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Monday, August 4, 2008
Wide-open division races should make for a compelling finish

By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com

And down the stretch they come!

What a stretch run it could be, too. Now that baseball has passed the non-waiver trade deadline, fewer than two months remain in a regular season that should promise some fantastic finishes.

In a year in which the game has weathered the Mitchell report, avoided a near-disaster at the All-Star Game and survived the Manny Ramirez circus, it could use some good news.

So, here it is: there's the potential for five of the six divisions to go down to the wire, and in more cases than not, with multiple teams in the running -- to say nothing of the wild-card chases.

With eight weeks remaining, only one division -- the American League West -- seems spoken for. What's more, more than two teams are in the running in the AL East, NL East and NL Central. Further, a good week is all that's stopping the Detroit Tigers and Colorado Rockies from injecting themselves into their respective races in the AL Central and NL West.

It's possible, too, that some teams in the running will fall back before Labor Day, the traditional final leg of the season. But for now, other than the Los Angeles Angels, no division leader has a margin of more than five games.

Elsewhere, there's a virtual tie (the White Sox and Twins are even in the loss column); a three-way scrum with three games separating the Phillies, Mets and Marlins; a one-game difference between the Diamondbacks and Dodgers; two teams (Brewers and Cards) in hot pursuit of the Cubs; and a crowded house between the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees.

This hasn't been the norm of late. In fact, the wild-card races have been more compelling and kept the drama alive in the closing weeks of the season. Why, all of a sudden, have the division races become so compelling?

Three reasons:

1. Injuries have kept some favorites from running away

Sure, the Angels have had more than their share of lumps (Kelvim Escobar and John Lackey to start the season; Howie Kendrick, etc.) and injuries are part of the game. But this season, more than most, some free-spending, big-market teams have been humbled thanks to the disabled list.

Chien-Ming Wang

Wang

David Ortiz

Ortiz

The Red Sox lost David Ortiz for two months and never got Curt Schilling back. Mike Lowell missed a few weeks, and so did Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The Yankees have dealt with devastating injuries to Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui and Chien-Ming Wang -- all either lost for the rest of the season, or most of it.

The Mets? Same thing. Pedro Martinez has been sidelined as much as he's been healthy. It's the same for Moises Alou and Luis Castillo.

These injuries have helped level the playing field and slowed the momentum of some favorites while buying time for some surprise teams.

2. More spending equals more parity

Credit revenue sharing and new (and more lucrative) revenue streams for helping to close -- if not eliminate -- the gap between the haves and have-nots. The Milwaukee Brewers, a classic small-market franchise, are able to contend with the Chicago Cubs and land pricey players like CC Sabathia because of the game's general economic well-being.

Not long ago, the notion of small-market teams taking on salaries like Sabathia's, even for a couple of months, would have been preposterous. Now, revenue sharing, new media income and lucrative national media deals have helped boost budgets and lift payroll.

"There are always going to be some teams with more money to spend," says one high-ranking team executive. "That's just a fact. But I think we're at a point now where fewer and fewer teams are automatically priced out on [star] players.''

A few years ago, the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox were the only teams spending north of the $100 million barrier. This season, more than 40 percent of MLB franchises (13-of-30) had Opening Day payrolls of at least $97 million.

3. Being bad can eventually pay off

Teams like Tampa and Milwaukee were so feeble for so long, they accumulated top draft picks, and over time they made themselves competitive through their own development systems.

Ryan Braun

Braun

Evan Longoria

Longoria

The Rays' nucleus (Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford and James Shields) is homegrown. Milwaukee, meanwhile, drafted and developed Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun and Ben Sheets and used its fruitful farm system to obtain Sabathia. It's the same with Florida, though to a lesser extent since the Marlins have been rebuilt (again) by some shrewd trades involving expensive veterans.

Over the final eight weeks, a myriad of factors will influence the outcome of the races, from injuries to waiver pickups to contributions from September call-ups.

But schedules will play a part, too, especially this season, when the home-road differential has never been greater. We take a look at the divisions and determine who can be helped or hurt by the remaining games.

AL East: The Tampa Bay Rays may have the lead, but they also have unquestionably the most difficult schedule of the three teams in the East.

The Rays have played the most home games of the three -- and by extension, of course, the fewest road games. Seventeen of their last 24 games will be on the road, including the final eight.

A seven-day stretch in the second week of September in which the Rays travel to Boston and New York could well determine their season.

The Red Sox, despite a just-concluded 4-5 homestand, still have one of the best home record in the majors and the schedule does them a favor -- they will play 19 of their final 28 at home, including the last seven straight. When the Sox finish their seven-game swing through Kansas City and Chicago on Aug. 11, they will have just two road trips longer than three games remaining.

The Yankees will play 16 of their 26 games in September on the road and will begin the month with a four-city, 10-game odyssey that will bring them to Detroit (makeup game), Tampa Bay, Seattle and Los Angeles.

Tampa, too, still has a West Coast trip remaining (this week); the Sox, by contrast, are done playing out West.

AL Central: The White Sox play 16 of their next 19 games at home, but they'd better take advantage while they can, because the schedule maker has them playing 10 of their final 13 away from Chicago.

If the Twins can survive through the first week of September, they should be in good position. But first comes the hard part: 20 of their next 29 are away from the Metrodome, including, in a genuine quirk of the schedule, two visits to Seattle in the span of 22 days.

NL East: The clear edge goes to the Mets -- at least on paper.

They only play seven road games after Sept. 3, and all seven are against non-contenders -- unless the Braves somehow play themselves back into the bidding.

What's more, the Mets' only meetings with their division competitors -- the Phillies and Marlins -- are both at home. The Mets close out the final week at home; then again, that didn't seem to help them last September, did it?

The Phils play 16 of their final 29 on the road, though they do have the luxury of playing their final six at home. Of the last three series with the Marlins and Mets, two are on the road, and the Phils still have a challenging seven-game West Coast roadie left, to say nothing of a four-game visit to Chicago to close out August.

Florida's September schedule is split pretty evenly (12 home, 13 away). But with paltry attendance, can the Marlins count on much of a home-field advantage? For the second year in a row, they close out the season at Shea Stadium. This time, however, it might mean something for them.

NL Central: The Cubs have the National League's best home record (41-15), but if they're going to hold off the Brewers and Cardinals, they have to take care of business in August. Once September rolls around, the Cubs will play 16 of their last 22 away from home.

The competition certainly will get a full shot at the Cubs in the final three weeks: 12 of the Cubs' last 19 games are against either the Brewers or Cardinals.

September begins with a 10-game homestand for the Brewers and finishes with a six-game homestand, including a three-game set with the Cubs to finish the season. But in between, there will a brutal three-city swing to Philadelphia, Chicago and Cincinnati that could make or break the Brewers.

Finally, the Cardinals' September schedule is pretty evenly split, but it features tough competition. The Cards play just nine games against teams below .500 in the final month.

NL West: In the Division That Nobody Wants To Win, there isn't much room or margin for error.

The Diamondbacks and Dodgers will play head-to-head in the final weekend of August (in Phoenix) and in the first week of September (in L.A.); after that, they're on their own.

The split after the final meeting favors the D-backs, who will play 10 on the road and 10 at home, while the Dodgers have just six home games among their final 19.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.