Assessing the Races
September 12, 2005

With only three weeks left in the season, most of my own pursuits of fantasy baseball glory are over for this year.  Of the four leagues that matter, I'm securely in second in two of them, battling for 4th in another, and well, let's not talk about how I'm doing in Tout.  So I'll offer my guesses as to who will win the races in real baseball and try to point out some players that may be off the beaten path that could help your fantasy team's final push.

American League
The winner of the wild card in the AL will be the White Sox.  But wait, if the White Sox are the wild card, then who... am I saying... yes, I am saying that the Indians will win the Central Division.  They just swept through Detroit and Minnesota at home and after they finish their series with Oakland, they have seven more games with Kansas City and six more with the White Sox.  They also have a three-gamer at home against Tampa.  Five of their players have an OPS in excess of .800 in September (Crisp, Sizemore, Belliard, Hafner and Blake) and of their starting staff, only Jake Westbrook has an ERA above 2.25 this month. 

Conversely, the White Sox two biggest starting pitchers, Mark Buerhle and Jon Garland both have ERAs over 4.00 this month and Orlando Hernandez is questionable at best the rest of the way.  Offensively they aren't in bad shape with Konerko doing most of the heavy lifting and Juan Uribe having a monster month (.486 batting average with 5 homers so far).  But the schedule isn't kind with seven more games against the Twins and four more in Detroit along with the aforementioned series with the Indians and 13 of their final 20 games on the road.   If Cleveland can go into this weekend only 5 games back, as hot as they have been for the last week they have a good chance of overtaking Chicago.

Which means the Yankees will have to overtake the Red Sox to get into the playoffs.  The Yanks have eight more games against Baltimore, a team they have owned the past 5 years.  however, this year appears to be different as they actually have a losing record against the O's so far (4-6).  They also have one last three game set against Tampa, a team that has surprisingly owned them this year (5-11).  Their offense has to get going as only Jason Giambi and Robinson Cano are having strong Septembers and the picture for their starting pitching isn't particularly rosy either.  Randy Johnson and Aaron Small have been exceptional of late and Jaret Wright has had two serviceable starts, but they'll need better than the 5+ runs per game allowed that they are getting from Shawn Chacon and Chien-Mien Wang.  Much of their postseason hopes will likely hinge on how successful Mike Mussina is upon his return.

The Red Sox rotation is running pretty smoothly with no starter having a September ERA over 4.20.  The offense has been struggling of late, but that hasn't stopped David Ortiz, John Olerud, Kevin Millar and Tony Graffanino from some game winning heroics.  Boston has a three-gamer against their kryptonite, Baltimore, and also a four game series with Oakland.  Surprisingly, Toronto has given them fits this season (4-8), but that should be partially offset by a series against Tampa against whom they are 12-4 so far.  If the Yanks can get hot, it could come down to the final weekend in Boston.  However, right now it looks as though the Red Sox are in a good position to maintain their lead.

Oakland has a pretty tough schedule until the final weekend of the season when they finish in Seattle.  Cleveland, Boston, Minnesota, Texas and Anaheim are in the cue until then.  Against only Texas do the A's have a strong record of success this season.  Moreover, they appear to have cooled down since a torrid August with only three hitters posting an OPS in excess of .800 in September: Mark Ellis, Jason Kendall and Mark Kotsay.  Two of their core hitters, Eric Chavez and Dan Johnson are around .600 for the month, and Nick Swisher's September OPS is under .300.  They'll need a lot more production than that if they want to play past the first two days of October.  They're also showing some cracks in the rotation as no starter has an ERA under 4.00 this month.

Meanwhile, the Angels have Seattle, Detroit, Texas, Tampa, Oakland before finishing in Texas.  While it's true the Devil Rays swept them in an earlier series, the next time they face will be in Anaheim where they won two of three earlier.  Unlike the A's rotation, the Angels starters have been solid: all of them have ERAs under 4.50 this month, led by Paul Byrd's 0.60 and John Lackey's 1.38 and Bartolo Colon pushing toward a Cy Young award.  The offense has been in gear as well, with Garrett Anderson, Chone Figgins, Vlad Guerrero, Casey Kotchman and Steve Finley all posting OPS in excess of .900.   Both teams have the same number of home and away games and each has a 41-30 record at home.  The difference in the standings is in their road records and I expect that is where the division will be decided.

