AL postseason races varied affairs
Unlike NL, quality teams abound in tight chase
CHICAGO -- The 2006 American League race for the postseason reminds you of an All-Star Game roster. There are more worthy candidates than there are available spots.
If you look at the contenders in the AL East and the AL Central and the AL Wild Card race, there are five teams vying for three postseason positions. The argument can be easily made that all five are good enough to be considered legitimate October teams.
By record, in fact, these are five of the six best teams in baseball -- the Detroit Tigers, the New York Yankees, the Chicago White Sox, the Minnesota Twins, the Boston Red Sox. The AL West is outside this discussion because no team in that division projects as a Wild Card contender.
Detroit, with an 8 1/2-game lead in the Central, is the only club that even resembles a lock. But the Yankees have improved their situation dramatically, winning 11 of their last 15 and taking a three-game lead in the East. The trades for Bobby Abreu, Cory Lidle and Craig Wilson have also made this team look much more like an eventual winner.
The Yankees and the White Sox have been on display the last three nights at U.S. Cellular Field, the White Sox winning two of three, including a 5-4 victory Thursday night. At the close of business in this series, the standings showed both of these teams as postseason qualifiers, the Yankees leading the East, the White Sox one-half game up on the Twins for the Wild Card lead.
It is reasonable to expect that both the Yankees and the White Sox will be in the postseason, not merely because of their relatively slender current leads, but because of what they are. The Yankees have persevered in the face of a wave of injuries and have made acquisitions that were ideal for their needs. The White Sox are defending champions, and they are in a postseason position even while their pitching has not been everything they expected.
The White Sox are still talking about winning the Central, in part because they believe they can get back to last year's championship level of play, in part because they still have 10 games left against Detroit. The White Sox have gone 6-3 against the Tigers so far this year.
"We're still in it," general manager Ken Williams said Thursday of the AL Central race. "We're still in it to win."
The difference between the White Sox of 2005 and the current group is that last season's team was carried by its pitching. This year, the White Sox have more often had to score runs in great bunches to win.
"We're not the same team we were last year," manager Ozzie Guillen said. "It's two different clubs. This year, we've had great hitting and our pitching is inconsistent."
That isn't generally a championship blend.
"Whoever pitches the best, whoever catches the ball the best will win," Williams said. "Rewind the tape from Spring Training, I've said that all along."
But the White Sox remain convinced that their pitching will return to a higher level.
"We got the people, we got the arms, we got the people who we think should be able to do it," Guillen says. "The material is there."
If the Tigers don't falter, and there hasn't been any faltering in their 76-38 record, the White Sox will have to settle for a battle with the Twins and the Red Sox for the Wild Card. The Twins have put on a stunning 40-13 run since mid-June and even with rookie ace Francisco Liriano going on the disabled list, they don't seem to be fading quietly away. The Red Sox have stumbled recently, losing five straight, including three to the eminently beatable Kansas City Royals.
But the three clubs currently in the AL Wild Card hunt are all deserving of a postseason berth. It's not like the counterpart race in the National League, where, if you're not the Cubs or the Pirates, you can be sub-.500 and still very much alive in the Wild Card chase.
"There are a lot of good teams involved," Yankee manager Joe Torre said of the AL Wild Card race. "It's not going to become a free-for-all like the National League where somebody wins three games in a row to jump right into the middle of it.
"We have legitimate [contenders] here with Minnesota and Chicago and the Red Sox right now. Where early on it seemed like the Wild Card winner was going to come from the Central Division, that's not necessarily the truth now. They're all good teams and a club wins six, seven in a row, they would be the favorite again. All are certainly capable of doing that. The schedule will bite somebody."
There has been a lot of anxiety among the South Side fan base because the White Sox are, instead of winning wire-to-wire, bouncing back and forth between second and third place in the Central, in and out of the Wild Card lead. One of the people who does not see the White Sox having long-term problems is Torre.
"The White Sox are a good team," he said. "They're a six- or seven-game winning streak away from being where they want to be. Detroit's just having one of those years. They're winning all the time. But the [White] Sox are scary."
What is potentially scary for this entire group is that at least two richly deserving clubs in these two American league divisions are not going to reach the 2006 postseason.
In many other seasons, you could look at clubs that contended but did not reach the postseason and identify some shortcomings that eventually doomed them. Relative to the rest of baseball, identifying those shortcomings is going to be a much harder task with whichever of these five clubs do not reach the postseason.
This is a year of imbalance between the leagues, as Interleague Play dramatically demonstrated. The AL has more of everything, except franchises. The surplus of quality means a shortage of postseason spots for teams that are clearly good enough to play after the regular season ends.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.