The American League wild-card race has five teams vying for the final spot in the playoffs. Assuming that the runner-up in the Oakland A’s/LA Angels race for the AL West title will be in the wild-card game, that leaves five more teams within five games of each other for the last spot. Those teams are, in order of the current standings, the Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians. Here’s nine thoughts on that race as it heads into the homestretch…
*Detroit is the best positioned of the contenders, even though they would be out of the money (by a game and a half) if the season ended today. That’s because the Tigers are also only three games back of the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central, while everyone else is six or more out of first place. Detroit is the one team in this group of five that will be reasonably assured of making the playoffs in some capacity, as long they play good baseball down the stretch.
*In that same vein, how much longer can a team with David Price, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander at the top of the rotation continue to struggle along? I know Verlander’s having a very tough year, a 4.82 ERA that would be worse if he didn’t have such a pitcher-friendly environment to work in. But Rick Porcello’s strong year has made up for that and the Tigers have swung the bats well this season. Jim Leyland would have managed this team into the playoffs. Brad Ausmus has to prove he can do the same.
*As an avowed Yankee-hater, I always tend to overestimate the boys in Pinstripes, if only because I don’t want to ever let my guard down. Consequently, I’m still thinking they have a big run left in them. Michael Pineda is pitching extremely well, a 2.05 ERA since his return from what amounts to two years’ worth of injuries. Hiroki Kuroda has gotten going, and if Masahiro Tanaka can get back on the mound and be effective again, that’s a tough 1-2-3 Joe Girardi can throw at people. And the inspirational value of Derek Jeter’s final year is the big intangible.
*Where New York has failed this year is in their offense, and I’m going to single out Jacoby Ellsbury. It’s not that the centerfielder who crossed the Rubicon from Boston this past offseason has had a bad year—he hasn’t. He’s got a .340 on-base percentage and does a great job defensively in centerfield. Boston is worse off for not having him this season. But was he really worth the 7-years/$150 million deal the Yanks gave him? Yankee Stadium hasn’t provided the upgrade in power numbers that was expected, and this early years of that contract are when Ellsbury should be most productive. Instead, he’s merely pretty decent.
*I just don’t see where Toronto has the pitching to make it. Mark Buerhle is the only starter with an ERA under 4.00, and that’s mostly on the strength of a great start to the season. The Jays can hit with anyone. Edwin Encarcion is back in the lineup, Jose Bautista and Melky Cabrera are having a big years and players like Juan Francisco and Adam Lind are steady contributors. But to make up 4.5 games in a multiple team race in a month-plus requires sustained winning streaks that are only possible with starting pitching.
*Terry Francona is nothing short of a genius to have Cleveland still holding a puncher’s chance, with a 65-63 record. The Tribe’s own pitching woes have been there all year, they dealt Justin Masterson to the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline and other than Lonny Chisenhall at third base, have not gotten any pleasant surprises. But Tito still has the Indians over .500. I can’t see them making up five games and leapfrogging four teams with their flaws, but Francona has done a terrific job to even have his team in this conversation.
*Felix Hernandez is a lock for the AL Cy Young Award, and in a race where everyone has vulnerabilities, is the biggest X-factor. Any team that’s on the borderline of being #5 in the league is going to have problems, but when your rotation is the one that comes around every fifth day to King Felix, that’s a very steady anchor. Not to mention an arm that scares the heck out of the A’s or Angels if Felix were able to pitch the wild-card game.
*Was Robinson Cano’s decision to leave New York for Seattle this offseason the deciding factor in this race? Cano has given at least a little bit of life to the Mariners’ punchless offense, batting .328. And though the home runs haven’t been there (11), power is down across baseball, so the effect isn’t as dramatic. And Cano’s great ability to drive the ball in the alleys still has a slugging percentage at a solid .467. If he’s in New York, this race isn’t a race.
*Time for a prediction—I’m picking the second wild card to be…the Kansas City Royals. I’ve got the Tigers chasing them down in the AL Central, but KC’s pitching is still good enough to hold on. And on that same note, watch to see if New York or Toronto can make a run at the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East. It’s a tough climb (seven games), but the Orioles just lost Manny Machado for the year and could come back to the back. But those are topics for a separate column. For now we’ll just say the AL Central produces the second wild-card.
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