Wacky Wild Card: AL

Heading into Tuesday night’s action, the wild card races were about as close as you could possibly expect. In the American League, three teams were tied for the top spot, with another team just 2.5 games back. In the National League, the top three teams were within half a game, with two other teams within 2.5 games of the lead.

With about five weeks left in the season, it’s time to take a look at these crazy races and see which teams have the upper hand. I’ll look at the AL today, and the NL next week.

The three teams tied for the lead in the AL, as you probably know, are the Oakland Athletics, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees. The Minnesota Twins are another 2.5 games behind.

An interesting thing to note about the fact that at least one of these four teams will make the playoffs is that at some point this year, it looked like each of these teams’ chances of making the playoffs were slim, if not dead.

The A’s were buried early in the season, when they started 17-32 (a .347 winning percentage). Since then, they’ve gone 51-23 (a .689 winning percentage). And that’s despite the fact that they’d lost six of their last seven games after the weekend. Before then, they had been 50-17 during a span of more than 40 percent of the season.

The Indians didn’t start as slowly as the A’s, but they still hadn’t been above .500 on any day by the end of May. A nine-game winning streak in June took them from 29-30 to 37-30, and they were 46-36 a week before the All-Star break.

Nine losses in the next 11 games dropped the Tribe to 48-47, four games out of the wild card lead. Even worse, there were five teams ahead of them, and two teams within a game of them. But the Indians went 21-9 after that, the best record of any AL team in its last 30 games.

The Yankees have been the most curious team in the group, first going 11-19 and causing some fans to give up on them in early May. Of course, they then won 16 of their next 18 games to get to 27-21, before losing 11-of-14 to get back below .500 at 30-32.

A six-game winning streak put them back above .500, and though they fell to the .500 mark twice after that, they haven’t had a losing record since then.

The Twins were one of the wild card favorites throughout the first half of the season, and they went into the All-Star break at 48-38. After the break, however, they went 9-18 to fall to 57-56, 7.5 games out of the wild card. But since then, the Twins have gone 9-2 to climb back into the race.

So, now that we know how each team got where it is right now (or was as of Tuesday), it’s time to take a closer look at each club. All stats are through Monday’s games.

Hitting

At first glance, the Yankees seem to be far and away the best hitting team of the four, since they’ve scored 665 runs, while none of the other three teams have even scored 600—and the Yankees don’t play in a park that’s particularly favorable to hitters.

However, the Yankees have actually done much better offensively in Yankee Stadium than away from it this year. Overall, they’ve scored 665 runs, while the Indians have scored 591, the A’s 585 and the Twins only 550. But on the road, the Yankees have scored 291 runs, fewer than Cleveland’s 310 and not all that far ahead of Minnesota’s 272 and Oakland’s 261.

Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Yankee Stadium has turned into a hitter’s park because the Yankees have scored 374 runs there and 291 on the road, but it probably does mean you can’t also give their offense credit for playing in a pitcher’s park.

The other problem with the Yankees offense is that it’s somewhat disjointed. Overall, it’s a very good offense, but the bulk of the work is being done by a fraction of the players. Breaking it down by position, the Yankees are getting an OPS of .880 or better from four different positions, but are also getting an OPS of .705 or worse from four positions.

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Everybody knows that third base and right field have been great for the Yankees, as Alex Rodriguez (1.021 OPS) and Gary Sheffield (.910 OPS) have been excellent. The problem spots have been second base (.701 OPS), left field (.695), catcher (.689) and center field (.652).

You might think that second base is that low because Tony Womack was really bad when he played there. He was (.652 OPS in 85 at-bats), but Robinson Cano only has a .714 OPS, including an anemic .301 on-base percentage.

At catcher, the problem is partially that Jorge Posada (.755 OPS) isn’t having a typical year, and mostly that Joe Torre insists on using John Flaherty and his .173/.212/.245 line every time Randy Johnson pitches.

Left field and center field do share the Womack problem, as he’s posted a .496 OPS in 150 at-bats in left and a .586 OPS in 58 at-bats in center. However, Hideki Matsui (.850 OPS) and Bernie Williams (.713 OPS) have contributed, as Williams has simply struggled and Matsui produced significantly better in his brief time at DH than he has in the field.

At any rate, the Yankees have generally been carrying four holes (some days it’s really only three and some days it’s five) in the lineup, and the big question is whether they’ll have an extra one the rest of the year. Jason Giambi had a .708 OPS on June 10 before warming up the rest of the month, and then he put up a ridiculous 1.498 OPS in July. Before going 2-for-3 Monday night, however, he had gone 0-for-19 in the previous seven games. His current OPS is .961, but since he’s been all over the place this year, there’s no way of knowing what kind of production to expect from him the rest of the way.

