Breaking Down MLB Pennant Races — American League

The calendar has turned to August and the Mets have been dislodged from first place, two tried and true indicators telling us it is time to start paying closer attention to the MLB pennant races.

The 2021 baseball season is roughly 70 percent in the books, and some old, familiar (i.e. disappointing) patterns are beginning to emerge. Like the Yankees’ bats getting untracked as the temperatures rise. And the Mets fading the way my drives used to off the tee (before I mercifully put away my golf clubs for good).

And the patterns aren’t just restricted to New York, either. Here’s a news flash — the Angels don’t have any pitching (other than their best power hitter, of course). Surprise, surprise. And the Rays are thriving despite giving away all of their best pitchers over the winter. Again. And just this week, the A’s lost a key piece for the duration of the season (and the one playoff game they play in every year) due to a steroids suspension. Yep, again.

So now that the Olympics are concluding and the NBA is taking its offseason break between the draft, free agency and training camps (yeah, we’ll watch the summer league in Vegas, just because…), it is time to dial back into the drama unfolding during MLB’s late-summer Dog Days, as pennant races take shape around the country.

Against that backdrop, we bring you SportsAttic’s mid-summer forecast for the MLB 2021 season, division by division, with today’s focus being the Junior Circuit. For the purpose of this forecasting exercise, we will only discuss those teams currently over .500, even if the team in question doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of making the playoffs (hello, Angels fans…):

AL East Overview: The division that is home to baseball’s Evil Empire watched helplessly once again as the Yankees used the trade deadline to fortify themselves for a playoff run, capitalizing on MLB’s unwritten rule that every year other franchises must be willing to sell off their stars in lopsided trades with the Yanks (and pay the remainder of those stars’ salaries while accepting middling, low-minors prospects in return. WTF!). But I digress…

Rays — In March I didn’t think they stood a chance at a playoff run, obviously ignoring the fact that I feel that way every spring when it comes to the Rays. Because here’s Tampa once again, in the hunt, not just alive, but thriving in first place as their large-market competitors look up at them. The Rays are a legit, dangerous team, with a lineup that never takes off an at bat, and that added much-needed power by picking up Nelson Cruz from the Twins at the deadline.

SportsAttic Aside: Let’s take a moment here to thank the Twins for shitting the bed BEFORE getting to the playoffs and becoming the Yankees personal punching bags this year. Here’s hoping the Twins never make the playoffs again. Ever.

Red Sox — When the Bosox appeared poised to run away with the division a month ago, it felt like they were playing way over their head. Now that Boston is performing as though they woke up and realized they just aren’t that good, the real question becomes can the wobbling Red Sox even make the playoffs. I mean, Nathan Eovaldi is their ace?? This one appears likely to end badly for Sawx fans (sorry, Geno), and look for their arch enemies from the Bronx to grease the skids of their collapse with a few late-September beatdowns (there’s a three-game series in late-September at Yankee Stadium that should lay the final hammer down on Beantown).

Yankees — Is the current hot streak just another head fake, or is this recent run of success for real? Do we just have another short-term tear built on the adrenaline jolt of good trade deadline acquisitions, all the while beating up on the many weak sisters around the AL? Or is this the real Yankees waking up and playing like the team we’ve been expecting to see all year? Feels like the latter to me, as much as it pains me to say it. Fortunately, I don’t believe the Yanks have the arms to go all the way, but adding Gallo and Rizzo to that lineup seems almost unfair, and this team will be a handful for anyone come playoff time.

Blue Jays — A fun team to watch, and the Jays should only get better over the next year or two, but the rules state only two teams can be Wild Cards, and Toronto will fall just short this year, despite having arguably the AL’s best hitter in Vlad Guerrero, Jr. and a heckuva deadline pickup in Jose Berrios at the front of their rotation.

