Friday, September 20, 2013

Who Will Be Baseball's Wild Card Teams?

Major League Baseball's Wild Card games are in their second year and the races in both leagues are much tighter than anyone could have anticipated even a couple of weeks ago. Sure, nobody really likes the game but having the opportunity to play one more game to advance into the playoffs is something a lot of guys would want to have the opportunity to do.

What makes things more complicated this year is that there are no clear favorites in either league with just ten days left in the regular season. In both leagues there are teams in the mix that at the beginning of the year wouldn't have been picked to have a chance to make the playoffs. In one league not only are the two wild card spots but one division title is in play while in the other there are six teams with a legitimate shot at the two wild card spots.

Let's start in the National League. As of right now, the St. Louis Cardinals hold a one game league over the Pittsburgh Pirates for the division title and a two game lead over the Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates have a one game lead over the Reds in the wild card standings and the Washington Nationals are the only other NL team with any chance at the wild card trailing the Reds by five games.

This is where it gets interesting: Thanks to some brilliant planning by the scheduling office, the Pirates and Reds get to face each other six times in the final ten days. I seriously doubt that whoever put together the schedule thought that the Pirates would be playoff contenders. Consequently, games at the end of the season that would have probably thought to have very little significance become incredibly important.

Also, thanks to the fact that the NL Central has been such a tight division down the stretch, it's conceivable that any one of the three teams (Cardinals, Pirates and Reds) could end up the division champ. Or we could end up with a tie for either the wild card or the division (or both) and then chaos would ensue.

Let's suppose for a moment, however, that on the final day of the season we will know both the Central Division champ and the NL Wild Cards. Which team has the best chance of making it to the playoffs? Here's the remaining schedule for the contenders:

Cardinals:   3 games @ Milwaukee, 3 vs. Washington, 3 vs. Chicago Cubs
Pirates:       3 games vs. Cincinnati, 3 at Chicago Cubs, 3 at Cincinnati
Reds:         3 games @ Pittsburgh, 3 vs. New York Mets, 3 vs. Pittsburgh
Nationals:   3  games vs. Miami, 3 @ St. Louis, 3 @ Arizona

The one team I'm not sure about in this list is the Nationals. I think they're a pretty good team but they have a lot of ground to make up (5 games with 9 to play). Of course, they benefit greatly from having Pittsburgh and Cincinnati facing each other 6 times. If it weren't for that little scheduling quirk I'm not sure they would have a chance. The only series they have remaining that would be of concern to me is the 3 games at St. Louis. By that point, they may be playing the role of spoiler rather than contender.

As for the other three teams, both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have the toughest road by virtue of the games against each other. The Pirates and Cardinals both must also face the Cubs who could do some real damage as spoilers in the final week. I would give the Reds a better shot at winning the division if they didn't have those six games against the Pirates.

Final prediction: NL Central Division Champ - Pirates, wild card - Reds and Cardinals

The American League has its own set of issues. As of right now, there are six teams that can be considered legitimate contenders for the two wild card spots. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to assume that Detroit and Oakland will win their respective divisions though there is a slim chance that one of the wild card contenders could slip into the division lead if everything plays out just right.

Here's how the wild card standings stack up right now:

Team                    Record                      Games Back
Texas                   83-69                              --
Tampa Bay          83-69                              --
Cleveland            83-70                              1/2
Baltimore             81-71                              2
Kansas City         80-72                              3
New York           80-73                              3 1/2

Let's take a look at them in reverse order:

New York Yankees - games remaining: 3 vs. San Francisco, 3 vs. Tampa Bay, 3 @ Houston
The Yankees are getting older by the day. Every New York fan knows that time is running out for this team to win another championship. With Alex Rodriguez's suspension looming chances are good he's not playing next year. Derek Jeter is still battling ankle issues. Mariano Rivera is retiring. Today we find out that Andy Petite is calling it quits too. Manager Joe Girardi's contract runs out at the end of the year and there are rumors he may leave New York to manage the Chicago Cubs. There's also the fact that Girardi has been working miracles with this team to keep them in contention. Their offense at time has been pitiful and if it hadn't been for the mid-season acquisition of Alfonso Soriano from the Cubs they might not even be here.

But the question remains whether they can win the wild card. The big worry for me is the three games against Tampa Bay. That's the most difficult series facing them on their remaining schedule. The Yankees seem to be one loss away from a complete collapse for the past couple of months. There's no doubt they've been successful. But given the teams they would have to move past in the standings to get to the playoffs I don't see it happening.

Kansas City Royals - games remaining: 3 vs. Texas, 3 @ Seattle, 4 @ Chicago White Sox
The best and worst news for one of the two AL Cinderella teams (Cleveland is the other) is that their next 3 games are against Texas. (see my analysis of the Rangers below) The key for the Royals will be taking at least 2 out of the three games from Texas. If they can do that they have an easier path to one of the wild card slots.

Baltimore Orioles - games remaining: 4 at Tampa, 3 vs. Toronto, 3 vs. Boston
The AL Cinderella team of 2012 won the inaugural wild card game against Texas before losing the division series to New York in five games. The 2013 incarnation has not been as lucky as the 2012 version particularly in close games. To make matters worse, they have the toughest schedule of any of the remaining contenders. The key series for them will be the four games against Tampa. If they can take three of the four games. If not, then they will likely be out of the race. My predicition: they just miss making the playoffs.

Cleveland Indians - games remaining: 3 vs. Houston, 2 vs. Chicago White Sox, 4 at Minnesota
The Indians certainly represent this year's surprise team in the American League. They have the biggest advantage going into the home stretch: none of the three teams they will face have a winning record. At only 1/2 game behind the Rays and Rangers they are the team best positioned to make a move. My predicition: Cleveland wins one of the wild card spots by winning 6 of 9 games down the stretch.

Tampa Bay Rays - games remaining: 4 vs. Baltimore, 3 @ New York Yankees, 3 @ Toronto
Their remaining schedule might be a little cause for concern but the fact is that Tampa has become a consistent contender for one simple reason: their manager, Joe Maddon, is a genius. Some would say a mad genius. Maddon is somehow able to figure out how to maximize the use of every single player on his roster in a way that no other manager can. The key for Tampa will be how they do against Baltimore and New York. If they can win both of those series they will make the playoffs yet again. The fact that they also control their own destiny as they are tied with Texas in win/loss record helps a great deal. My prediction: Tampa wins the other wild card slot and will host the Indians in the Wild Card game.

Texas Rangers - games remaining: 3 @ Kansas City, 3 vs. Houston, 4 vs. Los Angeles Angels
The Rangers are coming off one of the worst two week stretches they have had this season: a seven game losing streak including being swept by both the Pirates and Indians before snapping the streak during a four game split with Tampa. The Rangers definitely don't have the same kind of offense they had in 2010 and 2011 during their back-to-back World Series appearances. It's bad enough that rumors of Ron Washington's dismissal at season's end  if the Rangers miss the playoffs (though both Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels say that's not going to happen). If they can survive the series with the Royals then they stand a fair shot at making the playoffs. My predicition: the Rangers will just miss winning the wild card.

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