Race to the Wild Card

In 2002, the Anaheim Angels took an AL West lead into mid-September, but lost the lead to the Oakland Athletics, ultimately easing in to a Wild Card berth. In 2003, the Florida Marlins took a .500 record in early July, but turned a spectacular second half, staying ahead of the Astros by four games to earn the Wild Card. In 2004, the Boston Red Sox were a top team in the AL through mid-August, despite owning a .500 win percentage from May 28th to August 15th. Seven weeks later, the Red Sox had won 34 of their final 46 games, winning the Wild Card by seven games.
In 2002, the Wild Card winning Angels won the World Series. In 2003, the Wild Card winning Marlins defeated the Yankees in six games, winning their second World Series since 1997. In 2004, the Wild Card winning Red Sox won their second World Series since… 1918. Three consecutive Wild Card winners yielded World Series Champions, which is interesting. Three consecutive teams that were guaranteed no more than 5 home games in 12 respective League games went on to win the World Series. If the WC winner is lucky enough, the Royals’ All-star representative didn’t blow the opportunity to bring home field advantage. In each of the past three years, the AL team has held Home Field advantage, meaning that the 2002 Angels and the 2004 Sox were recipients of that extra push. Is there something about that Wild Card that makes a team that much more determined to win? Is there a secret ingredient in each team? Well, if I knew, I suppose I’d be a consultant to a baseball team. My question is: where were the previous three Wild Card/World Series champions on July 22nd, 200(2,3,4) and who will emerge out of the teams in the running right now?
July 22, 2002
Anaheim and Oakland were within arm’s length in the AL West. The Rangers were hiding in the cellar at 18 1/2 back, but the Angels were one game back of the Mariners, while the A’s were two back. Meanwhile in the Wild Card race, the Angels were just a half game up over the Red Sox, who were just trying to keep pace with the Yankees (four games back). In large part, all the Angels had to do was sit back and let Seattle implode. The Mariners went 27-27 in the final two months of the season, while the Red Sox weren’t much better at 30-26. The Angels went 36-20 in August and September, completing a 99 win season. The Angels actually led the AL West by a game on September 15th, but lost three games of four games on the road in Oakland, dropping the Angels back in the division. The A’s never looked back, and had to scratch and claw in order to take the division and win 103 games. The Athletics’ 20-game win streak was imperative to the run, despite only making a six game improvement on the Angels in that span of time. Finishing the final two months of the season 42-12, the A’s won the division by four games, ultimately losing an ALDS battle to the Minnesota Twins.
July 22, 2003
The Marlins trailed the Phillies for the Wild Card by four games, and were third in the race (behind Los Angeles by a half game). However, the Marlins were also up against five other teams who were close in their rear view mirror. And just like the Angels, the Marlins didn’t have to do too much in order to grab the lead. By August 31st, despite a 14-14 month, the Marlins were tied with the Phillies for the Wild Card lead. After starting off with a miserable 16-22 record to begin the season, the Marlins had replaced manager Jeff Torborg with Jack McKeon. From the day he was hired, McKeon was much more verbal about his feelings than Torborg, and it rubbed off on the team. Florida went 75-49 the rest of the way, including an 18-8 September, finishing with the best non-division winner record, and grabbed the 2003 NL Wild Card.
July 22, 2004
As mentioned earlier, despite getting off to a hot start, the Red Sox were in the midst of a 10 week span of .500 baseball. Despite leading the Wild Card by only a half game, the Red Sox were not playing playoff baseball. With three other teams separated by only two games, the Red Sox needed to make a move on the competition. And when the team dropped dead weight Nomar Garciaparra, pulled in Orlando Cabrera, brought in all-glove but no bat Doug Mientkiewicz, picked up speedster David Roberts, for example, the solution had been found. The Sox went 21-7 in August, 18-10 in September, and 3-1 in October, setting the stage for the first World Series victory in a long time.
