Who will win the intensifying Grapefruit Division race with about three weeks of the regular BARB season left? It's anyone's guess. Due to a ten-game winning streak by the Kansans, any one of three clubs (Brownsville, New England, St. Francis) could emerge as a division titlist, while (barring a historic collapse) all three seem likely to make the playoffs.
But the Cactus Division title? The MVP crown? The Cy Young contest? According to most observers, those races are over, and the likely winners of all three are pretty much in the tea leaves for all to see.
THE CACTUS DIVISION: 3:10 to YUMA
It's the Yuma Firebirds, in a cakewalk. Not only do they have a nine-game lead with 22 games to play, and the league's best record (92-48) overall, but more than half of their games remaining are at home, where they are a sizzling 50-19. And, in the final week, they get to play league doormat Kansas City (45-95) six times in ten days.
"In the last several seasons," one scout remarked, "it was common to see all of the divisions and wild card spots up for grabs with less than two weeks to play. Who knows what will happen in the playoffs, but the regular season belongs to the Firebirds."
Why has Yuma been so successful? Certainly it can't be argued that realignment produced more favorable competition for Chris Melkonian's: the Cactus Division has more teams above .500 than the Grapefruit, for example. What has to be admitted is that the difference (217) between the number of runs scored by Yuma (655, second-best in BARB) and the number of runs allowed by the Firebirds (a league-best 438 tallies) is nearly twice the differential of any other club in BARB.
Other than CF Andrew McCutcheon (.326, 85 runs scored) and C Buster Posey (.311, 94 RBI), no player in the lineup has All-Star credentials. But Yuma's defense, bench strength and the production of many part-time players in platoon situations has been exceptional. Most glaringly, the team's 2.84 ERA reveals an edge in power arms that other teams simply haven't been able to overcome. Yuma has six hurlers with 100 or more K's who have each made at least 14 starts, led by David Price....and a bullpen that has combined for over 300 strikeouts on its own. Small wonder, then, that GM Chris Melkonian felt comfortable enough to trade away injury-plagued southpaw Sean Doolittle and prospect Carlos Rodon as the trading deadline approached.
But the biggest credit has to go to a Firebirds starter, and the presumptive Cy Young favorite....
"FIRE" SALE IN YUMA!
In fact, for the first time ever it might be argued that a pitcher, rather than a regular player, could deserve MVP consideration in BARB, a simulation that has historically has never had a 40-save closer, and only a handful of pitchers collect more than 18 wins. In a normal year, hurlers like Carolina's Jordan Zimmerman (14-8, 2.86), Brooklyn's Andrew Cashner (17-8, 3.27), Frostbite Falls's Jake Arrieta (15-7, 2.65), New England's Jon Lester (15-10, 2.97), Worcester's Johnny Cueto (16-8, 2.82), or even St. Francis's Matt Harvey (15-4, 1.80) would be considered.
JOSE, CAN YOU SEE A TRIPLE CROWN?
Will Abreu hold on? History suggests that some hitter who doesn't strike out as much will get hot and wrest the batting title away from a slugger who already has more than 150 K's. But it won't matter: Abreu will still finish with such sterling numbers that it will be difficult for others to challenge....though, for the record, Brooklyn SS Troy Tulowitzki (.333, 33 HR, 106 RBI) and Frostbite Falls CF Mike Trout (.302, 37 HR, 82 RBI) will at least be in the conversation, given they play more demanding positions.
But, if MVP is about being a winner, then Abreu has to get high marks for propelling the Cutters from the cellar to a surefire playoff team with three weeks to go...while the Moabs and Squirrels have to be looking at the standings, and know that even with their best players, one of them will likely miss the playoffs while the other will just squeak in.
WHAT'S LEFT FOR 2015?
If it's startling to see how much seems all but settled with twenty-plus games to play, it has to be pointed out that the new playoff format, with two wild cards from each division, promises some surprises after the regular season, and (with more teams in the mix), that could lead to increased excitement for more owners. There is still the question of who will win the Grapefruit League outright, who the wild card teams will be, who will get home-field advantage.
But look, also, for these individual battles down the stretch:
Most runs: Mike Trout (91), Michael Brantley (87), Andrew McCutcheon (85)
Most hits: J.D. Martinez, Jose Abreu, tied at 185
Most doubles: J.D. Martinez (49), Paul Goldschmidt (48), Jose Altuve (44)
Most triples: Dee Gordon (10), Kole Calhoun (9)
Most stolen bases: Jose Altuve (29), Dee Gordon (29), Danny Santana (26)
Most innings pitched: Clayton Kershaw (226), Felix Hernandez (207)
Most strikeouts: Clayton Kershaw (281), Chris Sale (255), Corey Kluber (246)
Most saves: Zach Britton (25), Wade Davis (22), Aroldis Chapman (21)
Most appearances: Pat Neshek (64), Hector Rondon (64), Kelvin Herrera (61)