With just about 15-18 games left, the AL Wild Card race is tighter than ever, with six teams competing for two Wild Card spots. The Red Sox and the Tigers have pretty much sewn up their division titles, while the Athletics have a fairly strong 3.5 game league and, should they cede that league to the Rangers, are virtually guaranteed a Wild Card spot. That leaves Tampa Bay, New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Texas competing for the two Wild Card Spots. Here are the contenders broken down in order of wild card odds as compiled by coolstandings.com.
The Rangers, with a 78.7% chance of making the playoffs are probably the safest team on this list. However, their schedule isn’t doing them any favors. They have, a three game series against the Athletics in Arlington this weekend. It’s the last time these two teams meet this season and if Oakland wins the series, that probably ends the Rangers hopes of a avoiding a Wild Card Playoff that knocked them out of the playoffs before the Divisional Series last year.
Then the Rangers kick off a seven game road trip against two Wild Card contending teams, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Kansas City Royals. The four game series could be the defining series for the rest of the playoff hunt (for every Wild Card contender). If the teams split the series, both Wild Card spots could be wide open for the taking, while a sweep by either team probably cements their own playoff chances. The Royals series will probably be that team’s final gasp at making postseason noise.
But then the Rangers’ schedule ends on a fairly easy note. They go home for a three game series with the worst record in baseball Houston Astros and a four-game set with the often listless Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Honestly, looking at their schedule down the stretch, I don’t see the Rangers losing enough games to cough up a playoff spot. If they go just one game over .500 in that stretch (9-8), they finish with 90 wins and all the teams chasing them have to have at least 2 more wins than the Rangers over this stretch to win.
Tampa Bay Rays
Just three weeks ago the Rays looked like, at the very least, a lock for the playoffs and were in a tight battle with Red Sox for the Division title. Then, the wheels fell off. The Rays have gone just 5-13 over their last 18 games and have fallen to 8.5 games back of the Red Sox. In some ways they might be lucky that going into a difficult race to the finish they’re still in the playoffs. On the other hand, they only have a one game lead over the Yankees and, after a not as easy as you’d think series at Minnesota, take on the Rangers, Orioles, Yankees, and Blue Jays. If their slide continues against the Twins this weekend, they’re probably done. But as they’ve shown over the past couple of months, they can run very hot and cold and could find themselves back in commanding hold of a playoff spot with series wins against the Rangers, O’s and Yankees.
The Indians, who have stuck around all year, could really excel in the final sprint of the season thanks to a very favorable schedule, as Shane Ryan of Grantland breaks down here. The Cliff’s Notes: 13 of the Tribe’s final 16 games are against league bottom dwellers Astros, Twins, and White Sox.
Adding to the schedule help, the Indians are peaking at the right time. Their pitching has really come together, especially Ubaldo Jimenez who has been quietly effective lately but Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, and Scott Kazmir have all been very good this year. They’ve used Ryan Raburn very effectively in a platoon situation, and the emergence of Yan Gomes as a quality starter at catcher has improved their defense by allowing Carlos Santana (a great hitter) to DH or hide at first base. You look at their defense and Asdrubal Cabrera and Kipnis are very solid up the middle and they have a great outfield defense with Brantley, Bourn, and Stubbs from left to right. I think that this team combined with an easy schedule has a very good shot at making the playoffs.
New York Yankees
On August 5th, the Yankees were 57-54. They were five games back of the second Wild Card spot. And collstandings.com had them as a 3.4% chance of making the playoffs.
On August 5th I was (jokingly) telling anyone who would listen that Alex Rodriguez’s imminent return was going to propel the Yankees to the playoffs, and as everyone knows, once you make the playoffs anything is possible.
Since August 5th, A-Rod’s first game back in pinstripes, the Yankees have gone 22-14 and now sit only one game back of the Rays for the second Wild Card spot. Of course, while A-Rod’s return is the easy narrative in pointing at the Yankee resurgence, it’s more than just him. On July 26th, the Yankees traded for Alfonso Soriano. On August 2nd, Curtis Granderson returned from the DL. And, on August 16th, Mark Reynolds played his first game for the Yankees (he was signed as a free agent after being DFA’d by the Indians). All told, these players have combined for 4.6 fWAR as Yankees this year, and that win total rises when you consider that the players they are replacing combined for -1.9 fWAR (which doesn’t even account for whatever it is that Eduardo Nunez is doing out there). That’s a 6.5 win swing over the course of a month and a half.
Of course, the point isn’t to look at how the Yankees got here (which is remarkable and not at all dissimilar to what the Orioles did last year), but to look at what the Yankees will do over the final two and half weeks of the season. On that count, the outlook is a little up and a little down. The bad news is they just lost Brett Gardner for what could be the remainder of the year with an oblique strain. While Gardner has undoubtedly been the second best player on the Yankees this year, he’s somehow also the most easily replaced with Granderson and Ichiro’s abilities to play center capably. (Normally I’d argue that it’s actually his leadoff ability to get on base that’s irreplaceable but Granderson has actually been very good at getting on base this year.) On the other hand, they are going to be replacing the statuesque (and I mean that literally) presence of Derek Jeter defensively at short stop and replacing him with the very good (defensively) Brendan Ryan. (While Ryan won’t be eligible for the playoffs, I imagine the Yankees will be quite happy to cross that bridge when they get to it.)
Their remaining schedule is likewise mixed. They have six games against teams over .500 in the Red Sox and Rays and nine games against poor teams (the Astros, Giants, and Blue Jays). That Blue Jays series could be the swing series. Intra-divisional foes, even last place ones, often play their rivals tough down the stretch, especially if it means keeping that team from reaching the postseason.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals schedule is going to make their march to October pretty difficult. It starts with three games against the Tigers this weekend, followed by three against the Indians, and then a three game set with the Rangers. If they can make it out of that gauntlet within two games of a playoff spot, then it actually gets easy with their final seven games against the Mariners and White Sox (all on the road). But here’s why that initial test makes their postseason quest that much more difficult: they would have to jump over both the Yankees and the Indians (who both have easier schedules) and jump either Tampa Bay or Texas. It’s doable, but they would have to win more games than three of those teams down the stretch and I just think that’s too difficult for this team down the stretch. But hey, at least they won’t be giving Jeff Franceour 193 plate appearances next year, and that alone could push them over the top.
I come not to bury the Orioles, but to praise them. They have played really well this year. Their offense has been insane, with Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Manny Machado all putting up monster seasons. And, their defense has been at least as good, helping to make up for probably the second worst pitching staff in the major leagues. But, all the luck factors that helped the Orioles last year have come back to haunt them this year in a bad way. They’ve gone from an historically great year in one run games last year to having the worst record in the league in one-run games this year. And most of that has been the other fluky thing in baseball: bullpens. Last year, the bullpen was great. This year, with mostly the same players, the bullpen has been the fourth worst in the AL. At this point in the season, a sudden reversal of those trends seems unlikely and, just like the Royals, they have too many teams they have to jump over to make the second Wild Card. And, they have probably the hardest schedule of all of these teams, with ten games against the Red Sox and the Rays (and the rest of their games are against tricky intra-divisional rival Toronto). Unfortunately, I just don’t see the Orioles getting the magic they need to make it this year.