Friday, August 12, 2011

MLB Landscape: The Dog Days - American League

Granted, that title's hopefully inaccurate seeing as how if we get heat anywhere near as bad as most of July, I might become a serial killer. And I know I'm not alone. Alright, I hope I'm not alone. Let's just move on to baseball.

It's funny how similar Major League Baseball has become to the English Premier League, which I will have a post or two about later tonight before I head to bed in anticipation of the season kicking off tomorrow morning. You have a few superpowers with all the money - Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies and Manchester United/Liverpool/Chelsea - and they win everything. Then there's everybody else. You've got your second tier teams that can usually compete with the big boys but hardly ever beat them - say Rays/Rangers/Central team du jour in the AL and Braves/Brewers-Cardinals/West team du jour in the NL. Those would be your Spurs/Everton/Aston Villa types. And then there are the bottom feeders who never have any hope: Orioles, Royals, Pirates (other than for a couple months), etc. being your Wigans and West Broms of the world.

The point here is that you can watch 162 games and track anything and everything but at the end of the day, three teams have a shot at the title. Okay, if the Giants pitching can discover itself or Justin Verlander starts doing angeldust and throwing no hitters then it could be a different story but honestly, probably not. Going in to the weekend, only three teams have topped 70 wins. I'm guessing you can figure out who they are.

Then again, if Billy Beane and the sabermetricians are honestly and truly correct about the postseason being a "fucking crapshoot," maybe the tagline of not being able to script October will ring true after all. But for now, let's take a look at how things stand going in to the weekend of August 12th. With a month and a half to go, the stretch run is starting to kick in to gear. Things won't start to really get serious until after the calender turns to September but last weekend's Yankees/Red Sox series as well as Arizona's shocking series victory in San Francisco to ring in August and this week's Brewers/Cardinals battle have already had playoff-like atmospheres and feeling. By this point, most of the pretenders (we're looking at you, Bucs and Twins) have been weeded out and the actual pennant races are starting to take shape. Let's look at them.

NOTE - There won't be much analysis of wild card races here. We'll wait until September to get in to those as well as whatever division races remain (example - there won't be an NL East section next time.) For now, we're just going division by division for a true "landscape."

With third party Tampa Bay dropping out of the race, it's our first true Yankees/Red Sox divisional campaign since 2007. Boston won that battle and went on to win the war that October, but the Bombers can take some inter-sport comfort in that the last time their city lost a division title to Massachusetts, it quickly made that meaningless in the playoffs. Whoever loses out here will almost certainly get the wild card, with the Angels being the closest challengers at 8 back.

