|American League Keys to Success|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on July 27, 2009
With the first half safely in the books and the trading deadline less than a week away most teams have already decided if they are playing for 2009, 2010 or even further down the road than that.¬† Even if they don't need another piece or two to give themselves a boost for the playoff race, each team has a recipe for success.
Those keys are often key players who need to step to the fore to help their team reach the postseason.¬† Let's take a team by team look at who needs to do what, and what are the keys to success for each of the contenders and pretenders still in the mix.
American League East
The Yankees may be looking down at the Red Sox and Rays in the standings, but it's by no means a comfortable perch.¬† The Yankees have succeeded due to a devastating offense which has allowed them to overcome a inconstant pitching staff which ranks fourth within its own division and ninth in the AL.¬† That offense can carry the team for a while, but the Yankees will only go as far as pitching can carry them.
In Boston the situation might be a little bit rosier, or at least a little less stressful.¬† After all the Red Sox have a solid offense which was just improved with the addition of Adam LaRoche and they have a depth of starting pitching which is only going to get better when Daisuke Matsuzaka returns from the DL in the upcoming weeks.¬† That, plus the promotion of young Clay Buchholz to the Major League roster might give them the best overall rotation in the AL.¬† But the offense, or one two key components of it are slightly concerning.¬† The addition of LaRoche should allow them to compensate for one of them -- the nagging injury plaguing Mike Lowell which could require regular rest.¬† But the second, the production of David Ortiz, who is hitting just .230 with 13 home runs with a .319 OBP isn't comforting in the center of the lineup.¬† A healthy productive Ortiz might be just what this team needs to surge ahead when it matters.
Tampa remains a threat, despite being more than five games out of first as I write this.¬† After a slow start Tampa seems to have put it all together.¬† Their offense is clicking and only the Yankees (532) and the Angels (521) have scored more runs (505) than the Rays.¬† Their pitching¬† (team ERA 4.13) is also remarkably good despite the struggles of starters Scott Kazmir (6.69 ERA), Andy Sonnanstine (6.61 ERA) and David Price (5.60 ERA), but a lot of that has to do with a bullpen which seems to hold the opposition in check night after night allowing the Rays to come from behind.¬† For the Rays it's the starting pitching that needs to toe the line in order for the team to succeed.¬† Jeff Niemann, Matt Garza and James Shields are keeping things together for now, but the Rays need someone to step to the fore and supposedly have made inquiries to find that help via the trade market.
American League Central
The Tigers might for the moment be the class of the AL Central but they certainly aren't secure in that position.¬† Especially offensively where the Tigers rank 10th in the AL in runs scored and only ahead of the lowly Royals in their own division.¬† That's true despite the efforts of Miguel Cabrera (having his usual great season) as well as Curtis Granderson and Brandon Inge both of whom are on pace for career years.¬† The biggest culprit has been the vanishing offensive prowess of Magglio Ordonez.¬† They were players in the Matt Holliday sweepstakes and probably won't be able to find a really big bat via trade.¬† An injury to Cabrera would probably doom their season, and unless Granderson and Inge continue to play the rest of the season at this pace a slow fade in the standings seems almost inevitable.
That puts the pressure on a pitching staff which has outperformed pretty much everyone's expectations after being just awful last season.¬† The keys to that have been the resurgence of ace Justin Verlander who's improved his ERA by over a run and a half from last season and new faces Edwin Jackson (acquired via trade with the Rays in the offseason) and homegrown talent Rick Porcello.¬† These three have largely shouldered the load of keeping the Tigers in the mix.¬† That could be in danger if any of the three falter and Armando Galarraga can't step up to fill their shoes.¬† And the warning flags are flying as Rick Porcello's last five starts have been rough as he's yielded 21 runs (19 earned) in 18 2/3 innings.¬† No doubt the Tigers will make some moves to shore up their pitching in the coming days.
On the south side of Chicago the White Sox are gearing up for a serious run.¬† Like the Tigers above them, they've thrived on solid pitching which has kept them in games while their underachieving offense has managed to score just enough to keep them on the right side of .500.¬† That for the Pale Hose is probably the key to their whole season -- their aged offensive powers -- Jermaine Dye (35), Jim Thome (38) and Paul Konerko (33) have accounted for 50% of the teams home runs and have driven in almost 43% of the teams runs (187 of the 432 runs).¬† The return of Carlos Quentin from the DL might give the offense a much needed boost, but the lineup seems fragile.
