No pretenders in this group
(Editor’s note: Jeff Passan is not an oddsmaker for a reason. His attempt at laying odds on teams making the postseason was, in the words on one e-mailer from MIT, “ridiculously stupid.” So he dusted off his TI-83, went to work and got them right. Updated odds are now included and mathematically correct.)
Now that baseball’s second half is in full gear, the wheat and chaff seem distinct enough, though Colorado spat at that notion last September and October.
Still, we feel confident enough to assign proper labels to 17 of the 30 teams in baseball: playoff contender. And with such a label comes a team-by-team breakdown that hits strength, weaknesses, desires and everybody’s favorite – does prison have Internet access, Tim Donaghy? – odds.
Handicapping the team’s chances of making the postseason before the calendar even turns to August is a risky proposition, particularly coming from someone who predicted a Mets-Indians World Series before the season began, but, hey, it adds a little intrigue.
Though it’s not like these races need any.
Run differential: +33
They’re good: On the road, where their 31-18 record is, far and away, the best in baseball.
They’re bad: Walkers, ranking second to last in baseball with 274 bases on balls.
Numbers crunching: Angels starters have the second-best starters’ ERA at 3.74, a figure made even more impressive considering they’ve also thrown the most innings this season with 621 2/3.
Before July 31: Paging Matt Holliday. Forget the overcrowded outfield. The Angels are tempted to eat Gary Matthews Jr.’s contract, and the Colorado left fielder would look mighty nice hitting in front of Vladimir Guerrero for the next year and a half.
Carry us, please: Francisco Rodriguez. Quit yapping about contracts and numbers and do what you do best – close games and don’t get injured.
Schedule: Pretty good. After an East Coast swing that takes the Angels into August, they’ve got 29 of their last 51 games at home. Of course, to them, perhaps that’s a bad thing.
Run differential: +111
They’re good: Against the woeful West, whose teams they’ve beaten 22 of 30 games – and whom they don’t face again after a three-game series with Arizona that starts today.
They’re bad: At pinch-hitting. In 126 at-bats, Cubs pinch-hitters have only 22 hits, and their .175 average is worst in the NL.
Numbers crunching: Do not trifle with the Cubs in the late innings. Their 165 runs after the seventh inning are best in the NL – and proof that they can shell relievers just as well as starters.
Before July 31: The Cubs need to sip some mai tais. They should be done after the Rich Harden trade. Perhaps they could jump in the sweepstakes for some of the left-handed relief help available, but it’s not a necessity.
Carry us, please: Alfonso Soriano. He’s back on his rehab assignment, and the fact that the Cubs are still in first without him is a testament to their depth. Warning: Hand injuries linger. Just ask Derrek Lee.
Schedule: All but four of their September games are against the NL Central, which makes having only nine games at Wrigley Field somewhat palatable. Still, it’s not the friendliest end, especially four games at Shea Stadium and three at Miller Park to close the regular season.
Run differential: +87
They’re good: At home, where they’ve lost 11 times this season. Think about that – the season is 100 games old, and the Red Sox are playing nearly .800 at home.
They’re bad: On the road, of course, because otherwise we’d be talking about an all-time incredible team and not one dueling for first place with Tampa Bay.
Numbers crunching: On turf, Boston pitchers issue 5.16 walks per nine innings. In grass games, Red Sox pitchers walk only 3.57 each game.
Carry us, please: Kevin Youkilis. The burgeoning power, the great glove, the intensity bordering on psychosis. All of it is huge, so long as he doesn’t experience a drain like last season, when his on-base-plus-slugging dropped nearly 175 points in the second half.
Schedule: Tremendous, especially in the last month of the season, when the Red Sox play 19 of 28 games at home.
Run differential: +44
They’re good: In their division, where the Rays are nine games above .500.
They’re bad: At hitting the ball hard, with three regulars – shortstop Jason Bartlett, second baseman Akinori Iwamura and center fielder B.J. Upton – nearing the ignominy of slugging at a lower percent than they get on base.
Numbers crunching: The Rays are 6-0 against the Red Sox at home and 0-6 on the road. The teams don’t meet again until September, when they’ll play six times in nine days.
Before July 31: Stand pat. The Rays carry three left-handed relievers, don’t have a glaring need at starter and have enough depth on offense to win. A move here would be for move’s sake and little more.
Carry us, please: J.P. Howell. A middle reliever? Howell might be the best in baseball this season. Originally a starter, then a lefty specialist, Howell’s role has expanded as his batting average against has dropped to .185. Opponents’ OPS: .562.