At present... Boston leads by a game after both held serve during the week; the Sox taking two out of three in Minnesota while the Yanks did the same at home against the Angels.
This weekend... The Sox head out to the west coast to face Seattle. There's an absolutely delicious pitching matchup at Safeco on Saturday when Josh Beckett and Felix Hernandez face off, but the Red Sox get rookies Blake Beavan and Charlie Furbush the other two days so they need to be thinking sweep if they can get to Felix like they did a few weeks ago in Boston.
The Yanks missed Cy Young candidate Jered Weaver (and Ervin Santana, he of the July 27 no hitter) midweek but the piper's paid as they get Price, Hellickson and Shields in order when the Rays come to town. Tampa's always been a thorn in New York's side, particularly at Yankee Stadium, so this might be a chance for Boston to extend its lead - although the Bombers can at least limit the damage, if not prevent it should Sabathia outpitches the former # 1 pick tonight.
And going forward... Boston's got a doubleheader on Tuesday against those same Rays before a Wednesday matinee closes the series out. Then they go back on the road for a pair of four gamers with one not so daunting (KC) and then one very daunting (TEX.) It's worth noting that the only series the BoSox and Rangers have had this year was the first one of the season in Texas and of course it was a Rangers sweep to kick off Boston's nightmare start. Then the Red Sox come home for three against an Oakland team they've dominated (4-1 this year.)
The Yanks spend next week on the road, going to Kansas City and Minnesota before coming home for three against the A's just like their rivals and then four next weekend at Yankee Stadium Mid-South in Baltimore. And then...
Next meeting... August 30 to September 1 in Boston, a midweeker. Welcome to the final month.
And the rest of the division... Tampa Bay's 9.5 out and has been at arm's length for a while now. They simply don't have the offense this year although Desmond Jennings has been a breath of fresh air. Toronto continues to hit but not pitch, although the Colby Rasmus deal was a steal and now super prospect Brett Lawrie's up to show what he can do. And Baltimore continues to be Baltimore. Adam Jones is having a true breakout season and J.J. Hardy's been a nice surprise but that's about it. They're four clear of Kansas City in the AL cellar.
Before the season, everyone predicted a three horse race between Detroit, the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota. Well we indeed have a three horse race in the middle of August but it's the Cleveland Indians - expected to share the basement with Kansas City while having a much dimmer future - who have been the surprise club, leading the division for pretty much the entire spring on the back of a ridiculous home record. They backslid in June and allowing the surging Tigers to make up seven games in three weeks, but some - myself included - expected them to fade out of the race over the summer, particularly as the White Sox and Twins recovered from horrific starts. But they've hung in there and now they've gone all-in by selling the farm (literally and figuratively) for Ubaldo Jiminez at the trade deadline. Game on.

At present... The Tigers lead the pack with the Indians three behind (two in the loss column), while the White Sox are right there as well at four back. The Twins caught fire for a time in the summer and went from the worst record in the American League to as close as 5 back on July 20, but they've since faded and are 10 back. We won't count them out yet in this always-fluctuating division (particularly for schedule reasons, see below) but for now, it's down to three.
This weekend... The Tigers are reeling a bit after dropping 2 of 3 in Cleveland this week. Lucky for them they're at Oriole Park this weekend. They don't burn Verlander, which is a plus as they should get the series victory regardless and they need to be thinking sweep after the White Sox took 3/4 in Charm City this week. They actually dropped 2 of 3 in their only series with the Birds in the second series of the year (and Baltimore's home opener) but don't expect that to happen again.
The Indians came up with an absolutely massive series victory against the division leaders this week, their first series win of any kind since July 4-July 6. Can you believe that? You can certainly believe who it was against, but unfortunately for them, Detroit's playing that team this weekend. That's even more reason why the Tribe need to make sure they don't screw around at home to Minnesota. Win that series and the Twins might be buried for good. The pitching matchups aren't too inspiring though, with Cleveland trotting out Masterson, Tomlin and then Sunday's starter has yet to be determined.
The White Sox took 3 of 4 in Baltimore to complete a highly successful road trip that started with a sweep in Minnesota over arguably their most hated rivals in the division. They've recovered from the beatings the Sox and Yanks laid on them in their home park and should keep the good times rolling this weekend as they return home to face the Royals.
And going forward... Detroit spends next week at home, warming up with three against the Twins (who could be looking to get back in the race if they steal a series in Cleveland) and then the Tribe come in for three next weekend. After that is a seven game roadie with four in Tampa and three at Target Field (which: if the Twins get hot this fortnight, that could be REALLY damn fun) before a needed breather in the form of a four gamer at home to KC closes out August.
Next week is one of those weeks that might define Cleveland's season when it's all said and done. Three in Chicago. Three in Detroit. Like I said in the opening paragraph, it's game on. Granted, getting just one of those crucial series could be a boon because August ends with an eleven game homestand against Seattle (4 games), Kansas City (3) and Oakland (4.) What a chance they've got to move up the standings the rest of this month.
The White Sox might have an even more crucial stretch coming up than Cleveland's. This weekend marks the start of a nine game homestand against the Royals and then (gulp) the Indians and Rangers next week. After that is a weird two-gamer in Anaheim before three in Seattle. To close out the month, the Pale Hose come home for three against their friends in Minnesota.
Next meeting... Already talked about the Indians warzone that is next week. The Tigers and White Sox open up September in Detroit; a weekend series from the 2nd to the 4th.
And the rest of the division... Minnesota's already been talked about plenty but it's worth noting that if they get out of the six game trip to Cleveland and Detroit alive, the Yankees are waiting when they get back to Target Field for four. But if they're somehow not knocked out by all of that, the Orioles come in for four right before the Tigers and White Sox series to end the month. What a story that would be if they can fight their way back in it. As for Kansas City, they've gotten nice production from some of their young guns, like Rookie of the Year candidate Eric Hosmer but they're still the Royals and pitching remains a massive problem. They're the Orioles with a far better farm system.
For some reason, it feels like everybody's counting the Angels out for months. Okay, they're overachieving a bit and the Rangers are underachieving a bit. And yes, there's not a single hitter on LAA's roster that has an OPS above .800. But Jered Weaver continues to have a Cy Young-caliber season (1.78 ERA! Are you serious?!) and Dan Haren's not too far behind (0.98 WHIP to Weaver's 0.94.) Add in Ervin Santana catching fire since the end of June and a rock solid bullpen being anchored by Scott Downs and Jordan Walden at the back end and this team doesn't appear to be going away and if it does indeed get to October, no one is going to want to face a Weaver/Haren/Santana rotation with that bullpen. Want a longshot World Series pick? Look no further than these guys. But the Rangers are the team with the mashing lineup that we all know and love. Nelson Cruz has 25 dingers and Michael Young gets on base 37% of the time to lead the high powered reigning AL champions. But the pitching has been a problem, even a glaring one at times. The young guys like C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis haven't progressed as much as needed to fill the gaping hole left by Cliff Lee but the bigger problem is in the bullpen, where Neftali Feliz has been rocky and everyone else has been worse. That's why they went out and got Mike Adams and Koji Uehara to be their set-up men but it remains to be seen how Adams will perform outside PETCO and if Uehara can keep pitching well above his head to this point in his career.

