Nobody is running away with any of the divisions in the American league. The Rays hold the best record, and The Mariners hold the worst. The last place teams are the Yankees, Tigers, and MAriners - all teams that a lot of folks thought could win their respective divisions. It looks pretty topsy-turvy, but the thing is no one has gone crazy and no one has been blown out of the water. Everyone is in their division races, and the biggest gap is 8.5 games between the Angels and Mariners. What is going on?
Some of it can be explained by injury. The Mariners lost a lot of games they might not have with Erik Bedard and J.J. Putz on the field. The Yankees offense has struggled without Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. The same can be said of Detroit, without the help of Dontrelle Wilis, Denny Bautista, and Joel Zumaya. So who's going to turn it around and make a playoff run? Conversely, who's going to drop off the radar in a hurry?
I'm figuring that none of the last-place teams will finish in last. Not all of them will storm back to win the division, either. I'll take it division-by division.
The Yankees, if you ask me, will finish third, or second but not the wild-card team. I'll take some flak for this, but it's just what I expect. Last year they started even worse, went through a stretch where they lost 17 of 19 I think it was, and then they turned it on and played out of their minds in the second half. So why can't that happen again? Well, they just aren't quite as good as last year, and the rest of the division is better. The Rays and Orioles are better and the Red Sox are still excellent. The Blue Jays should start winning some more, too. Yes, A-Rod will make a huge difference. Posada probably will too. This team has a lot of veteran stars, and a good amount of young talent, but they're kind of caught in the middle with the old too old and the young too young. Don't get me wrong, the guys who aren't producing now will at some point, but injuries will likely be a factor all year. Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes will be very good, but they are facing the adjustments all young pitchers do and not quite there. Joba Chamberlain is phenomenal, but bullpen or starter he won't carry an entire team. There will be no Roger Clemens at the break to turn things around, either. His injection into the rotation is what got them to the playoffs, if you ask me. Bottom line: They'll turn it around, in that they won't finish in the cellar, but I think they'll take a year off from the postseason. Next year their young talent will be more ready and some of the has-beens will be replaced (Really I mostly mean Jason Giambi).
The Tigers are a team that I'm really on the fence about. On paper they have the offense and the pitching to be darn scary, but they're not performing. The AL Central is a lot better than it sometimes gets credit for, so the competition is stiff. There's a limit to the size of the hole you can dig for yourself when competing with the Indians, Twins, and White Sox and still have a shot to come back. The Royals, while I expect them to finish last, are less pathetic than they have been. This team is going to light up the scoreboard, but I'm less confident they'll be able to right the ship pitching-wise. Justin Verlander may very well be done in terms of the brilliance he's shown in the past. Dontrelle Willis has to come back from a true burnout, and I don't know if in the AL he can do that. Denny Bautista and Joel Zumaya, in my opinion, are OK pitchers but nothing particularly special. That's based not on numbers but on just not being blown away when I've seen them pitch. Like the Yankees, I think third place is where this team will end up. I err more toward 4th than 2nd in the Tigers' case, though. Bottom Line: I don't think this team will undergo a true turn-around, although they'll climb in the standings. Their pitching is too suspect for me to anticipate a playoff run, considering the competition.
The Mariners lack offense but have a pitching staff that sounds nuts. Sort of the inverse Tigers. If you ask me, though, suspect offense and excellent pitching will have a better shot than suspect pitching and excellent offense nearly every time. I still think Erik Bedard, Felix Hernandez, Carlos Silva, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista makes one of the best starting 5 in the American league. They're going to score at least a little just by law of averages. they also play in the easiest division in the AL in which to make a move, partly because there's only 4 teams. All it takes is to overtake Texas and for Oakland to come back down to earth a little (which has already started to happen). I don't think Seattle will overtake the Angels, because they have been performing very well without their two best pitchers and without a real contribution from Vladimir Guerrero thus far, so they should only get better. Bottom Line: I think the Mariners have the best chance of the last place teams to make a playoff run. It won't be easy here, either, but I think they will battle with the Athletics for second place and be in the Wild Card hunt.
Three teams are also far exceeding expectations. In this case, two are in the East and none in the Central.
