It’s July 3. The good news is that 21 teams are within five games of a playoff spot (and 18 are within three games). The bad news is that only one division race is closer than 4½ games. We have good playoff races, but we won’t necessarily have close division races — although I predict that at least one of the other five division races will join the NL Central and go down to the wire.
It feels as if we have more teams in playoff contention than in recent seasons. But let’s verify that and check the July 4 standings from the past five years:
2018: 14 teams within five games of the playoffs, five division races within 4½ games.
Check the margins of the division races: 1, 1½, 1½, 1, ½ … much better than this year. Plus, the A’s were seven games behind the Mariners and ended up winning a wild-card spot.
2017: 18 teams within five games of the playoffs, four division races within 4½ games
This was the year almost every team was in the battle for the second AL wild card — the Twins ended up taking it with 85 wins. That meant 12 AL teams were in the race, although it wasn’t really that interesting. Four of the division races ended up decided by at least 11 games, so a close race on July 4 doesn’t mean a close race in September.
2016: 18 teams within five games of the playoffs, two division races within 4½ games
By the end of the season, 14 teams were within five games of the playoffs and the closest division races were four games.
2015: 20 teams within five games of the playoffs, five division races within 4½ games
A lot of teams were in the mix on July 4, but not many were in the mix late in September. The closest division race ended up being the NL Central (the Cardinals won 100, the Pirates 98, the Cubs 97) and that was the one division not close on July 4. The Astros beat the Angels by a game for the second AL wild card.
2014: 17 teams within five games of the playoffs, six division races within 4½ games
Two division races ended up going down to the wire (Tigers over Royals by a game, Cardinals over Pirates by a game, although it was the Brewers who led on July 4). The A’s edged out the Mariners by a game for the second wild card.
Biggest division lead for a team that ultimately missed the playoffs: The 2015 Nationals were 4½ games up on the Mets on July 4. They went 38-43 after that and the Mets went 49-31 to win the division by eight games.
Biggest lead for any playoff spot for a team that missed the playoffs: Those 2018 Mariners who were up seven on the A’s for the second AL wild card. Seattle went 34-41 the rest of the way while Oakland went 49-26.
Biggest lead for a team that blew a division lead: The 2016 Giants were up five on the Dodgers, but the Dodgers ended up winning the division by four games. The Giants did get a wild-card spot.
So, bottom line: We might end up with only one close division race. If that’s what develops, the baseball gods better gift us with a seven-team tie for a couple of wild-card spots in the National League and a five-way tie for the NL Central.
But where does your team stand? Let’s break the league into five playoff tiers, with playoff odds courtesy of FanGraphs (entering Tuesday):
Jump to … Other favorites | Still in it | Hopes are slim | Plan those October vacations
LOOKING LIKE LOCKS
Los Angeles Dodgers (100%): It feels as if one of the most underappreciated stories of the season is the Dodgers being on a 107-win pace. I get it, the Red Sox won 108 last season. But the Red Sox did it in a sad-sack American League where three teams lost 100 games and two more lost 95-plus. The Dodgers are doing it in a much more balanced league from top to bottom. Of course, the bullpen remains flawed and maybe that’s why we don’t think of the Dodgers as a superteam.
Houston Astros (99.5%): That recent seven-game losing skid erased some of their invincibility, but the Astros are just getting their full lineup back together, Yordan Alvarez has added a booming left-handed stick and the bullpen depth is excellent. On paper, they should still rule the West: FanGraphs projects 100 wins and a 15-win edge over the A’s in the final standings. Still, I would suggest they’re more vulnerable than the 98.6% odds to win the division that FanGraphs gives them. The Rangers and A’s aren’t as strong on paper, but they’re close enough that stranger things have happened.
New York Yankees (99.2%): Even with the concerns about the starting rotation, it’s starting to look as if the Yankees might run away with the AL East as the Rays staggered in June and the Red Sox — as we saw in London — continue to have major pitching issues.
