We here at the Turf have already taken a look at the teams that are locks for the MLB playoffs. And by “we” I mean “me,” but I promise that’s the last time I’ll refer to myself in the plural. Essentially, my pieces earlier this week boiled down to the teams that would make the playoffs in both the American League and the National League, if we still operated under the 2019 playoff structure, assuming a victorious wild card win.
But with Rob Manfred announcing today that he anticipates the expanded playoff structure to stick beyond the bizarro 2020 baseball season, we may need to acclimate ourselves to an extra eight teams in October. However, I am not here today to discuss the implications of the owners’ postseason cash-grab on baseball’s competitive balance. I’m here, friends, to examine the state of the race for the bottom half of the playoffs in the American League. (The Chicago White Sox, who have officially clinched a berth, Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, and Minnesota Twins have been discussed in more depth than you probably want here.)
New York Yankees
From the time I was originally assessing my list of locks for the MLB playoffs to this, the Yankees have joined the ranks of those who should be printing their October-related team t-shirts. Even in the unlikely event that the Yankees backslide, losing the 2.5 game advantage they have on the Blue Jays, one of the wild card teams will come from this division.
The Yankees’ (relative) swoon, in which they went 7-14 from August 18 to September 10, would have just been “life” or “the baseball season” for many franchises. But in Yankees fan punditry, it caused great consternation. The expectation that the Yankees should sweep every World Series may be partly responsible. But more culpable, in my opinion, was the expectation that last year’s Yankees team created, namely, that replacements will play as well as, or perhaps better than, the injured star players.
Unquestionably, the core of the Yankees lineup was decimated by injury earlier in the season. DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Aaron Judge, Gio Urshela, and Giancarlo Stanton all spent time on the IL during their losing span, above. Many comments circulated about the Yankees fielding a Triple-A roster during that time, but now, all of their stars have returned. Setting a franchise record for hitting at least six homers in back-to-back games, the Yankees routed the Blue Jays in all three games of their series this week, capping a seven-game winning streak. With the whole lineup mashing and Stupid Luke Voit ™ (context for this epithet here) leading MLB in home runs, the Yankees look likely to keep winning through the end of the regular season.
Last year’s American League champion team has also been banged up, something that many MLB fans would no doubt like to see as karma for their “banging scheme.” (Trash cans hit back!) From their potent lineup, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, and Michael Brantley have all spent time on the IL, and injury has cost George Springer several games. Most severely, knee surgery put an end to the season for 2019 Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez, after he had played only two games.
As for their pitching staff, losing 2019 Cy Young winner Justin Verlander for most of the short season certainly transformed their outlook, though the team is hopeful that he will pitch before the playoffs. Lance McCullers and Jose Urquidy also missed time on the injured list, further destabilizing the rotation. The Astros also transferred former closer Roberto Osuna to their 60-day IL with an elbow injury. I would personally like to see this as karma for the Brandon Taubman incident, at a minimum, if not, you know, Osuna battering the mother of his child.
When healthy, the team has not quite performed to expectations, either, with only Kyle Tucker and George Springer clearing 1.0 fWAR (1.1 each), and former MVP Jose Altuve hitting to the tune of a 70 wRC+. Even so, with their offensive core back in the lineup, the Astros seem likely to hang on to their second-place berth in the AL West. But the Mariners, an example of good 2020 chaos, do chase that spot, 3 games behind.
The last week and a half has seen a precipitous decline for Cleveland, whom I can sadly no longer call the Cleveland Clevdogs (a nickname for Mike Clevinger that might have originated with “The Sleeper and the Bust”). Tied for first place in the division earlier this month, Cleveland has lost eight consecutive games, including a sweep at the hands of the Twins, and losing three of four to the Royals. This is a smorgasbord of in-division pain for Cleveland fans, with whom I feel great sympathy. I’m not sure if it’s worse to lose three to the team at the bottom of your division or the team directly ahead of you in the standings, but the answer is probably: Yes.
