Seven out eight of my preseason playoff selections are very much alive, with only my darkhorse Giants long gone from contention. However, my World Series picks, the Tigers and Dodgers, have shown signs of fading recently. Both are still well within the range, but must have excellent final months. The Tigers made a move on the Yankees over the weekend, taking 3 out of 4 from the Yankees, including a 16-0 drubbing on Monday, but the undid much of their progress by losing the first two games against Kansas City. Meanwhile, the Indians have run off a five game winning streak, going 4.5 games up, the biggest separation they've enjoyed since June 1. The Tribe has invigorated itself with the additions of Kenny Lofton, Aaron Laffey, and Asdrubal Cabrera in recent weeks. The Tigers countered with the returns of Fernando Rodney, Joel Zumaya, and Andrew Miller, but unfortunately lost Gary Sheffield and Kenny Rogers simultaneously. At the beginning of the year, I argued Detroit's eventual championship on the grounds of their depth and ability to compensate for injury. That theory is being tested. Ryan Raburn (900 OPS in 96 AB), Marcus Thames (15 HR, 779 OPS in 219 AB), Bobby Seay (2.49 ERA, 9 Holds in 49 G), and Zach Miner (3.65 ERA, 8 Holds in 25 G) have stepped up as Zumaya, Rodney, Miller, Rogers, and Sheffield have all spent time on the DL. Jim Leyland is hoping the Cameron Maybin experiment will also reap fruit. They could use some production from left field while Sheffield is on the DL, Thames is at DH, and Craig Monroe is playing for Chicago.
The good news for the Tigers is that the schedule works to their advantage. Detroit has only six games left with teams who are in contention, 3 with Seattle and 3 with Cleveland. That means throughout September they will face many teams who are testing young players and thinking about 2008. Not that teams like the White Sox (6), Twins (6), and Royals (4) wouldn't love to play spoilers. Detroit has a ten game homestand in the middle of the month, during which they need to improve upon their 34-31 home record in 2007.
The other AL contenders, on the other hand, are not quite so lucky. The Yankees have four games left against rival Boston and three against Seattle. Cleveland has 12 games left against Detroit (3), Seattle (5), and Los Angeles (4). The Mariners have 15 meetings with the Indians (5), Detroit (3), Los Angeles (4), and New York (3).
Largely because of the scheduling advantage, I think Detroit can catch the current Wild-Card leaders, even if that can't catch the Indians. Cleveland, despite their schedule seems to be in pretty good shape because, along with their potent lineup, which the Mariners and Yankees can match, they have great depth in starting pitching, with Cliff Lee, Jeremy Sowers, and Adam Miller among those awaiting September call-ups, while Seattle and New York (with the recent promotion of Ian Kennedy) have already raided the farm. Although New York certainly scares me and Seattle has impressed me, I'm going to stick with the AL pennant contenders I foresaw in March, except that Detroit is now my Wild Card prediction. It'll look like this:
Detroit (WC) v. Boston
Los Angeles v. Cleveland
In the National League, the playoff picture is a lot more complex. Ten teams are still in legitimate competition, with none of the divisions decided with any certainty. With all the races this close, very few games will be meaningless, for either team involved, which is what Bud had in mind when he started talking about "parity" a few years back.
Here's a breakdown of the schedule strengths:
16/28 @ Home
16/28 v. Contenders
How do you make any sense of these numbers? Well, only a few things stand out. Most teams have about half home and half road games left, with a few exceptions. The Phillies and Dodgers are going to be spending much of September in hotel rooms. Los Angeles has been pretty consistent; that is, not too great at home or on the road. Philadelphia, on the other hand, is only 32-33 away from their personalized launching pad. They've come on strong of late, making up 4 games in...well...4 games. They need to ride that momentum on the road.
Los Angeles is also the team with the most games left against contending teams. That, along with their busy travel schedule would suggest that they are a long shot, with 3.5 games to make up in both the NL West and the Wild Card race. The optimistic view is that they will have ample opportunities to make up ground and they are getting hot at the right time, winning 5 in a row and 11 of their last 15.
Arizona is a young team, likely playing over their heads. They've been outscored by almost forty runs over the course of the season. The Phillies are scary, but only if Cole Hamels comes back as their bonafide Ace. Jamie Moyer, Kyle Lohse, and Kyle Kendrick are believable at the back end of the rotation on a team that scores a lot of runs, but none of them are going to intimidate anybody. If Hamels makes five starts in September, the Phillies take the Wild Card. If not, it's gotta be the Dodgers.
St. Louis will have ample opportunities to catch their NL Central rivals, with three games left against Milwaukee, and five!, including four in three days at home, left versus the division-leading Cubs. But bad news continues to plague the reigning champs, as they lost two middle of the order hitters, Juan Encarnacion and Scott Rolen, to season-ending injuries this week. Encarnacion may be replaceable if Ankiel continues to play well, but the Redbirds are going to be stuck with some combination of Brendan Ryan, Russell Branyan, and anonymous September call-ups from here on out (as if Brendan Ryan weren't anonymous enough).
Here's how I see things heading into the postseason,
Chicago v. San Diego
Los Angeles v. New York