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MLB Playoff Predictions

This may well be my last post for a while on The Scores Report, so I figured what better way to go out than with some way-too-early playoff predictions? I’ll forecast each of Major League Baseball’s six division winners as well as each league’s two wild card teams. You know, so all my readers can come back and mock my wild inaccuracy in two months time.

Below, you’ll find the name of my predicted champion with their current record and place in the standings in parentheses. Also inside the parentheses is the percent chance that team will win their division (DIV) as well as make the playoffs in some fashion (POFF) as calculated by coolstandings.com and showcased on ESPN’s Hunt for October.

AL East: New York Yankees (72-52, First Place, DIV: 74.9, POFF: 96.5)

This is one of the easier predictions to make, as despite losing three straight to the White Sox, the Yankees hold the American League’s best record. As good as the Rays are, they’re simply not going to catch up with  the boys from the Bronx, especially with ace C.C. Sabathia returning to start on Friday.

AL Central: Detroit Tigers (66-57, Second Place, DIV: 31.0, POFF: 55.7)

This one’s a real toss-up between Detroit and the first place Chicago White Sox. The way I see it, the Tigers have been seriously underperforming. They should have been on top of the division all year, instead the AL Central race has turned into a competition to see who can be the most above average.

Although Chicago’s being given a 69 percent chance to win the division (83.3 percent to make the playoffs), for me, that’s the Tigers. They’re only two games back in, and 16 of the 39 contests left on their schedule are against teams with winning records. Detroit will play nearly a quarter of their remaining games, nine, against the Kansas City Royals, against whom they’re 7-1 so far.

The Tigers and White Sox will face off seven more times this year, and those games will be the key to the division. Both teams have a bit of extra incentive: there’s a solid chance that the one that comes in second place won’t make the playoffs at all, what with the Rays, Orioles, and A’s playing as they have.

AL West: Texas Rangers (72-51, First Place, DIV: 84.9, POFF: 96.2)

This may be the lone lock among these predictions. The Rangers are looking to return to the World Series for the third straight season, and I’d bet they’d like to win one after losing to the Cardinals and Giants in the past two championships. Will the third time be a charm?

We’ll see, right now we’re just talking about winning the division, and as of now, the Rangers have an AL-high 84.9 percent chance to do that. The Rangers have without a doubt the league’s best offense. They lead the league in runs scored (627), average (.277),  and on-base percentage (.340), while trailing only the Yankees in slugging percentage (.444). Lucky for Texas, the Angels have fallen off hard of late, and while the A’s have been quite a surprise, it’s unlikely they’ll close their five-game gap.

AL Wild-Cards: Tampa Bay Rays (69-55, Second Place AL East, DIV: 23.3, POFF: 79.1), Oakland Athletics (65-56, Second Place AL West, DIV: 13.2, POFF: 55.0)

The Rays will ride into the first AL wild-card spot with relative ease on the backs of their pitching staff. They’re tied for the best team WHIP (1.20) and batting average against (.232) in the majors and rank second in ERA (3.27).  Plus, they’ve been one of baseball’s hottest teams as of late, winning seven of their last ten.

The second spot is much tricker. The O’s have been perhaps the season’s biggest surprises, but I just don’t seem them making it given the strength of the AL East. Instead, it will be another team with a vowel-based nickname, the Oakland A’s, who have games with Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Baltimore, Detroit, New York and Texas remaining on their schedule. Ironically, they’ve only got losing records against the worst two teams on that list, Minnesota and Seattle, so they’ll just have to keep doing what they have been. Having recently acquired shortstop Stephen Drew from Arizona, the A’s aren’t going to just lay down and die.

NL East: Washington Nationals (77-47, First Place, DIV: 87.7, POFF: 99.7)

I’ve been saying it all year, the Nationals are doing it right. It’s been rumored that the team would shut down Stephen Strasburg after he reached around 160 innings, although GM Mike Rizzo has consistently said there is no set limit and that he alone would make the decision. Strasburg has 145.1 under his belt thus far, and the team recently announced that he’ll be sitting for two or three starts. We’ll see what the 24 year-old ace is able to do in the playoffs with all that rest. For now, John Lannan will take his spot in the rotation.

