The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Playoff Races as I see Them

There are five and a half weeks left in baseball’s regular season. As recently as a month ago, it seemed that nearly every playoff race was up for grabs – well, except for the National League Central, which the Cardinals were running away with and the American League East, which the Yankees seemingly own. As we near September though, the races are much more clearly defined. Still, it’s difficult to forecast how it will turn out. I’ll try to anyway.

American League East
Coming into today’s action the Yankees lead over the Red Sox has dwindled to a mere 5 and a half games. Over their last ten games, the Red Sox have picked up give games worth of ground on the Yankees, which has nearly cut the Yanks lead in half. Another run like that – hot for the Red Sox and cold for the Yankees – could put the Red Sox in control of the division, but that seems to be highly unlikely if not impossible. In their history, the Yankees have never blown a lead this large this late in the year. It’s pretty safe to say that the Yankees will win the division (again) and that the Red Sox will challenge for the wild card (more on that later though).

American League Central
First the White Sox made a run, but then they faded. Then the Indians made a run, a very surprising run at that – one that brought them within one game of first place. The Twins are currently leading the division by 8 games though, and their clinching of another division title is only a matter of time. The only remaining question in the AL Central is how high the Tigers will finish. A solid finish could allow the Tigers to end the campaign at .500.

American League West
This is arguably both the best division in baseball and the best race. Oakland continues to lead the West by the slimmest of margins and the Angels are right behind, nipping at their heels. The Rangers, who led the division for much of the early portion of the year, are also still in the mix, although they trail by two games. While there’s still a little time for one of these teams to make a move before the names of potential candidates for post-season rosters are set, it’s likely that everyone is going to have to go with whoever they have from this point forward. In that sense, that gives an edge to the Angels, as they’re likely to get Troy Glaus back from the dsabled list shortly, which for the Angels is about as exciting as acquiring a big time bat in exchange for a fringe minor league prospect.

My best guess here is that the A’s will win the division and that the Angels will fight it out with the Red Sox for the wild card, after the Rangers finally fade into Bolivia.

American League Wild Card
At the moment, Boston and Anaheim are locked in a tie for the Wild Card lead. Oakland, the Western division leader is one bad series away from trading places with the Angels, so they could just as easily enter the fray. Technically Texas is still in this race, but it’s hard to imagine them sticking around for long – but I suppose we’ve all been saying that since April now. Everyone else in the American League has already been exposed as a pretender.

One exciting possibility here involves, of course, the Yankees and the Red Sox. It’s possible that a late season fade by the Yankees, which coincides with a solid finish by the Red Sox, Angels, and A’s could mean that the Yankees could find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoffs. That is highly, highly unlikely, but I would love to see it happen.

More likely than not the Angels and Red Sox will fight this out until the end. As much as I’d like to see the Angels in the playoffs, if only to get a few extra weeks of watching Vladimir Guerrero hack away, I think the Red Sox will pull out the Wild Card. They’ve been hot of late, and over the course of the year, their actual wins and losses have under-performed what you would normally expect for a team that’s scored as many runs as they have and allowed as few. Looking at Baseball Prospectus’s adjusted standings you can see that the Red Sox record is probably two to seven games worse than it should be right now and that the Angels record is three to five games better. These things tend to even out over time and if they do over the remainder of the season the Angels are going to be aways out of the playoff hunt.

National League East
I’m officially never picking the Braves to finish lower in their division than first until they actually do that. This is preposterous. Each year that division titles have been decided, since 1991, the Braves have won their division. That dates back to when I was in grade school. That dates back to before any of us were on the Internet (unless you’re Al Gore or someone very technical). Did you even have airbags in your car in 1991? You probably at least have to think about it. Either way, you were probably listening to MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice on cassette tapes while you were in your car.

Possibly even more noteworthy have been the collapses, if you can even call it that, of the Phillies, Marlins, and Mets (well the Mets if you work in their front office – the rest of us really knew all along that they weren’t in it). The Marlins and Phillies never really got going this year. Sure, they were both in first place for good chunks of the season, but everyone’s been waiting for them to turn it on and make a good run (like the Braves have) since April. Even if it were to happen now, it’s probably too little, too late.

Coming into the year expectations were higher for the Phillies than for the Marlins, even though the Marlins were the defending World Series champions. This was because the Marlins lost some key parts over the offseason (remember that Ivan Rodriguez guy who’s helped to turn things around in Detroit?) while the Phillies added stars and payroll (hello, Billy Wagner). The offseason should prove to be interesting for these two clubs though as the Phillies will almost certainly have to rid themselves of Larry Bowa (if he even makes it through the year) and the Marlins’ Larry Beinfest will likely have his reputation as a shrewd dealer sullied when folks start to realize that the Fish didn’t make the playoffs in 2004 and they’re going to be forced to pay big time salaries to Paul Lo Duca, Guillermo Mota, and most abhorrently of all, Juan Encarnacion in 2005.

National League Central
Despite the Cardinals massive lead over everyone else in the National League, there are a few questions that face this team. Some of the simple ones are things like, how much will they win the division by? Others are more difficult to answer, like can their pitching really come through in the post-season? Another issue, which is seldom raised, is similar to the situation that the Giants faced in last year’s post-season: The Cardinals are going to cruise into the playoffs, but by that time they won’t have played in much of a race in four months or so. Sure, they’ll have won a lot of games in that stretch, but the pressure of winning a five game series is a lot different from protecting a dozen-plus some game lead. If anyone can prepare the Cards for that though it’s Tony La Russa. We’ll just have to wait and see I suppose.

National League West
While it’s not a runaway, the Dodgers seem to have salted away the division title. Paul De Podesta has taken quite a bit of flack for his deadline trade of Paul Lo Duca (and others) to the Marlins for Hee Seop Choi and Brad Penny. It now looks like we’ll all get a chance to see how that trade, and the others that De Podesta made, will position the Dodgers for the playoffs. Brad Penny’s health is a major question though

National League Wild Card
In Miami right now the talk (well, when folks aren’t hyperventilating about Ricky Williams) is about how the Marlins are merely four games back of the Padres and five games back of the Giants. That’s all well and good, but neither of those teams are leading the Wild Card chase right now, so it’s largely irrelevant. Catching those teams will only put you a spot or two in the standings closer to almost, but not quite making the playoffs. They don’t pass out rings for those kinds of finishes though (although there are small playoff shares for all second place finishers).

The race here really comes down to the Cubs and the Giants. The Cubs are led by a plethora of stars and almost stars. Sammy Sosa, Nomar Garciaparra, Greg Maddux, Kerry Wood, and Mark Prior headline the first group, and Derek Lee, Carlos Zambrano, and Aramis Ramirez lead the latter. For the Giants, it’s a much different story. They are carried offensively by Barry Bonds and on the mound by Jason Schmidt. Ray Durham leads a cast of role players and filler parts.

Like the Red Sox, the Cubs have underperformed their runs scored and runs allowed Pythagorean win expectations. Given that, and holding all other things equal, to me that means the Cubs are likely to make a run here towards the end of the year (the Giants and Cubs both have relatively easy schedules coming up), which would allow them to overtake the Giants and slide into the Wild Card.

However, these are the Cubs that we’re talking about. Despite what the statistics and the star power might tell you, they’re just as likely to have another 1984-Leon Durham-esque collapse or a vintage 2003 Steve Bartman inspired choke. Only time will tell.

It should be fun to watch.


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