MLB Playoff Watch: Astros cruising, Yankees struggling, Mariners soaring


By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer

With less than a month to go in the regular season, there’s only one thing we know for certain when it comes to the American League playoff picture: The road to the World Series will go through Houston.

Sure, it’s possible a wild-card team could knock off the mighty ‘Stros in the Division Series, but as it stands, Houston’s comfortable lead over the New York Yankees has all but secured home-field advantage throughout the American League playoffs as the Astros look to make their fourth World Series appearance in six years.

After that, though? There are all kinds of possibilities for how the field could shake out, the latest being the potentially stunning collapse of the Yankees in the AL East, despite Aaron Judge homering what feels like daily. 

Even if New York holds on, the AL Central remains a muddled mix of three teams vying for the division crown, and unlike in the National League, where Atlanta has held the top wild card for months, the order of the three AL wild-card teams seems to change almost by the hour.

Let’s check in on the 10 American League teams that still have hopes of playing in October.

(Note: “Last week” records include games from Aug. 29 to Sept. 4.)

HOUSTON ASTROS

Arrow pointing: Neutral
Overall: 87-48
Since Aug. 2 deadline: 20-11
Last week: 4-1
Playoff odds (via FanGraphs): 100%

How convenient it is that the Astros had a top pitching prospect in Hunter Brown, who models his delivery after Justin Verlander, ready to come up and dominate just as Verlander went on the injured list. Should we even be surprised?

As the Yankees have largely squandered their 15.5-game lead in the AL East, the Astros have managed to maintain an extremely comfortable lead over Seattle all summer, despite the Mariners having the best record in the AL since June 21. Home-field advantage in the American League playoffs is essentially a lock for the Astros. 

But with a fairly easy remaining schedule that includes three against the Angels, three against the Tigers and four against the A’s, could Houston chase down the Dodgers for the best record in baseball? I wouldn’t rule it out.

NEW YORK YANKEES

Arrow pointing: Dangerously down
Overall: 81-54
Since Aug. 2 deadline: 11-20
Last week: 2-4
Playoff odds: 100%

On paper, the Twins would not seem like a team the Yankees would want to see as they try to remedy their recent skid. Fortunately, though, Yankee Stadium has been automatic doom for Minnesota for close to two decades now, so that might be exactly the team New York wants to see.

Game 1 on Monday was a good example of this, with Aaron Judge’s 3,745th home run of the season (approximate) helping overcome a gargantuan blast from former Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez en route to a 5-2 New York victory. The biggest issue for New York now is the injuries that keep piling up, with Anthony Rizzo hitting the injured list following the announcement that Andrew Benintendi will need wrist surgery. 

Harrison Bader is reportedly nearing a rehab assignment, and Nestor Cortes Jr. is also expected back in the near future, but this team might not be fully healthy and operational until the postseason. In the meantime, they’ll have to fend off Tampa Bay and Toronto with an incomplete roster.

SEATTLE MARINERS

Arrow pointing: Up
Overall: 76-59
Since Aug. 2 deadline: 21-10
Last week: 6-0
Playoff odds: 99.1%

Back-to-back sweeps on the road in Detroit and Cleveland have the Mariners still in good position in the AL wild-card standings. The pitching staff has carried Seattle for much of the past few months, especially since the arrival of Luis Castillo at the deadline and the emergence of rookie righty George Kirby as one of the more intimidating young pitchers in the AL. 

It’s now on the offense to start putting together more consistent performances if the Mariners are to hang on to their precious wild card as they enter the last difficult stretch of the schedule: The White Sox, Braves and Padres all visit T-Mobile Park over the next week. If the M’s can just tread water during this stretch, they’ll be in excellent shape, with their final 20 games against teams under .500.

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TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Arrow pointing: Up
Overall: 75-59
Since Aug. 2 deadline: 18-14
Last week: 5-1
Playoff odds: 97.9%

A double-header sweep in Baltimore to begin this week has to have the Jays feeling good, especially with Bo Bichette’s three-homer game reminding us the kind of impact he can have for a lineup that has no shortage of star players. 

If you catch the Blue Jays on the right day — or wrong day, as an opponent — they can look like one of the best teams in baseball. The talent is not in question, but this final month will be all about whether they can find more consistency than they’ve shown thus far. A five-game home series against the Rays next week could go a long way toward crystallizing the AL wild-card picture.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

Arrow pointing: Slightly up
Overall: 75-58
Since Aug. 2 deadline: 21-10
Last week: 4-1
Playoff odds: 95.5%

This team keeps on chugging, somehow, some way. Even without Wander Franco, who continues to experience setbacks on his road back from wrist surgery, the Rays find a way to win baseball games, most recently with a series victory at home against the struggling Yankees.

