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.