Well, that’s more than I wanted to say about the Yankee offense, but they do have the most interesting offense of the four teams. The Twins have the least interesting, as it’s every bit as bad as the 550 runs scored would indicate.

Minnesota has not gotten an .800-plus OPS from any position this season. Each of the other four teams have gotten that high an OPS from at least two positions. The biggest culprits in Minnesota’s offensive futility are the middle infielders.

The second basemen (Nick Punto, Luis Rivas, Luis Rodriguez, Bret Boone, Brent Abernathy, Michael Cuddyer and Juan Castro) have combined for a .655 OPS. The shortstops (Castro, Jason Bartlett, Punto, Rodriguez and Rivas) have been even worse, posting a .619 OPS. Of those eight players, the only one with an OPS above .750 is Abernathy (.810) and he only got 41 at-bats.

The other problems for the Twins have been that Shannon Stewart and Lew Ford have been significantly worse than they were last year. Strangely, they both had an OPS of .827 last year and they both have an OPS of .733 this year. Also, Justin Morneau (.755 OPS) has been significantly worse than most people expected him to be.

While the Twins have very few players with an OPS above .750, the Indians have seven regulars with a .750 OPS or better. Travis Hafner (.986 OPS) was expected to hit like he has, but Jhonny Peralta (.927 OPS) has been a pleasant surprise and Grady Sizemore (.832 OPS) is another young player having a very solid season.

And while Victor Martinez struggled through the first half of the season and had a .609 OPS on June 12, he’s since done what people thought he’d do after last year. Since June 12, Martinez has hit .344 with 13 doubles, 10 homers and 29 walks to get his OPS up to .799.

The soft spot in the Cleveland lineup is Aaron Boone, whose OPS is only .668, although it has climbed significantly since he started the season with consecutive sub-.500 OPS months. Boone and Jose Hernandez are the reasons the Indians have the worst OPS at a single position (.606 at third base) of any of these four teams.

Finally, the A’s don’t have a flashy offense, but they seem to have accumulated a lot of players who can hit a little bit. Dan Johnson (.897 OPS), Jay Payton (.842 OPS) and Bobby Crosby (.803 OPS) only had 26 combined at-bats for Oakland by the end of May. And Eric Chavez (.808 OPS) and Nick Swisher (.796 OPS) both had sub-.600 OPS at the end of May.

Those five players and their addition/rejuvenation are why Oakland’s 585 total runs (4.8 runs per game) are less important than the 384 runs they’ve scored since the beginning of June (5.3 runs per game).

The biggest offensive deficiency for the A’s has been Jason Kendall (.654 OPS), who was brought in to improve the offense from the catcher spot but has yet to hit a home run this season. Scott Hatteberg and his .698 OPS at first base also hasn’t helped matters.

Pitching

As far ahead as the Yankees appear to be on the hitting side, that’s how far they really are behind on the pitching side. Minnesota, Oakland and Cleveland are all among the top four in fewest runs allowed in the AL, ranging from 506-516 (before Tuesday). The Yankees, meanwhile, are 10th in the AL with 601 runs allowed.

The problems are many for the Yankees pitching staff. First is that they’ve had 14 different starting pitchers, and of the four with ERAs below 4.00, two are no longer in the rotation and a third has only made five starts.

Johnson was brought in to be the ace, but he has a 4.34 ERA and has already allowed 29 homers. Carl Pavano was brought in to be a solid No. 2 or No. 3, but he was ineffective and then injured. Mike Mussina (3.88 ERA) has pitched well, but unless Shawn Chacon continues to post a sub-2.00 ERA or Aaron Small moves back into the rotation and continues to thrive, the Yankees do not seem to have much of a rotation at all.

The bullpen has been just as problematic, as only Mariano Rivera (1.39 ERA) and Tom Gordon (2.71 ERA) have really been good. Tanyon Sturtze has been decent, and every other reliever has given up runs in bunches.

While the Yankees have gotten a 4.65 ERA from their starters and 4.11 ERA from their relievers, the other three teams have all gotten sub-4.25 ERAs from their rotation and sub-3.50 ERAs from their pens.

Minnesota has used the excellent trio of Johan Santana (3.37 ERA), Carlos Silva (3.35 ERA) and Brad Radke (3.78 ERA), along with the solid work from Kyle Lohse, to compile a 3.87 ERA from their rotation.

Oakland’s top five has been even better, as none of them have an ERA above 4.15. Rich Harden (2.63 ERA) has been unhittable at times, Barry Zito (3.60 ERA) seems to have regained his form and Joe Blanton (3.75 ERA) and Danny Haren (4.00 ERA) have both adjusted well to being full-time big-league starters, while Kirk Saarloos (4.15 ERA) has been a more than acceptable fifth starter.

