The clock, for quite a few MLB teams on the playoff bubble, is ticking rather loudly now.
With about one quarter of the season left (around 40 or so games), there is no room for a meltdown, slump or even .500 baseball.
Only a few teams — we’re looking at you, Boston, Cleveland and Houston — are locks to make the playoffs and maybe even run the table.
Otherwise, it’s probably one of the greatest playoff races fans can look forward to. Or, for the pessimists and fans of teams fighting for their post-season lives, a miserable slog to an inevitable conclusion — darkness in October.
The American League is pretty much settled, except for the AL West crown and who is going to grab the last wild card spot.
The NL, though, has as many as 10 teams in contention and no division lead higher than the 3.5 games the Cubs have on Milwaukee (and 4.0 on St. Louis).
Therefore, we have assessed each team’s chances headed into the stretch drive and into the playoffs. We’ve given grades of great, good, fair and sketchy, starting with the latter.
Washington Nationals – Sketchy
Somehow, some way, the Nats are still within striking distance of first in the National League East at 7.0 games behind first place Atlanta. We find it perplexing that a team seemingly blessed with top end pitching talent and the bat of Bryce Harper is still middling at 62-63. That is why their chances are assessed as sketchy, and that’s being generous. The Nationals have 37 games, 24 against division foes, to right a listing ship or miss the playoffs for the first time in three years and only the second in five. The next nine games will go a long way determining Washington’s hopes, as they tangle with Philadelphia six times (three home, three away) and visit the Mets for three in between. The key to everything is starting pitching, which is a strength but has been horribly mediocre. Stephen Strasburg comes off the DL to start this week, while normally solid Tanner Roark (8-12, 4.13 ERA) and Gio Gonzalez (7-10, 4.51) have to get off the Schneid.
Pittsburgh Pirates – Sketchy
Just ahead of Washington, and barely breathing, are the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are 63-62 and sit 5.5 games out of the last wild card spot on the senior circuit. There chances of a division crown aren’t good (9.0 games back of Chicago in the NL Central with Milwaukee and St. Louis in between), but with 37 games left and a little push, they could sneak in. The Bucs’ starting pitching has been solid, but unspectacular and the addition of Chris Archer should make their starting four at least competent in the season’s last quarter. Archer is 1-0 in three starts since coming over and still acclimatizing himself to NL play. Offensively, they aren’t a group of big boppers (as a team they have 128 homers, which is tied for fourth lowest in the NL), but they do get on base at a fair clip (.320 OBP, seventh in the NL). They will have to keep that up to be successful. In terms of the schedule the Bucs control their own destiny, with 25 games against NL Central opponents, including nine against Milwaukee (three home, six road) who they have owned this season with a 8-2 record so far. It will be interesting.
Los Angeles Dodgers – Sketchy
Right on the cusp of fair are the Dodgers, who should be so much better than 67-58 and either 2.0 games out of first place, or 1.5 games back of the last wild card position, currently co-owned by Colorado (68-56), Philadelphia (68-56) and Milwaukee (69-57). The problem with L.A. this season, aside from the obvious mediocre record, is the fact they are just 14-21 in one-run games. That 21st one-run loss came Saturday night in the 10th, when they got walked off by Seattle by get this, a bases loaded balk. It shouldn’t be this way, particularly since the Dodgers loaded up by adding Manny Machado and Brian Dozier to augment the offence. But, even with Manny in the line-up, L.A. has been a disappointing 14-15, including eight one-run defeats. Not much really computes for this Dodgers squad, which went to the World Series in 2017. Their pitchers lead the NL in ERA at 3.48, with the relievers second in the loop with 39 saves. The hitters have blasted the most homers at 174 (16 more than Milwaukee) and the team has scored the second most runs with 594. A head-scratching team if we ever did see one.
