Down the Stretch They Come: Baseball’s Playoff Races

The dog days are (almost) over. The sun is beginning to retreat behind the horizon just a bit earlier. This of course means one thing to any baseball fan: Postseason baseball is almost upon us. Even with just little over a month to go, there is very little clarity regarding the postseason, which is part of the beauty that was promised by the second wildcard. Aside from the guarantee of a play in game, it opened up possibilities for many more teams that may have thought they were out of contention to try and sneak in the postseason. And in the AL at least it has lived up to the billing. Not including the current division leaders, there are currently 11 teams within 7 games of the second wildcard. Although seven games is hard to come back from, especially with the amount of teams in contention, it still isn’t impossible. Moving past the wildcard, aside from both the centrals (the NL central will almost certainly be the Cards or Pirates, with the other getting a wildcard) the divisional races have yet to be decided. The reeling Nationals are getting to a precipice that may end their season, meaning if they fall behind the Mets any further they are once again going to disappoint every baseball writer in the country by failing to make the postseason. The Dodgers are in a dog fight with San Francisco, and the Astros are still clinging to a slim lead in the AL West over the Angels. And of course the Blue Jays and Yankees are battling back and forth for supremacy in the AL East. Let’s take a look at how the each of the races stacks up and who I believe will end up winning. 

NL East

Who wins: New York Mets

Jacob deGrom and his lucious locks may help lead the Mets back to the postseason (Greg FIume/Getty Images)

Jacob deGrom and his luscious locks may help lead the Mets back to the postseason (Greg FIume/Getty Images)

The Mets are once again in contention. After being nothing more than a punchline since an epic collapse in 2007, the Mets are winning. Those words don’t even seem natural to me. As a Braves fan I grew up hating the Mets, but after watching and reveling in their misery for the past few seasons, I can’t find the same contempt I once held for them. And that brings me to the Nationals, whose biggest weakness, aside from their horrid defense, seems to be the guy who fills out the lineup card. Matt Williams has done nothing but make questionable decisions as manager in Washington, and this has continued even into their recent skid that saw them lose 6 straight and fall behind the Mets in the race for the East. This isn’t to say that Williams is to solely blame. A lineup that seemed destined for big things has underperformed, and as I said before the Washington defense hasn’t done the pitching staff any favors. Doug Fister, who until this season was a model of consistency, has been moved to the bullpen because of his inconsistencies in the rotation. Jordan Zimmerman has regressed after seeing his strikeout rate spike to a career high last year. And Stephen Strasburg, who has pitched better lately, has struggled this season while also battling though injuries.  Maybe the Mets are a team of destiny, with everything going their way and the Nationals slowly becoming a punchline like the Mets were all too recently. The Mets offense has finally come to life after some acquisitions at the trade deadline, most notably Yoenis Cespedes who has brought power to the Mets lineup to go along with his above average defense in the outfield. It’s hard to count out Washington and the talent that litters their roster, but for me it’s even harder to see the Mets losing for stretch long enough for the Nationals to reclaim first in the east, mostly because of the electric young arms that the Mets currently have.

NL West

Who wins: LA Dodgers

The Dodgers will lean heavily on the dominant duo of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke (above) (Jason Wise/Getty Images)

The Dodgers will lean heavily on the dominant duo of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke (above) (Jason Wise/Getty Images)

At this point, I think most people, including myself, are surprised that the Dodgers haven’t already pulled away in the west. Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw have arguably been the two best pitchers in the NL. Joc Pederson made his name known early on in his rookie campaign. And yet there always seems to be something missing. The bullpen can’t hold leads, and even after upgrading the back end of their rotation, the Dodgers still aren’t getting much consistency behind Kershaw and Greinke. The Dodgers have battled back and forth with the Giants for the entirety of the season. In my opinion the Dodgers are simply the better team. They have continued to bolster what is already the deepest roster in baseball, acquiring Chase Utley after a slew of moves to add pitching depth at the trade deadline. They are quite literally the best team money can buy, and with the two best pitchers in baseball this season they seem primed to once again claim the NL West. The Giants are a good team, but they just don’t seem to stack up well, especially considering the depth and talent that the Dodgers possess. The Giants pitchers, aside from Madison Bumgarner (who has accumulated 1.0 WAR as a hitter this season) and Chris Heston, have not provided much help to the team. Although the pitching doesn’t stack up too well, a few of the Giants position players have performed extremely well this season. Catcher Buster Posey has continued to play close to MVP caliber baseball, SS Brandon Crawford has seemingly found some offense to go with his slick fielding, and 1B Brandon Belt has continued to show flashes of talent that once made him one of the Giants top prospects. It’s hard for me to say that the Giants can’t do it again, because given the proverbial entropy that surrounds the game of baseball it’s hard to discount the reign of success that the Giants have had over the last 6 seasons. Sticking with the idea of randomness, it would also be hard to think the Giants can outperform not only their own limits but the talented Dodgers as well.

National League Wild Card

Who Wins: 1st WC Pittsburgh Pirates 2nd WC Chicago Cubs

The Cubs and Pirates seem destined to meet in the NL Wild Card Game. (Gene J Puskar/AP)

The Cubs and Pirates seem destined to meet in the NL Wild Card Game. (Gene J Puskar/AP)

My NL playoff picture is pretty cut and dry. Although the Pirates are still within striking distance in the Central, the Cardinals’ insanely successful season makes me think they aren’t going to give up the central so easily, even with the Pirates closing to within 3.5 games. That leaves the Pirates, Cubs and Giants fighting for the Wild Card, and at this point I think the Giants are the worst team in the crop. The Pirates have been the second best team in the National League for a majority of the season, but are going to have to settle for a Wild Card. The breakout of former Korean League player and current MLB rookie Jung-ho Kang has helped to bolster Pittsburgh’s solid offense. Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and the resurgent veteran AJ Burnett have helped lead the Pirates solid pitching staff. As for the second seed, the rebuilding on the north side of the Windy City is finally complete. The Cubs lineup is filled with young stars including C/OF Kyle Schwarber, who I pegged as a player who could make a difference for the Cubs as they were hunting for a playoff berth. The Cubs rotation behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester has been extremely surprising, including veteran journeyman Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks. A one game playoff between these two teams would be intriguing to say the least. Both the Pirates and Cubs have true aces in Gerrit Cole and Jake Arrieta respectively. Not only is this the matchup I see as most likely, but it is also the matchup I am most rooting for.

