By Craig Gifford
The importance of performing well within your division is a known necessity in Major League Baseball. With 76 game, nearly half the 162 on the schedule, against intra-divisional opponents, taking care of business there is a great way to build a high victory total.
This year, in the American League Central, a strong showing against the other four clubs could be even more pertinent. The defending American League Champion Tigers are essentially the consensus favorite to win the division. There is not argument to that here. However, this appears to be a very good year for the Central’s runner up to earn one of the two wild card nods.
In a loaded AL East, it is going to be hard for more than one team to win 90 games in that division. All five could make a realistic preseason case for contention. The Tampa Bay Rays and the improved Toronto Blue Jays are the favorites according to most pundits. The Yankees, if they can get healthy have most of last season’s ALCS qualifying squad back. The Orioles, who probably overachieved last year and Red Sox, who underachieved, should both be nearly .500 clubs. Squeezing two teams from that group into the postseason will be difficult. That leaves the AL West and Central to battle it out for the wild card berths.
The West is almost as loaded as the East. The Angels have to be considered a World Series contender. The Rangers, even with the offseason losses of Josh Hamilton and Michael Young, are still a very strong team. The A’s were a surprise wild card last year and have enough pitching to think 2012 may not have been a fluke. Throw Seattle boasting one of the game’s best starting pitchers in Felix Hernandez and there is another division that could beat itself up.
Considering how hard it will be for both the AL East and West to produce two teams with incredible records, the door is wide open for a second Central Division team to walk into October baseball. Beyond the Tigers, every team in the Indians division has huge question marks. Of course, that does include the Tribe.
If any one of the four can catch fire and win close to 90 games that team will be a good bet to be a wild card. Again, the best way to do that is to take care of business in the division. There is reason to think Cleveland can do this. As the season approaches Opening Day, there is hope the Indians could be the second best team in the Central. The offense matches up with anyone outside of Detroit. The bullpen is arguably the best of all five teams. If a couple starting pitchers have rebound years – looking at Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez – the Tribe is better than the three teams not named Detroit.
If you are better than three of the teams you play on a fairly consistent basis, you better take advantage of that and win the majority of those meetings. Whether it is the Indians or one of the other three teams beating up on the weaker Central Division opponents will be imperative.
While the other two AL divisions are stacked and will not boast many juggernaut-type records, those squads will not be cakewalks when a team like the Indians goes up against them. It makes beating the divisional foes more necessary.
A good way to look at this is if Cleveland can pull out even a solid 45-31 divisional record, that would require going a somewhat pedestrian 45-41 against everyone else. Seems doable. A .500 record out of the division is not the stuff a champion is necessarily made of, but can pave the way to postseason dreams for this year’s Central Division bridesmaid. However, the Indians have to come up strong when it matters against the likes of the Twins, White Sox and Royals. If they can take care of business against those teams, a postseason appearance is within reach. If the Tribe sloshes its way through the division, it could be a disappointing summer at Progressive Field.
This year, more than most, the opportunity seems to be present for a second AL Central club to secure a playoff nod. It all comes down to performing against those teams you will see on a regular basis. This is not a year for the Indians and their fans to look at a divisional opponent on the schedule, yawn and say, “them again?” This is a year that those games matter most.
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