The MLB regular season is ending in less than three weeks, but we aren't nearly patient enough to wait that long to make predictions for who will go how far in the playoffs.
Maybe we can't open up our Christmas gifts just yet, but that doesn't mean we can't or won't shake the packages to try to figure out what's inside.
So if the season ended at this very moment and the playoff pairings were based on current standings, how would they play out?
The Reds might be in a position for a road game in the NL Wild Card game, but would that stop them from making it to the NLCS or beyond?
Boston has the best record in the majors and home-field advantage in the World Series thanks to an AL win in the All-Star Game, but will it be enough to bring a third championship to the city in the span of a decade?
We'll go series by series nominating key players and critical factors that will lead to the following projected outcomes.
*Unless otherwise cited, all statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com and Fangraphs.com and are accurate through the start of play on Tuesday, September 10.
Cincinnati Reds (82-63) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (82-61)
Regular season: Pittsburgh leads 7-6 with six head-to-head games remaining.
Andrew McCutchen (.275/.351/.490, 3 HR, 2 SB vs. Cincinnati in 2013; 5/18 with 2 HR in career vs. Mat Latos)
Pedro Alvarez (.182/.294/.341, 2 HR, 15 K vs. Cincinnati in 2013; 5/22 with 1 HR in career vs. Mat Latos)
A.J. Burnett (0-1 with 3.86 ERA and 12.3 K/9 in two starts vs. Cincinnati in 2013; Reds' batters are 49/203 with 2 HR and 52 K in career vs. Burnett)
Joey Votto (.302/.492/.465, 2 HR, 16 BB vs. Pittsburgh in 2013; 5/15 with 4 BB and 4 K in career vs. A.J. Burnett)
Jay Bruce (.148/.179/.389, 4 HR, 17 K vs. Pittsburgh in 2013; 3/21 with 8 K in career vs. A.J. Burnett)
Mat Latos (1-1 with 3.57 ERA and 10.7 K/9 in four starts vs. Pittsburgh in 2013; Pirates' batters are 34/175 with 6 HR and 54 K in career vs. Latos)
Game hinges on...
Burnett vs. Brandon Phillips and Burnett vs. himself.
We're taking a real leap of faith in even assuming that Burnett would get the start. As the rotation is currently set up, rookie Gerrit Cole would actually be in line to toe the rubber for the most important game of the season.
However, Burnett is getting paid $16.5 million to be the ace of this team, so it's safe to assume that they'll find a way for him to be on the mound for this critical game.
Even if it results in the undoing of their season.
In his career, Burnett has made seven postseason starts—each of which came with the Yankees from 2009-2011. In those 39 innings, he has a 5.08 ERA and a walk rate of 5.31 BB/9.
Of course, he also had a 4.79 ERA during the regular season over the course of those three years, so it wouldn't have been too realistic of us to expect him to pitch like Greg Maddux in those Octobers. Still, it would be nice if your pitcher for this critical game actually had a track record of postseason success—or at least a winning record in 2013.
If Burnett struggles, I suspect it will be Phillips who capitalizes. 2013 hasn't been his greatest season, but Phillips is still one of the best hitting second basemen in the National League and has somewhat owned Burnett throughout their careers. He has eight hits in 22 career at-bats against Burnett, including a home run.
This one profiles as a low-scoring affair in favor of the surging Reds. Cincinnati wins by a score of 4-2 with at least two RBI from Phillips.
Tampa Bay Rays (78-64) @ Texas Rangers (81-62)
Regular season: Texas leads 2-1 with four head-to-head games in Tampa Bay remaining.
