The MLB regular season has 6 ½ weeks left as we go into Friday night’s games. Here’s nine thoughts on the state of the American League, from the race for playoff spots to individual awards…
*The MVP & Cy Young Awards appear to be all but in the books. Los Angeles Angels’ centerfielder Mike Trout is running away with the MVP, and Seattle Mariners’ ace Felix Hernandez is set to win a second Cy Young. The injury to New York Yankee ace Masahiro Tanaka stripped the drama from the Cy race, and Trout has not had serious competition for the MVP in several weeks.
*The Kansas City Royals have surged to the top of the AL Central, taking a half-game lead over the Detroit Tigers. Let’s keep in mind though, that over the last ten games, the Royals are 9-1 and the Tigers are 4-6. Those trends aren’t going to hold, so the Kansas City stock is artificially high. The Royals should be able to win this division, but I have every confidence that KC manager Ned Yost can help Detroit reverse their negative momentum.
*As prophesied in TheSportsNotebook, the Baltimore Orioles have broken open the AL East, and while power is this team’s strength—they lead the AL in home runs—it’s pitching that’s driven the Birds to a 7 ½ game lead. Chris Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen in particular, are on good rolls and it’s made up for the fact that Chris Davis never has started hitting. Strong pitching and a second half Oriole surge—surely, the late Earl Weaveris somewhere smiling.
*The Los Angeles Angels have been hamstrung by poor bullpen work the last few years and the acquisition of Huston Street has helped everything fall into place for the Halo relief corps. Street is having an outstanding year, and Joe Smith is perfect in the setup role. Mike Scioscia managed this group as well as he could for four months, and the arrival of Street has finally made the skipper’s life easier. It’s why I think the Angels are going to ultimately win the AL West.
*In saying that, I don’t mean to diss the Oakland A’s, who are still one of the top four or five teams in baseball. How good does the Oakland offense have to be to lead the league in runs scored, while playing in one of the AL’s worst hitters’ parks? The corner infield, Brandon Moss at first base and Josh Donaldson at third, have combined for 48 home runs. Put them in New York, both the Stadium and the media market, and watch their numbers and profile soar.
*The Seattle Mariners are set up to be the hard-luck team of the league this year, stuck in a division with the Angels and A’s. Maybe the M’s can still steal the second wild-card spot. If they do, Robinson Cano will correctly get a lot of credit, as he’s got a .397 on-base percentage/.469 slugging. But don’t overlook third baseman Kyle Seager, at .344/.476. They’ve helped just get enough support to the league’s best pitching staff.
*And yet another story coming out of the AL West is an individual one. Houston Astros’ second baseman Jose Altuve has flirted with the notion of a breakout year since 2012, and now it’s arrived. Altuve is hitting .337, and on a pace to win the batting title, with Cano a full ten points back.
*Don’t blame the retirement of Mariano Rivera for the New York Yankees being four back in the wild-card race with multiple teams to leapfrog. And while it’s understandable if you blame injuries to a decimated rotation, make sure to point a finger at some bad free agent decisions this offseason. Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran have been unproductive, and Jacoby Ellsbury has been nowhere worth the seven-year $153 million contract. The Yankees should have been at least able to score runs, and thus far, they haven’t.
*Who’s Manager of the Year? The managers of the three best teams all have good cases, Bob Melvin (Oakland), Scioscia (LAA) and Buck Showalter (Baltimore). I’m leaning Showalter right now—he’s 69-50 in spite of Davis doing nothing, Manny Machado being hurt or unproductive for much of the early year (and now back on the DL to the end of this month) and a rotation that was spotty for the first half. But I respect the case for Scioscia, and Seattle’s Lloyd McClendon could be a darkhorse in this race.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
The American League playoff race has the same eight teams in realistic contention that there were when we covered this topicin last Monday’s MLB coverage, but the cards were shuffled a bit, thanks in no small part to the devastation the Detroit Tigers wreaked on the city of Cleveland.
