MLB division leaders pulling away early…but why?

Playoff picture

By Jake McCormick

Is it just me, or do this year’s MLB division leaders look pretty impressive? The only arguable exception to this would be the AL Central, as the Minnesota Twins continue their yearly routine of being that guy at a party that you think should be passed out as everyone is leaving at 3 a.m., but is still calling for the beer bong. But even in the Central, a division in both leagues that defies all expert predictions on a yearly basis, the Detroit Tigers manage to only let them get close enough to hope before extending the lead back to a comfortable margin.

In fact, the smallest lead, as of today, is Detroit’s 4.5 games on Minnesota. The closest in the National League is in the NL West, where the Los Angeles Dodgers are 5 up on the skidding Colorado Rockies. Every other divisional leader is at least 6 games above their closest competition. On this day last year, only the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Angels were sitting comfortably above a 4.5 game lead. In 2007, only the Angels were more than 4.5 up in the AL West. Given that the Wild Card races are always a close bout (in the National League at least), there has to be a logical explanation to why we can already lock up the 2009 division champions with half a month left to play. After some research, I’ve concluded that yes, the 2009 playoffs have the potential to be the most exciting and evenly matched postseason in recent memory.

teixeira-sabathia-burnettSometimes teams are in the right financial place at the right time. I remember how awesome it was to hear that the economy was hurting every MLB team except for the Empire, who managed to land the far, far away best position and pitching free agents in CC Sabathia and Mark Teixiera. Likewise, the Dodgers picked up three of the top 12 available in Manny Ramirez, without whom they managed to record the best record in the NL at the All-Star Break, Rafael Furcal, and Orlando Hudson.

Going into this season, the 2009 payroll rankings for the current divisional and Wild Card leaders are as follows:

Yankees – 1st
Red Sox – 4th
Tigers – 5th
Angels – 6th

Phillies – 7th
Dodgers – 9th
Cardinals – 13th
Rockies – 18th

Holliday/PujolsGranted one of the hottest teams in the league right now, the St. Louis Cardinals, are not extremely high on this list, but looking at the midseason spending of each of these clubs can also give an indication of why there is a bigger disparity between those at the top of the hill and those attempting to crest it:

Top trading deadline spenders for 2009 (prominent acquisitions listed):

Cardinals: $6.6 M – 1st, Mark DeRosa, Matt Holliday
Red Sox: $4.5 M – 2nd, Victor Martinez, Adam LaRoche
Tigers: $3.6 M – 3rd, Jarrod Washburn
Phillies: $2 M – 6th, Cliff Lee
Rockies: $1.9 M – 7th, Joe Beimel, Rafael Betancourt
Yankees: $1.1 M – 11th, Eric Hinske, Jerry Hairston Jr.
Dodgers: $1 M – 12th, George Sherrill

Cliff LeeEvery one of these teams went out and picked someone up at the trading deadline to fill a void. This pattern isn’t that surprising, as smaller markets and complete busts try to unload quality players with expensive salaries before they press the reset button. But it shows that each team in contention set out to get better, and for the most part, achieved that goal. Not every one of these players is making the impact of a Cliff Lee or Matt Holliday, but it just goes to show that if a team wants to contend they more than likely have to get a few ringers.

Unlike Charles Manson, each of the divisional leaders has a distinct team identity. The Yankees are a veteran team built like my middle school video game starting lineups. The Tigers can crush the ball and have a resurgent pitching staff with postseason experience. The Angels lead the Major League in batting average and are regaining full strength after multiple injuries. The Cardinals have three lights out pitchers and the best player on the planet backed up by the post-All-Star Break MVP. The Dodgers have a good mix of young and veteran players and a dominating late-inning bullpen. The Phillies won the World Series last year, and that’s enough of an argument for me. The bottom line is that you know exactly what you’re getting from each of these teams: consistency at their game.

Justin VerlanderIf the season ended today, all eight playoff teams would have prior postseason experience on their resume from the last three years. Sometimes just watching a team can give you a sense of whether their ready for the march into October, such as the Phillies and Brewers last year. The latter stumbled in, while the former cannonballed into the pool. The way things look this year, we’re in for some epic October showdowns. I really need to get cable by then.