In what has to be the wildest Wild Card race ever, six teams are within two games of a Wild Card spot in the American League, and nine are within 3 1/2 games. All along this has been a hard one for everyone to predict, with four of those still-contending teams having been at least limited sellers at the deadline (counting the Twins, who were first buyers before they were sellers).
Yes indeed, it’s been that tough a race to gauge.
Angels GM Billy Eppler, whose team is one of the more intriguing in the playoff picture, and has shocked folks by moving into the second Wild Card spot behind the Yankees following a sale (though a very limited one in their case), said he likens the race to “Los Angeles traffic.” He meant that it’s a crowded field. But like traffic on the 405, the 110, the 101 and other L.A. congestion spots, it will also ultimately turn out to be a source of frustration for seven of the nine teams involved.
There’s no doubt it’s already been odd, with the oddest thing about the race so far being that the trade deadline buyers have dropped back a bit while the sellers have actually risen. The Angels, Twins, Rangers and Blue Jays, all sellers on deadline day, are all enhancing their playoff chances with mostly inspired play — and even hot streaks in the cases of the Angels and Twins.
In the meantime, the deadline buyers (Yankees, Rays, Royals) generally have struggled ever since, for whatever reason. Another buyer, the Orioles, was expected to be a seller, but has benefited from its surprise purchases, especially the trade for former No. 1 pick Tim Beckham, who’s been about the best player in baseball this month (right there with Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto, more on all three of them in the AL and NL notes).
One of the first people to point this out about the buying/selling dichotomy is Twins GM Thad Levine, who said, “There’s less correlation between buying/selling and winning than ever. And if there is, it’s maybe to the inverse.”
So it’s been a wild – and weird – race to date.
Here’s a look at the nine teams involved (or at least close to involved)…
Pluses: On paper, they look like the best of the nine who are alive. They’re second in runs, and third in ERA, so based on run differential they should be in the clear by now. Though of course, they’re not. Oh and by the way, their bullpen is one of the best in the game, and statistically about the best since the All-Star break. Gary Sanchez is getting hot. They also should be playing better than this, thanks to some nifty deadline dealing, with Sonny Gray, Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle serving as a very nice quartet of reinforcements who came to the Bronx in July.
Minuses: They currently aren’t playing their best, with their five-game lead in the A.L. East disappearing, and turning into a similar deficit in the division. Aaron Judge hasn’t been nearly as good in the second half. No surprise, they have a few mini controversies going on in recent days, such as whether Sanchez should be catching or DHing, and whether Aroldis Chapman should be replaced as closer. (The answers here: Sanchez should catch even if he isn’t a great receiver, and Chapman should close even if he’s struggling badly now.)
Overview: They should make it to October. Overall, they have a lead, they’ve played the best of the bunch and they should be an improved team over the first half. (They should be, anyway!)
Pluses: They are red hot, and seem to have some unexpected mojo. They also have the best player in the world in Mike Trout, an improving star in Andrelton Simmons and pitching stars Andrew Heaney and Garrett Richards (more on them in the AL notes) on the horizon. They still may have the element of surprise, as no one thought they’d be here (and still don’t). Even with closer Huston Street basically missing the whole year, the bullpen has been stunningly solid, and actually even better than that. Same for their makeshift rotation.
Minuses: Albert Pujols, right smack dab in the middle of that lineup, is a shell of himself. They’re still without five of their expected starters, and while there’s hope for all the starters but Matt Shoemaker and Nick Tropeano to be back, there are no guarantees.
Overview: If they keep playing like this, of course they are in. Sure, it’s hard to believe they are in the middle of things with Trout having missed 39 games, Pujols and Kole Calhoun having off years and the loss of an entire rotation. But the fact is, they are.
Pluses: They get big points for experience and know-how, as it was only two years ago that they played in their second straight World Series. They reinforced a questionable pen with a trade with the Padres, which should help more than it has (their pen ERA was the best in the league in July, and as it turns out is among the worst this month). There’s a rather large contingent of free agents that presumably want to make a final positive impression before hitting it big, or relatively big.
Minuses: The rotation is a little shaky and they didn’t add that final piece they hoped to. The .310 on-base percentage is last in the American League, and low even by their standards. Sometimes having so many free agents can work against a team, too. Salvador Perez, once an MVP candidate and their most important player (along with Eric Hosmer), is out. Having 10 games left with the first-place Indians can’t be considered a positive, either.