Seattle Mariners – Fair
Speaking of the balk-off Mariners, how is it that a team with the seventh best record in baseball is 3.5 games back of the final American League wild card spot? Well, because the AL is so tough and the playoff picture nearly crystal clear, that’s why. And so far, August has not been kind to the M’s, neither the second half of the season. They are 8-10 this month and 13-15 in the second half, including a 1-3 mark against visiting and lowly Toronto in one four-game set. They did beat Houston four out of five times, but dropped two of three to Oakland and Texas to confound their fans. The rest of this month will not be easy for the 71-54 Mariners, who, should they grab the last wild card spot, be forced into a one-and-done with the New York Yankees, who they are 0-3 against this season. The problems with Seattle aren’t numerous, however, they don’t have the most prodigious offence, sitting 10th in runs scored in the AL and 11th in on base percentage at .313. Pitching-wise, they have the best closer in Edwin Diaz, but the season former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez has had isn’t helping. He has suffered a demotion to the bullpen and sports unwieldy numbers like a 8-11 record, 5.62 ERA and 1.43 WHIP.
St. Louis Cardinals – Fair
The Cardinals have lifted themselves off the mat in the second half, but only far enough for us to give them a “fair” chance of making the playoffs and doing anything at all if they get there. As of Monday, St. Louis was a half game out of the last wild card spot at 68-57, which wouldn’t have seemed possible at mid-season, when they were just 48-46. In August, St. Louis has gone a sizzling 14-4, including an eight-game winning streak and a combined 4-2 record against Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, two teams they are chasing. Pitching has been a hallmark of their steady climb in the standings, as they sport the third best ERA in the NL (3.71) with just 50 runs against in August. Texas cast-off Mile Mikolas has been the surprise staff ace, fashioning a 13-3 record and 2.80 ERA. Offensively the team is chugging along just fine too, despite the loss of breakout player Tommy Pham. Second year first baseman Jose Martinez has been a revelation, hitting a team high .308 with 14 homers and 69 RBI. They will, however, need all hands on deck just to slip into the post-season.
Milwaukee Brewers – Fair
With the slimmest of grips on a wild card spot — they are dead even with Philadelphia and Colorado — and 3.5 games back of the Chicago Cubs for the NL East lead, anything goes for the Brew Crew. Their “fair” grade from us is generous, too, considering they have floundered in the second half, including a terrible 6-10 record in August. And among those losses they have taken some beatings. Like the 21-5 defeat to LA on Aug. 2, 11-5 to San Diego on Aug. 7, and 10-1 to Atlanta on Aug. 10. In all, Brewers pitching, which has the seventh best ERA in the NL at 3.90, has surrendered 103 runs in 16 games so far in August. Outside of ace Jhoulys Chacin, Milwaukee pitching has been very average to mediocre in the second half, which doesn’t look good. Offensively, they do have mashers in newly acquired Mike Moustakas, Christian Yelich, Jesus Aguilar (29 HR, 89 RBI) and Travis Shaw, but they could stand to manufacture more runs than the 550 they have, which is just 10th best in the NL. That goes hand in hand with their less than impressive team OBP, which is a sub-par .316, also 10th. The going won’t get any easier either, with 27 of their final 36 games against NL Central opponents, including nine against Pittsburgh and six versus Chicago.
Philadelphia Phillies – Fair
For most of the month of August and pretty much the whole second half, it’s been two steps forward, two steps back for the 68-56 Phillies. They are just a half game back of Atlanta for first in the NL East and tied for the wild card, but are just a couple of wee losing streaks from sinking well out of contention. Philly is 15-14 in the second half and 9-8 in August. Since taking four out of four from lowly Miami to start August, they have been anemic, getting shut out in two losses and thrashed 24-4 by the New York Mets while losing two of five to that same team recently. Which makes the two series late this month against a still formidable Washington team paramount to the Phillies chances. They will need surprise ace Aaron Nola (14-3, 2.24 ERA) to be top shelf, as he’s scheduled to start against fellow Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer of Washington twice in the span of six days. The offence, which has hit a bit of a wall the last 13 games (just 43 runs), will have to get chugging again, particularly guys like Rhys Hoskins and Odubel Herrera, who haven’t been their normal productive selves in August.
Colorado Rockies – Fair
It’s so densely packed in the race for all division leads and wild card spots in the National League, even handing out a “good” chance to a team is difficult. So we haven’t, spoiler alert. The Rockies, who were a half game behind Arizona on Monday for the NL West lead, have been good lately after a miserable start to the month of August and reasonably good since the mid-way point. Most impressive about the play of the Rockies lately, have been the wins against contenders. After dropping a 8-5 decision to L.A. to sink to 2-7 in August on the 9th, the Rockies took the remaining three against the Dodgers, split a two game series with Houston and then swept Atlanta in four straight. Offence has not been a problem, with Nolan Arenado (.309, 30 HR, 86 RBI) and Trevor Story (26 HR, 84 RBI) hitting the hide off the ball. The pitching, however, needs to tighten up if Colorado has any hope of winning the division, a wild card and making any in-roads in the post-season. The pitchers own a collective ERA of 4.58 and will see a steady diet of NL West teams over the last 38 games (26) as well as fellow bubble teams (Philadelphia for four and St. Louis for three).
