Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Down to the Wire

Things are becoming clearer in the pennant races around baseball. As the days count down to October, it becomes a clearer postseason picture, although some races are still very close and some even becoming closer. (All stats are through games of September 19).
New York Mets clinched
The Mets clinched the division on Monday with a win over the Marlins. This was no big surprise to anyone not in a coma, as the Mets tied this one up months ago. They're currently the only team that has clinched a postseason berth.
In the postseason, I think the Mets are the obvious favorites in the NL and stand a better chance in the Series than many people will give them credit for. They have a very strong lineup, ranking second only to the Phillies in the NL in runs scored (780). And while they've struggled to fill out the back end of their rotation, they've done a great job of pitching; their 4.06 ERA is second only to the Padres in the league. They also have one of the better defenses in the league; put those two together, and you have 4.06 runs allowed/game, again second only to San Diego.
The Mets' biggest weakness this season has been their starting pitching, particularly their lack of depth. Going into October, however, that doesn't figure to be a big weakness at all. Their two main pitchers, Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine, each got some time off due to minor injuries during the season, which should mean that they won't be as tired going into October. They won't have to worry about finding a 5th starter and may be able to do without a 4th starter most of the time. This means that they can set a rotation of Martinez, Glavine, and either John Maine or Orlando Hernandez and stick with it. The back end of the rotation will cease to exist, and the Mets will have more arms in their already-stellar bullpen.
I think the Mets are the favorites for the NL pennant, and the only thing that will really keep them from competing in the Series will be weakness at the outfield corners or a possible starting pitching meltdown.
1. St. Louis (80-69)
2. Cincinnati (74-77) 7 GB
3. Houston (72-78) 8.5 GB
St. Louis' magic number to clinch the division is 6. The only thing that would keep them from doing so would be a big comeback by either the Reds or the Astros, neither of which is likely at all. So the Cardinals, mediocre though they have become, should end up as the NL Central champions.
If we can assume a Cardinal victory, they'll be in trouble in October. Since the NL West and NL Wild Card are both still in flux, it's impossible to guess who will be facing whom in the first round. If the current standings hold, it would be the Mets facing the Wild Card Dodgers, and the Cardinals facing the Padres.
The NLDS itself should be underwhelming. The Mets will -- barring an upset -- plow through their competition. And the other two teams will just be fighting for the right to get savaged by New York in the NLCS. It will also mark the first time (I believe) that two teams with less than 90 wins have met in the postseason. So whether the Cardinals face the Dodgers, Padres, or Phillies, it won't be a pretty sight.
Do the Cardinals stand a chance? Perhaps. They've gotten slightly better pitching in the second half, which has helped them create some distance in the division. Their 4.48 ERA is 8th in the league (the league average is 4.49), but their fine defense actually means that they're better-than-average at preventing runs.
If the Cardinals had their 2004 offense, then better-than-average would be fine on defense. But they don't. Their 4.9 runs/game makes them 7th in the NL, far behind the league-leading Phillies (5.30). Not only are the Cardinals missing Jim Edmonds due to post-concussion syndrome, but they're sporting a lineup with a gaping hole at catcher and only moderately better production at second base and shortstop. The emergence of Chris Duncan has given the Redbirds three above-average hitters, joining Pujols and Rolen.
So what the Cardinals have is a slightly above-average team that just happens to be good enough to back into the NL playoffs this year. While it's possible that they could squeak by the Phillies or Padres in the first round, there's almost no chance that they'll win the pennant.
* -- The Reds' loss to the Astros Wednesday afternoon lowered the Cards' magic number to 5.
1. San Diego (79-71)
2. Los Angeles (79-72) 0.5 GB
3. San Francisco (74-76) 5 GB
San Francisco isn't really a factor in this race, although they're still in the hunt for the Wild Card. This means that the race comes down to the Padres and Dodgers.
It's hard to believe that the Dodgers were able to blow what seemed like such a good lead in this division. Especially considering that the Padres are no '27 Yankees -- or '87 Yankees, for that matter. But the Dodgers have been an incredibly streaky team.
Most of the Dodgers' value this season has been in their offense -- a flip-flop of the traditional Dodger team makeup. Not only have they gotten a resurgent season from Nomar Garciaparra to go with good work from J.D. Drew (underrated x10) and Jeff Kent, they've gotten a huge contribution from their rookie class. Catcher Russell Martin and Outfielder Andre Ethier have led a charge of young Dodgers that saved this team from oblivion. It's doubtful, though, if players like Martin and Ethier are as good as they looked a few months ago -- which may partially explain the Dodgers retreat to mediocrity.
