Breaking Down the AL Playoff Picture with Just Days to Go
There are only four days left in MLB's regular season, and literally nothing about the American League playoff picture has been set in stone.
Sure, each division winner has already clinched their spot, but they could each still finish anywhere between the No. 3 seed and home-field advantage for the entirety of the playoffs.
As little as seven days ago, the AL Wild Card picture was a convoluted mess, as six teams were within four games of each other with only two playoff spots to be awarded. Three of those six teams—Baltimore, Kansas City and New York—have fallen by the wayside, but the end result still isn't much clearer than it was one month ago.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Let's take a look at each of the six teams still alive in the AL playoff picture and figure out where they'll likely be seeded and how things look for them heading into October.
Boston Red Sox
(96-63, clinched AL East)
As things currently stand, the Red Sox are in the driver's seat for home-field advantage, as they hold a two-game lead over Oakland and a three-game lead over Detroit.
Should they finish in a tie with Detroit, they would cede home-field advantage to the Tigers due to their 3-4 record against them this season.
If their final win-loss total matches that of Oakland, the A's would win the tiebreaker due to a better intradivision (or intraleague, if it comes to that) record.
How important do you think home-field advantage is in the MLB playoffs?
It would be nice, however, if the Red Sox would just make things easy on all of us and sweep the Orioles over the final weekend of the season.
I don't know about you, but I've heard enough about MLB's unbalanced strength of schedule over the past month with regard to Cleveland's cakewalk into the postseason. There would be a whole slew of complaints if Oakland beat out Boston in a tiebreaker for the top seed because it fared slightly better against Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle than Boston did against its murderer's row of AL East opponents.
Enough about seeding, though, because Boston is arguably the best team in all of baseball this season. The Red Sox have scored more runs than any other team, and they consequently have the highest positive run differential as well.
Clay Buchholz has returned from his three-month hiatus on the disabled list with nary a sign of rust. Mike Napoli is back to crushing the ball like he was in April. With any luck, they'll have Jacoby Ellsbury back in the fold at something resembling full strength.
The Sox are 13 games over .500 since Aug. 23—against a schedule considerably more formidable than most—and are getting both hot and healthy at exactly the right time.
(88-70, one game behind Tampa Bay for WC No. 1, one game ahead of Texas for WC No. 2)
Back in mid-July, I predicted that the Indians would go 20-7 in the month of September to claim the second wild-card spot in the American League. If they go 3-1 in their final series against the Twins and if you read no other predictions from that article, I'll look like Nostradamus.
Though they put together just a 4-5 record against direct wild-card competition in the form of Baltimore and Kansas City, the Indians beat the teams that they should have beaten, going 12-1 over the past few weeks against the Astros, Mets and White Sox.
Because they were able to take care of business while the Rangers piled up 12 losses in their first 14 games of the month, they're on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time since Joba Chamberlain's bug experience.
Should they finish in a tie with the Rangers for the second wild-card spot, their 5-1 record against Texas this season would at least allow them to host the one-game playoff to determine who goes to Tampa Bay for a one-game playoff for the right to face the best team in the American League.
However, considering the Twins are 5-16 in their last 21 games, it doesn't seem likely that it would come to that. And with Tampa Bay still dealing with four difficult road games against the Yankees and Blue Jays, the Indians could still certainly host the Rays in the AL Wild Card Game.
(93-66, clinched AL Central)
Even if the three-game series between the Tigers and the Marlins goes exactly how it should, they are just about locked into the No. 3 seed in the American League.
They would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with Oakland, so in order to bypass the AL West champion, they would not only need to sweep the Marlins, but they would need Oakland to lose at least two out of three to the Mariners. Let's go ahead and call that an unlikely scenario.
The chances of catching Boston aren't much better. It would take a sweep of Miami and a Baltimore sweep of Boston just for Detroit's head-to-head tiebreaker over the Red Sox to come into play.
Forget about WAR: Who has been Detroit's most valuable pitcher this season?
No matter. The Tigers were the No. 3 seed last year before advancing to the World Series, and they're ready to do it again in 2013.
Justin Verlander was their knight in shining armor during the 2012 ALDS and ALCS, and he signed a huge contract extension this past winter to be their ace for years to come. Verlander has the sixth-highest WAR in the American League this season, but he has only been the third- or fourth-best pitcher in Detroit's starting rotation.
