Sunday, July 8, 2012

Baseball’s All-Star Break: A time to reflect in the American League

With the Mid-Summer Classic closing in, the major league season has a chance to catch its breath. Teams in need of help, get a chance to evaluate and start making calls. Others wait for reinforcements to come off the disabled list, while yet more decide to trade away some of their assets to bring in prospects and start planning for the future. But with an added wild-card spot in each league this post-season, more teams than ever, are in the hunt for the playoffs.

In the powerful American League East, it appears to be the Yankees division to win and everyone else is just positioning for a wild-card spot. After a slow start the Bronx Bombers have found their stride opening their largest lead of the season in the division. A 20-7 month of June propelled New York to baseball’s best record at the break, as the offense exploded lifting the Yanks to a run differential of plus 44, second in the big leagues in the month. New York leads the majors in slugging percent and this shouldn’t come as a surprise with the power throughout the pin-strippers line-up. Robinson Cano has banged out 20 home runs to go with 51 rbis. Nick Swisher continues to surprise driving in 50, while Mark Teixeira also has 15 dingers and 53 runs driven home. The offensive list goes on and on as the Yanks are starting to play, as good as they appear to be on paper. On the hill, the 9-3 records of C.C. Sabathia and Ivan Nova, heading into the series finale against Boston, have backed up the bats while Rafael Soriano has filled in admirably in place of Mariano Rivera. While the Bombers pitching is not over-powering as in the past the bottom line is they can outscore anyone and that makes them the favorite to not only win the A.L. East but maybe American League crown and also the 2012 World Series. Boston has fallen off but the biggest disappointment for the Red Sox has been the pitching. Josh Beckett has fought off injuries but the results of four wins and seven losses haven’t cut it in the standings or with the New England faithful. Jon Lester sits at just 5-5 before Sunday’s game with New York, while the only bright spot on the hill continues to be Felix Doubront sporting a record of 9-4. Both Beckett and Lester will need to be lights out in the second half or no post-season at Fenway in the fall. With the bat, “Big Papi” David Ortiz is proving there is plenty left in the tank! The slugging lefty has belted 22 homers with 56 runs batted in, before the Sox first half finale against the Yankees. He’s also hitting .313. Adrian Gonzalez is trying to back Ortiz up, driving home 45 runs but has only knocked six balls out of the yard. Dustin Pedroia’s injuries have not helped out a Red Sox club that has suffered 22 players lost to the disabled list. Entering final game before the all-star break, the Sox sat just two games out of a wild-card spot. They’ll have to play much better in all areas to secure one during the second half. The feel good story in American League is that of the Baltimore Orioles. Buck Showalter’s bunch finished the first half at 45 and 40, sitting in second place in the A.L. East. The O’s are a scrappy bunch and play scrappy baseball. Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters have all driven in over 40-plus runs. While the overall line-up doesn’t possess a bunch of power it does find ways to manufacture runs to go along with solid defense. Jason Hammel has posted an 8-5 first half record, followed by Wei-Yin Chen’s seven victories. The Baltimore staff simply isn’t good enough to carry the load. For the Orioles to capture a wild-card spot, the O’s will have to play flawless baseball in the second half.

In the Central the White Sox, Indians and Tigers all are in the mix. Chicago continues to just pound out runs with a differential of plus 63, which is the best in baseball. Adam Dunn has recovered from last year’s drop off to drive home 61 runs in the first half with 25 long balls. Like the Yankees, the Chicago line-up brings to the plate multiple threats throughout the line-up so there are no easy outs. Chris Sale has emerged as the ace of the staff, winning ten games but the rest of the rotation is suspect at best. Chicago will have to battle in order to hold on the division lead in the second half. Cleveland has probably over-achieved to this point of the season. While pitchers Derek Lowe and Ubaldo Jimenez has rallied to win eight games apiece, the Tribe’s top three hurlers all have earned run averages in the mid-fours and that will eventually catch up as the season progresses. Jason Kipnis is leading the Cleveland offense that sports only three hitters with double-digit home runs in the American League. When it’s all said and done, the Tribe will have to battle for one of the wild-card spots in the American League at best. Detroit rallied to get a couple of games above .500 at home before the break at 22-20. Before that, the Tigers had been a complete disappointment at Tigers Stadium. Prince Fielder has proven to be worth the money Detroit coughed up in free-agency. 15 home runs to go with 63 rbis are second on the squad only to Miguel Cabrera’s 18 long balls and 71 runs batted in. Other than those two, the rest of the line-up has been average at best and will have to pick it up if the Tigers are to win the division. Justin Verlander, the best pitcher in the American League has been the victim of poor run support. However he’s still posted a record of 9-5. Detroit’s other two big starters Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have been just a little better than average. The Tigers should finish well enough to lock in a wild-card berth but if their line-up can rise up along with both Porcello and Scherzer on the hill, the Tigers should win the division again.

The West appears to be on its way to a wild finish between the two-time American League Champion Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. There has been nothing surprising about what manager Ron Washington’s club has accomplished to this point. If it wasn’t for a late dip of 5-5 towards the end of the first half, the Rangers would easily have the best record in all of baseball at the break. Texas sports the best run differential in all of the majors at +78 and that can be contributed to a balance of hitting and pitching. Josh Hamilton has put together another MVP type of campaign in the first half. 27 homers and 75 rbis say it all. But Texas follows up “The Natural” with plenty of swingers! Adrian Beltre has driven home 54 runs. Nelson Cruz has 11 long balls with 53 rbis. There is a reason they’ve represented the A.L. in the World Series the last two years. Like the Yankees and White Sox, there are just no easy outs in the Rangers line-up. The pitching has the potential to be the best in all of baseball. Matt Harrison and newcomer Yu Darvish have posted double-digit wins, while the entire staff earned run average of 3.78 is the best in all of baseball. Stingy pitching and lots of power appear to be a great balance which could get the Rangers to a third straight A.L.C.S. After an incredibly slow start, the Angels got themselves back in the not only the playoff picture but also in the running to catch Texas in the West. Los Angeles entered the final game of the first half trailing the Rangers by just four games. The Halos have the unique offensive combination of both power and finesse. As a team they’re hitting .269 which is ranked third in the majors. Super-rookie Mike Trout leads the team at .341while driving home 40 runs and sending 12 homers out of the yard. Albert Pujols went a month and a half without a home run at the start of the season but that was then and this is now. The big guy now has 14 dingers to go with 51 rbis. Mark Trumbo leads the team in runs driven in with 57 and 22 jacks. Add in the production of both Torii Hunter and Howie Kendrick and this line-up is just a formable as any in the American League. On the hill, both Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson have been outstanding! Weaver’s 10-1 mark is one of the best in baseball at the break. Wilson has proven owner Artie Moreno spent some of his free-agent money wisely. The lefty is 9-5 despite battling the team’s early season offensive woes of low run production. If manager Mike Scioscia can get both Dan Haren and Ervin Santana on track, both have under-achieved so far, the Angels could make a realistic push to catch Texas for the West title. If not, they will be a major player come post-season time from one of the wild-card spots.

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