Detroit came rolling into Cleveland for a four-game set in the early part of last week with the two teams in a tight race in the AL Central. By the time the Tigers left town, they had four wins in their back pocket and their lead in the Central now sits at a hefty seven games.
We realistically need to take the Indians off the radar as far as winning the division, though they remain within four of the wild-card. The Royals are in similar straits—7 ½ back of Detroit, but just 4 ½ off the wild-card. Kansas City gets its own chance to reshape the landscape when they go to Comerica Park for a five-game series with the Tigers that starts Thursday night, and includes a James Shields-Justin Verlander matchup on Friday afternoon.
While the AL Central was seeing teams move out of the race for first, the AL East was tightening up a bit. Boston lost three of four in Kansas City this weekend, but Tampa Bay could not capitalize. The Rays lost two in Arizona and then were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Rays’ bullpen blew a big lead and a win for David Price on Friday, then got trounced for a national TV audience on Saturday and Sunday.
What that meant was opportunity for Baltimore. The Orioles had been in the heat of the wild-card race, but had drifted off the AL East title radar. By sweeping a pair in San Diego, then taking a weekend series in San Francisco, the Orioles moved to within 4 ½ games of the division lead, while staying within a game and a half of the wild-card.
For the Giants, a tough season just got worse—they couldn’t even avenge their home city in the first sporting event the cities of Baltimore and San Francisco have played since last year’ Super Bowl.
And the AL West has seen a turnabout. Texas is red-hot, while Oakland, in spite of taking two of three this weekend in Toronto (and playing a Monday afternoon wraparound game today in the Rogers Centre), has otherwise struggled. The Rangers, six games back on July 28, are now in the lead by a game. Last year, it was Oakland who came from behind to beat Texas. Maybe that’s going to reverse itself this season.
The Rays and A’s still lead the wild-card standings in spite of their rough weeks and both are obviously still right in the thick of their division races—Tampa trails Boston by three games. But their struggles, along with those of the Indians, were a big part of a week that shuffled the deck in the American League playoff race.
With the trade deadline passed, it’s time for TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverageto do here what front offices around baseball had to decide, and it’s this—who’s a contender and who’s not. I think we can safely narrow the American League field to nine teams.
There are seven bona fide contenders, all within a half-game of at least a wild-card spot coming into Thursday’s games. Boston, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, Oakland and Texas constitute that field. When you make your playoff picks, it’s tough to decide which two of these teams will not play into the postseason.
I think we have to keep Kansas City and New York on the radar as well. I’m not picking either team to make it, but the Yankees are within 3 ½ games of the second wild-card, and Kansas City is 4 ½ off the pace. After the St. Louis Cardinals of 2011, or the Tampa Bay Rays that same year, those margins are pretty small by comparison.
When it comes to the divisional races, and the three automatic spots in the full round that is the Division Series, I’m going to take a chance and remove Baltimore from that list. They’re 5 ½ games back in the AL East, and while that deficit per se is not unmanageable, the Orioles have two teams to catch. And those two teams happen to have the best records in the American League as a whole. If Baltimore is going to make the Division Series, they’ll have to repeat their 2012 showing and win the wild-card game.
THE WEEKEND SCHEDULE
The hot action this coming weekend is in the AL West, as Texas visits Oakland. Saturday’s game will be part of Fox’s TV coverage and Matt Garza will get a chance to show he’s worth the price the Rangers paid to get him. Texas is four games back, and losing this series really puts them in trouble. Getting swept means we cross them off the list of serious division title contenders.
In the AL Central, both Cleveland and Detroit have chances for sweeps. The Indians will be in Miami, while Detroit hosts the White Sox. I would hope that when the Indians visit the Marlins, the Tribe would feel some type of home-city venom for Miami on behalf of LeBron James leaving the Cavs for the Heat. Just kidding about the players feeling that, but that’s all the juice this series has.
Boston has a tough series against NL West contender Arizona, as the Diamondbacks come to Fenway Park. Jake Peavy makes his first start as a Red Sox for TBS’ national audience on Sunday afternoon. Tampa Bay and Baltimore are also at home, with the Rays hosting the Giants and the Mariners paying a visit to Camden Yards.