With the team six games ahead of the Atlanta Braves and holding the best DIV and POFF scores in the majors, they’re unlikely to miss Strasburg too much.The fact is they’ve got the league’s best pitching staff with or without him. Sure, Strasburg is a huge part of their league highs in ERA (3.23), quality starts (79), WHIP (1.20), and batting average against (.232), but baseball is a team sport, and the Nats aren’t going to fall off the map without him on the hill every fifth day.

NL Central: Cincinatti Reds (76-49, First Place, DIV: 87.5, POFF: 98.1)

Even without Joey Votto, the Reds have won seven of their last ten. Only the Nationals have a better record than Cincinatti, and that’s why only the Nats have a higher probability of winning their division or making the playoffs. But the Reds have a bigger lead in their division (8 games over St. Louis and 8.5 over Pittsburgh) than any other team in baseball, and nothing’s going to stop that train from rolling.

NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers (67-58, Second Place, DIV: 23.7, POFF: 30.6)

Much like the AL Central race, this one is going to be impacted in large part by the six games the Giants and Dodgers play against each other. Sure, L.A. is a game behind the Giants. And yes, they just got finished losing three straight to San Francisco. But losing Melky Cabrera is going to take a toll on the Giants over their next 38 games, although the effects may not have manifested quite yet, so I’m still picking the Dodgers to take the NL West crown.

NL Wild-Cards: Atlanta Braves (71-53, Second Place NL East, DIV: 12.3, POFF: 89.4), Pittsburgh Pirates (67-57, Third Place NL Central, DIV: 3.7, POFF: 35.7)

Much like the Rays, the Braves are going to have a relatively easy time taking the first NL wild-card spot. Atlanta is better than the record, if that even makes sense considering only four teams have better records. Unfortunately for the Braves, one of them is the Washington Nationals.

The second NL wild-card spot and final pick on my list is the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although they’ve got a fairly tough schedule moving forward, the Bucs will also play Milwaukee, Houston, and Chicago. Pittsburgh is going to have tough time moving ahead of division rival St. Louis and contending with the rest of the pushing and shoving going on for the last NL playoff spot. To be honest, this one is more of a hope than a prediction. I mean, the last time the Pirates made the playoffs was 1992. When else should the Bucs get their luck back, if not exactly twenty years later? If nothing else, their fans deserve it. So does Andrew McCutchen, who’s likely to be the NL’s most valuable player.

Follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Melky Cabrera and the Most Costly Failed Drug Test of All Time

Major League Baseball announced yesterday it would be suspending San Francisco Giants’ outfielder and All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera for 50 games following his testing positive for the performance-enhancing substance  testosterone. The news will be all over television screens, newspapers, and the minds of baseball reporters, fans, and executives—for a day or two at least. But with Cabrera in the midst of a career year and eligible for free agency this offseason, it could well haunt him for the rest of his life.

Cabrera is hitting .346 with 11 home runs, 60 RBI, 13 stolen bases, and a league-leading 159 hits for the Giants this season, his first in San Francisco. He came to the team from Kansas City after being traded for left-handed pitcher Jonathan Sanchez in November and quickly signed a one-year, $6 million deal to avoid arbitration. Cabrera enjoyed similar success playing for the Royals in 2011, hitting .305 with 18 home runs, 87 RBI, and 20 stolen bases. In the prime of his career at age 28 and coming off two great seasons at the dish, Cabrera was sure to receive a multi-year, big money contract this winter. The failed drug test and suspension will change that.

The statistical surge in his breakout season last year came in large part as a result of increased power numbers. Along with career highs in home runs (18) and OPS (.809), Cabrera hit 44 doubles, 16 more than his previous best. It’s impossible to measure what effect his use of testosterone had on those numbers, and even more difficult when it comes to its impact on his even more dramatic spike in batting average. It’s hard to argue that being bigger or stronger helps put the bat on the ball. Nonetheless, teams in need of a good hitter this offseason will be deservedly wary of giving a long-term contract to a player whose output may (or may not) have been significantly affected by his violating the sport’s drug policy.

