Biggest Questions for AL Wild Card Teams

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Ever since MLB instituted the second NL and AL Wild Card games in 2012, headline stories have been abundant. The Kansas City Royals became the Cinderella of the 2014 season, going from the Wild Card to their first World Series appearance since 1985. The New York Mets rode a second half surge to get in on the second-to-last day of the season last year. The San Francisco Giants took the second spot a day later. The added Wild Card has made the dog days of August and the late regular season more entertaining than ever.

This season is absolutely no different.

The NL Wild Card seems just about set. The top two spots are currently occupied by the Diamondbacks and Rockies, with the closest teams (the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers) sitting five games back. However, the AL Wild Card is a different beast. While the top two spots are currently held by the Yankees and Angels (Side Note: Aaron Judge and Mike Trout in a play-in game would absolutely be must-see TV), a whopping seven teams find themselves within four games of the second spot; two teams, the Royals and Minnesota Twins, only lag a game back of the Angels.

Biggest Questions for AL Wild Card Teams

This provides a wealth of stories at a time in which the race for division leaders isn’t very hot. Unless the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, and Washington Nationals completely forget how to play baseball, their spots are all but locked up. Despite having gaps within five games separating first and second place, the Cleveland Indians, and Bostno Red Sox seem to be figuring it out just in time for a late playoff push. The only real divisional question is whether the Cardinals, Brewers, or Pittsburgh Pirates can unseat the Chicago Cubs.

So, with that said, let’s rattle off some of most interesting questions this AL Wild Card race has to offer.

#1: New York Yankees

Record: 64-55

Question: Do the Baby Bombers have the power to maintain the top Wild Card spot?

The Yankees have been one of the top stories all season. After making multiple moves last season to stock their young assets, they were able to resign flamethrower Aroldis Chapman (whom they gave up for now top prospect Gleyber Torres for at last season’s trade deadline) and make trades to bolster their already deadly bullpen. They have also made moves to improve their less than impressive starting pitching, acquiring Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia.

But, with that being said, their biggest question lies within one of their biggest strengths: offense. This team is very young, with 5 of their top 10 leaders in WAR being 26 or younger, and is susceptible to slumps. One such slump, Aaron Judge’s, can be cited as a big reason the Yankees have been only 4 games above .500 since the All-Star Break and struggling against division rivals, the Boston Red Sox. In order for this team to reach their full potential, Judge has to get to some level near where he was in the first half of the season. The Yankees find themselves in arguably the most important stretch of their schedule, with all but one series (a three-game stint against the Tigers) either being against division leaders or teams within striking distance of a Wild Card Spot. The Yankees can play spoiler to a division leader in the playoffs but need to get in and get in strong in order to do so.

#2: Los Angeles Angels

Record: 62-59

Question: Do pitching and defense really lead to success?

Let’s get this out of the way because no Angels anecdote is complete without it: Mike Trout is arguably the greatest player in the MLB. We’re in August, he’s only played 75 games out of the Angels 121, and he still has a 5.1 WAR and is an MVP candidate. Are you really that surprised? You shouldn’t be. What you should be surprised about, is that in an age characterized by its offense, the Angels hold a Wild Card spot and rank in the mid 20’s in most major offensive statistics. Despite great seasons from Trout and Andrelton Simmons, the Angels rank 24th in runs scored and On Base Percentage, and 26th in Batting Average. So, what has helped them to this record? The 5th best fielding percentage in the league and a pitching staff that ranks within the top-11 in 6 categories. That, combined with the high caliber of production given by Trout and Simmons has helped carry them to 2nd in the Wild Card race. But, the question must be asked: in an age where offense is so key, can pitching and defense alone really be the answer? The Angels hope to prove so. They face a mixed schedule along the way, as while facing multiple contenders, they do have multiple matchups against the Athletics and the White Sox.

#3: Kansas City Royals

Record: 61-59

Question: Can they stop their skid?

