As we head into September and roster expansions, the questions arise as to what the goal for each team becomes as they close out the regular season. Everybody starts April at 0-0 - where are they now? Some teams are heading to the playoffs, some teams are battling for a spot, and others - like the Diamondbacks - are just trying to finish the year respectably. Let's spend some time on this off-day looking at who looks to be playing post-season baseball.
The Yankees have really pulled away from the Red Sox in the past month. At the All-Star break, the Red Sox had a 3-game lead, but the Yankees are now 7.5 games ahead. They pulled away in the beginning of August with a 4-game sweep against Boston. Although Boston has a strong bullpen, they are trying to add former Mets closer Billy Wagner for the rest of the season, so it will be interesting to see if that changes things. The reigning AL East champions, the Tampa Bay Rays, are 10.5 back but could make a run at the AL Wildcard berth.
The AL Central race is the closest of all the divisions. The Tigers and White Sox have been close all year, but the Tigers have been in first (or tied) since early May. (The Royals, with whom they were tied in the beginning of the year, are now in last place in the division.) The Tigers' main offensive force is first baseman Miguel Cabrera, and Justin Verlander has been a very solid ace. The White Sox, who got into the post-season last year after a 1-0 playoff win, will need to play much better than 500-ball to make a run at Detroit.
I don't think anybody is surprised that the perennial AL West champs are once again leading the pack. Anaheim has won the division 4 of the past 5 years, but only once did they make it out of the division series. Almost all of Anaheim's starting line up is hitting over .300, which is fortunate because their starting rotation's ERA is near 5. The Texas Rangers actually lead the division for much of May and June, but haven't been able to make up any ground since the All-Star break. Their pitching is decent, but the Rangers need more than just Michael Young to bat their way back into the race.
The reigning World Champion Phillies have led the division for most of the season, and have had a fairly wide gap over the Braves since the All-Star break. The Phillies have made their mark on the road this year, going 40-21, 8 games better than at their home ballpark. Their offense is possibly the most potent in the league - Dan Haren once said that facing the Phillies lineup is akin to facing the American League All-Stars! That helps makes up for closer Brad Lidge blowing 8 saves this season (25 saves, 0-5, 6.90 ERA). History will show that no lead going in September is safe (ahem Mets cough), but the team is very solid, especially with the addition of Cliff Lee, and should hold on just fine. Atlanta and the Florida Marlins (8 games back) have traded off 2nd/3rd place spots in recent weeks, and neither can get it together enough to make a run at Philadelphia. Atlanta hasn't been in the playoffs since 2005, and though they're within shouting distance of the NL Wildcard, it doesn't look like they'll make it there this year.
St. Louis's 8-game divisional lead wasn't always so large. At they end of July, they were even half a game behind the Chicago Cubs. But after the Cubs went on a 5-game losing skid, the Cardinals went on a 5-game losing streak. The Cubs recently lost 2 of 3 to the San Diego Padres, and 3 of 4 to the Dodgers, which have put a large dent in their playoff hopes. The return of injured starter Carlos Zambrano might help, but their offense needs to pick it up. The Cardinals have plenty of offense in Albert Pujols, hitting .317 and with 40 home runs. Their have a solid starting rotation (including the addition of John Smoltz) and a fabulous closer (Ryan Franklin, 32 saves, 1.11 ERA) should lead them into the post-season.
The 10-game lead the Dodgers held back in June has nearly vanished to the once-again surging Colorado Rockies. The Rockies are a model of what was supposed to happen when the manager is replaced, something the Diamondbacks didn't do. Colorado was 9 games back at the All-Star break, but have gone 23-13 since then; the Dodgers, meanwhile, are 18-19 since then. Perhaps the re-addition of Manny Ramirez was more of a burden than an asset? The Rockies have been on a 5-game and 4-game winning streak, though some of that may be the benefit of an easy schedule at this time of the year. Huston Street hasn't blown a save since June 2nd, and Todd Helton and Seth Smith are leading the offense. They recently signed veterans Russ Ortiz and Jason Giambi to help them make a post-season run. The Dodgers are still a powerful offensive force - Ramirez, Kemp, and Pierre are all hitting over .300 - and their bullpen is solid. But if recent history is any indication, the Dodgers had better work on extending their lead before the Rockies take it over.
San Francisco Giants (3.0 games back)
Atlanta Braves (4.0 games back)