Chasing down the Yankees in the division — alongside a surging Toronto team — will be a challenge, but getting into the postseason at all would have to be considered a success for a Rays team that has weathered a ridiculous amount of injuries to key players, the latest being shoulder trouble for Cy Young candidate Shane McClanahan

The Rays’ last best chance to make up ground on the Yankees comes this weekend in the Bronx. After that, they’ll need to continue winning close ball games while keeping an eye on the out-of-town scoreboard.

Yankees and Rays heat up the AL East

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CLEVELAND GUARDIANS

Arrow pointing: Down
Overall: 68-64
Since Aug. 2 deadline: 15-15
Last week: 1-5
Playoff odds: 46.5%

It was a rough week in the Land, as the Guardians lost back-to-back series at home against Baltimore and Seattle, thanks in large part to a dismal stretch of offensive performances that included 27 consecutive scoreless innings. That’s obviously not going to cut it if the Guardians want to emerge from this final month as division champs.

Cleveland’s pitching staff — particularly its ridiculously deep and talented bullpen — isn’t going to need Astros-level run support to win games, but the Guardians’ offense has to be better than what they showed over the past week. A huge series in Minnesota looms this weekend.

MINNESOTA TWINS

Arrow pointing: Down
Overall: 68-65
Since Aug. 2 deadline: 14-17
Last week: 3-3
Playoff odds: 31.8%

With two more series remaining against both Cleveland and Chicago, Minnesota should control its destiny in pursuit of the AL Central crown, but right now, the Twins find themselves with the opposite problem of Cleveland: They can score runs in bunches, but this pitching staff is starting to show the cracks many were concerned about heading into the year, even with some of the additions made at the deadline. 

Tyler Mahle going back on the IL is highly unfortunate at this stage in the season, and the Twins will now turn to a rookie in Louie Varland to make his MLB debut this week in the House of Horrors that is Yankee Stadium. It’s possible the Twins can slug their way to a division title, but some pitchers are likely going to have to step up. 

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Arrow pointing: Slightly up
Overall: 68-67
Since Aug. 2 deadline: 16-16
Last week: 4-2
Playoff odds: 25.1%

Are they really going to pull this off? A team with so much promise coming into the season has watched many parts of its roster go sideways due to injury or underperformance, yet thanks largely to the inconsistency of the teams ahead of them, the White Sox are in the mix to win the division anyway. 

Lance Lynn turned in a vintage performance in Seattle to begin the week, and Elvis Andrus has provided a stunning amount of offensive production in Tim Anderson‘s absence. Now it’s on some other young players, such as Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert and Lucas Giolito, to start performing like the stars we thought they were a year ago. If they do, this team could really start humming. At this point, nothing would surprise me in the AL Central.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Arrow pointing: Neutral
Overall: 71-64
Since Aug. 2 deadline: 19-13
Last week: 4-2
Playoff odds: 3.4%

Might this be the week we finally see the Orioles’ postseason odds crest double digits over at FanGraphs? Then again, being swept in a double-header by Toronto on Monday was not a great start. 

It’s worth mentioning that other sites with different playoff projection models, such as FiveThirtyEight (11%), Baseball-Reference (21%) and Baseball Prospectus (21%), are more optimistic about Baltimore’s chances of pulling this miracle off. That said, yesterday’s two losses plus a poor showing at home this weekend against one of the worst teams in the league in Oakland certainly took some wind out of the sails for this magical Baltimore run.

Only Tampa Bay has a tougher remaining schedule than Baltimore among postseason contenders, so things aren’t about to get any easier, either. Rookie Gunnar Henderson is already looking like the real deal, but is it too late? He’ll need to continue to put a charge into this team on both sides of the ball if Baltimore is to continue hanging around. Adley Rutschman certainly can’t do it on his own.

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Ben Verlander and Melanie Newman talk about the impact of Orioles rookies Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson on the team.

BOSTON RED SOX

Arrow pointing: Slightly up
Overall: 67-69
Since Aug. 2 deadline: 15-17
Last week: 5-2
Playoff odds: 0.8%

This is your warning, Boston: If you don’t find some momentum in these next two series against the Rays and Orioles, I won’t be mentioning you when I do this exercise again in two weeks. It’s probably already generous to include the Red Sox in any sort of discussion surrounding the 2022 postseason, but Boston’s mop (that’s a four-game sweep) of the Rangers kept its hopes alive for another week.

Trevor Story has been excellent since he came off the IL, and we’ll see if first-base prospect Triston Casas can bring some more thump to the lineup. Time’s running out quickly, but a couple of series wins this week could have Boston back within striking distance.

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.


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