Overview: Ten days ago, they look like almost a shoo-in, but a weak stretch has left them in a rough spot. They do have that proven nucleus, and you know they have it in them to rally at the right time.
Pluses: That schedule is a beauty with 23 games left against the White Sox, Tigers and Blue Jays – two non-contenders and one semi contender. They are also playing some of the better baseball since the front office held a small selloff following one big buy (now they may be back to buyers … maybe). Eddie Rosario likes the big stage, and it’s showing now. Their young position player nucleus is quite good. The amazing Bartolo Colon has provided a lift.
Minuses: Their stats don’t add up to contender, but they have reduced their negative run differential from close to 100 to about half that. Their pitching, in particular, leaves something to be desired. Both the rotation and pen are 13th best in the AL by ERA, and Brandon Kintzler and Jaime Garcia are gone.
Overview: The players are making believers out of the skeptics (myself included) and the front office, which seemed to assume the team was still a year or two away. Between their improved play and cupcake schedule, they’ve got a real shot.
Pluses: That lineup nucleus is terrific, with Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager all having the ability to carry the team. Mitch Haniger, who was so good early, should be back soon. If they can hang in there, they could be primed for a nice finish, as James Paxton, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma could all be back for the final few weeks, if all goes well. GM Jerry Dipoto always has the ability to make a trade (he trades so frequently it’s hard to keep up).
Minuses: Their rotation as it stands now is a mess – with four of their original five out (including Drew Smyly, who is gone for the year). They are currently at a low ebb, coming off a sweep at the hands of the Angels.
Overview: At full strength, they are much better than their current record. They can hit with anyone except the AL West leading Astros. Unfortunately, they rarely seem to be at full strength. And won’t be until at least mid September.
Pluses: They can hit, and with power (they are second in the league in homers). The biggest bopper of them all, Joey Gallo, is showing signs of real stardom in the second half. They’ve underperformed in many cases, and could have more in them. The starting pitching has been better than expected.
Minuses: Rougned Odor isn’t having the year he had last year. He’s just one of a few all-or-nothing sluggers on a team that embodies the new ballplayer. Their bullpen has been atrocious, especially at key moments. They are without their ace Yu Darvish, who’s pitching better in L.A. so far.
Overview: They sold for a reason, and they were probably right to do so. This just doesn’t look like their year. But somehow, they are only a few games out. So don’t count them out.
Pluses: Their pitching is very good, as usual, especially their starting pitching. They have a history of outperforming when you least expect it. Kevin Kiermaier should be back, and not a moment too soon.
Minuses: Their hitting leaves something to be desired, and they seem to have hit a wall in the second half. Their .642 post-All-Star OPS is easily the worst in the league. They are without underrated starter Alex Cobb, who is out with turf toe. Their schedule is tougher than most. Their offense, surprisingly good in the first half, is slipping, with Logan Morrison, Corey Dickerson and Stephen Souza all falling off from nice first halves. Evan Longoria looks a bit tired.
Overview: They may seem to be in over their heads, but they always carry the ability to surprise.
Pluses: They can really rake, and they have been doing so in the second half (they are first in runs after the break). Manny Machado is himself again, which is a necessity, with two grand slams on the latest trip. Tim Beckham is as hot as anyone since coming over at the deadline, and burgeoning star Jonathan Schoop has been hot almost all year. Manager Buck Showalter seems to get the most out of teams throughout the regular season.
Minuses: Their starting pitching isn’t just the worst, it’s by far the worst (5.53 ERA), at least in the AL. It would be almost unprecedented to have a team with such little starting pitcher success make the playoffs.
Overview: If they can overcome their rotation issues, they’ve got a shot. They shouldn’t be discounted since they have the ability to overwhelm teams with their bats.
9. Blue Jays
Pluses: Some of their stars are back and healthy now, most prominently Josh Donaldson, who’s hitting up a storm lately. They just haven’t hit as a team, thanks mostly to all the injuries but also to underperformance. Their 509 runs is good only for 14th best in the AL.
Minuses: Ace Aaron Sanchez never did make it back from his nasty blister issue. Neither did second baseman Devon Travis. It’s been an injury year.
Overview: It’s never seemed like their year, and while they are hanging on the fringe of the race, most are looking at them as a 2017 tease. That is, until further notice.