Now that the American League has secured the homefield advantage for the World Series after its 5-3 victory over the National League in Tuesday’s All-Star Game, it’s time to figure out who are going to be the teams there at the end.
The way the season is playing out, possibly two-thirds of the teams will still have some semblance of a chance of making the playoffs up until September. Intra-division play will separate the haves from the have-nots.
Here’s how it could play out:
• AMERICAN LEAGUE •
• AL East — The East is a crapshoot as all the teams are flawed. Baltimore is the leader at the break, but I don’t see the Orioles still there at the end. Toronto overachieved in May and June and is falling back in the pack. The Yankees’ starting pitching has been decimated and that will be telling in September. Boston shows no signs of going on an extended run and could start shedding some of its bloated contracts. That leaves Tampa Bay — which is tied for last but only 9 1/2 games back — which has been one of baseball’s best teams over the past 30 games. Don’t sleep on the Rays.
• AL Central — Forget the talk of Kansas City catching the Tigers. Detroit could wind up with a double-digit bulge when 162 games are completed. The Royals just can’t hit enough to stay with the Tigers, but are more talented than Cleveland, Chicago and Minnesota. My itchy finger is telling me Cleveland might put together a run and sneak past the Royals for second.
• AL West — Oakland and Los Angeles will duel to the end, with the loser being the top wild-card team. Seattle is right there in the wild-card, but has the American League’s toughest schedule the rest of the way in terms of winning percentage of opponents. Houston and Texas are the only two AL teams legitimately out of it. Texas could be a big seller at the deadline in a couple of weeks.
• Prediction — Tampa Bay will make an incredible, worst-to-first rally and join Detroit and Oakland as division champs. Los Angeles will host Cleveland in the play-in game.
• World Series representative — Detroit.
• NATIONAL LEAGUE •
• NL East — It challenges the AL Central as baseball’s worst division. It’s going to be a Washington-Atlanta duel with the other teams innocent by-standers. The Nationals should be so much better because of some wondrous pitching talent, but they seem to underachieve. They also struggle in head-to-head matchups with the Braves. New York, Miami and Philadelphia — all we can say is “meh.”
• NL Central — Baseball’s best division. In fact, four of the teams are playoff-worthy. My gut tells me that St. Louis will at some point start to hit and pull away from Milwaukee. The Brewers are going to be feast or famine — they’ll either get hot or go totally cold and go away. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are still important players. The Reds have the pitching and the Pirates have an outfield that in two or three years will be the talk of baseball. The Cubs are the Cubs — laughable losers, but relishing the thought of playing the other four in September.
• NL West — The cream eventually rises to the top, which is why the Los Angeles Dodgers, after two months of scuffling, finally got their act together just before the break. San Francisco’s punchless offense is dragging down its excellent pitching. San Diego, Colorado and Arizona are also-rans.
• Prediction — Atlanta, St. Louis and Los Angeles are the champs, with San Francisco and Washington the wild-cards. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh should actually be there, but the toughness of the NL Central and the woefulness of the NL East will allow Washington to get in.
• World Series representative — I had the Dodgers before the season and I’m sticking with them. Too much talent.
• World Series champion — See the above. The Dodgers are back on top after a long absence.