While the race for the two wildcard spots in the National League, described by many as historic, is the main topic when it comes to playoff contention deep into the 2019 MLB season, there’s no denying that the battle for the two additional postseason spots on the American League side is far from decided. The current tie between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland Athletics for the second wildcard, as well as the lively AL Central race and the many question marks around the six-games-behind Boston Red Sox, promises to offer a lot of changes in the postseason picture.
We’re getting the most competitive AL wildcard race since 2017 but what most fans are interested in remains which teams will eventually end up playing in the play-in game on October 2nd. And what better time to evaluate the teams’ chances than when September is right round the corner?
The Indians remain very much engaged in both the AL Central and wildcard battles. They trail the Minnesota Twins by three games in the division while having just a game and a half lead over the Rays and the A’s for the first wild card.
The team is on one of the hottest streaks in all of baseball, winning 24 of 39 in the second half, and the rotation is only going to get better with the expected return of Carlos Carrasco. Corey Kluber has been reported to have setbacks in his rehab stint but even Shane Bieber, Adam Plutko, Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Aaron Civale can do the job, in addition to the 4th-best bullpen in the league.
Meanwhile, the team’s most valuable hitter, Jose Ramirez, is getting really hot at the right time. Ramirez, who placed third in the last two editions in the AL MVP voting, has a .720 slugging percentage since the All-Star break. Franmil Reyes, acquired from the Padres, has struggled but if he shows what he’s capable of, that team has a very high ceiling. The Indians are expected to get the job done and, even with the Twins’ easy schedule, to be in the AL Central conversation deep into September.
Like all the teams in the postseason race, Cleveland has one of the easiest schedules remaining in the AL, with the Rays, the Athletics and the Indians having a .480 average winning percentage of remaining opponents, compared to Twins’ .440 (per PlayOffStatus.com).
I don’t consider the Twins’ three-game lead certain. With their schedule, and their offence, they look too good to lose a division that they lead by 11 games in the beginning of June.
The rotation is considered to have been costing them games. However, in the second half they have the 12th-best starting pitching ERA (4.39). Their offence has once again been amongst the top in August with the 4th-most runs scored and 6th-highest batting average. It is surely a consistent unit, and team has won 18 of 30, just like the Rays and the Indians. Whether Minnesota can keep its winning way into September only time will tell, but their only remaining opponents with a winning percentage over .500 are the division rival Cleveland, Washington and Boston, so the Twins completely control their destiny.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays, despite lacking a traditional rotation and heavily emphasizing bullpen games, have been one of the best pitching teams with a 3.57 ERA, the best in the AL. Eric Sogard has already paid lots of dividends and their pitching looks poised for success. In the beginning of August they tied their best winning streak of the season with six straight wins over the Marlins and the Red Sox. They have won 12 of 18 in August, with only the Yankees winning more amongst American League teams.
Their crucial stretch starts in the end of the month when they visit the Astros and the Indians, then they play the Dodgers, the Red Sox and the Yankees in September. Ryan Yarbrough and Charlie Morton look to be lining up in a rotation and Blake Snell seems near a return from the injured list but they’ll need Yarbrough and Morton to pitch as many innings as possible so the Rays bullpen continues to be effective. If that plan blows, the Rays will be kicking themselves for trading away Stanek and Kolarek before the trade deadline.
Tanner Roark has been light out in his three starts for the Athletics. He makes up for something that makes the difference compared to last year’s team, which made it to the AL wildcard – the A’s finally have a decent rotation. They’ve overcome the suspension of Frankie Montas with a solid seasons from Mike Fiers, Chris Bassitt and Brett Anderson, and Homer Bailey was a welcome addition. But more interestingly, they’ve had a terrific bullpen, the 3rd-best in the majors (4.01 ERA). That is despite Blake Treinen’s struggles.
Matt Chapman has had a usually great year offensively but Marcus Semien was the one to step up with 22 homers and team-high .360 on-base percentage. Oakland is top 12 in runs scored, starters ERA and bullpen ERA and has the fourth-best record against winning teams (30-24). Perhaps not garnering as much attention as the ridiculous streaks of the Giants or the Mets, the Athletics have quietly been very consistent. Think about it – Oakland has had pitching as good as the Rays but without overusing its bullpen.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox are still in striking distance but really do need a miracle at this point considering the circumstances. As Chris Sale has shut down for the remainder of the year, their pitching is ever more disappointing and continues to waste the 3rd-best offence in Major League Baseball. You can say that all four teams mentioned above are a lot more complete. Even if the Sox are able to go on some kind of a run, they have to overcome a six-game deficit behind three really good teams. They also have a tougher schedule than any American League team currently in a playoff position.
As already noted, it’s likely going down to the wire. I’m going with Twins for the AL Central, Indians and A’s in the ALWC game on Oct 2nd, mostly due to those two teams’ rotations, superior to Tampa’s, which gives them better-performing bullpen. Rays’ staff has already shown its durability but it’s likely to run out of gas eventually. All three are pretty evenly matched in terms of offence.