Kansas City goes to New York for an interleague series against the Mets, while the Yankees re-visit better days when they go to San Diego. It was here that the 1998 New York Yankees, the best of the Torre-era championship teams, completed a World Series sweep. I’m sure the New York front office is also hoping to get some financial good news in the form of an Alex Rodriguez ban or lengthy suspension in the BioGenesis case.
AMERICAN LEAGUE INJURY REPORT
The big news is that Tampa saw Matt Moore go on the 15-day DL with a sore elbow. For now, the reports are nothing is seriously wrong and it will be a minimum DL stint. The Rays are waiting for Alex Cobb to finish rehabbing from a concussion, and new reliever Jesse Crain to get healthy.
And no one wants good news with regard to its pitchers more than Texas. Colby Lewis is starting his third week of rehab, and Matt Harrison joined him yesterday. Neftali Feliz will start a rehab stint tomorrow.
New York might not get offensive help from A-Rodthis year, but Curtis Granderson did begin his rehab stint.
The American League playoff race got a little bit of clarity this week thanks to some decisive results in showdown series, but the once-clear National League suddenly has a wild finish on its hands. While the division titles are all firmly in hand, as Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco continue to run away with first place, and the first wild card is under solid control by Atlanta, the second wild-card now has at least five viable contenders.
Philadelphia & Milwaukee are whom we have to thank for this exciting mess, as the Phils & Brewers—the teams with the best records in the National League a year ago—have caught fire since making trade deadline dumps (the Phils ridding themselves of Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence, the Brewers dealing Zack Greinke). The Phils are 72-72 and four back of St. Louis for the final spot. Milwaukee’s a bit better at 72-71 and 3.5 back. Each team has taken a divergent path to get here.
It can’t come as any surprise that the Phils have done it with pitching. It was the strength of the team even before the trade deadline moves gutted the starting lineup. It also can’t come as any surprise that the Big Three of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are a combined 14-6 since the All-Star break. But it will surely come as a surprise that it’s Kyle Kendrick who’s turned into the ace of the staff, on a 7-2 run with a 2.34 ERA in the season’s second half. Offensively, the return of Chase Utley (.375 OBP/.491 Slugging) has given them just enough offense to get by.
Milwaukee’s done it with the bats, the path that would make the 1982 Harvey’s Wallbangers pennant-winners proud. The Brewers lead the National League in runs scored for the entire year and have naturally been even hotter since the All-Star break. Ryan Braun is putting together another MVP-caliber season, and he’s currently getting a lot of help from Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez—the latter in particular, has slugged .609 since the break, a positively scorching number. But no turnaround has mattered more than that of Rickie Weeks. The second baseman, the best in the National League at his position a year ago spent most of 2012 in a funk that made you wonder if he’d become a zombie. In the season’s second half, Weeks is back to his old self, with a .357/.491 stat line.
If the Phils or Brewers are to complete this miracle run they’ll need to become more complete. The Phillies can’t afford to drop a couple 3-2 games in a row, nor can the Brewers blow the leads their offense gives them—even in the second half the atrocious Milwaukee bullpen has still blown 13 saves, second-worst in the National League. But that we’re even having this conversation about both teams right now is amazing enough and even if a playoff run comes up short, a winning season would be a big deal.
Philadelphia has a four-game series with Houston this weekend—they dropped the opener last night to temporarily halt their momentum, but it’s still as ideal a schedule spot as you could want. Milwaukee hosts the Mets, who’ve dropped six in a row.