Minnesota Twins (97.3%): They haven’t just beat up on the AL Central, as they’re 17-9 versus the AL East and 14-6 versus the AL West. Their seven-game lead over the Indians appears safe as FanGraphs gives them a 92% chance of winning the division. They lead the majors in home runs and batting average as the week kicks off, so any trade additions will probably come on the pitching front.
Atlanta Braves (94.1%): Where’s this four-team NL East bob and weave we expected? The Braves pulled away with a 20-8 record in June, and the promotion of Austin Riley and addition of Dallas Keuchel have given them even more depth. Like seemingly every other team, they’ll be on the prowl for bullpen help, but after hitting .277/.352/.520 in June, this lineup looks very deep and very scary.
THE OTHER FAVORITES RIGHT NOW
Tampa Bay Rays (77.7%): As the Yankees surged in June, the Rays went 13-16 and fell from 1½ games out of first to seven games behind. They need to get Blake Snell rolling again and maybe his Sunday start (12 K’s, three hits in six innings) will get him back to Cy Young form. Rookie call-up Brendan McKay looked terrific in his major league debut Saturday and All-Star Charlie Morton and Yonny Chirinos have been excellent. It will be up to the offense for the Rays to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Chicago Cubs (75%): They entered the week tied with the Brewers, but FanGraphs likes the on-paper Cubs more than the on-paper Brewers, giving Chicago 61.4% odds to win the division compared to 26.3% for the Brewers. The Cubs do have a big advantage in run differential (plus-64 runs to minus-4), but these teams feel much closer in talent. The Cubs also continue to struggle on the road, with a 16-25 record and 4-14 over their past 18.
Washington Nationals (61.8%): FanGraphs projects a .555 winning percentage the rest of the way, second best in the NL behind the Dodgers. Those playoff odds include a 19% chance of winning the division and a 42.8% chance of a wild-card berth. They have the stars, but the bullpen continues to be one of the worst in MLB history with a 6.30 ERA. Fix that — somehow — and maybe they find a way to sneak into October.
Boston Red Sox (57.3%): How many times have we said “bullpen” so far? The Red Sox have 17 blown saves (at any point in the game), second worst in the majors behind the Mets. Amazingly, they actually lead the majors in bullpen strikeout rate — which proves that there’s more to pitching than strikeouts.
Milwaukee Brewers (54.7%): The Cubs and Brewers still have 13 games left against each other — six games in 10 days in late July/early August, three games at Wrigley at the end of August and a four-game series at Milwaukee the following weekend. But they don’t play the final three weeks and both teams finish with season-ending road trips. I think the NL Central goes down to the wire once again.
DEFINITELY STILL IN IT
Cleveland Indians (44.2%): A lot can go wrong in a baseball season. On Opening Day, FanGraphs pegged the Indians as a 97-win team with an 89% chance of winning the division and a 95% chance of making the playoffs. Then Francisco Lindor missed the start of the season, Corey Kluber got hurt, Mike Clevinger got hurt, Jose Ramirez went from MVP candidate to hitting like Rafael Ramirez, and Carlos Carrasco came down with a blood condition. Oh, and they don’t score enough runs. Yet somehow the Indians began the week just a half-game out of a wild-card spot. Give a lot of credit to Terry Francona, pitching coach Carl Willis and the organizational pitching depth (and an 8-1 record against the Tigers).
Colorado Rockies (25%): The Rockies have four All-Star position players, so the offense is great and the pitching is mediocre, right? Not so fast. The Rockies are actually second in the NL in road ERA, but they are just 20-23 away from home. As always, scoring runs on the road remains on issue. The other issue is the back of the rotation. Kyle Freeland, fourth in last year’s Cy Young voting, struggled so much he’s back in Triple-A (with a 11.12 ERA). German Marquez and Jon Gray have been terrific, but Colorado certainly could use another starter, although it hasn’t been in the Rockies’ DNA to make a big midseason trade even as they made the playoffs the past two seasons.
