Trying to hang on

MLB division leaders least and most likely to give up their leads between now and the playoffs

Division leaders

With the second half of Major League Baseball’s regular season underway the race is officially on for making it into the playoffs.

All six of the division leaders have been in the top spot of their divisions since June 6, and some have been top dog seemingly since the start of the season.

Since the inception of the wild card spot in 1996, 61 percent of division leaders at the All-Star break went on to win the division at season’s end.

However, only in 1999 did all six division winners have at least a share of the lead at the time of the Mid Summer Classic.

So the question becomes who will hold on to their division lead, and which teams stand the biggest chance of giving up the lead by the time October rolls around?

Below is a break down of the six current division leaders in order of least- to most-likely to give up their lead.

 

Chicago Cubs

Joe Maddon’s club was easily the best in baseball for the first 2 ½ months of the season, but the end of June and first part of July brought the Cubs slightly back to reality.

Chicago (56-37) played to a record of just 6-15 over its final 21 games of the first-half of the regular season, including at a 10-game stretch that saw just one Cubs victory.

The All-Star break couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Cubs won their final game before the break, and have won three out of their five games to start the second half of the campaign.

Amazingly, Chicago has been able to withstand injuries to key players, such as Dexter Fowler and Kyle Schwarber, and still hold an eight-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals for the top spot in the NL Central.

As well-equipped as the Cards may be for a late-season push, or as hungry as the Pirates are for postseason success, it would take a historical meltdown for the Cubs to lose their grip on the division.

Jake Arrieta will get out of the funk he’s been in over his last two starts. The pitching overall will get back to what it was just a month or so ago, and they have done that in the first few games back in action.

The question at the beginning of the season was ‘Will the Cubs win 120 games?’ Obviously not. But will they be one of the top seeds in the National League as division champs? You bet.

It’s the Chicago Cubs who have the least chance of giving up their lead.

San Francisco Giants

It’s an even year. Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey are still on this team. Bruce Bochy is the manager.

Yeah, this San Francisco Giants (57-37) team is making the playoffs.

San Fran got off to a slow start to begin the regular season, but since have been one of the best teams in baseball.

Being 20 games over .500 has given the Giants a 4 ½ game cushion between them and the LA Dodgers, really the only other team in the division that stands a chance at making the playoffs.

The good news for the Giants is that they are beginning to get healthier.

Joe Panik is rehabbing at Triple-A after a lengthy absence due to a concussion, Matt Cain is also at Triple-A Sacramento, and Hunter Pence is on the comeback trail and is beginning to play in rehab games to test out his hamstring.

The (possible) bad news is the Giants don’t appear like they will be big spenders at the trade deadline, whereas the Dodgers have displayed a willingness to be active.

San Francisco shouldn’t worry too much, though, because despite Clayton Kershaw putting together another great season in LA, the Dodgers have been average-at-best with anyone else on the mound. Kershaw himself is also dealing with an injury, and was shut down Tuesday until the pain subsides.

Advantage Giants.

Washington Nationals

The National League’s third division leader comes in at No. 3 on the list, meaning I’m not overly concerned about the Nationals (56-38) missing out on the playoffs, but I’m not as sure about them as the previous two ball clubs.

Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy have been one of the best one-two punches in a lineup in the majors this year. Stephen Strasburg is 13-0 on the mound, and has returned to All-Star form.

Washington also has another pitcher by the name of Max Scherzer.

However, Dusty Baker bringing up multiple pitching prospects so far this season raises an eyebrow. The Nats depth also is a bit of a concern, especially with Joe Ross and Ryan Zimmerman on the DL.

Also, despite now being 5 ½ games out of first place, the New York Mets still are a threat with all the pitching potential they have.

The Miami Marlins have also stayed in the thick of things in the division. They will get Dee Gordon back from suspension soon, and if they continue to win could become buyers at the trade deadline.

As good as Murphy has been, it’s a bit out of character for him to be this good. I doubt he hits .350 all season long.

The Nats will certainly make the playoffs, but watch out for a wild race for the NL East crown.

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Daniel Murphy (20) and Bryce Harper (34) have been the catalysts of the Nationals offense this season, the fourth-highest scoring offense in the National League.  Photo via Geoff Burke / USA Today Sports 

 

It wasn’t intentional that all three National League division leaders were first on the list, but I am the most confident in those three keeping their division lead.

That means there could be some shakeups in the American League.

 

Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers (55-40) have been the most consistent team in the American League, and have been out in front of the AL West for nearly the entirety of the season.

