Written & Media by Joe Hubbs.
With only one week left of the regular season, and the competitive scent of October hovering sweetly over playoff bound teams, the MLB is ready for what should be a thrilling race to the World Series. While most divisions are already clinched, the central division in each league is still up for grabs, and the wild card games have yet to be decided. So what has made this season so intriguing? What is going to make this a great October? Let’s take a look at each division and see what to expect this postseason.
AL East: A strong Boston ball club boasts the best record in baseball as they clinched the division last week. The only question remaining for the
Sox are unidentified pitching roles and lingering health issues for Jacoby Ellsbury. The Major League leader in steals is suffering from a compression fracture in his right foot, but hopefully come playoffs it will not keep him out of the leadoff spot for a powerful Red Sox lineup. As for the pitching, the Red Sox acquisition of Jake Peavy before the trade deadline, and the addition of Clay Buchholz off the disabled list compliment ace Jon Lester very well for a solid 1-2-3 punch in the Sox rotation. John Lackey with his playoff experience will most likely take the fourth spot despite a subpar 10-12 record on the regular season. However, the bullpen still has question marks. Other than closer Koji Uehara, no succession of relievers is made up after the 7th inning. If one thing could hurt the Sox, it is the availability and willingness of guys out of the pen to pitch in certain situations. A good mix of power, speed, and average led by former MVP Dustin Pedroia, should keep a phenomenal offense at full throttle in the playoffs, but pitching in the late innings must be settled to take this team to the World Series.
AL Central: As of now, the central is the only division yet to have a team clinch. The Tigers will most likely run away with the division, and the defending American League Champions have a strong case to find themselves back in the Series this October. Detroit undoubtedly has the best player in the league with Miguel Cabrera, and best pitcher in the league in Max Scherzer. Just a year after winning the Triple Crown, Cabrera leads the league in average (.349), and RBI’s (136) for the second straight season. (Only Chris Davis of the Orioles has hit more home runs with 52 compared to Cabrera’s 44.) Prince Fielder and Torii Hunter have also contributed solid offensively this year with 106 and 82 RBI’s respectively. What gives the Tigers the biggest edge in the playoffs is their phenomenal starting pitching. Scherzer is a 20 game winner! The surprising star also struck out more than 200 hitters this year. Don’t get used to seeing someone do that every year. Scherzer is complimented by former MVP Justin Verlander, and a dominant Anibal Sanchez who leads the team with a low ERA of 2.64. Detroit does not have a solid lineup around their core players, but when their pitchers don’t give up runs, it is hard for them to lose. If they can get guys on for Cabrera and Fielder, the Tigers could be a surprise.
AL West: Despite a roster stacked with sluggers Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Mark Trumbo, and Mike Trout, the Angels will not grace us with
their payroll in the playoffs. Instead, Billy Beane’s Moneyball Athletics have been smoking hot. The A’s record of 94-65 is their best since the Hudson-Mulder-Zito era. A large group of youngsters and relatively unknown players epitomize the moneyball tactic Beane has become famous for. Obviously the system works. Josh Donaldson, Yoenes Cespedes and Brandon Moss all blasted over 20 homers this season and veteran leader Coco Crisp sparked the top of the A’s order with 22 of his own homers along with 20 stolen bases. The only question for Oakland, like every post season, is can Beane and company win the last game of the season? I don’t think there is any way we can expect these inexperienced players to hit consistently throughout the post season. The pitching is questionable too. Starter Bartolo Colon, a year coming off a 50 game suspension for violating the league’s drug policies, is finishing the season strong with 17 wins and an ERA under 3.00. He could provide the ace presence the A’s were missing last postseason, but the same question of experience about the offense can be proposed about the young guns around him. As much as we would all like to see the small market team blow up Boston and Detroit, I think the magic in Oakland is going to fade in October. But who knows? Maybe they can carry their dominance all the way and get Beane that coveted final win.
AL Wild Card: Five teams still have a legitimate shot at competing in the wild card game this year. Tampa Bay and Cleveland currently hold the two spots, but Texas is only one game behind. Kansas City for the first time in 11 years is going to have a winning season. It is a longshot as they remain 3.5 games behind Cleveland, but a playoff appearance for Kansas City would be their first since winning everything in 1985. The playoff hopes of AL East rivals New York and Baltimore also hangs by a thread. Texas and Cleveland both have relatively easy schedules remaining, but expect the Rangers to squeak their way into the one game playoff with Tampa Bay. Ron Washington’s job is on the line, and Nelson Cruz would be eligible to play if the Rangers could make it into divisional play.
NL East: At one point in the season the Braves and Nationals had a close race in the East. The Braves made sure there was no question over who the best in the East was in late July when they won 13 straight games. The fourth longest streak in team history ultimately left Washington in the dust. Despite a year where BJ Upton destroyed fantasy owners and spent a few weeks in the minors, the Braves found plenty of guys to pick up the slack. Evan Gattis was probably the surprise of the year. The backup catcher provided so much power early this year that the Braves had no choice but find spots for him to play. Because of BJ Upton’s struggles, they trained Gattis to play left field. Gattis has smacked 20 homers and drove in 59 runs so far this season. Their powerful lineup probably makes them the most dangerous offense in baseball. Injuries have kept numbers down, but the power bats of Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann, and Jayson Heyward, complimented by the front runner for the National League batting title, Chris Johnson, all appear healthy and ready to compete for the title. A lack of pitchers with playoff experience could be the only downfall of this club, but they do have a solid bullpen with the best closer in the game, Craig Kimbrel (49 saves). Atlanta has the tools to go deep, but I think their post season nemesis St Louis Cardinals will find a way to take them out for the third year in a row.
NL Central/ Wild Card: By far, the central is the best division in baseball. Three teams have clinched a spot in the playoffs, but which of the
three will be crowned the division champ, and which two unfortunate teams will play in the wild card game? The Cardinals have the edge with a two game lead, and with a strong month of September they look like they will win the division. It is a shame that the wild card series is no longer than one game, because the heated divisional hate between the Reds, Pirates, and Cardinals would make the most exciting head to head matchups in the playoffs. The Cards have the advantage because of playoff experience and you cannot deny the magic atmosphere that overcomes the club every postseason. The Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992 when a young, pre-roids Barry Bonds carried them to the NLCS. They have had surprisingly good pitching, but a down year by Andrew McCutchen shows a waning offense that may not carry them far. Cincinnati’s rotation has also been hard to hit against, but they have no depth on their bench. The Cardinals have the deepest roster, struggling to find ways to get all their sluggers on the field, and every rookie on the club looks like they have been playing for years. As the records show, these teams are all very even, but I think experience and depth are going to play a huge factors. The Cardinals will take the division title along with any victories in any playoff series meetings.
NL West: At the beginning of the season the Dodgers started off so slowly that murmurs swept the dugout with the notion that manager Don Mattingly would be fired. All the negative talk washed into the gutter with the call up of highly touted rookie Yasiel Puig. The 22 year old Cuban rookie propelled the Dodgers into first place hitting .326 with 19 homers. With two of the best pitchers in the post season Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the Dodgers are the frontrunners for the National League title. A healthy Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp could make Los Angeles unbeatable in post season play.
Prediciton: I would not be surprised to see the Dodgers and Tigers battle for the trophy come October 23. All divisional games and the NLCS will be broadcast on TBS, and the ALCS and World Series will be on FOX. Make sure to catch all the post season baseball action!