Win, Place or Show: Projecting MLB Winners Down the Stretch

baseballI felt a bit like a monk in a cold, damp monestary pouring over ledgers of statistics hoping to make sense of the first half of the season in the last biblical submission. At times it felt like I was using a quill pen while I burned the midnight oil trying to combine cold, hard facts with calculated theories, hopefully astute projections, trying to incorporate a little innate baseball sense and come up with a logical overview based on the numbers before me and the many years behind me I was around the professional game.

 

There was no inclusion no matter how lousy a team’s prognosis was for the second half in that analysis. But sometimes life isn’t fair and baseball isn’t either with the imbalance of budgets teams have to work with and it is time for a follow-up, reality check as the second half is nicely underway.

 

America, sadly, so often isn’t about anything but winning. There are other ways to measure success. The Pirates could finally break their record losing streak of 19 consecutive seasons. That would be success. The Orioles could finish above .500 and maybe even second in the AL East and for them, that would be success, just to cite a couple of the many examples that could be used.

 

But this essay is about the reality of what lies ahead, about the winners, those who will qualify for the post season and unlike the reams of facts of the last submission to try to accurately rate the first half performance of all the teams, this is about those who truly have hope … the hope of getting into the playoffs.

 

The short version? This is MY two cents and unlike pouring over the league leaders and sifting through statistics, this is our discussion, as if we were sitting down at an oak table at the Cock&Bull Public House in Covington, Kentucky sipping Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale or Guineas Stout, firing opinions back and forth between pints. Only I guess I am doing all the talking here.

 

So if your particular team is not mentioned, well there is a reason for it now. We are primarily talking win, place, and show money here.

 

There seems no better place to start looking at races than the one that promises to be a dandy in the National League Central and you can begin with any one of three teams.

As much as I love the Pirates first half Cinderella story, over the long haul I just don’t see their starting pitchers, namely A.J. Burnett surviving the dog days of the summer. Just don’t see the continued reliability of that starting staff for six months.

 

And if Andrew McCutchen comes down to earth at all, he will certainly need far more help to carry the team than he has received from his mates thus far. Pittsburgh faded fast in the second half last season and I doubt they will as rapidly this year, but do they truly have what it takes to go from the outhouse (ok they actually did not finish last a year ago) to the penthouse of the division? I think not.

 

The next two teams in the running seem so hard to separate currently in Cincinnati and St. Louis. The Cardinals will really get a boost with the return of Lance Berkman no doubt and it is a franchise that knows how to win despite losing key ingredients.

 

There is no better example than last season when they won it all without stud starter Adam Wainwright which suggests they could do it once again without right-hander Chris Carpenter lost for the season.

 

Hey, this team can score runs and was only 2 1/2 games out at the break. But the variable there could be the absence of Tony LaRussa. Not taking any shots on the current management team, but love him or hate him LaRussa was the jockey that brought this horse to the finish line first and to a degree I am a believer in his ways and yes, his magic.

 

If I had a .357 to my head and was forced to pick just one, I would scream Cincinnati, please don’t shoot.”

 

It has been well documented the Reds, despite some very impressive bats in the lineup, have not shown the proper penchant for clutch hitting, at least the type that wins division titles. However I feel if and when manager Dusty Baker finally finds a consistent everyday lineup and sticks with it … and that lineup has to include Ryan Ludwick and I have been saying this from the start … you may see more consistency.

 

Not only might it be time for management to rethink Ludwick’s status, but Drew Stubbs status as well and for far different reasons.

 

Then there is the question of how youngsters that have been vital in the first half will withstand the second rigors, namely Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier. And with the later, Baker has to make a real decision at third base as well and stick with it.

 

The Reds, in the first half, had very consistent starting pitching going deep and if that continues, they have to be considered the choice in what should be a very tight race.

 

I was not going to include Milwaukee in the conversation but something keeps pushing me to at least make mention as they are after all the defending division champs and can still score runs and hit the long ball.

