With nearly two-thirds of 2012 MLB season in the books, we have a pretty good idea of which teams are in the running to play baseball into October, as well as what teams are so far out of the race that they wished their season ended tomorrow. And while there are a handful of teams that are essentially a lock for the playoffs, the majority of the league is right in the middle of playoff contention or on the fringe.
Of course the expansion of the playoffs from 8 to 10 teams has opened the door for more teams to be in contention for the postseason, but it’s the emergence of the Nationals, Pirates, and Orioles (who are a combined 176-136) that have truly spiced up each league’s playoff picture.
So as we head towards the homestretch of baseball’s 2012 regular season here is a look at the teams who are locks, contenders, and dark horses to make the playoffs. The measurements I have used to determine whether a team will be playoff bound includes strength of schedule, key trade deadline acquisitions, and of course, my gut feeling.
It really doesn’t matter that only 37 percent of the Yankees finally 58 games are against sub-.500 teams. The Yanks own the highest run deferential in the American League at +86, they are experienced and are expecting starting pitchers Andy Pettitte and C.C. Sabathia back from injury. Oh yeah – and they just acquired Ichiro Suzuki.
Does the team have offense or what? Let me count the ways – first in team batting average at .277, first in runs at 508 and second in on base percentage at .339. They have arguably the best player in baseball in Josh Hamilton and will be hungry to avenge back-to-back World Series losses. Their schedule is brutal down the stretch with multiple division games against the Angels and Athletics, but they’ll be fine.
Can anyone think of a player that has been more valuable to their team this year then Mike Trout? He single-handily turned around an Angels season that was sputtering for the first two months. I have talked about Trout before, but he’s worth mentioning again. This kid is incredible and his emergence is a big part of why the Angels are where they are now. The Halos, much like the Rangers, have a difficult schedule from here on out, but they have solid starting pitching in Jared Weaver, C.J. Wilson and the newly acquired Zach Greinke. Did I mention Pujols is finally playing like the Pujols we all know (.330, 8 HR, 20 RBI) in July? All I can say is this – look out!
For those that have been following my baseball column this year, you know that the Nationals have been a favorite of mine. I just love this team. They are built on great young pitching and have plenty of offense to carry them to their first postseason appearance since relocating from Montreal to Washington, D.C. Incredibly, 36 of their final 59 games are against sub-.500 teams, which is exactly what the doctor ordered for a team that will be tested to finish off a story-book season with a playoff birth.
With this being the last season for Chipper Jones, it’s hard for me to imagine the Braves letting him down and missing the playoffs. The Braves have a great leadoff hitter in Michael Bourn, who sets the table for guys like Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla, Brian McCann and Jason Heyward who consistently knock the ball out of the park and drive in runs. They also have a steady rotation and a solid bullpen led by Craig Kimbrel (who is best closer in baseball) to finish out tight games. The Braves play 41 of their 58 remaining games against sub-.500 teams
With the best record in baseball, thanks in part to a 19-7 record in July, the Reds seem to be on cruise control. I think what’s most impressive is they have been playing without their franchise player Joey Votto (a legitimate MVP candidate before his injury) since July 17 due to a knee injury and have gone 13-3 since losing him. Their schedule down the stretch has slightly more road than home games, but they have proven to be just as good on the road at home, so it really doesn’t matter. They will be in.
You heard it here first. The Pirates will make the playoffs for the first time since 1992. They have the best record in baseball at home at 33-16 and will play their final 32 of 58 at home and 18 against division cellar dwellers in the Cubs, Brewers and Astros. The difference this year compared to the last couple of years when people thought the Pirates would make the playoffs is the emergence of MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and the team’s pitching staff. It’s time to get excited Pittsburgh!
IN THE MIX
I like the Rays to make the playoffs for a couple of reasons. First, their starting rotation is sneaky-good, is the reason why they are back in the playoff picture, and should be what leads them down the stretch. Second, I also like their manager Joe Maddon who was last year’s American League Manager of the Year and is someone you can count on to pull the right strings. The Rays also play 10 of their final 16 games at home, which could be huge in a division where they’ll be battling the Red Sox and Orioles for a Wild Card.
Remember when the Orioles were the hottest team in baseball? They got off to such a fast start that people were talking playoffs in May (count me as one). For a variety of reasons, they came back down to earth (injuries, guys cooling off). Baltimore is still right in the race, but it’s going to be a challenge for them to make the playoffs. In other words, they are really going to have to earn it. The O’s have a road-heavy schedule from here on out including what could be a huge final series against the Rays. But maybe that’s a good thing since they are just 25-26 at home while 30-24 on the road.
The White Sox are an interesting bunch. They have stretches where they play so well and then they will drop 6 of 7 games. Perhaps that’s not a lot different from most teams in this category, but when push comes to shove, I think the White Sox could win the division and punch their ticket to the playoffs. Six of their last 10 games are with the Indians, who they have won six of nine from so far this season.