Schedule: Is brutal too harsh a word? The Rays have 10-, nine- and eight-game road trips left, come back from a long mid-August West Coast swing and face the Angels before shipping off to Chicago for a series, play the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins 16 times in September and have one day off after Sept. 1. Eek.
Run differential: +27
They’re good: Against left-handed pitchers, their 22 wins is the most in baseball.
They’re bad: Hitting during the evening. In 57 night games, the Brewers have scored 236 runs. In 41 during the day, they’ve scored 228.
Numbers crunching: The Brewers bullpen remains a weakness, with a 4.12 ERA. Though it doesn’t tell half the story: In the highest-leverage innings, from the seventh on, the Brewers’ ERA is 4.63, which ranks 27th in baseball.
Before July 31: Trade some more prospects? The Brewers have given up six already to get CC Sabathia and Ray Durham, and they’re pursuing another left-handed reliever to complement Brian Shouse – or, perhaps, close. Still, if this is the end, it’s been a pretty good run up to the deadline.
Carry us, please: Sabathia. The Brewers need him to be Ben Sheets’ co-ace, and his last two starts – both complete-game wins – have done nothing to dispel the idea he will be. Sabathia’s season ERA is down to 3.51, and, lest we forget, he’s still playing for a contract.
Schedule: Probably the best of any contender. August consists of one series against a team over .500, and it’s a two-gamer in St. Louis. And September isn’t much tougher, the only potential stumbling block a 10-game trip to Philadelphia, Chicago and Cincinnati.
Run differential: +35
They’re good: At coming back from the dead. The Mets, no joke, are back in first place.
They’re bad: If you consider starters unable to go nine innings an issue. New York is one of five teams without a complete game this season. (The others: Cincinnati, Houston, San Francisco and Florida.)
Numbers crunching: Manager Jerry Manuel’s getting lots of the credit for new pitching coach Dan Warthen’s work. In July, the Mets’ ERA is 3.30, and the staff has held hitters to an incredible .211 batting average.
Before July 31: The Mets need to trade Carlos Beltran for Matt Holliday! OK, so that’s not going to happen, not with the Rockies already buried underneath Todd Helton’s monster contract. The unlikely resurrection of Fernando Tatis has quelled the cries for a bat, though, let’s be frank: Not even Mets management expects Tatis to keep mashing. Which could mean: Xavier Nady, welcome back.
Carry us, please: Beltran, of course. He’s in the fourth season of his seven-year deal, and the Mets have yet to reach a World Series. Either they make a serious run this year, or the New Mets – the phrase he coined – are going to be blown up.
Schedule: Longest trip is eight games. Three days off in September. It’s early, but the three games against Philadelphia starting tomorrow could be huge, with only five more between now and season’s end.
Run differential: +33
They’re good: On the road, a 27-22 record the NL’s best.
They’re bad: When Kyle Lohse doesn’t start. OK, not bad, necessarily, but without him, their starters’ ERA jumps to 4.45, 17th in baseball.
Before July 31: Deliver good news on Adam Wainwright and/or Chris Carpenter. The former’s finger feels good. The latter is on a rehab assignment. After the Mark Mulder debacle, the Cardinals understand how quickly fortunes change. Which is why getting one of their two aces back will be plenty, especially if they don’t want to mortgage anything for a quick fix.
Carry us, please: Pujols. No one else can.
Schedule: Pretty average, though 13 of their final 16 come against teams under .500. The other three are in Chicago.
Run differential: +3
They’re bad: Against the NL Central, with only seven wins in 20 games.
Number crunching: More on Webb and Haren: Take them off the Diamondbacks’ pitching staff, and the ERA jumps from 3.99 to 4.96 – which would drop them from ninth to 25th overall.
Before July 31: Get a bat. Whatever it takes. This division can be had, and perhaps the Diamondbacks’ playoff experience from last season would help them avoid the same ugly stumble they experienced in the NLCS.
Carry us, please: Webb and Haren. Again. Because none of the Diamondbacks’ bats seem primed to do so. After scorching starts, Conor Jackson and Justin Upton have cooled off. Mark Reynolds has 19 home runs – and 114 strikeouts against just 38 walks.
Schedule: Lots of games against the West, and that’s a good thing. With an even home-road split, the Diamondbacks simply need to play better than the .400 ball they’re playing on the road.
Run differential: +11
They’re bad: At scoring. The Dodgers’ 406 runs rank ahead of only Washington, San Diego and San Francisco in the NL.