While the Dodgers haven't gotten great pitching, it's been good enough to get them by. Their 4.27 ERA is 4th in the league, although that's partially due to friendly Dodger Stadium. But if the Dodgers can go into the postseason with a starting rotation of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Greg Maddux, and Chad Billinsgley, they'll be in great shape to contend for the NL pennant.
While the Padres do have the 0.5 game lead, it's still hard to buy into them as a legitimate threat. They would head into the postseason with a starting rotation of Chris Young, Jake Peavy, Clay Hensley, and either Woody Williams or David Wells, both of which have thrown well despite their advancing age. The Padres have a fine bullpen, anchored by closer Trevor Hoffman and supported by solid arms such as Cla Meredith (0.82 ERA), Scott Linebrink, Brian Sweeney, Jon Adkins, and Alan Embree. Even considering the Mets, the Padres might have the best pitching staff in the NL. Their league-leading 3.93 ERA has a lot to do with Petco Park, yes, but this is still a team that can limit the opposition's offense very well. Note also their defense -- one of the best in baseball, with a .713 DER.
All that is well and good, because the San Diego offense is woeful. Even considering their home ballpark -- OUCH! They've got a good center fielder in Mike Cameron and a good catcher (though not defensively) in Mike Piazza. Other than that, they don't have anybody acting as a real offensive presence. Dave Roberts is hitting well (297/364/400), but not by the standards of a left fielder. You could say the same for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (298/352/499), although if he were in a neutral park, he would look a lot more like a star. Todd Walker has done a good job plugging the hole a third (305/393/438 since coming over from Chicago). But other than that? Nothing. The Pads have a perfectly average middle infield of Josh Barfield and Khalil Greene. But with the possible exception of Gonzalez at first, they're just not getting their offensive production from the places they need it. After a 2005 where he was the team MVP, RF Brian Giles has seen his batting average evaporate (from .301 last year to .269 this year). Even if they ended up in a hitter-friendly park like Philadelphia in the NLDS, it's hard to see the Padres hitting well enough to win, even considering their top-flight pitching staff.
So who's going to win the West? Damned if I know. These teams are so close right now that it's impossible to predict the future. Their schedules for the rest of the season aren't so far apart that you could pick a clear favorite. But if only because they've already got the 1/2 game advantage and because I think they're more reliable, I'm going to go with San Diego.
1. Los Angeles (79-72)
2. Philadelphia (78-73) 1 GB
3. San Francisco (75-76) 4 GB
4. Florida (74-77) 5 GB
I left out Cincinnati (5.5 GB), Atlanta (6 GB), and Houston (6 GB), not just because they've got so many teams in front of them, but because none of them are likely to play particularly well over the next two weeks.
Here it's essentially come down to the Dodgers and Phillies. The Giants and Marlins are both potentially still in it, but with only 12 (or so) games left on the schedule, a 4-game deficit is a LOT, especially when you've got two or three teams in front of you. So we'll leave the Giants and Marlins aside.
We've already talked about the Dodgers, who are up against the pitching-heavy Padres in the race for the NL West. Their opponents in the NL Wild Card chase are the polar opposite: the hitting-heavy Phillies.
The Phillies lead the league with 5.3 runs/game. You could argue that they're not really better than the Mets, on account of ballparks, but they're still a damn good-hitting team. They're primarily powered by Ryan Howard (313/414/671), Chase Utley (300/369/513), and Pat Burrell (252/377/484). They've got a durably decent presence at shortstop (Jimmy Rollins, 274/334/462), center field (Shane Victorino, 279/343/403), and right field (David Dellucci, 291/371/547). "Primary" catcher Mike Lieberthal hasn't hit in years (279/324/482 this season), but backup Chris Coste (314/363/479) has done a surprisingly good job. You could argue about the relative merits of Rollins or Victorino, but the Phillies are getting great production from three positions, and at least average production from every other one, with the glaring exception of third base, which has been manned primarily by Abraham Nunez (211/292/271) and Jose Hernandez (268/323/369) since the trade of David Bell (278/345/398 before the trade). In my opinion, the Phillies have the best lineup in the NL after the Mets. And, since both teams are in the same division, they would not face each other in the NLDS. If he Phillies win the Wild Card, they would at least be able to hold off on facing the Mets until the NLCS.
