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Wild-card races broken down as season enters final month: Griffin

Prince Fielder

DIANE WEISS/MCT Prince Fielder’s bat has helped keep the Tigers in the post-season picture.

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.

Following is an assessment of MLB wild-card contenders and the races for such in both leagues:

ATHLETICS: This is clearly the surprise contender in the AL heading into the final month. They traded away young veteran pitching for younger pitching in the winter and lead the wild-card race.

Pros: The A’s built this season on their young starters and a solid bullpen. They surprised teams by outbidding for Cuban free agent Yoenis Cespedes and made a shrewd acquisition in Josh Reddick.

Cons: With starting pitching this young, September will be the toughest month as they all reach new levels of innings pitched and days on a roster. The loss of Bartolo Colon to suspension won’t help.

Prediction: They have had a great season already for manager Bob Melvin, but the next month will be too much for these young A’s to sustain a wild-card berth.

ORIOLES: Take back that note re A’s. This is clearly the surprise contender in the AL heading into the final month. They added new GM Dan Duquette and an assortment of disposable veterans.

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.

Pros: The offence was bolstered by the return of Evan Longoria earlier in the month. The rotation, led by David Price, James Shields and an improving Matt Moore, will stand the test of time.

Cons: They say that in the post-season, good pitching can handle good hitting. The problem is the Rays have to get there first. The Rays entered Friday with a .237 team average and .695 OPS.

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.

TIGERS: The addition of Prince Fielder and the presence of Justin Verlander and Jose Valverde made these guys prohibitive division favourites. The reality is no more, but don’t count them out.

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?

Cons: The Tigers are getting virtually no production from anyone other than Austin Jackson, Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.

Prediction: If the two Vs on the pitching staff had in fact repeated, they would be romping, but even so they have enough weapons and staying power to either win the division or earn a wild card.

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.

Pros: They have the slam dunk rookie of the year and possible MVP winner in Mike Trout. They obtained Zack Greinke at the deadline and still have a clutch Albert Pujols. What could go wrong?

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.

BRAVES: These guys are always in the playoff mix going back to the early ’90s with Bobby Cox and are always undervalued in any post-season previews. This is no different.

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.

Prediction: The Braves needed a little more or a little less wild-card track last year as the Cards surged on by. With the Phillies, Mets and Marlins nonfactors there are games out there to be won.

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.

Cons: They lost Pujols to free agency, Chris Carpenter to injury and La Russa to retirement. A lot of last year’s October warriors are losing that adrenalin buzz to do it a second time.

Prediction: This is a different season than it was last year. Fans may be expecting the Cards’ players to just turn it on when they need it, but it’s not that easy.

PIRATES: For a team that has not finished above .500 since 1992, this season is already a success. To believe they can win a wild-card spot they must look at the ’08 Rays for inspiration.

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.

Cons: It’s just hard to picture a team with this long a history, 19 straight seasons below.500, advancing to the post-season in their first season back as contenders. Wait until next year.

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.

DODGERS: These guys made the most impactful deal in MLB history in terms of total inherited payroll, but they have to follow through and win some games with a lengthy streak to make it work.

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.

Cons: The Dodgers have always made moves to go for the playoffs in the final month, by adding veteran parts from elsewhere, but never on this grand a scale. When things look too good, they’re not.

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. – Opinion