AL East

Who Wins: Toronto Blue Jays

Josh Donaldson and the mighty Blue Jays line up are a nightmare for opposing pitchers (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Josh Donaldson and the mighty Blue Jays line up are a nightmare for opposing pitchers (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

This is the race that is going to get a lot of attention going forward. The New York powerhouse trying to fend off the all-in Blue Jays. The Bronx Bombers versus the Canadian Crushers (I apologize for my terrible attempt at alliteration). In honor of continuity with my NL preview, let’s anticlimactically look into this exciting race. The Yankees have been truly surprising, not only as a team, but also on an individual basis. Mark Texieria has finally stayed healthy for the first time in a couple seasons and is producing at a terrific level. He currently ranks 9th in the entire MLB in wRC+ (weighted runs created plus). Alex Rodriguez is doing much of the same in his age 39 season, as he ranks 19th in the MLB with a 137 wRC+. To go along with what has been the most dominate bullpen in baseball, young hurler Michael Pineda has pitched extremely well when healthy, with health being the key for him. The main reason I don’t see the Yankees winning the east is a lack of starting pitching. Behind Pineda’s oft injured arm, the rotation kind of scares me. Nate Eovaldi has added a splitter that has made him a better pitcher, however his good win loss record doesn’t reflect his poor ERA and WHIP. Masahiro Tanaka’s right elbow is a ticking time bomb, and he has yet to find a true level of consistency this season. CC Sabathia seems to be spiraling downward, and it has become clear that his best (and maybe even average) days are behind him. Ivan Nova is somewhat of a wildcard. He has always had a live arm, but has never really put it all together for an extended period. As for the Blue Jays, this is the type of team that the MLB needs to win. This team is exciting. Their lineup is loaded with sluggers, and on any given day they can dismantle any given pitcher. The offense has lead this team to a run differential of +145, which is easily the best in the league. The Jays biggest weakness is also their starting pitching. Behind David Price at the moment, the Jays are loaded with a lot of mediocre pitching. Drew Hutchinson is the ultimate symbol of the magic the Toronto offense can provide (and also why pitcher wins are useless). He currently boasts a 12-2 record despite pitching to the tune of a 5.06 ERA (however his 3.96 FIP indicates he has pitched a bit better). Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey are league average pitchers at best and certainly cannot be relied on in a pivotal game. This is where the young arm of Marcus Stroman becomes a big piece for the Blue Jays. Toronto is currently working on stretching out Stroman, and it is becoming pretty clear that they intend on using him, which seemed pretty unlikely after he tore his ACL in spring training. If Stroman can provide any real stability in the Jays rotation, it is the type of push that might just push this exciting team over the top in AL East.

AL West

Who Wins: Houston Astros

The arm of Dallas Keuchel leads a balanced Astros team. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

The arm of Dallas Keuchel leads a balanced Astros team. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

The Astros have spent most of this season continually showing doubters that they are in fact contenders. After adding even more talent at the trade deadline the front office made it clear that not only is this rebuild over, they are also ready to seriously compete for a World Series. The additions of Scott Kazmir and Mike Fiers have helped to fill out the rotation behind Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers. The Astros defense has also been superb, and the offense that they get has been enough to help lead them to the fourth best run differential in all of baseball. The Angels, the only team close enough threaten the Astros in the west, quite simply have enough to pull it out in my opinion. The best player in the universe isn’t nearly enough to make a team great. Albert Pujols and Kole Calhoun are the only position players on the Angels aside from Trout to accumulate more than 2 WAR on the season. As for the pitching, Garret Richards and Hector Santiago are the only reliable starting pitchers the Angels have had for most of the season. The Angels quite simply don’t have a team deep enough to make a real run, and that’s why I believe the Astros should end up winning the west rather comfortably.

AL Wildcard

Who Wins: 1st WC: New York Yankees 2nd WC Baltimore Orioles

Chris Davis leads a potent Oriole offense that's hitting Baltimore back into the playoff race. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Chris Davis leads a potent Oriole offense that’s hitting Baltimore back into the playoff race. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

In the AL, the wildcard has been all that was promised when the field was expanded just a few seasons ago. Almost every team in the American League has a reasonable shot at the wildcard, and to try and make a real prediction with a field this crowded is somewhat difficult. As I have previously pointed out, I don’t believe the Angels, who currently possess one of the wildcard spots, have the depth necessary to make into the postseason. The other team that currently holds a wildcard spot is the Blue Jays, who I have winning the east. The Yankees seem like the most likely team that I don’t have winning a division to grab one of these spots. Even with some of their flaws, they have been one of the most consistent teams in baseball for the entire year and certainly don’t appear to be falling off the pace to an incredible extent. As for the second wildcard, the Baltimore Orioles seem like a team that can perform well enough to face the Yanks in the one game playoff. The Orioles have had a great offensive team all season, bolstered by Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Chris Davis. The primary issue for the Orioles this season has been run prevention. Young pitchers Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman have yet to provide any stability in the Orioles rotation. However I think the Orioles lineup is plenty good enough to help them slug their way to the postseason.

– Cruz Serrano

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