This week should tell us a lot about who will be playing after Oct. 2, namely the team who'll enter the postseason as the AL Central champion.
With their division lead down to just 3½ games, the White Sox face the Indians in Chicago in a crucial three-game series that should paint a better picture of the AL Central race. The Indians are the hottest team in the majors, a position few people expected them to be in come September. I think that's one of the reasons why the Indians are playing so well – there's no pressure on them.
On the other hand, the White Sox, who held a 15-game lead in August, have fallen back down to earth. They will be sending Freddy Garcia, Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland against Cleveland, but I look for the Indians to take two of the three games to pull within 2½ games of Chicago.
THE TOP 10
(Statistics and records are through Sept. 18)
1.St. Louis Cardinals (95-56) – The first team to clinch a postseason spot, the Cardinals have known they would be in the playoffs for a long time, so the celebration was tame. I had another chance to see the Cardinals play over the weekend and they play the game right. They hit-and-run, bunt, run the bases well and play solid defense.
2.Boston Red Sox (87-62) – The Red Sox enter the week only 1½ games ahead of the Yankees in the AL East, and they haven't played all that well of late, winning just five of their last 11 games. Boston should pick up a few games over the next week and a half as they play Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Toronto before finishing the season at home against the Yankees. How big will that series be?
3.Chicago White Sox (90-58) – I'm probably going to take some heat for putting them so high, but I still think they'll hold on to the AL Central lead. Their pitching is just too strong. If they don't hold on, it'll be because they're just one big bat short of a great team. Obviously, they have the pitching to go far, but their offense has faltered at times. They'll be asking general manager Ken Williams why he didn't trade for Ken Griffey Jr. for a long time, even though Griffey was injured shortly after the rumors.
4.Atlanta Braves (85-65) – They hold a five-game lead over the Phillies and should wrap up the division some time early next week. Then, they'll be able to set their starting rotation for the first round of the playoffs. The Braves haven't played well lately, but don't worry – they'll be fine going into the postseason.
5.Cleveland Indians (87-62) – The hottest team in the big leagues, the Indians are playing without fear right now, an approach that has them on a roll. They're in contention for the AL Central title and hold a 1½-game lead over the Yankees in the AL wild-card race. Nobody, including me, has given them much credit this year, but the Indians play smart baseball with a bunch of guys hardly anyone knows much about.
6.Los Angeles Angels (84-65) – They own a two-game lead over the A's but have a four-game set in Oakland next week. They also face Texas six more times and Tampa Bay three more times. Still, the Angels are my pick to win the AL West because of their strong pitching, especially Bartolo Colon.
7.New York Yankees (85-63) – The Yanks trail by 1½ games in the AL East and AL wild-card races, but I still like their chances to win a playoff spot. A ton of pressure is on them, though, because of their huge payroll and probably the most experienced, big-named lineup in the league.
8.Houston Astros (81-68) – With a 1½-game lead in the NL wild-card race, the Astros have put themselves in great shape to make the playoffs. What Roger Clemens did last week – pitch a great game on the day of his mother's passing – speaks volumes about his tenacity and competitiveness.
9.Philadelphia Phillies – Trailing Houston by 1½ games for the NL wild card, the Phillies still have playoff hopes. They lack starting pitching (the starters' 4.23 ERA ranks ninth in the NL), but they have a fantastic closer in Billy Wagner (34 saves, 1.59 ERA).
10.Oakland Athletics – The A's continue to cling to playoff hopes. Their offense hasn't hit the ball very well of late, but with Barry Zito, Danny Haren and Joe Blanton, their starting pitching has kept them in the AL West race.
ON THE RISE
Texas Rangers (75-75) – They have won five straight, and their offense can scare any team. The Rangers are out of the playoff hunt, but they have the ability to be a spoiler the next few weeks.
ON THE DECLINE
New York Mets (73-76) – They had a chance to be in the playoffs a few weeks ago, but they haven't played well over the final two months of the season. They have gone 20-24 since August 1.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
26.Tampa Bay Devil Rays (62-88) – They have been spoilers in the AL East, playing the Yankees and Red Sox tough.
27.Pittsburgh Pirates (61-88) – The Pirates haven't played much better since the firing of Lloyd McClendon.
28.Colorado Rockies (61-87) – The Rockies need to make a few moves in the offseason to put themselves into contention next season. Figuring out what to do with Todd Helton should be the first order of business.
29.Seattle Mariners (64-85) – They've been a huge disappointment this year. I honestly thought the Mariners had a chance to compete for the AL West, but it hasn't worked out that way.
30.Kansas City Royals (48-99) – I can only imagine how tough the season has been for the Royals, who have been out of contention since June.