Second-half X-factors who could decide playoff chases
As we wrap up the first half of the 2010 season, there are 17 teams with winning records and 16 of them are within five games of first place in their division. Every division but the NL Central and AL West has more than two teams in the mix. As is always the case, injuries, players returning from injuries, and trades are likely to tip the balance in how the pennant races shake out. Superstars, of course, will play their parts in determining which teams make it to October, but an equally substantial role will be played by these X-factors.
On Tuesday night,
The White Sox have thrust themselves into the thick of the AL Central race by winning 20 of their last 25 games and are now just one game out of first. They have the pitching depth to stay there, but their offense has been burdened by dismal performances from second base, left field, and third base. With busted prospect
The Rangers have the biggest division lead in baseball (4 1/2 games) and are the only team in their short-stack of a division with a positive run differential. They also have the third-best offense in baseball according to runs scored per game, so if there's a crucial element to the Rangers' ability to hold the lead in their division, it's their pitching, specifically their starting rotation, which has thus far been anchored by a converted reliever and an American who spent the last two years pitching in Japan.
The NL batting leader is now an NL All-Star, so he's hardly a secret, but Prado still feels like Atlanta's secret weapon. In his first year as the Braves' starting second baseman, the 26-year-old Prado is igniting the Braves' offense with a .332/.372/.482 line, including a .354/.387/.531 performance in 48 games as the team's leadoff hitter since taking over that spot in the lineup in mid-May. Prado's batting average is propping up his on-base percentage, but that doesn't change the fact that he's been on base constantly for the meat of the Braves lineup. When
The underdog Reds rode the NL's best offense to the top of the NL Central standings in the first half, but, much like the Rangers, they'll need their pitching to help fortify their position in the second half. Thus far, Cueto and rookie
I've stopped waiting for the Padres to come back to earth. They're not merely leading the NL West, they have the best record in the National League and are tied with the Rangers for the third-best record in baseball entering Wednesday's action. Sure, their offense is pathetic, but their pitching, particularly their bullpen, has been so strong that their Pythagorean record (based on run differential) is still four games better than the next-best team in the division (the similarly pitching-dependent, fourth-place Giants) and the third best in baseball behind the Yankees and Rays. So, just imagine what the Padres could do if someone other than