MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Division leaders have reason to worry down stretch

While clubs such as O's and Nationals appear to be locks, underdogs still have life

Division leaders have reason to worry down stretch

This is an age of competitive paranoia in Major League Baseball.

Parity reigns supreme, and every club is susceptible to the onslaught of injury or the sudden vanishing act of bats brought about by all these high-velocity arms and tiny ERAs. So no lead is as safe or secure as it might seem.

Oh, sure, the Orioles will probably nail down the American League East, even without Manny Machado.

The Dodgers will probably win the National League West, just as the Nationals will probably win the NL East thanks to the big advantage they've built.

Even in the two Central Divisions and in the AL West -- three divisions that each feature the top two teams within 1 1/2 games of each other -- the Royals and Tigers, the Brewers and Cardinals and the Angels and A's all have better-than-average mathematical odds that a third team won't suddenly join the fray.

In fact, here are those mathematical odds, per Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds report. Entering Wednesday, the percentage chances of the underdogs ultimately coming out on top in their division were as follows: Yankees (2.7), Indians (3.7), Mariners (1.2), Braves (2.4), Pirates (4.8) and Giants (10.9).

But if you look beyond that math and into the reality of a game played by human beings, you see a few reasons why a little added paranoia within the fan bases of the front-runners is understandable.

AL East: Getting swept by the Cubs on the North Side of Chicago last weekend was not a good look for the O's, especially as it aligned perfectly with the Yankees' sweep of the South Siders. That cut the Yanks' deficit from nine to six in a hurry. Much like losing weight, those first few pounds are the easiest, and it gets more difficult as you go. Indeed, on Tuesday night, the Yankees lost, the Orioles won, and the gap widened back to seven. Still, it's hard not to notice the overall momentum of a Bronx squad that still has eight -- eight! -- games remaining against an injury-depleted O's team.

Again, math is on the Orioles' side, and Buck Showalter is already a lead dog in the AL Manager of the Year Award race for what he's done with a club that lost Matt Wieters and Machado, got next to nothing out of big free-agent acquisition Ubaldo Jimenez and saw Chris Davis severely regress at the plate. The O's are survivors with an offense that can change games with a single swing, an underrated bullpen and great defense, even with Machado on the pine.

But Yanks manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman have worked their own form of magic, with Cashman reshaping what was an awful infield and Girardi keeping things afloat sans Masahiro Tanaka. Now, Tanaka is getting ready to throw a simulated game Thursday in Detroit, Michael Pineda is back and dealing in the high-90s and the once-sluggish Yankees offense has sprung to life.

It bears repeating: Eight head-to-head games in September. A lot can still happen.

AL Central: We don't need to say much to inspire a little paranoia in Kansas City fans. They've had a quarter-century of disappointment to make them wonder if this magical run (and it got more magical than ever Tuesday night) is all a little too good to be true. And Tigers fans groomed toward World Series expectations don't need us to rehash all that's transpired in this odd August, aka the Buck Farmer era. They just found out Tuesday that Anibal Sanchez suffered a setback in his recovery from a sore right arm.

Odds are, the division will be decided when those two clubs face each other six times in September. But we're here to remind you not to totally dismiss the Indians, who sit 5 1/2 games back of the first-place Royals and are a season-high four games over .500. A September surge such as last year (when the Tribe went 21-6) is a lot to ask of a team playing an inordinate number of youngsters (Jose Ramirez, Tyler Holt, Zach Walters, Roberto Perez, Trevor Bauer and T.J. House have all be thrust into pivotal roles in light of injuries and/or Trade Deadline activity) and playing 30 games in a 30-day stretch.

Still, the recent performance of the Indians' rotation does make you wonder. It's not just Corey Kluber, who has leapt into the AL Cy Young Award conversation. It's also the recent work of Bauer and Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, three fireballers who have combined to post a 2.27 ERA since Carrasco rejoined the rotation on Aug. 10. The Indians have won 10 of 14 to prove they're not out of it yet.

