Monday, July 25, 2011

Under the Radar

By Vito Curcuru

Division races are tightening and there are only a few clubs that are truly out of it. The separation between pretenders and contenders will start to widen as the weeks pass. Three teams to watch as the division races heat up are the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels, and Arizona Diamondbacks.

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers are in contention in the AL Central because of two players. Their two-man team consists of Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. Verlander has been one of baseball's best in 2011 and is a Cy Young contender. He has been able to stop Detroit's losing streaks and may be on the verge of his first 20-win season.

Cabrera is having his usual dominant season and he has been able to carry the load for the team at the plate. The rest of the Tigers team has been scary average and the constant shift in lineups and different position players is not helping them maintain any kind of consistency.

Victor Martinez has been good, but not great, and that sums up the starting pitching of the Tigers, as well. Beyond Verlander, there has been a dearth of dominant outings, but enough glimmers of solid outings to keep the team in first or near first place for a long stretch of the season. The general manager and manager are both in the final years of their contracts, which should help spur the team to a playoff run.

The AL Central is, depending on your perspective, either one of the most balanced divisions or weakest in baseball. It would mostly seem to be the later and not the former. The Cleveland Indians have been good for too long to be considered a fluke, but it is hard to imagine them being able to close out the division. The Chicago White Sox have too many hitters and decent pitching to not make a run. The Minnesota Twins are the division's most dangerous team and are lurking and poised to make one of their annual runs. Each of those three teams appears to have enough to win the division, but have yet to take charge of the division.

The Tigers though appear to have an edge in the race with Verlander and Cabrera, as no other team has a 1-2 punch that potent. Detroit may take the division if the rest of the team can keep looking average and do just enough to stay in first or force a one-game playoff where Verlander could clinch the division. What could stop them is their somewhat annual second-half swoon that has marred the team the past few years.

Los Angeles Angels

Ron Washington has the pennant-winning Texas Rangers playing great baseball. They have solid pitching, despite losing a superstar to free agency and the lineup has plenty of power. They have been on lengthy win streaks and know how to win. They have been the toast of baseball and are everyone's pick to win the AL West. Yet the Angels are within a few games of first and they are second in the wild card race to the Yankees and are playing better baseball every day.

Why isn't anyone noticing or talking about the Angels? They have a manager who has won the World Series, a dominant pitcher, and they too know how to win. They are putting together a very quiet and solid season that could take them to the playoffs through the division or wild card route.

Do the Angels have a shot at the wild card or the division? Logic would dictate their only chance is to win the division because the Yankees are the favorite to win the wild card. The Yankees haven't exactly blown anyone away and the Boston Red Sox have already overcome the Yankees for first place in the AL East. The Tampa Bay Rays are allegedly the next team in the pecking order of the wild card, but they have been streaky at best in 2011.

The Angels have stuck with the Rangers and as the season grinds forward, the Angels are the team with the dominant pitcher and not the Rangers this year. The Angels don't have the dominant hitter or the potent lineup the Rangers have, but it is tough to count out a team that is a few games out of the division and wild card race. It is also tough to guarantee the Yankees and Rays will end up as the wild card team. Both teams have yet to have a dominant stretch of games where they are the best team in baseball without question.

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks are a team that appears to be winning with smoke and mirrors. Kirk Gibson has the team contending in what many consider a one-team division. The NL West looks a lot like the AL West. The San Francisco Giants beat the Rangers in the World Series with dominant pitching and the pitching again looks like it could carry them to a title this year.

The Diamondbacks like the Angels, however, are hanging around and Justin Upton is hitting the ball everywhere. The Diamondbacks pitching isn't as good as San Francisco's, but with the weak lineup the Giants field, there may be an opportunity for Arizona to make a run at the division or the wild card.

Similar to the Angels, the Diamondbacks are being overshadowed by a team that went deep in the playoffs and they are hanging around for what may be a tighter division race than most think.

The Tigers, Diamondbacks, and Angels could be three teams that as the baseball season winds down could make a serious playoff run. The Tigers have the best hitter and pitcher in their weak division, which might be enough to win it. The Diamondbacks and Angels find themselves chasing 2011's World Series teams, which could prove to be too much in the long haul. Funny though, right now all the talk in the AL and NL West is about Texas and San Francisco, but if those teams look in the rearview mirror, they will see that Arizona and Los Angeles are closer than they appear.

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