On both coasts, it could be a mad finish in the AL
Leaders must watch out for those in hot pursuit in races for postseason berths
With the East and West very much undecided and six non-division leaders also in the mathematical mix for a Wild Card spot, the American League still provides plenty of small-market spunk, divisional intrigue and, above all else, unanswered questions.
Even at this late stage, every game involving an AL team on Tuesday's slate has some sort of significance in the October outlook.
While the five teams currently holding a playoff position -- the Tigers, Red Sox, Rangers, Rays and A's -- are all given at least a 80.5-percent chance of nailing down their spot in Baseball Prospectus' latest postseason odds report, four others -- the Orioles, Indians, Royals and Yankees -- combine for a 47-percent chance of spoiling the leaders' parties.
Preseason expectations have already been blown away by the surprising irrelevance of the Angels and Blue Jays. They've also been affirmed by the Tigers' seeming stranglehold on the AL Central.
What we're left with are division clashes on both coasts that are likely to come down to the wire, as well as a couple of likely runners-up in the Central looking to join the long list of Wild Card-era clubs that have reached the postseason a year after finishing with a losing record.
Here's a rundown of the nine still in the mix, with BP's postseason odds percentage in parentheses:
1. Tigers (99.1)
Have they underachieved? Well, maybe a little, but it's hard to find much fault with the bottom line. Despite down years from both Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder, the Tigers possess perhaps the most fearsome lineup/rotation combination in the game, and they've improved what had been a bumbling bullpen early in the year. They made their statement in the Central by taking three of five from Kansas City last weekend and sweeping a four-game set against the Tribe the week before. All that remains, at surface level, is to decide whether to start Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer or the more veteran Verlander in Game 1 of the Division Series. BP gives the Tigers a 24.6-percent chance of winning the World Series, by far the best in baseball.
2. Red Sox (92.3)
It's a bit of a stretch to call the Red Sox an underdog squad, given their enviable resources, but it's certainly remarkable how quickly Ben Cherington, John Farrell and Co. turned things around after the nightmare that was 2012. What looked to be a rebuilding year has instead been a resplendent one, even as the Red Sox have endured an assortment of injuries to their pitching staff, most notably to top starter Clay Buchholz. With Buchholz due back soon, the Red Sox hope to be at full strength for the final flourish in the East. They've got 13 straight against the Yankees, Rays and Orioles from Sept. 5-19, and that stretch could very well determine the division. BP gives the Red Sox a 55.3-percent chance of winning the East for the first time since 2007.
3. Rays (90.6)
All payroll and stadium issues aside, it's a stretch to call the Rays underdogs, simply because they've been doing so well for so long. The Rays rode the return of David Price from the disabled list and the robust rookie output of Wil Myers and Chris Archer to the best record in baseball during a stretch from June 23-July 30. That allowed them to climb back into relevance in the East. They've been up and down in August, and they could really use a healthy return from Matt Moore to help them in the final push. But the Rays are given a 41.3-percent shot at winning the East, so their Sept. 10-12 meeting with Boston looms large.
4. Rangers (90.4)
The Rangers have led the West by as many as seven games this season, but they've simply never been able to put away the A's. The loss of Nelson Cruz to suspension forced the Rangers to bring in Alex Rios for offensive support after landing Matt Garza to amp up the rotation. Add in the absences of Josh Hamilton, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison, and this is a dramatically different club than the ones that reached the World Series in 2010 and '11. But the Rangers can still get back to that stage, particularly if they take advantage of their current stretch in which 27 of 30 games are against clubs with losing records. Though the West has been nip-and-tuck, BP is giving Texas a 63.8-percent chance of locking it up.
5. A's (80.5)
Having to place staff ace Bartolo Colon on the disabled list earlier this week was a blow, but the A's have shown unusual unflappability in the face of such blows the past two seasons. Last year, Brett Anderson emerged from the DL to be a force down the stretch, and Anderson might repeat the role this year. The A's will have some difficult rotation decisions to make in the coming weeks, particularly with how they handle rookie Sonny Gray's innings. One way or another, though, this A's team, led by a breakout season by Josh Donaldson, has put itself in good position to return to October, and they've got six games remaining against the Rangers in September to state their case.
6. Indians (21.3)
The Indians made a lot of noise last winter with the hiring of manager Terry Francona and the signings of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, but there was simply no telling what kind of noise they'd make in the season proper. Swisher has had a tough year as part of an inconsistent offense and the Indians have been unable to tame the Tigers, against whom they are 3-13, but the Tribe has used a better-than-advertised starting staff and strong bench to take advantage of the softer parts of their schedule and remain a Wild Card factor. They'll have to survive a nine-game stretch against the Braves, Tigers and Orioles from Aug. 27-Sept. 4 to remain a factor.
7. Orioles (17.4)
Having just begun, on Monday, a 15-game stretch against fellow East and/or Wild Card competitors in the Rays, A's, Red Sox, Yankees and Indians, this is prime time for the O's to assert themselves. Their 2013 season has featured the expected regression in one-run victories after last year's magic, but the biggest regression has been the performance of closer Jim Johnson, whose nine blown saves lead all of baseball. That's undoubtedly affected the bottom line, and the O's have had to be adaptable in using 14 different starting pitchers. Despite all that difficulty, Buck Showalter once again has this club in position for a playoff push.
8. Yankees (4.8)
It looked awfully dire for the Yanks when they lost 13 of their first 20 out of the All-Star break, but, buoyed by the addition of Alfonso Soriano and the better-than-expected play of Alex Rodriguez, they've retained relevance by winning six of their last eight. Fact is, the odds are still stacked high against the Yankees in a season in which their aging roster caught up to them in a big way. But they still have a pulse. And if they reach the postseason in a year in which Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells were their primary Nos. 4 and 5 hitters for months, then just hand Joe Girardi the AL Manager of the Year trophy.
9. Royals (3.5)
The Royals were 22-30 at the end of May, and that poor start is still likely to undermine their efforts. But Kansas City's aggressive bid to improve the rotation last winter has paid off handsomely, as James Shields and Ervin Santana now lead one of the better starting staffs in the league. The offense has largely struggled, but it has taken better advantage of the sterling starting in the second half to lift the Royals into contention. They're about to play 16 games against sub-.500 clubs in a 17-game stretch, so watch closely. Would the baseball gods allow both the Royals and Pirates to make the playoffs in the same year? Stranger things have happened. Not much stranger, but stranger.