We've entered the final three weeks of the 2013 MLB season, and there's really only one playoff spot that still seems uncertain – the second wild card berth in the American League. It'll take some sort of fierce collapse for the Cardinals, Reds, or Pirates all not to make the playoffs in the National League, while the Braves and Dodgers have double digit leads in their divisions. Meanwhile in the American League, the Red Sox and Tigers are comfortably in first, while the A's and Rangers are fighting more to avoid the wild card playoff game as opposed to fighting to make the playoffs.
That leaves us with the second wild card spot in the American League, and this race could be a doozy. It could also be very anticlimactic, as Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds have the Rays as a huge favorite over the Indians and Orioles. CoolStandings is a bit more optimistic about the odds of a riveting race, as they have the Yankees with an over 10% chance to win the playoff berth in addition to Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Baltimore while also spotting the Royals an 8% chance.
As of today, September 9th, those five teams are all within 3.5 games of one another in the standings. But quite frankly, the only reason that the door is even still open is a disastrous 4-11 streak by the Rays, topped off with an ugly 3-7 west coast road trip. The Rays also have a daunting schedule over the final three weeks as well, with three games against each of the Red Sox and Yankees and four each against the Orioles and Rangers remaining. Luckily for Tampa Bay, only three of those games take place away from Tropicana Field, where the team is 44-26.
The Orioles stayed in the race over the weekend by taking three out of four from a bad White Sox team, a nice rebound from a 3-6 road trip featuring series losses in Boston, the Bronx, and Cleveland. Baltimore's schedule over the rest of the season exclusively takes place in the AL East, with the O's being forced into six games with the Red Sox and four each against the Rays and Yankees. I'm willing to wager that we'll know what the Orioles will be doing in October after their game in Tampa on September 23rd, their final game of a ten game road trip that begins in Toronto before heading to Boston. If the Orioles have anything less than 84 wins after that Monday matinee in Florida, it's highly unlikely they'll be playing any more baseball after that final week of the season.
What about the Yankees? New York has been one of the more maddening teams in the league this year, and looked dead in the water three weeks ago in Boston. Then, Ryan Dempster hit Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees awoke, closing out August with a 9-4 stretch to force their way back into the conversation. The Bronx Bombers are sitting at .500 so far in September, but the potential for the Yankees to close out their season strong is there. Today, New York begins a ten game road trip that will take them to Baltimore, Boston, and Toronto before they return home for series with the Giants and Rays. The Yankees finish their season in Houston against the Astros, which is a huge opportunity for them to end their season on a high note. If the Yankees can whip up on the Blue Jays, Giants, and Astros and go 8-1, they'd need to only split the ten games remaining against the cream of the AL East crop to reach 89 wins. But like Baltimore's ten game road trip, New York's ten game road trip is key – anything worse than .500 would be a huge blow.
The Indians have a distinct advantage over the Royals over the remaining three weeks, and they have a golden opportunity to eradicate Kansas City's playoff hopes by the end of action next Wednesday evening. The Tribe will host the Royals for three starting today, and then they go to Chicago for four games with the White Sox, missing Jose Quintana and facing Chris Sale on Sunday. Cleveland then takes on the Royals in Kansas City, and a pair of series wins would effectively kill the Royals' shot at making a playoff run if the expected slaughter in Chicago takes place. The Indians then close out their year with a six game homestand against the Astros and White Sox before traveling to Minnesota for four to end their year.
But what about those Royals? They have the worst odds of any remaining team of making the postseason, and the reasons for that are justified. Kansas City is only 3.5 games behind the Rays for the wild card, but they have three teams to leap over to get there. The Royals also have an ugly schedule remaining, with three games each against the Rangers and Tigers joining their six with the Indians. Even if Kansas City splits their 12 games with those three contenders, they'd need to sweep the Mariners and White Sox (on the road, no less) to finish their year with just 88 wins. There's just too much that needs to go right for them.
As for the personnel encompassing the teams, the Rays, Orioles, and Royals are in the best shape. Tampa Bay just got Matt Moore back from the DL, and Jesse Crain is expected to join him before the season is out. Baltimore just got the ineffective Jason Hammel back from a strained flexor muscle, and he'll work out of the bullpen for the rest of the year, which could be a huge boost for them. As for the Royals, Lorenzo Cain is back in center field, much to the joy of Kansas City's rotation. As they have been doing all year, the Yankees are dealing with injury concerns by the bucket load, with David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Derek Jeter all currently on the shelf with varying degrees of nagging injuries. The Indians have their own pressing concern with Justin Masterson's oblique knocking him out of action, but Corey Kluber's return from a sprained finger on Saturday could help alleviate some of their concerns.
I'd think the Rays are the favorite going forward, just because they have the lead and Moore's return is a huge boost for them. But as for who could challenge them, I think Cleveland is Tampa Bay's biggest threat, even with Masterson's status for the rest of the season being a question. I love how easy their schedule is, and they have potential to go on a pretty nice run to close out the year and sneak in.