Monday, July 19, 2010

MLB 2010: As Pennant Races Take Shape -- The Year of the Pitcher is Also the Year of the Really Bad Teams

The drive to the playoffs is now in full gear in Major League Baseball having past the halfway point and the All-Star break, the next benchmark will be the trading deadline when teams can trade without restriction until the end of the month. Waiver deals can continue until August 31st for post season eligibility.

While many are calling the 2010 season the year of the pitcher, some other numbers paint another story that is quite intriguing. As of today’s results, twenty teams, two thirds of the sport, are playing .500 or better baseball. Of those teams, only five are more than five games out of first. In the NL East, the Philadelphia Phillies are 5.5 games out. In the AL East, the Boston Red Sox, the team with the third best record in baseball, are in third place, 6.5 games out of first while the Toronto Blue Jays are 11.5 games out. The Oakland Athletics, dead even at 500, third place in their division, are seven games out. Looking at these teams, what they have and what lies ahead, only Toronto and Oakland are not legitimate challengers for post season play. In the American League, though, teams outside of the east might have a better shot at winning their division than a Wild Card berth given both the Tampa Bay Rays and Red Sox have won more games than the leaders in the Central, Chicago, and West, Texas.

Looking at the numbers, only the New York Yankees stand out as a real super team, defined as a team likely to win 100 or more games, but on the backside, the story is quite different. Perhaps, 2010 could be called the year of the really bad team. An unprecedented four teams could lose 100 or more games if they continue to play at their current rate of production. How bad is it? The Baltimore Orioles are on a pace to lose 110 games; the Pittsburgh Pirates, 105 games; the Arizona Diamondbacks, 101 games; and the Seattle Mariners, 100 even. The Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals, Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians, and Houston Astros are all on pace to lose 91 or more games with Houston losing 97!!!

Add it all up, there will be plenty to draw fans to the ballparks and television screens where the home team is in contention particularly against division rivals, but for the teams at the bottom, bad is so bad, there’s not much tangible hope for their ability even to serve as spoilers. Some of them, all most certainly, will let some top talent go to cut payroll and bring in prospects. After all, if those teams aren’t winning with those stars, why keep them around?

As the trade deadline approaches, the Yankees will almost certainly try to snag a starting pitcher and perhaps some bullpen help. The Boston Red Sox are in a real bind given the shocking number of injuries they are coping with. The health of their team might dictate what holes they attempt to plug. This could be Tampa’s last hurrah given their limited finances and veteran players approaching free agency and arbitration. If they could see a player, they could rent for the rest of the season that would improve their chances, would they do it?

The Chicago White Sox have enjoyed a remarkable surge largely fattening up on National League teams during June’s run of interleague play. They are also the team that would be most likely to deal for more players. In recent years, the AL Central has been the division most likely to compete right down to the final weekend. 2010 has shaped up to make such a scenario likely. None of the three teams in contention, adding Detroit and Minnesota look suited to run away with the division. None of them are likely wild card contenders either.

Texas was the first team to pull the trigger obtaining left-handed starter, Cliff Lee from Seattle right before the All-Star break. The pressure is on the Los Angeles Angels, a team with resources, but perhaps not many tradable players to make a move it they are to look forward to a Western Division championship.

What’s interesting is how many teams outside of the AL and NL East in contention are relatively low budget/small market teams. Some like San Diego weren’t given a shot at competing. Cincinnati ruled the NL Central going into the All-Star break. Are they falling back to normal? Could a key addition or two solidify their fortunes against St. Louis, a team that’s always been good at working the stretch drive?

The New York Yankees appear to be the only team that looks like it will surely win its division and is well positioned to continue through October. This is in spite of A.J. Burnett’s obvious meltdown. One would have to give Tampa Bay the edge over the Red Sox based on how many injured players the Sox are dealing with.

The AL Central, Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota – pick ‘em. An effective trade could be the crucial difference as a critical injury could be as well. Justin Morneau’s absence hurts the Twins. His prompt recovery is essential for their chances.

Texas is for real. The Angels are nursing injuries.

In the National League, the Atlanta Braves might have that “it” factor that will put them in the playoffs. It’s Bobby Cox’s final year. New talent is filtering for the losses from when they were winning the division every year. The Mets are a team prone to fade in September. September is kind to the Phillies, who need some pitching help and Chase Utley must return healthy. His return is expected in mid-August.

The NL Central is a battle between Cincinnati and St. Louis. St. Louis moved into first place this week while David Freese, 3B and Ryan Ludwick, RF remain injured. Clutch player, Cincinnati catcher, Ramon Hernandez is nursing a knee injury and is expected to return soon, but how much does a knee injury compromise a catcher’s effectiveness?

Figure out the NL West! No one expected San Diego to be in first place, but Cinderella lives. San Francisco has the strong young starting pitching. The Colorado Rockies are the “hey, what about us?” team with Todd Helton expected to return soon for some needed offense. The Dodgers were the pick of many to control the division and are relatively injury free but they also are plodding along letting too many games get away.

While there is competition for the top spots in all three divisions, the Wild Card Chase is wide open in the National League too. Between the Padres at a 54-37 record and the Phillies at 48-43, nine teams are in the hunt for the post season. Three will win divisions and one gains the wild card spot. No division has an edge in the Wild Card race. The Wild Card pack of six teams is separated by only two games. The Marlins, a long shot, are six games back.

The dog days through the stretch run for 2010 will be red hot for many cities this summer, but in the cities headed for 100 loss or much worse seasons, those cities are anxious for their NFL teams to report to training camp just days away. While Baltimore and Pittsburgh head for historic failure in baseball, those cities will anxiously await the battles between them in September and beyond.

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