Breaking Down The Contenders: A Look At MLB’s Closest Division And Wild Card Races

Bryan Altman

The passing of Labor Day simultaneously denotes that summer is over and the weather is soon going to start cooling down for much of the U.S., but also that the MLB season is on its last legs and is about to start heating up as October baseball draws near.

As is the case most years, there are a few teams that have all but secured their playoff berth and blown past their in-division competition, like the Chicago Cubs, but there are also plenty of teams who will have to fight tooth and nail every game, inning and every single pitch to earn a coveted playoff position in 2016.

Let’s take a look at some of the most intriguing playoff races, scenarios and obstacles facing a number of contending teams as we head down the final stretch of the 2016 MLB season.

Note: All stats/records as of 9/7.

GB = Games Back

American League

 

A.L. East

What’s incredible about division races as opposed to the wild card races is the fact that every team in contention is forced to play one another at least once in September. In the A.L. East, where four teams are within 4.5 games of the division lead, that makes things even more interesting since every team practically controls its own destiny.

(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

1st – Toronto Blue Jays (77-61) – 0.0 GB

Games left: 24

Games left against teams over .500: 21 out of 24

Home games left: 13 out of 24

Key series’ left: Sept. 7 @ Yankees; Sept. 9-11 vs. Red Sox; Sept. 23 – 25 vs. Yankees; Sept. 27 – 29 vs. Orioles; Sept. 30 – Oct. 2 @. Red Sox

2nd – Boston Red Sox (77-61) – 0.0 GB

Games left: 24

Games against teams over .500: 20 out of 24

Home games left: 10 out of 24

Key series’ left: Sept. 9 – 11 @ Blue Jays; Sept. 12 – 14 vs. Orioles; Sept. 15 – 18 vs. Yankees; Sept. 19 – 22 @ Orioles; Sept. 27 – 29 @ Yankees; Sept. 30 – Oct. 2 vs. Blue Jays

(Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

(Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

3rd – Baltimore Orioles (76-62) – 1.0 GB

Games left: 24

Games against teams over .500: 20 out of 24

Home games left: 11 out of 24

Key series’ left: Sept. 12 – 14 @ Red Sox; Sept. 19 – 22 vs. Red Sox; Sept. 27 – 29 @ Blue Jays; Sept. 30 – Oct. 2 @Yankees

4th – New York Yankees (72-65) – 4.5 GB

Games left: 25

Games against teams over .500: 18 out of 25

Home games left: 14 out of 25

Key series’ left: Sept. 15 – 18 @ Red Sox; Sept. 23 – 26 @ Blue Jays; Sept. 27 – 29 vs. Red Sox; Sept. 30 – Oct. 2 vs. Orioles

Take away: The Blue Jays have lead the division for much of the year, but to say their grasp on the top spot is tenuous is an understatement. The Blue Jays will be forced to play a staggering 14 of their final 24 games against teams that are trailing them in the standings in the A.L. East. Fortunately for them, after their series with the Yankees wrapping up today (Sept. 7), they’ll play 10 of their remaining 13 of those games at home. The only time they’ll be on the road against their divisional foes will be against the Red Sox, the team their currently tied atop the standings with, to wrap up the regular season.

Meanwhile, the Yankees, the team furthest out of contention that many left for dead after they sold/retired all their assets at this year’s trade deadline, have six games remaining against the Blue Jays, have the fewest games left against opponents over .500, and have the most home games of any of the A.L. East teams.

This division is still wide open and is going to be fun to watch throughout September.

A.L. Central

While the Indians are well in the driver’s seat in the Central division, the Tigers are still hot on their tail. The Royals have cooled off since their scorching hot August and are in wild card contention but likely cannot catch either the Indians or the Tigers with just 25 games left to play.

1st – Cleveland Indians (79-58) – 0.0 GB

Games left: 25

Games against teams over .500: 15 out of 25

Home games left: 11 out of 25

Key series’ left: Sept. 16 – 18 vs. Tigers; Sept. 20 – 22 vs. Royals; Sept. 26 – 29 @ Tigers; Sept. 30 – Oct. 2 @ Royals

(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

2nd – Detroit Tigers (75-63) – 4.5 GB

Games left: 24

Games against teams over .500: 13 out of 24

Home games left: 14 out of 24

Key series’ left: Sept. 16 – 18 @ Indians; Sept. 23 – 25 vs. Royals; Sept. 26 – 29 vs. Indians

Take away: The Tigers have an easier schedule and have the benefit of playing the Indians at home when they meet for a four-game series at the end of September for their second-to-last series of the year. If the Tigers can trim their current 4.5-game deficit down to two games or less by then, the Indians will most definitely be feeling the heat heading into enemy territory.

A.L. Wild Card

The A.L. wild card picture is murky, to say the least. Helping clear it up is the fact that most of these teams have series’ against each other over the next few weeks.