Evan Longoria (.243/.325/.481, 11 HR since All-Star break; 0/6 with 1 K in career vs. Darvish)
Ben Zobrist (.313/.386/.480, 5 HR since All-Star break; 1/5 with 2 K in career vs. Darvish)
David Price (3.03 ERA and 6.9 K/9 since All-Star break; Rangers' batters are 41/129 with 6 HR and .929 OPS in career vs. Price)
Adrian Beltre (.320/.401/.464, 7 HR since All-Star break; 8/23 with 1 HR in career vs. Price)
Ian Kinsler (.254/.300/.358, 2 HR since All-Star break; 3/18 with 1 HR and 1 K in career vs. Price)
Yu Darvish (2.54 ERA and 11.9 K/9 since All-Star break; Rays' batters are 8/56 with 1 RBI and 18 K in career vs. Darvish)
Game hinges on...
Texas' ability to score.
Darvish has been relatively mortal over his last five starts, posting an ERA of 3.82 and "only" averaging 10.6 K/9.
Not his best stuff, but he deserves better than an 0-3 record for those efforts. Perhaps Monday's 1-0 loss to the Pirates will finally ignite a nationwide recognition of the complete lack of run support that Darvish has received over the past four months.
Early on, the Rangers were scoring impeccably for Darvish. After a 10-4 win over Justin Verlander and the Tigers on May 16, Darvish was 7-1 and was averaging 7.2 runs of support per game.
Since mid-May, however, Darvish is 5-7 in 19 starts and averaging just under 2.9 runs of support per game. Following a 1-0 loss to the A's on May 21, his ERA was 2.84—which is exactly where it stands today.
(Please take note, those of you who continue to argue for Max Scherzer for AL Cy Young Award.)
The Rangers have fared pretty well in their career against Price, but will success from previous years be enough to overcome an alarming trend in Darvish's starts this season?
Also worth noting, lost amidst the hubbub over Tampa Bay's freefall has been Texas' inability to win games of late. The Rangers went 22-6 from July 29 through August 28, but aside from a three-game series against the A's and a make-up game against the Diamondbacks, the best team they played over that 28-game stretch was the 67-76 Angels.
Since August 28, they have lost two of three in each series (including a home series against the Twins), and opened their current 10-game stretch against the Pirates, A's and Rays with a loss on Monday.
It's far from a guarantee that either of these teams will make the playoffs, but we're assuming for now that they will.
Despite recent struggles by both teams, I would have to give a significant edge to Darvish and the Rangers. Since coming off the disabled list and posting eight consecutive excellent starts, Price has struggled as of late, allowing at least two earned runs in each of his last five starts for an ERA of 4.78.
That should provide more than enough of a window for Beltre and company to stake Darvish to an early lead against a roster that he has simply dominated in his brief MLB career. Rangers advance to the ALDS by a score of 5-1.
St. Louis Cardinals (83-60) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (84-59)
Regular season: Los Angeles won four of the seven games.
Yasiel Puig (.300/.392/.500, 7 HR since All-Star break; 5/14 with 0 HR and 4 K in career vs. current Cardinals)
Hanley Ramirez (.306/.340/.599, 10 HR since All-Star break; .280/.372/.373, 1 HR in 75 career AB vs. current Cardinals)
Clayton Kershaw (6-2, 1.78 ERA, 8.79 K/9 since All-Star break; Cardinals' players batting .267/.347/.353 with 1 HR and 27 K in career vs. Kershaw)
Yadier Molina (.264/.282/.463, 4 HR since All-Star break; .304/.370/.399, 2 HR in 148 career AB vs. current Dodgers)
Allen Craig (.275/.363/.375, 3 HR since All-Star break; .273/.305/.468, 3 HR in 77 career AB vs. current Dodgers)
Adam Wainwright (4-4, 4.30 ERA, 8.73 K/9 since All-Star break; Dodgers' players batting .243/.301/.361 with 3 HR and 30 K in career vs. Wainwright)
Series hinges on...
You may have heard through the grapevine that Kershaw is having a pretty good season. But did you know that Zack Greinke and Ricky Nolasco have also had a sub-2.00 ERA since the All-Star break? Hyun-Jin Ryu's 2.86 ERA since mid-July is hardly an eyesore, either.
With Chris Withrow emerging as a quality middle reliever, Brian Wilson returning to baseball in pretty good form, Paco Rodriguez owning his role as a left-handed specialist and Kenley Jansen serving as one of the best closers in the game right now, I'm just not sure where a team can plan on scoring runs against the Dodgers.
