Strange to imagine it now but there was a time reeeeeal early in the season when we thought "Hmmm maybe the NL East isn't going to be as bad as we thought they were" On April 7th Miami would lead the division at 5-2. The Nats were 4-2, the Braves were 4-2, and the Phillies were 3-3. If everything went just right...
It didn't. The NL East sucks and the Nats are coasting on the dregs of this division. The Braves have given up. The Marlins lost their best player and team carrier. The Mets are currently fighting through the mental block that the Nats had with the Braves in previous years. The Phillies are run by Ruben Amaro.
Right now the 2nd best team in the NL, the second best, is on pace for 78 wins. You might say "That's because of the Nats, baby!" But only the Mets are dominated by the Nats. The Marlins have been handled, but not embarrassed (yet). The Braves and Phillies both have winning records against the Nats. No, the NL East's terribleness is real and it's spectacular.
Anyway - this not discounting anything the Nats did. It's not like the Dodgers had a much tougher road with dregs like the Diamondbacks and Tulo-less Rockies. Just noting that the NL East turned out to have no 2nd team that was even good this season.
What's going on in the AL? I was hoping for chaos (and a Yankee surprise) in the Wild Card. At the very least that required both SEA and KC to begin choking, and while SEA is being very accomodating, the Indians are pulling an Atlanta and barely showing up to their series with the Royals. That pretty much seals the deal for the Royals and A's as the Wild Card teams, with the Mariners holding onto an outside chance that will probably disappear tonight with another loss to Toronto and Cleveland taking and early flight home and forfeiting.
What does that leave us in the AL?
The Angels are the real deal offensively. Their line-up has the same sort of "no-holes" make-up that the Nats do, but with better bats. They can hit for average and power, they walk allright, and they don't strike-out a crazy amount, especially now with Hamilton out of the line-up. Their only real issue comes from the fact that their former catcher manager loves his Hank Conger, so he'll steal some at bats from the better Chris Iannetta. The don't run as often but have a few players capable of doing so including their star Trout.The defense is solid with only Pujols being an issue.
Pitching wise they have big problems as their best arm, Garrett Richards, is out for the season. They've gotten some good results from fill-in young guys, but ran into some bad luck there as the best of them, Matt Shoemaker, got hurt. The truth is you only feel ok with Jered Weaver on the mound and that's only "ok" not great. If they can get to the pen that's a strength. They go four deep. Another thing that might help the Angels? Their weakness here lies in control more than anything. If the playoffs make bats jumpy these arms might be enough.
The Orioles are a good team offensively but are coasting on fumes right now. They relied a lot on the long ball this year but over the past few months lost Machado and Weiters, and are now waiting out a Chris Davis suspension. They've managed to keep up the pace with impressive part-time performances by the likes of David Lough, Jimmy Paredes, Ryan Flaherty, Alejadro De Aza, and Kelly Johnson but does anyone have faith in that group to do damage for the next month? They don't walk at all, don't run well, and strike out a ton. I'd have real fear that in the playoffs they'd get eaten up in any park that wasn't homer friendly.
As for the pitching - it's solid. There isn't a standout performer in the rotation, but every guy they put out there keeps them in games. Part of this is great defense up the middle of the infield with Schoop and Hardy, combined with no real problems in the field. It's the back of the pen where they really shine as Britton, O'Day and Miller all are shutdown type guys who can be expected to hold onto any late lead.
The Tigers are a top heavy team offensively. Miggy and Victor Martinez are great and JD Martinez has had a fantastic year. But the drop off after them is substantial. After Torii Hunter you have a lot of meh guys and they've never solved their SS issue leaving them with a big hole. In theory if you can pitch around those three you should be able to take care of the Tigers, but it's tough to pitch around three guys, so the real fear is not that another teams pitchers can come in and dominate this lineup but rather one or two of these guys go cold and the offense can't score. We saw it happen mid-season.
The pitching is supposed to be their strength and it could be once it has been pared down in the playoffs. Price and Scherzer, could dominate for short periods. Beyond that, though, it gets hazy fast. The third guy out there should be Sanchez but he's been relegated to a relief role post-injury. The next guy out there maybe should be Lobstein but it's hard to rely on a rookie. Porcello is inconsistent. Verlander has the #1 cache but is clearly their worst starter this year. The pen doesn't inspire much confidence either with no one being consistently good and the aging Joe Nathan unable to close games effectively. (Don't blame him - he is 39 - that's older than me!). Not helping is the Tigers D. Miggy was never good. Castellanos hasn't shown anything. Hunter has aged out of playing OF. Martinez is useless out there. If you can avoid the GB up the middle you have a decent shot at a hit.
Poor Oakland. Honestly they are probably the second best team in the AL but they play in the division with the best team and they've watched luck bite them the past few weeks, at one point playing 8 one-run affairs in 9 games and going 1-7 in them. Was something lost with Cespedes? Possibly, but there are better explanations. Norris (catcher) and Crisp (old) have worn down. Moss, Reddick, and Lowrie always felt more like complementary players than straight good ones and having them all do well at same time was unusual. Only Josh Donaldson remains a bat to worry about. They get by on patience most of all, leading the AL in walks, and as increased pressure forces guys to feel like they need to swing that works to their disadvantage. It not a terrible offense, but it's not league leading worthy either.
Their pitching is strong and it'll only look better if they can get past that WC game. They've brought in a number of arms Lester, Samardzija and Hammel (who's come on strong) who help bolster a rotation that had a lot of decent but unreliable home-grown talent. The relief pitching is not dominating but strong. Their one weakness would be giving up the longball but if they can avoid that the pitching can carry this team.
Why is Kansas City here? A good pitching staff and finally getting some breaks. The offense... ehhh it's admittedly rough. Alex Gordon is good, not great, and he's the best bat they have as none of those young studs (Hosmer, Moustakas) have developed. They don't walk (15th in BB) or hit homers (15th in HRs). Brought in to help with that is our old friend Josh Willingham. What they do is put the ball in play (last in K's) and run (first in SBs) manufacturing runs. You think that would only work at home, but in an age where scoring is getting depressed, this type of play has increased in value. They also supplement this with good defense, including the best outfield in the majors.
The pitching is alot like the O's. Solid starters, great pen. I do like the Royals starters more in the sense that they are better equipped to pull out a gem. Ventura, Shields, maybe Duffy now. At the same time you can't go into a game expecting it. Holland, Davis, Herrera. act as a 3-team stopper. (what happened to Aaron Crow? He's pitched poorly the past month and dropped out of key out position).
What does this all feel like? It's a tough road for the O's. They don't match up well with the Angles (in theory) and the other parks are death to their homer-heavy offense. The Tigers especially would worry me with the cavernous Comerica in October and some bats that could punish the good but not great pitching of the Os. The only team in fact I like less than the O's are the Royals who are really just lucky to be here. The Angles are the clear favorite, but the Tigers and A's hold decent shots. For the A's it's going to depend on if they can scratch out wins as the pitching looks to be secure but the hitting is doubtful to be a force. For the Tigers it'll be about the pitching and hitting meeting somewhere winnable. The Angels though get the nod because for them it's just the pitching staying the course. The bats should carry them through.