Predicting MLB's 10 Postseason Teams with One-Quarter to Go
The Major League Baseball season is long. Long enough for peaks, valleys and more peaks. Long enough for the teams that started hot to get cold, and the teams that limped out of the gate to hit their stride.
Now, though, it gets real. With one-quarter of the schedule left, the final lap of this 162-game sprint, the picture is becoming clear.
Oh, sure, there's still time for winning streaks, losing skids or key injuries to alter the postseason landscape. And several races seem destined to go down to the wire.
But we've reached the point where we can take stock of the contenders—assessing their health, recent performance and remaining schedules—and handicap the favorites.
So let's do just that.
American League East: Baltimore Orioles
After years of domination by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the AL East is finally up for grabs.
And the Orioles are ready to grab it.
Entering play Thursday, Baltimore held a 7.5-game lead over the Toronto Blue Jays. Third baseman Manny Machado recently landed on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained knee, per MLB.com's David Wilson.
But shortstop J.J. Hardy is due back any day, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Overall, the O's are in good health. However, they do have the second-toughest remaining schedule in all of baseball, per ESPN.com.
But the Orioles have the talent, momentum and a comfortable enough division lead to fly across the finish line.
AL Central: Detroit Tigers
When the Tigers engineered the blockbuster deal of the deadline, getting ace David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays, they looked poised to take not just the AL Central, but all of baseball by storm.
So far, it hasn't worked out that way.
Entering play Thursday, Detroit finds itself looking up at the upstart Kansas City Royals, who have won nine of 10 while Detroit has lost seven of its last 10 contests.
Closer Joakim Soria, another deadline pickup, is on the DL, as are rotation cogs Anibal Sanchez and Justin Verlander.
So the Tigers' ship is listing. Big time.
But there's time to get back on course. Soria, Sanchez and Verlander could all return later this month, per MLB.com. That should give Detroit ample opportunity to overtake the Royals, who have a rougher remaining schedule, according to ESPN.com.
It won't be the cakewalk Detroit imagined when they netted Price, but the Tigers aren't de-clawed just yet.
AL West: Oakland Athletics
The Oakland A's are all in.
They announced as much with the acquisition of Jeff Samardzija from the Chicago Cubs, and added an exclamation point by nabbing playoff-tested Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox at the deadline.
Or just listen to general manager Billy Beane, who told MLB.com's Richard Justice that the key is to identify when you have a club capable of going all the way and "when you do, you go for it."
It won't be easy. The A's may own the best record in baseball, augmenting their deep pitching staff with baseball's highest-scoring offense. But the team with the second-best record, the Los Angeles Angels, is nipping at their heels in the loaded AL West.
Entering play Thursday Oakland's lead over the Halos was just 2.5 games, and the two teams will clash 10 more times this season.
The A's, though, are built to make a deep run. They're going for it—and it looks like they'll get there.
AL Wild Cards: Los Angeles Angels and Kansas City Royals
For some, a wild-card berth is a coveted prize. For others, it's a cold consolation.
So it would be for the Royals and Angels, respectively.
Kansas City surely has its sights set on winning the AL Central outright. But for a club that hasn't made the playoffs since 1985—the longest active drought in baseball—even a one-game play-in would be cause for celebration.
It's no guarantee. The Royals have the fifth-toughest remaining schedule, per ESPN.com, and the Blue Jays, Yankees and Seattle Mariners are all within striking distance of a wild-card slot.
After nearly three decades of futility, though, the Royals—who own the fourth-best ERA in the AL, per ESPN.com—appear ready to make it happen.
The Angels, meanwhile, could well finish with one of the best records in baseball (they're currently second only to the A's, as mentioned). That means a one-game do-or-die scenario—against anyone—is the last thing they want.
The silver lining: The Halos would likely host the game, and with one of their stud starters (Garrett Richards, Jered Weaver) on the hill and Mike Trout making his postseason debut, they'd surely be the prohibitive favorites.
NL East: Washington Nationals
After a heartbreaking defeat in the 2012 NLDS at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals and a disappointing, injury-plagued 2013, the Nationals are hungry for redemption.
Entering play Thursday, Washington holds a 5-game lead over the Atlanta Braves. They're mostly healthy. Former staff ace Gio Gonzalez and phenom Bryce Harper are having so-so seasons, but others, like starter Doug Fister and third baseman Anthony Rendon, have stepped up to shoulder the load.
Barring a major meltdown—which is unlikely given their soft remaining schedule—the Nats should be playing in October.
That'd go at least part way to healing past heartbreak. Whether they'll get the ultimate redemption remains to be seen.
NL Central: Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers won just 74 games last year, so when they started hot this season they looked like a prime candidate for flash-in-the-pan status.
But Milwaukee has sustained its early success, scoring the second-most runs in the NL as of Thursday.
The Crew has gotten balanced production from up and down the lineup—six players currently boast double-digit home run totals—and they have an easier remaining schedule than either the Cardinals or Pittsburgh Pirates, the two teams breathing down their neck in the Central.
It's worth wondering whether Milwaukee has the pitching to succeed in the playoffs. But, to the surprise of many pre-season prognosticators, they seem primed to get there.
NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers
Baseball's biggest payroll comes with baseball's biggest expectations. And early in the season, the Dodgers weren't playing up to their pay grade.
On June 8, L.A trailed the rival San Francisco Giants by 9.5 games in the NL West. Since then the Dodgers have hit their stride and turned that daunting deficit into a five-game advantage entering play Thursday.
They're doing it on the strength of their stars—Yasiel Puig has obliterated the sophomore slump and Clayton Kershaw is pitching like an MVP.
But they've also enjoyed the surprising emergence of guys like Dee Gordon, who went from the fringe of the roster to MLB's best base stealer.
There are question marks in the bullpen and at the back of the rotation, but with a soft remaining schedule and the Giants mired in an extended slump, Los Angeles should cash in.
NL Wild Cards: St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants
The last time the Giants and Cardinals met in postseason play was in 2012, when San Francisco overcame a 3-1 series deficit in the 2012 NLCS en route to a World Series win.
This year, both teams will be lucky to squeak into the playoffs.
After a hot start, the Giants have hit an extended tailspin. They've gone just 20-36 since June 8, and they lost former ace Matt Cain to season-ending elbow surgery.
Still, San Francisco recently got leadoff hitter and offense-igniter Angel Pagan back from the DL, and they have the eighth-easiest remaining schedule in baseball.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are locked in a tight three-team race in the NL Central with the Brewers and Pirates.
Milwaukee, as we've said, looks like the favorite to win it. But Pittsburgh was dealt a potentially fatal blow when reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen landed on the DL with a fractured rib, per MLB.com's Stephen Pianovich.
St. Louis has injury troubles of its own. Catcher Yadier Molina underwent thumb surgery and is out at least until late September, per MLB.com.
The Cardinals, though, have kept winning without their All-Star backstop. They have the depth and postseason pedigree to slip through—and possibly exact a little revenge on the Orange and Black.