Be sure to listen to Sports Overnight America, where I will discuss the final three weeks of the season with Patrick Mauro tonight at 11 PM (PST). Listen here!
The playoffs are fast approaching and the race for the pennant is heating up. As the division winners begin to shape up, we are getting a glimpse at which teams might be the most dangerous in the postseason.
I have divided playoff teams (as they would stand on Sept. 12) into three categories: Red, Orange, and Yellow.
Red indicates that a team is poised for a deep run into the postseason, and all opponents must play at the highest level to knock off this squad.
Oranges indicates that a team is playing quality baseball, but has some very exploitable holes within a postseason series.
Yellow indicates that a team is battling just to make the playoffs and may not have what it takes this season advance past the divisional round.
The teams have been separated based on the momentum they are carrying at this point in the season.
For example, while the Dodgers still lead the NL West and have maintained a top record for the better part of the season, they have seen a once 9.5-game lead dwindle to a slim two game advantage.
This has demoted them from the top tier of “threats,” and other teams have been evaluated accordingly.
St. Louis Cardinals
Since acquiring Matt Holliday, the Cardinals have been absolutely unstoppable.
Holliday is hitting .378 with 12 home runs and 42 RBI in just 44 games since joining the team—numbers reminiscent of Manny Ramirez when he became a Dodger last season and carried them to the NLCS.
They boast Chris Carpenter (16-3, 2.16) and Adam Wainwright (18-7, 2.59) as a one-two punch in the rotation and also have Ryan Franklin for closing duties in the ‘pen.
They also have Joel Pinero (14-10, 3.21) to solidify the most frightening top-three pitchers in the league at this point, and the Redbirds pose an incredibly dangerous threat to all-comers in October.
Did I mention they have some guy named Albert Pujols, too? All he has done this season is bat .328 with 124 RBI and a Major League leading 47 home runs.
The Yankees have been incredibly dominant since the All-Star break.
All of the attention lately has fallen on Derek Jeter moving past Lou Gehrig on the all-time Yankees’ hit list, but this team goes far deeper than the Captain. This squad has seven players with 20 or more home runs this season, launching a full-fledged return to the “Bronx Bombers” nickname under manager Joe Girardi.
Mark Teixiera, .281/35/106, has been otherworldly in clutch situations and is the lynchpin to a highly potent offense. Robinson Cano has also quietly mounted a stellar season, batting .316 with 23 homers and 76 RBI.
One thing to keep an eye on will be Mariano Rivera’s groin, which has bothered him for the past week or so. Also, A.J. Burnett has been terribly inconsistent lately, and is in no way fit to perform in the postseason the way he is throwing.
New York needs him to either pickup the slack or bump down in the rotation in order to be firing at full throttle.
Los Angeles Angels
The “other” Los Angeles team has a lineup that will give even elite pitchers nightmares.
Torii Hunter (.308/20/80) could have mounted an MVP-campaign in ’09 if he had not been injured early in the season.
But Kendry Morales has been the huge surprise, exploding for 30 homers and 98 RBI in ’09 while batting .306. In fact, the Angels’ offense has had a dominant year overall, and will dink-and-dime a team to death with a relentless attack from batters one-through-nine.
Scott Kazmir has looked excellent in two starts since moving to SoCal, and will be a good compliment to Jered Weaver (15-5, 3.76) and John Lackey (10-7, 3.53).
The Dodgers have seen their lead in the NL West slip to just two games heading into an important weekend series with the San Francisco Giants.
Considering they are only 28-26 in the second half of the season, Los Angeles is lucky to still be considered in the orange category.
There is one thing holding them together is their pitching staff. Despite having to patch together a rotation, and having the bullpen with the second most innings pitched in the league, the pitchers have been baffling opponents recently.
The staff has allowed five or fewer runs in 29 consecutive games, and has limited the opponents to four or fewer runs in 27 of those contests.
The bullpen has just a 1.31 ERA over the past 24 games. Jonathan Broxton seems to have recovered from a toe injury that hindered his performance for awhile, and has now converted nine consecutive save opportunities.
But the offense has shown signs of life recently, rebounding for 10 runs last night in San Francisco in an important series opening win against their long-time rivals. If the bats can start clicking in time for the postseason, then the Boys in Blue are certainly a “Red” threat team.
Jim Tracy has made all the difference in the world for the Rox. Since taking over, he has elevated the team’s play to another level and has them threatening the Dodgers for a division crown.
They are winners of eight straight and, although trailing the Dodgers by 15.5 games at one point, they are within striking distance with only three weeks remaining in the season.
The Rockies just never seem to lose—whether they are down in the late-innings or the game carries into extra frames, this team scraps up a way to victory. The only thing preventing them from being in the red category is an elite pitcher to hold down the staff in October.
While Jason Marquis (15-10, 3.65) has been extremely solid for the Rox, he went just 2-2 with a 4.06 ERA in August and is 1-1 with a 4.38 ERA in September. With a career body of trailing off towards the end of the year, the performance of Marquis will be something to keep a close eye on down the stretch.
The Phillies became the first team since the 1929 Phils’ to have three left-handed hitters slam 30+ home runs in a season (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez).
Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels will anchor the staff, but with J.A. Happ sidelined due to a strained intercostal muscle, things could be dicey for the defending Champs on the pitching-side of the game.
Happ leads all rookie pitchers with 104 strikeouts and a 2.77 ERA, to go along with 10 wins this season.
Jim Leyland has his club hitting full stride at the right time.
Despite playing in the Junior Varsity division, a.k.a. the AL Central, the Tigers have the kind of pitching that can take over a postseason series.
The young and exciting Rick Porcello (12-8, 4.26), who might be just young enough to not be affected by the wild atmosphere of October baseball, compliments Justin Verlander (16-8, 3.24).
And we can’t forget about Edwin Jackson (12-6, 3.10), who has been a solid option all season long.
On the offensive side, the Tigers are a bit lacking, but Miguel Cabrera has almost single-handedly carried this squad.
With a disappointing season from Magglio Ordonez, I think Cabrera needs to be at the top of MVP consideration for the way he has guided this offense through the year. Cabrera is hitting .335/28/84 with an OPS of .963.
The Sox continue to ward off the charging Texas Rangers with everything they have, and it might drain them before the postseason arrives.
However, as a team laden with veterans and playoff experience, it would be foolish to count out these guys as serious contenders in the American League. Josh Beckett (14-6, 3.87) leads the way and despite some sub-par outings recently, he is about as scary a pitcher a team can face in a short divisional series.
Victor Martinez has been an outstanding addition, batting .328/6/28 in 36 games with Boston since being acquired from the lowly Cleveland Indians.