MLB playoff races could go down to the wire
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
We've reached the final quarter of the Major League Baseball season and eight teams in each league maintain legitimate playoff hopes.
The extra wild card in each league will result in 10 of those 16 teams getting to the postseason.
Let's take an educated guess as to which of those teams will make the playoffs and which will be staying home.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS (76-46, first place in NL East): They've had to overcome long-term injuries to Michael Morse, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos and Drew Storen, but the Nationals have the best record in baseball.
Washington is as healthy as it's been all season. Although its recent acquisition of catcher Kurt Suzuki from Oakland was its only addition for the stretch drive, having a healthy Morse, Werth and Storen on hand should make the Nationals a better team over the final six-plus weeks than they were for the early part of the year.
It will be interesting to see when pitching ace Stephen Strasburg will be shut down for the year. General manager Mike Rizzo decided prior to the season that he would limit Strasburg's innings because the right-hander only threw 24 innings last year after coming off 2010 Tommy John surgery.
Strasburg could be limited to something like 160-180 innings, and he's already at 139 1/3. After he's shut down, he won't participate in the playoffs. That could negatively affect the Nationals' World Series hopes, but they should still make it to the postseason.
Prediction: Nationals win the NL East title.
ATLANTA BRAVES (70-52, second place in NL East): The Braves still have a shot at overtaking Washington for the division crown, but even if the season ended right now, they would make the playoffs as a wild card.
Atlanta strengthened itself for the stretch drive with the additions of pitchers Paul Maholm and Ben Sheets, and outfielder Reed Johnson. The Braves also thought they had a deal for Ryan Dempster, but he vetoed the trade and instead went to the Texas Rangers.
The Braves have just 16 of their final 40 games at home, but only 12 of their last 40 will come against teams with winning records. They have five head-to- head matchups with Washington, and they're on the road for four games at San Francisco and three at Pittsburgh.
Of the eight NL playoff contenders, the Braves will play the largest percentage of their remaining games on the road. That shouldn't be a big detriment, since they're 34-23 away from Turner Field.
Prediction: Braves claim a wild-card berth.
CINCINNATI REDS (74-49, first place in NL Central): The Reds have taken charge of this division, increasing their lead over Pittsburgh to 6 1/2 games and over St. Louis to eight. They've been without top hitter Joey Votto since July 16, but have gone 24-11 since then.
Cincinnati didn't get a needed leadoff hitter at the trade deadline. In adding Jonathan Broxton to a late-inning bullpen crew that also includes hard throwers Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall, the Reds have put together their 2012 version of the Nasty Boys.
Although the NL Central isn't regarded as one of the better divisions, the Reds' schedule the rest of the way isn't particularly favorable. They face 18 games against winning teams, including six apiece against the Pirates and Cardinals. Their 6 1/2-game cushion atop the division will help, though.
Prediction: Reds win the NL Central title.
PITTSBURGH PIRATES (67-55, second place in NL Central): The Pirates have not only gone 19 years without making the playoffs, they've also posted 19 consecutive non-.500 seasons. Here they are with the chance to end both negative streaks.
The positives: They've been much more successful at home this season, and 21 of their final 39 games will be at PNC Park. Even better, nine of their 12 remaining games against winning teams will be played at home.
The negatives: The young players have never been in a playoff race before, and the Bucs have cooled off (7-11 in their last 18 games).
The Pirates will only need to go 15-25 the rest of the way to finish with a winning record. They'll probably need to go at least 23-17 to get to the playoffs.
Prediction: Pirates miss the playoffs.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS (65-56, third place in NL Central): The defending World Series champs keep hanging around in the race, just like they did last season.
In coming back from Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2011 campaign, Adam Wainwright has finally been pitching like an ace recently. The offense has been solid all season, and the team's plus-106 run differential is probably evidence that its won-lost record should be much better than it is. The Pirates, by comparison, have a mere plus-19 run differential.
