The mediocrity that is the American League wild card race plows ever forward. People might try to sell you on the idea that the reason the chase for the AL’s two wild card berths is so close is because of parity; that’s a lot closer to being false than being true.
Sure, more teams are not in the wild card hunt because they’re currently leading their respective divisions (three — Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Houston Astros) than because they’re more than 10 games back from a spot (one — Chicago White Sox), but this has more to do with year-round interleague play and a massive gulf between the haves and have-nots in the National League than it does with parity, per se.
Of course the AL will have a close race if the NL has twice as many teams with a winning percentage under .480.
Only two teams will make the wild card round, and for brevity’s sake, we’ll assume that the aforementioned White Sox, the Oakland Athletics, and the Detroit Tigers will not be among their number. All three teams sold at the deadline (and the Tigers might still unload Justin Verlander), and all are 7.5 or more games out of the second wild card spot. Everyone else below, however, is within 3.5 games and could conceivably surge over the last third of the season into that second slot. We’ll look at why each team could and couldn’t make the one-game playoff, starting with the teams currently leading the pack.
New York Yankees (current first WC, +3 on second place): They hold a three-game lead in the wild card race mainly thanks to young talent like Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Aaron Hicks of all people, and an excellent group performance by the bullpen. Though the Yankees were heavy buyers at the deadline, picking up Todd Frazier, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia, their postseason hopes rest on whether their lineup — led by the massively-slumping Judge — can get its act together in the second half.
Los Angeles Angels (current second WC, +0.5 games): The Angels quietly have two of the best five players in the American League this year: Mike Trout (obviously) and Andrelton Simmons (a bit more of a surprise). They also have an excellent bullpen — something the Angels have struggled to fix for years. However, just about every position player on the roster outside of Trout and Simmons has ranged from mediocre to disappointing, and there’s little to like in the rotation outside of the wildly overperforming rookie Parker Bridwell. Far more than the Yankees, the Angels are likely to end the year on the outside of the wild card chase looking in.
Minnesota Twins (0.5 GB): The Twins had a bizarre deadline, first trading for Jaime Garcia from the Braves, then letting him start a game in which he was excellent, and finally trading him to the Yankees before he could wear a Twins uniform a second time. This weird indecision has helped the Twins for the moment — Garcia has been terrible in a New York uniform so far — but the Twins still own little individual star power and are trying to make up for it with team consistency and some good luck against weak competition. It would help a lot if youngsters Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco could figure out their swings.
Kansas City Royals (0.5 GB): Another big buyer at the deadline, K.C. has to be nettled to still be behind Minnesota in the chase for a wild card spot; they were — and still are — hoping to contend for the division. Another team without many huge individual performances this year, the Royals might need improbable top-of-the-rotation duo Jason Vargas and Danny Duffy to find another gear if they’re going to distinguish themselves, and things have reached the point with Alex Gordon where he should be benched for deadline acquisition Melky Cabrera, regardless of contract or platoon splits. There is not too much the Royals can do about Alcides Escobar, though.
Seattle Mariners (1.5 GB): Seattle remains mystifying, giving its fans brief flashes of hope before snatching them away. The pectoral injury to James Paxton might have sealed the deal for the Mariners; Paxton was the only remotely impressive starting pitcher they’ve had all year, and traditional mainstays Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are also down with injuries (Iwakuma’s has already ended his season). Seattle could make a run here if Paxton is back by the first week of September and the entire offense flips the switch into hot-streak mode, but more likely the M’s will be the first of these teams to fade into Tigers and Athletics territory.
Tampa Bay Rays (1.5 GB): Logan Morrison, Corey Dickerson, and Steven Souza might be one of the more unexpected offensive cores to come out of the Year of All the Dingers, and while the addition of Lucas Duda has given them a fourth big-threat bat, swapping Tim Beckham for Adeiny “.489 OPS as a Ray” Hechavarria is a bit painful right now. Their key to making the postseason is betting that they stay more consistent and healthier than anyone else; they might be the best bet to get the second wild card behind New York when the dust settles.
Baltimore Orioles (2.0 GB): Despite having the best second-half offense in baseball, the Orioles are only 17-14 since the All-Star break because their starting pitching remains uninspiring-to-putrid, and they’ve had poor luck with how they group those runs. While new shortstop Tim Beckham has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball since coming over from Tampa Bay, Baltimore’s future hangs more or less on how well the starting pitchers perform down the stretch. Don’t get too optimistic if you’re an O’s fan.
Texas Rangers (2.0 GB): The Rangers already sent Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers, so their postseason hopes already seem quite improbable, but both Cole Hamels and Andrew Cashner have filled in admirably at the top of the Texas rotation. Adrian Beltre is hitting well enough that he, Elvis Andrus, and Joey Gallo might be able to drag the Rangers into the second wild card berth with some help, but this is going to be a close race, and the Texas bullpen doesn’t inspire much confidence in one of those.
Toronto Blue Jays (3.5 GB): Yes, they’re technically still in this hunt too, at only 3.5 games back. Justin Smoak, Josh Donaldson, Marcus Stroman and J.A. Happ have all done excellent work getting the Jays even this close after their horrific start to the season, but injuries and ineffectiveness from key expected contributors — Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Marco Estrada and Kendrys Morales, especially Morales — have probably dug them into a hole too deep to escape.
Anything could happen, though. Personally, I’m rooting for a five-way tie and a three-day round robin elimination tournament. You should be, too.
By Jonathan Bernhardt