Today’s column, and the one you’ll read tomorrow, were both supposed to run late last week. Unfortunately, I got swept up in the madness that was the Baseball Prospectus Annual Meeting and Bake-Off, losing two days to an all-out flurry of meetings and muffins.

While I regret the delay in getting this material out, I have to say it was worth it. You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted Clay Davenport’s lemon bars, and Ryan Wilkins is apparently as good with a bundt pan as he is with HTML. Both lost the big prize this season, though, as newcomer Nate Silver’s BONDS (Blueberry-Orange Nuttily Delicious Scones) blew away the field.

As usual, I thought my Quadruple Chocolate Cake was superior, but the judges disagreed. Three-time champ Chris Kahrl abstained from participating, but proved his deftness with a knife throughout the event. All in all, it was worth the trip.

Plus, I got to catch a game at Pac Bell Park for the first time. (Get the Cha-Cha Chicken.)

Enough of my adventures in food. Eight of the AL’s 14 teams can entertain October dreams, with the Angels’ hopes on life support just four days into the second half. The Mariners and Royals have far outplayed my expectations, and the Rangers have, for the third straight year, made me look silly for thinking they’d win. Thank god for the amazing predictability of the AL East, or I might have to give back my blue beanie emblazoned with the logo of the Certified Baseball Experts Society.

AL East

After a dalliance with contention, the Blue Jays fell out of the race by allowing 87 runs in their last 15 games before the All-Star break. If anything, this makes it easier for them to continue with their original plan, a process they began by trading Shannon Stewart to the Twins for Bobby Kielty last week. Kielty is a comparable, if currently slightly inferior, player to Stewart, and likely to be better over the next few seasons. More important in this case, he won’t be arbitration-eligible until after next season, or a free agent until after 2007, while Stewart gets his wings in three months.

With the Jays removing themselves from the race, the East has become the two-team race it was expected to be. Both the Yankees and Red Sox have fought through one particular weakness that at times threatened to take down their season. After losing half their starting lineup at one point or another, the Yankees are now healthy, waiting only on the return of Nick Johnson to make them whole. The Red Sox suffered through a series of bullpen meltdowns in April as they struggled to implement a new way of managing their relief pitching. Since moving Byung-Hyun Kim to the pen full-time on July 1, however, their relievers have posted a 2.15 ERA. Kim makes that bullpen work, and while he isn’t being used as more than a one-inning closer–something of a waste–there’s no question that having him in the pen has made a big difference for the Sox.

Given that both teams have high payrolls, cash at hand and motivated ownership, you can expect trades to be made. The Yankees have added Armando Benitez to pitch the eighth inning, but could still be in the market for relief. If Johnson is unable to rejoin the lineup–and gambling on his health is never a good idea–that will increase the pressure to trade for a hitter. The Sox need a starting pitcher to replace Casey Fossum, now a reliever, and haven’t shown themselves to be confident in John Burkett. The team that can improve itself by one game over the last two months could find itself on top.

Despite the Yankees’ four-game lead, I don’t think they can hold off the Sox, especially since Pedro Martinez appears set to approach 30 starts and 200 innings. The Sox have the better offense and bullpen, and what they lack in rotation depth they make up for by having The Best Pitcher Alive. I’ll stick with my pre-season prediction: Sox in first, Yanks in second.

AL Central

It’s time to take the Royals seriously. They’re the only team in the division over .500, with a 6 1/2-game lead. It’s hard to blow a lead that size over less than 70 games, especially when you’re being pursued by mediocre teams. Much has been made of the fact the the Royals, despite their bulge over the White Sox and Twins, have a similar Pythagorean record to the pursuers. While true, I’d argue that this adds to the argument that you have to take them seriously: they’re fighting with comparable teams, and they start the battle with a big lead.

I’m focusing on the Royals’ lead because when I look at any other indicator, I find it hard to believe that they can hang on. They have the ninth-best Equivalent Average in the league, while outscoring their projected runs by 32, 11 more than any other team in baseball. A look at their performance doesn’t indicate any special skills that might explain this, which means that you can probably expect them to score fewer runs going forward than they have to date. They have the second-best rotation in baseball to date according to Support-Neutral data, but again, it’s hard to see how their starters can keep up that ranking. In front of a league-average defense, the Royals’ starters have posted a below-average strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio and home-run rate, while throwing the third-fewest innings in the league. Their bullpen ranks 11th in the AL.

Rany Jazayerli passes along an excellent point about the Royals, however: The roster as currently constituted has a much better performance record than the overall staff does. A quick look shows that he’s right, and that the difference is staggering:

               IP    ERA   SNWAR    ARP
Guys Here   584.2   3.86     8.8   13.0
Guys Gone   272.2   7.13     1.0  -32.4

Much of the Royals’ pitching problems are tied up in relievers who aren’t going to be allowed near the mound again this year. Ryan Bukvich was -4.5 ARP in just 10 1/3 innings; Rick DeHart went one better, with -4.5 ARP in FOUR innings, and Scott Mullen was -5.9 in 4 1/3 IP. That’s 15 runs below average in 18 2/3 innings.

The Royals are a 77-win team, but 77-win teams sometimes accidentally win 85, and the AL Central team that gets to 85 wins is going to be setting its playoff rotation and worrying about fantasy football on the last weekend of the season. If I had confidence that Allard Baird would add the infielder, corner outfielder, or relief pitchers–especially a left-hander–that would make a big difference, I’d be more confident that the Royals were a good candidate to hang on. Baird’s lack of success in the trade market and David Glass’ expressed reluctance to add payroll both work against that.

