By Joe Lucia, The Outside Corner
We're coming up on September, the month of the year where playoff spots are clinched and award winners take a stand. Going into the season's final month, there are a lot of questions floating around the league. Five of the six division races are within five games, and there are nine teams vying for two wild card spots in each league. The only award truly locked up is Mike Trout's AL Rookie of the Year. It's going to be a fantastic race down the stretch, and here are ten predictions for the final month of the season.
1. The Reds, Nationals, and Rangers coast into the playoffs.
These are the three best teams in baseball, and I don't think anyone would argue that. They've got the three best records in the league, and have the three largest division leads. Also, all three are playing great baseball in August: the Rangers are 18-10, the Nationals are 18-10, and the Reds are 18-11. I don't think there's anything barring an epic collapse even worse than either one last year to prevent any of these three teams from not playing October baseball.
2. The White Sox hold off the Tigers in the AL Central.
The teams have played roughly as well as each other over the last two months, but Chicago is still holding Detroit off. In their final 32 games, the Tigers play three against the Angels, three against the A's, and 19 games against the Twins, Royals, and Indians, the dregs of the AL Central. The White Sox on the other hand play 18 against the AL Central dregs, four against the Rays, and three against the Angels. Oh yeah, and the teams play each other seven times. It'll come down to those seven games against each other. The Tigers lead the season series 7-4 against the Sox, and swept them in July at Comerica Park. Those seven games are absolutely crucial for both teams, but I think Chicago is able to hold the big money Tigers off.
3. The new and improved Dodgers don't make the playoffs.
The Dodgers are 2-3 (through Wednesday) since the megadeal was completed last Saturday. They've allowed 34 runs in those five games, and have scored just 24. Their schedule down the stretch is absolutely murderous, with six each against the Giants, Diamondbacks, and (suddenly red hot) Padres, and a total of ten against the Cardinals, Nationals, and Reds. Also, they could be without Chad Billingsley and Kenley Jansen for the rest of the season. Losing your second best starter and your best reliever for the season's final month is a combination that spells doom for any MLB contender.
4. The Astros lose at least 110 games.
Going into Thursday's game with the Giants, Houston is 50 games under .500. That's right: FIFTY. Houston is 7-37 since the All-Star Break, and their schedule down the stretch is a killer: six each against the Reds, Cardinals, and Pirates, as well as four against the resurgent Phillies. Even if the Astros play at a .300 pace over the final month (which is a stretch given their struggles of late), they'll still clear 110 losses. If they play at their .159 pace since the Break...well, the Astros will be challenging the Tigers 119 loss season in 2003. That's....really bad.
5. Bryce Harper wins the NL Rookie of the Year award.
You can put to the fact that there are other rookies in the National League wtih a higher fWAR than Harper and better stats, but he's been coming on strong lately. Harper has hit three homers in his last two games (including one on Thursday against the Cardinals), and he's giving a Washington team that has struggled lately a boost on offense. Plus, there's the whole "Bryce Harper is the chosen one" narrative that many mainstream writers are going to shove down our throats once award season rolls around.
6. The A's run out of steam and don't make the playoffs.
It's a great story in Oakland this year, but I don't think it's going to end with a playoff run. Oakland's final 32 games are murder, including seven each with the Rangers and Angels, and three each with the Yankees, Orioles, Tigers, and Red Sox. The A's should still finish at .500, but they're going to need to get some big wins against great teams to make the playoffs, and I don't see that happening, especially on a killer end of September road trip that takes the A's from Detroit to New York to Texas.
7. Ryan Braun finishes with better stats then last season, but doesn't finish in the top three of MVP voting.
Braun's 2012 season has been insanely good. He already has 36 homers, one off of a career high. His OPS is sitting at .999, just five points lower than his career best of 1.004 set in his 2007 rookie campaign. If you're into RBI, he's leading the National League with 92. He's scored 88 runs. He's stolen 21 bases. He's hitting .311. And yet, he's going to get less MVP consideration because A) the Brewers have a terrible pitching staff and B) he's been painted with the steroid scarlet letter despite not even getting suspended. It's ridiculous that the player who's lapping the National League in fWAR likely won't be rewarded for his efforts, but that's the way these writers act sometimes.
8. Felix Hernandez wins his second Cy Young award.
In the AL, it's a two horse race for the Cy Young award between Hernandez and reigning winner Justin Verlander of the Tigers. The battle between the two is a dead heat, with Hernandez actually having one more win thatn Verlander (despite playing on a pitiful team) and having an ERA that's 0.37 lower and currently the best in all of baseball. Hernandez has been silly good over the last two months (1.57 ERA), and I think that will give him the edge over the rest of the season compared to Verlander, who has been steady but not beastlike over the course of the season.
9. The Pirates make the playoffs.
I know, you would have never believed me if I told you this before the season. But the Pirates are still in the playoff hunt, just a half game behind the Cardinals for the second wild card spot. Pittsburgh also has a much more favorable schedule than St Louis down the stretch. The Cardinals have six with the Nationals, a west coast road trip against the smoking hot Padres and the Dodgers, and closes with three against the Reds, while the Pirates have just six with the Reds and three with the Braves. The Pirates have indeed struggled lately, but after two straight shutouts over the Cardinals this week, I think that will give them the mojo required to make a run.
10. The Angels put everything together and sneak into the playoffs.
This megateam has been a disaster this season. Even after acquiring Zack Greinke at the trade deadline, the Halos have a 6.05 team ERA in August. That's beyond awful. But the Angels get a break in September, in that they have 16 games against the A's and Mariners, who have two of the worst three offenses in the AL this season. I think that'll be enough for them to get in.
AL Playoff Teams: Yankees, White Sox, Rangers, Rays, Angels
NL Playoff Teams: Nationals, Reds, Giants, Braves, Pirates
Of course, anything can happen at the end of the season. Key players can step up and make an impact and turn a team into a playoff juggernaut, and at the same time, a dominant contender can go quietly into the night if a superstar disappears. It's going to be a wild final month of baseball.