The final month of this year’s Major League Baseball season should be one of the most interesting in recent memory. The Giants and Braves locked up the NL West and East respectively, but every other race is still close.
The most interesting battle is for the National League Wild Card. Realistically, there are eight teams–the Phillies, Marlins, Astros, Cardinals, Cubs, Diamondbacks, and Expos–all separated by five games and competing for this playoff spot. The compelling race is a great argument in favor of the parity the Wild Card creates.
Unfortunately, the race is more a product of mediocrity than anything else. All eight of these teams have failed to make a charge in recent weeks. In fact, none has a record over .500 over the last 10 games. Yet somehow, one of these teams has to get a playoff spot. Actually two, because the Astros, Cardinals, or Cubs has to win the NL Central title.
To narrow it down here, I am going to stick with my preseason pick of the Cubs for the Central crown. Their starting staff is too good. Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano are having phenomenal years, and Kerry Wood and Matt Clement can get hot very quickly. If this team can get into the playoffs, they may be favorites to get to the World Series because of the starters they can pull out in a short series.
A quick idea of the Wild Card race: I think I’ll knock out the D’backs and Expos because both are starting to collapse. I don’t like the Cardinals with a team E.R.A. of 4.61. The Marlins are too young and Dontrelle Willis is starting to fade. The Dodgers have a microscopic team E.R.A. around 3.00, but their .240 team batting average means they would fare better with the lineup from the Japanese Little League World Series team. But those kids did get to use aluminum bats.
That leaves the Astros and the Phillies. Both teams have had about the same level of offensive production with near-identical team batting averages and run totals. The Astros have a better bullpen, but I’ll take Philadelphia because they have better starters. The big difference for the Astros could be Roy Oswalt, who returns this week. If he pitches well, the Astros might get hot.
The American League is significantly easier to size up, but that isn’t saying much. In the AL East, the Yankees are up three games on the Red Sox. Meanwhile, the A’s lead the Mariners by two games in the AL West. Three of these four teams will make the playoffs, two division winners and a Wild Card winner.
The Yankees and A’s are solid bets for the playoffs, though neither is as good as in past seasons. The A’s don’t really score runs, and Mark Mulder might be done for the season. The Yankees’ offense is similarly inconsistent and the bullpen is weak. However, solid starting pitching gives each of these teams the edge over their division rivals.
As far as the Wild Card, I’ll go with the Red Sox. They play 14 of their final 23 games against the Devil Rays and Orioles, while the Mariners have tougher games against AL West teams, including six against Oakland.
Outside of Pedro and Derek Lowe at home, the BoSox can’t rely on anyone for quality starts. Seattle is even worse, making a recent run of only one quality start in nearly two weeks. Boston has the edge unless Seattle’s starters can put it together.
The other big AL race is in the Central. The White Sox, Twins, and Royals are packed together, but the Twins don’t have good starting pitching and the Royals are lucky to have gotten this far with a team E.R.A. above 5.00 and fewer runs scored than runs allowed.
The White Sox have three star pitchers with Esteban Loaiza, Bartolo Colon, and Mark Buehrle and a lineup replete with sluggers like Magglio Ordonez, Frank Thomas, Carlos Lee, Carl Everett, Paul Konerko, and Roberto Alomar. This team is absolutely stacked and is finally starting to put it together.
When the playoffs start, I’d expect to see the Cubs opening up in Atlanta with the Giants hosting the Phillies. In the American League, the Yankees will host the White Sox and Boston will be in Oakland.