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July 25, 2006

Prospectus Today

Whoops

by Joe Sheehan

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Just two weeks ago, I was doing second-half previews in this space and on various airwaves, and all of them contained the following two ideas: that the AL wild-card race was essentially over, as the White Sox and Tigers had locked up playoff spots, and the White Sox were a better team than the Tigers and would finish ahead of them.

You know how a "vote of confidence" is usually a kiss of death for a coach or manager, the last thing they hear before the scraping sound of the guillotine blade? That notion should also apply to dramatic declarations that something is "over." In the 12 days of baseball since the All-Star break, the Tigers have increased their lead over the Sox, who have seen their edge in the wild-card race slip to two games over the surging Twins, while the Blue Jays and Yankee have also made up ground.

Here's where we were on July 12:

White Sox   57-31   .648  --
Yankees     50-36   .581   6
Blue Jays   49-39   .557   8
Twins       47-39   .547   9
The Twins have made up seven games in less than two weeks, as they've gone 10-2 while the Sox have been a mere 2-8 in that time. As of this morning:
White Sox   59-39   .602  --
Yankees     57-40   .588  1.5
Twins       57-41   .582   2
Blue Jays   55-44   .556  4.5
Oh, and the Tigers? They've gone 8-3 and stretched their lead out to a whopping 7˝ games over the White Sox, and nine ahead of the Yankees. With each passing day, it seems more and more likely that this Tigers team, built on defense and the long ball, is going to end up with the best record in baseball this year. It's hard to reconcile their roster with this kind of performance, but like the '05 White Sox, it may be that their defense is so good that it propels an otherwise good team to greatness.

I'm reluctant to go too crazy on the Tigers, because I still see enough potential problems-with OBP, with health, with the bullpen outside of Joel Zumaya--that a regression in the second half seems very possible. Don't get me wrong: they're going to make the playoffs and they're almost certain to win the division, but they're not a .670 baseball team. If they go .500 down the stretch, say 31-32, which isn't unreasonable given preseason expectations, they'd finish at 98-64, which pegs them as a very good team, but not a historic one. Any substantial injury to an up-the-middle player would make that scenario likely.

There's even very recent precedent for this. A year ago, the White Sox were 65-33 and similarly situated. They went 29-30 over their next 59 games, stumbling through a long stretch in which they couldn't score runs-in part because of the loss of one of their few OBP guys in Scott Podsednik--and allowing the Indians back into the race. They closed the season famously, with a five-game winning streak to clinch the division, and went on to an 11-1 postseason and a World Championship.

This year's White Sox can't afford a comparable slump, because they don't have nearly the same cushion. In fact, you can make a good argument that they're not currently the best wild-card threat in their own division. With last night's win over those Sox, the Twins are now 40-17 in what you might call The Francisco Liriano Era. That's the period since May 19, when Liriano entered the Twins' rotation. The Twins have the best record in baseball since then. It's not just the presence of Liriano, but a full complement of changes, most notably the addition of Jason Bartlett and the return of Jason Kubel, that has pushed the Twins to contention. Even without Shannon Stewart or Torii Hunter, the Twins have managed to insert themselves into a race just two months after appearing dead in the water.

With the Twins finally getting most of their best players on the field each day, is there that much difference between them and the Sox? The White Sox have a much better offense, even as compared to a fully healthy Twins lineup. Their lineup is more powerful, their bench is stronger. They're a better defensive team, although the gap has closed a bit since the start of the season. On the other hand, the Twins have allowed the fewest runs of any AL team other than the Tigers. They have two of the best starting pitchers in baseball and arguably the best bullpen in the game, one that doesn't blow late leads at all (Associated Press reports that the Twins are 41-1 when leading after seven innings).

The Twins also stack up very well against the Yankees and Blue Jays, both with similar profiles to the White Sox: good hitting, good front of the rotation and back of the bullpen, a bit sketchy everywhere else. The Twins can score enough runs to win because they're going to keep runs off the board better than almost everyone else in the league, and three nights a week, they're going to be almost impossible to beat. Their weakest links, the back of the rotation and the DH spot, can be fixed relatively easily through trades if Terry Ryan decides to go that way. A Matt Stairs or a David Dellucci would make a big difference for this team, even as Rondell White goes through his first decent stretch of the season.

If you look at the Adjusted Standings, or just the runs scored and allowed by the contenders, you'll find that the Twins don't measure up well. They have a +51 run differential, fourth in the group. However, that figured is skewed by the performance of a Twins team that doesn't exist any longer, and that has seen the "work" it did almost completely erased by the post-May 19 squad. You can't judge the Twins based on their aggregate numbers, because no team in baseball has dropped more dead weight since Opening Day. That's what I missed in declaring the AL wild-card race "over" two weeks ago…well, that and the White Sox' run prevention perhaps not being what it used to be…and it's another reminder that baseball doesn't reduce easily to one-sentence summaries.

The AL wild-card race isn't over, obviously. Although according to the Playoff Odds Report, the White Sox are still the favorite to win the spot, their status is much more tenuous than it was a week ago. Moreover, I don't think the Report provides the most accurate picture of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the four teams involved. The Twins have been the best team in the game for two months, and there's no reason to believe they can't repeat the feat over the next two.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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