1st WC Spot – Boston Red Sox (77-61) and Toronto Blue Jays (77-61) – +1.0 GB

2nd WC Spot – Baltimore Orioles (76-62) – 0.0 GB

Detroit Tigers (75-63) – 1.0 GB

Houston Astros (74-64) – 2.0 GB

New York Yankees (72-65) – 3.5 GB

Kansas City Royals (72-66) – 4.0 GB

Seattle Mariners (70-68) – 6.0 GB

Take away: Each team has a median of 24 games left, so there’s ample time for any of the teams listed above to make a run at a wild card spot. Will the Mariners leapfrog five teams with only 24 games to play? Unlikely, but definitely not impossible.

Fortunately for the teams towards the bottom of the barrel, the Red Sox and Orioles have the fewest home games remaining and among the hardest schedules left of any wild card teams.

Unfortunately for the Royals, Mariners and Astros, they won’t get a series against any of the teams at the top of the heap so they’ll have to count on teams like the Yankees, Tigers and others to help knock the Red Sox and Orioles out of the top two spots in the American League.

This will get wild and the two American League wild card spots will likely still be up for grabs heading into the last series of the MLB season.

National League

 

The Dodgers are poised to make it four years in a row as N.L. West champions but the Giants are in the hunt for their first N.L. West championship since 2012.

(Photo by: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

(Photo by: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

N.L. West

1st – Los Angeles Dodgers (78-60) – 0.0 GB

Games left: 24

Games against teams over .500: 9 out of 24

Home games left: 8 out of 24

Key series’ left: Sept. 19 – 21 vs. Giants; Sept. 30 – Oct. 2 @ Giants

2nd – San Francisco Giants (74-64) – 4.0 GB

Games left: 24

Games against teams over .500: 10 out of 24

Home games left: 13 out of 24

Key series’ left: Sept. 15 – 18 vs. Cardinals; Sept. 19 – 21 @ Dodgers; Sept. 30 – Oct. 2 vs. Dodgers

Take away: While their four-game lead is solid, they have to tread carefully with six games against the Giants coming up in their last 24 games of the year. Similarly to the A.L. Central race between the Indians and the Tigers, the last thing the Dodgers want is to meet the Giants in their last series of the season with a one, maybe two-game lead.

While strength of schedule appears pretty equal, the Giants have the hardest series of the two teams when they meet the Cardinals to wrap up a seven-game home stand at the end of  next week. The Cardinals trail the Giants by 0.5 games for the No. 1 wild card spot so that series will have playoff-level intensity to be sure.

N.L. Wild Card

The N.L. Wild Card race is essentially a three-team one considering the Pirates are going backwards and the Marlins are Giancarlo Stanton-less. That and the Mets and Cardinals are on a roll, so let’s focus in on those three teams in particular.

1st WC spot – San Francisco Giants (74-64) – +0.5 GB

Games left: 24

Games against teams over .500: 10 out of 24

Home games left: 13 out of 24

Key series’ left: Sept. 15 – 18 vs. Cardinals; Sept. 19 – 21 @ Dodgers; Sept. 30 – Oct. 2 vs. Dodgers

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

2nd WC spot – St. Louis Cardinals (73-64) – 0.0 GB

Games left: 25

Games against teams over .500: 10 out of 25

Home games left: 13 out of 25

Key series’ left: Sept 12 – 14 vs. Cubs; Sept. 15 – 18 @ Giants; Sept 23 – 25 @ Cubs

New York Mets (73-66) – 1.0 GB

Games left: 23

Games against teams over .500: 3 out of 23

Home games left:  10 out of 23

Key series’ left: Sept. 12 – 14 @ Nationals

Others In Contention

Pittsburgh Pirates (67-69) – 5.5 GB

Miami Marlins (68-70) – 6.0 GB

Colorado Rockies (66-71) – 7.5 GB

Take away: Ostensibly, even though they’re not in the driver’s seat, the Mets are arguably in the best position to snag one of the two wild card spots in the N.L. They have only three games against teams over .500 and have a 10-game home stand against 10 sub-.500 teams to help boost their record before the last full week of the season.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals have to play the division-rival and world-beating Cubs twice, the still-in-contention Pittsburgh Pirates and the No. 1 wild card team as of now, the San Francisco Giants, in San Francisco.

The Pirates do have the potential to win the final game of their series against the Cardinals and throw themselves back into the mix, but their slumping so badly it’s hard to see it.

Whichever team manages to win the four-game series between the Cardinals and the Giants next weekend will likely put themselves in control of one of the two wild card spots in the national league along with the Mets provided they beat teams they’re supposed to beat the rest of the way.

Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for a championship for any of his other three teams.

Questions or comments? Feel free to follow Bryan on Twitter or send him an email.

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