At present... Texas holds a 2 game lead after a 4-2 homestand against the Indians and Mariners. The Angels took the opener in New York but couldn't get either of the next two when none of their "big three" pitched, making a spirited charge in the 9th yesterday but falling a run short.
This weekend... The Rangers go to Oakland for three, with the Saturday game being a FOX game meaning that only tonight's game is a late start, for whatever that's worth. Wilson, Lewis and Harrison go in that order so dumping this series would be a really bad idea.
Meanwhile, the Angels continue their AL East roadtrip north of the border in Toronto. They too have their big guns going in the order of Santana, Haren and Weaver. Haren goes up against Ricky Romero, who's having one of the more underrated seasons by a top end starter in all of baseball, on Saturday afternoon. The offense needs to step up this weekend though, since Toronto can mash it in their yard against anyone.
And going forward... After the weekend, these two teams meet up in Orange County for four crucial games that will help define the race going in to September. Then Texas finishes off its eleven game roadie in the Windy City whereas the Angels have five more at home against the Orioles and those same White Sox. While the back end of that Angels home stand is happening, the Rangers are greeted in their home park by the American League leaders, whom they haven't seen since sweeping them opening weekend. And because all of that wasn't enough, round 2 between these two happens in Texas the weekend of the 26th for three crucial games that probably will end up defining the race going in to September. If you pick one race to follow the rest of this month, this one's as good a candidate as any.
Next meeting... Hopefully you were able to read the above paragraph.
And the rest of the division... Oakland's had a flop of a season, fancied by many to at least contend for if not win the division and they've never really been close, apart from when the entire division was close a few months ago. And the Mariners were looking like the same kind of team the Angels were for a while...and then their offense reminded us that it might be the worst of our lifetimes during the 17 game losing streak. For good measure, Michael Pineda has fallen off the map since the All Star break, seeing his ERA rise by almost a full point. He should still be in Rookie of the Year conversations, however.

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