Before this development, Cabrera might have been looking at a deal along the lines of those signed by (the arguably overpaid) Torii Hunter (five years, $90 million) or (the definitely overpaid) Aaron Rowand (five years, $60 million). But his current prospects will be closer to a few other outfielders on the list of players suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. Namely Mike Cameron, Jose Guillen, and Manny Ramirez. It’s important to note that none of the players on the list of PED suspensions has ever signed anything longer than a two-year contract after failing a drug test. Most had to play it one year at a time for the rest of their careers, as teams were unwilling to grant them anything long-term both for PR reasons and the aforementioned suspicion that their stats would shrink absent the drugs. By failing this drug test the Melk Man has gone from being a name close to the top of every team’s letter to Santa to one who will be lucky to have more than a team or two willing to take a short-term flyer on him in the hopes that he can sustain his production. When things are all said and done, this one failed drug test could end up costing Cabrera more than $60 to 70 million and a whole lot of the peace of mind that comes from knowing where your next paycheck’s coming from.

And hey, that’s just the effects it’ll have on Cabrera and his wallet. Let’s not forget that baseball is a team sport, and that the 50 game suspension comes at a time when the 64-54 Giants are just one game behind the Dodgers in the NL West and deep in the midst of a playoff (and maybe even pennant) run. But the team only has 44 games left in the season, meaning Cabrera will also miss the play-in game should the Giants capture a wild card spot and at least part of their division series (if they make it that far) regardless of the nature of their playoff berth. That is, assuming they get one at all without Cabrera, who has been a large, but ultimately indefinable part of the team’s success. One thing is certain, the San Francisco front office comes off looking like a bunch of future-telling baseball geniuses, as the team traded for Hunter Pence in July. Without Pence, the team would be left with an incredibly shallow outfield. I mean, they were already shallow back there in the grass, that’s why they were willing to let go of Tommy Joseph, one of their top two or three prospects to get Pence in the first place.

Before I sign off, I’d like to note one more thing. As soon as the report of his failed drug test was released, Cabrera released a statement through the players’ union to apologize and admit his mistake, saying, ”My positive test was the result of my use of a substance I should not have used. I accept my suspension under the Joint Drug Program and I will try to move on with my life. I am deeply sorry for my mistake and I apologize to my teammates, to the San Francisco Giants organization and to the fans for letting them down.” Whether his words and regret are genuine or not, at the very least, Melky didn’t make excuses or try to hide behind lawyers, his union, or an appeals process. For that at least, I give him credit.

Follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.

Trade Deadline Recap: This Season’s Five Biggest Deals

The bell tolled another trade deadline come and gone on Tuesday afternoon. In the wake of talk about the effect of new wild card rules on the trade market, and some grand speculation in both directions, some big names, and some big players too, will be wearing new jerseys for the rest of the season. Unfortunately for the New York Yankees, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Just a few years ago, their trade for Ichiro Suzuki would’ve deserved its own full post. But it’s 2012, and instead, it’ll only get these couple sentences. Here are the five trades likely to have the biggest impact on the season moving forward:

5. Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez to the Detroit Tigers

For the Detroit Tigers, it’s now or never. The team has made it no secret that they are done saying “next year,” and little has made that strategy so abundantly clear as trading the team’s top pitching prospect in Jacob Turner to the Marlins for Infante and Sanchez. Currently three games behind the Chicago White Sox in a tight race for the AL Central crown, their two newest faces fill two big holes: second base and the middle of its rotation. We’ll have to wait and see how Sanchez performs and Turner Develops to know which team got the better deal long term. But Infante and Sanchez will do more for the team right now, and that’s all there is for the Tigers.

4. Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants

The Giants are just one game up over the Dodgers in the NL West, and given all the moves LA has been making (discussed below), San Fran had to come up with some sort of counter. What they came up with is two-time all-star Hunter Pence, who’s hitting .271 with 17 homers and 59 RBI this year. In return, the team shipped Tommy Joseph, Nate Schierholtz, and Seth Rosin to Philadelphia. Joseph, a catcher who was one of the team’s best two or three prospects depending on who you asked, is the centerpiece of the deal. The Giants were willing to let him go for Pence, perhaps because they’ve already got Buster Posey behind the plate. After giving up one of their top pitching prospects to rent Carlos Beltran last year, it’s notable that the Giants secured Pence, who’s under contract through 2013. He’s not going to hit as many home runs as he did in Citizens Bank Park, but Pence will be a very important part of the lineup for more than just a few months.

3. Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers

The Angels and Dodgers were the deadline’s biggest movers and shakers, so like the Giants, the Rangers had to come up with something to better their squad for the playoff race to come. Dempster may be 35 years old, and while his 2.25 ERA and 1.04 WHIP are certainly well above the general expectation, the numbers aren’t a total anomaly. Recall that in 2008 he went 17-6 with a 2.96 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over more than 200 innings. Although 15 years in the bigs, it’s Dempster’s first time in the American League, and his 4.63 ERA in 50 career interleague games aren’t exactly a bright spot, they needed someone to fill the hole injuries have made in their rotation. He’s no Zach Greinke, but Dempster will be a big factor if the team hopes to reach the World Series for the third straight season.

2. Hanley Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers

If this was a list of the trades likely to have the biggest impact over the next few years, as opposed to just this season, this one might’ve been at the top of the list. Ramirez might be having a down year (or two) by his standards, hitting .246 with 15 home runs and 56 RBI. And sure, it’s been a little while since 2009, when he hit .342 and brought home a battle title, or his 30/30 campaign in 2008. But Ramirez is coming off an injury and more importantly, he’s still only 28 years old, smack dab in the middle of his statistical prime. Considering the Dodgers gave up very little to get him and also scored Shane Victorino, they might just be the season’s biggest trade deadline winner.

1. Zach Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels

As I said, long term, Greinke moving to the Angels might not be that huge. Who knows where he’ll end up when he becomes a free agent this off season. But with the spot the Angels are in right now, his move to LA is the deadline’s biggest. It’s no surprise that like the Giants and Dodgers, both the Angels and Rangers are on this list. Arguably two of the three best teams in the American League reside in the Western division, and as I discussed last week, playoff spots are no longer created equal. Yes, the Dodgers are in a similar position, and yes, the Rangers made a similar move, but the Angels now have Greinke, who was indubitably the best starting pitcher on the market, to shore up a rotation that already includes Jered WeaverC.J. Wilson, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana. Pitching is the name of the game when it comes to the playoffs to begin with. But what’s crucial for the Halos is that even if they do find themselves forced to employ Weaver in a wild card play-in, they’re not so screwed as most other teams might be with a gang like that to follow him.

Follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.

Josh Hamilton has historic night while belting four home runs in one game

Texas Rangers Josh Hamilton reacts after getting hit by a pitch from New York Yankees Phil Hughes at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on April 25, 2012 in Arlington, Texas. UPI/Ian Halperin

In three games this season against Baltimore pitchers, Albert Pujols had zero hits, zero home runs, zero RBI and just one run scored.

In one game versus Baltimore pitchers, Josh Hamilton had five hits, four home runs, eight RBI and four runs scored.

Yiiiikes.

With his historic performance on Tuesday night, Hamilton became the first American League player to go 5-for-5 with four home runs in one game. He also set an AL record with 18 total bases and became the 16th player to hit four dingers in a single game. Carlos Delgado was the last player to achieve the feat back in 2003 as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays.

It’s rather amazing to think that Hamilton, one of the best sluggers in the game, doesn’t even have a contract past this season. From the Rangers’ perspective, it’s understandable that they don’t want to pony up $100-plus million for a player that has battled off-field demons his entire career but come on – he’s now hitting over .400 and he has 14 long balls on the year. That’s absolutely incredible, I don’t care how early in the season it is.