 

However they don’t score runs like they did a year ago or hit the long ball as often with Prince Fielder residing in Detroit and with a bullpen as shaky as the one in St. Louis, the Brew Crew is a very, very long shot and they already have to make up eight games.

 

So many people around baseball are all excited about the other feel good story in the NL, the Washington Nationals and for good reason They are excited about the team’s sudden rise to prominence (all things relative) in the AL East and the stars of tomorrow in pitcher Stephen Strausburg and outfielder Bryce Harper, All-Stars today.

 

The Nats pitching is deep and the team is young and talented and they have survived injuries to a couple important everyday players. But can this team, despite those young arms, hit enough to win this division, despite quality arms?

 

Maybe the bigger question is will management shut down Strasburg who if he reaches his maximum amount of alloted innings by the brass in a division race?  Who knows, but they do not hand out first half trophies and despite how well the Nats have played, I do not see them getting one in the second half if the Braves get their act together, even if I am in the minority on this one.

 

Atlanta, to me is the only team with a real shot at passing Washington. But they too have questions as in how will they survive without their top starter (Beachy) and will so many players who are having modest years, down by all expectations, pick it up in the second half?

 

There appears a great balance here with veterans and young players, but I foresee the veterans lifting this team to the top and you can bet the ranch they are all playing for Chipper Jones hoping to give him a proper send off in this his last season, five years short of Cooperstown.

 

Like Milwaukee in the Central, the New York Mets at least merit a mention, but they are at best, a dark-horse, even in a division in which the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies are nothing but an afterthought already!

 

However effective they have been, All-Star R.A. Dickey (knuckleballers can go awry in a hurry) in particular, can Dickey and  Johan Santana maintain first half success over the rigors of another few months? Doubtful and as solid as David Wright is, there is just not enough around him.

 

Although many think the NL West will come down to three teams, I like only two to battle it out and what better two from a competitive standpoint than bitter rivals Los Angeles and San Francisco?

 

I suppose apologies are due to Arizona who is the defending division champ and only four games out, but I just question that up and down staff …  Ian Kennedy just does not seem himself … and a team that counts so heavily upon underachieving Justin Upton to be a leader.

 

This division race could boil down to health and family. Yes, you read that right.

 

The health part is obvious, the Dodgers were off and running, tearing up the NL at the outset, before first losing Matt Kemp who was having a potential season for the ages, then fellow slugger Andre Either and it is nothing short of a miracle that punchless team without them, still lead the division at the break.

 

But they are both back now and the offense you saw without them and with them are two different animals and the gloves will be off with the Giants now and they can even get in a few extra punches if they get lefty Ted Lilly back, hurt after a solid start before going on the DL.

 

While health is the key to the Dodgers fortunes, family is for the Giants. I say that because if two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum starts listening to the Giants brain trust to help his out-of-whack mechanics and not his dad, with the other four starters the Giants parade to the mound, they have the potential of not only winning the division but far more. To date Lincecum has been nothing short of horrid. Hard to imagine isn’t it?

 

However, much like the Dodgers, pre-break, the Giants are short on power. They have to do something about that if possible in the future and seem to have the cash to. The Dodgers already have with the return of their top sluggers.

 

The American League East is seemingly the easiest of all. You have the Yankees with the best record in baseball, who have side-stepped injuries to key players the likes of which if lost would cripple other teams and if they start to wilt whatsoever in the second half, have the money to go shopping and get just what they need.

 

Baltimore has been a nice story and will be if they finish even .500 but as they say in New York, “Fa-git-about it.”  With the return of Evan Longoria and some real studs in the starting rotation and maybe the most gritty team in both leagues, Tampa Bay just may be the only team close enough to at least see the Bronx Bombers tail lights. Maybe.

 

Sorry to say for those hoping for a tight race, but the conversation begins and ends with the Yankees unless something very unforeseen happens and it would have to be huge. If things do get tight, the Yanks will open their purse strings and that will be that.

