October Baseball right around the corner

As the season winds down, InsidethePark.com will begin to focus more on the teams that remain in the playoff hunt. This week we'll recap the races and get an idea of what to expect in September. With football starting up, baseball needs something to give it a boost and nothing is more exciting than a tight playoff race. This season, there are plenty of those.

American League East:
New York Yankees: First place, 90-53, 7-3 last 10
Boston Red Sox: 3.5 GB, 86-56, 7-3 last 10

American League Central:
Minnesota Twins: First place, 82-60, 8-2 last 10

American League West:
Oakland Athletics: First place, 83-59, 5-5 last 10
Anaheim Angels: 2 GB, 81-61, 6-4 last 10
Texas Rangers: 5 GB, 78-64, 5-5 last 10

American League Wild Card:
Boston Red Sox: --
Anaheim Angels: 5 GB
Texas Rangers: 8 GB

AL East:
New York Yankees:
The Yankees may have the best record in the American League, but they are in the worst shape of any team. There is no doubting the power of their offense when it is at full strength, but it has not been clicking without a healthy Jason Giambi. The problem lies in the pitching staff. Mariano Rivera, Tom Gordon, and Orlando Hernandez are the only constants on a staff that is full of big names. Kevin Brown has a broken left hand and Javier Vazquez hasn't at all been the pitcher they expected to get when they traded for him in the off-season. He has a 7.95 ERA since the All-Star break and looks lost on the mound. Hernandez has posted an amazing ERA of 2.49 since his return, but given his age and missed time, it is unlikely he can maintain that level of performance.

With the trading deadline in the rear-view mirror and no help coming from soon-to-be activated pitchers with the exception of a shaky Kevin Brown, the Yankees are in trouble. With their 3.5 game lead in the East and 8.5 game lead in the Wild Card should the Red Sox win the division, the Bronx Bombers are a near lock for the playoffs. Just making it to the playoffs isn't enough for George Steinbrenner and keeping him happy is going to be a difficult task this year.

Boston Red Sox:
Like the Yankees, the Red Sox have a few questions that need to be answered as well. Their problems, however, are not as crippling as those of the Yankees. With less "big name bats" than their AL East counterparts, the Red Sox have managed to score the most runs in the AL. With Trot Nixon recently being activated from the DL, the offense will get even stronger, as if it needed help. There is no doubt about the top two starters in Boston's rotation. Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling are as good as it gets. After that is where the questions begin to develop. The Sox are looking at Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield as their third and fourth starters and that could cost them in the playoffs. Keith Foulke has anchored a solid enough bullpen to get them into and through the playoffs, getting to the pen could be a problem.

Just 3.5 games out of first in the East, the Sox will push for the crown. They just completed a stretch in which they went 20-2 so they have the ability to get hot and make a push. However, after losing two of their last four, that streak appears to be over and another one isn't likely on the horizon. They may have to settle for holding off the Angels in the Wild Card race as they prepare for October.

AL Central:
Minnesota Twins:
The Twins have all but wrapped up the Central division with consistent play since day one. In early August, the Indians came close to taking the lead in the division but they have fallen off since. The Twins do every thing well, but nothing great. Their defense took a hit with the trade of Doug Mientkiewicz but it is still strong enough to support their solid pitching staff. The offense ranks just 10th in the league in runs scored but are capable of coming up big with the addition of Justin Morneau. With the best pitcher in the league, Johan Santana, anchoring the staff, the Twins lead the American League in ERA and Brad Radke has been his usual self, quietly posting a 3.51 ERA. The bullpen has been outstanding, thanks to surprise shutdown closer, Joe Nathan. The middle innings are covered well by J.C. Romero and Juan Rincon, and rookie Jesse Crain gives them another live arm at the end of the game.

The problem facing the Twins is similar to the one facing the Red Sox. While Johan Santana and Brad Radke are great for a front two, the questions begin after that. Carlos Silva has the ability to shut down an offense, but he could also be easily knocked around. After Silva comes Kyle Lohse, who has had a disappointing season. If the top two can guarantee wins and they can find one from someone else, they'll be able to make noise in the post-season.

AL West:
Oakland Athletics:
After finally gaining the lead in the West in mid-August, the A's are ready to take it and not look back. They are known for their pitching and this year it is more of the same. When healthy, Tim Hudson has been his usual self and Mark Mulder has been nearly as good. Rich Harden has emerged and is showing the potential many foresee in him. Barry Zito has had an up-and-down season but something may have clicked in his last start in which he went seven shutout innings, striking out 10.

There is no doubt that the A's have the best complete rotation in the league and their offense has cooperated as well. By the end of the season they will have at least five 20-home run hitters and they could have up to seven. They'll be pushed by the Angels until the last week of the season but their quality players in all facets of the game should keep them ahead. No one wants to play the A's come October, not even if they think the playoffs are no more than a "crap shoot."