The Rays have never even sniffed a .500 season, but look poised to grab at least that much in 2008. The pitching has finally caught up with the offense, and they are downright scary. Will they fade back to the bottom of the division by years' end? I don't think so. They did a lot of this pitching without Scott Kazmir, arguably the best of the bunch. That's only "arguable" because James Shields has been outstanding. Matt Garza started poorly, but is settling in. The 4-5 spots, with Jason Hammell, Edwin Jackson, and Andy Sonnanstine is not great but is good enough to hold up the back end with a very solid 1-2-3 in front. The bullpen is quite possibly the most improved bullpen (for a single year) in baseball history. I didn't look up all-time numbers, but they went from worst to among the best, largely because of Troy Percival. The offense isn't going at full capacity, and when it is they'll be even scarier. All of that said, this is a tough division. The Yankees, Blue Jays, and even the Red Sox are underperforming so far (I say even because their record is still pretty good). See below for expectations of the Orioles. Bottom Line: This team is much better than it has ever been. They are still one or two pieces from being a complete team, though. Second place (but not the wild card) seems like a reasonable hope, though that spot may fall to the Yankees. Expect no worse than third, though.
The Orioles have also surprised, still above .500 in mid-May. This team was picked by many to lose 100 games. From what I've seen so far, that will not happen. A lot of comparisons can be made to the Rays, but the Orioles are farther behind in the process. This is really the first year of their movement. We've heard all about the changing culture, the attitude, and doing the little things. All of that is happening, It's fun to watch, and as a fan I am more optimistic about this process every day. This team, though, doesn't have the talent to do the BIG things to stay where they are, record-wise. step one is going very well, but it'll take steps 2 and 3 before they're redy to contend for a playoff spot. They are not going to fade into the realm of 100 losses though. Daniel Cabrera has arrived. I think 7 straight quality starts is enough for that assertion. He's done some of it without his best stuff, and his walks are down. Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Burres were great finds, and look like they will continue to be above-average pitchers. Garret Olson is ready for the bigs, and is pitching very well. I don't know that Adam Loewen will ever be what was hoped, with his injury, but when he's healthy he may be a factor. The bullpen has also shaved about 1.5 runs from last year's ERA. Jamie Walker looks like he might not be the reliever he used to be, but Chad Bradford coninues to be remarkably consistent. George Sherril and Dennis Sarfate have been better than advertised. Matt Albers and Jim R. Johnson have been outstanding, Johnson looks like he could eventually be a closer, Albers maybe a starter, but for this season they are one of the better middle-relief duos out there. The offense, though, is not going to be good. There's a huge hole at shortstop, Adam Jones isn't ready to put up the big numbers, Nick Markakis isn't protected, Luke Scott is merely above-average, and the infield does not have great production potential. Bottom Line: this team is headed in the right direction, with better than expected pitching and more great arms on the way. With a less than imposing lineup, though, this year is not the Orioles year just yet. I predict a 4th place finish, but the record will be better than last year's mark, possibly within 5 games of .500.
The Athletics are a team that alwasy seems to manage to be relevant. Perhaps I should have a lot of faith in Billy Beane to make moneyball work every year. I just don't think this tem can stay as competitive (and they've already slowed a bit) for a whole year. That rotation has been putting up monster numbers, but I'm just not as confident that these guys can keep it up for a season as I was with the previous Oakland rotations. Their #1 starter, Joe Blanton, has a career ERA over 4, and I don't know that he's going to keep the hot streak up. I think Rich Harden is their best pitcher. He's good, but that statement tells me their rotation isn't all that special. Is Eveland really going to keep up an ERA 2 runs lower than his career? I guess he could, with only 49 games under his belt, but I'm not 100% sold on him yet. You know what, on closer inspection, Justin Duchscherer is a lot better than I've ever given him credit for. Greg Smith, though, is already showing signs that big league hitters are starting to figure him out. I think maybe 2 of 5 of these guys will continue to put up this kind of numbers, and I don't think that will be enough. I won't even break down the offense, but it isn't good. They're good at playing small-ball and manufacturing runs, but this is the American League. That won't keep them this good all year. Bottom Line: This team, like the other two, will still be better than preseason expectations. They might be in the playoff hunt at the end, but the Angels will be too much for them to win the West. I also think the Mariners will improve while the A's settle down, so I think it will be close for 2nd and 3rd place.
One final note: The central to me could really finish with 2, 3, and 4 in any order. I predict the Indians to win and the Royals to hit the cellar, though.