In fact, the only reason the A’s rotation’s ERA is as high as 3.79 is that Ryan Glynn and Seth Etherton combined to give up 24 runs in 32.2 innings in their six starts.

Cleveland doesn’t quite have the strength in the rotation of Oakland and Minnesota, as only Kevin Millwood (3.23 ERA) and Cliff Lee (3.91 ERA) have sub-4.00 ERAs. However, nobody in the rotation has an ERA above 4.80, and the Indians have a truly scary bullpen.

Cleveland has used seven different pitchers out of the bullpen at least 10 times this year, and all seven have ERAs below 3.15. Closer Bob Wickman (3.02 ERA), who is having a very fine season, is fifth among those seven pitchers in ERA. Arthur Rhodes has rebounded from a dismal 2004 season by posting a 1.98 ERA in 41 innings, with 41 strikeouts against only 11 walks.

Minnesota can also shorten a game quite effectively, as the quartet of Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain and J.C. Romero has combined for a 2.61 ERA, with all four sitting between 2.47 and 2.93.

In Oakland, it’s mostly a two-man show. Huston Street has excelled in the closer role as a rookie, posting a 1.31 ERA with 61 strikeouts and 19 walks in 62 innings. Meanwhile, Justin Duchscherer has a 1.88 ERA with 61 strikeouts and 16 walks in 67 innings.

Injuries

Minnesota is in the worst shape here, as Torii Hunter, whose .788 OPS was third on the team, is likely already done for the season. Stewart left Tuesday’s game with an injury as well, meaning the Twins will have to scramble for bodies to put in the infield and may struggle even more to score runs than they already have.

Oakland is probably in the best shape injury-wise, as only Octavio Dotel and Erubiel Durazo are currently hurt, and both have been out for almost the entirety of the team’s turnaround anyway.

The Yankees won’t get Pavano back this season, but they could have Kevin Brown and Chien-Ming Wang back before the end of the year. The question is how effective they will be coming off injuries and where they fit into the pitching staff. Ultimately, they probably won’t be a huge factor in whether or not the Yankees win the wild card.

In Cleveland, Rhodes should be ready to return in about a week, and if Matt Miller can come back in early September, that fantastic bullpen will be back to full strength. Among position players, the only injury is to Juan Gonzalez, whose contribution to the team consists of one at-bat all year.

Schedule

At this point of the season, who and where these four teams play the rest of their games could be almost as important as how they’ve been playing. So, let’s take a look at each team’s breakdown of home and road games, and of games against good (playoff contenders), bad (cellar dwellers) and mediocre (everybody else) teams.

Home/road:

 CLE   NYY   OAK   MIN
18/18 18/20 16/22 18/19

Games left against good teams (CWS, BOS, LAA, CLE, NYY, OAK, MIN):

 CLE   NYY   OAK   MIN
  15    9     20    18

Games left against bad teams (KC, TB, SEA):

 CLE   NYY   OAK   MIN
  7     13    6     7

Games left against mediocre teams (TOR, DET, TEX, BAL):

 CLE   NYY   OAK   MIN
  9     16    12    12

Looking those numbers over, you can see that Oakland has the toughest schedule remaining, with the most road games, the most games against good teams and the fewest games against bad teams. Minnesota has nearly as many games left against good teams and only one extra game against a bad team.

The Yankees appear to have the easiest schedule, with only nine games left against good teams and a whopping 16 remaining against bad teams.

Conclusions

The first conclusion to draw is that things don’t look good for the Twins. They’re on a nice run right now, but they have a tough schedule left, no offense and some serious injury problems. They also have to climb past three other teams, which is difficult to do even when it’s only 2.5 games.

The A’s look like a better bet than the Twins because the offense that they rode from 17-32 to 67-49 is intact and the pitching staff is still going strong, but they’ve really been struggling the last week and their closing schedule is brutal.

The Yankees will get a chance to beat up on weak teams coming in, but the questions about their offense (dangerous, but with serious holes) and pitching staff (simply one of the worst in the league) means they can’t be counted on. Plus, six of their games left against bad teams are against a team (Tampa Bay) that they’re 4-9 against this year.

Cleveland looks to be in the best shape at the moment. The Indians don’t have a terribly hard schedule to finish the season, and they seem to have the best balance between good pitching and good hitting.

Ranking these four teams chances of winning the wild card, I would have to go with the Indians, followed by the Yankees, A’s and then the Twins. Of course, it’s also still possible that the A’s and/or Yankees catch fire and the Red Sox and/or Angels find themselves in the wild card mix.

No matter what happens, it’s sure to be an exciting five weeks.


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