AL West: The Angels were dealt a severe punch to the gut when Garrett Richards fell to the Fenway dirt with his blown-out knee, and the absence of Richards and Tyler Skaggs is a lot to overcome on the fly (though C.J. Wilson's recent efforts have been awfully encouraging). The A's aren't without scars of their own, as Sean Doolittle's absence with an intercostal strain hampers the bullpen, Josh Donaldson plays with a bum knee, and the offense lacks some of the pop it had before Yoenis Cespedes was traded to Boston.

This presents an opportunity for the Mariners. They sit six games back, but their bats have been among the hottest in baseball this month (4.8 runs per game) after running cold for the better part of four months. Those bats are supporting a pitching staff putting up historically great numbers (the .225 average against M's pitchers is tied for the lowest in the DH era) and getting better with time (Mariners' starters have the best ERA in baseball in the second half). Seattle has a lot of ground to make up, but the M's have held their own against the Angels (7-5) and A's (7-6) thus far, and they've still got six against Oakland and seven against the Halos in September.

That's called a pulse, and I'm certain the Angels and M's have noticed it beating.

NL East: This one's pretty simple. The Nationals have looked unstoppable of late. All the walk-off wins, all the timely offense. They've got, for my money, the best rotation in the NL and one of the best bullpens. It's pretty hard to imagine their 7 1/2-game edge on the Braves crumbling over the next four-plus weeks.

But the one thing the Nats have yet to do is prove they can consistently beat the Braves head-on. They are 4-9 against them this season and 10-22 against them over the past two seasons. And Atlanta has been playing better ball since Jason Heyward went back to the top of the lineup and Mike Minor righted himself.

These two clubs will meet again Sept. 8-10 and 15-17. It would probably take a sweep of both of those series for the Braves to keep even the slimmest of division title hopes alive. But until the Nationals take care of business in those games, let's not hand them the crown just yet, OK?

NL Central: Pittsburgh took a big step back earlier this month, and Andrew McCutchen's daily status after his quick return from a rib fracture will continue to be monitored.

But there's enough resilience to this Pirates team, which is now five games back of the Brewers, that we still feel comfortable calling this a three-team race. Much of that is tied to McCutchen. He had hit three homers in his first six games since coming off the DL but admitted he was playing through some discomfort. And on Tuesday, McCutchen had to leave a win over the Cardinals not long after aggravating the injury on a spectacular catch in center field. It's a lot to ask of McCutchen to play at an MVP-caliber level in light of the injury issue, and it's also a lot to ask of Gerrit Cole to be basically in midseason form after two trips to the disabled list this summer (though he's looked to be in just such form so far).

The Buccos, though, took two of three in Milwaukee last weekend -- a pretty clear indication that the Brew Crew and Cards (who will face each other seven times in September) have more than just each other to worry about. The Pirates have a pretty daunting September sked in which they'll play just nine games at PNC Park, but they'll also get a run of 13 straight against sub-.500 teams (the Cubs, Phillies and Red Sox) from Sept. 5-18, so they're definitely worth keeping an eye on.

NL West: The Giants are not exactly setting the world aflame, as they are nine games under .500 since the end of May. And the Tim Lincecum of old did not suddenly return to rescue the rotation in the wake of Matt Cain's trip to the disabled list, as hoped.

But that doesn't mean the Dodgers can sleep easy. On the contrary, L.A. has used the disabled list seven times this month alone, and that doesn't include the concern over the elbow soreness that Zack Greinke is trying to grind his way through. The rotation is the backbone of the Dodgers' success, because the lineup has been susceptible to some fits and starts, and the bullpen has let them down far more often than its exorbitant price tag ought to allow. Right now, that rotation includes Dan Haren, Kevin Correia and Roberto Hernandez as the Dodgers try to navigate their way through turbulence.

They certainly hope to have that rotation at full bore when they face the Giants six more times in September.

If not, well, paranoia will surely set in.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.