AL East Prognosis: The Rays will hold off the Yankees (barely), thus earning themselves a three-seed and a visit to Houston. The Yankees will take the hard way once again, but benefit from the largesse of the biggest Wild Card patsy west of Minneapolis in the one-game play-in matchup. From there they’ll head to Chicago, where the top-seeded White Sox will be waiting. There you can look for the Bombers to end the overrated Pale Hose’s delusions of World Series glory without breaking a sweat. Thankfully for all of us haters, though, the Evil Empire’s run will come to an end down in Houston, where the Astros will thumb their nose at the rest of the MLB establishment, shouting a collective “no, fuck YOU” as they advance to the Fall Classic for the third time in five years.

AL Central: We can safely cede the Central Division and top overall seed heading into the playoffs to the Chisox, despite it being only the second week of August. Simply too many games against terrible division foes will allow South Side fans to dream of confetti and parades as their team approaches the 100-win mark for the season.

White Sox — They’re good, but not 100 wins and playoff favorites good. Jose Abreu is the real deal; a hammer looming large in the middle of an above-average lineup. And there are innings-eaters and depth in the starting rotation that will allow them to get to deadline acquisition Craig Kimbrel and lights out closer Liam Hendriks in what should be a lockdown bullpen. Such balance is a terrific formula to dominate over a 162-game schedule (especially in the paper thin AL Central). However their fans need to enjoy all these wins now, because come the playoffs, they’ll only be treated to one more “W” (at best) before being sent home early by the Yanks.

AL West: If despising the Yankees wasn’t such a full-time job, embracing a deep hatred toward those shitty, cheating Houston Astros would be way more fun. Oh well, you can’t have everything. And unlike the Yanks who play in the AL’s deepest division, the Astros face far less resistance keeping them from the playoffs this season. Look for the ‘Stros to coast to the division title from here, before hosting an ALDS series at Minute Maid Park (it will be against the Rays, just wait).

Astros — Yeah, they’re good again. And yeah, that really does kind of suck. Buzzers, trash cans, obnoxious stars — yup, so damn easy to root against, but like so many obnoxiously talented teams before them, these Astros seem to thrive on the deep dislike they engender across all of MLB. So get ready folks, we’re going to have the Astros onboard for another extended playoff run in 2021. Like every other AL team, there are questions in Houston about who will get opposing hitters out, but Greinke and McCullers at the top of the rotation are a good start. Ryan Pressly looms as a potential problem when it comes time to close out a crucial playoff game, but the base hits just keep coming at you with these guys. Look for an epic ALCS slugfest against the Yankees, with MLB fans choosing sides by trying to determine “which team do we hate the least?”

A’s — The Athletics are a solid team — well rounded, strong manager, solid front office. And they are positively snakebit when it comes to the postseason, where their whole “little engine that could” routine gets plowed over by the big-market powerhouses. And it will happen again this year. The A’s roster is constructed for regular season success, and that formula is working for them again in 2021. But the end result will be a date in the Wild Card game with the Yankees. And following that brutal beatdown, it will be back to the drawing board for Oakland, spending the offseason on more thrift shop signings that will allow them to do it all over again next year.

Mariners — If you watched any of their series against the Yankees this week, you can join me in wondering how the hell this team is over .500 in August. It is safe to say they won’t be by October.

Angels — All together now, “Poor Mike Trout.” The Angels’ generational talent and consensus best player in baseball (at least when healthy) will miss the playoffs once again in 2021. He’s been on the injured list since mid-May, and while it’s likely he will return for the stretch run, the song remains the same out here in Anaheim — no arms. All one needs to know is that Shohei Ohtani leads the Halos in innings pitched this year (with 86–good grief…) to understand why this team doesn’t have the pitching to catch the Astros or A’s. And it’s too bad, too, because Trout and Ohtani belong on the playoff stage. Maybe next year?

SportsAttic Crystal Ball: For those of you not taking notes, your 2021 AL division winners, in order, will be the White Sox, Astros and Rays. The White Sox top seed will earn them the honor of getting swept by the Yankees after the Bombers destroy the A’s in another Wild Card mismatch, while the Astros will outlast the Rays in an eminently entertaining ALDS contest.

In the ALCS, the Yankees arms (particularly their bullpen, worn out after another year of abuse at the hands of manager Aaron Boone) will prove their undoing, falling to the despicable Astros in seven games.

Next up — National League.

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