The worst ERA among their 14 pitchers with at least six innings pitched since the All-Star break belongs to Chris Capuano at 3.97—and as the fifth starter in their rotation, he'll probably transition to a long-relief mop-up role for the playoffs, anyway.
The Cardinals have a few great arms of their own. Joe Kelly is 7-0 with a 1.70 ERA since the All-Star break, and Michael Wacha has done exceptionally well in the second half. Having Kevin Siegrist, Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica in the back of the bullpen is quite a luxury, as well.
But Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller have struggled considerably over the past two months. Lynn in particular is 2-6 with a 5.10 ERA in his last 10 starts, and my personal speculation is that he could be headed back to the bullpen at the end of the season for a second straight year.
Maybe they could get away with sub-par pitching against the lower scoring Braves or Pirates, but the Dodgers lead the NL in runs scored per game since the All-Star break.
I can't imagine the Cardinals getting swept, but I really can't imagine them taking three out of five against what has been both the best hitting and best pitching team over the past few months.
Dodgers win by a margin of three games to one behind a couple of gems from Kershaw and Greinke, as well as some timely hitting from Hanley Ramirez in the first postseason appearance of his career.
Detroit Tigers (82-62) vs. Oakland Athletics (83-60)
Regular season: Oakland won four of the seven games.
Jarrod Parker (5-0, 2.89 ERA, 6.50 K/9 since All-Star break; Tigers' players batting .319/.396/.468 in 47 career AB vs. Parker)
Brandon Moss (.301/.380/.579, 10 HR since All-Star break; .269/.367/.558 with 4 HR in 52 career AB vs. current Tigers)
Coco Crisp (.247/.305/.475, 9 HR since All-Star break; .273/.304/.400 with 2 HR in 150 career AB vs. current Tigers)
Anibal Sanchez (6-1, 2.17 ERA, 7.73 K/9 since All-Star break; Athletics' players batting .228/.280/.413 in 92 career AB vs. Sanchez)
Miguel Cabrera (.321/.413/.649, 13 HR since All-Star break; .380/.477/.620 with 4 HR in 71 career AB vs. current A's)
Victor Martinez (.364/.410/.487, 4 HR since All-Star break; .400/.446/.533 with 2 HR and 3 K in 60 career AB vs. current A's)
Series hinges on...
The A's and Tigers enter play on Tuesday in third and fourth place in home runs hit, respectively, since the All-Star break—though, Detroit has had 157 more plate appearances than Oakland. Both teams have been clobbering the ball over the past two months, including getting an unexpected amount of long balls out of Crisp and Torii Hunter.
But how is each pitching staff doing at keeping the ball in the yard?
The Tigers rank fourth in the AL at 0.83 HR/9 while the A's come in 10th place with a mark of 1.04. Not a massive difference—over the course of a five-game series, it's 5.2 home runs vs. 4.15 home runs—but in a repeat of what was an incredible ALDS pairing in 2012, that could be enough of an advantage for Detroit.
Throw in the fact that Detroit is batting an MLB-leading .294 since the All-Star break, as opposed to Oakland's .259 mark, and not only is Detroit more likely to hit long balls, but they're more likely to hit ones that score multiple runs.
Justin Verlander was the key to Detroit's win in last year's ALDS. Will he step up again this year, or will it be one of Detroit's other three starting pitchers worthy of finishing in the top 10 in the AL Cy Young race?
Let's just say I'm significantly more confident in Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez (10 HR allowed in 196.0 IP since the All-Star break) than I am in A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone (28 HR allowed in 140.1 IP since the All-Star break). I have a hunch I'm not alone in that opinion, either.
In what is starting to become a regular occurrence, Oakland puts together a great second half of the season, but is ultimately over-matched in a five-game series with everything on the line.
