For the first time, in 2012, there will be an unprecedented 10 teams invited to major league baseball’s post-season dance floor. With that one additional opportunity in each league to get a foot in the World Series door, September promises to be a crazy mishmash of permutations, combinations and magic numbers, with three division winners and two wild cards up for grabs in each league.
There are currently five AL teams within 4½ games of a second wild card. Meanwhile, in the NL, there are four teams within 1½ games of wild card No. 2. Of those nine teams, the only one with an equal or better chance at the division title than they have at a wild card is the Tigers, who trail the White Sox by three in the AL Central and the O’s by the same number for the second wild card.
Pros: The O’s have manager Buck Showalter, who in his second full year at every stop in his career has turned a franchise around. He did it with the Yankees, D-backs and Rangers, Showalter has averaged a 22-game improvement in his second full season. That would be 91 Ws for this year’s O’s.
Cons: People have already predicted failure and a rapid descent through the standings for the fast-starting O’s. Their starting pitching is a shaky prop for another month, but the bullpen is solid.
Prediction: The Al East is no longer baseball’s best division. That honour belongs to the AL West. That being said, the O’s have a chance to stay in contention, but the odds of post-season are slim. RAYS: Never count these guys out, no matter how non-existent their offence seems and how little fan support they get in their home ballpark. This is a team that plays, first, for each other.
Prediction: In Joe Maddon, the Rays have the best manager in the AL, especially in terms of motivating a less talented roster. These Rays like each other and like to surprise people. Will be one of the wild cards.
Pros: The Tigers are right there in the division and in the wild-card race, even with Verlander and Valverde not repeating their lights-out exploits of a year ago. Who will be this year’s Doug Fister?
ANGELS: The Angels did everything in their power this off-season to eclipse the Rangers in the division. Now, with best laid plans crumbling they have to worry about scrambling for a wild card.
Cons: The strength of this team was supposed to be pitching. Since the all-star game the bullpen has been sad, while the starters have struggled. They’ve already given away too many games to win it.
Prediction: Even with ace Jered Weaver and the addition of Trout, C.J. Wilson and Pujols this team has been a major disappointment for manager Mike Scioscia.
Pros: One can’t get away from the Braves’ hard-throwing bullpen as an advantage in September. Last year, manager Fredi Gonzalez learned his lesson as he burned out some arms. That mistake won’t be repeated.
Cons: They have a hurting superstar in catcher Brian McCann and an aging leader in third baseman Chipper Jones. Once they get to the post-season, they will have enough starting pitching.
CARDS: The defending World Series champions were in worse position a year ago at this time, so you can never count them out — even with Mike Matheny instead of Tony La Russa as manager.
Pros: There is a certain swagger that this team has to them, given last year’s history of coming back from an even bigger deficit to take it all. But that’s a tough magic to repeat.
Pros: Manager Clint Hurdle has to be in the mix for manager of the year. The Bucs surprised everyone when GM Neal Huntington made moves to add players at the deadline. They’re going for it.
Prediction: The Cubs and Brewers won’t roll over in the final month. This team faded in the second half a year ago. This Pirates team is better and deeper but still not good enough.
Pros: The move by management was an adrenalin boost inside the clubhouse, but they haven’t yet meshed the new pieces with the old. This Dodgers team has the ability for a long win streak.
Prediction: It’s hard to believe that Adrian Gonzalez in a lineup with Matt Kemp, Shane Victorino, Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier isn’t good enough to take the division or a wild card.
WILD CARD: It says here the Rays will host the Tigers and the Braves will host the Dodgers.