The Race for the AL Wild Card Could Be Crazy

We’re still 100 games away from the end of the season, but we’re getting closer to that time when teams have to decide whether they’re in or out of contention for the playoffs. Some clubs might have to make the tough choice of moving themselves out of contention despite having a reasonable playoff shot. In the American League, nearly every team is still in the race. That might change over the course of the next month, of course, but the field certainly looks like it will still be crowded come July.

There are five playoff spots up for grabs in the AL, and while a lot can and will happen the rest of the way, there are four teams to which our playoff odds give roughly an 80% or better chance of making the playoffs: the Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees. The Astros look well on their way to potentially 100 wins, while the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees appear to be moving toward close to 90 wins, a figure that generally amounts to a spot in the postseason. Those four teams total 359% of the 500% total odds available. After that, seven teams have something close to a 10%.

After the first four teams, no club has a better than a 50% chance at the playoffs. The team at the top, Toronto, is currently in last place in its division. Here are the playoff odds since the beginning of the season for the rest of the teams in the American League — with the exception, that is, of the rebuilding Chicago White Sox, who have been near zero all season long.

Does that look like an incomprehensible mess? Well, welcome to the AL Wild Card race. If it helps at all, the list of teams at the bottom of the chart is in order in terms of their current playoff odds. There are seven teams with close to a 1-in-10 shot of making the playoffs, with a couple more in Kansas City and Oakland that possess an outside chance of getting back into the mix. If you picked the top team currently by the odds, Toronto, taking the field is probably a better bet.

Here’s what the standings look like:

Race for the Second Wild Card
Team W L W% GB
Twins 32 28 0.533
Rays 34 32 0.515 1.0
Orioles 31 31 0.500 2.0
Angels 33 34 0.493 2.5
Mariners 32 33 0.492 2.5
Rangers 31 32 0.492 2.5
Blue Jays 31 32 0.492 2.5
Tigers 30 32 0.484 3.0
Royals 28 34 0.452 5.0
Athletics 27 36 0.429 6.5
Minnesota currently leads their division, but playoff odds expect Cleveland to overtake them.

If you’re inclined to remove the A’s out of official “contention,” that’s probably acceptable. They’ve made all-in moves in the past, but for the small-market, low-revenue club, those moves are only likely to happen if they are already in a good position. They are not in a good position.

The Royals, meanwhile, are in a tough spot. They have roughly the same chance of making the playoffs as the A’s, but this is the final year during which the team’s core — the one that made it to the World Series twice and won in 2015 — are likely to be together. The Royals can either ride with that group one more time or try to gather up a collection of prospects to add to a system that isn’t in fantastic shape due, in part, to correctly going for it when they had a chance a few years back. The smart play is probably to unload prospects, but look at the projected end-of-year wins for all the teams about which we’ve been talking.

The Royals are at the bottom there with around 75 wins. That’s a lot of wins to make up, but at the same time, playing good baseball for two weeks and making one big trade is going to significantly alter the odds due to how close things are. Let’s say the Royals go crazy, win eight of their next 10 games and then trade for Zack Cozart. Their wins forecast would increase from 75 to 80 and their playoff odds move from 3% to closer to 20%. That’s not likely to happen, but it shows how quickly things can — and will — change over the course of the next month.

Toronto has the most talented team on paper. After getting Jose Bautista back to slugging and Josh Donaldson back from injury, they’ve erased some of the deficit created early on. If they play to expectations the rest of the way, that gets them to 85 wins. That projected win total is going to be sufficient to stay in the race, it would seem. For any of the teams that are roughly .500 right now — and that’s most of the American League — playing like an 88-win team the rest of the way is going to get a team to the 85 wins that are probably necessary. That’s a good pace, but a contender hardly needs greatness.

So what do you do if you are a team like the Rays? Constantly reloading, just lost Kevin Kiermaier for months, but still with a decent shot at getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. What do you do if you’re the Detroit Tigers? Potentially in need of a massive rebuild after continually trading from the farm, but with perhaps one last shot as Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander decline. What about the Twins? They don’t seem to have much staying power, but they’re basically one decent hitter and one starting pitcher from persevering through the regression that’s likely to set in.

As for the Rangers, they have two big pending free agents in Yu Darvish and Jonathan Lucroy. Do they try to cash in, or do they go for it before trying to reload for 2018? Baltimore only has Manny Machado controlled through next season, so they’re unlikely to rebuild before then. In Seattle, Felix Hernandez, Nelson Cruz, and Robinson Cano are getting older, but after Toronto, they have the most talented team on paper of the Wild Card contenders. Even the Angels are only a healthy Mike Trout away from contending, which would have made this race even nuttier.

Some team might try and jump the gun and sell a little early to beat the market, but as is usually the case, teams aren’t going to fully assess their chances for another month. The American League might end up going on a raid of the National League, where eight of 15 teams have a less than 7% chance at the playoffs. The race to the deadline might have close to the same impact as the race to the playoffs at the end of the season depending on what teams decide to do. Wild indeed.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

Kudos Bud Selig