Divisional Contenders and Pretenders, Times 5

Now that the dust has settled from the storm of July deadline trades, we have a clearer idea of who are contenders vs. those who are pretenders moving towards the playoffs. Toronto fans are ever thankful that Dave Dombrowski decided his Tigers were pretenders before he got canned; the “Price” was high but worth it.

Some races seem won already, but in this year of parity not as many as you might expect. No one’s going to catch Kansas City in the AL Central, nor would they have even without the Royals acquiring Johnny Cueto. Having the best pitching in the league helps them have the only positive run differential in the division; all that’s left to do there is scout playoff opponents and wonder if any divisional rival will finish up at or above .500. Given Minny’s inevitable swoon of late, my guess is no.

Houston faltered but didn’t collapse, their good pitching and home run power should compensate for the excessively free-swinging, strikeout-laden offense and inexperience. They’ll maintain and perhaps even bolster their current 2.5 game lead in the AL West. The question there is whether the Angels can hang onto their second place, and wild card slot, and if Texas will grow or wilt in the Dallas summer heat.

Statistically, the Angels have the second-best pitching in the league, which is more than a little surprising. Somehow, even with their outfield trade deals and the ever-present looming bats of Trout and Pujols, they’ve lost 7 of the last 10 and I don’t see them rebounding in any big way. Sitting now at 57-50 they should hang onto at least a .500 finish, but even this year that’s not going to get them into the post-season.

Texas is an interesting team. As a team it’s remarkably streaky, which mirrors most of its lineup. Recently all-star Prince Fielder has cooled off some after a torrid first half, and CF Leonys Martin earned himself a trip to the minors with his stone cold bat, but Elvis Andrus has been playing like the $120M man they thought he could be and Adrian Beltre’s healing from a thumb injury and starting to look like Beltre again. With the trade for Cole Hamels, their pitching might – just might– be adequate to keep them in enough games to slide by Anaheim in the standings. More than half their remaining games are home ones, but somehow the R’s have been winning more on the road than in Arlington this year so it’s not a surefire bonus for them. If they end up with 83 wins this year, I won’t be surprised and it will be a nice couple of steps up from last year (especially given their ace Yu Darvish missing the season.)

In the National, nobody’s likely to catch St. Louis in the Central; even without Adam Wainwright the team’s keeping the opposition to under 3 runs a game; their only worry is putting on the cruise control and having a hard time gearing back up for games that matter in October. I don’t think they’ll win 100 games, but with 97 or 98 they’ll still be tops in baseball. The Pirates are in good shape to return to the playoffs nonetheless, even if they can’t make up 6 games ground on the Cards. The big question there could be AJ Burnett’s elbow. If the team is on the up-and-up (which might be a first in MLB history) and it’s not a serious injury and he can return by Labor Day, they’ll be a solid playoff team. If Burnett’s arm- and career- are toast, Pittsburgh will turn its attention to hockey very quickly in the playoffs.

In the NL West, the Dodgers were savvy at the trade deadline but I like SF’s acquisition of Mike Leake even more. LA is better on paper but five years into this decade, I’ve learned not to under-estimate the intangibles at work by the Bay. I think the Giants will win the division- but LA will easily make the wildcard game.

In the NL East, call it the Curse of the Coddling. Washington have by far the best lineup, Bryce Harper is finally starting to merit mentioning in the same sentence as Mike Trout but something is amiss as evidenced by their second place standing. If Boston were cursed for decades for selling the Babe, maybe Washington will be cursed similarly for babying Stephen Strasburg (shutting him down entirely in September after 159 innings) in 2012, when the Pennant was theirs for the taking. New York have the pitching and the momentum, let’s give them the division by three or four over the Nats.

Which brings us to the AL East— and my next column, tonight…

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