MLB postseason preview: The amazing race to October

By Hank Hansen

One of the greatest things about baseball is the way the intricacies of the sport breed a high degree of unpredictability from season to season. Big market teams like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers can unload wheelbarrows of gold bricks in order to sign the game’s top stars, and yet small market cinderellas like the Oakland A’s or the perennially competitive Tampa Bay Rays always threaten to sneak in and upset the balance. A major league season of 162 games is, as the old saying goes, a marathon rather than a sprint, a truth which often accounts for upstart contenders flaming out before the postseason arrives. The 2012 regular season, however, is only about two weeks from coming to a close, and a handful of unexpected playoff hopefuls are still wreaking havoc on the standings. Although this is highly subject to change, let’s take a look at the playoff outlooks for each of baseball’s six divisions, plus the newly expanded Wild Cards. AL WEST Regardless of how the 2012 season finishes, the A’s will end up with their best record since the 2006 season. What makes this drastic improvement so striking is the fact that no one saw it coming, particularly after the team’s front office traded away three All-Star pitchers (Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Andrew Bailey). Although these trades were expected to deepen the team’s Minor League system and provide hope for the future, nobody predicted that new acquisitions like Josh Reddick, Ryan Cook, and Jarrod Parker would have such an immediate impact. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have remained very much a part of the playoff picture but at this point can be considered to have underachieved, as they sit three games behind the second-place A’s despite offseason signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. Through all the tumult, the Texas Rangers have maintained a steadfast hold on first place and look likely to reach the postseason with hopes of defending their back-to-back American League Championships. AL CENTRAL Although the Cleveland Indians made a valiant effort to complicate the race for the playoffs in the Central, they quickly regressed back to mediocrity in the month of August, leaving a two team race between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox. The Southsiders have looked like the better team for most of 2012 and currently sit two games ahead of Detroit, but with a roster that boasts MVP hopeful Miguel Cabrera, defending MVP Justin Verlander and newly acquired slugger Prince Fielder, the Tigers are far from finished. Meanwhile, the hometown Twins have struggled to meet even the most pedestrian of expectations, and face an uphill battle in rebuilding an organization that made the postseason six times between 2002 and 2010. AL EAST Despite having an inflated payroll that allows them to essentially sign players at will, the New York Yankees have struggled to distance themselves from division rivals. Their most notable challengers are the Baltimore Orioles, who, despite having a largely unproven pitching staff and a negative season run differential, currently sit just a game behind the first place Yanks. No matter how inexplicable it may seem, the O’s have proven by this point that they are for real, and will continue to contribute to a hotly contested race in the East in which the Tampa Bay Rays will also feature heavily. Although they are several games out of first place, the Rays have more playoff experience than the Orioles and a rotation anchored by the electric David Price, a top contender for the AL Cy Young Award. AL WILD CARD 2012 marks the first year that each league will send two Wild Card teams into a one-game playoff to decide the final playoff spot. With Oakland currently holding a thin lead over the Orioles and the Tigers, Angels, and Rays not far behind, it’s safe to say that although only one of those five teams will make it to a postseason series, all five likely will be in the hunt as late as October 1st. NL WEST Despite closer Brian Wilson’s season-ending injury and starter Tim Lincecum’s perplexing underperformance, the Giants have established themselves as the class of the NL West, particularly after the midseason acquisitions of Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro. Desperate not to be left in the dust, the Los Angeles Dodgers completed a historic trade with the Boston Red Sox in which they took on more than $250 million in player salaries. Despite a newly star-studded lineup, however, the Dodgers are all but out of the race to win the West, and currently sit two games out of their League’s Wild Card pursuit. NL CENTRAL The Cincinnati Reds, led by the understated slugging of Joey Votto and the breathtaking flamethrowing of Aroldis Chapman, have opened up a comfortable lead in the Central and appear to be a lock for the postseason. The Cardinals, Brewers, and Pirates are all over .500 and could still make waves in the Wild Card race, but none will factor in the deciding of the division. One enticing subplot, though, will be the Pirates and their pursuit of a winning season for the first time since 1992. NL EAST After trading for the aforementioned Gio Gonzalez and calling up phenom outfielder Bryce Harper, and despite the hoopla surrounding pitcher Stephen Strasburg’s preemptively shortened season, the Washington Nationals have ascended to the cream of the National League East crop. In 2009, the Nationals finished with a miserable 103 losses, but after gradually improving over the next two seasons, they have skyrocketed to the top of the Majors this year and look to be a legitimate World Series contender, even without Strasburg. Not to be forgotten are the Atlanta Braves, who sit five games behind first place but hold a comfortable lead in the Wild Card race and currently boast the game’s hottest pitcher, Kris Medlen. NL WILD CARD Even more convoluted than the American League race, the NL Wild Card hunt at this time features eight teams that have at least a sliver of hope to clinch one of the two slots. The Braves look destined for one of the two spots, but after last year’s late-season collapse and with the defending champion Cardinals lurking not far behind, nothing is decided yet. September is always a riveting month for baseball, but with the newly expanded playoff format, this year is already guaranteed to be historic. Stay tuned. refresh –>