AL’s Wild Wild-Card Race Sees a Half Dozen Teams Fighting for Last Playoff Spot

Jason Castro, Luke Gregerson, Luis Valbuena, Marwin Gonzalez
The Associated Press
Auburn, AL

The Houston Astros, the only team with three of the top 10 players in MLB, appeared to get knocked off the “wild card” island with the worst start to a game in the history of baseball — only to recover to win Friday night’s game and pound the Baltimore Orioles 31-8 the rest of the weekend to pull within 4 ½ games of the Orioles, Mariners, Royals, Tigers and Yankees for the last AL playoff spot.

Houston hit the low point when Collin McHugh took the mound and allowed home runs to Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Mark Trumbo before recording a single out — a feat of ineptitude never before matched in the majors. It appeared the Astros would be blown out for the third straight night and fall realistically out of the race at 8 ½ games behind the Orioles and below .500.

Likely MVP Jose Altuve, along with George Springer and Carlos Correa, constitute the three Houston players, of only 11 in baseball, worth at least five Wins Above Replacement. We ranked the top 20 stars from these six teams as they battle for the final wild card spot.

Right now, the Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, and Cleveland Indians would make the playoffs by virtue of winning their divisions, and the Boston Red Sox would enjoy a postseason berth due to enjoying the best record among the rest of the AL field. The Baltimore Orioles battle five other teams for the last spot. Here are those six teams:

Astros 63-60, 4.5 Games Out

Rnk Team Pos Name
1 Astros 2B Jose Altuve
7 Astros RF George Springer
10 Astros SS Carlos Correa
17 Astros SP Dallas Keuchel

With by far the best 1-2-3 punch in Altuve, Springer and Correa, the Astros have often been shut down in the other six spots in the line-up. However, they seem to possess the most upside with rookie Alex Bregman exploding into the No. 2 spot after a terrible first few weeks, and former Cuban and Japanese Superstar Yulieski Gurriel getting hits in his first two major league at-bats Sunday.

With tons of speed, the Astros face the biggest variable with all of their left handed power (Colby Rasmus and Luis Valbuena) on the 15-day disabled list with returns possible but not certain. If they return and Gurriel and Bregman prove they can produce, they could become the team to beat, but at 9th in the AL in home runs it may be uphill without them.

On the pitching side, defending Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel had been awful until a strong win Sunday, and Ken Giles will need to close out some games for the Astros to get anywhere near their 32-9 finish from last year. Lance McCullers also needs to pitch well when he returns from DL and McHugh obviously cannot have more historically bad starts.

Mariners 66-57, 1.5 Games Out

Rnk Team Pos Name
5 Mariners 3B Kyle Seager
8 Mariners 2B Robinson Cano
11 Mariners SP Felix Hernandez
16 Mariners SP Hisashi Iwakuma

The Mariners are the only team besides the Astros with more than one top 11 player in all of baseball based on WAR. As for the rankings of the biggest impact players among these six teams, we have Kyle Seager as the top player at No. 5 due to hitting .330 in the last 48 games. Cano is turning in another fantastic season with 28 home runs to help him join the three Astros and teammate Seager among the 11 players with a WAR of five additional wins or higher.

Felix Hernandez (3-0, 2.73 ERA in four August starts) and Hisashi Iwakuma (3-1, 1.69 ERA in August) could be very tough in a wild card game or a playoff series. The big question for the Mariners is if pitchers James Paxton (16.1 innings and one run allowed in two August starts before going on DL) will be able to get on the mound. If he returns, they will have the hottest three starting pitchers for the stretch run.

Orioles 67-55, 0 Games Out

Rnk Team Pos Name
2 Orioles 3B Manny Machado
9 Orioles 1B Chris Davis
13 Orioles SP Chris Tillman
20 Orioles CF/RP Adam Jones/Zach Britton

The Orioles blew their chance to improve to 68-52 Friday night and the rest of the weekend. But that still leaves the Orioles in the playoffs if they started today. We rank Manny Machado just behind Jose Altuve as the second best player in this group of six teams.

Zach Britton’s 0.54 ERA while registering 37 saves forced us to put him in a tie with teammate Jones for the 20th and final spot, even though stats indicate relievers do not throw enough innings to catch starting pitchers and everyday batters in Wins Above Replacement.

Steve Pearce could add even more power to the top home run team in baseball since his trade from Tampa Bay. In just 225 total at-bats this season he hits .302 with 11 home runs and 30 RBIs. But when he plays first base it pushes Chris Davis to right field, which may have cost the Orioles Sunday’s game as Davis misplayed an Astros drive into a double off his glove.

Royals 64-60, 4 Games Out

Rnk Team Pos Name
18 Royals SP Danny Duffy
19 Royals CF Lorenzo Cain

Kansas City looks like the weakest of the six teams, except for perhaps the Yankees after their mid-season trades of Chapman and Beltran. However, opponents have annoying memories of them winning the World Series. Any time Danny Duffy (11-1, 2.66 ERA) takes the mound they have a shot. Alex Gordon missed June and played terribly in July, but he hits .308 in August with six home runs. With pitchers Kris Medlen and Mike Minor on 60-day DL, it just seems like they do not have enough fire power, but they just keep winning!

Perhaps Kendrys Morales and Eric Hosmer will provide enough punch for another big run. Cain was out for July and has hit .308 in August, one of the reasons they are making another run.

Tigers 65-59, 3 Games Out

Rnk Team Pos Name
3 Tigers DH Miguel Cabrera
6 Tigers SP Justin Verlander
14 Tigers RF J.D. Martinez
15 Tigers 2B Ian Kinsler

The Tigers may have the scariest batter (Miguel Cabrera .305, 27, 78) and pitcher (Justin Verlander). Despite giving no value in the field, Cabrera is the only DH from these six teams we put in our top 20 for overall impact on the game. The Tigers do currently have several on the DL. Perhaps of more concern is that Kinsler hit .330 in April but has fallen off every month since and is hitting .246 in August. They cannot afford for him to run out of steam.

However, since missing a month and a half JD Martinez has returned to potentially be the best hitter in the majors in August — hitting .438 with six home runs, enough to make up for a few other players’ slumps.

Some Tigers’ fans worried that Kate Upton distracting Richmond, Virginia, native Verlander as he has not been as dominant. However, in July and August his 14 earned runs 62 2/3 innings came with 69 strikeouts and 16 walks issued.

Yankees 63-60, 4.5 Games Out

Rnk Team Pos Name
4 Yankees SP Masahiro Tanaka
12 Yankees SP Michael Pineda

With Carlos Beltran traded away but still leading New York in all three triple-crown categories, the Yankees are winning despite an anemic line-up compared to the others. However, any time Masahiro Tanaka (team high 10 wins and 3.24 ERA) or Michael Pineda (team high 154 strikeouts) takes the mound with the possibility of Dellin Betances coming into wrap up the game, the Yankees can shut down your line-up. Betances’ 2.31 ERA helped hold 27 games before Chapman was traded away to the Cubs, and Betances’ five saves since have come while allowing only four hits and three walks against nine strikeouts.

CC Sabathia has given up 18 earned runs in just 23 1/3 innings in August.

Overall, another excellent final month of baseball as these six try to push each other off the island so they can stay for the post season.