MLB Handicapping: Vulnerabilities of the Contenders
by Trevor Whenham - 8/26/2009
We're about to head into the home stretch of the baseball season. This is when things really get exciting - for some teams, anyway. Many teams are just waiting for the season to come to a merciful end, but by my count there are 15 teams - eight in the AL and seven in the NL - that can legitimately hold out hopes of making the playoffs. Some obviously have more hopes than the others - The Yankees and Angels are sure to make it, while the Marlins and Braves probably won't. Here's a look at the 15 teams still holding hopes, and the biggest vulnerability they have down the stretch in their attempts to reach the postseason:
New York Yankees - This team is as good as they are because they can hit like crazy. That will work as long as they don't go into a collective slump, because they just don't have the starting pitching - depth or quality - to carry this team without run support.
Boston - They have pitching depth issues as well. They have lots of talent on the roster, but keeping it healthy and pitching has been a problem. They have obviously slumped lately, and that comes from a combination of hitters not carrying their weight, and the bottom of their rotation being a revolving door that has lacked the consistent play a team needs.
Tampa Bay - The Rays are red hot at the right time, and making a hard charge to catch the Red Sox and Rangers. One challenge they face is the health status of Carl Crawford. Crawford has been their most reliable hitter this year, but he is dealing with a sore back that has him out of the lineup now and could loom down the stretch.
Detroit - The Tigers are seizing control of the AL Central, and they have done it largely on the back of Miguel Cabrera. He has been spectacular this year, and leads the team in nearly all offensive categories. Teams that do well in the playoffs tend to be well balanced and deep. The Tigers heavy reliance on Cabrera makes them vulnerable.
Chicago - The White Sox are still within striking distance of the Tigers, but they are only at .500 and need to be much better than they have been to make the playoffs. They have struggled all season to find any consistency or to sustain a winning streak for a significant time. The addition of Jake Peavy might help, but it's probably too late.
Minnesota - Nick Blackburn is their starter with the best ERA, but at 4.27 he is hardly dominant. Like the White Sox they are at .500 are far behind the Tigers. It seems hard to believe that they have the pitching they would need to get hot and close the gap.
Los Angeles Angels - I'm not convinced that there is a better team in baseball than this one. Their problem is that they just can't find their consistency. They were lousy at the start of the season, then they got red hot, and now they have cooled down dramatically of late. This team is hard to trust - especially in a short playoff series.
Texas - It has been impressive watching the Rangers fight and hang on, but I wish I found it easier to believe that they will earn the Wild Card. The single biggest thing going against them is their lack of experience in situations like this. The addition of Pudge Rodriguez will help, but only to an extent - he's not an every-day player. This charge is probably a year early for this team, and a hard fight this year will give them that experience for next year.
Philadelphia - The Phillies are in very good form, and it is not hard to imagine them winning a second straight World Series. They can hit and they can pitch, so they are as well rounded as any team. I am not at all comfortable with relying on Pedro Martinez at the back end of the rotation, but with Jamie Moyer in the bullpen even that isn't a big concern. This team has the least vulnerabilities of any team in the league. They are even playing much better at home of late - something they were strangely bad at earlier in the season.
Atlanta and Florida - I'll put these two together because their chances are equally dim. Their only hope is to get red hot and catch the Rockies and the Giants in the Wild Card chase. I don't see it happening. Neither roster is quite talented enough, and neither team was aggressive at the trade deadlines. They are still alive, but t would take a miracle for them to stay that way for long.
St. Louis - More than perhaps any other team in the league, the Cardinals take care of business against weak teams. That's very good news down the stretch - 24 of their last 36 games come against teams with losing records. I smell home field advantage. That opens up the problem this team has, though - they aren't good against good teams. Against teams at .500 or better they are just 23-22.
Los Angeles Dodgers - Take your pick at this point. The hitters aren't hitting. The starting pitchers aren't going deep enough, and can't stay healthy. The bullpen is exhausted and straining under their workload. This is a classic case of a team that forgot that the World Series isn't won in July. They need to find a way to regroup and mount another charge down the stretch before it is too late and the promising start is lost.
Colorado - On paper this team has weaknesses all over the field, but they show none of that on the field. They were 20-32 on June 3, and their .385 winning percentage was better than only Washington. Since then they have gone a gaudy 52-22, and are the best team in baseball for the last two months. It totally defies explanation.
San Francisco - They sure can pitch, but that's not enough to overcome a pretty pathetic lineup at the plate. Pablo Sandoval, in his first full year as a starter, leads the team in most offensive categories, but his numbers are far from jaw dropping. This team just can't score enough runs to win down the stretch - especially when the back half of their rotation is on the mound.
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