With the new playoff system this year, there are several more teams in the playoff hunt, as we round the corner for the final stretch of the season. By my estimations, there are no less than 5 teams in the AL, and 4 teams in the NL that aren’t currently winning their division, but still have a very good shot at making the playoffs by either overtaking their division or making it as a Wild Card team. There are also 4 teams (1 AL, and 3 NL) that are currently leading their division that didn’t make the playoffs last year. So, at this point, there are a lot of new faces hanging around the playoff hunt. I’m going to give you one team from each league that is a little less familiar with the playoffs of late, that I believe has the best chance to not only make the playoffs, but make a legitimate push for the World Series. Sorry, Rangers, Tigers, Yankees, Rays, Braves, Reds, Giants and Cardinals – but, while these teams are certainly in the hunt at the moment, I don’t think anyone would consider them a big surprise contender this year, since they’ve all been in the playoffs at least once in the last 2 seasons. So, we’re left with 4 teams to consider in the AL, and 3 in the NL.
Teams that I would consider new to the playoff hunt in 2012 are: Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s, and Los Angeles Angels. Of those teams, I would say the Angels have the best shot of making a legitimate push for the World Series. The A’s pitching is unbelievable – leading the league in team ERA, despite having to pitch regularly against the offenses in Texas & LA. But, their offense is one of the worst in the league. And, while we know that good pitching beats good hitting in the playoffs, you have to have some hitting to get very far in the playoffs (Oakland’s near the bottom of the league in runs, OPS, total bases, and team batting average). So, I’m going with the team of the remaining three with the best balance of offense and pitching – 3rd in team OPS and stolen bases, 6th in runs scored, extra-base hits and strikeouts offensively (all ahead of the O’s & Sox), and 1st in quality starts, 4th in batting average against, 5th in home runs allowed, 6th in ERA, and 2nd in defense-independent ERA ratio (all of which also ranks them ahead of Baltimore & Chicago). Add to these stats the fact that I think the Angels made the best pick-up at the trade deadline of all these teams (Zack Greinke), and we could very well see LAA in the World Series.
The new faces to playoff contention in the NL are: Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Los Angeles Dodgers. My pick right now would be the Nationals. Everyone knows about their pitching – or at least, about one of their pitchers (Strasburg) and the debate about whether or not he should be shut down before the season’s end, if they’re in the playoff hunt. But, let’s not forget about the rest of the staff – as a team, they have the best ERA in the NL, as well as the best batting average against, the best WHIP, and the most quality starts. That’s not all Stephen Strasburg‘s doing. And, because their pitching staff gets so much attention, we tend to forget how good their offense is – 6th in team OPS and stolen bases, and 4th in extra-base hits. And, they’re only getting better, as they lead the league in runs scored, and are second in team batting average since the All-Star break. Yes, the Dodgers added some needed offense with Ramirez and Victorino, but those additions haven’t exactly manifested themselves as great additions just yet (Ramirez batting .238 & Victorino .118 since moving west). And, if there was one thing the Dodgers really needed – it was another arm. Getting Ethier & Kemp back healthy, in my opinion, is enough offense to make them respectable. But, beyond Kershaw, they have a lot of mediocre pitching that’s overachieving. Washington has 3 All-Star-caliber pitchers at the top of their rotation, and a legit offense. They will be a force to be reckoned with in October.