2013 MLB Playoffs: Predicting Every Playoff Team with a Month to Go
It's not quite like the Thunderdome, where two men enter and one man leaves, but MLB's regular season is every bit as vicious and demanding as the fictitious combat dome from the 1985 Mel Gibson classic, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Instead of two men, we have 30 teams, all vying over the course of a grueling 162-game schedule for one of 10 spots in the playoffs, where some would argue that the real MLB season begins.
With 16 teams holding or within seven games of one of those playoff spots and a month's worth of games to be played before the postseason field is set, the competition in September is going to be fierce.
Will the Pirates end 20 years of ineptitude and make it to the postseason? To that end, will three teams from the NL Central advance to the playoffs for the first time? Can Cleveland catch Detroit in the AL Central, or are the Indians doomed to sit out this year's postseason festivities once again?
Can a dark-horse contender, like the Nationals, Royals or Yankees, pull off the unthinkable and sneak into the playoffs?
Let's take a look at how I see things playing out.
*Unless otherwise noted, all team records, statistics and schedule information courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and current through Aug. 29 games.
AL East Champs: Boston Red Sox
Current Record: 79-56
First Place in AL East (2.5-game lead over Tampa Bay)
Going from worst to first is an incredibly difficult feat for any MLB team to pull off. Since 1900, only 10 teams have done it, with the most recent team being the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011.
With only two playoff teams remaining on their schedule (three games against Detroit, three against Tampa Bay) and a 35-29 record against the teams left on their schedule, the Red Sox will become the 11th team to pull it off, winning the AL East for the first time since 2007.
Of Boston's final 27 games, 15 will be played at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox have gone 42-23 (.646 winning percentage) this year, good for the best home record in the American League. That gives them a significant advantage over Tampa Bay, which plays 19 of its last 30 games on the road.
Scheduling aside, Boston's offense is simply too potent—and its pitching solid enough—to keep the Rays at bay for the rest of the season. Boston has outscored the opposition by 53 runs (243-190) since the beginning of July and owns the second-highest run differential in the American League (third-highest in baseball) at plus-134.
And did I mention the potential September return of ace Clay Buchholz? According to WEEI's Alex Speier, Buchholz is scheduled to make his second rehab start on Friday night and could to rejoin the big-league club on Sept. 10 for a start against Tampa Bay.
If Buchholz returns anywhere near his early-season form (1.71 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 2.79 K/BB), the Red Sox could become the team to beat in the American League.
AL Central Champs: Detroit Tigers
Current Record: 78-56
First Place in AL Central (6.5-game lead over Cleveland)
Back in 2011, Detroit won the AL Central handily, finishing with a 15-game lead over Cleveland and a 16-game lead over Kansas City. While the Tigers won't finish 2013 with such commanding leads over the Indians and Royals, their schedule doesn't pose a major problem.
The Tigers have gone 41-24 against the teams remaining on their schedule, and they will finish the season with a 13-game run against teams with a losing record: Seattle, Chicago (AL), Minnesota and Miami. Realistically, it would take interference from the baseball gods to keep them from winning their third consecutive division crown.
Even if Miguel Cabrera is forced to miss some time with an abdomen injury, the Tigers have enough firepower to hold onto the division lead.
With baseball's most potent offense (5.08 runs per game) and one of the best starting rotations around—despite both Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander having down seasons—Detroit is the favorite to represent the American League in the Fall Classic.
AL West Champs: Oakland Athletics
Current Record: 75-58
Second Place in AL West (3.0 games behind Texas); 3.5-game lead for second AL Wild Card
Few teams in baseball have as favorable a remaining schedule as Oakland, who will face teams with losing records in 20 of its final 23 games of the season. Conversely, Texas—the team that is battling Oakland for AL West supremacy—will face losing teams only 13 times in its last 23 contests.
That schedule will allow the A's to win back-to-back AL West titles for the first time in a decade—they last pulled it off in 2002 and 2003, only to be eliminated in the ALDS both times.
Without a superstar leading the way, the A's will have to rely upon a myriad of players to come through with big plays at opportune times to put away the Rangers.
Oakland wins as a team and loses as a team, and that's going to make it difficult to beat in the postseason due to the fact that the opposition can't just focus on one or two specific players.
First AL Wild Card: Texas Rangers
Current Record: 78-55
First Place in AL West (3.0-game lead over Oakland)
The new "win-or-go-home" wild-card format hasn't been kind to Texas. Last season, the Rangers lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the first-ever AL Wild Card Game, despite having beaten the Orioles in five of the seven regular-season games that they played against each other.
While I point to the fact that the Rangers play winning teams in 13 of their last 23 games when looking at Oakland's playoff chances, it is important to remember that the Rangers hold a 38-13 record against teams that remain on their schedule (Texas has yet to play Pittsburgh this season).
Their last seven games come against Houston and Los Angeles (AL), two teams that have combined to go 4-24 against Texas in 2013. That relative cakewalk ensures that Texas, while falling just short in the division, will be hosting the Wild Card Game.
Second AL Wild Card: Tampa Bay Rays
Current Record: 75-57
Second Place in AL East (2.5 games behind Boston); Leading AL Wild Card (four games ahead of Orioles for playoff spot)
If we're being honest, a small part of nearly everyone who has ever watched the movie Major League would love to see Cleveland snag the second wild-card berth in the American League.