Texas has dealt with numerous injuries to its pitching staff, most notably Colby Lewis, who’s on the 60-day DL, and the inconsistent health of Yu Darvish.

Luckily for the Rangers, Cole Hamels has continued to be exactly what they hoped he would be when they traded for him last season.

Recently, though, it’s been the other team in Texas that has been gaining ground on the Rangers.

Houston, which sits 4 ½ games back of the Rangers, is the most likely team to up root Texas from the top spot, but that will still be a challenge.

Even though the Rangers have dealt with injuries, they could be getting some help from outside the organization, as the club has been fielding calls on infielder Jurickson Profar. Whether it be a pitcher or an added bat in the lineup, Texas should get an above-average player in return if they do decide to trade away Profar.

The Rangers are definitely going to make the playoffs, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a given they make it as AL West Champs.

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Adrian Beltre (29) and Prince Fielder (right) have been two of the veterans in charge of keeping the Rangers offense one of the best in the majors, as well as keeping the Rangers in first place in the West.   Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images

 

Cleveland Indians

Whereas I’m fairly certain that the previous four teams are going to make the playoffs, the final two division leaders I’m not so sure about.

I start with the Cleveland Indians (55-38).

Cleveland was an attractive dark-horse pick for a lot of people entering the season in what appeared to be a loaded AL Central division. I wasn’t buying the Indians as a playoff contender in March, and to this point they have proved me wrong.

I’m still not convinced they’ll hang on, though.

Michael Brantley has played in just 11 games this season, and catcher Yan Gomes just went on the DL Monday with a shoulder injury that will sideline him for at least four weeks, though he could miss up to eight.

Gomes, especially, is a big loss.

Yes, the Indians have gotten good pitching, owning the best run differential in the American League (+88), but something about this team still doesn’t scream playoffs to me.

Maybe it’s the fact that the defending World Series champion Royals are in their division, or the fact that the Tigers, who just haven’t seemed to be able to piece together a long stretch of wins, haven’t reached their fullest potential yet.

The Royals are about to get healthier with the imminent return of all-star-caliber center fielder Lorenzo Cain, and the Tigers will get back to full strength once Jordan Zimmermann and J.D Martinez return from their stints on the disabled list.

An injury like Gomes’ certainly doesn’t make Terry Francona’s job of getting the Indians into the playoffs any easier.

As good of a manager as he is, I’m not sure if his team can withstand a late, strong push by someone in the division.

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Francisco Lindor (middle) has been one of the most consistent bats in the Indians lineup, and is on pace to surpass all of his season totals from his rookie year at the plate in 2015.   Jaime Squire / Getty Images

Baltimore Orioles

A friend said to me about a month ago that the division race in the AL East was over, that the Baltimore Orioles (53-38) were going to run away with the division over the Red Sox and other three teams.

I wasn’t convinced he was right then, and I’m less convinced of that now.

Baltimore has the smallest lead of any division leader, leading by only a ½ game over Boston and 1 ½ over Toronto.

Boston is the only team in baseball to have scored 500 runs this season, and Toronto has the second highest run differential (+79) in the AL.

The Red Sox have already displayed the ability and desire to change its roster prior to the August 1 trade deadline, most recently acquiring starting pitcher Drew Pomeranz. On the flip side, Baltimore desperately needs help in the starting rotation but has yet to pull the trigger.

There is still time left, but the O’s can’t afford to wait too long to make a move.

Offensively, Baltimore isn’t off to a great start to the second half of the year, and the AL leader in home runs, Mark Trumbo, has yet to go yard since competing in the Home Run Derby last Monday.

Orioles fans shouldn’t fret over the lack of offense in the team’s first five games out of break. This is really the first time all season that the entire Orioles lineup seems out of it. The pitching should be, and likely is, the main concern.

Baltimore’s schedule is relatively easy through the end of the month, but August will be much, much more difficult with road series in Oakland, San Francisco, and Washington, as well as games at home against Texas, Boston, Houston, and Toronto.

In fact, as the rosters stand today, I would almost be surprised if Baltimore was on top of the AL East at the end of August. Of course, that could change by the time we reach the trade deadline.

However, of the six division leaders, it’s the Baltimore Orioles who I see most likely to give up their division lead.

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 12.55.33 AM.png
Manny Machado’s bat has been kind to him for most of the 2016 campaign, but lately the bats have turned on him and his team.  The O’s have averaged just two runs a game in their five contests since the All-Star game.   Photo via the Orioles Twitter account
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