After starting the season 22-30, the Royals caught fire in the months of June and July, going 33-19 and throwing their names back in the playoff hunt for the first time since winning the World Series in 2015. They’ve recently sputtered, going 6-10 so far in August and finding themselves in their current position, on the outside looking in. However, despite being in the same division as the Twins, they face the exact opposite conundrum, schedule-wise. Out of their remaining games, 18 of them are against at or below .500 teams. Their schedule also includes multiple series’ against the division leading Indians and the Twins, with whom they are tight in the Wild Card race with. In order for success, they need to get more out of their middling pitching staff to accommodate the breakout seasons of Mike Moustakas, Whit Merrifield, and Jason Vargas. Their road isn’t exactly easy, but if they can snap out of their skid and catch fire once more, it’s certainly doable.

#4: Minnesota Twins

Record: 60-59

Question: Can the play better against good teams?

The Minnesota Twins this year seem to be an anomaly from a statistical standpoint. One glance at their team stats will show an offense that ranks below top-15 in every major category except on-base percentage, the 26th best ERA in the MLB, allowing the 7th most runs in the MLB. The bright spots lie within the 7th best fielding percentage in the MLB and- surprisingly- the most complete games and 6th most shutouts. However, this one glance doesn’t take note of the most important reason for the Twins success: Their division. The AL Central is one of the weakest divisions in baseball. Though despite going just one game over .500 against their division, they are 4 games over .500 against teams under the mark and 3 games under .500 against teams at or over the mark. Their ability to not fully sink to poor teams levels and win games against under .500 talent will prove important if this team wants a shot at the playoffs. Out of their last 45 games, 27 of them will be against teams currently at or below .500. But, for them to have any sort of success beyond just making it to the Wild Card game, they must prove that they can play to the level of the better teams in the league. If it’s any consolation, they would be better off playing in the second Wild Card spot, as they have a 32-24 road record, as opposed to a 27-34 home record.

#5: Seattle Mariners

Record: 61-61

Question: Is there a method to Jerry DiPoto’s madness?

Jerry DiPoto makes a lot of trades. He’s made over 50 trades in nearly 2 years, including prospects, proven players, and players who may never see the majors. Since then, the team has shown improvement, finishing 86-76 last year and currently 1.5 games out of the wild card spot this year. Question is, is this the year his moves start paying off? Currently, they have a solid offense, ranking in the top 15 in the league in runs scored, batting average, and on base percentage, a good bullpen, and starting pitching that leaves much to be desired. Only one starter, James Paxton, has posted an ERA under 4 (2.78), and he’s doubtful to return this month due to a pectoral injury. The last 3 major moves made by DiPoto were the acquiring of first baseman Yonder Alonso, and pitchers Erasmo Ramirez and David Phelps. Alonso has struggled this half, following his first All-Star appearance, but Ramirez and Phelps have been solid. Their schedule, much like every other team on this list, is very important the rest of the way, with many games against fellow contenders. This Mariners team needs to keep hitting like they have, and hope that James Paxton can come back to the form he’s been at all season.

#6: Texas Rangers

Record: 60-60

Question: How important was Yu Darvish to the Rangers success?

The Rangers have already started a slight rebuild, in a way that would allow them to still compete right now. Recently, they traded former ace Yu Darvish in a deal centered around the return of now #2 prospect, Willie Calhoun. That said, they’ve played their way into contention without Darvish, going 10-5 so far in August without him. Darvish was 4th on the team in WAR, but not the top pitcher in that category (Andrew Cashner). This team is power heavy in every respect of the phrase. They are second in home runs with 188, but 26th in batting average, hitting a lowly .244. No Ranger is a better example of these statistics than Joey Gallo. Gallo leads the team with 35 home runs, yet is hitting .209. Despite these statistics, the Rangers still have plenty of pieces that could mean success. They have young talent, with 4 members of their typical lineup (Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Roughned Odor, Delino DeShields) being under 25. They have the ageless wonder Adrian Beltre, who is currently slashing .309/.381/.542 and recently collected his 3,000th hit. Despite being ranked 26th in fielding percentage, the percentage is still 98.2%. Even without Darvish, they still have a solid rotation and a pitching staff that ranks 15th in ERA. Their main issues are their lack of contact hitting and lack of a definite closer (Their listed closer, Matt Bush, has only recorded 10 saves, which ranks 15th in the AL). However, If they keep hitting well and with power and their staff holds on to the clip they have been pitching at, it’s not inconceivable to see the Rangers in the Wild Card game, even without Darvish.