Both Cleveland and Tampa Bay—the other wild-card contender—have favorable schedules remaining, with the Rays (45-33, .577) having slightly more success against their remaining opponents than the Indians (35-29, .547). However, Cleveland plays only one team that is ahead of it in the standings, Detroit.
Regardless, the Indians need help from elsewhere to make it—the Rays do not.
That gives Tampa Bay all the edge it needs to win out what is sure to be a race that comes down to the last few games of the season.
Furthermore, All-Star starter Matt Moore is set to rejoin the rotation on Tuesday after missing all of August with a sore left elbow, per ESPN.com. When you couple his return with Tampa Bay's postseason experience, it becomes even harder to envision the Indians ending their five-year postseason drought.
NL East Champs: Atlanta Braves
Current Record: 81-52
First Place in NL East (13.0-game lead over Washington)
Even with injuries knocking Brandon Beachy, Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden out of action in August, the Braves haven't missed a beat, posting their highest single-month winning percentage of the season (.720, 18-7).
Atlanta faces only one team above .500 for the rest of the season in a three-game series on the road against Washington in mid-September.
With a 13.0-game lead over the second place Nationals—the biggest lead of any first-place team in baseball—the Braves are sitting pretty and destined to win the National League East for the first time since 2005.
NL Central Champs: Pittsburgh Pirates
Current Record: 77-56
Second place in NL Central (1.0 games behind St. Louis); Leading NL Wild Card (8.5 games ahead of Diamondbacks for playoff spot)
For the first time in 20 years, the fate of the National League Central rests in the hands of Pirates.
While Andrew McCutchen doesn't have an eye patch or a wooden leg and Clint Hurdle is missing the wise-cracking parrot on his shoulder, Pittsburgh will still dictate which team takes home the division crown.
Pittsburgh plays both Cincinnati and St. Louis six times between now and the end of the season, while the Reds and Cardinals only meet four times. With a combined 15-11 record against their division foes and the trio of teams being separated by less than four games, the Pirates control their own destiny.
If they win all four series—especially the pair against St. Louis, the first of which begins on Friday night—the division will be theirs.
I wish I could point to some statistical reason other than their previous success against the Cards and Reds this season as to why the Pirates are going to pull this off, but I can't. Pittsburgh's offense isn't as potent as Cincinnati's, and its pitching not as good as St. Louis'.
Maybe it's nothing more than a gut feeling, but I just don't see the Pirates falling short in their quest to end two decades of misery. Forget just finishing the season with a winning record; Pittsburgh is winning the division.
NL West Champs: Los Angeles Dodgers
Current Record: 78-55
First place in NL West (9.5-game lead over Arizona)
Yes, it's true.
The National League West is the only division in the Senior Circuit that the Dodgers have a losing record against (23-27), with a .500 record against the Giants (6-6) being the best mark they've been able to muster. And with 26 of their 29 remaining games coming against divisional opponents, some people might believe an epic collapse is about to unfold in Chavez Ravine.
I'm not buying it.
Of the 50 divisional games that the Dodgers have played, only 13 have come since July 1, with the Dodgers winning nine of them. As we know, this is a vastly different Dodgers team than the one that showed up early in the season, as they have won 40 of their last 52 games.
With a 9.5-game lead in the division and seven games remaining against Arizona—the only team that has a chance of catching them—the Dodgers control their own destiny. If they beat the Diamondbacks, the division is theirs.
After sweeping Arizona in the last three-game series that the two teams played against each other—a series in which the Dodgers outscored their rivals by a combined score of 19-6—you have to like Los Angeles' odds of holding onto the division lead.
First NL Wild Card: St. Louis Cardinals
Current Record: 78-55
First Place in NL Central (1.0-game lead over Pittsburgh)
That St. Louis winds up as the first wild card in the National League and not as the champions of the NL Central has more to do with Pittsburgh than it does the Cardinals, who have a favorable schedule down the stretch.
The Cardinals have gone 39-24 against teams they have left to play, with only 13 of their final 29 games coming against teams with a winning record.
While St. Louis has a 15-13 record against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh—the two teams it will be facing 10 times over the next 10 days—the Cards own a losing record (5-8) against the Pirates, who they play in six of those 10 games.
Falling just short of the team's first division crown since 2009 isn't the end of the world by any means, however, as it was only two years ago that the Cardinals won the World Series as a wild-card team.
They could pull it off again in 2013.
Second NL Wild Card: Cincinnati Reds
Current Record: 75-59
Third Place in NL Central (3.5 games behind St. Louis); 6.0-game lead for second NL Wild Card
While the Reds have a winning record (38-32) against their remaining opponents, they have the toughest schedule of the three contenders in the NL Central, facing three playoff teams (Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and St. Louis), with a combined 7-15 record against that trio.
It's the 13 games left to play against those teams that will keep the Reds from catching the Pirates and Cardinals in the standings. But the rest of their schedule is easy enough (Rockies, Cubs, Brewers, Mets and Astros) that Cincinnati will be able to hold off Arizona in what won't amount to much of a race for the final wild-card spot in the National League.