The Cardinals' remaining schedule is a good news/bad news scenario. On the plus side, they have nine games left with the wretched Houston Astros. On the other hand, they have 19 games left against teams with winning records, including a whopping 13 on the road (three at Cincinnati, three at Pittsburgh, three at Washington and four at Los Angeles).
Prediction: Cardinals claim a wild-card berth.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS (67-55, first place in NL West): The Giants added outfielder Hunter Pence at the trade deadline to give them another big bat in the middle of the order. The team was dealt a huge blow last week, though, when leading hitter Melky Cabrera was suspended for the rest of the regular season after his positive test for a performance-enhancing drug.
The biggest factors in the Giants' playoff push will be whether they can overcome the loss of Cabrera, and if two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum can return anywhere close to form. He's just 6-13 with a 5.45 ERA.
It won't be an easy stretch drive for San Francisco, which still has nine games left with Arizona, eight with the Los Angeles Dodgers and four with Atlanta. That's 21 of 40 remaining games against teams with winning records. Only the Dodgers (24 of 40) have a tougher schedule, and those teams have exchanged the NL West lead five times since the All-Star break.
Prediction: Giants win the NL West.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS (67-56, tied for first place in NL West): The trade- deadline acquisitions of shortstop Hanley Ramirez, outfielder Shane Victorino and reliever Brandon League strengthened the team, but the Dodgers struck out in their attempts to obtain Dempster.
The Dodgers got off to a rapid start, and that has carried them all season. They're in a battle for NL West supremacy despite ranking 12th in the NL in runs scored. It's because their team ERA ranks second in the league.
The offense should get better, now that Ramirez and Victorino are on board and Matt Kemp is healthy.
Los Angeles has probably played over its head, and a rugged schedule the rest of the way could take its toll. The Dodgers have 24 games left against teams with winning records (eight against the Giants, six against the Diamondbacks, four against the Cardinals, three against the Nationals and three against the Reds).
Prediction: Dodgers miss the playoffs.
ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS (62-60, third place in NL West): The Diamondbacks' offense is superior to that of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Adding a pitching ace at the trade deadline could have arguably put Arizona over the top in a tight division, but the only significant move the team was able to make was acquiring third baseman Chris Johnson.
The Diamondbacks will have their chance to pick up ground on the two teams above them in the division standings; they have nine games left with the Giants and six with the Dodgers. Arizona, though, will probably have to win a big majority of those games to keep its hopes alive.
Prediction: Diamondbacks miss the playoffs.
NEW YORK YANKEES (72-50, first place in AL East): The Yankees are doing as expected, with a seemingly comfortable lead over Tampa Bay and Baltimore in the AL East. They have the best record in the American League and should be able to coast into the postseason.
Pitching ace CC Sabathia is on the disabled list with a sore elbow, but he's expected back soon. Alex Rodriguez has been out since last month with a fractured hand, but he should be back by early September.
The Yankees have the rest of the regular season to try to get healthy for the playoffs. They aren't running away with the division, but even if hot Tampa Bay overtakes them, they'd still get in as a wild card.
Prediction: Yankees win the AL East.
TAMPA BAY RAYS (68-54, second place in AL East): The Rays added utility man Ryan Roberts, formerly of Arizona, at the trade deadline. It can be argued, though, that Tampa Bay had the biggest lineup addition of any AL playoff contender when third baseman Evan Longoria returned from a torn hamstring that had sidelined him for most of the first four months.
The remaining schedule will be no picnic for the Rays, with 25 of their 40 games coming against AL playoff contenders. Thirteen of those games will be on the road, including what could be an important four-game series at the White Sox.
Tampa Bay leads the AL in earned run average. Its offense has been a disappointment, but perhaps Longoria could help turn things around.
Prediction: Rays claim a wild-card berth.
BALTIMORE ORIOLES (66-56, third place in AL East): The Orioles are probably a year or two away from being a serious playoff contender, but they continue to overachieve. They got off to a great start and now they just won't go away. If the season were to end right now, the Orioles would be a wild-card team.