The Phils & Brewers need to win because this is a weekend where someone at the top of the race for the second wild-card is going to win. St. Louis is in Los Angeles for a four-game series that started last night against the Dodgers and the Cards edged out a 2-1 win behind Lance Lynn, restored to the starting rotation. Josh Beckett pitched well for Los Angeles, but only went 5.1 IP and we’ve seen little evidence that the Beckett who once worked into the seventh and eighth innings for Boston is ready to be his old self again. The Sunday finale for this series features an Adam Wainwright-Clayton Kershaw showdown. It would have been a nice choice for Sunday Night Baseball instead of Washington-Atlanta. I understand ESPN’s thinking—the Nats and Braves are superior teams—but it seems difficult to argue the point that Washington is going to win the NL East and Atlanta will host the wild-card game. It would take a sweep in either direction to even remotely contest either point.
The two other notable series in the National League are Pittsburgh’s visit to Wrigley Field that starts Friday afternoon. The Pirates were inexplicably swept at home by the Cubs last week and can be thankful they’re still only three back of the Cardinals. And San Francisco goes to Arizona. You can make a case for the Diamondbacks as another longshot comeback, as they’re 71-72 and only 4.5 back of a playoff berth. I’d still like to see them break .500 first.
When the week began TheSportsNotebook talked about showdownbattles in the American League, and it was Baltimore and Oakland who came up big. The Orioles swept the Rays, capping it off with yesterday afternoon’s 3-2 win in 14 innings. The A’s took three of four from the Angels, in Anaheim no less. Los Angeles had to rely on Jered Weaver to bail them out yesterday with seven shutout innings that averted a sweep with a 6-0 win.
The consequence of all this is that Oakland the AL East runner-up—either Baltimore or New York, who are currently tied—now have opened up a lead for the wild-card. Los Angeles is 3.5 back of the East runner-up, while Tampa Bay is four back. It sets up a must-win weekend for the Rays, who pay a visit to the Bronx. Winning two of three is an absolute necessity for Tampa, and with just nineteen games left Tampa might need a road sweep.
New York got 7.1 innings of shutout baseball from Phil Hughes last night, as they edged Boston 2-0 and were able to take two of three from the woeful Red Sox. With New York coming home and Baltimore doing a six-game western swing that starts tonight in Oakland, the Yankees have to see this as their chance to put to rest any doubts about them making the playoffs and re-open a lead in the AL East.
The A’s are in command of the wild-card picture and still have their eyes on chasing down Texas, where there’s only a three-game margin. While Oakland battles Baltimore in that Destiny’s Darlings series, the Rangers will be hosting Seattle. The Mariners haven’t gone away quietly this season and at 69-75 still have a shot at .500 and have been a tough out for contenders.
And the much anticipated Justin Verlander-Chris Sale showdown in the Tigers-White Sox finale last night was rained out, keeping Chicago in first place in the Central by a game. Detroit is 5.5 back of the wild-card, so that option is all but done. The teams will take to the road, with the Tigers going to Cleveland the White Sox heading north to Minnesota. The division leaders will then return to the Windy City on Monday afternoon to makeup last night’s rainout, a previously scheduled off-day for both teams.
Over the next two days TheSportsNotebook will look at how each team in baseball is performing in relation to the win total Over/Under that was posted in Las Vegas at the start of the season and assess their chances the rest of the way in that same light. I’m also going to do the less appealing prospect of assessing how my own preseason playoff picks have worked out and look ahead with some revisions (or wholesale changes as the case may be). Today we start with the American League and a link to each team’s season preview back in March is included…
New York (52-33):The Yankees are on a pace to win 99 games, giving them a solid cushion on the preseason expectation of 93.5. You can further add that preseason Vegas expectations on the Yankees are usually inflated beyond what a reasonable baseball fan might assign, given the number of New York fans that bet. So New York is exceeding an inflated number fairly comfortably, in spite of losing Mariano Rivera for the year, Michael Pineda for the year and suffered key injuries at various points to the pitching staff. And I wonder why I’m not enjoying this baseball season more.
Baltimore (45-40): Buck Showalter has the Orioles on pace to win 86 games after the preseason expectation was 69.5, the biggest projected differential in baseball. The mark of how thoroughly Baltimore has overachieved is that beating the market expectation is no longer the definition of success. Now it’s about whether they can at least achieve the Elusive 82—and get their first winning season since 1997 and perhaps even punch a wild-card ticket to the playoffs. For the latter to happen, they’d need to make a significant acquisition at the trade deadline by the end of the month and it remains to be seen how much of the future general manager Dan Duquette will invest in order to win now. My guess is, not much, and I think that’s wise.
