August 25, 2014

SHATZMAN | MLB Slides Into Home Stretch

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While major sports outlets continue to dramatize their seeming obsession with Hoyer vs. Manziel and LeBron’s Decision Part II, the MLB season rolls on, now in the final stretch, only weeks away from October baseball. Two or fewer games separate first place and second in half of the divisions, and yet, not one of ESPN’s 11 front-page headlines mentions the MLB. One would think that in a 162 game season, the most exciting part would receive deserved attention. Anyhow, below is part I of a breakdown of the six divisional races, analyzing the American League and featuring #2 in pinstripes, the dominating Athletics and the first-place Kansas City Royals.

American League East

There is no repeat to be had for the defending champion Boston Red Sox, who, having lost eight straight games heading into Monday, now sit 18 games below .500 at 56-74. The Sox have entered somewhat of a rebuilding-mode. They dealt three of their top starting pitchers (Lester, Lackey, Peavy) to contenders, and now bring young prospects to the mound daily. However, signing Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo for seven years is a major move towards the winning baseball that is familiar in Boston.

Sitting atop the East are the offensive-powerhouse Baltimore Orioles, led by Nelson Cruz (34 HR) and All-Star Adam Jones. The O’s pitching was the question mark heading into the year, but they have received consistent output from Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Bud Norris and 23-year-old Kevin Gausman (all sub-four ERAs). They bolstered their pen by acquiring relief star Andrew Miller, solidifying the team as an all-around threat in the American League.

The star-studded Yankees, hampered by injuries, trail the O’s by six games, but the teams meet eight times in the next month. If the Yankees can remain hot (four consecutive wins), they will have a shot to catch Baltimore, but will need decent starting pitching from their makeshift rotation. One can only hope for a storybook ending to Derek Jeter’s career, but his team will need to catch fire in the final month of the season, otherwise the captain’s final game will be in the regular season, just like Mariano Rivera’s last season.

Prediction: Orioles win division, Yankees miss playoffs

American League Central

It appeared almost certain that the Detroit Tigers would run away with the Central. They are loaded offensively. They have ace after ace taking the mound every night, including reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, and at the trade deadline added another one in David Price (2012 Cy Young winner). Yet, despite leading by several games for the majority of the season, the Tigers currently trail the division-leading Kansas City Royals by two games. Quite improbable with the Tigers rotation, but the Royals have caught fire post-All Star break (24-11), and the Tigers have been just okay. Not bad — well, maybe for Tigers’ standards bad, but average enough that the Royals have taken command of the division.

Kansas City has played solid ball in all phases of the game. It has three everyday players with 20-plus stolen bases (Cain, Dyson, Escobar), and a team that constantly moves runners into scoring position is tough to beat. The Royals are not a power team. They execute a small-ball style of play that, with good pitching, can be dangerous, similar to the Oakland A’s. Whether the Royals can keep going for another month will soon be found out, but with the strength of the AL West, the second place finisher in the Central may very well not make the playoffs by means of a Wild Card berth, so it is all or nothing between the Tigers and Royals. The clubs meet six more times before the end of the season.

Prediction: Tigers win division, Royals get Wild Card berth

American League West

The best division in the MLB record-wise, the AL West has three teams with 70-plus wins — the only division with even two clubs with 70-plus wins is the AL Central. The Los Angeles Angels, led by Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, currently lead the Athletics by one game, and the Mariners by six. The three team race is stacked with pitching, including the Mariners’ Felix Rodriguez, the Athletics’ Jon Lester and the Angels’ Jared Weaver and Garrett Richards, the latter of whom was recently placed on the 60-day DL with a season-ending knee injury. Despite the crushing blow that is the loss of Richards (2.61 ERA, 164 SO), the Angels have enough firepower to take the division. They are third in the MLB in runs and fifth in batting average, and offer among the most dangerous lineups in baseball, highlighted by all-around stud Mike Trout.

The A’s, on the other hand, simply win. Oakland has dominated opponents all season and lead the MLB in runs. The team acquired three big-name pitchers near the trade deadline in ace Jon Lester from Boston, and Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs. The roster is not loaded with big names, but the team wins by playing well in all phases of the game, and its pitching is consistently great. The Mariners have caught fire post-All Star break, but will have trouble keeping pace with their division rivals.

Prediction: Athletics win division, Angels get Wild Card berth, Mariners miss playoffs

For Part II of this column, which will analyze the National League, look in Wednesday’s paper