Monday, July 13, 2009

First Half Recap: American League

There is good reason why the baseball season is 162 games long. None of the division leaders after the season's first month (Toronto, Chicago and Seattle) are within three games of a playoff spot as we head into the All-Star Break. After a 27-14 start, the Blue Jays have gone just 17-32 since and find themselves 11 games behind division-leading Boston and eight games out of a Wild Card spot. And the news that they will listen to offers for ace Roy Halladay shows that they are more likely to be sellers than buyers at the trade deadline.

The rest of the AL East is shaping up like many thought, with the Red Sox leading the second-place Yankees by three games and the third-place Rays by 6.5 games. The Red Sox have been the AL's best team so far and should win the division, leaving the Yankees and Rays to fight for the Wild Card. Chicago, Minnesota, Texas and Seattle are also in the mix, with none of them more than five games out of a playoff spot.

The Rays are the only team besides the Red Sox to place in the top five in team ERA and runs per game, and in the end the Wild Card race should come down to them and the Yankees, who own the AL's top offense but one of its bottom-four pitching staffs (4.54 ERA). But those numbers are bloated by the early-season implosion of Chien-Ming Wang and C.C. Sabathia is a proven second-half stud, just look at what he did for Milwaukee last season. With A.J. Burnett pitching well of late, the Yankees rotation could straighten itself out by season's end. The bullpen outside of Mariano Rivera is another story, but the Rays have similar issues (and no Rivera).

The Tigers and the Angels lead the AL Central and AL West respectively, and both teams look to be the class of their divisions. Detroit has the third-best team ERA in the American League at 4.09 and if Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson can continue their success, the Tigers will have one of the AL's best one-two starting pitching combinations, which is crucial for success in a short playoff series. Minnesota won't go away easily and neither will the White Sox, however. Chicago may have a deeper pitching staff with Mark Buehrle, John Danks and the resurgent Jose Contreras and has a deeper lineup than the top-heavy Tigers, especially if All-Star outfielder Carlos Quentin returns healthy from plantar fascitis. If everything falls into place for them, I can see the White Sox making up their 3.5-game deficit and taking the division. Ozzie Guillen will keep that team motivated until the very end.

The Angels have the AL's fourth-best offense, scoring over 5.3 runs per contest, but are 12th in the league with a 4.79 team ERA. However, John Lackey looks poised for a good second half and with Jered Weaver enjoying a breakout season, the Angels should be solid at the top of their rotation. Texas could make things interesting if Josh Hamilton comes back strong, but Seattle should fall off as the summer rolls on, even if future Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez continues to dominate.

AL East - Red Sox
AL Central - White Sox
AL West - Angels
Wild Card - Yankees

First Half Awards:
MVP - Joe Mauer, Twins: He might not be flirting with .400 anymore, but in just 241 at-bats he's managed a career-high 15 home runs along with 49 RBI and 49 runs scored. He sprays the ball from foul pole to foul pole and does it with power. Not to mention he plays baseball's most demanding position and plays it well defensively. Honorable mention goes to teammate Justin Morneau and Boston's Jason Bay.

Cy Young - Zack Greinke, Royals: Greinke has 10 wins this season. As a team, the Royals have 37. A 2.12 ERA and over a strikeout-per-inning earn Greinke the nod over Toronto's Roy Halladay. He has come down to earth with just two wins in his past seven starts, but these are first-half awards, not season awards. Halladay may be the choice by season's end, if he stays in the AL.

Rookie of the Year - Ricky Romero, Blue Jays: Even if Toronto trades Halladay, they have a future ace in Romero. Despite missing a month, Romero has seven wins and a 3.00 ERA in 87 innings. A 69:30 K:BB ratio is also an impressive number for a rookie and Romero isn't slowing down, posting eight consecutive quality starts and a 5-1 record heading into the break. Detroit rookie starter Rick Porcello started the season with more hype, but Romero has pitched considerably better in the first half.

C - Joe Mauer, Twins
1B - Justin Morneau, Twins
2B - Ian Kinsler, Rangers
3B - Evan Longoria, Rays
SS - Derek Jeter, Yankees
OF - Jason Bay, Red Sox
OF - Torii Hunter, Angels
OF - Carl Crawford, Rays
SP - Zack Greinke, Royals
SP - Roy Halladay, Blue Jays
SP - Felix Hernandez, Mariners
SP - Josh Beckett, Red Sox
SP - Justin Verlander, Tigers
RP - Joe Nathan, Twins
RP - Mariano Rivera, Yankees
RP - Andrew Bailey, Athletics

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