Arizona Diamondbacks – Fair
Deep in the desert, the glass is either half full, or half empty for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Depending on who has a stronger voice, the optimists among their fans will point to their 69-56 record and standing atop the NL West as a plus. The pessimists, on the other hand, will wag their index finger and say, hold on a minute, this team is 16-12 since the midway point and have lost series to horrid clubs like Cincinnati and split series with San Francisco and Texas. The D-Backs have been blessed with top notch pitching this year, led capably by guys like Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin, who have logged 22 of Arizona’s wins and struck out 355 batters between them in 51 starts (30 quality). At the plate, Paul Goldschmidt (.293, 28 HR, 71 RBI) and David Peralta (.300, 23, 65) have been dynamite, but, the remainder have been a bit inconsistent. September looks like it could be full of potential potholes, with one seven-game road trip looming large — four in Colorado followed by three in Houston.
Atlanta Braves – Fair
We wanted to boost the Braves chances to “good”, we really did. However, this good young squad still has much to prove over the final quarter (or so) of a season that offers equal odds of winning the NL East (where they have a half game lead) as it does them finishing out of the playoffs all together. Evidence of that could be seen in a topsy turvy August thus far. After stomping on lowly Miami by winning four of four to boost their monthly record to 11-4, the Braves dropped four straight at home to fellow contender Colorado this past weekend. Hot second-year starter Sean Newcomb was shelled in a 11-5 loss on Aug. 17, giving up seven earned on nine hits and three walks in 5.1 innings. On the plus side, ace Mike Foltynewicz has stayed hot, winning three of four starts this month, as well as limiting Colorado to just four hits and no runs while striking out nine in a 5-3 loss Aug. 18. The Braves, it seems, will live or die with the bats, leading as they are in runs with 596 and coming second in batting average at .261. The schedule for the rest of August isn’t too bad, but September may be a bitter one. They get Boston for three and then are in Arizona for four early. They also have to tangle with chasing Philadelphia seven times.
Oakland Athletics – Good
The A’s are far from home and cooled, just like their AL West brethren Seattle, sitting in the second wild card spot 3.5 games up on the M’s as well as just one game behind Houston for the division lead. They have been very hot in August, fashioning a 11-4 mark, capped by a weekend set against Houston where they took two of three from the defending champion Astros. That was preceded by a series victory over Seattle, again by a 2-1 count. We like their chances a bit more than others, in that they have winning records against Boston and Cleveland (4-2) and have dominated Houston in their last two series (5-2) after being manhandled by the ‘Stros earlier in 2018 (1-8 in three series). What we really like about this team is the fact that outside of Khris Davis (36 HR, 98 RBI) and starter Sean Manaea (11-9, 3.70 ERA) this is a team that shares the burden of winning. They have eight players with double digit homers and use former lockdown closer Jeurys Familia as a set-up man to closer Blake Treinen. And they are as good at home (37-25) as they are on the road (also 37-25).
Cleveland Indians – Good
With a 12-game lead on Minnesota in the weak AL Central, suffice to say the Indians are going to the playoffs. The Tribe has been scorching hot in August, boosting a so-so 58-48 record at the end of July to 71-52 (13-4 so far). Now, the competition has been mostly bottom feeders, but Cleveland did take three of four from the Twins in the first week. The litmus test of whether or not the Indians are ready starts Monday night with a huge four-game set in Boston. It should be a pitching match-up for the ages, though the Indians won’t have to square up against injured Chris Sale. However, after that, the Indians have 35 games against a load of bottom feeders, including 10 against Kansas City, four against Toronto and six against the White Sox. Their offence, led by Jose Ramirez (37 HR, 91 RBI) and Francisco Lindor (29 HR, 76 RBI) will get a chance to get dialed in, while their considerable starting four (Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco) can tune up accordingly. This team will be a load to handle in the playoffs.