The absurd career batting numbers of Cabrera and Martinez against the A's pitching staff, and Detroit's success against Jarrod Parker over the past few seasons not only gives the Tigers the edge, but they will sweep the A's out of the playoffs.
Cincinnati Reds (82-63) vs. Atlanta Braves (86-57)
Regular season: Atlanta won four of the seven games.
Craig Kimbrel (19 saves, 0.00 ERA, 11.96 K/9 since All-Star break; Reds' players batting .280/.419/520 with 2 HR in 25 career AB vs. Kimbrel)
Freddie Freeman (.298/.366/.500, 10 HR since All-Star break; .303/.352/.485 with 2 HR in 66 career AB vs. current Reds)
Justin Upton (.263/.348/.463, 8 HR since All-Star break; .240/.329/429 with 5 HR in 129 career AB vs. current Reds)
Homer Bailey (5-2, 2.62 ERA, 9.04 K/9 since All-Star break; Braves' players batting .252/.330/320 with 1 HR and 23 K in 103 career AB vs. Bailey)
Zack Cozart (.300/.337/.400, 3 HR since All-Star break; .315/.327/.611 with 3 HR in 54 career AB vs. current Braves)
Shin-Soo Choo (.298/.426/.480, 7 HR, 6 SB since All-Star break; .356/.457/.559 with 3 HR in 59 career AB vs. current Braves)
Series hinges on...
Strength of schedule.
I'm not trying to discount or completely write off how well the Braves have played in the second half—or, at least, how well they were playing before traveling to Philadelphia last weekend. They have gone 32-16 since the All-Star break, and unless I'm mistaken, all 48 of those games came against MLB teams made up of players being paid to play professional baseball.
Winning two out of every three games played over a two-month period is no small feat.
But we have to point out that—unless Cleveland steals a spot in the AL—the Braves will enter the postseason having played just seven of their final 67 games against playoff teams while holding at least a 10-game lead in the NL East on every single day since July 30.
At a certain point, you have to at least wonder whether or not a team can flip the switch to playoff mode after nearly two months of essentially going through the motions. To some extent, it has to work to Cincinnati's advantage that they've spent the entire second half of the season fighting for a playoff spot against playoff teams, right?
And in conjunction with that concern, what exactly is optimal production from the Braves? Who is the ace of the staff? Who are they expecting to come up with a great hit in the clutch? By default, we can come up with answers, but is Freeman anywhere near as valuable as Joey Votto? Would you really rather have Mike Minor or Julio Teheran on the mound than Mat Latos or Homer Bailey?
Kimbrel is an incredible closer, but there's a reason we've been tossing his name around in the NL Cy Young and MVP debates in lieu of literally anyone else from the team with the best record in the NL.
Even if both teams play up to their full potential, I like the Reds by a considerable margin. Having to burn Latos in the wild card game could come back to bite them, but Bailey, Tony Cingrani and Bronson Arroyo are, at worst, capable of keeping the series alive long enough to get a quality start from Latos.
I think this series goes the full five games and that the fatigued team that emerges will fall victim to the Dodgers in the NLCS, but I'm taking Cincinnati.
Despite our former vitriol over Dusty Baker's refusal to put someone else in the No. 2 spot in the order, Cozart has led the Reds in batting average since the All-Star break and is heating up just in time to face a team against which he has very solid career numbers.
It would be ironic justice to have him get the series-winning hit after several months of questioning whether the Reds could even make the playoffs with him in the top half of the order every night.
Texas Rangers (81-62) vs. Boston Red Sox (87-58)
Regular season: Texas won four of the six games.
