When spring began, and MLB fans and predictors were making their choices for who would rule the year, the Yankees and Tigers were foregone conclusions. New York would get some kind of playoff spot out of the American League East, and Detroit would win the American League Central running away.
But the first few months of the season seemed to prove common sense wrong. The Tigers started hot but fell below .500 in May and didn't get back above it until July 6. The Yankees played middling ball until late May, when they finally took off and posted the best record in baseball.
Now, though, as the trade deadline looms, the Tigers and Yankees are at last where everybody said they'd be. They are clearly the best teams in the league.
That's why it's strange that, of all the teams fighting for the postseason and looking to improve their rosters through trades, Detroit and New York are not letting up. On Monday, they made the biggest waves in the trade market, further distancing themselves from the teams that were hoping to catch them.
The Yankees picked up a premier veteran outfielder in Ichiro Suzuki, solidifying a team whose biggest concern was whether to start 10-time Gold Glover Andruw Jones (12 home runs in 30 starts) or former National League champion Raul Ibanez (12 HR, 42 RBI) in left field with Brett Gardner out. The Tigers dealt for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante, immediately shoring up an already decent rotation and adding much-needed defensive help to its infield depth chart.
Neither team had to make a trade. Both had a roster other teams would kill for. Neither team was likely to fade in the standings, either, with early-season struggles firmly displaced by ruling their respective divisions. But both teams were aggressive. They scooped up some of the best pieces on the market, not only beefing up their own squads but also grabbing some of the best players before other clubs could make a move.
Now, in a season where the Yankees and Tigers were the teams to beat from Opening Day, they've pushed themselves even farther ahead as contenders.
Those two wild cards? Forget it. The American League is a three-horse race, with Texas the other heavyweight in the mix.
The extra wild card this year is intriguing, but it shouldn't be given such preeminence. Having just one more postseason spot has ramped up the playoff chatter all year long. The wild card used to be the consolation prize, the spot that went to the team that played in a tough division. Now, playoff selection seems to be seen as more of a five-spot free-for-all. No one is talking about the importance of winning the division, or the difference between the division and a wild card spot. It's just about who makes the playoffs.
But the extra excitement about more teams going to the playoffs shouldn't delude the teams that aren't postseason material. It's just one more spot, and a team not contending for its division is really in no better shape this year than it would have been in years past.
In the American League, for example, the extra wild card spot seems to be the reason for no less than eight teams to think they have playoff hopes this year (that's excluding the aforementioned Yankees (58-38 heading into Tuesday's game), Tigers (52-44) and Rangers (57-38), who are all firmly atop their divisions).
Los Angeles (53-44), Oakland (51-44), Baltimore (51-45), Chicago (51-45), Tampa Bay (49-47), Toronto (48-47), Cleveland (48-48) and Boston (48-49) all consider themselves within reach of one of those two wild card spots. Can they be serious? With a few dozen games left to play, anything can happen, but a .500 team in years past likely wouldn't have been so optimistic about the postseason without the wild card opportunities this year has.
But the biggest reason these teams should check themselves out of any playoff chatter is not their chances at making the playoffs — it's that, if they do reach the postseason, they won't have anywhere to go.
Suzuki may not be the Ichiro of old, but he's not coming in to save the Yankees. They are stacked at every position, and they've had no problem rolling past obstacles this year. They lost Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain in the preseason, then CC Sabathia (since returned) and Andy Pettitte right before the All-Star break. Gardner has been out all year, and each player on the roster has battled aches and pains. But the Yankees have won consistently all year (that sweep to the always-surprising A's last weekend withstanding).
The Tigers, meanwhile, weren't looking for a stopgap through trading, either. They worked through their lousy record and lackluster play on their own this season, and their current standing is attributable to the guys they had on the roster before Monday. Adding Sanchez makes their rotation improve, and Infante solved the Tigers' one major, major problem — a horrible defense.
But it's not just what Detroit and New York have done — it's what the other eight teams have failed to do. Those in the wild card race have yet to make a big move in the trade market.
The wild card race will be a spirited affair, with this year's surprises (Orioles, A's) mixing it up with the traditional powers (Angels, Red Sox) as each team fights for the crown of playing in the postseason. But while the chase may be fun to watch for the next 50-something games, fans of the eight teams hanging out on the fringe shouldn't fool themselves.
Come October, the league belongs to the Tigers and Yankees.