 

As uninteresting as the AL East could prove to be, the AL Central may make up for in excitement, or at least in closeness as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit figure to all have their say before it is all said and done.

 

Few if any thought the ChiSox would do much of anything and maybe that relaxed way to start the season, made even more relaxed by a clubhouse with Robin Ventura replacing controversial (I am being very kind here) Ozzie Guillen. And in many respects this team’s story ranks up there with those of Washington, Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the first half.

 

But this team has a number of veterans making comebacks and has already exceeded expectations and has a kid (Sale) leading a rotation along with Jake Peavy, both great stories for different reasons.

 

They are loose and have already exceeded most expectations and are going to be around until the end.

 

I truly think Cleveland finally learned how to be a winner a season ago and they have some young players who are fearless and talented. However they will likely be collecting show money with a pitching staff that is serviceable at best, but in this division, one that may not take 90-plus wins to win, could stay interestingly close.

 

The Detroit Tigers were supposed to have improved greatly on a team that made the playoffs a season ago and some real strides in so doing. They went out and spent money and their roster is loaded with recognizable names and they have star power.

 

They however have been underachievers and a real mystery to most. That said, any lineup that has veterans like Prince Fielder, who adapted immediately to a new league and Miguel Cabrera in it, has to be taken seriously.

 

If Justin Verlander, who many feel is the game’s best hurler, gets any kind of help in the rotation from the other four who ride the fence and could fall on either side of a good or bad season at the moment, the Tigers are the smart money.

 

Actually, grab your wallet. This is the team to wager on period, all “ifs” aside.

 

Finally the AL West which for all intents and purpose has only two teams to talk about. Two very good teams. And the one on everyone’s tongue immediately … even when talking about possibly the best team in baseball… is Texas.

 

And for good reason. What is not to like? The Rangers made successive trips to the World Series only to come up short and have to be famished having been an eyelash away from winning it all last season and hope the third time is the charm.

 

They have reason to believe there will be a third time with a staff full of young studs and All-Stars abound throughout a lineup that boasts the most productive offense in the Major Leagues. And despite the second best record in baseball, some feel this team has the best chance to go all the way.

 

It is a resilient team that like the Yankees, has somehow survived key injuries to important pitchers and found a way to still flourish.

 

That said, the LA Angels are ever so slowly .. well maybe a little faster than that .. starting to look like they could well be the Rangers equal in the division. When at first they could not get it in gear through the better part of two months, suddenly Albert Pujols seems to have figured out his new league. But with a host of 2012 All-Stars surrounding him, that pressure to produce suddenly off, this team could well push the Rangers to the limit.

 

Sure there are more questions surrounding the Angels than the Rangers. Can the rookie Trout maintain his lofty status that made him an All-Star over the grind of six months? Who knows, but it appears others can and some like Torri Hunter have yet to hit their stride.

Others wonder if beyond as solid 1-2  in the starting rotation, can the Angels staff match the Rangers staff depth.

 

Legitimate questions all. But there is no question the Angels will track the Rangers right to the finish line.

 

You can read this and you may well read between the lines if you wish. But the bottom line is there are many teams with a shot at reaching the playoffs, then each and every one of them has a shot at grandeur, some of course more than others.

 

This scribe is just giving his unsolicited opinion of those with real chances, and frankly, with all that can still happen over the course of the remainder of the season, one never knows. But we have a pretty damn good idea who the “haves” are now.

 

And lest we forget there is another Wild Card playoff opening this year to make things even more interesting, but that is a horse of a different color and a subject I am passionate about and no doubt will spout off about in time to come.

 

I will not be bullied into making picks right now. No, I will not. But I will say one thing. You will see a far different Tigers team in the second you did the first and no I am not from Detroit.

 

Ok, ok, put the pistol down. The Reds will win the Central, the Dodgers, the West and Atlanta the East. Yes you heard the last one right.

 

Take the Yankees, the Tigers and Texas .. and put that thing away because I am not getting into Wild Cards just yet.