Let's have a good look at the AL teams and see if we can determine a few certainties. The Tigers are in for sure, but everything else looks murky. The Red Sox are leading the East, but only by a hair, over the Yankees. The AL West is still a 4-team race, although I decline to include Seattle as a serious contender. But, other than the Tigers, you have 8 teams in the AL fighting for three playoff spots.
Even if we get a good idea of who's going to win the East and the West, we've still got 5 teams with a decent shot at the Wild Card. Right now, however, it's a dead heat between the Yankees, Twins, and White Sox. Realistically, I think there's a 75-80% chance that one of those three teams wins the Wild Card. It's possible that the Yankees could surge and win the East, which would just mean that the Red Sox would be fighting off the Twins and Chi-towners for the last playoff spot.
Regardless of how you look at it, there are going to be some close, hot races come September. And unlike the NL, most of the teams involved are very good, and there will be so damn fine baseball teams going home in October. (Records are through July 29)
New York Yankees (1.5 GB in East; 0.5 GB in the Wild Card)
Good news: The Yanks are right in the thick of it, despite injuries that have limited their offense and the fact that they still have little or no pitching depth. So it's good news for Yankee fans that the Bombers are right at the top of the heap and are primed to get even better in the coming weeks. The latest news from ESPN's Jayson Stark is that the Yanks have all but finished a deal for Philadelphia's Bobby Abreu. This would be a blockbuster trade for New York and a HUGE upgrade in their outfield. A lot has been said about Abreu's lack of power this year, but his tremendous patience (.427 OBP this year; career .412) still makes him a very valualbe player, and odds are that the power will come back. Abreu is getting older (32 this year) and more expensive, but the Yankees are one of the few teams that can afford him.
Another thing to consider is that Hideki Matsui will be back in a matter of weeks. This will give the Yankees a full, potent offensive outfield for the first time since May (Matsui, Damon, Abreu). Combine that with a killer infield, a still-potent catcher, and Gary Sheffield as DH (if he makes it back in time), and the Yankees could have the best offense in baseball by the end of the year.
The other aspect of the Abreu deal would send Philadelphia starter Cory Lidle to the Bronx. Lidle is the perfect example of a "league-average innings-muncher," or LAIM. He's not that great (4.74 ERA, 4.54 career), but his peripherals aren't too shabby, and he shouldn't give up nearly as many homers in Yankee Stadium. He's not great, but then he's a far sight better than Shawn Chacon, Aaron Small, and Sidney Ponson. He's also reliable, durable, and relatively cheap. He's not the best in the world, but the Yanks weren't going to get anybody better on the trade market.
Considering that the Yankees have been almost exactly as good as the Red Sox so far, this could make them not just Wild Card contenders but possible challengers for the division title. While the Red Sox are a strong team, too, they may not be able to survive a Yankee onslaught in August and September.
Bad News: The Yankees are still old, and their pitching staff is still troublesome. There are no guarantees that the Yankees will continue to pitch as well as they have so far. Jaret Wright can't be relied upon, and Scott Proctor is as overworked as any reliever in baseball. Mike Mussina has been brilliant thus far, but is he really free from the injuries and inconsistency that have plagued him the last couple years?
Conclusion: The Yankees make the playoffs -- somehow.
Boston Red Sox (Lead AL East by 1.5 games)
Good news: The Red Sox have held on this long. Their pitching staff is still a work in progress, but their season has been literally saved by not only rookie closer Jon Papelbon, but a whole group of young starters that has emerged to give them quality starts. Curt Schilling has been a godsend (but can he stay healthy?), and Tim Wakefield has been reliable as ever, although he's currently on the DL. After that, it's been a mess. Josh Beckett has struggled mightily (4.76 ERA, which no one notices thanks to his 13-5 record), Matt Clement is in the midst of a meltdown, David Wells has been walking wounded, and trade acquisition Jason Johnson (6.35 ERA) hasn't exactly stopped the bleeding. However, the good news is that the Sox have gotten quality work from Jon Lester (3.49 ERA in 10 starts) and keep trying different pitchers in the #5 spot. Once Wells returns and Wakefield comes back from the DL, the Sox might just have a rotation solid enough to get them into October.
Bad news: All of the above is a big "if." And I didn't even mention the offense.
The Sox have holes at second base, shortstop, center field, and catcher. The fact that these holes are already filled by underperforming veterans (Mark Loretta, Coco Crisp, Jason Varitek, et al) makes them much harder to fill. The Sox can live with Loretta's production and hope that Crisp rebounds. There's nothing they can do with Varitek, but they could explore shortstop solutions. Alex Gonzalez ain't cutting it. Don't be surprised if Theo Epstein does something to shore up his offense -- even if it means working "creatively."
Conclusion: It's their race to lose, but considering the teams they're up against and the fragile nature of their roster, they may do just that.
