The MLB regular season has just under two months remaining, and playoff fever has infected everyone. We are at the point in the year where the fans are watching the standings like hawks circling prey, and the players are doing the same. We've got some tight races and, if current trends continue, they will come down to the wire.
In the AL East, the New York Yankees are currently in their usual fight to the death with the Boston Red Sox for first place in the division. Going into today, the Red Sox were in first place with a one-game lead over their arch rivals.
The same can be said in the AL West, where the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have stormed back to move within just one game of the defending American League champion Texas Rangers. These two teams may appear different on paper, but they are similar enough that this race is going to be a dog fight until the very end.
The two tightest races, however, are happening in the National League. The NL Central is down to the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals, with the Birds nipping at Milwaukee's heels. Even closer is the NL West race, where the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants are just half a game ahead of the surprising Arizona Diamondbacks.
Either way, no matter how the final standings end up, each of the teams in the aforementioned races (and some others) have a shot at making the World Series. Here are the odds for each.
Now, the Atlanta Braves are easily one of the best young teams in all of baseball. They have a great pitching rotation headlined by youngsters Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, and veterans Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson continue to contribute despite getting older. The team has performed well enough to currently hold a 3.5-game lead in the NL Wild Card race.
However, while effective pitching is all well and good, it isn't everything. The Braves are still very behind their potential playoff competition when it comes to offense, as the only major contributors this year have been catcher Brian McCann and rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman. I'm not trying to downplay second baseman Dan Uggla's 28-game hitting streak, but the man has basically been a disappointment this year.
That being said, while the Braves do have a bright future, I'd peg their World Series chances in 2011 as slim.
Odds: 25 to 1
On paper, the Angels don't look like a good team. For the most part, they are aging veterans surrounded by average youth. However, don't count the Halos out just yet.
The pitching rotation is led by a 1-2 punch of Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, both of whom are dangerous on any day. Their bullpen features closer Jordan Walden, who pretty much came out of nowhere this year.
Most importantly, the Angels are managed by Mike Scioscia. Simply put, this man just knows how to win. He's surprised us before, and he surely could do it again.
Yet, besides Weaver and Haren, the Angels starting rotation is average at best. Throw in an offense that doesn't score many runs, and this team is sure to be out-slugged come October.
Odds: 15 to 1
In all honesty, I don't think anyone expected the Arizona Diamondbacks to do anything this year. The top offensive contributors are outfielders Justin Upton and Chris Young. Besides them, the starting lineup doesn't really have anyone to write home about.
However, manager Kirk Gibson has turned this team's pitching staff into one that can compete with the best of them. Of the five starters, all but the newly acquired Jason Marquis have ERAs under four. Ian Kennedy has gone from being a fairly average pitcher to a potential staff ace, with a 14-3 record and 3.20 ERA.
On top of that, the team is led by a two-time World Series champion. Gibson went to the playoffs five times as a player, so there's no doubt that he knows what it takes to reach the Fall Classic. He may not take his team that far this year, but it's for sure that playoff baseball could be back in Arizona sooner rather than later.
Odds: 15 to 1
One team that has also surprised many this season is the Detroit Tigers. They currently sit four games ahead of the once-hot Cleveland Indians in the not-so-tough AL Central, and actually have a pretty good team.
MVP-candidate Miguel Cabrera is the unquestioned leader of the offense, which has scored a respectable 508 runs despite having the pitcher-friendly Comerica Park as a home stadium. Speaking of pitching, Justin Verlander has continued his dominance with a 16-5 record and 2.30 ERA, not to mention his second career no-hitter.
Long story short, the Detroit Tigers actually look decent this season and, if the right chips fall into place, they could go far in the playoffs. Yet, we must be realistic.
Besides Cabrera, the offense isn't exactly what one would call threatening. Despite those 508 runs, the team has given up 514. Not a great difference, but still one worth noting.
More importantly, let's not forget that pitching is key in the playoffs. Besides Verlander, the Tigers rotation isn't impressive. Max Scherzer is alright and Rick Porcello has a bright future, but neither has, at this point, what it takes to go far in October.
Odds: 15 to 1
This team is currently in a tight race with the Milwaukee Brewers for top spot in the NL Central. The offense is unbelievable, as it is headlined by the always incredible Albert Pujols and top outfielder Matt Holliday. On top of that, the Lance Berkman of old has re-emerged and is having an MVP-caliber season.
The biggest surprise has been the pitching staff, which lost innings-eater and former Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery back in spring training. Chris Carpenter has not been his usual dominant self, but the Cardinals have still competed well enough to vie for the NL Central title.
Call me crazy, but the St. Louis Cardinals just might be able to pull out all the stops to win their division and get back to the World Series for the first time since 2006. This team, despite effective performance, needs a pick-me-up considering how Pujols is a free agent after this season and just might leave for a new team and heavier contract than St. Louis can afford.
If the team makes the World Series, the former MVP could have some extra incentive to stay.
Odds: 8 to 1
The Rangers surprised us all last year when they defeated the New York Yankees in the ALCS and faced off against the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. They lost in five games, but the team showed that they had what it took to reach the Fall Classic despite inexperience. This year, they are in a tight race in the AL West and, if they can beat out the Angels for the top spot, they could make it back to that level.