New York Yankees – Good
The only reason the Yankees are given a “good” chance is that they are probably going to have to contend with the likes of either Oakland, Seattle or even Houston in the AL wild card game. Yes, the Bronx Bombers can hit a ton, leading the AL in homers with 202 and have a superb bullpen but their starting pitching has been spotty of late. The acquisition of J.A. Happ, 4-0 in four starts, was great, but is he the wild card game starter? Staff ace Luis Severino, 16-6 on the season, is 2-4 in his last six starts and showing signs of fatigue. The teams he did beat, Chicago and Toronto, hardly count. CC Sabathia has been good but is on the 10-day DL right now and Masahiro Tanaka has been very ordinary in the early dog days. And don’t get us started on recently acquired Lance Lynn or even overrated Sonny Gray, who was banished to the bullpen after surrendering eight hits and seven runs in 2.2 innings during a 7-5 loss to Baltimore on Aug. 1. All of this means pretty much a coin flip for wild card game starter and then hope guys like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton pound the ball into the outfield lights and the starter hands the ball to the bullpen either tied or with a lead. Otherwise, they are toast in a one and done.
Chicago Cubs – Great
Now we get to the teams we think have a real shot at a title. Even thought the National League is an ever-changing soup of 10 teams with aspirations, the best ingredient is Chicago. The Cubbies, even though they are only 3.5 games up on Milwaukee, are the best team at 71-52. They don’t hit a lot of homers (128, 9th in the NL), however, the Cubs have the best batting average at .262 and on base percentage of .340. From top to bottom in their order, they have great young stars in Albert Almora Jr., Javier Baez, Ian Happ, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, who will lead this team well into the future. Like all good teams lately, the Cubs have a great bullpen, capable of overcoming less than stellar starts. Almost every one of their every day relievers has an ERA below 3.00, while only two starters have ERA’s below 4.00. Cole Hamels, who was mediocre in Texas, has been unstoppable with Chicago, going 3-0 in four starts with a microscopic 0.72 ERA. We really like how they stack up against anyone in the National League and with all hands on deck in October, they could be very dangerous.
Houston Astros – Great
Even though the AL West leading Astros are just 3-7 in their last 10 and 11-14 since the midway point of the 2018 campaign, if we are the Boston Red Sox, we’d be a little nervous at the thought of having to take on the defending champs in the playoffs. Houston is just one of four teams to have beaten Chris Sale this year and the two teams split a four-game seasons series. The two top dogs will also get one more chance to thump their chests with the Astros roll into Boston the second week of September for a three-game set. While the ‘Stros can hit and score runs, their strength lies in the best pitching staff in baseball. The team’s MLB leading 3.10 ERA is significantly lower than second place Boston, which has a 3.46 mark. They have five good to great starters who can beat anyone at any time, and eat batters up with strikeouts. Put it this way, Dallas Keuchel is the only one with a losing record (9-10) but has hardly been chopped liver, with a 3.59 ERA and 16 of his 26 starts being of the quality variety. And the trade with Toronto to get Roberto Osuna, well, that could prove to be the ace up the sleeve in October.
Boston Red Sox – Great
It isn’t inconceivable that the Red Sox could eclipse the single season wins record of 116. This version of the Red Sox is probably one of its all-time best, if not greatest, even without Dustin Pedroia. The Bosox were 88-37 as of Monday and barring the most epic collapse in the history of baseball, will go into the post-season as the no. 1 seed overall. Every aspect of the Red Sox game is clicking at maximum speed, from defence to hitting and pitching. They are a juggernaut showing no signs of slowing down. Yet, there is still a “but” in all this greatness. This is a great team that is now dealing with ace hurler Chris Sale going on the 10-day disabled list for the second time in a month with shoulder inflammation. While it is a good time to rest him, the fact the same injury has put him on the shelf again is alarming. Made even more so when looking at Boston’s other starters, who, while they look good on paper, aren’t post-season warriors. Not David Price (5.03 ERA, 2-8 record in 17 playoff games), not Eduardo Rodriguez (one appearance only), and certainly not Rick Porcello (5.47 ERA, 0-3 record in 11 games). Even Sale, who is lights out in the regular season, got a rough ride in his first trip to the playoffs last season, going 0-2 with a 8.38 ERA in two games. They are a favorite, but by how much, really?