Jon Lester (5-2, 2.53 ERA, 7.58 K/9 since All-Star break; Rangers' players batting .305/.359/.483 with 7 HR and 42 K in 203 career AB vs. Lester)
Shane Victorino (.302/.373/.524, 10 HR, 9 SB since All-Star break; .250/.294/.344 with 0 HR and 3 K in 32 career AB vs. current Rangers)
Dustin Pedroia (.259/.323/.365, 2 HR, 3 SB since All-Star break; .221/.268/.386 with 5 HR in 140 career AB vs. current Rangers)
Derek Holland (1-4, 3.34 ERA, 7.10 K/9 since All-Star break; Red Sox players batting .279/.348/.433 with 4 HR and 18 K in 104 career AB vs. Holland)
Elvis Andrus (.320/.380/.419, 2 HR, 20 SB since All-Star break; .235/.273/.303 with 0 HR and 25 K in 132 career AB vs. current Red Sox)
Alex Rios (.302/.342/.445, 5 HR, 16 SB since All-Star break; .256/.308/.339 with 1 HR and 24 K in 121 career AB vs. current Red Sox)
Series hinges on...
Base running and the health of both Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz.
No one has allowed more stolen bases this season than the Boston Red Sox. Coincidentally—and perhaps unfortunately for Boston—the Rangers have stolen more bases since the All-Star break than any team except for the Royals.
During their six regular season head-to-head games—the last of which was played way back on June 6—there wasn't a whole lot of attempted thievery. But if the Rangers expect to pull off an upset, running like the Dickens is their best shot.
If the Red Sox are without their top pitcher and top base stealer, or if they aren't anywhere near as effective as they once were, it's an even bigger advantage for the Rangers.
Of course, in order to steal bases, you have to actually be able to reach them in the first place, and the Red Sox pitching staff has been one of the stingiest in base runners allowed in the second half of the season.
Take Ryan Dempster's 1.50 WHIP in the second half out of the equation—as the Red Sox will almost certainly be doing when they drop to a four-man rotation for the playoffs—and they would be best in the AL.
Behind Lester's hot arm in the second half, Jake Peavy and a hopefully-good-enough-to-start-Game-3 Buchholz, the Red Sox should be able to keep Texas in check. Andrus has only reached base in 28 percent of his plate appearances against those three pitchers, and keeping him from flying around the base paths should make a huge difference.
Texas puts up a good fight, but Boston's offense simply puts up more runs than the Rangers can manufacture on the base paths. Two home runs and six RBI from David Ortiz carry the Red Sox into the ALCS in four games.
Cincinnati Reds (82-63) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (84-59)
Regular season: Cincinnati won four of seven
Joey Votto (.293/.387/.541 in 157 career AB vs. current Dodgers; 20 H, 9 BB and 7 HR in 66 career AB vs. Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Ricky Nolasco)
Adrian Gonzalez (.291/.351/.574 in 141 career AB vs. current Reds; .476/.476/1.286 with 5 HR in 21 career AB vs. Homer Bailey)
Series hinges on...
Health of Johnny Cueto and durability of Tony Cingrani.
Cueto hasn't pitched since late June but is inching his way back toward a return. He threw a BP session this past weekend and could rejoin the team in a relief capacity within a week if all goes well.
Cingrani, on the other hand, has been in and out of the majors and the starting rotation, but has pitched very well this season. In 10 of his last 11 starts dating back to June 11, he has given up two or fewer earned runs. However, the 24-year-old is rapidly approaching his innings total from last season and could be headed for some fatigue issues in October.
If both Cueto and Cingrani are at full strength and full health, the Reds might just have a shot at pulling off the upset.
But if I felt that the Dodgers were too much for the Cardinals to handle, you better believe I feel the same way about Cincinnati's odds.
Also, if we're going to play the "if he's fully healthy" game with the Reds' pitching staff, we're obligated to do the same with Matt Kemp. In 131 career at-bats against pitchers currently employed by the Reds, Kemp has nine home runs and a .351 batting average, including a 1.571 OPS in 12 at-bats against Cueto.
Having his bat in the lineup in place of either Carl Crawford or Andre Ethier—who are both batting below .250 in their career against Reds pitchers—would just about counterbalance any advantage the Reds might gain from a full-strength rotation.
As with the Cardinals, I'll at least give the Reds enough respect to not project a Dodgers sweep, but this series would be highly unlikely to go the distance.
