The Tenth Inning – Week 14 – Part 1 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
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By Mike Ivcic
It’s that time of year again – the All-Star Break! In honor of the midseason classic, it’s time to do a mid-season Power Rankings. Today, we will break-down the American League, followed by a preview of the Homerun Derby and the game itself. Wednesday’s column will have the National League, along with all of the traditional features of the weekly column (Playoff “Dead List,” trivia question, etc). So, without further ado, the rankings:
1. Boston Red Sox – I was making a tentative list last week and had the Yankees here, until this past weekend. Granted Boston beat KC, but they beat them, more than NY can say for their series with the Angels. Despite the offseason moves by the “Evil Empire,” the path to the AL pennant still goes through Beantown.
2. Los Angeles Angels – John Lackey looked good Sunday, and got some huge defensive help behind him in the win over NY. They appear to have recovered from their rough start and reclaimed the division from Texas.
3. New York Yankees – If only they could figure out how to beat Los Angeles. The Yanks got swept by the one team that has always owned them over the weekend and dropped two spots in the process. They still need middle relief help, but it looks like another Sox-Yanks race for the AL East, with the loser as the Wild Card.
4. Detroit Tigers – They’ve rebounded nicely from two down years, thanks to the offensive explosion from Brandon Inge. Only the second Tiger to hit 20 HR prior to the break this decade, he has provided help for Miguel Cabrera and Curtis Granderson in a suddenly dangerous lineup.
5. Tampa Bay Rays – Another team that struggled out of the gate, last year’s AL champs have vaulted into contention as the starting pitching has come back to form. If they can get Scott Kazmir back and healthy, the Rays might be able to overcome one of the Big Two ahead of them and get back to the postseason.
6. Texas Rangers – Even with very little contribution from John Hamilton, the Rangers still find themselves in position to win the AL West, thanks to the stellar pitching mentioned in a previous article. It helps that Nelson Cruz has emerged to fill Hamilton’s void, but they’re going to need that additional bat come September.
7. Chicago White Sox – The “other” Sox are one of the hotter teams heading into the break, despite the 13-7 loss Sunday to Minnesota. They have managed to climb back over .500 and only trail Detroit by 3.5 games. After their comeback last season to surpass Minnesota for the division title, they have to feel like they’re never out of it.
8. Seattle Mariners – One of the strangest teams going, the Mariners were supposed to compete last year and fell flat. This season, they were thought to be rebuilding and have leapt right into the fray in the winnable West. They probably need another bat and/or another pitcher, but they have survived the ups and downs to keep themselves close.
9. Minnesota Twins – The ninth team over .500 in the AL, the Twins are still making due with a low payroll and no major free agent signings. The tandem of Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer leading a young and high-energy team is a pretty big reason why.
10. Toronto Blue Jays – They were number 1 when I did the rankings two months ago, but interleague play signaled the beginning of the end for the Jays, who are now dealing with Roy Halladay rumors. He won’t be going to Boston or the Yankees, but don’t be surprised if a pitching-starved NL team takes a flyer for half a season, like oh… say, the Brewers?
11. Baltimore Orioles – They knew they had no shot this season given their division, but the slow resurgence for the Orioles has seen some good days and good progress in ’09. If Toronto continues their spiral, the Birds could actually manage a fourth place finish this year.
12. Kansas City Royals – They started out well and clearly have some positives upon which to build, but everyone knew they weren’t quite ready to compete. Finishing ahead of the Indians would be two straight years out of the cellar and prove that the franchise is at least going the right way in the standings. Not like there was any other way to go.
13. Oakland Athletics – As I mentioned on the “Dead List” last week, this is a pitching-first team that brought in big name offense and left the pitching staff extremely thin with their offseason moves. Jason Giambi and Nomar Garciaparra can’t start or close games, and since it’s also not 2001, they’re not doing so well offensively either.
14. Cleveland Indians – How a team with Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Travis Hafner, and Victor Martinez is this bad is beyond me, but they win the award for worst AL team at the break. They can’t trade any of those four guys, but everyone else should be up for sale in an effort to regroup.
Analysis: When this event first began, the big-time homerun hitters usually held an advantage. Griffey, Bonds, and McGwire all put on big shows for the fans and hammered balls out of the park, but in recent years (outside of 2006, which I’ll get to momentarily) it’s been the players with the natural swings that have fared better. Players like Garrett Anderson, Bobby Abreu, Josh Hamilton, Vladimir Guerrero, David Wright, and Justin Morneau have all reached the finals with swings unlike that of a traditional “power” hitter. Indeed, only Ryan Howard’s 2006 victory over Wright saw the typical power swinger come out on top. This year, however, that feat is likely to change.
Only Pujols and Mauer have the a-typical swings. Everyone else has the big-time bopper attitude. For the NL, all four first-basemen will participate, and all four have at least 22 homers. Howard has won the event before, but Pujols leads the league in homeruns with 32 and is playing at home. The question is whether that fact will help or hurt him, but then again, Howards is a Missouri-native and might face the same problems. Fielder is the only other player aside from those two to have competed in this event before, and since Busch Stadium doesn’t really favor one side or the other, his chances have to be at least even with both Howard and Pujols. The wild card is Gonzalez, a relative unknown who could make a name early or flame out under the pressure. For the AL, Mauer has gotten some tips from last year’s winner Morneau, and is also pulling a Hamilton by bringing in his old high school coach to pitch. Cruz, meanwhile, has gotten tips from Mr. 28 himself, picking Hamilton’s brain after his teammate drilled 28 into the Bronx night in last year’s semifinal round. Meanwhile Inge needed the fans just to get him into the event, and Pena needed the fans AND an injury, along with his manager’s selection, to join the club. That said, it’s often times the unknown and the underdog that makes some noise in the event.
Prediction: Pujols and Howard thrill the hometown crowd in round one, both reaching the semis. They’re joined by Pena and Mauer, who uses the aforementioned sweet swing to beat Fielder by one. The only former champion (Howard) is sent home in round two by Pena, and the Twins lose their shot at back-to-back winners when Mauer falls shy as well. In the finals, Pujols finally feels the pressure of the hometown fans, and after leading each of the first two rounds can’t summon the strength for a final push, leaving Carlos Pena – the last addition to the field – as the 2009 winner.
Prediction: AL 6, NL 4
Look a special edition of my weekly column, “The Tenth Inning,” this Wednesday, and the regular column every Monday for the Ultimate Capper.
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