Just allow that to sink in and keep in mind that the Tigers have not only the best hitter on the planet in the form of Miguel Cabrera, but also some guy named Prince Fielder, who has hit at least 25 home runs in eight straight seasons.
So don't sweat where Detroit ends up in the hierarchy of home-field advantage.
If Cabrera is healthy, if Victor Martinez and Alex Avila stay hot and if the pitching staff continues doing what it has done all season, Detroit could play all of its postseason games on the road and still advance to the World Series.
(94-65, clinched AL West)
In using Cleveland as its poster boy in the never-ending outrage over imbalanced MLB schedules, the vast majority of writers seems to have overlooked the "perils" of Oakland's slate of games in September.
Save for a home-and-home with Texas—during which the A's won five of six games—Oakland's most difficult games of the final month of the season came against a surging-but-still-below-.500 Angels team.
Depending on how you read the tea leaves, Oakland is either a great team getting even hotter at the right time or an above-average team that has recently taken advantage of its below-average opponents.
Either way, the A's are winning games and could be headed for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they can spend this weekend rectifying their 6-10 record against the Mariners in 2013.
If you believe in the law of averages—which you should—the A's were destined to turn things around to an extent.
At the three-quarter mark, the A's were one of the unluckiest teams in the majors as far as BABIP is concerned. They have shaken off those demons to put together the second-highest team batting average in the month of September.
Yoenis Cespedes in particular is batting .321 thus far in September, and he might finally be the outfielder that becomes a complement to the successes of Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie and Brandon Moss in the infield.
They've spent pretty much the entire season being just one reliable bat away from unanimously cracking into the upper echelon of World Series contenders. If Cespedes can keep it going into October, watch out for the A's.
Tampa Bay Rays
(89-69, one game ahead of Cleveland for WC No. 1, two games ahead of Texas for WC No. 2)
Their struggles of late August and early September are firmly entrenched in the rear-view mirror.
Since giving up a pinch-hit, extra-innings grand slam to Mike Carp on Sept. 11 and slipping oh so perilously to within reach of New York, Baltimore, Cleveland and Kansas City, the Rays are 11-3 and merely need to avoid a final-weekend meltdown in order to make the playoffs.
What they plan on doing once they get there is anyone's guess.
The Rays have shapeshifted more this season than perhaps any other team.
They lost 18 of their first 32 games, blowing saves left and right and leading everyone to wonder when Wil Myers would finally get called up. Then, from June 28 through July 29, they went 22-4, looking like a World Series favorite in claiming the lead in the AL East.
After that, they reverted to their losing ways for six weeks, dropping 23 of their next 37 games before turning on the afterburners for this home stretch.
At this point, the Rays could win the World Series and it wouldn't be any more surprising than if they were no-hit by Ubaldo Jimenez in the wild-card game.
Really, though, I think we're all rooting for Tampa Bay to host at least one playoff game, just so we can see how many people show up with price tags still on their shirts and jerseys after the Rays averaged only 18,178 fans per home game in September, according to ESPN.
(87-71, one game behind Cleveland for WC No. 2, two games behind Tampa Bay for WC No. 1)
Less than three weeks ago, the nightmare scenario for the Rangers was that they would blow a two-game AL West lead over the A's and a seven-game cushion over the Indians and be forced to play a pair of one-game playoffs in order to make the actual playoffs.
It's hard to believe how quickly that became a desirable possible outcome.
Courtesy of a 5-15 record in the first 22 days of September, the Rangers are now on the outside looking in and praying for help.
Truly, though, it's been a season-long struggle for Texas when it wasn't playing the dregs of the AL West.
Who will represent the American League in the World Series?
With a four-game series at home against the Angels still remaining on their docket, the Rangers are 40-13 this season against Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle. Subtract those numbers from their overall record, and you'll find that they're 47-58 against the other teams in the majors.
That's a winning percentage almost identical to Milwaukee's overall record of 71-87.
Suffice it to say, Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle won't be in the playoffs, so even if the Rangers find a way to get in, it's unlikely they'll go very far.
Who knows, though? There are certainly worse four-man rotations than Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Matt Garza and Martin Perez. And there's at least a chance of Nelson Cruz returning to the team and carrying them through the AL portion of the playoffs the way he did in 2011.
As should be the motto for every MLB postseason, stranger things have happened.
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