Yankees, Reds Looking Safest


We are past the All-Star break. The regular season has less than two months to go. It’s going to be a lot easier to predict the Major League division winners now than it was coming out of spring training. Barring strange collapses or lightning striking some teams and anointing them with unexpected magic, the two extremes in the standings are pretty much sorted out.

The New York Yankees are going to win the American League East. Baltimore made good sport of things for a while at the start of the season, but right now the Orioles are hanging on by their fingernails to second place. They might yet fool everyone and pick off a playoff spot, but I’m thinking by the time the end of September rolls around the Orioles will be out of breath and maybe not even holding on to a winning record. It’s just taking them longer than usual in 2012 to go away and perhaps it does bode well for the future after two decades of futility. Could be the Orioles will follow the Pirates’ path just one year later.

In the once formidable division, Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto follow. The Rays are a few games over .500, the others a couple under. Everyone wonders when the Red Sox will come to life, but the answer to that is 2013. The Sox have suffered a remarkable number of injuries, but you don’t go on the disabled list for team inconsistency and that’s one of the Red Sox’ problems. The pitching, notably Jon Lester, has been worse than expected. The hitting, even with all of the injuries, has been fine. Even Carl Crawford, who finally started playing regularly a month or so ago, is hitting.

The American League Central is a two-team race. We all figured the Detroit Tigers would run away with the championship, but they are sitting one-and-a-half games behind the White Sox. Everything White Sox GM Kenny Williams has done this summer has turned to gold. I was one of the doubters who believed the White Sox could finish last this season. Now there is no doubt they will be no worse than second and they still might nail down first.

The league’s most entertaining war is in the American League West. The Rangers shot out of the gate like a Triple Crown thoroughbred and have a five-and-a-half game lead. Team president Nolan Ryan has stocked his roster well, to fend off all challenges, but the Rangers cannot get complacent. After their slow start the Los Angeles Angels have been superb and they are playing scary good. The weird wild card in the mix is the Oakland A’s. The A’s, not the Angels, are actually in second place. It is difficult to see the A’s lasting, but the fact that they are even in the discussion with such a young, untried team, is a testament to general manager Billy Beane.

Several of the biggest surprises in baseball are clustered in the National League East. Coming off five straight division titles, the Philadelphia Phillies seemed likely to not only dominate the division, but make a run to the World Series. Instead, the Phillies came completely unglued (injuries were huge) and are struggling to stay out of the cellar. That’s the cellar occupied by the Miami Marlins, whose ownership invested a gazillion dollars to make a quick-turnaround, only to see little go right. And while it was predicted that the young Washington Nationals might contend for a playoff spot this year, few saw the Nationals seizing control of the division as they have to this point. However, they must be very wary of the Atlanta Braves closing.

As expected, the St. Louis Cardinals have not been nearly as good without departed Albert Pujols and retired manager Tony LaRussa as they were with them. As expected, the Milwaukee Brewers have not been nearly as good without departed Prince Fielder. And, as expected, the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros are two of the worst teams in the league. The Reds were built to win now and they are winning now. The Pirates suddenly began maturing mid-season and they look like the best bet for second.

The National League West is still up in the air. Neither the leading (by a half game) San Francisco Giants, nor the Los Angeles Dodgers, have been able to put together a long winning streak to kick dust in the face of the other,  though I see the Dodgers more capable of it. I keep thinking they will go on a run any day.

This is how I see the playoff picture setting up:

American League: East winner Yankees; Central winner Tigers; West winner Rangers. Wild cards White Sox and Angels.

National League: East winner Braves; Central winner Reds: West winner Dodgers. Wild cards Nationals, Pirates.

That would leave the Orioles and A’s out despite their satisfying-to-date seasons. It would reward the Pirates, who will achieve their first winning season in 20 years.