The dog days of summer are fast approaching in the 2008 Major League Baseball season.
With only 60 games left on the docket, around half of the majors' 30 teams are in striking distance in their respective division. Granted, this total includes nearly every club from the National League West, where the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers are tied for the division lead despite sub-.500 records.
So, which teams are legitimate contenders? Here are my contender and pretender picks in the American League.
American League East:
In 2008, the division has three contenders, all of which would be running away with the thing if placed in the NL East.
Boston Red Sox: Contenders—
The Red Sox had a tough weekend, watching their division lead disappear after struggling to do anything offensively against the Los Angeles Angels. To make matters worse, the "Manny Being Manny" antics have taken on a whole new meaning.
Regardless, Boston is still the favorite to take the division crown. Even without the presence of David Ortiz, the Red Sox have scored runs in bunches, having posted the third-highest runs total (503) in the majors through July 21. The club also ranks second in batting average (.280), on-base percentage (.355), slugging percentage (.448) and OPS (.804), trailing only the Texas Rangers by small margins in nearly every category.
When Ortiz returns and if Jason Varitek, sitting below replacement-level right now, can regain anywhere near his normal level of production, look out.
J.D. Drew, who was named the Most Valuable Player at the All-Star game in New York, has been invaluable since Ortiz went on the disabled list. Drew has posted a slash stats line of .294/.406/.557 with 17 homers and 55 RBIs while sitting among AL leaders with a .963 OPS.
However, there is some concern about Ramirez, who allegedly struck out on purpose in an at-bat against Mariano Rivera in New York a few weeks back. This was reportedly a reaction to the six-figure fine that he received for pushing a longtime club employee after his unusual, last-minute request for tickets. Henry's patience is wearing thin with the slugger for accusing the organization of being dishonest in contract negotiations as well.
All things considered, it might be in the organization's best interest to wash its hands of Ramirez after the season, as he enters the decline stages of his career. With stricter testing policies for performance-enhancing drugs, players are not aging as well as they did back at the turn of the century. This makes it unlikely that he will sustain his consistent .950-OPS level of production as he inches closer to age 40.
Boston needs Ramirez now, though. So the chance that he becomes a distraction while losing his focus as a hitter is a real cause for concern. Off-field-issues aside, he has been productive yet again through this month, hitting .297/.397/.531 with 19 home runs and 62 RBIs to help pick up the slack while the lineup was without Ortiz.
Boston is also one of the strongest teams in the league when it comes to run prevention, with a strong starting rotation and the sixth-highest defensive efficiency rating in the majors. Clearly, then, it is not a surprise that the club has the largest run differential, +77, in the American League.
There are some concerns with in the bullpen, as the link to closer Jonathan Papelbon has not had its ups and downs. But with such a deep pitching staff—Daisuke Matsuzaka, 10-1 with a 2.65 ERA and 77-to-16 K/W ratio leads the way, though he has not been efficient enough with his pitches—and potent offense, the Red Sox are not only contenders, they are in position to make a deep run in October.
New York Yankees: Contenders—
It is never a wise move to bet against the Yankees.
New York has won seven of its last 10 games to move within five games of first-place Tampa Bay. Considering where the Yankees were in May—as they were in '07 as well—this is no small feat.
Hughes, who is still projected to turn into a potential front-end starter, turned in six relatively ineffective starts before going on the disabled list with a strained oblique and cracked rib.
Kennedy's struggles, on the other hand, have prompted questions about whether or not he was as promising as the organization let on. Drafted out of the University of Southern California in '06, he has posted excellent statistics in his professional career, but his fringe stuff leaves little room for error when his command is off.
To make matters worse, ace Chien Ming-Wang is out until September after injuring himself running the bases in Interleague Play. Wang, the majors' winnignest pitcher the previous two seasons, has used his heavy sinker to induce ground ball outs at the top of the New York staff. The loss of the right-hander, who was 8-2 with a 4.07 ERA before hitting the DL, created a hole, which prompted New York to offer a contract to Sidney Ponson.
