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September 23, 2005

Prospectus Today

AL Reset

by Joe Sheehan

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Ten days left, 11 teams still playing relevant baseball games (being very generous to the Giants) and just one team that has clinched a chance to keep playing beyond next Sunday (being not so generous to the Braves). As we enter a weekend that is really a break from the recent norm--just one series, the Marlins in Atlanta, matches two of the dozen remaining relevant teams--let's reset this thing.

In the AL, you can throw out those six-team standings I ran a couple of weeks ago. The injury-riddled A's, 9-11 in September, have drifted 5 games back in the wild-card chase, making it highly unlikely that the AL West runner-up can use the industry back door into October. That leaves the A's and recently hot Angels fighting for the division title and just one path to the playoffs.


Angels      87-65   .572   --    3 vs. TB, 4 @ Oak, 3 @ Tex
A's         84-68   .553    3    3 vs. Tex, 4 vs. LAA, 3 @ Sea
The Angels have pulled out to a significant lead thanks to a six-game winning streak, all games decided by three runs or fewer, three of them come-from-behind victories. The Angels' bullpen, bolstered by Kelvim Escobar (15 IP, 1 ER in September), has come up big over the last week, supporting a rotation in which only Paul Byrd is pitching great baseball and an offense that seems to have picked up some of the White Sox' first-half fairy dust, scoring just enough runs to win.

The season will come down to that series in Oakland, and the question becomes how healthy the A's can get in advance of it. Can they have Rich Harden available in some role, and will Bobby Crosby's ankle allow him to play all four games. In the short term, the A's need to try to shave a game off of the Angels' lead this weekend. If they can, they'll need to take just three of four, rather than sweep, to gain control of their own destiny.

You might think the A's have the advantage, getting the big series at home, but remember that the two teams met in Oakland on the last weekend of last season, tied going into the series, and the Angels took the first two games to lock up the division title. Their better health has to make them a slight favorite, although as I keep harping on, it's very hard to know what might happen in a week's worth of baseball. I do think the key between these two so-so offenses will be the middle relief; expect most games to be won in the seventh and eighth innings, putting pressure on Escobar, Brendan Donnelly and Scot Shields on one side, and Justin Duchscherer, Jay Witasick and Ricardo Rincon on the other. We may again see games decided by which manager gets his best reliever--Francisco Rodriguez or Huston Street--into the games in high-leverage situations.

The rest of the AL is four teams for three spots, and looks like this:


White Sox   91-61   .599    --    3 vs. MIN, 4 @ Det, 3 @ Cle
Indians     90-63   .588   1.5    3 @ KC, 3 vs. TB, 3 vs. CHW
Yankees     89-63   .586   2.0    3 vs. Tor, 4 @ Bal, 3 @ Bos
Red Sox     88-64   .579   3.0    3 @ Bal, 4 vs. Tor, 3 vs. NY
What looked unlikely two weeks ago--that the season-ending White Sox at Indians and Yankees at Red Sox series would both be relevant--now appears a certainty. Next weekend has the makings of the kind of baseball weekend that books get written about, with two sets of Sox trying to hang on to postseason hopes while teams young (Indians) and old (Yankees) try to push them out.

There's a mix of advantages here. The Indians are arguably the best team in baseball right now, and they play the worst one in Kansas City this weekend, then return home to face the 24-51 road version of the Devil Rays. It's hard to see them losing much ground to the White Sox before next Friday, although both the Royals and D-Rays have shown themselves to be pricks in the side of contenders on occasion.

The White Sox have issues. I'm not one to start crying "intangibles," and certainly not from a distance. That said, if there was going to be a team that you might speculate about, if would probably be one that's coughed up most of a 15-game lead, dropped 10 of 14 games and seems to have little idea of where its next run is coming from. Maybe they pull out of this spiral in time to avoid making history; in their favor is that they play their next seven games against teams that have largely checked out of the 2005 season. The Twins have shut down their #2 and #3 starters, and the Tigers their #1.

(Side note on the White Sox: since his recall, Brandon McCarthy has allowed four runs in 31 1/3 innings, with a 22/6 K/BB, and some of that has come against the Rangers and Red Sox. Objectively, he's no worse than the team's #2 starter right now, and there's probably an argument to be made that he's better than Mark Buehrle. If he's not starting in October, it's a mistake by Ozzie Guillen.)

The Yankees may have finally solved their season-long problems with beating bad teams, taking nine of 10 from the Devil Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles to move into the AL East lead. Getting two starters back in the last two weeks helped, as Chien-Ming Wang has provided innings and Mike Mussina quality. Moving Alex Rodriguez into the #2 slot jump-started the offense; Joe Torre needs Jason Giambi's back to loosen up so he can continue putting that optimal lineup on the field, rather than reverting to Robinson Cano, strong September or no, in the #2 slot. Getting some separation this weekend wouldn't hurt, as they're just a .500 team on the road and they close against a Red Sox team that plays .670 ball at Fenway.

The Red Sox don't have very much going for them right now. They can still score with the best of them, but are down to a vanishly few reliable pitchers. Jon Papelbon really is as important to this team as Bill Simmons thinks he is (scroll down to September 13th entry), as one of just two reliable relievers in the Sox bullpen, and one of just four pitchers, along with Tim Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo, on the roster right now. (Sure, Curt Schilling has looked better of late, but there's no way of knowing when his alter ego HomerMan is going to take the mound, and that will be the case until the Sox' season ends.)

In a week, anything can happen. Realistically, the Red Sox are in the toughest spot, trailing the pack and enduring pitching problems that seem to turn every game into a nail-biter. The White Sox are playing the worst ball of the four, but have the biggest cushion. They can't score, but they have the schedule and their pitching staff in their favor. It's not hard to see them allowing 11 runs totals between now and next Friday. The Indians have the best opportunity, with a schedule Mike Leach looks at in envy and what may be the best team. The Yankees look as good as they have all year, but the core problems--defense, bridge relievers, bottom of lineup--remain, and they close with seven games on the road.

I'm reluctant to make predictions. I think the keys will be the Indians' schedule, the White Sox' top two hitters (who have to give them OBP), the Yankees' back-end pitchers and the Red Sox' lineup, which may have to score 75 runs the rest of the season to make it work for them. How those elements perform will determine which of these four teams has to face some unpleasant questions on October 3.

I'll cover the NL in a special weekend edition of Prospectus Today.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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