The defending world champions from Fenway Park and their historic nemesis from the Bronx have been joined in the American League East hunt this year by the Baltimore Orioles, who left Cincinnati a month ago in first place. It's nice to see the Orioles back, though 12 losses in 17 games leading to the All-Star break indicate they might not be back for long.
Even with Sammy Sosa slumping so badly that he's been dropped in the batting order, the Orioles march up a nice little wrecking crew, particularly from their infield. Leading this intriguing group is the irrepressible Rafael Palmiero, who probably will reach 600 homers and 3,000 hits while the pundits debate his credentials for Hall of Fame inclusion.
Many are of the mood now to say Palmiero caught the tailwind from the home run explosion of the 1990s, accounting for his consistency at producing 40-homer seasons without earning consideration as a great power hitter. It certainly wouldn't hurt his case as he nears the end of the line if he were to lead a Baltimore surge to the postseason, but the road is long for the Orioles, especially with their pitching staff, which is ninth in AL ERA (4.41) and 10th in WHIP (1.39).
That said, the Reds Sox are defending the championship with an even worse pitching staff (11th in WHIP, 12th in ERA), though help is on the way with Curt Schilling's return from the disabled list. The Red Sox disabled relief ace Keith Foulk last week after surgery to repair cartilage damage in his left knee. Between Schilling's availability for only 17 innings so far and Foulke's 6.23 ERA, the Red Sox hold first place in the AL East due to one of the league's top-tier offenses, the others belonging to the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees.
Where the Yankees fit remains one of the summer's hot items. Like the Orioles and Red Sox, their downfall is pitching. Between them, Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano, $25 million in new pitching for this season, are 13-12 with a 4.43 ERA. For their top five starting pitchers, the Yankees are paying $65 million, more than half the major league clubs spend on entire rosters. Yet Yankee hurlers are being hit for a .771 OPS, worse than any other AL clubs except Kansas City and Tampa Bay.
At the All-Star break, Baltimore, Boston and the Yankees sat within 2 1/2 games of each other in the only AL division race that stands to take the national stage this summer. But all is not lost for whoever doesn't win that division, because the wild card is wide open with competition from Minnesota, Cleveland and Texas, with Oakland, Detroit and Toronto on the outside.
Texas, like New York and Boston, is a good-hit, mediocre-pitch club. Minnesota and Cleveland are more solid across the board and better because of it. It's impossible right now to choose confidently between the Twins and the Indians, so, in the spirit of carelessness, take the Indians for the wild card.
The other AL divisions are paced by very similar clubs. In the AL Central, the Chicago White Sox took a nine-game lead and baseball's best record (57-29) to the break, setting themselves up as the club with the most to lose and the most losing to do to lose it. The Los Angeles Angels lead the AL West by five games. Both are medium offenses, but they are among the league's best pitching staffs, making them hard to overtake.
Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Freddie Garcia give the White Sox the best front three of any AL rotation, and no closer is more reliable now than Dustin Hermanson. In those aspects, the Angels aren't quite as good, but Jarrod Washburn, Bartolo Colon and Paul Byrd are three stingy starters and Francisco Rodriguez is a strikeout show in the back of the bullpen.
The National League evidently sets up only one good divisional race because the St. Louis Cardinals are unbeatable in the NL Central and no one isn't beatable in the NL West, where only San Diego went to the All-Star break with a winning record.
As it stands, the Braves lead the wild card race on a 91-win pace, with Florida, Houston, the New York Mets, Philadelphia and the Chicago Cubs all right around .500, all about five games behind. As it shakes out, though, the NL wild card club this year will finish closer to 85 wins than to 90. The pace for the wild card will cool as the season develops and the Braves overtake the Nationals, who will come back down to the pack.
The Nationals produced a magical first half with bounces and mirrors. Before too long, though, the Braves will go back to being the Braves, the Nationals will go back to being the Expos, the Braves will win the NL East and the wild card race will blow wide open for anyone who can win a little more than they lose.
Once this race turns serious, the Nationals will stop winning all those one-run games. Over 162 games, the teams that are supposed to win are the ones that win. It always comes down to talent and just knowing how to win. Don't be surprised if the Nationals end up winning right around 85 games.
And because every other wild card contender goes at this with glaring weaknesses, we're looking at a treadmill on which every club runs as hard as it can, making no progress. Only the Cubs might be well-enough equipped to separate themselves from the wild card pack. Were it not for a combined 164 days on the disabled list for pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, the Cubs probably would be walking away with the wild card already. They can thank Derrek Lee's fantastic first half (a .378 batting average and 27 homers) for keeping them in the hunt so far.
Now Prior and Wood are back taking turns in the rotation, and the Cubs think Garciaparra can come back in August. The timing would be just right for the Cubs to make a push. Which raises the possibility of a truly intriguing October spectacle -- the Cubs and the White Sox in a Windy City World Series.
The White Sox are the AL's best club right now, and the Cubs are poised to pounce when all their parts come together. At this early stage, that's a stage worth setting.
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