Philadelphia Phillies (24.9%): Other than a four-game sweep against the Mets last week, it has been a tough three weeks for the Phillies. They’ve given up five or more runs in 13 of their past 20 games. Don’t put all the blame on the pitching, however, as the Phillies are eighth in the NL in runs and 11th in home runs despite their hitter-friendly home park. Offseason additions Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura have been OK, but not as OK as expected. As they go in the second half, so might the Phillies’ season.
St. Louis Cardinals (20.5%): The Cardinals are sitting at .500 and they’re projected to finish at .500. Maybe this is just a .500 team — especially when Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina are each sitting with below-average OPS. They’ll have to figure out the back of games without Jordan Hicks and need better second halves from Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas, but the playoff hopes seem to rest on the expensive shoulders of their three 30-something veteran hitters.
Oakland Athletics (17.3%): Here come the A’s, setting themselves up for another patented second-half run, a hallmark throughout the Billy Beane era. After going 14-18 through April, they went 15-10 in May and 17-11 in June with a plus-70 run differential those two months. Maybe the biggest surprise is that the A’s are fourth in the AL in rotation ERA, although Frankie Montas (9-2, 2.70 ERA) is in the midst of an 80-game PED suspension. (He’ll be ineligible for the playoffs if the A’s make it.) It will be interesting to see what moves Beane makes. Last year, he traded for Jeurys Familia, Mike Fiers, Shawn Kelley and Fernando Rodney. Top prospect Jesus Luzardo is off the injured list and has made two starts in Triple-A, so he could help the rotation in a few weeks as well.
San Diego Padres (12%): Did we mention the NL wild-card race is crowded? Heading into Tuesday’s games, seven teams were separated by only two games. In other words: Maybe this is the year the baseball gods give us that seven-way tie for two wild-card spots. In more words: Fernando Tatis Jr., Franmil Reyes, Manny Machado and Hunter Renfroe make this one of the most exciting lineups in the game. Not one of the best — they strike out too much and don’t walk — but the first half has been intriguing enough and the farm system is so deep that maybe A.J. Preller makes a couple of additions at the trade deadline. The Padres haven’t made the postseason since 2006, so they might have more incentive for a wild-card push than other organizations.
Arizona Diamondbacks (12%): The Diamondbacks lost Goldschmidt, Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock, but give them credit for not just tearing things down and rebuilding. They’ve remained competitive, in large part due to the continued excellence of Zack Greinke plus the breakout performances of Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar. They’re in the same boat as the Padres: What do you do at the trade deadline when it’s all about getting into a 50-50 coin-flip game?
Texas Rangers (5.4%): Those odds feel low given the Rangers entered Tuesday in possession of a wild-card spot (a half-game ahead of the Indians and A’s). FanGraphs projects just a .463 winning percentage the rest of the way and it’s certainly easy to see some regression here: Mike Minor and Lance Lynn will be hard-pressed to repeat their first-half numbers — they rank first and fourth in the AL in pitching WAR. But maybe Minor and Lynn are just having career seasons.
NOT OUT OF IT, BUT HOPES ARE SLIM
Cincinnati Reds (7.2%): This is frustrating. The Reds finally have a good rotation (second-best ERA in the NL), but the offense has struggled and the bullpen hasn’t been clutch (24th in the majors in the FanGraphs “clutch” index). The Reds are 39-44 and 4½ games out of a wild-card spot and just 5½ behind the Brewers, but they do have a plus-37 run differential, fifth best in the NL and are 39 runs better than the Brewers, which is why their playoff odds still hover this high. Still, they have a lot of teams to jump over and they could end up being sellers if they don’t get on a hot streak soon.
New York Mets (6.6%): FanGraphs projects a rest-of-season winning percentage of .518 — better than the Phillies, Brewers and Rockies — so we can’t count the Mets out just yet. Hey, it’s not inconceivable for Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler to perform much better in the second half. Still, it will take a 10-game winning streak just to get back over .500, and the bullpen is a complete disaster right now. I’ll take the under on that 6.6%.