Anaheim Angels:
Four players were brought in during the offseason in an attempt to get the Angels back to the World Series. Vladimir Guerrero has been his usual outstanding self and Jose Guillen has been nearly as good. Kelvim Escobar hasn't been what they expected, but there is nothing wrong with a 3.97 ERA and over eight strikeouts per nine. The fourth player brought in is where the Angels' problems begin. Bartolo Colon was expected to anchor the staff and be the top pitcher they've lacked. Instead, he has the highest ERA on the staff at 5.12 and has just seven strikeouts per nine.

With a rotation of Escobar, Colon, John Lackey, and a conglomeration of Aaron Sele, Jarrod Washburn, and Ramon Ortiz, the Angels are in trouble. They can pound the ball on offense and shut teams down at the end of the game, but that won't do them any good unless they can get quality innings out of their starters. They could get hot and find a way to sneak into the playoffs, but they may be the weakest team in the race.

Texas Rangers:
Any problem that can be found in the Angels can be found in the Rangers. They have the best infield in the league and can score runs in a hurry with their four potential 30-home run threats, but when the other team is pounding your pitching, it doesn't matter. Mark Teixeira is in his second year in the league and is already one of the best hitters and Michael Young, Alfonso Soriano, and Hank Blalock are all near the top of the spectrum at their positions. There is no doubting the offensive talent and potential of the Rangers, but their playoff hopes aren't as bright.

Their bullpen is solid, anchored by their top-notch closer, Francisco Cordero. Frank Francisco, Ron Mahay and others have helped shut down the end of the games. But like we have seen, it is the rotation that causes the problems. A Ryan Drese/Kenny Rogers-lead rotation just won't cut it down the stretch and especially not in October. The Rangers are a great story and may challenge again next year, but it just won't happen in 2004.

National League East:
Atlanta Braves: First place, 84-58, 6-4 last 10

National League Central:
St. Louis Cardinals: First place, 94-48, 6-4 last 10

National League West:
Los Angeles Dodgers: First place, 83-59, 6-4 last 10
San Francisco Giants: 5 GB, 79-65, 6-4 last 10

National League Wild Card:
San Francisco Giants: --
Houston Astros: 1 GB (78-66, 7-3 last 10)
Chicago Cubs: 1 GB (76-64, 5-5 last 10)
Florida Marlins: 2.5 GB (74-65, 7-3 last 10)
San Diego Padres: 2.5 GB (76-67, 5-5 last 10)
Philadelphia Phillies: 4.5 GB (74-69, 9-1 last 10)

NL East:
Atlanta Braves:
No one expected the Braves to win the NL East again but they have virtually locked that title up already. Even with Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, and Vinny Castilla departing during the winter, the offense hasn't lost a step. J.D. Drew has come in and has performed as an impact player and after a slow start, Chipper Jones is hitting as he always has. The pitching was a question mark after Russ Ortiz but Jaret Wright has stepped up and pitched like an ace. Their bullpen is solid and John Smoltz gives them one of the best closers around.

Like many other teams, the Braves problem lies in starting pitching. While Wright, Ortiz, and John Thomson have posted solid numbers, they may not be completely reliable come playoff time. Many of their peripherals such as WHIP suggest that their ERAs are flukes and eventually it will catch up to them. They'll have no problem holding on to their NL East lead but how far they go in the playoffs is entirely up to the rotation.

Florida Marlins:
The 2003 World Series Champions have what it takes to get it done again. They have a solid and deep rotation and bullpen, solid defense, good bats, and good team speed. It seems as if everyone on the team can do a little of everything. They aren't the best at any one thing but they can beat you in so many different ways. If they can make it back to the playoffs, they will be a serious threat. However, getting there may be harder than it looks.

They are just 2.5 games back in the Wild Card race, which can be made up in a hurry. Thanks to Mother Nature though, they have the most games remaining. They will have to play multiple double headers and average more than one game per day for the remainder of the season. The toll of a long season, only getting longer at the end will wear on the young team. It will take an amazing effort to get through it in once piece and to make the playoffs, but I don't think it will be done.

Philadelphia Phillies:
Two weeks ago, the Phillies weren't even mentioned as a playoff contender and now they are in the thick of the Wild Card race. They have an excellent offense centered on two MVP candidates in Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome. They can beat you in every way on that side of the ball but turn it around to pitching and opposing offenses can have a field day. Every starter on the Phillies has been a disappointment and/or on the disabled list this year. That is not going to bode well for their playoff chances.

With Randy Wolf currently on the DL, Kevin Millwood recently returning but in questionable shape, Vincente Padilla finally returning, and Eric Milton just not pitching well, the Phillies have virtually no chance of making an impact down the stretch. They can hit and they can shut teams down at the end of games. However, not a single pitcher in their rotation can be counted on to give a solid performance and that means no playoffs in Philly.