Luckily, Mike Mussina has been a pleasant surprise, going 12-6 with a 3.49 ERA in his first 20 starts. Mussina was perhaps snubbed from the All-Star game, but will he be able to maintain his performance or will he regress back to the mean?
Joba Chamberlain has provided a boost as well, moving from the eighth-inning role to return to his original status as a starter. As excellent of a setup-man as Chamberlain was, he adds more value in his new role, especially considering the alternatives. He will help hold down the fort until Wang returns should Mussina and Ponson falter.
Then there is Mariano Rivera, who is enjoying one of the finest seasons of his career. Rivera has yet to blow a save in 24 chances, posting 1.22 ERA, K/9 of 10.76 and 0.68 WHIP. When the Yankees have a lead entering the ninth inning, the game is essentially over.
New York pitchers, though, have not exactly received a boost from their defense behind them. In fact, the Yankees rank 24th in the majors in defensive efficiency, as the arms have made more of an impact in the run prevention equation in the Bronx.
Offensively, the Yankees—despite a lack of production from Robinson Cano and replacement-level center fielder Melky Cabrera—have plenty of firepower. The early-season struggles were more of a result than injuries to players like Alex Rodriguez than anything else.
When healthy, Rodriguez has been a force, hitting 20 homers with a .975 OPS despite a plethora of off-the-field distractions. Jason Giambi helped carry the lineup when A-Rod and a few of his teammates were on the shelf. Giambi, in fact, nearly missed making the All-Star game, recovering from a poor first month to solidify the middle of the New York batting order.
Although Cano needs to improve his approach, the sweet-swinging second baseman always turns it on in the second half. Look for him to pick it up—his .676 OPS is among the lowest marks at his position in the league—down the stretch.
Derek Jeter is a polarizing player, as many analysts think that his defense at shortstop is a major crutch to his team. Jeter has not been himself at the plate, either, so far, frequently grounding into rally-killing double plays. Also, his .282/.347/.392 line is not up to par by Jeter standards, but it would not be a surprise to see him improve the rest of the way as well.
If the double-play duo can get it going, coinciding with a return of Johnny Damon and a potential deal for another impact bat—Richie Sexson, though he may help against lefties, is not going to cut it—at the deadline, the Yankees' postseason run may not be in jeopardy after all, most likely via the Wild Card.
Tampa Bay Rays: Contenders—
The Tampa Bay Rays' success has been one of the surprise stories in Major League Baseball. Tampa Bay, which has never won more than 70 games in a single season, is currently leading the division, at 57-40.
Regardless of their pre-break slide, the Rays are still a legitimate contender, backed by their excellent defense.
While the club has made its fair share of errors in the month of July, it still ranks second in the majors in defensive efficiency rating—the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs. One of the most underrated aspects of its turnaround, Tampa Bay has made marked improvements defensively as a team.
Every Tampa Bay pitcher—from ace Scott Kazmir, the winning pitcher in the All-Star game, to reliever J.P. Howell—has reaped the benefits.
The pitching staff has seen a major upgrade as well.
Matt Garza, Kazmir and James Shields are a tough group to face in short series. Shields, however, is the eldest starting pitcher in the Rays' rotation, at 26 years old. This has caused some writers to pull out the inexperience card, which is definitely a legitimate factor. Perhaps most concerning, though, the majority of Tampa Bay starters are rapidly approaching upon career-high totals in innings pitched. Whether or not the youngsters' arms can hold up is a huge question mark for Tampa Bay.
If any of young pitchers in the Tampa Bay rotation should falter or go down with an injury, the club does have internal reinforcements down on the farm. Jeff Niemann, who made his major league debut in April, is an option. Not to mention, the potential is there for Tampa Bay to call up David Price, the top pitching prospect in the minors. Price, now in Double-A, has been dominant in his first professional season, going 8-0 with a 1.92 ERA and 62-to-17 K/W ratio in 11 combined starts between Single-A Vero Beach and Double-A Montgomery. Selected by Tampa Bay with the number one overall pick out of Vanderbilt University in the '07 draft, the southpaw will perhaps turn into this year's version of Joba Chamberlain.
