Predicting Outcome of 2016's Tightest MLB Playoff Battles

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2016

Predicting Outcome of 2016's Tightest MLB Playoff Battles

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    Cole Hamels
    Cole HamelsRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    Predicting some of the division races that are all but official—such as the National League Central—would just be adding fluff to any set of MLB playoff projections. 

    But several races will provide us with great theater during the latter portion of the MLB season. So, whether you agree or not, consider this your Playbill for baseball's hotly contested races.

    But to agree or disagree you have to read on, right?

NL West: San Francisco Giants

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    Madison Bumgarner
    Madison BumgarnerLachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    The NL West race has been among the most head-scratching battles since the All-Star break. Every day since May 11, the San Francisco Giants have held first place in the division until the Los Angeles Dodgers leapfrogged them Tuesday.

    Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, who has been by far the best pitcher in MLB when healthy, hasn’t played since June 26. Kershaw has been dealing with a disc herniation. The team has also contended with the on-again, off-again drama involving right fielder Yasiel Puig, whom it demoted to Triple-A on Aug. 2.

    Neither situation suggests success is on the horizon. But Los Angeles' surprising play, given its issues with two key players, is as shocking as it is timely.

    L.A.'s ascension to the top of the NL West is as much a result of its productivity in August as it is the Giants’ terrible performance. San Francisco is in the middle of its worst stretch of the season and is 9-21 in the second half.

    But if this run had come earlier in the year and the Giants had played well in the second half, there wouldn’t be nearly as many questions about their postseason potential. San Francisco is a more talented team than the Dodgers and is better in the most important of areas: starting pitching.

    In Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, the Giants have one of the best starting pitching duos in baseball. As games begin to carry more weight in the final months, it’s important to have quality pitching.

    Offensively, the two clubs are comparable.

    Heading into Thursday, the Giants had scored five fewer runs than the Dodgers, but that is largely a product of San Francisco’s poor second half.

    The Giants have struggled offensively, but Hunter Pence returned to the lineup in late July after nearly two months on the disabled list. As Pence, a key hitter, works his way back into form, the Giants should see an uptick in their offensive productivity.

NL Wild Cards: St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Matt Carpenter
    Matt CarpenterDylan Buell/Getty Images

    Since the Joe Torre-led New York Yankees, there hasn’t been a more successful MLB franchise than the St. Louis Cardinals.

    St. Louis has made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons and 12 of the last 16 campaigns. History suggests the Cardinals understand how to win high-leverage games amid a playoff race.

    But if the team’s history isn’t enough to inspire confidence, consider that St. Louis has one of baseball’s best offenses.

    The Cardinals rank fifth in runs scored, eighth in on-base percentage and third in slugging percentage heading into Thursday. Pair that with a pitching staff that has the 11th-best ERA in baseball, and the Cardinals' numbers suggest they should be contending for a wild-card spot.

    As for the other berth, we look west. Though they were not picked to win their division, the Dodgers still appear to be headed for the playoffs.

    It’s unclear when—or even if—Clayton Kershaw will return this season. But even without Kershaw, the team is proving it has the firepower to stave off other wild-card contenders.

    Shortstop Corey Seager (.309/.362/.530) is making a strong bid for NL Rookie of the Year, and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (.298/.371/.438) is having a good campaign. Both bats are capable of carrying the team through stretches.

    Rich Hill, a deadline acquisition who has a 2.25 ERA, has not yet played for L.A. due to a blister. However, Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times reported Hill was expected to pitch a simulated game Thursday.

    His potential debut will give the Los Angeles rotation a boost, especially in Kershaw’s absence.

    As for the competition, the Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates remain in the race. However, Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton suffered a groin strain that will likely keep him out for the remainder of the year.

    Miami pitcher Adam Conley is also on the disabled list with middle finger tendinitis, and the team continues to monitor the innings load of ace Jose Fernandez. It is unclear how much Fernandez will be allowed to play in the final weeks of the season.

    Unfortunately for the Pirates, their schedule does not favor any extended streak. They have a key three-game series with the Cardinals in early September, seven games remaining against the MLB-leading Chicago Cubs and a three-game set with the NL East-leading Washington Nationals.