Baltimore was fairly quiet around the trade deadline, but it added an impact player when it called up 20-year-old phenom Manny Machado. He has hit .250 with three homers and seven RBIs since his arrival on Aug. 9.
Baltimore has 11 home games and 11 road games against teams with winning records. Six games against the Rays will be particularly crucial, as will a four-game series at home against the Chicago White Sox and a three-game set at Oakland.
Prediction: Orioles miss the playoffs.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX (66-55, first place in AL Central): Most expected the Detroit Tigers to win the AL Central Division rather easily. It's the White Sox, however, who took the early lead in the race. They've done little to indicate they can't hold on and win it.
The White Sox, who rank near the top of the league in both runs scored and earned run average, added pitchers Francisco Liriano and Brett Myers at the trade deadline.
They still have 20 games remaining against teams with winning records, including seven especially critical ones against the Tigers. They also have four left at home against Tampa Bay, as well as four at Baltimore and three at the Los Angeles Angels. They need to fare well in those head-to-head battles because the division and wild-card races figure to go down to the wire.
Chicago is just 4-7 against Detroit to date.
Prediction: White Sox claim a wild-card berth.
DETROIT TIGERS (64-57, second place in AL Central): Considered a prohibitive favorite to repeat as AL Central champions, the Tigers underperformed early in the year. They traded for pitcher Annibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante prior to the deadline.
Detroit's remaining schedule is a bit easier than that of the White Sox; only 16 of their final 40 games will come against teams with winning records. They still have nine left against Kansas City, which should bode well.
The keys will be the seven remaining games against Chicago. They also have six left against the Angels, and those could end up determining one of the wild cards if Detroit fails to overtake Chicago in the AL Central.
Prediction: Tigers win the AL Central.
TEXAS RANGERS (71-50, first place in AL West): The Los Angeles Angels have an outstanding, well-balanced team, and the Oakland Athletics have been the most pleasant surprise in the AL. Still, the Rangers have the look of a team destined to go wire-to-wire and win the AL West title.
There's little doubt the Rangers have the best offensive team in the league; they rank first in runs scored, batting average and on-base percentage. The Angels, at least on paper, seem to have the superior pitching staff. The teams' ERAs, though, are virtually identical. The Rangers bolstered their pitching depth by trading for Dempster.
Texas has six meetings left with the Angels and seven with the Athletics. Unless the Rangers lose a big majority of those games, they should be able to hold on and take the division.
Prediction: Rangers win the AL West.
OAKLAND ATHLETICS (65-56, second place in AL West): An amazing July lifted the Cinderella Athletics into the playoff chase.
With payroll constraints, Oakland wasn't busy at the trade deadline. It did upgrade at shortstop Monday by trading for the Diamondbacks' Stephen Drew. Still, the Athletics' talent can't match up with the Angels, and one would suspect that Los Angeles will eventually win the battle for second place in the AL West.
The Athletics have only 17 of their final 41 games at home. Worse, 17 of their 24 road games are against teams with winning records. Still, with an extra wild card available, the AL West could produce three playoff teams.
Prediction: Athletics miss the playoffs.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS (62-60, third place in AL West): At least one really good team that would be capable of winning the World Series is going to miss the AL playoffs. It's possible that it could come down to the six remaining games between the Angels and Detroit Tigers.
Of course, the Angels have the kind of deep, talented team that could get hot and still make a run at the division crown. They still have six cracks at the Rangers and seven at the Athletics.
A slow start this season could have buried the Angels, but, after a long home run drought to begin the season, Albert Pujols eventually became Albert Pujols again. Mike Trout, just 20, might be the AL's leading MVP candidate.
This team would be a legitimate threat to win the World Series, but it has to make the playoffs first. Suffering a sweep against Tampa Bay over the weekend hurt.
Prediction: Angels miss the playoffs.
Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.