Tampa Bay (45-41): You can blame the injury to Evan Longoria for the fact a team expected to hit the 88-win plateau—a number likely good enough to make the playoffs—is only on pace for 84. And that’s fair enough, but also blame James Shields. It’s not that he’s been bad, but with an ERA over 4, he’s not an ace, and even with Longoria, the Rays need their starting pitching to be outstanding.
Boston (43-43): Vegas expectations were 90.5, and I don’t know anyone who really thinks the Red Sox are going to win 91 games this year, even with Jacoby Ellsbury due back on Friday. If you bet the Over on Boston, just tear up the ticket now and save yourself the agony. But if it only takes 87-88 wins to grab the second wild-card, the Red Sox have as good a shot as anyone. Can the starting pitching Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz be as bad after the All-Star break as they were before? If you think not, then the Sox are a good bet to make the playoffs.
Toronto (43-43): The Blue Jays were a projected 81-81, so everything is right on the button. Perhaps betting markets know by now to just assume Toronto will get with horrifically bad luck in their efforts to develop young starting pitching. Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek and Brandon Morrow are all on the disabled list and Ricky Romero has forgotten how to pitch at the top of the rotation. In spite of it all, the Jays are hanging tough and still meeting expectations in baseball’s toughest division.
Chicago (47-38): Nobody liked the White Sox in March, projecting them at 74.5. I liked them a little more than most, but I’d have never put my chips on a 90-win pace at the All-Star break. It’s not surprising the White Sox are getting a great year from Paul Konerko or a comeback season from Adam Dunn. What is surprising is that Robin Ventura has put together a starting rotation in spite of injuries and inconsistency to John Danks and Philip Humber. But I think unless the latter two get healthy and pitch well, Ventura’s going to be hard-pressed to maintain this pace.
Cleveland (44-41):This was another team I wasn’t really high on in March, but when the initial number came up at 79, I thought it was selling them a little short. It struck me more as a low point for the Tribe rather than a median number to bet on. Right now, Manny Acta’s got his team on pace for 84 wins, Ubaldo Jiminez is starting to pitch well again and he can reasonably hope for better second halves from Justin Masterson and Derek Lowe. The fly in the ointment is the appalling lack of offense at the corner infield spots.
Detroit (44-42): On a pace to win 83 games, ten fewer than preseason expectations, the Tigers are right there with the Red Sox in the fight for biggest underachiever. But Detroit’s showing signs of life, coming into the All-Star break on a hot streak, they’ve got an easier division to play in and they’ve got a manager who knows what he’s doing and hasn’t antagonized half the roster and the fan base. All of which differentiates them from the Sawx. If Doug Fister pitches consistently and the team gets offense from some secondary sources (i.e., people not named Austin Jackson, Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder), Detroit will be in the hunt for the AL Central, although rewarding people who took the Over on a high 93 number is going to be tough indeed.
Kansas City (37-47): Are you surprised to know the Royals are another team, along with Detroit and Boston, running a solid ten games off the expectations given them by the smart money? Because the initial offering only had them at 80.5 it’s not getting the same kind of media attention, but the injuries that have decimated the Royals’ starting rotation have prevented them from joining Baltimore in the race to end a long string of losing seasons.
Minnesota (36-49): The Twins current pace has them winning 69 games, just missing a 72 number that I thought was low—in fact, taking the Over on Minnesota was my strongest opinion of spring training, even when the figure jumped to 73.5 closer to the start of the season. But the flip side is that the losses piled up in April and based on the way the Twins are currently playing, they’re on a good pace to at least get into the high 70s by season’s end, pending whether they gut the team with trades the balance of this month.
