Wednesday, September 11, 2013

MLB Playoff Push: American League

Will Miguel Cabrera's injury keep the Tigers out of the AL's top seed? (Flickr)
By Bennett Corcoran

Yesterday, we took a look at the National League. Today, our focus shifts to the American league, where a greater number of teams remain in contention.

Boston Red Sox (88-58)
We’ll start with Boston, currently holding on to the AL’s best record while Detroit, Oakland, and Texas remain within striking distance. The Red Sox are continuing to play solid baseball, taking two of three against Detroit and three of four in New York against the surging Yankees. Boston has been slugging the ball with their high-powered offensive unit, which ranks first or second in runs, batting average, slugging percentage, and on base percentage. Their upcoming schedule contains plenty of critical games that could determine the pecking order of the American League. With three games to play against the Yankees, six against the Orioles, and two in Tampa Bay, the Red Sox look to decisively secure the American League title while crushing the dreams of wild card contenders. Their remaining schedule is mostly division rivals, starting with two more against Tampa Bay tonight and tomorrow. If they can take care of their AL East rivals, there is no reason why the Sox shouldn't lock up home field advantage in October.
Prediction: (98-64)
Result: AL East Champions, first overall seed in AL

Detroit Tigers (83-62)

Two weeks ago, the Tigers had distanced themselves from the pack in the AL Central, fending off impressive winning streaks from the Kansas City Royals and the Cleveland Indians with a run of their own. But a lot has changed since, as the absence of slugger and likely MVP winner Miguel Cabrera has caused the Tigers to drop six of their last nine games. While Detroit will probably still win the division, the Indians have quietly made a big run, now only 5.5 games back, and have a very favorable schedule the rest of the way. At the same time, the Tigers wrap up the season with home games against the Seattle Mariners and Chicago White Sox, followed by a road trip to Minnesota, and then finish up in Miami - not exactly the most daunting path to finish the season. Their soft schedule combined with their loaded offense should allow the Tigers to cruise the rest of the way, but their recent struggles could prevent them from catching Boston for the top seed in the AL. That being said, a return to the World Series is certainly in play.
Prediction: (96-66)
Result: AL Central Champions, second overall seed in AL

Oakland Athletics (83-61)
Oakland has the combination of strong pitching and a weak schedule to really make a play for the division in September. I honestly think it could come down to the last weekend between them and Texas for the AL West crown, as both teams are battling to ensure they don’t get stuck with the dreaded one game playoff. I’ll give the A’s the upper hand for now though because they have been finding a way to win every crucial series they face. By winning three of four in Detroit, sweeping the Rays in three games, taking two of three against the Rangers, Oakland has been beating very good teams right before their schedule is about to really lighten up. Other than a critical three game series in Texas next week, Oakland’s remaining schedule consists of six games against the Angels, seven against the Twins, and three in Seattle. Even if they don’t win the series in Texas, they should take the division.
Prediction: (96-66)
Result: AL West Champions, third overall seed in AL

Texas Rangers (81-63)
The Rangers have officially renounced the AL West lead to Oakland and now sit two games back thanks to losing seven of the last ten games (four of those losses were to the Angels and Mariners). Texas doesn’t have a particularly easy path the rest of the way, either. Currently in a series with Pittsburgh, the Rangers then square off against Oakland followed by a decisive seven game road stretch against wild card contenders in the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals. They do finish a seven game homestretch against the Angels and Astros, so even if they fall behind they can easily make up some ground. But even if they do cling to the wild card, Rangers fans would certainly be disappointed if they suffered yet another one-game playoff exit.
Prediction: (93-69)
Result: Wild Card #1

Tampa Bay Rays (78-65)

The Rays have also hit a snag as of late, losing ground on the rival Red Sox and slipping all the way to 8.5 games back of the division by losing nine of their last 12. Obviously, they have made up much greater September gaps fairly recently, so let’s not write them off just yet. With the return of Matt Moore, the pitching staff will receive a much-needed boost given the ineffectiveness of Jeremy Hellickson and Roberto “Fausto Carmona” Hernandez. Tampa Bay will continue perhaps the biggest series of the year tonight against Boston, which could provide the boost necessary to propel them to the playoffs or bury them even deeper. But with games remaining against the Yankees, Rangers, and Orioles, it appears the fate of Tampa Bay is in their own hands; if they can take care of the other wild card teams, they just might be able to hang on. If the Rays do make noise in the playoffs, a rotation featuring Moore, reigning Cy Young winner David Price, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer would be terrifying for opposing teams to counter. But with so many other teams vying for a wildcard spot, the Rays look like they’re in trouble.
Prediction: (88-74)
Result: Miss playoffs

Cleveland Indians (77-67)
Still alive and well, the Indians are surprisingly just 5.5 games back in the division and a promising 1.5 games back of the wildcard. Their schedule the rest of the way is pretty pathetic, as the only teams above .500 they face are six games against Kansas City. They’re pretty much done playing top tier teams, and can instead spend September feasting on teams like the Twins, White Sox, and Astros. This could put them in a position for a big run, and with the Rays playing a considerably tougher schedule (and considerably worse baseball right now unless they turn it around), Cleveland could be poised for an unexpected playoff appearance.
Prediction: (90-74)
Result: Wild Card #2

Baltimore Orioles (77-67)
Arguably the most surprising team last season, the Orioles haven’t had the same success in close games this year, and thus have struggled to maintain a similar level of success. Recently, they haven’t been able to win key games against stiff competition, going 6-9 against the Rays, A’s, Red Sox, Yankees, and Indians before sweeping the White Sox. If they want to make the playoffs, those are games they really need to win. However, they still have plenty of opportunities against division rivals, and in such a tight race in the AL East, anything can happen. Only 1.5 back of a wild card berth, their hopes are very much alive, and if they can foster some of the magic they had last year, the O’s can make a run. But with six games left against Boston, four in Tampa Bay, and three against the Yankees, it won’t be easy.
Prediction: (86-76)
Result: Miss playoffs

New York Yankees (77-68)
The Yankees are surprisingly just two games out of the wild card race with less than a month to go. Hot bats like Alfonso Soriano and Alex Rodriguez combined with the solid pitching of Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova have propelled an improbable run at just the right time. However, they had a real chance to pick up some ground this weekend with four games at home against the rival Red Sox, and proceeded to blow several leads and lose three of four games. Their remaining schedule is difficult, but with so many games left against division rivals, they still have plenty of opportunities to make up ground. The Bronx Bombers still have three more games in Boston, three in Baltimore, and three at home against Tampa Bay. However, I’m still not sold on how good the Yankees actually are, as their negative run differential (-4) suggests. I have a feeling that while they still might continue to play well this upcoming month, they will surely come back down to earth at some point and be left on the outside looking in. But still, 86 wins for a team that limped through the entire regular season without several key contributors is impressive.
Prediction: (86-76)
Result: Miss playoffs

Kansas City Royals (75-69)
The streaky Royals are the last team with a legitimate chance to sneak into the AL playoff picture, sitting just three games back of a wildcard spot. They need to take care of the best teams on their schedule to seriously push themselves into the conversation. With three games left in Detroit, five against Cleveland and another three against the Rangers, the Royals could certainly make up some ground, especially with teams like White Sox and Mariners still left on their schedule. I’m just not sure if it will be enough, as there are just too many teams competing for those two spots. While Kansas City certainly made strides in the right direction this season (we’re still talking about them in September, after all), I don’t think they have enough left to pass four teams.
Prediction: (85-77)
Result: Miss playoffs

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