The Rays' relief corps has been more effective as well. This rings especially true when compared to the '07 group, featuring the likes of Shawn Camp and Brian Stokes, which posted the highest bullpen ERA in the past half century.
Offensively, though, Tampa Bay finds itself in the middle of the pack, as it headed into the All-Star break sitting 10th in the majors in on-base percentage (.336), 13th in OPS (.745) and 15th in runs scored, batting average (.260) and slugging percentage (.409).
This is why the Rays have staying power down the stretch, as many players should post improved individual statistics in the second half. Tampa Bay, though, needs its position player stars, from Carl Crawford to Carlos Pena, to improve the rest of the way.
Tampa Bay is much better at home than on the road, with a 19-25 record away from Tropicana Field. The club will need to prove that it can win on the road, especially in places like Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.
Regardless, the Rays have enough talent already, assuming the pitching can hold up, to make a run. Boston is still the favorite in the division, but Tampa Bay has a deep enough roster to stay in the Wild Card hunt.
To read more about the Rays' chances, click here.
American League Central:
Before the season, the Central figured to be among the deepest divisions in the majors. The Detroit Tigers made a major upgrade to their roster, adding an impact hitter, Miguel Cabrera, and Dontrelle Willis in a blockbuster deal with the Florida Marlins. Detroit also added Edgar Renteria, shipping prospect Jair Jurrjens to the Atlanta Braves for the veteran shortstop to become the early-season favorite to win the American League.
Chicago White Sox: Contenders—
Chicago, at 58-40, has a .5 game lead over Minnesota. Unlike the Twins, however, the White Sox have staying power as the clear-cut favorite in the division.
Chicago has posted a +78 run differential. On the other hand, Minnesota—which will not be able to maintain its current level of production with runners in scoring position—has a run differential of +33.
Joe Crede is enjoying a nice comeback, Jermaine Dye (.927 OPS) deserved to be an All-Star, Carlos Quentin (.913 OPS, 71 RBIs) has been an MVP candidate and Jim Thome has rebounded nicely after a rough start. Second baseman Alexei Ramirez has been one of the better rookies in the league as well.
The pitching has been the story in the Chicago, though. While John Danks and Gavin Floyd may regress in the second half, the pair has been excellent so far, combining to go 13-4. A top prospect, Danks appears to be emerging into a legitimate starter in this league, having posted the fifth-lowest ERA among qualifying pitchers in the AL.
Overall, the White Sox's pitching staff has combined to post an opponents' line of .251/.313/.391, as Mark Buerhle and others are also consistently getting hitters out. Even with Jose Contreras—who hid an injury and is now on the 15-day disabled list—on the shelf, it truly appears as if each team from Chicago, 12th in the game in defensive efficiency, will end the season in first place in the Central division.
Detroit Tigers: Pretenders—
Cabrera's days as a third baseman are over, as he was a major weakness on the left side of the Detroit infield before moving across the diamond to first base. Offensively, he is struggling through a down year as well, with a decent but not great line of .281/.348/.485 and .833 OPS.
Willis, who has struggled mightily with his control and command, is working out his issues in the minors. His performance has declined steadily in each of his final seasons down in Miami, and moving to the American League—even with a better defense behind him—was not expected to be easy. Still, no one predicted control to be this major of an issue for Willis, who posted a terrible 5-to-21 K/W ratio in 11.1 innings pitched before getting demoted.
The other high-profile acquisition, Renteria, has lost a step at shortstop and is no longer a stolen base threat. Making matters worse, he has disappointed at the plate, batting .256 with a putrid .307 on-base percentage and .635 OPS. His power is gone as well, evident by his .325 slugging percentage and low home run total, five.
Not to mention, veteran Gary Sheffield is hovering around replacement-level production right now, with only six homers in 209 at-bats.