Toronto Blue Jays (6 GB in East; 5 GB in Wild Card)
The Jays aren't really contenders; I don't see them moving past the Yankees and Red Sox, or the White Sox and Twins. But they're there, not a huge distance away, and so they at least merit discussion, although they're not a serious part of the discussion.
Good news: The Jays have gotten unprecedented production from their old underachievers. The biggest example would be the outfield: former disappointments Vernon Wells and Alexis Rios (currently on the DL) have had superstar-caliber years, and the left field platoon of Frank Catalanotto & Reed Johnson has been dynamite. Roy Halladay is healthy, Ted Lilly doesn't suck, and B.J. Ryan is mowing them down.
Bad news: Other than Ryan, the free agents haven't exactly been "difference-makers." Glaus and Overbay have been quite good (368/549/262 and 362/499/302, respectively), but haven't pushed the team into contention. A.J. Burnett has been constantly injured (big surprise) and Bengie Molina left his bat in LA (316/406/277).
Sure, they haven't been awful, but I don't think they're quite what Mr. Ricciardi had in mind. Despite Halladay, their pitching staff is patchy at best, and I seriously doubt Alexis Rios is this good.
Conclusion: A pretty expensive step forward.
Chicago White Sox (8.5 GB in Central, 0.5 games ahead in Wild Card)
Good news: The White Sox have a proactive GM who has the money and the know-how to swing some high-impact deadline deals. Their offense is a pretty big improvement over last year's club, thanks to career years from Joe Crede and Jermaine Dye and the unexpected return to dominance by Jim Thome.
Bad news: The AL Central race is all but over, and now all the Sox can do is throw themselves into the 3-team Wild Card race with gusto.
I expected that the starting rotation wouldn't be able to match the brilliant 2005 they managed. But I really didn't think that they would all, with the exception of Jose Contreras, take a big step back. Their starters' ERA has increased by nearly a full run. There's not a whole lot Kenny Williams can do about it, except try and trade away one of the more expensive ones (preferably Vazquez) and slot Brandon McCarthy into the #5 hole. A player like Vazquez could bring back a pretty good hitter; the Sox's biggest hole is in center field. Any ideas, Kenny?
Conclusion: If the pitching staff can't get it turned around, the Sox miss the playoffs.
Minnesota Twins (10.5 GB in Central, 2 GB in Wild Card)
Good news: The Twins have been such a surprise thus far that their season has to be considered a success, even if they miss the playoffs. They have very few expectations surrounding them, whereas the White Sox are seen to be on the brink of disaster.
The Twins have a duo of dominant starting pitchers that could very well prove to be historic. If Francisco Liriano stays healthy, then it won't be a stretch at all to compare him and teammate Johan Santana to Koufax/Drysdale or Johnson/Schilling. The Twins have the two best pitchers in the American League on their staff. They've also still got a pretty darn good bullpen, anchored by unsung hero Joe Nathan.
The best news is that the Twins are starting to hit better. Don't get me wrong -- they've still got a lot of holes to fill in that lineup, but they've come along way since last year. But with that pitching staff, you don't really need a ton of offense.
Joe Mauer has been absolutely sensational and Justin Morneau has finally reached his potential as a slugger. Add in solid work from Michael Cuddyer and Nick Punto, and you're left with a less-than-awful lineup.
Bad news: The back end of the rotation has collapsed like a flan in the cupboard. Carlos Silva, Brad Radke, Kyle Lohse -- all of them have been total crap. The Twins could really use somebody else behind Santana and Liriano to create some depth.
They also need a new shortstop, a new outfielder or two, a new DH, and maybe a third baseman. Considering how well they've done without these things (and with a terrible year from 2B Luis Castillo), just one pickup to fill these holes would put them right at the top of the Wild Card list. However, GM Terry Ryan is notoriously conservative and reluctant to trade prospects. Can he strike while the iron is hot and cement a postseason berth for this team?
Conclusion: Twins make it a very close race, but come just short. They'll be back next year -- thereby making the AL Central a dynamite division.
Oakland Athletics (0.5 games up in AL West)
Good news: The A's have been underachieving all year long to a huge extent. The fact that they're still in the race at this point means that they have plenty of time to recover and take over the AL West. They've got a dynamic duo at the front of the rotation in Dan Haren and Barry Zito, and Huston Street appears to be back on track as closer. Frank Thomas is healthy and hitting, and Milton Bradley is healthy, although we'll see how healthy.
Bad news: The A's have a truly abysmal offense, possibly the worst in the AL. They're at the bottom of the league in production by the infield, including catcher Jason Kendall, with the only bright spot being 3B Eric Chavez. Their outfield, with the exception of Nick Swisher, has been a similar disappointment, with Bradley injured and Mark Kotsay struggling. There's always the possibility that some of these players will bounce back -- Chavez, Bobby Crosby, and Bradley being the most likely -- but there are no guarantees. And even that may be too late.
