Monday, June 6, 2011

Eyes on the Prize

By Paul Foeller

Roughly a third of the way through the MLB season, there are five teams that stand out from the rest. I'm not necessarily talking about the teams with the best records, but rather teams that look like sure bets to make the postseason — and that appear to have what it takes to win once there. It's a group of teams that have had a lot of recent success — and the Cleveland Indians.

Teams are listed in order of most to least wins, not necessarily in order of rank.

St Louis Cardinals (36-25)

The Cardinals were a popular pick to finish either second or third in the NL Central before the season was even close to starting. Then they lost ace Adam Wainwright, who had a higher WAR than any other pitcher in MLB over the last two seasons. Then the season started and they lost David Freese, Kyle McClellan, and MLB batting average leader Matt Holliday to the DL along the way — and all this with Albert Pujols in the worst hitting funk of his career.

Despite this, they have led the division for most of the season, and with Pujols finally heating up with 4 home runs (two walk-offs) in a weekend series against the rival Cubs, they look like they might run away with it. It also doesn't hurt that they finally appear to have figured out their bullpen issues, which to date have led to a league worst 12 blown saves. Assuming they had converted only half of those, they would be sitting with a record of 42-19 — and with a revitalized bullpen, they may just cut that number of blown saves in half of over the second third of the season.

Philadelphia Phillies (35-24)

For all the preseason doubt of the Cardinals, there was just as much positive hype surrounding the Phillies, who have what has been touted as, and may in fact be, one of the greatest pitching rotations of all-time. Their offense has been their weakness all year long, and it probably wouldn't be a stretch to say that some timely hitting could easily have this team with 40 wins or more.

They haven't had as many injury problems as the Cardinals, so they won't gain much in the way of talent down the stretch. But given that they have so woefully underperformed at the plate, and are capable of so much more, one has to expect an even better performance over the next third of the season.

Cleveland Indians (33-24)

They've actually been collapsing recently, going 3-9 in their last 12 games, and losing claim to the league's best record as a result. But this team has a lot going for it, mostly the fact that only one team (the 31-27 Detroit Tigers) are within seven games in the AL Central.

With an infusion of young talent, especially among the pitching staff, this team should be one of the most capable in the league of avoiding fading late in the season due to wear and tear. If Asdrubal Cabrera can continue what is shaping up to be the best year of his career, and the pitching can continue to do an adequate job, this team can expect to find themselves with a chance to do something special this year.

Boston Red Sox (33-26)

Yeah, those Red Sox — the same guys that started the season 2-10 — are now among the favorites to win it all this year. Going 31-16 since the middle of April was no fluke for this team, and I expect a similar record over similar stretches for the rest of the year.

It sounds almost too easy, and that's because it is — like the Miami Heat in the NBA — the Red Sox are simply stacked with too much talent to not be wildly successful this year. The offense is scoring runs in huge bunches and Josh Beckett is back. If this team isn't at least in the 2011 ALCS, I'll be shocked.

New York Yankees (33-24)

They've enjoyed more success than any franchise in baseball history, and this year looks to be yet another one that will see the Yankees in the playoffs. With veterans Derek Jeter, who will get his 3,000th career hit at some point this season, and Mariano Rivera leading the way, the Yankees have more experience than any other team that looks likely to make the playoffs.

History says the Yankees will find a way into the playoffs, and their roster indicates they'll be an undesirable matchup for anybody once they get there.

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