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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Not Quite "Done"

It happens almost every year: an American League team which seems left for dead in the season's opening months, surges forward during June to assert themselves, at least temporarily, among the contenders.  One reason for this phenomenon is that the month is laden with interleague play.  The AL has dominated interleague matchups for most of the last decade.  The interleague schedule is tremendously unbalanced, so solid AL franchises who get soft draws have an opportunity to gain ground on their less fortunate league rivals.

The result is that it is often difficult to judge whether an outstanding June is the result of a team truly coming together in a sustainable fashion, or merely taking advantage of the weak links on the senior circuit.  Last season, the Los Angeles Angels used June to assert their dominance.  Dogged by injuries and the tragic death of Nick Adenhart, the Angels struggled to achieve a .500 record during April and May, but a 17-9 month of June allowed them to surge to the front of the AL West, where they remained, finishing with 97 wins, second best in all of baseball, and eventually making it to the ALCS.  

On the other hand, in 2008, Detroit used a 19-8 run in June to get within striking distance of the AL Central-leading White Sox.  The remainder of the season was not nearly as kind, as the Tigers went 32-47 in the second half and finished in last place.

This season, no less than five AL franchises have caught fire in June.  Which of them will we still be talking about at the end of July?

Boston Red Sox (Sustainability Grade: A+)

Will we ever learn?  Every year one of the "Beasts of the East" has a rough time of it in the early going and we declare them finito.  And every year we are forced to bite our tongues.  This season, Boston was half a dozen games out a the end of April and many Red Sox fans were ready to throw in the towel.  Since that point, they've been the best team in the division and now find themselves comfortably positioned for an exciting pennant race: 2.5 back of the Yanks and only a half-game back of the Wild Card-leading Rays.  

There's no reason to doubt Boston.  Yes, they've gotten rich against the NL, going 10-4 in interleague play so far, but they've done it against the best the opposing league has to offer, playing six games against the Phillies, three against the Dodgers, and three against the Rockies.  They now possess the fourth-best record in all of baseball, despite the fact that they've gotten little contribution from Jacoby Ellsbury, Josh Beckett, Mike Cameron, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, all of whom are expected to be available throughout the second half.  It's impossible to predict who from among the so-called "Beasts" will be left out of October, but the Red Sox are not going to make it easy on their rivals.  

Texas Rangers (Sustainability Factor: B+)

Texas has played fairly well throughout the season, so their situation is slightly different from other teams on this list, but they have gone absolutely bonkers this month, currently riding a ten-game winning streak.  They've also won thirteen of their last fourteen and have not lost a series this month. 

Their interleague schedule is one of the softest around.  Their streak has been compiled against the Brewers, Marlins, Astros, and Pirates, with three more home games against Houston still to come.  They didn't play a single NL team with a record above .500 and Florida is the only one who even comes close.

That said, Texas is clearly for real.  They have the third-best run differential in baseball, trailing only the Yankees and Rays.  They've won series against the Rays, Tigers, and Angels, and are currently sitting on a 13-5 record in their own division.

Los Angeles Angels (Sustainability Factor: B+)

The Angels were in last place early in May, but have made a familiar climb back into the divisional race, now standing just 3.5 games back of Texas.  The Angels did not benefit from the soft underbelly of the NL Central the way that their division rival did, as they played six against the Dodgers, three against the Cardinals, and have three to come against the Rockies, so their 9-5 interleague record is pretty impressive.

The Angels have once again dealt with some tough breaks.  Kendry Morales is out for the season.  Erick Aybar could also miss significant time.  However, there real problems are a disastrous bullpen and a stagnant offense, which has not been about to score at will the way it did in 2009.  There's a strong chance players like Hideki Matsui and Juan Rivera will be much more productive in the second half, which could be enough to keep the Angels in the race, but don't be surprised if they are one of the most active teams at the deadline.  They will have flexibility in a way the bankrupt Rangers don't.     

Chicago White Sox (Sustainability Grade: C+)

On the third of June, the ChiSox were eight games under .500 and 8.5 back in the Central.  Rumors swirled about possible trades and maybe a precipitous end to the Ozzie Guillen era.  Now, the White Sox are three games above .500 and only 2.5 back.  They've won nine in a row and fifteen out of their last nineteen, including eight of nine on the road.  

Although the White Sox did just complete a sweep of the first-place Braves, they really got rich this June off the Nationals, Pirates, and Cubs, compiling an insane 13-2 record in interleague play, with another series against the Cubs still to come.  So, it is understandably tempting to call "bullshit" on the White Sox recent hot streak.  They have won only one series all year against an AL contender (New York, Boston, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Detroit, Texas, and Los Angeles).  However, they will play 24 games against the Twins and Tigers in the second half, which should certainly be treated as "opportunity."  

Seattle Mariners (Sustainability Factor: D-)

The Mariners were a popular preseason choice to win the AL West.  They currently sit thirteen games back and, until recently, seemed on the verge of throwing in the towel.  A six-game winning streak could be enough to at least delay the Cliff Lee trade talks.  Seattle swept the Twins earlier this month and recently swept the Reds as well, both first-place teams.  In between, however, they lost series to St. Louis and San Diego.  

There are causes for optimism.  Chone Figgins has busted out of his season-long slump.  Ichiro has been dominant.  The rotation has been consistently fantastic.  However, their run differential this month is actually worst than it was in April and May, because basically everybody else stinks.  They have won only one series this season against a divisional opponent (Oakland), compiling a 3-16 record against the Rangers and Angels.  This team isn't going anywhere...not this year.

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