West crown.
They addressed their biggest concern at the trade deadline, as the acquisitions of relievers Koji Uehera and Mike Adams will shore up what has been a spotty bullpen at times in 2011.
Oh yeah, and it doesn't hurt that they have the No. 2 ranked offense and seventh-best pitching staff in the American League—as well as the defending AL MVP.
American League Wild Card: New York Yankees
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The American League Wild Card winner will come out of the American League East.
While just one game separates the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East standings, seven games stand between the Yanks/Sox and their closest competition in the wild-card race.
All the Yankees have to do from here on out is play slightly above-average baseball in order to secure a playoff berth.
With Curtis Granderson and Mark Texiera putting up monster power numbers in the middle of the bombers lineup, that task appears to be well achievable.
Not to mention, C.C. Sabathia is in the midst of what may prove to be the finest season of his career, already collecting a major league leading 16 wins.
Getting Alex Rodriguez back from injury won't hurt either.