Votto has owned Kershaw, Greinke and Nolasco in his career, but those three pitchers have dominated the rest of the Reds—except for Zack Cozart's .714 batting average in seven at-bats against Nolasco. The pitching proves to be more than Cincinnati can handle, and Los Angeles advances to the World Series in five games.
Detroit Tigers (82-62) vs. Boston Red Sox (87-58)
Regular season: Detroit won four of the seven games.
David Ortiz (.310/.402/.614 with 12 HR in 158 career AB vs. current Tigers)
Justin Verlander (Red Sox players batting .194/.273/.313 with three HR in 144 career AB vs. Verlander)
Series hinges on...
Which Verlander shows up.
Let's make one thing perfectly clear: Verlander is still an elite pitcher.
He's not nearly as great as he was last season, and his struggles are even more magnified in comparison to the successes of teammates Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. However, his 4.1 WAR is good for seventh-best in the American League.
Though we were spoiled by his ERA in the 2.50 range over the past two seasons, an ERA of 3.64 isn't exactly the end of the world. Despite a noticeably reduced K/BB ratio, his FIP is only half a run higher than in recent years.
Still, something clearly isn't right. He has five starts this season in which he has pitched at least seven shutout innings, but he also has six starts in which he has given up at least five earned runs.
If the 2012 ALDS vs. Oakland version of Verlander shows up for this best-of-seven series against the Red Sox, Detroit is going to the World Series.
If the May 2013 version of Verlander shows up and makes two starts with an ERA north of 6.00, then the only question is how many games it will take Boston to win the AL pennant.
David Ortiz is the other major variable in the equation.
In 18 career at-bats against Scherzer and Sanchez, Ortiz is batting .556/.619/1.500 with five home runs. If he continues putting up those numbers and just runs a one-man wrecking crew through Detroit's top two pitchers, it's probably not going to matter what Verlander does in the other game(s).
Take out his at-bats against Ryan Dempster and Joel Hanrahan and Prince Fielder is batting .245 with no home runs in 102 career AB against current Red Sox pitchers.
His season-long disappearing act is going to finally catch up with Detroit at the worst possible time. Miguel Cabrera has a solid series, but he can't beat the best team in baseball all by his lonesome. The Red Sox return to the World Series after six hard-fought games with the Tigers.
Boston Red Sox (87-58) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (84-59)
Regular season: Boston won two of three; neither Clayton Kershaw nor Zack Greinke pitched in the series.
Jake Peavy (Dodgers' players batting .184/.215/.291 with four home runs in 141 career at-bats vs. Peavy)
Carl Crawford (.333/.357/.442 in 165 career AB vs. current Red Sox pitchers; .479/.479/.708 with two home runs in 48 career AB vs. John Lackey)
Series hinges on...
Production from third basemen.
Juan Uribe's last two seasons with the Dodgers were...not good. In 143 games, he batted .199/.262/.289 with just six home runs and a WAR of 0.5.
This season, his WAR is at 3.8 and higher than in any other season in his career thanks to a line of .279/.334/.426 with 10 home runs. He has been relatively hit or miss throughout the year, though, with multiple months batting below .235 and hitting 30 percent of his home runs for the season on Monday nights.
Will Middlebrooks has been even more drastically hot and cold while manning Boston's hot corner. A .192 batting average in the first half of the season led to his demotion to the minor leagues for nearly two months.
Less than two weeks after the Red Sox traded away Jose Iglesias to get Jake Peavy, they called Middlebrooks back up to the big leagues, even though he merely had a .268/.327/.464 line at Triple-A. The desperation move has paid off thus far, as Middlebrooks is batting .368 with six home runs since being recalled.
Could quite literally any player on either team catch fire or go hitless for seven games? Most definitely. But the range of legitimate expectation in production from each team's starting third baseman is by far the widest. An extreme variance between the two is not only a possible outcome, but would likely determine the winner of the series.
I trust Uribe more than I trust Middlebrooks. I also trust Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke exponentially more than I trust Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz.
It would be a great World Series, likely to be decided in seven games, but the Dodgers would win it all.