Everyone’s pre-season favorite to win the American League Central, the Tigers have been so up and down this season it’s difficult to figure out this team. They have almost everything you would want in a championship caliber team, but for whatever reason, it just hasn’t clicked like they thought it would. Despite their faults this season, the Tigers are still the favorites to win the division and will have a good shot to win when you have Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander on your team. They will also be assisted by perhaps the most favorable schedule of any team, playing 10 of their final 15 games at home and 13 games against the lowly Royals and Twins to finish the season.
In what has been one of the best stories all year, the Athletics emerged from what appeared to be another losing season, to win 19 of 24 games in July and put themselves in the playoff hunt. They are a scrappy bunch that leads the league in most walk-off wins at 13. Oakland plays their final six games at home, but not before a brutal road trip that takes them to Detroit, New York and Texas. If they can get through that, then they will have earned a playoff spot as far as I’m concerned.
The first year without Albert Pujols hasn’t been too bad. Carlos Beltran has been a nice replacement (.285, 24 HR, 75 RBI) and guys like Allen Craig (.296, 15 HR, 54 RBI) and Matt Holliday (.325, 21 HR, 75 RBI) have been stellar. The problem with the Cards this year is injuries. Lance Berkman, Adam Wainwright, David Freese and Chris Carpenter have all missed significant time. As we learned last year though, you never count the Cardinals out, although this time it could be more difficult with the Pirates and Reds playing at such a high level. Additionally, they have stretch in late September that has the team playing 13 of 16 on the road. And if that wasn’t hard enough, they finish with the Nationals and Reds at home. Not the brightest outlook for the Redbirds.
I can’t think of a lousier first place team right now than the Giants. It appeared San Francisco had finally turned the corner a few weeks ago, but then they lost seven of ten at home and looked really flat. It’s really been the story of their season. Acquiring another bat in Hunter Pence at the trade deadline will definitely help, but they’ll need Pablo Sandoval to stay off the disabled list, muster more offense and solidify the closer position. The National League West may become the most watched race down the stretch as you have three teams that equally have a shot to win the division. It’s worth noting that the Giants finish the season in Los Angeles.
I must say, I am impressed with how the Dodgers have been able to hang around despite so many key injuries. Now they have added Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino in the last week signaling to their rivals in the National League West that they plan to stick around this year. However, much like the Giants, the Dodgers are more often than not playing Jekyll and Hyde baseball. For example, last week they swept the Giants at home, only to get swept in a home series against the Diamondbacks a few days later. The Dodgers have the most difficult schedule down the stretch by far that includes two east coast trips that will take them through Washington, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. How they do in these road trips may ultimately decide their season and a playoff appearance will likely only come about if Matt Kemp and Andre Either repeat their April and May performances down the stretch.
Quietly, the Diamondbacks have crept up and are only two games out of first place in the National League West. When it’s all said and done, it’s very possible that they’ll repeat as division champions. Led by skipper Kirk Gibson, somehow the D-backs just find a way to win. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt (.304, 15 HR, 53) has been a catalyst to their success, as well as a breakout year from starting pitcher Wade Miley (12-6, 2.98 ERA). With 15 remaining games against both the Giants and Dodgers as well as 29 games of their remaining 56 against sub-.500 teams the Diamondbacks will have every opportunity to take control of the NL West.
HANGING BY A THREAD
Can the Red Sox overcome a plethora of injuries throughout the season (Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedoria, Kyle Crawford) to make the playoffs? Let me go on the record now by saying no. Their last 15 games are against teams above .500 and 10 of those 15 games are on the road. With so many injuries, coupled with trading fan favorite third baseman Kevin YoukiIis, I just don’t see how they can put it all together chemistry-wise over the next two months to sneak in.
The Blue Jays are another one of those teams that started well, only to fade over the last couple months. Colby Rasmus has been solid since being moved up to second in the order and Jose Bautista and Juan Encarnacion have had All-Star caliber years. But the team’s pitching is just not there. I anticipate them to continue to fade, especially in a division that will be so competitive down the stretch.
The Mariners are a very interesting team. Their offense ranks near the bottom in every statistical category, yet here they are, 50-57 with 55 games to play. Unfortunately, playing in the American League West, I think their schedule will just be too much to overcome. However, their fans should be happy that the team has already accomplished more than what people projected.
The Mets are my dark horse to make the playoffs. Admittedly, this is just a hunch, but they do play 12 of their final 19 against sub-.500 teams and they showed a lot of life lately, taking three of four from the Giants and splitting a four-game series against the Diamondbacks. New York is currently 5-3 on a make-or-break 11 game road trip and could pad that win total in an upcoming three-game series against the Padres before they head home. David Wright has been fantastic all season and now their starting pitching is coming around. The Mets bullpen is still very suspect and could ultimately be the team’s Achilles heal. But if New York continues to play like they have been, the Mets might find themselves in a position sneak into the playoffs.
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