But of course, the other "shoe" that will drop here is the Phillies' pitching. The Phillies were blessed when Cole Hamels emerged as a valuable starter, because they haven't had more than one good starting pitcher in years. That "one" this year was Brett Myers, who managed to pitch around an arrest for domestic violence and still manage a respectable 4.04 ERA in 176 innings, along with a stellar 57:165 BB:K ratio. If they make the playoffs, though, the Phillies will have to have somebody else in the rotation after Myers and Hamels. And the pickens is slim. Their best option is Jamie Moyer. Moyer isn't great, and his style of pitching is very ill-suited to Citizens Bank Park, but he's been successful thus far with the Phillies, notching a 3.79 ERA and only 5 HR in his 6 starts since being traded from Seattle.
After Moyer, the Phillies could go with Jon Lieber, who, after getting off to a wretched start, has at least been mediocre since July. After that, their best option is Ryan Madson. Madson has had, shall we say, some ups and downs this year. Here is Madson's monthly ERA totals: 8.05, 4.05, 5.71, 7.08, 3.00, 9.64. Yes, it would be great if the August (3.00) Madson shows up, but you don't want to risk seeing September Madson (9.64 ERA, all in relief, as he lost his spot in the rotation after July. The only other pitchers to get more than 10 starts this year are Randy Wolf (5.47 ERA) and Gavin Floyd (7.29 ERA).
But perhaps the Phillies could make up for their rotation woes with a dominant bullpen. Closer Tom Gordon got off to a great start this year, but after getting injured, it's questionable how effective he'll be in October. Behind Gordon, the only pitcher who's been really effective has been Geoff Geary. Geary's been so effective, in fact, that he's already been used in 75 games, throwing 85.1 IP. Geary's had a good September and hasn't shown any signs that the workload is getting to him, but it's difficult to count on any relief pitcher in October after they've thrown 90+ regular-season innings.
This is especially important, because Geary's the only thing holding the Philly bullpen together. After Gordon and Geary, the pitchers seeing the most time out of the bullpen have been Aaron Fultz (4.79 ERA), Rick White (5.16 ERA), and Arthur Rhodes (5.32 ERA). Unlike the Mets, the Phillies won't be able to save their weak and weary starters with a killer bullpen.
With the Mets clinched and the Cardinals nearly so, that leaves (essentially) the Dodgers, Padres, and Phillies battling for two postseason spots. The Dodgers and Padres have the advantage, since they have two ways to get into the postseason. With the Phillies, it's either the Wild Card or nothing. No team has a notably easier schedule the rest of the way, although the Phillies will be hurt by having to play 6 more games against the Marlins. Neither the Dodgers nor the Padres will face any such burden; in fact, both have the advantage of a 3-game series against the Pirates at home.
All that being said, I'm going to go for the Padres as the NL West Champs and the Dodgers as the Wild Card. This is not any sort of final announcement; it's simply my best guess at this point. The Phillies are perfectly capable of stringing together some quality starts and slugging their way to the Wild Card. But as it looks now, it just doesn't seem likely.
Projected NLDS match-ups:
Mets .vs. Dodgers
Cardinals .vs. Padres
The Yankees' magic number is 1, so they will likely have clinched their division by the time you read this. The only real excitement left in the AL East is the race for second place (Boston is 2 games ahead of Toronto) and seeing whether the D-Rays will lose 100 games (they're at 94 losses with 10 games to go).
1. Detroit (90-61)
2. Minnesota (89-61) 0.5 GB
3. Chicago (85-66) 5 GB
It's all over bar the shouting for the White Sox. The only chance they have left is with a 3-game series against Minnesota at the end of the season -- except it's at the MetroDome. So much for a repeat.
So we're left to wonder whether Detroit or Minnesota wins the Central. Even in the absence of Francisco Liriano, I'm picking the Twins.
