The MLB season is winding down and the wild card races are tight with about six weeks left. Who will hold on and who will fall?
There are about six weeks remaining in the 2012 MLB season, and while there may not he too much drama remaining in a lot of the division races, the wild card race remains tight in both leagues.
Remember that for the first time ever, there will be two wild card teams in each league this year, and those two teams will play a one-game playoff to advance to the ALDS and NLDS respectively. That gives much greater importance to winning the division this year, as at least division winner are assured of playing 4-out-of-7 series instead in one elimination game.
Major League Baseball implemented the change to try and guarantee the drama that took place on the final day of the regular season last year happens every year. Last season, there were four pseudo play-in games on the last day of the year and three of them were decided on the final at-bat. Most notable was the Tampa Bay Rays beating the New York Yankees in extra innings on an Evan Longoria home run just minutes after the Boston Red Sox lost, also in extras.
That allowed Tampa Bay to get what was then the only wild card on that exciting final day, but the Rays are acting as front-runners this year, leading the American League wild card race by 2½ games over the surprising Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles, with the disappointing to date Detroit Tigers making it a three-way tie. The Los Angeles Angels are fifth on the wild card line now, five games behind the Rays but only 2½ games behind the second spot.
However, we foresee a wrinkle coming up in the American League wild card chase, and that is we feel that the Tigers will overtake the Chicago White Sox to win the American League Central, dropping the White Sox into the wild card picture. If we included the White Sox with the other wild card contenders right now, they would be in second, one game behind Tampa Bay.
We think that the National League wild card race will prove less volatile between now and year’s end, as we see the top two wild card teams right now staying there. The Atlanta Braves currently lead the National League wild card chase by 2½ games over the St. Louis Cardinals, conjuring up images of last year when the Braves choked away a big wild card lead in September and were caught by the Cardinals on that final day, with St. Louis going on to win the World Series.
The upstart Pittsburgh Pirates are third in the wild card 3½ games behind Atlanta, followed by the Dodgers, who are now on the outside looking in after leading their division for much of the year, sitting four games back. The longshot Arizona Diamondbacks are fifth in the National League chase, but seven games back. Then again, the Cardinals overcame a later double-digit deficit last year.
Here is a quick look at all of the contenders, as well as our MLB picks on who will be left standing at the end. Please note that the games back provided for each team are in relation to the current wild card leader.
Chicago White Sox (68-55. lead AL Central): It is not a coincidence that the White Sox have the worst winning percentage among the six division leaders right now because, frankly, they are the weakest division leader. The White Sox rank second in all of baseball with there 164 home runs, but that’s a tough way to make a living. They are in the bottom half of the American League with their .257 batting average, and while Chris Sale has surprisingly emerged as a bona fide ace on the pitching staff, the rest of the starters have been disappointing, especially with Jake Peavy not as sharp as he was earlier in the year.
Tampa Bay Rays (70-55, lead Wild Card): The Rays opened up a crucial three-game series with the Athletics last night and Tampa Bay won 5-0 to open up a bit of breathing room in the race. You may be surprised to learn that the Rays rank third to last in the Major Leagues in batting this year at just .237, but they lead the American League with a 3.24 ERA. While we feel that their lack of hitting will hurt them in the playoffs, the Rays’ great pitching should at least carry them there.
Oakland Athletics (67-57, 2½ back): Just like the Rays, the Athletics remain in the thick of the hunt despite very weak hitting, as they rank dead last in the majors with a .232 batting average. Oakland does rank second in the American League in team ERA though at 3.50, but while the A’s have some good young arms they also play their home games in probably the most pitcher friendly stadium in the American League. They have also had an inordinate amount of walk-off and one-run wins, and that type of luck is bound to turn around.
Baltimore Orioles (67-57, 2½ back): The Orioles were the consensus pick to finish last in the American League East before the season, so they have had a surprisingly successful season even if their playoff quest falls short. And we think it will. The O’s are a nice story, but they have severely overachieved. This is a team that ranks in the bottom half of the Major Leagues in most statistical categories in both hitting and pitching with the exception of ranking fifth in home runs, so Buck Showalter deserves some serious Manager of the Year consideration.
Detroit Tigers (67-57, 2½ back): As mentioned, we do not think the Tigers will be part of the wild card conversation by the time the year is over as we see them winning the American League Central. The Tigers are starting to heat up at the right time winning six of their last eight games, and the preseason favorites to run away with the division rank third in the American League in batting at .269, they have a reining Cy Young Award winner and MVP in Justin Verlander that is having another fine season and Max Scherzer is 13-6 with a whopping 186 strikeouts in 147.2 innings while becoming a reliable second starter.
Los Angeles Angels (65-60, 5 back): Based on raw talent, the Angels probably deserve a wild card, but as they say, games are not played on paper…they are played on TV sets. The Angels dug themselves too big an early hole, and with the exception of Jered Weaver, even their pitching has deteriorated lately, allowing eight or more runs in four of the last six games as of this writing. The offense remains quality, but the team ERA is now up to 4.24 and the bullpen has not provided that much relief.
MLB Picks for Wild Card: Rays, White Sox
Atlanta Braves (71-54, lead Wild Card): The Braves have now lost five of their last six games, and that may be starting to affect their psyche with last year’s monumental collapse fresh in their minds. We think they will be fine though. It is not as if the five recent losses came vs. garbage teams, as they came to a couple of division leaders in the Washington Nationals and the San Francisco Giants as well as to a team fighting for a playoff spot in the Dodgers, We think that the fact that there are two wild cards helps the Braves immensely too, as we are not that enthralled with the teams behind the Cardinals.
St. Louis Cardinals (68-56, 2½ back): Speaking of the Cardinals, we feel they are the best team among Atlanta’s pursuers, but even they may not be as good as the team that won the World Series last year. The Cardinals do have a chance to pull away for the rest of the wild card pack though with 18 September games coming against also-rans Houston, San Diego, Milwaukee, the Cubs and the Mets.
Pittsburgh Pirates (67-57, 3½ back): Perhaps the greatest story in all of baseball is the perennial losers from Pittsburgh sitting just one game out of a playoff spot one week from September. The Pittsburgh offense has improved over past seasons this year, but that is all relative as the Bucs still rank only 12th in the National League with a .246 batting average. The Pirates have been carried by their pitching, but sadly the staff is starting to break down from the pressure and the wear and tear, as the Pittsburgh is down to seventh in the NL in team ERA at 3.78 after being in the Top Three for much of the year.
Los Angeles Dodgers (67-58, 4 back): Dodger fans must be very disappointed as this team may have gone from winning the National League West to being totally out of the playoffs by virtue of getting swept at home in a three-game series by the Giants earlier this week, leaving Los Angeles three games behind San Francisco in the division. The time that the Dodgers could not hit a lick while Matt Kemp was on the Disabled List looks to be coming back to bit them now.
Arizona Diamondbacks (64-61, 7 back): We mention the Diamondbacks because of what the Cardinals were able to do last year, but this Arizona team is really not that good. The Snakes moved up the standings by beating up on some terrible teams, and we simply feel they lack the talent to make up this many games in so little time.
MLB Picks for Wild Card: Braves, Cardinals