Ranking Difficulty of Every MLB Playoff Contender's Remaining Schedule
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Although we're five-plus months into the 2013 MLB season, nearly half the sport is still in playoff contention. Best record is up for grabs as well.
The difficulty of each team's remaining schedule will largely determine who celebrates at September's end. That's why we've ranked every team's path from least to most arduous.
Let's be clear from the onset about what exactly makes a schedule difficult.
Opposing talented teams with their own postseason aspirations is obviously a concern. The American League has more clubs that fit this description, which explains why the top half of this list is AL-heavy.
However, even baseball's bottom-feeders should be feared under certain circumstances. They're labeled "spoilers" for a reason, right? Unheralded rookies, washed-up veterans and everyone in between can upset a juggernaut by exploiting particular weaknesses.
Fatigue is a major factor during the pennant races. Off-days have become Saharan oases, so this list was influenced by the number of them that remain for each contender.
Who's smiling and who's sweating after peeking at their upcoming assignments? Indulge in this slideshow to find out.
*Stats provided by FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. Updates through the games of September 11, 2013.
14. St. Louis Cardinals
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Sept. 12 vs. Milwaukee Brewers (62-82)
Sept. 13-15 vs. Seattle Mariners (65-81)
Sept. 16-19 at Colorado Rockies (67-80)
Sept. 20-22 at Milwaukee Brewers (62-82)
Sept. 23-25 vs. Washington Nationals (76-69)
Sept. 27-29 vs. Chicago Cubs (62-83)
Lots of weaklings for the St. Louis Cardinals to prey on.
The club's contact-hitting approach suits Coors Field perfectly because of its vast dimensions. Traveling to Milwaukee for the other road series also looks promising. The Brewers have epitomized inconsistency, with no winning streaks longer than two games since mid-July.
The schedule sets up so that rotation leader Adam Wainwright can make four more starts in the regular season. Meanwhile, if the NL Central title is no longer a possibility heading into the final Cubs series, the Cards can push back Wainwright a few days and save him for the NL Wild Card Game.
Per Baseball-Reference.com, the Brewers are the league's runaway leader in infield hits this season. Expect plenty more of them against St. Louis. The Cards' infield defense was already unimpressive, and starting Daniel Descalso at shortstop instead of Pete Kozma exacerbates that weakness.
The final off-day is wasted in between two home series. They would've benefited more from getting time off before or after a flight.
13. Cleveland Indians
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Sept. 12-15 at Chicago White Sox (58-87)
Sept. 16-18 at Kansas City Royals (77-69)
Sept. 19-22 vs. Houston Astros (50-96)
Sept. 24-25 vs. Chicago White Sox (58-87)
Sept. 26-29 at Minnesota Twins (63-81)
The Astros, Twins and White Sox own the three worst records in the American League, and none of them have shown signs of improvement lately.
The Cleveland Indians should feel particularly eager to battle Minnesota. The Twins shut them out on Aug. 12, but their pitching staff has since allowed nearly five-and-a-half runs per game.
Moreover, Indians-White Sox has been the most lopsided divisional rivalry in the majors this season. Cleveland flaunts an 11-2 record against the South Siders.
Hanging on for dear life on the edge of the American League wild-card picture, the Royals have been more susceptible to striking out thanks to in-season acquisitions like Emilio Bonifacio and Carlos Pena. Plus, their manager is a fool, as HardballTalk's Matthew Pouliot explains.
The starting rotations of these four remaining opponents include only two great pitchers: Chris Sale and James Shields. Cleveland will have to face both of them.
Despite the aforementioned flaws, Kansas City is the Tribe's toughest obstacle down the stretch. A strained oblique will prevent top starter Justin Masterson from competing against them.
12. Detroit Tigers
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Sept. 13-15 vs. Kansas City Royals (77-69)
Sept. 16-19 vs. Seattle Mariners (65-81)
Sept. 20-22 vs. Chicago White Sox (58-87)
Sept. 23-25 at Minnesota Twins (63-81)
Sept. 27-29 at Miami Marlins (54-90)
Greg Johns and Jacob Thorpe of MLB.com report that the Mariners will err on the side of caution as Felix Hernandez deals with an oblique injury. His participation during the upcoming four-game set with the Detroit Tigers is very much in doubt.
With 14 losses in its past 20 games, Seattle is falling apart.
Minnesota's inability to generate swings-and-misses and Miami's anemic offense combine to form a very soft landing.
Visiting Marlins Park leaves the Tigers without a designated hitter. That means Prince Fielder or Victor Martinez will be relegated to pinch-hitting duty.