There are some lesser known players on the spoiler teams who could have both a fantasy and real impact over the final three weeks.  Bernie Castro (BAL) is getting a look in Baltimore and has always possessed terrific speed.  In just over a week he has stolen four bases and should finish in double digits.  Aaron Guiel (KC) clouted 30 homers in AAA Omaha and Matt Diaz (KC) hit .370 there.  Both should get extended looks down the stretch as the Royals play spoiler.  Of course, that depends largely on manager Buddy Bell realizing that his team is out of contention - it has been since May - and seeing if these two, as well as Chip Ambres, can help his team as regulars next year instead of playing known mediocrities (and that's being generous) Terrence Long and Emil Brown the rest of the way.  The safe bet is probably that Long and Brown will play full-time, but there's always hope that Bell will have a Damascus road experience.

National League
The National League races are much more easily defined.  The Cardinals are assured of the Central and the Braves and Padres will probably win their divisions, each up by 6 games.  True, Barry Bonds has returned and that will make the race in the West a little more interesting to watch, but the Giants only have two hitters posting OPS in excess of .780 this month (JT Snow and newly-acquired Randy Winn who has been hitting like Bonds), their two most important starters - Noah Lowry and Jason Schmidt - both have ERAs over 5, and their bullpen is still pretty ugly.  They'll need more than Bonds to make it a race. 

So the only real question is who will win the wild card.  Currently, the Marlins sit atop the heap and I like their chances to close it out.  Dontrelle Willis is gunning for Cy Young consideration and Josh Beckett has been pitching pretty well as of late.  Their offense boasts 5 players with an OPS of 800 or better this month (Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo (!), Damian Easley and Jeff Conine) and of those, only Conine isn't above .900.  None of their remaining opponents have shown a decisive edge this season and they finish with six games at home: three against the Nationals, who they've owned in recent match-ups, and three against Atlanta. 

The Astros have an outside shot, but they'll need more than Lance Berkman - the only Astro who has an OPS better than .800 so far this month - if they hope to generate enough offense.  Pitching-wise, they are in good shape with Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt having terrific months, and getting solid contributions from Wandy Rodriguez and Ezquiel Astacio.  The rest of their schedule isn't too bad with the exception of two games against the Cardinals (who have totally dominated them this season) and the Cubs, against whom they've had a slight disadvantage.  They've owned Philly going 6-0 against them, but won't play them again unless they somehow force a one-game playoff against them.

Philadelphia will have a tough time overcoming series against Atlanta and the Mets as both have winning records against the Phils.  Of the Philly starters, only Jon Lieber is pitching like their playoff lives are on the line.  The rest have posted ERAs 4.50 or higher this month.  The hitters, however, are making up for it with five regulars (Rollins, Howard, Bell, Abreu and Burrell) and three part-timers (Lofton, Pratt, Michaels) posting OPS in excess of .800.  Part of that is due to playing seven of their last 11 games at home.  They won't be so lucky the rest of the way, with 12 of their final 18 on the road, including a season finale in Washington.  That may not sound like much, but the season series between the two teams is even with the Nats taking two of three the last time they met at RFK. 

The list of lesser known players on spoiler teams to watch begins with a couple of Brewers players.  J.J. Hardy seems to have found his hitting stroke (1.179 OPS this month) and Bill Hall continues to surprise.  His position flexibility makes him especially attractive.  Nate McLouth (PIT) is doing nothing to hurt his chances next year, hitting .407 and slugging over .500.  All eyes are on Conor Jackson in Arizona, and after a slow start and difficulty getting at bats due to the resurgence of Tony Clark, he's starting to show why he was one of the most promising hitting prospects this year with an OPS of .844 this month.  He probably isn't getting a lot of publicity, but Oscar Robles (LA) has been pretty solid of late and could be playing himself into a full-time role next season.  It's unclear how much pop he has in his bat, but when the Dodgers signed him he was hitting .388 with 4 homers in 29 games in the Mexican League.  Rick Short (WAS) has hit two homers since his call-up: one off Dontrelle Willis and the other off John Smoltz.  However, those will be the highlights of a very brief career.  Ryan Zimmerman (WAS) gets a lot of hype and he will be a star player in the near future, but he's not yet the kind of player who'll swing a fantasy race in your favor.  That may not come until 2007.