With a healthy Magglio Ordonez, though, the club still has the firepower and personnel offensively—especially if the aforementioned hitters pick it up in the second half—to score runs down the stretch. Plus, at 49-49, they are only 6.5 games back.
With Jeremy Bonderman out for the year, do they have the pitching to make a run?
Armando Gallaraga has been effective while several of his staff mates have struggled, going 7-4 with a 3.41 ERA and 68-to-37 K/W ratio in 100.1 innings pitched over 16 starts. Gallaraga has been a nice surprise, and is the perhaps the one offseason acquisition—Detroit received him from Texas in exchange for a minor league outfielder shortly before pitchers and catchers reported to spring training—that has exceeded expectations.
Ace Justin Verlander nearly threw his second career no-hitter in his first outing, then struggled through the first two months. He has won six games in his last eight outings, though, and will need to carry over his recent success for the Tigers to play any meaningful games come September.
Regardless, the rest of the pitching staff appears to be too thin in Detroit, which also sits in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency.
Nate Robertson has a 5.69 ERA and 1.54 WHIP.
Kenny Rogers is 43 years old with 4.62 ERA.
The Tigers' bullpen has not exactly been stellar, either, as closer Todd Jones has 18 saves but a 4.78 ERA.
The group hopes to receive a boost from Joel Zumaya, who reportedly may move into a starter's role for the Tigers in the near future.
A postseason invitation seems unlikely, even if the alleged veteran stars actually start living up to their names.
Minnesota Twins: Pretenders—
The Twins' winning streak before the break pushed the team into contention. The odds of Minnesota—21-7 in its last 28 games—maintaining its success, however, are fairly low.
Ron Gardenhire has certainly done a great job of getting his players to play hard.
Even without Pat Neshek, the club still has a decent bullpen, with a lights-out closer in Joe Nathan.
Also, a return to the majors seems inevitable for 2006 sensation Francisco Liriano, who is 8-2 with a 3.34 ERA in 17 starts at Triple-A Rochester.
Regardless, the Minnesota rotation, in the middle of the pack in the majors in starters' ERA (4.47), is less than stellar. The staff, consisting of Scott Baker (3.26 ERA, 76-to-15 K/W ratio), Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins, young Kevin Slowey and innings eater Livan Hernandez (10 wins, 5.29 ERA), does not have the makings of a postseason-caliber starting rotation.
Perkins, a local product of the University of Minnesota, has added a boost, going 7-2 with a 3.84 ERA. Regression seems likely for the 25-year-old left-hander, though.
Slowey has been a top prospect in the Twins' organization ever since he was selected in the second round of the 2005 First-Year draft out of Winthrop University. A control specialist who has drawn comparison to former Minnesota ace Brad Radke, he has excellent command for a 24-year-old. Still, he has only 27 career appearances under his belt.
While Liriano, who missed all of the 2007 season, has a chance to help the Twins in their push for the playoffs, he is still always an injury risk as well.
Even with one of the better bullpens in the AL, the club also ranks 28th in opponents' batting average (.277) against in the majors while allowing opposing hitters to post a .758 OPS. To put this into perspective, outfielder Delmon Young, expected to make a major impact after coming over from Tampa Bay, has a lower mark, with a .745 OPS.
The team defense is shaky as well, with the Twins currently ranking 22nd in defensive efficiency.
Then how are they doing it?
The answer is simple: offense, as Minnesota is fifth in the majors with 484 runs scored.
With Joe Mauer and former MVP Justin Morneau, the team has two of the better young hitters in the division.
Mauer started the All-Star game after a strong first half, and has a chance to win another batting title; he currently is among league leaders with a .324 batting average and .419 on-base percentage. While he has only hit six homers, Mauer is also one of the best defensive players at a crucial position.
Justin Morneau (Associated Press)
Morneau, the Home Run Derby Champ, has a line of .322/.391/.519, for a .909 OPS.