Texas (52-34): The Rangers aren’t getting the same kind of credit as the Yankees for overcoming injuries, as the two-time defending American League champs have stampeded to a 98-win pace. But Texas’ starting pitching has been nicked up throughout the first half and is still in the process of getting everyone back. The preseason expectation was 92 and the outlook for an Over is solid. Even more impressive, their current pace would continue the pattern of improving the win total every year under Ron Washington’s leadership—they’d need 97 to keep the string going.
Los Angeles (48-38): After all the struggles of April, all the angst over Albert Pujols and even the still-unresolved concern about Dan Haren, the Angels are only two games off the 92-win pace projected for them by the Vegas establishment and well-poised to spend the second half pulling away in the playoff race and battling Texas for the right to avoid the new one-game wild-card showdown.
Oakland (43-43): Who would have thought Oakland would be .500 and still in the playoff discussion, a solid ten games ahead of the Las Vegas pace? Especially given that this has not been a year where everything’s gone right for them. Brandon McCarthy’s on the disabled list, joining Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson who were there when the season began. Josh Reddick has had to carry the offense pretty much by himself. With all three aforementioned pitchers set to get healthy, Billy Beane can try and win with pitching depth or deal someone for a bat. Either way, if you liked Oakland to win at least 72 games and go Over, you have to be feeling good.
Seattle (36-51): One of the things I like about using the specifics of the Over/Under win props rather than just a generic, “contender or not” evaluation is that it allows us to expose disappointing teams who might otherwise slide under the radar because they were never seen as contenders. Seattle’s 67-win pace has them set to go Under by four games thanks in part to the inability of first baseman Justin Smoak to justify his inclusion as the centerpiece of the 2010 deal that sent Cliff Lee to Texas. Somber thoughts for Seattle fans as they wonder if the team might trade Felix Hernandez and get good value for him.
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
At the start of the season I picked New York, Detroit and Los Angeles to win divisions, with a wild-card game of Toronto-Texas. After the injury to Rivera I moved Tampa into the favorite’s role in the AL East. This is the risk of taking a mulligan too early—even though the math of the standings make it imperative to switch back to the Yankees, the use of the mulligan means that instead of my preseason choice being right, I’m instead wrong twice. I am going to stay with the Tigers to run down the White Sox in the second half, but I will switch to Texas in the West. The rationale is that Yu Darvish has been better than I expected and while Roy Oswalt’s gotten roughed up a bit lately, I still think that’s an acquisition that will bear a lot of fruit down the stretch. And Ranger general manager Jon Daniels usually makes a big move at the trade deadline.
I’m comfortable using the injury excuse for Toronto—the fact they’re still .500 and in the race even with the decimation of the pitching staff shows the team at full strength was pretty good. And I suppose they’re only a couple games back, but it’s apparent this is not their year and it wouldn’t shock to see them trade Edwin Encarcion to a team looking for a bat, in exchange for some bullpen help (Cleveland would make a good trade partner here).
But if not Toronto, then who? I hate to say it, but I’m leaning Boston to join Los Angeles in the wild-card game. I say “hate” because even though I’m a Red Sox fan and passionately rooting for this very outcome, this particular Red Sox team has been such an embarrassment that picking the $175 million men over the Orioles, Rays, Indians and White Sox (or Tigers, pending the AL Central race) seems tantamount to walking into a casino and cheering for the house to beat the little guy. In other words, how Yankee fans have to feel all the time. But the house usually wins, and in this case, I think Beckett. Lester and Bucholz rebound and pitch Boston to a wild-card shot out west.
The American League Central is starting to become where the action is as we hit the last day of baseball prior to the All-Star break. The Cleveland Indians have ripped through three successive series against contenders, playing good baseball. Not only are the Tribe keeping pace with the red-hot Chicago White Sox, with only a three-game margin coming into Sunday, but Cleveland is squarely in the middle of the wild-card race and could be even with Baltimore by day’s end.
