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As we did with the NL second-half preview, we’ll start in the Central
division.

I’ll reiterate what I said in
the most recent AL Central Notebook:
the Indians are not going to catch the White Sox, but they are going to narrow
the gap. Each team played to an extreme in the first half, the Sox
overperforming and the Indians playing below expectations. The Tribe is
getting healthier, which will help on both offense and defense, while the
Sox are going to see some slippage in run prevention as James Baldwin
and Cal Eldred continue their return to earth.

That said, expecting anyone to make up 10 games on a good team is folly. The
White Sox will hold the Indians off this season, leaving the Tribe to fight
the A’s and Yankees for the wild card.

Yes, the A’s and Yankees. In the West, I think the Mariners are going to
prevail. They have the deepest rotation in the major leagues: is there any
other team that would have both John Halama and Brett Tomko
pitching middle relief? That depth will both bolster their bullpen and
provide them some chips with which to add the extra hitter, preferably a
third baseman, that they need.

What might surprise you is that the Mariners have actually hit better than
the A’s so far this year. Through Sunday, they have a .278
Equivalent Average
to the Athletics’ .268. With a comparable bullpen and a much better rotation (more
than five wins’ better, according to
the Support-Neutral measures),
the Mariners are clearly the team to beat in the West.

The Angels and Rangers have done a good job of hanging around .500, and
while in other seasons, they could be considered contenders, neither is
likely to win the 92 to 94 games it will take to win the West this season.

Picking the winner of the AL East can only get me in trouble. Last year,
with the Yankees established as division leaders, both Chris Kahrl and I
came out and said that the Blue Jays would easily
outpace the Red Sox
for the wild card. That, uh, didn’t happen, as the Jays shot themselves in the
foot while the Sox played great baseball down the stretch, won the wild card
and even made the AL East interesting for a few days.

This season is much the same, although the Yankees are not the lock they
once were. Two weeks ago, I felt as I did at the beginning of the season,
that the Blue Jays had the most talent and the highest upside, and would win
the division. Since then, however, the Yankees have added David
Justice
and Denny Neagle, and while each trade had its problems,
there is no question that the two deals improve the team by a couple of
games in 2000. In a race like this, those "couple of games" could
be the difference.

The Jays and Sox have yet to make a move to improve (yes, I’m ignoring the
Ed Sprague pickup.), something I expect to change between now and
July 31. What they do to keep pace with the two wins the Yankees gained in
their deals will have a significant impact on this race. The Blue Jays have
an upgradable scar at second base, and the Red Sox have gotten lousy
production from left field and third base all season.

Based on current rosters, it’s hard for me to go against the Yankees, who
have the best rotation of the bunch and are the strongest team up the
middle. Nevertheless, I still don’t think we’ve seen the best of the Jays,
and I expect them to hold off the Yankees in a great race.

As for the Sox, their position as contenders hinges entirely on how many
innings they get from Pedro Martinez down the stretch. If he remains
healthy, they will be a factor and could win either the division or the wild
card. If he misses any more time, they’re DOA.

If I were any more wishy-washy, I’d be Charlie Brown.

As for the consolation prize, I’m leaning towards the A’s or Indians. None
of the AL East teams looks better than them, and while it may take just 87
or 88 wins to win the East, both of the other divisions will require at
least 90 and probably more.

Hmmm…the White Sox, Mariners, Blue Jays and A’s. Let’s see the financial
Chicken Littles explain this away.

Other things will happen, far, far away from pennant races:

With very little fanfare, the Devil Rays have begun to play the better
players. Sure, it has more to do with injury problems than anything else,
but Steve Cox and Bubba Trammell are showing up in the lineup
and playing well. Before his unfortunate injury, Bobby Smith has
returned from Durham to hit .311/.342/.500 and show he belonged in the
majors, certainly ahead of Miguel Cairo.

The next step is to lose Vinny Castilla (.224/.263/.322) in one of
America’s finer airports and replace him with Aubrey Huff, hitting
.306/.390/.538 at Durham.

The Tigers, Twins and Royals will again battle for last in the AL Central
and the high draft pick that comes with it. The Twins and Royals have bright
futures, while the Tigers have a new park and a corner outfielder/DH they
absolutely must trade in the next two weeks.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

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