July 22, 2005
Now given the success of the Wild Card winner in the past few years, let’s take a look at AL challengers. Minnesota currently stands at 52-42, but the Yankee juggernaut sits behind them at 51-43. The Orioles stand at 50-44, the A’s stand at 50-45, the Indians are 49-47, the Rangers are 48-46, and the Blue Jays have a 48-47 record. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have a patched together team, but are still 53-42. The AL West looks pretty set with the Angels running away, and the AL Central has been locked up since day one, but with two spots available for seven different teams in the race, it could come down to the wire.
So for each team, let’s break down what they have going for them, what could stand in their way, and a projectionn.
Minnesota (52-42):
Good: Hello, they’re in the AL Central. 13 of their games will be against Detroit and Kansas City.
Bad: 14 of their next 19 series are against teams that are currently over .500.
Projection: The Twins brought in Bret Boone to try to add a spark to their offense. And even though he went 2/5 last night with a couple of RBIs, he’s still only batting .200 (6/30). This team needs a major overhaul, or else they’ll be in danger of slipping against more powerful teams.
New York (51-43):
Good: They’re the Yankees, Steinbrenner will not sit still in late July and early August before the waiver deadline, and despite being low on prospects, Billy Beane may end up helping out his buddy Cashman.
Bad: Between August 2nd and September September 5th, the Yankees only have one off day. The team can mash, sure, but can the bullpen be prepared to close out one run games?
Projection: The Red Sox are good, but I think the Yankees are just a little bit better. One of the two will win the AL East, but where does the Wild Card come from?
Baltimore (50-44):
Good: The team is 23-15 against the AL East this year, and 31 of their final 68 games are against intra-division rivals.
Bad: Despite starting 30-16, the Orioles have followed that up with a 13-19 record in the past 32 games. There’s no way the Orioles can continue to chase the playoffs without an upgrade somewhere.
Projection: The upgrade has to come from Florida, with a package including Hayden Penn or John Maine. If the Flanagan/Beattie duo refuse to part with the prospects necessary to get AJ Burnett, then the Orioles will have to pray that the free agent market is deep enough. I believe they’ll pull the trigger, however, and will be there late. Unfortunately, it may be too little too late.
Oakland (50-45):
Good: They haven’t even played Detroit or Kansas City yet this year. They’ll play both teams twelve times, and will look to make their patented second half run.
Bad: Three young pitchers who haven’t pitched over 85 innings in any one major league season could spell fatigue for the A’s. The true test begins August 26th, when the A’s will play 30 of their final 36 games against .500+ teams.
Projection: Billy Beane doesn’t pull blockbuster trade to push for playoffs, believing that the year to shoot for is 2006, with 2007 a big push to coincide with Daric Barton’s incredible rise through the minor leagues.
Cleveland (49-47):
Good: Play 36 of 66 remaining games against powerhouse Royals, Devil Rays, Tigers, and Mariners.
Bad: Bullpen is solid, starting pitching is not. Indians have the rotation locked up, but Thome and Ramirez are gone — Cleveland can’t outslug the opposition anymore.
Projection: Cleveland’s “return to glory” is delayed another year. A return to .500, however, means that the team continues to improve, and will be that much better in 2006.
Texas (48-46):
Good: The team can hit all day long, and the park helps out plenty.
Bad: Rangers continue to slide without another starting pitcher outside of Kenny Rogers and Chris Young. The team is set about everywhere else, but if the best they can do is James Baldwin and Kevin Grybowski, then this team is going to fall back quickly.
Projection: The Rangers have a farm system thanks to Grady Fuson and John Hart, and Burnett hasn’t been traded as of yet. The Rangers just need an ace who can be there in the long run, because Rogers can’t pitch forever.
Toronto (48-47):
Good: The Blue Jays are sitting just far enough under the radar to allow Baltimore, New York, or Boston force somebody out. Ted Lilly will need to be the team’s ace while Halladay is out, but he has been a good second half pitcher over the past couple of years, and a 2.84 ERA this month could mean good things to come.
Bad: Their ace is hurt again, and will be out until August. Remember though, Lilly stepped up big time when Mark Mulder went down with that hip injury in 2003.
Projection: Blue Jays finish over .500, but not by much. 2003 AL Cy Young Halladay’s injury comes at the worst possible time.
In the end, I think New York wins the division, while Boston coasts into the Wild Card. But hey, Home Field advantage isn’t everything, right?