MLB Assessment

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

LET'S GO DIVISION BY DIVISION
AND SEE WHERE THINGS STAND

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

As promised we have a one day oasis of baseball to take stock of the Major League landscape on the first day of post-All-Star Break action. We'll resume with our college football conference previews Friday...as the ACC Atlantic, ACC Coastal, and Big Ten reports will take us through the weekend.

Let's start in the National League, where THREE surprise teams would have won their divisions if the playoffs started today. Can Atlanta, Cincinnati, and San Diego hold on and reach October? Or, are more traditional favorites like Philadelphia, St. Louis, and the LA Dodgers ready to make their move?

NL EAST
As we mentioned over the weekend, Atlanta has a bigger lead than it seems in the NL East because they've only played 40 home games, compared to 48 road games. The second place NY Mets are 46-42 the other direction. Philadelphia is 42-45 with more road games...which means they're better than it looks in relation to the Mets, but not the Braves.

So...that four-game lead you see in your Thursday morning newspaper is more like five or five and a half. And, it's being held by a talented, balanced, productive squad that's just obliterating people at home. Atlanta's in great shape!

There are no sure things in baseball, particularly with more than 70 games left. Philadelphia showed signs of life with that four-game sweep of the Reds. If the back end of their starting rotation steadies...then we could see a real fight at the top. The Mets have some work to do, with their pitching tough to trust, and a misleading schedule creating a bit of an illusion.

NL CENTRAL
Cincinnati is similar to the Mets in both won-lost record and home/road split. That means we're not as enthusiastic about their chances as others might be. St. Louis has a 42-46 home/road split in favor of road games...meaning they're basically the same as Philadelphia. We think the Phils have a good chance to outlast the Mets (but less so the Braves). Therefore, we think St. Louis has a good chance to outlast the Reds.

We're also very skeptical of Dusty Baker. He tends to be successful when his best pitchers are getting overworked, then his teams collapse once the arms break down. This first half has seen some overwork. Baker just doesn't have the pedigree of a guy who can win a division unless he catches breaks in the injury department.

It's really a two-team division at this point. Nobody else is within eight games of .500. Nobody else really matters except in the role of potential spoiler against the contenders come September.

NL WEST
This could be a really great race.

*San Diego is in first place by two games, but has had a slightly home friendly schedule (46-42), and is so inexperienced that it's tough to expect them to stay on top the whole way.

*Colorado has enjoyed an even friendlier schedule so far (47-41 in the home road split), which means they may be a false contender in a sense. This is a team that reached the postseason two years ago, and one with veterans who know how to stay focused over the long haul.

*The LA Dodgers have the same 46-42 home/road split as San Diego, but has a lot more going for it in our view. Los Angeles had a brutal Interleague schedule, which has them further back in the standings than they should be. If only National League games were counted, they'd be in first place by three games. If you only look at the NL West head-to-head, then the Dodgers stand out BY A MILE

NL WEST VS. EACH OTHER
LA Dodgers 23-6
Colorado 21-16
San Diego 16-15
San Francisco 9-20
Arizona 10-22

These teams will see a lot of each other because of the unbalanced divisional schedules. The Dodgers are still the favorite to win the division unless one of these other teams can establish some superiority head-to-head

*San Francisco is only four games back, which is closer than Philadelphia is to Atlanta. We're pessimistic about the Giants because their starting rotation began to look tired in recent weeks. They did end well against the struggling Nationals. You just saw their poor record within the division. Tough to support their cause.

We make the Dodgers the favorites here, with Colorado most likely to hang with them the longest. Great futures in San Diego and San Francisco though with their young talent.

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AL EAST
What's there to say? You know the NY Yankees, Tampa Bay, and Boston are likely to be in a dogfight. A rash of injuries could end up disqualifying one of them (which is possibly happening to Boston already). It's a three-team reace like usual.

We will point out again though that the Yankees have been battling a poor home/road split much of the season. That will eventually even out. Right now They've played 41 home games and 47 road games, compared to 46-42 for Tampa Bay and Boston both. So, the two-game and five-game leads you see in the standings are actually bigger than that. The Yankees have the best record in baseball despite an unfriendly schedule. They're even BETTER than you think.

You have to make the Yanks the favorites to win this division, the league, and the World Series given their level of play, and given their ability to buy replacement parts if needed.

AL CENTRAL
The Chicago White Sox got hot during Interleague play, and kept right on winning. So much for regression to the mean! The key has been quality pitching from the full rotation rather than just the top. You get that for six months and you're the winner. Can the guys behind John Danks pull that off? Or, is 'normal' enough to get the job done? In the AL East we'd say know. In the AL Central, somebody has to win, and 'normal' may actually do it.

Detroit is just a half game back, but is dealing with inconsistency from its rotation. More specifically they're pitching great at home but lousy on the road. Detroit's actually one of the worst road teams in the AL thus far. You don't win a division without at least treading water on the road.

Minnesota has been in a bit of a freefall lately. Their pitchers have let them down. The buzz of the new stadium is wearing off. If an offensive stud gets hurt and misses a couple of days, there's not a lot of depth to pick up the slack. The good news is that they're right back where they need to be if veteran pitchers find their old form. Currently, things aren't looking very good.

It's hard to love somebody here because the White Sox kind of HAVE to cool off, and the other two teams have blemishes. For now, the Sox have the most going for them.

AL WEST
Texas has been the big story of the year in this division. Just be aware that they've played 50 home games and 38 road games, by far the friendliest schedule in baseball. The glut of road games coming up may actually be good news though. Newly acquired Cliff Lee has a very poor history in Texas! A lost series to Baltimore to wrap up the first half may have been a sign of fatigue...or a reminder that the Rangers aren't quite as good as everyone thinks. We like the young pitchers. We like the can-do attitude Nolan Ryan has brought to the team. We're keeping our heads on straight though.

The Angels looked like they'd be great competition for the Rangers, but dropped eight of their last 10 games to end the first half. At least they weren't losing to Baltimore! Still, that temporary run of championship caliber baseball a few weeks ago looks to be a case of a team playing over its heads.

Oakland and Seattle are way off the pace, really only having a chance of Texas falls off the map.

Okay...that sets the stage for your weekend baseball. Here are the series we'll be paying the most attention to:

Tampa Bay at NY Yankees
Texas at Boston
Chicago White Sox at Minnesota
LA Dodgers at St. Louis
Colorado at Cincinnati
NY Mets at San Francisco

What a great weekend for pennant race games! We had a great first half to the baseball season, and are raring to go for the second half. Call 1-800-323-4453 right now to sign up for service. Game day releases can also be purchased here at the website with your credit card. Even though we'll be talking football here in the NOTEBOOK this weekend, BIG JUICY BASEBALL WINNERS will still be right here for you every day!

Back tomorrow to pick back up with college football previews. Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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