With the 2006 season just over a third complete, the wheat begins to separate from the chaff and it starts to become clearer which teams might be legitimate playoff contenders and which teams might just be flukes. So without further ado, let’s have a look at the six current division leaders with an eye towards which teams might still be around in mid October.
AL East: New York Yankees
The Yankees have big pitching problems with the decline of Randy Johnson, the collapse of Aaron Smalls, injuries to Shawn Chacon, Carl Pavano, and Jaret Wright, and one of the weakest bullpens they have ever assembled behind Mariano Rivera. In addition, serious injuries to Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui have depleted the best lineup in either league. But the bottom line is, the Yankees lineup was so ridiculously strong to start the year that it has been able to absorb the losses of Sheffield and Matsui and still continue to make up for the occasional pitching meltdown. Meanwhile, the Yankees have both outscored and allowed fewer runs than the Red Sox. Although the Yankees are definitely not a lock to win the division, they will certainly stick around to the very end. Verdict: For Real
AL Central: Detroit Tigers
The Tigers have certainly made a strong impression in the first two months, surprising everyone by posting the best record in the Major Leagues as well as the best team ERA. A few weeks ago, it would have been tempting to say the Tigers were for real. However, the Tigers had built up their amazing numbers by playing almost entirely against teams with losing records. The last 10 games, in which they have gone 3-7 against their main playoff competition in the Yankees, Red Sox, and White Sox, has been a wake-up call, and has shown that the tigers have a ways to go before they can be considered legit. At this point, to win 95 games, the Tigers would have to go 57-45 the rest of the way, which seems like a pretty tall order with several games left to play against the Yanks, Soxes, and Blue Jays. Verdict: Fluke
AL West: Texas Rangers
The Rangers have surprised a lot of people by pulling ahead in a division many thought would be dominated by the A’s and Angels. The Rangers have always had a powerful lineup, but this year there have been some pleasant surprises from the pitching staff, including some nice outings by rookies Kameron Loe and John Koronka, and three dazzling starts by recent call-up John Rheinecker. But on the whole, pitching continues to be the achilles heel of the Rangers. Offseason acquisitions Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla have been busts, and the Rangers certainly regret trading Chris Young, who has blossomed in San Diego, for Adam Eaton, who has yet to pitch an inning. Meanwhile the lineup, although solid, has definitely been missing the big bat and sparkplug play of Alfonso Soriano (even if not missing his defense at second), and things are going to get a lot tougher once the A’s begin to mount their usual late-season charge and the Angels wake up and remember they are the Angels. Verdict: Fluke