4:51 PM CDT, August 11, 2012
You can't quite see it from here, but the finish line is about to appear in the distance for baseball's oversized pack of contenders.
The collapses by the Red Sox and Braves last season caution against reaching any conclusions at this point. But for the sake of a snapshot, if nothing else, let's consider the wildest race that is approaching.
That's the battle for the American League's two wild-card spots.
We'll assume the Yankees and Rangers are going to win their divisions. That leaves five teams fighting for two wild-card spots — or, from the perspective of the White Sox and Tigers, who are battling for the Central title, six teams for three spots.
Either way, it's an uncomfortable situation for all six teams: White Sox, Tigers, Orioles, Rays, A's and Angels. Those teams were divided by only two games at one point last week, and here's how I rank them based on the same type of statistical analysis used to predict postseason results.
The system favors teams that prevent runs over ones who score runs and those that are playing better in the second half than in the first half. That points to two wild-card teams from the West, although there's not much separation among the top four teams.
1. Athletics. They're not as bad at scoring runs as you would think — credit middle-of-the-order hitters Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick and 25-year-old first baseman Chris Carter (10 homers in his first 90 at-bats since being promoted) — but their key is how stingy they are giving them up. The Rays are the only team with a lower ERA from starters, the bullpen is strong and they play good defense.
2. Angels. Something doesn't feel right with this team. It has been straining to meet expectations all year and the bullpen is a mess. But Mike Trout is the most exciting player in the majors and Albert Pujols is once again looking like a beast. The Angels are outscoring everyone else since the All-Star break, and they have a likely Cy Young winner in Jered Weaver. There is a lot to like.
3. Tigers. They were 39-42 on July 3 but put together a 21-8 run to remind us why so many people felt they'd represent the AL in the World Series. Jim Leyland is right to tout Miguel Cabrera as an MVP candidate (although he should have done it a year ago, when Justin Verlander took the honor) and the rotation is starting to click. The bullpen has been a problem, as are unearned runs (only the Orioles have allowed more in the AL). There's barely a whisker of difference between them and the White Sox, and the strength of the other wild-card contenders could mean the division runner-up is the odd team out.
4. White Sox. Among these six contenders, Robin Ventura's team is the most balanced and catches the ball the best. The Sox's calling card has become solid, fundamental play and the strength of Chris Sale and Jake Peavy at the front of the rotation. The lineup has no major holes, but Paul Konerko's slide from .399 on May 27 to .316 entering the weekend is a troubling trend. Injuries have disrupted the rotation but it has been a surprisingly deep pitching staff.
5. Rays. Evan Longoria's return could prove to be a catalyst. But the lineup looks too thin to support a pitching staff that is by far the best among these teams. The Rays are third-worst in the AL in scoring and made only a minor acquisition to try to get better, adding Ryan Roberts to play third while Longoria serves as the DH. Alfonso Soriano could have made a difference, assuming he would have waived his 10/5 rights to go to Tampa. Soriano could still make it through waivers and be dealt.
6. Orioles. Buck Showalter says his team has been defying statistical analysts all year, and he's right. It went into the weekend with a run differential of minus-53, which should have it last in the AL East. The Pythagorean standings give Showalter a plus-9, which is off the charts. Winning the close games has been the Orioles' key but among these contenders only the Angels have worse pitching and defense stats. Calling up an impact arm like Dylan Bundy would add more than Manny Machado.
One who got away: This is one of those rare weekends when both Chicago teams are at home, and it's probably best for Cubs fans if they keep their eyes on the action at Wrigley Field. That's because Yoenis Cespedes, a huge difference-maker, is on display atU.S. Cellular Field.
The A's wouldn't have become a serious playoff contender if Billy Beane had not outbid the Cubs for Cespedes. The A's landed him with a four-year, $36 million deal that allows him to become a free agent after 2015; the Cubs offered similar money but wanted to control him for six years, not four.
As good as Trout has been, the A's went into the weekend with a better record in games played by Cespedes (48-29) than the Angels had since Trout's arrival (53-39). Cespedes was hitting .402 since the All-Star break, and despite being bothered by persistent issues with his wrists had 14 homers and an .884 OPS.
In a series against the Angels last week, he put all his skills on display. He made a running catch in left-center and fired a strong one-hop throw to the plate to keep Trout from advancing from third; he stole third base, diving headfirst into the bag (and reaching double digits in steals); and he took grounders at shortstop before a game, wowing his peers with his strong arm. Cespedes played shortstop through age 16 before moving to the outfield.
The Cubs signed 20-year-old Jorge Soler for $30 million, and some scouts liked him better than Cespedes. If he backs that up, he'll be worth waiting for. But it sure would be fun to watch Cespedes on a regular basis.
The hard goodbye: The Phillies had a replacement ready in Freddy Galvis but still couldn't help themselves. They gave Jimmy Rollins a three-year, $38 million contract that can easily vest for a fourth season even though they knew the 33-year-old shortstop wasn't the player he had been.
Manager Charlie Manuel is finding it hard to watch Rollins pop up on such a regular basis. "In the last three or four years, his offensive performance is coming down,'' said Manuel, who is normally very protective of his players. "The older he gets, that can be expected."
Rollins, who went into the weekend hitting .248, is leading the majors in infield pops (with a wide lead over runner-up Dan Uggla).
Dueling closers: While Weaver is a clear front-runner in the AL Cy Young race, there is no real consensus in the National League. Johnny Cueto and R.A. Dickey deserve strong consideration, but could this be a year where a closer gets BBWAA love?
The Reds' Aroldis Chapman and the Braves' Craig Kimbrel have been remarkably dominant. Kimbrel went into the weekend 31 for 33 in saves with a 1.26 ERA, while Chapman had garish peripheral numbers to go with his 26-for-30 showing in save situations.
Kimbrel had a slightly lower WHIP than Chapman (0.65-0.69), but Chapman's 103-14 strikeout-walk ratio in 55 innings is one for the ages. So who's better?
It probably depends on whom you ask, but Kimbrel has been doing this longer. "I think Craig has got the best 1-2 pitches in the game — his fastball, curveball," Braves catcher Brian McCann told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "Both of those pitches are at the top of what a major league curveball is and what a major league fastball is. That's what makes him so effective.''
The last word: "I do scoreboard-watch. I wonder how the Angels are doing every day." — Angels manager Mike Scioscia.
Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC