We're a couple of weeks into baseball's second half, the time where teams-who-are-within-10-games-of-the-division-lead's performances actually begin to count. The playoff picture is shifting more than Pangea because prominent playoff teams are going on runs, for good and for bad. In honor of Frank the Tank, here's who's currently streaking, and how it may effect their playoff chances.
The White Sox: Last year's champions haven't done too well since the All Star break, losing 10 of 12, including a recent sweep by the Twins. Their pitching staff, once their greatest strength, has become an albatross. The starters' ERA is up to 4.64 and clmbing. The White Sox recently traded for Mike MacDougal, who will help their bullpen but nothing else, and are apparantly very interested in Alfonso Soriano. I'm not sure how that'll help their pitching, but Ken Williams is a dealer and the possibility is strong that he'll swing a deal at the deadline no one is expecting, perhaps for Barry Zito. The team's second half slide is reminiscent of last year, when they let a 15-game divisional lead fall to 1.5 before composing themselves in the season's final weekend. The only problem is that last year they HAD that 15-game lead to lose. Coming back from the All Star break, the White Sox were already firmly entrenched behind the Tigers. They still have time to turn things around, but now is the time before they lose more ground to...
The Twins: We've mentioned in the past that if the Twins could keep up their torrid June pace, they'd pass the Tigers and give the White Sox a run for the division lead. We were half right -- they are keeping up that incredible pace, but it's the White Sox they're passing and the Tigers who are currently in their sights. The Twins are 12-2 in the last 14 games, and the duo of Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano is looking quite a bit like the Johnson/Schilling combo that led the Diamondbacks to a World Series. If Brad Radke can remain serviceable as their third starter, the Twins rotation will scare people heading into the stretch. This is to say nothing of the Twins desire to acquire a big bat -- Soriano or Carlos Lee -- at the deadline. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are two incredible young hitters, and Nick Punto is providing a spark at third base. In the back of my head, I still see the Tigers falling. The Twins might be the team that jumps on that opportunity.
The Braves: The Braves have won seven of 10. Combined with pedestrian (yet still above average) play from the Mets, the Braves recent turnaround has caused Metros fans to sweat. The Braves have earned the right to never be counted out after winning 14 straight division titles, many of which were won by second-half comebacks. They're 12 out of the division and 5.5 back from the wild card. They absolutely won't catch the Mets, but a wild card could be realistic. That, in itself, is a feat for a team that went 6-21 in June. They won't be active around the deadline, which could hurt their chances. They could stand to add a starter and a bat to run away from the wild card pack, but even without they're not looking at tough competition. Cincinnati, Arizona, and San Francisco sit in front of them -- three teams that do little to instill fear around the majors. Any Braves team has a chance, and I'd give this one a legitimate shot at the wild card. They won't make it out of the first round but, considering the first half of the season, just making it there will feel like a World Series.
The Cardinals: After a scary start to the season that saw Albert Pujols on the DL and the Reds in front of them in the standings, the Cardinals have a five-game division lead and have won 10 of 13. They've got a great top of the lineup and a rotation that goes four-deep. People had seemed to lose track of the Cardinals through the first half of the season, odd considering they've been a World Series contender for the last 3 years. They've been linked to both Bobby Abreu and Rodrigo Lopez, acquisitions that would make them even more dangerous. As it stands, they're the only team that can compete with the Mets in the NL. It'll be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out and whether or not they go into the playoffs as the NL favorite again.
The Padres: The Padres are only 6-7 since the All Star break but have won four in a row and sit on top of what is, once again, MLB's worst division. More importantly, they get much-needed ace Jake Peavy from injury, and he looked great in his first start back. They need another arm to make a difference -- they're also in the run for Lopez -- and they're looking to add someone to play the hot corner, most likely Mike Lowell. If Peavy gets back to throwing like last year's Jake Peavy, the Padres shouldn't have much trouble winning the division, but they don't have the firepower or depth on the mound to make a long playoff run.
The Dodgers: The Dodgers are an abysmal 1-13 since the break and have completely played themselves out of a playoff spot. Just a month ago people were raving about the unexpected success of the Dodgers. Their only sustained offense has come from Nomar and Rafael Furcal. Their staff is pedestrian behind Brad Penny, but expect him to come crashing back to Earth along with the rest of the team. The injury to Eric Gagne has really hurt them. Perhaps it wasn't as noticeable in the first half because the team was finding ways to win games, but the lack of a reliable closer has dealt a blow to their confidence in close games. They're rumored to be interested in Carlos Lee, but even in the unlikely event Lee lands in L.A., it won't make much of a difference.