Much has been made about the AL All-Star debacle, as the team voted by the fans consists of multitudes of Royals (even Omar Infante!). While it makes sense that Kansas City fans have certainly taken advantage of the system, or maybe even a few computer glitches, there may be another form of reasoning for this roster: the Royals have been one the best teams in the AL, and the rest of the squads are just caught in the middle.
Despite some obvious standouts, it is hard to track individual players when their teams are nothing more than middling, which is exactly what has happened so far in the Junior Circuit. Before the season started, projection systems were baffled by the lack of a dominant team in the AL, and so far this season, it has played out in that manner, albeit with a few surprises.
Entering the last week of June, Fangraphs playoff odds lists 10 teams with at least a 20% chance of making the playoffs (and only one above 70%). A step below, there are three more that stand between 10 and 20, leaving only two squads in single digits. In contrast, the National League has seen its big favorites deliver, and seems retty much defined outside of one of the two Wild Card teams. Four teams in the NL have odds in excess of 80%, while there are already 8 franchises below 15% in their hopes of reaching October. No AL team is projected to win 90 games, which is in line with the preseason prediction.
So yes, the AL has been terribly mediocre. But on the flip side, the rest of the summer should be a ton of fun. Even as we still have to think of potential mid-season trades, injuries, and everything that can happen in this unpredictable business, we can still try to forecast what the standings will look like by the end of September.
Just by applying common sense and taking history into consideration, we can be safe by saying that the A’s and White Sox are eliminated. Outside that, all is fair game in the AL. With this in mind, and 13 teams fighting for 5 spots, we take a look at who has the best chances of reaching October. Teams are presented in power-ranking style, meaning that being closer to the top is better.
The Long Shots
13.- Seattle Mariners
12.- Texas Rangers
11.- Minnesota Twins
10.- Boston Red Sox
So, here we have two preseason darlings who have turned into underachievers, and two squads that seemed doomed but have unexpectedly climbed to playoff contention. The four oscillate between 15 and 25% playoff odds, in a clear stance of the powers of regression. The Mariners and Red Sox have the talent and wallets to land potential mid-season difference makers, while the Twins and Rangers have ridden unsustainable formulas to where they are. In the end, I don’t think any of these teams are realistic contenders, but Boston’s weak division may give them a shot to at least be close by late August.
The Middle Class
9.- Baltimore Orioles
8.- Los Angeles Angels
7.- Detroit Tigers
These three 2014 playoff teams have featured irregular performances all over 2015, which find them now in third place in their respective divisions. The Orioles benefit from playing in the weakest division and are only 3 games out, while Detroit and Los Angeles are 5.5 games back of theirs. The problem with these teams is that they feature a glaring weakness in their pitching staffs, despite fielding strong offenses and some of the best batters in the AL. The projections like the Angels with the best odds among them to make the postseason, but unless there is a quick upgrade, this year’s team looks more like the 2013 version than the 2014 model, as the one that can’t surround Mike Trout with enough talent. The Orioles are still built for years to come, but desperately need at least a couple of above-average starting pitchers, while the Tigers may be beginning the end of their window. Don’t be surprised if one of them makes a run, but 2015 is starting to look more and more like a transition year.
Wild Card Hopefuls
6.- Cleveland Indians
5.- Tampa Bay Rays
4.- New York Yankees
Despite a slow start that still has them a few games under .500, the Indians have the profile of a playoff team all around, except for their cover-your-eyes awful defense. Their staff is striking out batters at an historic pace, while Jason Kipnis is leading an offense that has come around to the levels it was supposed to. With Corey Kluber back at a Cy Young pace, the Indians seem bound to take advantage of the aging Tigers and the regressing Twins to climb in the AL Central, even if it seems hard that they can reach the top. After last season’s close call, any kind of playoff appearance would be welcome in Cleveland.
The Rays are a special case, as they simply don’t have any stand-out players outside of Chris Archer, and yet they still have found ways to stay close to the top in the AL East. They have only suffered two losing streaks above 2 games, while only owning one 5-game winning streak. They’ve had six relievers record a save for them, while their closer is still on the DL. Their second-best pitcher, Jake Odorizzi, is on the DL but he shall come back along with Matt Moore, who may be the unheralded best mid-season acquisition if he returns at his level. The biggest concern with Tampa is their thin offense full of smoke and mirrors, as only one player has at least 10 homers, but the organization has proven to be creative now under rookie manager Kevin Cash. The thin AL East provides the Rays a chance to contend, but they need to be healthier to get over the top.
The Yankees are both surprising at not, as they always seem to find a way to be respectable, but even then their renaissance has been shocking. Alex Rodriguex and Mark Teixeira are enjoying late-career boosts, while nobody outside of Jacoby Ellsbury has missed significant time. The pitching has been solid despite CC Sabathia’s tough comeback, so the Yankees will have an interesting month to decide if they go all-in or stand pat at the deadline. On one hand, they can believe that this run of health will continue, or they could be proactive and target a couple of complementary bats to cover for any possible injury. Fangraphs lists the Yankees as the team with the highest playoff odds in the AL (71.4%), but I’m still a bit bearish on a team counting on many veterans to deliver.
The Division Winners
3.- Houston Astros
Houston’s tanking by design took the franchise to the lowest depths of baseball, only to slowly emerge back to relevance. 2014 provided a glimpse of the future, but the turnaround has come quicker than expected, with the Astros jumping to what is still the largest division lead in the AL. While many could have expected the Astros to fall after a hot start, they have remained solid throughout the season, with a run differential that suggests that they are not far off their talent level. The team has been aggressive in calling up top prospects like Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, while Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel have proved that their breakouts last season were no flukes. Houston’s best playoff odds stand in winning the AL West, where probably only the Angels pose a real threat going forward. Roster-wise, Houston will probably be better even if LA pulls off a big trade of any sorts, so I’m confident that they’ll ride this surprising stay at the top all the way to October.
2.- Toronto Blue Jays
After falling to 23-30 on June 2, the Blue Jays seemed doomed to another hopeless season. However, an unlikely 11-game winning streak propelled them back to the playoff race. Toronto’s duality is impressive to say the least, as they own the league’s most potent offense while at the same time being terrible at pitching. Toronto leads the AL in runs scored by almost 70, but also stand at the bottom in runs allowed. This is why it shouldn’t be surprising to see the Jays make a serious run for a premier arm before July 31st, such as Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, or anyone that can represent an upgrade over what they currently own. They stole Josh Donaldson, and we know that Alex Anthopoulos is never shy in making big trades. The AL East is more winnable than it ever was during Toronto’s 20-year drought, and it would be a shame to waste this kind of attack for yet another season. With some upgrades and better luck for their current staff, the Jays should have enough firepower to win a tight division, and give us a chance to finally see Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion raking in the postseason.
1.- Kansas City Royals
The All-Star filled Royals seemed primed for a letdown after their magical 2014, but so far they have found a way to stay constant. Kansas City’s biggest losing streak was of 4 games, while they have won at least 4 straight on 4 separate occasions. The loss of James Shields has been well covered by solid efforts from Chris Young and Edinson Volquez, while the bullpen and defense have remained at the elite level they were in 2014. As it stands today, the closest competitor for Kansas is Minnesota, who shall fall back to earth sooner than later. Below them, Detroit and Cleveland are destined to fight for a wild card, which puts the Royals in the driver’s seat from here on out. The team definitely needs another starter as an insurance policy, but has the talent elsewhere on the roster to have a chance of winning every night.