Behind the Royals, both the White Sox and the Twins have begun to straighten themselves out. The Sox have major defensive issues, enhanced by the acquisitions of Carl Everett and Roberto Alomar. They need to get the bottom of the lineup going, and to that end have seen both Paul Konerko (.368/.400/.711) and Joe Crede (.239/.351/.457) get hot in July.

The Sox might have the worst manager of a contending team in Jerry Manuel. Manuel is simply incapable of handling a bullpen, having chased Keith Foulke–who saved last week’s All-Star Game–out of town last season. He’s now stuck with Billy Koch, whose ineffectiveness hasn’t been cured by Manuel’s incessant manipulation of his role. The Sox need Koch throwing well, not because he’s a capital-C closer, but because he’s capable of throwing 20 high-leverage, high-effectiveness innings in a month, and Tom Gordon isn’t.

Just based on available talent, the Twins should probably be ahead of both these teams. Unfortunately, they’ve been unable or unwilling to get their best players into positions where they can help. Dustan Mohr gets an awful lot of playing time ahead of Lew Ford and Michael Cuddyer, and the curious case of Johan Santana has been well-documented. Terry Ryan’s acquisition of Shannon Stewart shows a distinct lack of appreciation of where his team’s strengths (hitters) and weaknesses (middle infield, rotation) lie.

I’ve said in the past that the Twins’ success or failure this season falls on Ryan’s shoulders; in retrospect, that’s too harsh an assessment. If the Twins don’t win this year, a big part of that failure will be the disappointing performances of Cristian Guzman, Brad Radke and Joe Mays, and the players deserve a chunk of the blame. Ryan, however, has a chance to make up for that with deft moves that utilize the depth at his disposal. Bringing in players like Stewart and James Baldwin doesn’t do that, and makes the Twins’ road just a little bit harder.

I hesitate to bring this up, but I’m pretty sure that the Royals aren’t going to finish behind the Tigers this year, as I predicted they would. The larger question, however, is whether they’ll finish behind anyone. Despite their large lead, I’m inclined to believe that they won’t sustain their overachievement on offense, and lacking a pitching staff that can support such a slump, will end the season under .500.

That leaves the Twins and White Sox, flawed teams with management issues. Given my faith in their offense and the Loaiza Miracle, I’ll stick with my season-opening call: playoffs on the South Side.

AL West

The three best defensive teams in baseball play in this division: the Mariners, A’s and Angels are 1-2-3 in Defensive Efficiency, and 2-1-3 in the AL in run prevention. For all the credit the A’s big three, or Jamie Moyer and Joel Pineiro get, the success they have is influenced considerably by good team defense and good pitchers’ parks.

Their defense is the reason the Angels have to be taken seriously, but their lack of OBP at the top of the lineup is a major problem. They miss the 2001-02 version of David Eckstein, whose fall from .293/.363/.388 to .237/.314/.309 has been a major factor in the Angels’ decline to seventh in the league in EqA. The Angels have gotten a combined .309 OBP from the leadoff slot, and there aren’t many teams that can sustain an offense that way. In another division, they’d hang around on the basis of a great bullpen and defense, but in this one, they don’t have a prayer.

The Mariners and A’s are similar in many ways, getting good pitching from spots 1-12 and excellent defense. The Mariners have the better lineup, with four hitters (Ichiro Suzuki, Edgar Martinez, Bret Boone, and Mike Cameron) better than the A’s best in Erubiel Durazo. Both teams are carrying far too much replacement-level performance for contenders though:

Mariners            PA   RARP      A's                PA   RARP

Randy Winn         385    4.4      Scott Hatteberg   380    2.2
Dan Wilson         193    0.1      Terrence Long     329    1.2
Mark McLemore      220   -0.6      Chris Singleton   204    1.2
Willie Bloomquist  116   -2.1      Jermaine Dye*     166  -13.3
Jeff Cirillo       272   -4.7

*currently on DL

The track records of Billy Beane and Pat Gillick can’t be minimized in projecting a winner here. Gillick has the nickname of “Stand Pat” because he rarely makes a trade, while Beane’s roster manipulations have been noted and dissected from here to here. It’s a near-certainty that the A’s will address their offensive problems by adding a bat to play an outfield corner or second base, and they may add more than one player. It’s less certain that the Mariners will address their offensive holes at third base and on the bench. Both teams have more than enough farm talent to fill their holes, with the M’s probably rating an edge due to their greater ability to take on salary.

The A’s have built a reputation as a tremendous second-half team, and Beane’s approach is a big part of that. He’ll have to work to repeat the successes of 2000-02, but I’m inclined to believe that he will. The A’s holes are both easier to fix, and more likely to be fixed, than those of the Mariners. I’m once again sticking to my pre-season call: A’s in the West.

The AL wild-card slot will come down to the second-place teams in the East and West divisions. While I’m inclined to think the Mariners are a little bit better than the Yankees, it’s the Bronx Bombers who will be playing past September, thanks in no small part to the pleasures of the unbalanced schedule. The Yankees have a rough August, but close their season playing 20 straight games against the Tigers, Devil Rays, Orioles and White Sox. That’s when the Mariners will be smack in the middle of the internecine lovefest that is September in the West.

The M’s best hope is to go nuts during a two-week stretch (August 26 through September 7) in which they play only the Devil Rays and Orioles. It could happen: the Angels can trace their flag, a lot of shiny jewelry and millions of dollars to an 11-1 run through the exact same spot in the schedule one year ago.

Back tomorrow with the NL version.