After today’s victory over the Orioles, the Tigers now trail said O’s by only half a game* for the second AL Wild Card spot – but continue to trail the Chicago White Sox by 3.5. Obviously the wild card chase will be tight – there are a lot of teams in the running besides Baltimore – and any one of those could go on a mammoth run that would put the thing out of reach (without actually catching the Yankees). Or maybe they can’t…
This certainly isn’t what we expected going into the season. There were 6 powerhouse teams, only one of which sat in the AL Central (that would be our Detroit Tigers). 2 of the remaining 5 would win the East and West and the remaining 3 would fight it out for the two wild card spots – with an assumption of 90+ wins at the least to make it. Things don’t look that way now and there are two big reasons why:
1. The Chicago White Sox look pretty darn good. Though not the match for Texas and New York, the AL’s third division leader does have the third best record in the AL. It isn’t difficult to see why the 2012 White Sox look so much improved… Chris Sale is better than Mark Buehrle, these Sox have the real Adam Dunn and – most dangerously – they might just have the real Kevin Youkilis too.
2. The American League East isn’t just baseball’s best division – it’s a bloodbath. I mentioned in previous pieces the AL East’s amazing W-L record and run differential when playing teams from any other division – but it has been that way for a while. What is different this year is that the two laggards from the East, Toronto and Baltimore, are looking much improved. Tampa Bay and Boston are still fielding good teams – but they really have to be firing on all cylinders to pull ahead and they haven’t been. All four teams look to be buyers at the trade deadline and that is helping to drive prices up all around. The worst team – by run differential – in the East has been the luckiest (Toronto). The second best team – by run differential – in the East has been the unluckiest (Boston). That’s another factor keeping things tight.
Going into today’s game Youkilis had a .921 OPS since the trade. Chris Sale is currently one of Justin Verlander‘s closest competitors for the 2012 AL Cy Young. What I’m tring to say is: the Chicago White Sox might prove difficult to catch – even if the Tigers play significantly better in the second half than the first. But even if that does turn out to be the case – we may not be out of it. We’re all waiting to breath sighs of relief on Raburn, Boesch and Young and it could happen. Plus, the Tigers are going to be playing a lot of games at home and a lot of games against divisional opponents. Meanwhile the Orioles and Blue Jays are going to be scrabbling tooth and claw and helping to keep the Red Sox and Rays in check.
Quite possibly the biggest reason that we have a 5-team playoff is reduce the likelihood that either the Yanks or the Sawx get left out. But… When I imagine the backroom negotiations that lead, over some extended period of time, to the creation of the second wild card spot I imagine the Peter Angelos of the Orioles and whoever represents Rogers Communications as leading proponents. They have had some decent teams in the wild card era but long playoff droughts due to the tough competition that they face in the AL East. The idea would be that letting one more team in the playoffs would mean that they only needed to finish ahead of the Red Sox OR the Rays and not the Red Sox AND the Rays. So… if they ever got their act together enough to make a real push, they should have a better shot. That might be all wrong: if they’re both good then the AL East as a whole could be too good to get one wild card spot, much less both. What they needed and continue to need is for the Red Sox and/or Rays to fall apart like the 2011 Twins. I wish them luck, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.
* I am aware that they are, in fact, in a three-way tie for second in the wild card chase.