Numbers crunching: The Dodgers’ bullpen has been phenomenal, its 2.93 ERA second best in the majors. And yet it could be so much better had Joe Torre not been reacquainted with one of his go-to Yankees, Scott Proctor. Subtract his numbers and Dodgers relievers would sport a 2.50 ERA, nearly a quarter run better than the big leagues’ best, Philadelphia.
Before July 31: Do something. Preferably on the offensive side. And, accordingly, not involving David Eckstein. The Dodgers were in the Sabathia sweepstakes but got nowhere when they wouldn’t give up Kemp. For what’s out there now, it probably wouldn’t be worth it. But that doesn’t mean the Dodgers have to sit on their cache of minor-league players, which remains deep.
Carry us, please: Jonathan Broxton. Takashi Saito’s elbow is on the mend, and his return isn’t inevitable. Broxton needs to take his massive self and seize the closer’s job just as Saito three years ago. He’s off to a good start.
Schedule: Rough. Of the Dodgers’ last 35 games, 23 are on the road, and even though they finish with 31 straight against sub-.500 teams, we can’t forget the Dodgers, too, are one of those.
Run differential: +78
They’re good: Enough to have the third-best run differential, behind the Red Sox and Cubs.
They’re bad: When the home run ball goes dry. Whether it will, with a lineup that includes Carlos Quentin, Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome and Joe Crede, is suspect, but the Sox’s 130 home runs have saved them from offensive oblivion.
Numbers crunching: Chicago’s 50 unearned runs allowed are tied with Florida for second worst in baseball, with Texas’ 70 blowing everyone away.
Before July 31: Get a reliever? Apparently, and maybe it’s a sign Bobby Jenks’ long-term health isn’t good, but the White Sox’s relief corps has been the best in the AL, so, what, Kenny and Ozzie worry?
Carry us, please: Jermaine Dye. He’s been doing it all year, in his typically quiet manner, and has somehow escaped recognition despite ranking seventh in the AL in OPS.
Schedule: Long homestands and trips, which, for the streaky White Sox, could be golden or poisonous. Here’s how it shakes out: 10 on the road, 16 of 19 at home, nine on the road, nine at home, 10 on the road and, finally, three at home against Cleveland.
Run differential: +33
They’re bad: At taking one for the team: the Twins have been hit by only 17 pitches, fewest in the major leagues.
Numbers crunching: It’s no shock the Twins lead the AL in batting with two outs and runners in scoring position. Their .808 OPS in such situations ranks second.
Before July 31: Call up Francisco Liriano. He’s blistering Triple-A hitters, and while there isn’t a rotation spot open, he could play a devastating swing role – or just wait for Livan Hernandez, who’s on his ninth life.
Carry us, please: Justin Morneau. The former MVP is hitting .431 with a 1.316 OPS in July. He has struck out only four times in the month, slugged 12 extra-base hits in 51 at-bats and re-established him alongside Josh Hamilton as the premier left-handed hitters in the AL.
Schedule: Bad news first: Minnesota has only 28 games left at home. Good news: The Twins are a decent road team, though playing .500 may not be enough. The key stretch will be ending August with 17 straight games against the AL West, a division against whom the Twins are 7-9.
Run differential: +75
They’re good: At scaring opponents. Pitchers have issued the Phillies a major-league-leading 41 intentional walks this season.
They’re bad: With runners in scoring position and less than two outs. The Phillies’ batting average drops 22 points and its OPS 36.
Numbers crunching: The Phillies knew Davey Lopes would help as a baserunning instructor, but this much? Though they’re fifth overall in stolen bases, they’ve been caught the second-fewest times and are successful at an 88 percent clip, far and away baseball’s best.
Before July 31: Get Joe Blanton right. The Phillies gave up three prospects – including well-regarded second baseman Adrian Cardenas – for the former A’s starter, who has struggled this season. He was their missing piece. He’d better find himself.
Schedule: Brutal beginning to the second half – 12 of 15 on the road – yields to a friendly slate that ends with 13 of 19 at Citizens Bank Park.
Run differential: +32
They’re good: In the ninth inning, where Mariano Rivera is putting together an Eckerslian season, with his 53-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
They’re bad: Against right-handed pitchers, and with a healthy everyday lineup that has seven left-handed hitters, inexplicably so. The Yankees’ 309 runs against lefties ranks 20th in baseball.
