With the trade deadline and the Bonds Watch squarely in the rearview mirror, it's time to take stock of the pennant races. Who's in the race, who's out and who will win? Here are my picks for the American League along with my pithy observations on each ballclub. (For National League picks, go HERE.)
All standings updated heading into Wednesday's games.
Boston Red Sox
Raise your hand if you thought Coco Crisp (.402) and Dustin Pedroia (.436) would both have a higher slugging percentage than J.D. Drew (.378)? Even Julio Lugo (.762 OPS since the break) is starting to hit a little. But the key to this team is run prevention -- pitching and defense. Boston has allowed the fewest runs in the AL, 454, by a wide margin; second-place Oakland has allowed 485.
New York Yankees, 5.0 GB
As kind as the schedule has been lately, it's about to get a lot tougher. The rest of August includes three with Cleveland, eight with Detroit, three with Boston and three with Los Angeles. The Bombers are the classic bullies of late, beating up on overmatched pitching staffs. But what are they going to do against the league's top pitchers and how are they going to match up in the late innings with that flammable bullpen, the addition of rookie Joba "The Hutt" Chamberlain notwithstanding?
Toronto Blue Jays, 11.5 GB
The season isn't a total loss -- young right-handers Shawn Marcum (127 ERA+) and Dustin McGowan (112 ERA+) have been revelations. Plus, the Jays may finally have realized they can't rely on A.J. Burnett.
Baltimore Orioles, 15.0 GB
Led by Erik Bedard and Jeremy Guthrie, the pitching isn't half bad. But it's hard to win consistently with so much flotsam in the lineup. Melvin Mora, Kevin Millar, Jay Payton and Corey Patterson are the definition of mediocrity. The Aubrey Huff/Jay Gibbons platoon at DH has been a disaster.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 25.5 GB
There's a solid nucleus here, with Scott Kazmir, Akinori Iwamura, B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford in the fold. There's more talent in the pipeline, too, but getting it all to mesh at the same time will be tricky.
Prediction: Red Sox cruise to their first division crown since the 1995 team Kevin Kennedy always talks about on his XM Radio show.
First it should be noted that they wouldn't be in this spot without a superhuman season from Rafael Betancourt and his 314 ERA+ (!) out of the 'pen. The bats are the problem during this recent slump -- the Indians were second in the AL in runs scored in the first half but rank 12th since the break. Josh Barfield (58 OPS+) has been an outmachine at the plate. On the bright side, the trade for Kenny Lofton creates an intriguing platoon with the right-handed Jason Michaels (career .847 OPS against lefties; .730 vs. righties). Plus, Jake Westbrook finally appears to be rounding into form.
Detroit Tigers, 0.5 GB
Don't worry too much about the recent slide -- it's nothing a series with the Devil Rays can't fix. Fernando Rodney is back, and not soon enough for this bullpen, which is still missing Joel Zumaya badly. Jeremy Bonderman has had a couple of ugly starts lately but he's none the worse for wear. Now that Nate Robertson is settling down, the key might be Kenny Rogers, who has yet to find the groove he was in last season.
Minnesota Twins, 6.5 GB
Luis Castillo wasn't as big a loss as some people are making him out to be. He was hitting an empty .300 and he's far removed from his heyday with the Marlins, when he was a force on the bases and a legitimate Gold Glover. The pitching is there to make another AL Central run, but it's hard to score runs with slappies like Jason Kubel, Jason Tyner, Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett getting regular playing time.
Chicago White Sox, 11.5 GB
They have scored the fewest runs in the league, and the pitching isn't any good either, especially in the bullpen. The Jermaine Dye Free-Agency Drive is officially on.
Kansas City Royals, 14.0 GB
This isn't a team anybody wants to play down the stretch. They've posted back-to-back winning months and this lineup is capable of an eruption on any given night.
Prediction: The Tigers' rotation will come together and the bullpen will settle down. They hold off the Indians in a tight race.
Los Angeles Angels
This pitching staff is deeper than the Laurentian Abyssal. The offense is still all about Vlad, but think about this: Gary Matthews Jr. is second on the team with 14 home runs and tied for second in RBIs with 64. Despite his heavily criticized contract and the HGH scandal in spring training, Matthews has been steady at the plate and in the field. If Howie Kendrick can avoid breaking any more fingers, this will be a dangerous lineup come October.
Seattle Mariners, 4.0 GB
They have gotten this far thanks to a surprisingly effective offense and a crazy good bullpen, which explains why they have outplayed their unimpressive run differential (536 runs scored, 532 runs allowed), but they aren't in the same class as the Angels. Closer J.J. Putz deserves to be mentioned as a legitimate candidate in the Cy Young race.
Oakland, 13.0 GB
They rank 13th in the AL in runs scored despite being second only to the Red Sox in drawing walks. Also, they are one of the best defensive teams -- by any and every metric -- in the majors. So they have a lot of walk-drawing Gold Glovers who can't hit a lick.
The Mark Teixeira Derby over and the death march has begun. As for the net results from their firesale, it's hard to give GM Jon Daniels the benefit of the doubt when his trade record is so spotty. Those kids he brought in better come through or this franchise is buried for the next five years.
Prediction: Angels pull away down the stretch and the Rally Monkey makes his postseason return.
The Wild Card Race
2. Yankees, 0.5 GB
3. Mariners, 1.0 GB
4. Twins, 6.0 GB
Prediction: Actually, the Indians. The Tigers win the AL Central and Cleveland gets the consolation prize. The fatally-flawed Yankees will fall a couple of games short.