Nevertheless, Cleveland has the second-best run differential, at +29, of any team in this entire article, after only the Yankees. Demigod Shane Bieber headlines an exceptional pitching staff with the 1.53 ERA presumably inherited from his father Zeus Bieber (no relation to Justin), and the team’s success has more to do with limiting opponents’ runs than creating their own. To be clear, Jose Ramirez, Fransico Lindor, and Franmil Reyes have had good seasons. But it would annoy me, were I a Cleveland fan, that the Clevinger trade didn’t yield a bat of more immediate impact. The major league bats they acquired have not done so: Josh Naylor has a 19 wRC+ and Austin Hedges, -61 wRC+.
But if the team can right the ship and play .500 baseball through the end of the month, they should stay in one of the AL wild card slots. A four-game series against the White Sox should prove a challenge (and good TV for the rest of us!) but hopefully they can use four games against Detroit and three against Pittsburgh to stay afloat.
Toronto / Buffalo Blue Jays
The ascendancy of the Yankees has come at the direct expense of the Blue Jays. First of all, the two teams flip-flopped the secured second playoff spot in the American League East. But moreover, with the two teams facing off this week, dropping all three games 6-20, 2-13, and 7-10, it’s been a demoralizing standings do-si-do for Toronto.
Many things can offer the Blue Jays consolation, however. First of all, their winning percentage of .531 stands well above the next team, the Mariners, at .440. Even if they lag Cleveland in the last wild card spot, they have some buffer. Secondly, they’re heading into four games in three days with the Philadelphia Phillies, who have just lost two members of their starting rotation and must cobble something together out of their bullpen, not only the worst in MLB but historically terrible. One could argue that this weekend presents an exciting series between two teams trying to remain in the wild card spot, but in addition to their pitching woes, the Phillies lineup is also missing four of its opening day starters, so the odds will heavily favor the Blue Jays.
And most importantly, this week, the Blue Jays have welcomed back Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez, both of whom have been superb this season—a 164 wRC+ for Hernandez and 148 for Bichette. For the first time, these star position players will be united with the pitchers acquired at the deadline. The Jays’ aggressiveness in revamping their rotation, adding Taijuan Walker, Ross Stripling, and Robbie Ray, has paid dividends. After they joined the team, Toronto went 8-4–until they ran into the buzzsaw in the Bronx. Though they will have to face the Yankees again next week, the strength of the team should allow them to cling to a wild card slot.
The Mariners remain three games back of the Astros. Catching Houston is their most likely path to the playoffs, although I don’t use the word “likely” in the sense that it seems highly probable, sadly. Still, the Astros are at .500, which would be easier to reach for the Mariners than the .531 and .540 marks of Toronto and Cleveland.
Seattle’s upcoming schedule also looks as foreboding as photos of the city shrouded in smoke, with Houston their easiest opponent for the remainder of the season. This scrappy young team has proved that anything can happen, but the Padres and Athletics present daunting opponents to round out the year.
The Mariners making the playoffs would have provided a little bit of consolation to a 2020 that needed it. On the other hand, the Mariners were more sellers than buyers at the trade deadline. With an eye-catching season from Kyle Lewis, at the forefront of the Rookie of the Year conversation, strong second seasons with the team from Dylan Moore and J.P. Crawford, and Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn now capably filling out their rotation in the majors, the future looks bright.
The future also looks bright for the Orioles, who I include out of deference to their excellent play this season, and how close their .431 winning percentage is to the Mariners’ .440. However, in a division with the Rays, Yankees, and Blue Jays, their hypothetical path forward is less clear.
Three games with Boston next week will provide a favorable matchup—hellooo 2020!—but this upcoming weekend with the Rays presents a difficult roadblock. Their season wraps up with Toronto, however, just in case things get interesting.
If Anthony Santander was the Orioles good luck charm this season—they’ve been on a 5-8 skid since an oblique injury ended Santander’s season—he’ll be back next year, with young teammates Ryan Mountcastle, Pedro Severino, D.J. Stewart, and Hanser Alberto all popping this year. Of course, whether or not “Jose Iglesias: DH” will continue to be a thing remains to be seen.
There you have it – let’s see how this all shakes out when the season draws to a close!
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