Mid-Year Handicap: The American League
With every team in the Bigs now past the 81-game mark, it seems like a good time to take a look at how we got here, where we might be going and which teams look like the best shot to be playing meaningful October baseball. I am going to look at only those teams I view as having a chance at the post-season, point out what they have done well, where they could improve and what their prospects look like going forward.
Boston Red Sox
The others had their shot. Since May 31, Curt Schilling has been injured, the lineup has done nothing and the Sox have gone 16-15. Boston hit .264/.348/.413 in June, an abysmal line for a lineup containing the talent Boston's does. Slugging .413 for a month while playing home games in Fenway Park is not easy to do. Fortunately for them, they play in the league's worst division. The closest thing resembling a charge that any team could muster was the 17-13 stretch the New York Yankees have put together since the same date.
Boston will snap out. Come hell, high water, Jacoby Ellsbury or Alex Cora, they will get more out of center field and shortstop than they have thus far in 2007. Boston is 11th in the AL in center field OPS thus far, having posted a .256/.313/.373 line. Their shortstops (Julio Lugo, ahem) have been dead last (.201/.268/.303). In addition, Manny Ramirez (.285/.385/.467) and J.D. Drew (.261/.373/.402) have not yet hit like they can.
Boston's pitching has been superb, and they have received better production than they could have hoped for from Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Mike Lowell. Each of these components could regress in the second half, but the aforementioned improvement candidates figure to offset them. Further, Boston has the farm system to deal for an extra part or two come deadline time.
With an 11.5 game lead on the morning of July 5, I just don't see how anyone can catch these Red Sox. But then, my father probably felt the same way on July 5, 1978.
Last week I would have felt really good about including Minnesota on this list. I feel strongly that Detroit's offense is in for a major fall back to earth in the second half and I thought that given their bullpen struggles and crummy 3-5 starting pitching, they would be in for a mediocre second half. But I am starting to think that Andrew Miller, Kenny Rogers and the soon-to-return Joel Zumaya easily make up for the regression Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco and Curtis Granderson are all likely to endure. Detroit is for real, and with Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman anchoring that starting rotation, they have a great chance at making another post-season run.
Minnesota is probably not going to catch Detroit, but there is hope for the Twins. Any offensive production from position players not named Morneau, Hunter, Cuddyer or Mauer would go a long way. As would some quality starting pitching from any one of its youngsters. Minnesota may have a run in them, but they will have to climb over two teams that I regard as clearly superior to them.
Cleveland's offense is fantastic and I think due some inprovement. Travis Hafner should improve in the second half, and the lefty half of the right field / left field platoon that was so brilliantly pieced together (or so I thought) has not lived up to its billing. David Dellucci has been terrible, and just as we in Boston suspected, Trot Nixon's power is zapped. Jason Michaels, Casey Blake and Franklin Gutierrez have all been solid, however. I also have to think they can get more out of Josh Barfield than the downright Lugo-esque .257/.283/.337 line he has achieved thus far.
On the pitching side, it's been C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona and then little else for Cleveland. Paul Byrd has been serviceable, I guess, but the 4th and 5th slots in their rotation have been a black hole. Though he has improved a bit of late, Cliff Lee has had a rough go of it this year. Jake Westbrook and Jeremy Sowers have been a disaster. Improvement from any of these three combined with some of the hitting improvement that should come means Cleveland should be sitting pretty the rest of the year.
Los Angeles Angels
There just is not a whole lot to say about this one. The AL West should be the Angels in a landslide. Seattle doesn't hit it or pitch it all that well and have been lucky to win as many as they have. They will fall off. Meanwhile, it's hard to see how the Angels could fall off. Orlando Cabrera and Reggie Willits may regress, but Ervin Santana and a healthy Howie Kendrick should more than make up.
Oakland is omitted because there have been reports out there that they will be deadline sellers and it makes a lot of sense. They just don't have the horses to get it done this year and I think Billy Beane will recognize this.
Nothing is settled yet, but I would be shocked if the four teams that would qualify for post-season play today if the season ended, are not vying to represent the American League in the Fall Classic come October.
Anyone else see some darkhorses that I might be missing?