However, this year's squad is much different than that of 2010. Let's not forget that the Rangers had the help of freak-of-nature pitcher Cliff Lee last year and he is now on the Philadelphia Phillies. On top of that, playing in a hitter's park, the Rangers rely heavily on the home run when it comes to scoring runs. Given the abundance of small-ball teams in both leagues, they could be in trouble.
Still, the Rangers are a talented team with a pitching staff that is intimidating despite this year's lack of Cliff Lee. With the right amount of luck, they could make the World Series again and probably win.
Odds: 10 to 1
The Milwaukee Brewers have just gotten better and better over the past few seasons. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are two of the greatest offensive threats in baseball, and with the latter entering free agency following this season, a World Series appearance could add some extra incentive to stay at a hometown discount.
On top of that, the Brewers starting rotation is pretty solid. Yovani Gallardo has been his usual dominant self, and the newly acquired Shaun Marcum has been just what team management hoped he would be. Yet, there is one more piece to the team's pitching staff that has been essential to performance this season. The newly acquired Zack Greinke has given Milwaukee a staff ace and, more importantly, a leader.
The Brewers are, to put it bluntly, a team. They have their lineup stars, but everyone else is a top contributor as well, from Nyjer Morgan to Casey McGehee.
Milwaukee last saw a World Series in 1982 (back when the Brewers were an AL team) and lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. This time, the result could be different.
Odds: 6 to 1
The San Francisco Giants made the playoffs by dumb luck last year. They didn't clinch the NL West until the last day of the season, and the rest as they say is history. Under closer Brian Wilson's "Fear the Beard" mantra, the Giants beat the heavily-favored Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS and rode their amazing pitching to a World Series championship.
Their offense has been anemic this year, but the pitching has held up and the team currently sits atop the NL West with a half-game lead over the Diamondbacks. The lineup essentially looks the same, and with the re-emergence of Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval, the Giants could find themselves back in the World Series and defending their title. The Phillies look a bit more dangerous with Cliff Lee in the rotation, but the Giants easily have more heart.
We all know that in October, that's what always wins out.
Odds: 4 to 1
There's no doubt that when it comes to winning in the postseason, the New York Yankees are the authors of that book. Here is a team that has won 27 World Series championships and has been to the postseason a total of 40 times. After doing the math, that's finishing the season as a winner, 67.5 percent of the time.
As I mentioned before, the Yankees are in their usual fight to the death with the Boston Red Sox for the top spot in the AL East. Both teams are extremely deep and could easily make it to the World Series.
One advantage the Yankees have over most of the other teams in the playoff race is experience. Led by team captain Derek Jeter, this team just flat out knows how to win. The lineup is dangerous from top to bottom, and the Yankees are currently second in runs scored.
The pitching staff is led by ace CC Sabathia, but the starting rotation gets very iffy after him. A.J. Burnett has underachieved yet again this year, and while the trio of Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova has been effective, fans always hold their breath and cross their fingers when any of those three guys is pitching.
Simply put, if the Yankees want to go far, the pitching has to be lights-out from every starter. Yet, with the starting lineup, this team still has what it takes to blow the opposition out of the water.
Odds: 2 to 1
As much as I hate to say it, the Boston Red Sox are looking pretty good right now. They have a dangerous lineup from top to bottom, headlined by eventual AL MVP Adrian Gonzalez. Throw in the most dangerous leadoff man in baseball in Jacoby Ellsbury, as well as the likes of Carl Crawford and David "Big Papi" Ortiz, and this is a lineup that is just plain scary.
In terms of pitching, the Red Sox are just plain unbelievable. Jon Lester is becoming the true ace of the staff and Josh Beckett has silenced his critics with a dominant 2011.
However, that isn't to say the Red Sox are without flaws.
As great as the lineup is, the bottom third is pretty much unpredictable. Crawford has not lived up to expectations this year and Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been less-than-average at catcher. Yet, the team's problems lie deeper than that.
After Lester and Beckett, the Red Sox starting rotation is very hit or miss. John Lackey, despite a recent successful run, is having a horrible season and Tim Wakefield is just getting old and predictable. Filling out the four and five spots are the underachieving Erik Bedard and Andrew Miller.
All signs point to the Red Sox needing a four-man rotation in the playoffs. After the top two, they could be in trouble. Still, their chances of making the World Series are good and they shouldn't be counted out.
Odds: 2 to 1
Let's be honest, folks. The Philadelphia Phillies were the favorites to win the World Series before the season even began. During the offseason, they shocked the baseball world and subsequently pissed off two different fanbases by coming out of nowhere to sign highly-coveted free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee.
This gave the team a "four aces" rotation: Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Looking at the standings, it's pretty safe to say this rotation has done its job. The Phillies are atop the NL East and have the best record in baseball.
To add onto that, their lineup is extraordinary. Chase Utley is back in form after missing the first few months of the season with a bad knee, and Ryan Howard is still effective as a power threat despite hitting just .250.
Yet, what sets the Phillies apart from the rest of these teams is the move they made at the trade deadline. They sent prospects to the Houston Astros in exchange for talented five-tool outfielder Hunter Pence. Since coming to Philadelphia, Pence has batted .382 with two homers and seven RBI. With the outfield officially complete, it's safe to say that this team will make the World Series.
Just how they perform once they get that far remains to be seen.