In the long road that is the MLB regular season, there is more in the rear view mirror than what lies ahead. However, the most important games of the year have yet to occur.
Additional excitement can be placed in the fact that so few teams are unofficially eliminated from contention. And when you consider the recent teams that have let giant leads slip away in September (ex: 2011 Braves, 2011 Red Sox, 2007 Mets), then you’d have to believe that each division is still up for grabs.
That will change over the final weeks of summer, as the steadier teams pull away in the stretch run. But some will be hotly contested down to the season’s final days.
6. AL Central
As play began on Monday, the largest lead in any division between first and second place was the five-game margin that separates front-running Detroit and the Kansas City Royals (57-53).
Logic dictates that the Tigers are set to pull away. Not just because they have experience on their side, but because they made a sweeping improvement to their starting pitching at the 11th hour of last Thursday’s trade deadline. With the acquisition of David Price (as part of a three-team swap with Tampa and Seattle), Detroit now possesses a rotation that features the last three Cy Young Award winners. That doesn’t even include Rick Porcello—with a record of 13-5 and a team-best ERA of 3.18.
wow…what a day!! Rays fans THANK YOU!! Great Chapter of my life just ended…ready to start a new one with the Tigers!! Thanks again
— David Price (@DAVIDprice14) July 31, 2014
Combine those arms with Kansas City’s continued struggles at the plate, and it’s likely another division title for Detroit. As for the Royals, they are within striking distance of the second Wild Card spot, while the Cleveland Indians (56-55) sit 1.5 games behind K.C. That’s their only hope, as this division belongs to a club poised for another World Series run.
5. NL East
The prediction on this here site about three weeks ago was that Washington would run away and leave Atlanta in the dust—thanks in part to the Nationals’ deep lineup getting healthier and the Braves having to deal with a rough summer schedule.
Well, Atlanta is living up to its end of the bargain. While the Nats have treaded water since the second half commenced, the Braves and sunk like a stone and currently are staggering through a six-game losing streak. Washington’s three-game advantage can either dwindle or expand based on its fortunes in weekend series at Turner Field—a house of horrors for the visitors from D.C. But based on how Fredi Gonzalez’ club has performed as of late, Matt Williams and company may be catching them at the right time.
The Miami Marlins a nice story thanks in part to young pitching and an improved offense, but this is a two-team dual which is going to be decided in Washington’s favor by late September.
4. AL East
While the Tigers were the beneficiary of the trade deadline’s biggest swap, the Rays appear to have been fleeced. Just as they were making a charge up the standings (in both the division and Wild Card), all progress seemingly came to a screeching halt in dealing away their best (and hottest) starting pitcher and getting limited resources in return.
The door has likely shut on Tampa catching division-leading Baltimore. For the Yankees and Blue Jays, the door remains ajar.
Of the three teams with legitimate chances to grab the division flag, the Yankees are doing the most with less. Once again, Joe Girardi has managed to keep creaky New York from falling apart. Even without C.C. Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka, they’ve managed to compile an ERA that is in the top half of the AL. On offense, the Bombers were led by Brett Gardner’s seven homers and 16 RBI in July.
Speaking of hitting, the Blue Jays did plenty of it in May and moved into first place. Maybe they peaked too early. But following a 12-15 mark for June, Toronto went 15-11 in July to place itself in the No. 2 Wild Card position—far behind the Angels.
The goal, of course, is to try and catch the Orioles. The problem, though, is Baltimore’s consistency. Aside from the abundance of home runs, it’s a club that doesn’t wow you with its batting average or ERA. However, the O’s have rarely seen a slump—which may make them hard to overcome.
Both the Jays and Yanks will get plenty of cracks at toppling the Birds before season’s end. Toronto faces them nine times, while New York has ten games left.
3. NL West
At this time last season, the Los Angeles Dodgers were in the midst of a remarkable 46-10 stretch that saw them pull away from the competition after a sluggish start.
This year, L.A. is far more consistent and just as potent. The Dodgers have more talent than anyone in the league, much less the division.
Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu have combined for nearly 40 wins and make up the NL’s best rotation. Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez and Dee Gordon supply plenty of run support, to boot.
The remainder of their schedule isn’t imposing once you get past their upcoming match-ups with the Angels, Brewers and Braves. After Aug. 17, L.A. has six against San Diego, six against Colorado, five versus Arizona and four with the Cubs.
They also have six games against the second place San Francisco Giants, who haven’t been able to keep the same first place pace they put out in the early months. Bruce Bochy’s bunch had lost six straight before straightening out and winning four of five to hold on to one of the Wild Card slots.
It would be a great surprise if the Giants were able to outlast the Dodgers over the course of August and September, but this race will remain competitive when they meet up beginning Sept. 22.
2. AL West
Before the Tigers nabbed David Price on the afternoon of July 31, the headline trade-maker was once again Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s, who acquired their own lefty ace—Jon Lester—from Boston. This just a few weeks after making a stunning deal with the Cubs that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel over to the Bay Area.
Oakland seems poised for a run deep into the postseason—something that hasn’t happened in the past 15 years. Even though they have the players in place, it may not even be good enough to win their own division—if the Los Angeles Angels have anything to say about it.
As Mike Trout continues to bolster his MVP candidacy, the pitching staff remains underrated. Jered Weaver and young Garrett Richards share the club lead in wins (12), while Richards leads all starters in ERA.
Seattle also benefited at the trade deadline, nabbing outfielders Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia. That and Felix Hernandez still aren’t enough to make hay in this top-heavy division. The M’s should have their sights set on the Wild Card—in which they are just two games out.
Barring a monumental collapse, both the A’s and Angels are cruising towards the postseason. But that doesn’t mean there’s plenty at stake. Home-field advantage may be on the line in addition to the division title—and avoiding the one-game crapshoot that is the Wild Card game.
1. NL Central
Two of the best teams in baseball reside in the AL West, but the NL Central features the most competitive race with the most to lose. The Brewers, Cardinals, Pirates and Reds were separated by 4.5 games as of Monday. Only the lowly Cubs can begin making plans for the fall.
But what makes this the most intense division race of them all is because the unfortunate losers may not have the luxury of the Wild Card to fall back on.
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) August 4, 2014
Milwaukee got off to a hot start, but has since been reeled in. St. Louis was primed to regain its usual spot at the top until injuries to key starting pitchers and catcher Yadier Molina slightly hinder the progress.
Behind Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates have the best player among the quartet of teams. The Reds, meanwhile, have the best pitcher, Johnny Cueto. Cincinnati dropped 10 out of the first 12 following the All-Star break only to regain traction and remain in sight of the Brewers.
All have the opportunity to play each other at least once over the course of the final two months settle the fight. If not, there’s always the chance for a one-game playoff.