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By Mike Ivcic
In a world where the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox spend more on their payrolls than the GDP of some small nations, it’s a wonder anyone outside of Boston, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles can even win a game, let alone a World Series. That said, a quick check of the record books in past years show that teams in Tampa Bay, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Oakland, and Denver have all reached postseason play and, in the cast of the first and last cities on that list, even a World Series.
This year, especially in each league’s Eastern Divisions, the larger markets have taken to the top. The Yankees lead the Red Sox by half game in the AL after two months, while the Phillies lead the Mets by the same margin in the NL. Meanwhile out west the Dodgers haven’t missed a beat without Manny, still sporting the game’s best record. That doesn’t tell the whole story, however. Here’s a quick look at five “small market” teams that have spent the first two months of the season proving they can play with the big boys, and how they’re pulling it off.
1) Milwaukee Brewers
Possibly the biggest surprise of the year is how the Brew Crew have managed to remain atop the NL Central without either of their two top starters from last year’s Wild Card team. With C.C. Sabathia gone to NY and Ben Sheets still awaiting a contract from someone, the Brewers have simply continued on with their season. The key for them is the continued emergence of Prince Fielder as a dominant power threat (he led all players in RBI in May) and a revamped, “shut-down” bullpen anchored at the tail end by Trevor Hoffman, who’s still perfect in save opportunities. Milwaukee is continuing to prove that a solid bullpen and timely hitting are both crucial elements to having a successful organization.
2) Texas Rangers
Not since Pudge Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez were suiting up in Arlington have the Rangers made the postseason, but here in 2009 it’s indeed Texas sitting atop the AL West with the best record in the entire AL. Not normally known for pitching, the Rangers have combined a spectacular offense – led by Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, and the sudden re-emergence of Hank Blalock – with some surprisingly good arms. Kevin Millwood leads a starting staff that has already thrown 5 complete games, and a bullpen quartet of C.J. Wilson, Darren O’Day, Eddie Guardado, and recently re-activated closer Frank Francisco have protected the leads they’ve been handed. If Josh Hamilton can return and Chris Davis and Nelson Cruz can continue to produce as they have been, this team will be in it for the long haul.
3) Cincinnati Reds
Fans in Ohio’s Queen City have been clamoring for a winner for years, and after a number of failed attempts, they finally have a team worth watching. Like Texas, the Reds were a team throughout the late 90’s and early 00’s that could hit and not pitch, but they have turned it around with the reverse formula. Despite not having a single starting position player hitting .300, the Reds have leaned on Johnny Cueto and Aaron Harang in the rotation and a stellar bullpen to keep them within shouting distance of Milwaukee and St. Louis. They have lost two of three to both the Mets and Phillies this season and just got swept by the Brewers this past weekend, so getting Edinson Volquez and Joey Votto back into the rotation and lineup, respectively, will be crucial for them to stay in the race.
4) Toronto Blue Jays
Perhaps it would have been a better outlook for this team had this column been written two weeks ago, but considering the competition within the AL East, the fact that the Jays led the division for a majority of the first two months and still sit only a game and a half out of first is impressive. Considered to be in rebuilding mode after losing A. J. Burnett, Toronto has remained competitive by leaning on another spectacular season from Roy Halladay and an offense that received contributions from the entire lineup. The team’s success does but the front office in a difficult spot, having to decide whether to buy or sell at the trading deadline if the team continues to keep pace with New York and Boston.
5) San Diego Padres
Their ace wants out, their owner wants the payroll even lower, their icon walked in the offseason after a bitter dispute with management, and they’re nine games out of first place. So why are they on this list? Well despite all of their issues and struggles, the Padres are still at .500, and in a weak division where they’ll get a good amount of games down the stretch against struggling teams like Arizona and Colorado, meaning it’s not at all out of the question for this team to sneak into the Wild Card. Provided Jake Peavy stays the entire season (which is a big proposition), the Friars will have enough offense with Adrian Gonzalez and his league-leading 20 homers to stay in every ballgame, and the bullpen can match up with any other in the NL.
Sure, the teams above might not be the trendy picks, have the big names, or play in the cities covered by the mainstream media. Regardless, the teams above all have legitimate playoff hopes, something that these cities desperately need in a game where so many claim the unlevel playing field salary-wise takes the fun out of the game for smaller markets. Despite being a fan of one of the bigger market, higher-payroll teams, I sincerely hope, for the sake of these teams, their fans, and the sport as a whole, that at least some of these smaller city clubs can follow the lead of the Twins, A’s, Marlins, and Rays in finding a way into the postseason and maybe even to the World Series.
2009 Playoff “Dead List”
May 25 – Washington Nationals
June 2 – Colorado Rockies
Sure, this team was in the World Series only a year and a half ago, but after dealing Matt Holliday to Oakland in the offseason and now firing manager Clint Hurdle, there’s not much left from the leadership of that club outside of Todd Helton. Without those critical clubhouse presences, this becomes a team more prone to spending the season looking at younger prospects and developing more pitchers in an effort to regroup and challenge again next season. Plus, with the Dodgers playing as well as they are, the division is pretty much gone at this point, and seeing them reach the Wild Card is just too much of a stretch.
This week, watch for…
1) Texas goes East (@ NYY, 6/2-4; @ Bos, 6/5-7)
2) Tigers welcome tough foes (vs Bos, 6/2-4; vs LAA 6/5-7)
3) NLCS rematch (Phil @ LAD, 6/4-7)
Look for my column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday for the UltimateCapper
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