11. Atlanta Braves
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Sept. 12 at Miami Marlins (54-90)
Sept. 13-15 vs. San Diego Padres (66-78)
Sept. 16-18 at Washington Nationals (76-69)
Sept. 20-22 at Chicago Cubs (62-83)
Sept. 23-25 vs. Milwaukee Brewers (62-82)
Sept. 26-29 vs. Philadelphia Phillies (67-78)
The Atlanta Braves shouldn't have much difficulty against Chicago, Milwaukee or San Diego considering their shaky pitching staffs and lack of power-hitting.
Cole Hamels has quietly pitched beautifully since the All-Star break (2.38 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 65 K in 72.0 IP), but the Braves can breathe a sigh of relief. He's the only Phillies starter who isn't scheduled to influence that season-ending four-game set.
This is not the same Nationals team that the Braves dominated earlier this year. In fact, Atlanta looks to be at a huge disadvantage heading into that rivalry series. Since Aug. 20, the Nats boast a 16-5 record.
Southpaws Mike Minor, Alex Wood and Paul Maholm are aligned to start against a lineup that includes Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, two right-handed batters who have been particularly locked in.
10. Oakland Athletics
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Sept. 12 at Minnesota Twins (63-81)
Sept. 13-15 at Texas Rangers (81-64)
Sept. 16-18 vs. Los Angeles Angels (69-76)
Sept. 19-22 vs. Minnesota Twins (63-81)
Sept. 23-25 at Los Angeles Angels (69-76)
Sept. 27-29 at Seattle Mariners (65-81)
Only three of the final 17 games remaining for the Oakland Athletics come against clubs with winning records.
The Twins have one of the American League's softest lineups, especially when you remove Joe Mauer from it. He's attempting to return from a concussion, but recent reports of his frustration, via Dayn Perry of CBS Sports, suggest he could miss a portion of that final home series (if not the whole thing).
This isn't an ideal time to be running into the Halos. They've won 14 of their past 19 games and activated second baseman Howie Kendrick from the disabled list.
Mike Trout (.417/.563/.556), Josh Hamilton (.400/.462/.600) and Mark Trumbo (.341/.357/.732) have all been excelling in September.
Also, Texas has its three hottest starting pitchers—Derek Holland, Yu Darvish and Martin Perez—aligned to greet the A's at Rangers Ballpark. Perez fared very well against them earlier this month, tossing seven effective innings.
9. Pittsburgh Pirates
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Sept. 12-15 vs. Chicago Cubs (62-83)
Sept. 16-19 vs. San Diego Padres (66-78)
Sept. 20-22 vs. Cincinnati Reds (83-64)
Sept. 23-25 at Chicago Cubs (62-83)
Sept. 27-29 at Cincinnati Reds (83-64)
The Pittsburgh Pirates should effortlessly take at least four of their seven games against the Cubs. Travis Wood is the lone consistent member of their six-man rotation, and Kevin Gregg—he who owns a career 4.04 ERA and 4.1 BB/9—closes games for them. Outfielder Nate Schierholtz has been rapidly regressing since August. Francisco Liriano will ensure that continues, as he's on track to face Chicago two more times.
Injury and suspension have depleted San Diego's roster. Tyson Ross is the only Padres starting pitcher worth worrying about.
With every day that passes, Jason Grilli and Starling Marte shake off more rust from their recent stints on the disabled list. These difference-makers could be close to midseason form by the time the Reds—the only intimidating opponent left for Pittsburgh—arrive at PNC Park.
Aroldis Chapman has been brilliant since late August, seldom allowing his opposition to make contact. Meanwhile, calling up speed demon Billy Hamilton allows Reds manager Dusty Baker to get creative in close contests.
Together, they make Cincinnati frustrating to face in the later innings and a team that the Bucs wish would disappear from their schedule.
8. Boston Red Sox
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Sept. 12 at Tampa Bay Rays (78-66)
Sept. 13-15 vs. New York Yankees (78-68)
Sept. 17-19 vs. Baltimore Orioles (77-68)
Sept. 20-22 vs. Toronto Blue Jays (67-78)
Sept. 24-25 at Colorado Rockies (67-80)
Sept. 27-29 at Baltimore Orioles (77-68)
The Boston Red Sox will rest on the final two Mondays of the regular season. That's a luxury for the starting rotation, especially John Lackey, who underwent Tommy John surgery during the 2011-2012 offseason.
For the first time in nearly two decades, Boston will host a huge September series against a Derek Jeter-less version of the Yankees. Per Wallace Matthews of ESPN, Jeter has been ruled out for the remainder of 2013 with recurring pain in his ankle.