NL Central:
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are another team not expected to be in the lead in the division. They are not only going to cruise to the division crown but also the best record in the league. The Cardinals have a destructive offense with no holes. They have three legitimate MVP candidates in Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols, and Jim Edmonds. They have four Gold Glove candidates in Edmonds, Rolen, Edgar Renteria, and Mike Matheny. Their bullpen has been outstanding and their rotation has done more than enough given the run support.

But, it's not like we haven't seen this before. The Cardinals will only go as far as their questionable rotation can take them. Chris Carpenter has pitched like an ace and has the peripherals to match but no other starter is a lock to have success in October. Even the powerful offense won't be able to carry them completely as they will be shut down somewhat by opposing aces. The Cardinals will be a scary team to face in the playoffs, but they aren't a threat to win it all unless the pitching cooperates.

Chicago Cubs:
This team is the most complete team in the league, when healthy. Everyone in the lineup can not only hit, but they can hit the ball out of the park. They have one of the most talented rotations in the history of the game and the bullpen has been solid enough to get the job done. They have the best overall talent in the league and in a perfect world, would win the World Series without a contest.

Like every team, the Cubs have their questions. Theirs however aren't talent-related, its more mental and health problems. No team can match a healthy Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Zambrano; and I didn't even mention Matt Clement or Greg Maddux. Healthy, however, is the key word. They both have had well-documented problems this year and still aren't looking like they are back to normal. Sammy Sosa has also had his problems this year and he hasn't yet gotten completely back on track. The Cubs have a month to get things together while holding on in a tight Wild Card race. If they can manage both, they are the favorite to win it all… for now.

Houston Astros:
It's July 31 and many are calling for the Astros to trade Roger Clemens and Carlos Beltran because they are out of the race. Just over one month later they are one game back of the Wild Card lead and looking like one of the strongest teams in the league. They are like a lesser version of the Cubs as they can hit, field, and pitch. Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens, and a healthy Wade Miller can match up with any top three and more than hold their own. Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Jeff B(k)ent provides the ‘Stros with a destructive middle of the lineup and Brad Lidge has thrived in his new role as closer.

Next to the Cubs, the Astros may be the most talented team in the league. With the Cardinals so far ahead in the NL Central, only one of the two talented teams can make the playoffs, if either. The other teams in the race all have greater problems than the Cubs and the Astros so it is likely that those two come down to the wire in a close race. If the Astros are able to win the Wild Card, they may be the favorite to get to the World Series.

NL West:
Los Angeles Dodgers:
Ignore the negativity surrounding the trade made with the Marlins, it was a good trade and has proven to be so. Hee Seop Choi isn't producing but given time he will. Brad Penny got hurt but you can't penalize the Dodgers for that. If Penny can return in time for the playoffs, the trade will be worth it. He will give them a one-two punch that can match up with most others. The defense they put on the field every day is outstanding and has several Gold Glove candidates and the one time questionable offense has improved recently thanks to the emergence of Adrian Beltre and the trade for Steve Finley. The Dodgers are a threat in the NL.

The Dodgers still have to fight off the Giants as a five game lead can be erased in a hurry. But what they need to focus on most is getting players healthy, specifically Brad Penny. If Penny is unable to return and be effective, the Dodgers are in trouble. Odalis Perez and Jeff Weaver can't carry the team through October. Keep an eye on the Penny situation as that will determine the fate of the Dodgers.

San Diego Padres:
Like the Marlins, the Padres are a team that can do a little of everything. They have a good offense lead by Brian Giles and Phil Nevin. Their defense is solid and with Khalil Greene at short, they have a good young core. Their rotation is deep with Jake Peavy leading the way, David Wells providing them with a solid and experienced arm, and Adam Eaton as the third starter. The end of the game is as solid as it gets with Akinori Otskua and Trevor Hoffman.

The problem for the Padres may be their lack of strength in one particular area. While they can do a little of everything, they can't dominate a team in any one way. This quality in all areas will help them down the stretch. If one part of the team is having a rough stretch, the other can help compensate. However, come October, teams need to run on all cylinders and this solid vehicle might not be able to keep up with some of the hot rods throughout the league.

San Francisco Giants:
Any team with Barry Bonds is a threat to go far, especially when they can throw Jason Schmidt out at you. The problem the Giants face is that they don't have much after those two. The pitcher with the second-best ERA on the team among those that have started a game is now the closer, Dustin Hermansen. Jerome Williams is hurt and may not be healthy come playoff time and Brett Tomko has the second-best qualifying ERA at 4.44.

Sadly for Bonds and Schmidt, I don't believe the Giants have enough surrounding talent to make a push for the playoffs. When the end of the season comes and teams are giving everything they have, the Giants won't be able to match up. Schmidt may be the best starter in the league among playoff contenders and Bonds is the most devastating offensive force in the league, but those two alone simply are not enough.

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