Not only that, but the A's vaunted rotation depth has deserted them. It doesn't look like ace Rich Harden will be back this year, and it doesn't look like the A's want Esteban Loaiza back (6.72 ERA). I thought the Loaiza signing looked like a really bad move, and boy it was even worse than that. And with Harden and Joe Blanton unable to pick up the slack, the A's are left with a less-than-dominant pitching staff. And they're going to need a dominant pitching staff to win with that offense.
Conclusion: I still think they're the best team in that division, but I'm doubting that they will win.
Los Angeles Angels (0.5 GB in West; 8.5 GB in Wild Card)
Good news: The Angels have the best starting rotation in the West, and maybe the best in baseball. John Lackey is an ace; Jered Weaver pitches like one; Ervin Santana is a fine young pitcher, and Kelvim Escobar is a capable fourth man. And all of this is with de facto "ace" Bartolo Colon injured and struggling. If they can get Colon back, look out. Because if this rotation aligns with their fine bullpen (K-Rod and Shields are still golden), the Angels don't need to hit much to win.
Bad news: Yeah, but they have to hit something. Chone Figgins has turned back into a pumpkin, and Garret Anderson appears to be nearing retirement, and he's only 34! The Angels have gotten nothing from the right side of their infield, and only marginally better production from the left (Orlando Cabrera isn't all that great). The Angels have been saved by the rejuvenation of Tim Salmon, the return to form of Vladimir Guerrero, and the call-up of catcher Vince Napoli. It's true that there are many more good young players in the Angel system ready to contribute in the majors. The bad news is that it may be too late to save this year.
Conclusion: Their pitching is excellent, and I think their hitting will improve. If GM Stoneman can acquire a bat at the deadline (Hint: MIGUEL TEJADA), then they're certainly favorites.
Texas Rangers (3 GB in West; 11 GB in Wild Card)
Like the Angels, it's the AL West title or nothing for Texas.
Good news: The Rangers have gotten much better pitching this year. Despite trading away capable Chris Young, the Rangers have gotten surprisingly good production from starters such as Vicente Padilla and Kevin Millwood. Sure, their back 3 are pretty poor, but at least they're durable and better than awful; that's an improvement for the Rangers. They'll also soon be getting Adam Eaton back from injury; Eaton has somehow gotten the reputation of an above-average pitcher, but he should at least solidify the back end of the rotation. Credit also goes to a surprisingly good bullpen, anchored by Akinori Otsuka.
More good news was forthcoming yesterday, when the Rangers traded away relatively little to get Carlos Lee and Nelson Cruz. Cruz is a big help in the fourth outfielder slot, and Lee is a huge upgrade over Kevin Mench. The Rangers may not be done dealing, and another good trade could send them over the top in this tough division. If the Tigers are this year's #1 surprise, the Rangers have to come in second.
Bad news: I said the pitching was relatively good; I didn't say it was good. Even by Ameriquest Field standards, the Rangers haven't been doing a good job preventing runs. They're going to need all the offensive firepower they can get. And while the Lee trade certainly helps, we have to point out that the Ranger infield is a big step worse than it was last year. The exception would be Michael Young, but Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock especially need to do a better job producing.
Conclusion: Respectable finish, but no postseason.
You may wonder why I didn't include the Mariners. I didn't include them because they're in last place in the AL West and nowhere near the Wild Card. Yes, they're only 3.5 games out in the West; but while every other team in the West is likely to get better over the enxt few months, the Mariners really aren't, trades or no trades. I could see them passing one of these teams; I could not see them passing all three. Good season, but no postseason; sorry.
As far as the Tigers go, they're dominating all of baseball. I wish I could explain it, but I can't, at least not entirely. Their offense is mostly legit, and is one of the best in the league; top 5, easily. It's their ability to prevent runs that has been tops in the AL by a few miles. This is thanks to a solid defense and a dynamite pitching staff. I don't think Nate Robertson is for real, although that doesn't mean he'll stop pitching like he is. I swear Kenny Rogers is going to get old someday, but I guess it won't be this year. After that, you've got Bonderman, who is very good, and Verlander, who is uber-good. I honestly can't believe I'm saying this, but I think the Tigers are the favorites to win the World Series. The AL postseason will certainly be interesting, but if I had to guess, I'd put my money on a Tigers/Mets series. Not a longshot, I know. But either way, one team would come out with some major redemption.
And I have to say that although I don't often talk a lot about managers or give them as much credit as others do, I have to acknowledge the presence of Jim Leyland as a positive influence in Detroit. The success of the Tigers is so unfathomable, and Leyland's track record so impressive, that there's really no other conclusion to come to.
I'll update after the trade deadline is over, outlining all the major deals and going into more detail. I already mentioned the Abreu trade, but a few other nuggets: word is that Soriano will definitely be traded as soon as Jim Bowden lowers his asking price; I've heard the Twins and Tigers mentioned, which is a scary thought. Miguel Tejada will likely be traded, unless the impotent Baltimore ownership is unable to process the paperwork in time. He would be a big help to a lot of teams, from Houston to Anaheim.
Peace out . . .