There’s an argument to be made for St. Louis but thanks in large part to Hamilton, Texas still has the best offense in the league. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Rangers make another deep postseason run, although let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s still a lot of baseball left to be played.

It’s almost comical the way Hamilton and the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp are destroying opposing pitcher this year. Kemp almost looks like he’s not even trying and that’s meant to be a compliment. As of this writing, Hamilton now has more home runs than the entire San Diego Padres team.

For those scoring at home, Hamilton is now on pace to hit 75 home runs this season.

Five Big Surprises Through the First Month of the 2012 MLB Season

Los Angeles Angels Albert Pujols stands in the infield after the top half of the fourth inning against the New York Yankees on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium in New York City on April 13, 2012. UPI/John Angelillo

With April now in the books, what were some of the biggest surprises through the first month of the 2012 MLB Season? I’ve outlined five shockers below.

Pujols suddenly can’t hit.
It’s not completely surprising that Albert Pujols is slumping at the plate to start the season. After all, midway through April last year he was hitting just .222 for the Cardinals with only one home run. But who could have predicted that Pujols would look this bad in his first full month with the Angels? He has zero home runs, is hitting just .217 and has collected only four RBI. He’s clearly pressing right now and it doesn’t look like he has a clue on how to shake out of his funk. He’ll eventually come around but thus far, his struggles at the dish have been national news.

The Cardinals’ pitching staff.
Who would have thought that Adam Wainwright would be the biggest issue facing the Cardinals’ pitching staff through the month of April? Entering Tuesday’s action, Wainwright was sporting a 0-3 record with a 7.32 ERA. Meanwhile, Kyle Lohse and Lance Lynn are both 4-0 and Jake Westbrook is 3-1 with a 1.30 ERA. In fact, Wainwright is the only Cardinals’ starter that has an ERA over 2.78. When Wainwright eventually figures it out (and he will), and Lohse, Lynn, Westbrook and Jaime Garcia continue to pitch as well as they have, the Cardinals will be extremely tough to beat in the National League again this year.

The Washington Nationals are in first place.
Ask the Pirates – being in first place after the first month of the season or even at the All-Star Break (as Pittsburgh was last year) doesn’t mean squat. But the Nationals have been fun to watch regardless. Adam LaRoche has been fantastic, as he’s leading Washington in average (.329), home runs (4), RBI (17), OBP (.415) and total hits (27). But the other story has been the Nationals’ pitching, as four of their five starters have ERAs south of 2.00. The organization just brought up rookie phenom Bryce Harper too, which virtually guarantees that the Nationals will be relevant for a little while longer.

The Tigers aren’t in first place in the AL Central.
Blame the media for this one. Once the Tigers signed Prince Fielder last offseason, everyone just assumed that the rest of the AL Central would just roll over and play dead. But while the Tigers have had issues with their starting pitching, the Indians (11-9, first place) and White Sox (11-11, tied for second) have played well. Justin Verlander continues to be the rock of the rotation and Drew Smyly has been a pleasant surprise, but Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have been disastrous. Porcello is currently sporting an ERA of 6.45 while Scherzer’s ERA is an abysmal 7.77. It doesn’t matter if Fielder and Miguel Carbera continue to hit the snot out of the ball – if the Tigers’ pitching doesn’t come around then there could be an upset brewing in the AL Central.

The Dodgers have the best record in the NL.
Ah, the power of Magic. Apparently all it took for the Dodgers to start playing well was for them to be sold. Los Angeles is currently sitting atop the NL West standings at 16-7, which includes a dazzling home record of 10-2. Matt Kemp has been ridiculous through 23 games, leading the league in batting average (.417), home runs (12) and RBI (25, tied with Texas’ Josh Hamilton). Better yet for L.A. Andre Ethier (.276, 5 HRS, 24 RBI) is actually contributing as well. If the pitching continues to be as good as it has (Clayton Kershaw is 2-0 with a 1.78 ERA while Chad Billingsley is 2-1 with a 2.64 ERA), then the Dodgers will prove that their hot start isn’t a fluke.

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