AL East: Baltimore Orioles

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    Zach Britton
    Zach BrittonJason O. Watson/Getty Images

    In a division that has been dominated by offense—the Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles are all among baseball’s upper echelon at the plate—one thing stands out for the Orioles in this three-team race: a stellar bullpen.

    Baltimore’s relievers rank third in MLB with a 3.22 ERA and are capable of handling a heavy innings load. Closer Zach Britton has 37 saves to go along with a 0.54 ERA. In essence, he shortens the game.

    At this time of year, relief pitching is more heavily weighted. We saw a frenzy of clubs searching for relief help at the trade deadline, including the Cleveland Indians, Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs—a team that made trades for three relief pitchers, including closer Aroldis Chapman.

    The reality is that over the course of a 162-game season, relievers aren’t nearly as important as position players or starting pitchers. But in the latter months of the campaign, when each game becomes more important, an inning of shutdown baseball from a reliever looms much bigger.

    It’s the reason teams pay a heavy price in prospects for the best relief pitchers at the trade deadline. So, Baltimore finds itself with a built-in advantage, as Boston and Toronto both rank in the bottom half of MLB in bullpen ERA.

    Though the Baltimore offense has not been as productive as Toronto's or Boston's, it leads MLB in home runs with 177. The ability to hit for power is a key component to rallying when a team finds itself down.

AL Wild Cards: Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays

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    From left: Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts
    From left: Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie BettsMichael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    The aforementioned offensive prowess is the reason you’ll find the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays playing the AL Wild Card Game.

    The Red Sox lead MLB in runs scored and boast two MVP candidates in outfielder Mookie Betts (.317/.358/.572, 28 homers, 89 RBI) and designated hitter David Ortiz (.312/.406/.619, 27 homers, 93 RBI).

    Stars shine brightest in the most important months of the season, and the Red Sox have proved they can win with offense. The team's relievers rank 16th in ERA, its starters rank 18th and the team's combined ERA ranks 16th, yet it has remained in playoff position all season.

    Conversely, the Blue Jays rallied after a poor start to leap back into the postseason picture after winning the AL East last year. They’ve played well since the All-Star break, never losing more than two straight games.

    Slugger Jose Bautista is on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained knee. But the team has other capable players to carry the offensive load, including reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion. Toronto placed Bautista on the disabled list on Aug. 10, and no indication has been given that he won't be able to return when eligible.

    Last season Bautista, Donaldson and Encarnacion formed one of the best power-hitting trios in baseball history, combining to hit 120 home runs. Add in second baseman Devon Travis, who's played well in 66 games since his return from a shoulder injury (.297/.331/.477), and it’s a lineup that is difficult to handle.

    As far as the teams they'll have to beat, the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners are close behind in the wild- card race.

    However, neither has been consistent this season. Seattle's remaining schedule looks tough with seven games left against the AL-leading Texas Rangers and six remaining against the Houston Astros, a playoff team from last year that sits 6.5 games out of the wild card.

    Detroit's bullpen ranks near the bottom of the league in ERA and could become a liability down the stretch. 

AL Home-Field Advantage: Texas Rangers

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    Carlos Beltran
    Carlos BeltranRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    There wasn’t a team in baseball that was more aggressive in adding to its roster at the trade deadline than the Texas Rangers—and that often pays big dividends in the last two months of the regular season.

    Texas general manager Jon Daniels acquired designated hitter Carlos Beltran and catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who have both made an immediate impact on a lineup that was already dangerous.

    Beltran is hitting .315/.351/.500 in 15 games with the Rangers while Lucroy has added seven homers and 14 RBI in 15 contests. With the trades, this lineup is as dangerous as any in the American League.

    The club pairs its bats with ace Cole Hamels, who is among the best pitchers in the AL and has extensive playoff experience.

    The top seed in each league looms bigger since the addition of the second wild card. The club with the best record gets to the play the winner of that Wild Card Game. If either of those teams throws their ace in the one-game playoff, that means the top seed won't need to face that player in the ALDS.

    As such, the Rangers have incentive to fight it out for the top record in the league.

    With the AL East so competitive and its clubs expected to beat up on each other in the division race, the Cleveland Indians are left as the most viable threat for home-field advantage in the AL.

    A four-game series between the clubs in Texas from August 25 to 28 looms large. With the Rangers four games ahead in the win column, it could provide them an opportunity to distance themselves from the rest of the AL.

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