The only thing that made the Tigers what they are was their pitching. Their hitting was average-to-decent this year; they made their name on homers but little else. They looked like clones of the '05 White Sox, and it worked well enough for them as long as they were pitching. The Tigers are still leading the AL with the fewest runs allowed per game, 4.05 (for that matter, they're leading all of baseball -- even the NL teams). That's phenomenal; but it doesn't mention the recent trends. In July, the Tigers were tied for 3rd in the AL in runs allowed (with Seattle) -- but the Twins were even better, ranking 2nd behind the Angels. In August, the Tigers were tied for 2nd in the league in runs allowed -- tied with the Twins (the A's were first). So far in September, the Tigers are 6th-best in the AL in runs allowed. The Twins are far better, ranking second (only to Toronto).
So we've established that while the Tigers were the best-pitching team in the first half, they have not been the best in the second half. And, most notably, they've been worse than their division rivals, the Twins.'
Why have the Tigers been so snake-bitten? What happened to their pitchings staff? Their best pitcher, Justin Verlander, posted a 6.83 ERA in August and a 5.09 mark so far this month; this is likely due to fatigue on his young arm, or perhaps simply a sign that he wasn't as good as he looked in the first half. The other half of the dynamic duo, Jeremy Bonderman, posted a 5.40 ERA in August and a 5.74 mark in September. Nate Robertson had a terrible summer (5.97 ERA in July, 4.61 in August), but has turned it around in September (0.82). Kenny Rogers is the only Detroit pitcher who has noticeably improved since the All-Star Break, which is odd since Rogers is the oldest -- 41, to be exact. So even though the Twins are starting greenhorns like Boof Bonser and Matt Garza, bombed-out veterans like Carlos Silva, and the star of George Romero's next zombie movie (Brad Radke), they're still doing a better job than the Tigers at preventing runs.
Are the two teams offensively similar? Very -- the Tigers are scoring 4.93 R/G, only slightly worse than Minnesota's 4.99, and essentially better when you consider the difference in the two ballparks. But are the Tigers the better-hitting team? Let's compare lineups:
C -- Joe Mauer
1B -- Justin Morneau
2B -- Luis Castillo
SS -- Jason Bartlett
3B -- Nick Punto
LF -- Lew Ford/Jason Kubel
CF -- Torii Hunter
RF -- Michael Cuddyer
DH -- Rondell White/Phil Nevin
C -- Ivan Rodriguez
1B -- Sean Casey
2B -- Placido Polanco
SS -- Neifi Perez
3B -- Brandon Inge
LF -- Craig Monroe
CF -- Curtis Granderson
RF -- Magglio Ordonez
DH -- Marcus Thames
To me, the Twins have a clear advantage. Not only do they have two legitimate studs (The M&M boys, Mauer & Morneau) to the Tigers' none, they also have better depth. Guys like Castillo, Bartlett, and Punto aren't going to make any All-Star teams, but they've actually been more productive than the Tigers' woeful combination of Polanco, Perez, and Inge. Both Polanco and Inge have suffered terrible slumps this year, whereas Perez has always been bad (and may end up costing Jim Leyland his Manager of the Year Award, not to mention the NL Central title). Both teams have solid outfields with weak production from left field (although the Tigers are getting more from Monroe, by far). The contributions at DH tend to favor the Tigers, although Phil Nevin has been an upgrade for Minnesota, whereas Detroit took a step back when they released Dmitri Young.
What the offensive stats really suggest is the same thing the pitching stats did: the Tigers got off to a hot start and then faded, whereas the Twins have done the opposite. That evens out when you consider the overall season, but since we want to know who is better now, the answer is the Twins, and it's not even close. If the Twins fail to pass the Tigers, it will surprise me, and will still leave them as clear favorites for the Wild Card.
1. Oakland (87-63)
2. Los Angeles (81-70) 6.5 GB
Like the Cardinals, the A's division title is just a matter of time. Their magic number is 6, and it would take a huge comeback from L.A. to even make a dent in that. The A's have a great pitching staff and a fine defense. Their hitting sucks, but thank God for Frank Thomas (279/392/566, 38 HR).
1. Minnesota (89-61)
2. Chicago (85-66)
As I said before, it's just a matter of time before the White Sox officially bow out. Their trouble is that they took a near-perfect 180 from last year. They went from a pitching-dominant team with some offense to an offense-dominant team with some pitching. They did a great job of focusing on their offense and improving it this offseason (their 5.45 runs/game is second only to the Yankees). But good God, what happened to their pitching staff? We could have predicted some decline from last year, but no one could have seen this catastrophe coming. There's not much they can do now, except to focus on next season.
Projected ALDS match-ups:
Yankees .vs. Tigers
Twins .vs. A's

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