Numbers crunching: It’s very easy to sum up this team with two numbers: $210 million payroll, third place.
Before July 31: Well, there’s the pressing issue of a bat. And the need for at least one more starting pitcher. Don’t get Yankee fans started on the bullpen (which, actually, has been rather respectable, with a sub-3.50 ERA). In other words, way too much to do for a team that’s intent on hoarding prospects.
Carry us, please: Barry Bonds. The Yankees’ offense this season is mediocre, and Richie Sexson’s problems are related more to bat speed than attitude, so he’s not the answer. With Hideki Matsui out, the Yankees need a left fielder with pop. And, hey, he’ll sign for the minimum, right?
Schedule: A 16-of-19-on-the-road stretch in August is made easier by the last nine games coming against Kansas City, Toronto and Baltimore. New York’s first 10 in September are away from Yankee Stadium, too, and three in Boston isn’t the easiest way to close a season.
Run differential: +6
They’re good: When left-handed pitchers start the game. The Tigers’ 20-7 record is best in the major leagues.
They’re bad: Against their division. Seriously, 14-24 against the AL Central?
Before July 31: All depends on the next week. If the Tigers can win series at Kansas City and back home against Chicago, they might go after a relief pitcher, though Joel Zumaya’s fastball has hit triple digits with regularity since his return. Should the Tigers tank against the Royals like they did in the season’s opening series, it’s time to shed some payroll.
Carry us, please: Justin Verlander. His ERA is under 4.00 for the first time this season following a dominant showing Sunday, and since May 14, his 2.57 ERA ranks eighth among pitchers with at least 65 innings.
Schedule: Lots of Kansas City and Cleveland – 22 games combined, to be exact. September, though, won’t be easy: Angels, A’s and Rays at home, White Sox and Twins on the road.
Run differential: -38
They’re good: At scoring runs. The Rangers are on pace to plate 893 this season.
They’re bad: At allowing runs. The Rangers are on pace to yield 957 this season.
Numbers crunching: Such paces rarely keep up, but if Josh Hamilton can continue driving in a run a game, he’ll finish the season with the most RBIs since Manny Ramirez’s 165 in 1999.
Before July 31: The Rangers need to remember patience and sell off their valuable assets. They’ve already got one of the five best farm systems in the minor leagues, even with all their promotions. Soon enough they’ll be deadline buyers.
Carry us, please: Eddie Guardado? He’s still around, all right, and the only Rangers pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA. OK, in reality, it should be Kevin Millwood or Vicente Padilla, but they can’t carry a feather right now with ERAs floating around 5.00.
Schedule: Pleasant enough. After a nine-game trip to start the second half, the Rangers finish with 35 of 57 at Rangers Ballpark.
Run differential: -25
They’re good: At hitting fly balls with men on third and less than two outs. The Marlins lead the NL with 32 sacrifice flies.
They’re bad: At contact. The Marlins also lead baseball in strikeouts, and second-place San Diego isn’t even close.
Numbers crunching: More on the strikeouts, because it’s incredible. Dan Uggla hit 100 Sunday, Ramirez jumped to 87 with a pair, Jeremy Hermida’s at 83 and Mike Jacobs 74. With Jorge Cantu and Cody Ross, the Marlins could have six 100-strikeout hitters.
Before July 31: Sell, Mortimer, sell!
Carry us, please: Hanley Ramirez. If you can’t do it, no one can.
Schedule: Not too many cakewalks. Aside from series against the Rockies, Giants, Astros and Nationals (x2), the Marlins play contenders.
Run differential: +57
They’re good: At pitching. Oakland’s team ERA of 3.44 is the best in the majors and, if they finished the season with it – unlikely after all their trades, but still – would be the best in the major leagues in five years.
They’re bad: At convincing management they can contend this year.
Numbers crunching: Though Brad Ziegler isn’t quite yet Orel Hershiser, his 21 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings are particularly impressive in that they’re the first ones of his career. The submariner’s lifetime ERA remains 0.00.
Before July 31: Just promise not to trade the masseuse, OK?
Carry us, please: Starter Justin Duchscherer … who might be dealt. Or how about closer Huston Street … who might be dealt. Aw, heck, just let it be manager Bob Geren, who needs to keep his team in line after losing Rich Harden and Joe Blanton.
Schedule: Perhaps GM Billy Beane knew what he was doing. This meatgrinder would crush any team: 10-game road trip to start August, another 10-gamer a week later and a nine-game trip three days after that. Doesn’t matter what’s in between. That’s plain cold.