The summer's ultimate road trip takes the Sox to high-scoring environments, an ideal setup for the league's No. 1 offense.
Although the season series isn't quite as a one-sided as it was last summer, the O's have defeated the Red Sox in seven of 13 opportunities. Some of Baltimore's hottest players in recent weeks include closer Jim Johnson and designated hitter Danny Valencia.
Compared to previously mentioned division leaders like the Atlanta Braves and Detroit Tigers, this club has a lot of miles left to fly. Combining the treks from Tampa Bay to Boston, Boston to Denver and Denver to Baltimore is approximately 5,000 miles.
7. Los Angeles Dodgers
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Sept. 12-15 vs. San Francisco Giants (66-80)
Sept. 16-19 at Arizona Diamondbacks (73-72)
Sept. 20-22 at San Diego Padres (66-78)
Sept. 24-26 at San Francisco Giants (66-80)
Sept. 27-29 vs. Colorado Rockies (67-80)
Per FanGraphs, the D-Backs, Padres and Giants have all been underwhelming offensive teams since the All-Star break. The deep Los Angeles Dodgers pitching staff should easily rip through them.
Colorado is even less productive in that span when adjusting for league and park factors. As Troy Renck of the Denver Post reports, that's largely because star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez cannot contribute as he nurses a sprained middle finger.
Baseball-Reference.com shows us that Yasiel Puig has antagonized each of these teams in his limited exposure to them.
The Dodgers have only played about .500 baseball against their NL West rivals in 2013, although most of those games took place early in the season.
They'll encounter Madison Bumgarner—2.82 ERA, 183 K in 188.1 IP—in both of the San Francisco series. Jorge De La Rosa (3.1 fWAR) awaits L.A. during that final matchup at Coors Field.
6. New York Yankees
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Sept. 12 at Baltimore Orioles (77-68)
Sept. 13-15 at Boston Red Sox (89-58)
Sept. 17-19 at Toronto Blue Jays (67-78)
Sept. 20-22 vs. San Francisco Giants (66-80)
Sept. 24-26 vs. Tampa Bay Rays (78-66)
Sept. 27-29 at Houston Astros (50-96)
The New York Yankees have a knack for bullying the Blue Jays. They own a 13-3 record against them this season, as well as a 35-17 mark dating back to 2011.
MLB steals leader Jacoby Ellsbury is recovering from a compression fracture in his foot. He won't lead off Boston's lineup when the Yanks make their final trip to Fenway Park. They also luck out against the Giants by avoiding Madison Bumgarner, the only consistent pitcher in that starting rotation.
According to Daniel Barbarisi of the Wall Street Journal, reliever Boone Logan has not made any progress after complaining of pain in his left arm. If it's any consolation, the biggest series remaining for New York will be against the Rays, and that's still a couple weeks away.
Ellsbury's absence won't necessarily impair the Red Sox offense, which dumped 28 runs on the Yankees from Sept. 6-8 without his services.
Older position players don't respond well to Toronto's artificial turf. Manager Joe Girardi may need to rest Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano and other key contributors for some portion of that series.
5. Cincinnati Reds
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Sept. 13-15 at Milwaukee Brewers (62-82)
Sept. 16-18 at Houston Astros (50-96)
Sept. 20-22 at Pittsburgh Pirates (84-61)
Sept. 23-25 vs. New York Mets (64-80)
Sept. 27-29 vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (84-61)
Shin-Soo Choo has very dramatic platoon splits this season, and Ryan Ludwick isn't contributing right-handed power like he did in 2012.
It's safe to say that the Cincinnati Reds will try to avoid opposing southpaws whenever possible. Fortunately, aside from Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke, they aren't scheduled to face any notable lefty starters.
The Mets have flaunted a reputable pitching staff for portions of this season. That's not the case this September, with ace Matt Harvey and closer Bobby Parnell lost due to injury.
The biggest games left for the Reds are obviously those against Pittsburgh. They thankfully have several series between now and then, which means right-hander Johnny Cueto (lat strain) could be back to bolster the pitching staff for those matchups, according to John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Since the All-Star break, Andrew McCutchen has arguably been the best hitter in the sport. The NL MVP candidate batted .384/.483/.535 with 38 hits in August, and he's enjoying even more success so far in the summer's final month.
That's not someone who you want to face six times at this critical juncture of the season.
Cincy has dominated at Great American Ball Park all year while playing below .500 elsewhere. Regardless of the opposition, the Reds will dread their upcoming nine-game road trip.