#7: Tampa Bay Rays

Record: 60-63

Question: Can they win without the home run?

One of the Rays biggest strengths (which is also one of their biggest weaknesses) is their reliance on the home run. They’ve hit 167 home runs and including recent acquisition Lucas Duda, they have 4 players who have hit 20+ home runs this season. However, despite baseball’s new fascination with the home run, this trend doesn’t quite spell out continued success. Out of their 60 wins this season, they have hit home runs in 47. That’s a total of 78.3% of wins that featured a home run. The 2016 Mets faced a similar trend last year, as most of their runs were scored by way of the home run and they did not win often when not hitting at least one home run. Their run ended in the Wild Card game after being shutout by Madison Bumgarner. The Rays have been streaky this season (Currently, they have lost 8 of their last 10) and a lot of that has to do with the reliance on the home run. In the 8 losses, they’ve only hit home runs in 3 of the games. There are two possible ways that this Rays team can turn it around and get into the Wild Card game: Either they catch fire once again or they find ways to win without hitting home runs. Knowing how tough it is for teams to make quick and long-lasting adjustments, it’ll most likely end up being the former.

#8: Baltimore Orioles

Record: 59-62

Question: Can their pitching back up their hitting?

Earlier, we talked about the Los Angeles Angels, a team with great pitching and defense, but sub par offense. The Baltimore Orioles are nearly the exact opposite. They have a top-tier offense, including the 6th most home runs and the 5th best batting average, among other major categories in which they place in the top 15. However, they have a middle of the pack defense, and one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball. No starter has an ERA under 4, they have the 3rd worst team ERA, have allowed the 3rd most earned runs in the MLB, and have the 2nd worst batting average against. These pitching stats are odd, considering their bullpen is rather good, containing former all star Brad Brach, stalwarts Richard Bleier and  Mychal Givens and Zach Britton, who over the past season and a half has been one of the most dominant relievers in MLB history. Their solid bullpen speaks volumes to just how bad their rotation is. Their acquisition of Jeremy Hellickson is a solid step in the right direction, but Hellickson still brandishes an ERA over 4. If their rotation was even average, this Orioles team might have had a shot at the division. But, their poor pitching has put them in this situation, being one of 9 teams fighting hard for just 2 spots.

#9: Toronto Blue Jays

Record: 59-62

Question: Can they find consistency?

In 2017, the Blue Jays have been one of the most inconsistent teams in baseball. They’ve had 3 months with below .500 records and, if they continue their hot streak, 2 months with records above .500. Currently, they are 3 games above .500 in the second half and only 3 games shy of a .500 record for the year. There are multiple reasons for their inconsistency. On the bad side, Josh Donaldson spent much of the beginning of the year on the DL with calf issues, projected ace Aaron Sanchez has had 4 DL stints with finger and lat issues, and they lost Edwin Encarnacion to free agency, who hit 42 home runs and led the MLB in RBI’s with 127 last year. However, what’s led them to still be in the Wild Card race has been the return of Josh Donaldson and the breakout seasons of Justin Smoak and Marcus Stroman. Smoak, at one point considered a bust destined for mediocrity, was an All-Star this year, slashing .296/.371/.579 with 33 home runs and a 3.5 WAR. The only player who is ahead of him in WAR is Marcus Stroman, who is currently having the best season of his young career as well. He has been the one consistent spot on a Blue Jays pitching staff that has seen injuries and down years from multiple starters. His 2.99 ERA has helped the Blue Jays start to get back on track. Even in April, there was chatter as to whether the Blue Jays would be able to turn it around. In August, they are on the cusp of completing a full comeback into a Wild Card spot. If Donaldson, Stroman, and Smoak can continue to succeed at the rate they have been, then this Blue Jays team has a chance to battle their injuries and inconsistency and get into the postseason.

When all’s said and done, one thing is for sure: get your devices charged up and your popcorn at the ready, because there will be plenty of important AL baseball the rest of the season.