Carlos Gomez and Young have been disappointments, though, because of their poor plate discipline. Gardenhire would be wise to move Gomez, one of the New York Mets' top prospects when he was shipped to Minnesota in the Johan Santana deal, out of the leadoff spot. He is an exciting player to watch and fits the description of a prototypical leadoff hitter, but his .285 on-base percentage is the lowest total in the majors among leadoff men.
Without question, the Twins' offense has really been exceptional when it counts, hitting .313/.385/.460, for an .845 OPS, with runners in scoring position. It is unlikely, obviously, that the club can sustain its knack for collecting big hits in big spots at this level.
Therefore, similar to the Florida Marlins, the Twins are a pretender, because they have relied on unsustainable run production to this point, and are likely to falter when the tremendous clutch hitting regresses back to the mean.
American League West:
Los Angeles Angels: Contenders—
The Angels, 60-38, are coming off a big weekend in which they swept the Red Sox while their biggest competition in the division, the Oakland Athletics, were swept themselves in New York.
The path to the playoffs, then, seems clear for the Angels, who are among the majors' best teams when it comes to run prevention. Los Angeles has built its roster the right way for playing in Angel stadium, relying on excellent pitching and defense.
The Angels ranks eighth in defensive efficiency, which goes hand-in-hand with the plus starting pitching.
Southpaw Joe Saunders, 12-5 with a 3.05 ERA, and Ervin Santana, 11-3 with a 3.34 ERA, were huge for the Angels when John Lackey was on the shelf. Lackey is back now, and has not missed a beat. He is 7-2 with a 2.58 ERA and 72-to-17 K/W ratio in 12 starts since returning. Jon Garland and Jered Weaver are solid at the back of the rotation as well.
For a team built on pitching and defense—thus likely to be involved in many low-scoring games—it certainly helps to have a capable closer like Francisco Rodriguez, who is on pace to shatter Bobby Thigpen's single-season record for saves. While Rodriguez is not missing bats as frequently as he has in previous seasons, he has been unhittable at times, picking up 40 saves while posting a 2.25 ERA in 44.0 innings pitched. The 26-year-old right-hander from Venezuela is undoubtedly one of the strongest ninth-inning stoppers in the game.
Do the Angels have enough offense to make a realistic run once they reach the postseason?
Sitting 21st in the league with only 425 runs scored, the answer seems to be, no. The Angels' inability to score runs is a direct result of a poor .319 on-base percentage, 25th in the league, and .712 OPS, 23rd in the league. Due to the anemic offense, it is no surprise that the A's actually have a higher run differential, despite being so far back in the division. Perhaps this is why Mike Scioscia was prompted to bunt with one out during a game two weeks ago.
While their pitching gives them a strong chance in a short series, they need to add another bat to take the load off of Vladimir Guerrero, who is leading his team in nearly every offensive statistical category. After struggling out of the gate, Guerrero has rebounded to get his slash stats line up to .287/.347/.496. He also has 17 homers and 53 RBIs, providing production in the middle of a poor lineup.
Gary Matthews Jr. appears to have turned one good season and spectacular catch in Texas into a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal. He is providing his team replacement-level production, for a little under $10-million this season, giving Barry Zito a run for his money as the most overpaid player in California.
In Anaheim, he is not alone in the inability to help create runs, as only two players—Guerrero and Howie Kendrick—have an OPS above .800.
Regardless, Beane continues to sell high, and has conceded for 2008 so the Angels are the easy pick to win the West. The A's, though, appear to be stocking enough talent to dominate the division for years to come, perhaps ending the Angels' status as the premier team on the west coast. Oakland remains a pretender, even in the Wild Card for now, but Beane is stockpiling enough talent to realistically make dynastic run as we enter the next decade.
To contact Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.Radio Appearance: This afternoon, Rays Digest writer Tyler Hissey will be appearing on Happy Hour With JP On CBS Sports Radio in Tampa to discuss the Rays' chances of remaining in the AL East race. Hissey will come on at 3:30 P.M.
Click here to listen live.