Pitching-wise they are in much better shape with a depth of starters matched only perhaps by the Red Sox and Rays in the AL.¬† The leader is Mark Buehrle, who is having a career season and is the only one of the bunch capable of carrying the banner of staff ace.¬† So long as he stays healthy the rotation at least should be moderately secure.
The Twins playoff hopes just took another shot in the arm as starter Kevin Slowey might actually be done for the season, but will miss at least a month in any case.¬† That leaves a pitching staff that was already struggling (4.57 ERA) down a key man with a little over two months to play.¬† Slowey was one of only two (the other is Nick Blackburn) starters with an ERA of less than five for the Twins.¬† That's a big surprise for a franchise which has been carried by its pitching for much of the last decade and features Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker and Glen Perkins as the rest of the starters.¬† Liriano getting hot and regaining his form would make up for a lot, but seems a reach at this point as does the Twins chasing pitching via trade.
Offensively they are a bit better, but are hardly a dominating force at this point ranking sixth of the 14 AL teams.¬† However, that's good enough for the team to be able to claim the second best offense in the division (after the surprisingly prolific, but non contending Indians).¬† The Twins offense is keyed around the duo of Joe Mauer with his 17 home runs and .363 BA and Justin Morneau who is hitting .315 with 26 blasts.¬† Mix in Joe Kubel (.310-18) and you have more than 55% of the team's home runs and 40% of their RBIs.¬† Needless to say all must continue to hit at those levels for the team to succeed.
American League West
If the Angels hadn't been beset by injuries all season (John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Vlad Guerrero, Torii Hunter) and the death of pitcher Nick Adenhart the Angels might well be 15 games in front by this point.¬† As it is they lead the Rangers by less than five but seem to be headed back in the expected direction with both health and play improving on a almost daily basis.¬† Even without Vlad for most of the season the Angels have had the second most prolific offense in the game this season.
That's covered for weak pitching staff which played for much of the season without aces Ervin Santana and John Lackey.¬† Lackey seems to have already regained much of his form which has proved to be a big boost to the team as of late, while Santana has had flashes of brilliance but is still struggling to find last season's form.¬† For the Angels to win the division they probably don't need either of these guys to be at their best, but to go deep into the playoffs they'll need healthy starters capable of matching up against Boston, New York and whoever the Central might throw their way.
If you think the Rangers are one of the top hitting clubs in the AL think again.¬† They don't even make the top half of the list ranking eighth in runs scored through this point in the season.¬† Part of that may be due to the injuries and struggles of last season's hero Josh Hamilton and the offensive vanishing of Chris Davis who had been projected to be a middle of the lineup hitter.¬† Without the contributions of these two, the middle of the lineup often boasts a collective average which on most days doesn't break .240.¬† That's not a winning recipe and he Rangers can only take credit for their place in the standings due to 141 home runs (second in the Majors), Angels injuries and the work of a pitching staff which itself is a very middle of the pack contributor.
The contributions of starters Kevin Millwood (3.44) and Scott Feldman (3.59) have provided the Rangers with a reliable starting twosome, but neither can be considered an ace.¬† They simply are the backbone of a pitching staff which needs more arms if they are going to stay in the race.¬† Recent injuries and lack of success in the rest of their starting staff, not to mention the need for additional bullpen help, makes this team's grasp for a playoff spot improbable, but if they could find another quality starter, it would give this team enough of a boost that they could make things interesting.
Management in Seattle seems to be digging in their heels and playing for 2009 despite the fact they are in danger of finding themselves ten games back and badly offensively outgunned.¬† Unless the team can find some inexpensive bats (Jermaine Dye?) via trade the Mariners will have to focus on pitching to carry them to the promised land.¬† That may be shortsighted as they do have several pitchers (Jarrod Washburn, Erik Bedard -- who was just put on the DL yesterday) who could command solid returns via trade.¬† That said, if they M's continue along this path it will be up to the aforementioned pitchers, as well as Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas who'll have to carry a team which struggles to score runs and rank only ahead of the Royals in terms of runs scored.