Cleveland’s gotten a welcome resurgence from starting pitcher Ubaldo Jiminez. The Indians’ starting pitching overall has not been a positive this year with Jiminez, Derek Lowe and Justin Masterson all having ERAs in the mid-4s, but Jiminez has started to put together a string of good outings. He hit his low point back on May 27 when the White Sox shelled him off the mound. Since then, the man Cleveland traded for at last year’s deadline has gone to the mound seven times. Five of his starts meet the generic rating of being “really good” (I know, don’ t hit you with all the sabermetric stuff on a relaxing Sunday afternoon) and the other two have at least been tolerable. To put some numbers behind that, the aggregate shows him working 46 innings in those starts and posting a 2.93 ERA.
Offensively, Cleveland’s gotten terrific seasons from the middle infield. Jason Kipnis at second and Asdrubal Cabrera at short have uncommon power, each hitting 11 home runs. Each get on base consistently and Cabrera in particular is having a dazzling season and has been the American League’s best shortstopin the first half.
But just as the pitching has been aided by a resurgent Jiminez, the biggest boost to the offense has been the revival of rightfielder Shin Soo-Choo. From 2008-10 he was the best rightfielder in the league. Injuries ruined his ’11, and after a slow start it looked like his career had been derailed. Now the numbers are sharp, with a .384 on-base percentage and .484 slugging. Last year Cleveland’s push for the AL Central title failed in part because of Jiminez and Choo were playing well below what was expected (well that, and Justin Verlander in Detroit become an unstoppable freight train). We’ll see if this year’s push succeeds, but it doesn’t look like Choo and Jiminez will be a problem.
What Cleveland does have problems with is power, as they rank 10th in the American League in slugging percentage. They can hope for a little bit of an upgrade from Travis Hafner, who’s slugging .441. But the designated hitter is long removed from his halcyon days of 2007 when he was a top DH in a league that was, at the time, stacked at the position. Cleveland might get a 30-40 point increase out of him in the second half, but there’s nothing in his record of the last five years that would lead us to expect anything more. And that’s about the internal improvement that you can really hope for. Casey Kotchman and first and Jack Hannahan at third are big liabilities. I thought the Indians might get more seriously involved in the Kevin Youkilis sweepstakes when he was traded out of Boston, given Youkilis’ ability to play both spots. And I have to think adding a bat at one of the corner infield spots is going to be a priority in the 23 days between now and the trade deadline.
The Indians have played themselves into wild-card contention and hung on in the face of the White Sox surge by beating contenders. Back on June 27 they were on a five-game losing streak, having just been swept in the Bronx. Cleveland promptly went to Baltimore and took three of four. They won two of three at home against Los Angeles and having taken two of the first three against Tampa, with the finale being played as this goes online. Beating those teams is a good way to move up the ladder, and now the Tribe just need to add some offense and make sure they can stay in the hunt the rest of the way.
Around the rest of the American League…
*No one in the AL East is really playing well, a circumstance that will suit New York just fine. The Yanks hold a six-game lead as they get set to finish the first half in Boston tonight. The second-place Orioles are casting about for pitching help, the Blue Jays just want starters to stay healthy and the Rays & Red Sox are each hoping notable disabled list returns—Evan Longoria and Jacoby Ellsbury—will spur offensive production. But Longoria’s return keeps being delayed, while the Red Sox seem to add a new injury with each passing day (Dustin Pedroia being the latest). It’s looking less and less likely that Tampa or Boston can make a run, which means it likely falls to Baltimore to make the AL East a race. Which means unless they can swing a deal for some significant pitching help—they’re rumored to be in the mix for Milwaukee’s Zack Greinke—the second half in this division will just be the Yankees playing for seeding position and everyone else playing for wild-cards.
*Detroit has joined Cleveland in hanging in there behind Chicago and looking set to join the wild-card fray. The Tigers have nudged over .500 and are 4.5 back of the White Sox, and 2.5 back in the wild-card race.
*And is anything more stunning that looking at your wild-card standings and seeing the Oakland A’s lurking, just 3.5 games back? I don’t think this can last, but then again who thought they’d even be doing this well—or that Baltimore would be the team they’re trying to catch?