Pittsburgh Pirates (6.2%): They’re ahead of the Reds in the standings and have received a breakout season from Josh Bell, plus surprising rookie seasons from Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman, but they lack power. And with Chris Archer struggling and Jameson Taillon on the IL, the rotation — supposedly the strength of the team — has been a letdown. They have 27 games left against the Cubs and Cardinals — 35% of their remaining schedule.
Los Angeles Angels (2.2%): The devastating death of Tyler Skaggs will be a difficult emotional hurdle to overcome. From a baseball standpoint, he’d also been their best starting pitcher (7-7, 4.29 ERA). The Angels have a tough schedule the rest of the way, including 17 games against the Astros — somehow they’ve played them only twice so far. They also have two series against the Red Sox, one at Yankee Stadium and two games at Dodger Stadium. It looks like another season with Mike Trout watching the playoffs on TV.
Chicago White Sox (0.1%): The White Sox have probably overachieved just to be a few games under .500 as FanGraphs forecasts some big-time regression in the second half (.425 winning percentage the rest of the way). Lucas Giolito and James McCann have been two of the biggest surprises and made the All-Star team. Yoan Moncada has already surpassed last year’s WAR, and Eloy Jimenez has shown why he’ll be an elite slugger. At least they’re interesting for the first time in a long time.
TIME TO PLAN THOSE CARIBBEAN VACATIONS FOR OCTOBER
San Francisco Giants: Thanks to one of the best bullpens in the game, the Giants haven’t been a complete disaster in 2019, but the long rebuild is just beginning. Some of those relievers will be traded, Madison Bumgarner might be traded and six of the eight players with the most plate appearances are 30 or older.
Seattle Mariners: The season is disappointing only in the context of that 13-2 start. The Mariners didn’t expect to contend and this is a bad baseball team, especially horrid on defense and in the bullpen. Jerry Dipoto has already churned through 32 pitchers (not including position players) and 15 of the 32 have an ERA over 6.00. Yuck. A few bright spots: Daniel Vogelbach hits bombs and draws walks; J.P. Crawford has hit since his call-up; the Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz trade looks good with those two struggling and Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn making the Futures Game.
Toronto Blue Jays: The Jays’ .372 winning percentage would be their first below .450 since 2004 and their worst since a .349 mark in 1981. That was one bad baseball team. They hit .226 and averaged just 3.1 runs per game. However, they had three 21-year-old outfielders named Jesse Barfield, George Bell and Lloyd Moseby who became the foundation of the 1985 playoff team, the first in franchise history. This Jays team will hope that Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette (probably called up in the second half) will be this generation’s version of Barfield, Bell and Moseby. Now they just need a Dave Stieb.
Miami Marlins: The Marlins actually have played respectable baseball for the past month and a half. Since a 10-31 start through May 15, they’ve gone 22-20. There isn’t much offense here and it’s not even a young lineup (the average position player age is older than league average), but the starting rotation is young and has been effective.
Kansas City Royals: The Royals are probably the most interesting of the bottom-feeders thanks to Adalberto Mondesi’s all-world excitement, Hunter Dozier’s breakout at the plate and Whit Merrifield’s all-around excellence. They will be tempted to trade Merrifield — he’s a perfect fit for the Dodgers — and given that he’s 30 years old, they should at least listen very closely to offers for him.
Detroit Tigers: Well, the Tigers are last in the AL in runs, home runs, average, OBP and slugging. They’ve averaged 3.42 runs per game in a league that has averaged 4.81 per game. Put it this way: Their wRC+ (adjusted for league and park) of 75 would be the third worst since 2000, better only than the 2004 Diamondbacks (74) and 2013 Marlins (74). Their big question: Do they cash in on the strong seasons of starter Matthew Boyd and closer Shane Greene? I’d keep Boyd and hope for a future rotation built around him, Spencer Turnbull, Casey Mize and Matt Manning. That seems the best/only hope to get back into playoff contention by 2021 or 2022.
Baltimore Orioles: The 2002-03 Tigers went 55-106 and 43-119. In 2006, they were in the World Series. The 2012-13 Astros went 55-107 and 55-111. In 2015, they were in the playoffs and in 2017 they won the World Series. Don’t give up, Orioles fans!
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