The AL Landscape
DIVISIONAL, WILDCARD RACES SHAPING UP NICELY IN AMERICAN LEAGUE
Now that Interleague play is in the rearview mirror for the 2012 Major League season, it's time to get focused on the pennant races in both the American and National Leagues. We'll focus today on the American League since Cleveland/NY Yankees is the national TV game tonight on ESPN. Tuesday, we'll look at the senior circuit, on the first night of the suddenly compelling Arizona/Atlanta series matching teams who may be well positioned to make postseason runs now that the D-backs have gotten their act together.
We start today in the AL EAST, where all five teams currently are currently over .500...and all five teams currently have at least a 30% chance of making the playoffs according to ESPN's computer estimates. Only three of them at most can quality...but ALL FIVE are currently very much in the mix.
The YANKEES have been the best team in the majors over the last month or so, and are making a very good case for themselves as the World Series favorite from the AL. They've barely noticed the loss of Mariano Rivera. The starting rotation is more stable this year than it's been in recent memory, even if there's still room for improvement at the back end. A slew of veteran sluggers have gradually warmed into regular season form, and are now posting runs on a consistent basis. THIS is the team to beat!
Even though the ORIOLES reside in second place at the moment, the RAYS and RED SOX are the best bets to earn a Wildcard or chase down the Yankees in our view. Why is that? Haven't the Orioles done enough to earn respect from us this season. Well...yes, the Orioles are no longer a doormat. Are they a playoff team? We think they're an improved team that's also benefitted from some very good luck in close games.
Tampa Bay 13-10
History has shown that no team can play way over their heads in close games "on purpose" for an extended period. Baltimore's just as likely to go 6-12 over their next 18 close games as they are to keep winning. A regression to the mean is very likely. If that happens, then the Orioles fall behind Tampa Bay and Boston in the standings.
We can't forget about TORONTO, though, you usually do have to forget about Toronto because they just don't have the horses of New York and Boston or the creativity of Tampa Bay. We've seen many times, and it's true again this year, that Toronto would be an annual playoff contender if they played in the Central division. Heck, they might have been the dominant team of the last decade in the Central if they were grouped over there instead. The Blue Jays have a losing record over the last month, and are 22-28 against teams who are .500 or better. Tough to pick them as a survivor in 2012 in a brutal division.
Moving now to the softer AL Central, the TIGERS have gotten hot lately in a way that puts them in a race with the INDIANS and WHITE SOX despite their losing record. The consensus pick to win this division still has time to overcome a lousy start and get the job done.
We just mentioned fortune in close games regarding the Orioles. Cleveland is even more extreme! Check out these records.
ONE RUN RESULTS
The Indians are way below .500 in games that aren't nailbiters, which is a terrible indicator going forward because nobody can catch all the breaks in close games on purpose forever. It's the White Sox who are due to catch some breaks from this point forward...which makes them the frontrunners to win the division in our view regardless of what your morning newspaper says.
Note also that the White Sox have the best record amongst the Central contenders vs. winning competition, and the best record over the last month or so. Yes, Detroit is back in the mix...but it's the White Sox who currently have the best pedigree amongst respected indicators.
Should we even mention the ROYALS and TWINS? We're not going to think about them in playoff terms unless one catches fire. It's important for handicappers to realize though that both have been near .500 or so the past month...which is better than the market seems to have them evaluated. Look for value spots with the Royals and Twins, who may not be as bad as people think even if they're not likely to be important parts of the playoff race.
Over in the AL West, the ANGELS have been the best team in the division for several weeks now, and still have a chance to catch the hot starting RANGERS for first place during the second half of the season. Texas got very lucky with its Interleague draw this year, getting six games with the lowly Astros and then some NL West stragglers. If you flip flop IL schedules, the race might be a toss-up now! Barring injuries to marquee players, we expect both of these teams to make the playoffs.
The A's should also go on your value list because there are definitely spots where they're getting disrespected by the market. The MARINERS have been a big disappointment to us, struggling so badly at home that you can't trust them to post some wins once their oddly one-sided road/home split starts to even out.
BEST BETS FOR THE FIVE AL PLAYOFF SPOTS
East: NYY, Tampa Bay, Boston (two of three in our view)
West: Texas, LA Angels
The Central is far from over...and we will leave the door open for a Cinderella story in Baltimore if they can keep winning despite mediocre pitching. For now, we think preseason expectations are largely going to be fulfilled, with the White Sox as the off-the-radar surprise. And, the playoff brackets themselves could be something special if teams like the Yankees, Angels, and Rangers are still playing as well in October as they have been in recent weeks.
Tomorrow we'll talk about the National League, where all three divisions could end up being won by "surprises" to the preseason prognosticators. Will the Washington Nationals be able to keep it going? Will R. A. Dickey lead another "Miracle Mets" campaign? More about that Tuesday.
For now, there's a HUGE schedule Monday Night that JIM HURLEY is ready to sink his team into. Higlighted matchups include...
American League: Cleveland/NYY on ESPN, Detroit at Texas, Toronto at Boston
National League: LA Dodgers/ San Francisco, Milwaukee/Cincinnati, Pittsburgh/Philadelphia
There's no day action Monday, so you have all afternoon to take care of business with your credit card here at the website. Be sure you check out seasonal rates that offer the most bang for your buck. And, don't forget that early-bird specials for football are already available. The earlier you sign up, the more you save!
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