4. Baltimore Orioles
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Sept. 12 vs. New York Yankees (78-68)
Sept. 13-15 at Toronto Blue Jays (67-78)
Sept. 17-19 at Boston Red Sox (89-58)
Sept. 20-23 at Tampa Bay Rays (78-66)
Sept. 24-26 vs. Toronto Blue Jays (67-78)
Sept. 27-29 vs. Boston Red Sox (89-58)
Scott Feldman is heating up at an ideal time, allowing three earned runs or fewer in each of his past six starts. He gives the Baltimore Orioles their best chance to win, and he's conveniently aligned to face their toughest remaining opponent two more times.
The bottom half of the Blue Jays lineup is mostly comprised of minor league call-ups, so Baltimore's non-Feldmans won't feel intimidated.
You think Feldman's on a nice roll?
It's been practically an entire month since Boston closer Koji Uehara last allowed a baserunner of any kind. Moreover, setup man Craig Breslow has coughed up only two runs since the All-Star break. You can forget about orchestrating late-inning rallies against that bullpen.
3. Texas Rangers
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Sept. 13-15 vs. Oakland Athletics (84-61)
Sept. 16-19 at Tampa Bay Rays (78-66)
Sept. 20-22 at Kansas City Royals (77-69)
Sept. 23-25 vs. Houston Astros (50-96)
Sept. 26-29 vs. Los Angeles Angels (69-76)
Don't be fooled by Houston's recent sweep of the Seattle Mariners. Prior to the that, the club lost five of its last six series. Very beatable.
Texas oddly has a better record on the road than at home in 2013, but playing 10 of the next 17 contests in the familiar confines of Rangers ballpark is undoubtedly advantageous.
At some point, every team reluctantly experiences its final off-day of the regular season.
The Rangers, unfortunately, have come to that point with another two-and-a-half weeks still to play. It promises to be a grueling finish for Elvis Andrus, Adrian Beltre and others who have spent the whole summer on the active roster.
The A's denied Texas the 2012 AL West title by dominating head-to-head matchups down the stretch. Regardless of what manager Ron Washington says publicly, he's worried about deja vu.
2. Tampa Bay Rays
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Sept. 12 vs. Boston Red Sox (89-58)
Sept. 13-15 at Minnesota Twins (63-81)
Sept. 16-19 vs. Texas Rangers (81-64)
Sept. 20-23 vs. Baltimore Orioles (77-68)
Sept. 24-26 at New York Yankees (78-68)
Sept. 27-29 at Toronto Blue Jays (67-78)
The schedule allows rotation leader David Price to pitch on four days' rest from now on. Throughout the past two seasons (especially in 2012 en route to winning the AL Cy Young Award), he's been most effective under such circumstances.
Tampa Bay will play 18 consecutive games without any days off, and 12 of those 18 will take place on artificial turf. "If they hold onto [the AL] Wild Card," MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince tweets, "they'll have earned it."
The spacing of these series is good for Price but bad for most of his teammates.
Jose Molina, the chubby, 38-year-old catcher, is getting light-headed just thinking about the next few weeks.
1. Kansas City Royals
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Sept. 13-15 at Detroit Tigers (84-62)
Sept. 16-18 vs. Cleveland Indians (77-68)
Sept. 20-22 vs. Texas Rangers (81-64)
Sept. 23-25 at Seattle Mariners (65-81)
Sept. 26-29 at Chicago White Sox (58-87)
Despite Alex Rios' best efforts, the Rangers offense is limping along. Elvis Andrus, Lance Berkman and David Murphy simply aren't producing up to the standards set by the back of their baseball cards.
With Nelson Cruz still a few weeks away from regaining eligibility, the Kansas City Royals have an opportunity to pounce on a vulnerable contender.
They'll also try to emulate the success they had against the Mariners in a series earlier this month. Since the All-Star break, Seattle's pitching staff owns one of the sport's worst earned run averages.
The cross-country flights could take their toll on a Royals team that needs to be at its absolute best down the stretch. More than 1,800 miles separate Kansas City from Seattle, and Seattle to Chicago is another 2,000. The Royals don't get off-days for either of those journeys?!
The White Sox showdown can't be taken lightly. Chris Sale will start that series opener, and John Danks—who's undefeated in 13 career starts vs. K.C. with a 2.47 earned run average—is handling the finale. Chicago's record is hideous, but the Royals would be better off facing an injury-riddled cellar-dweller like the Baltimore Orioles get to do six times.
These guys might fall out of the postseason picture before reaching that last bit of the schedule anyway.
They'll have a tough time keeping up with the Tigers and Indians on the scoreboard. The former's lineup has a huge edge in talent and experience, while Cleveland quietly utilized its deep bench during the summer to keep regular position players fresh for this September surge.