Heading into tonight's games, the Tigers have a six game lead over the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central. The Kansas City Royals are 8 1/2 games back. Barring a collapse, the divisional race is all but over.
That doesn't mean that the Tigers will be the division's only representative in the postseason, though. The AL Wild Card race is shaping up to be quite the battle as we head into the final 50-odd games of the season.
If the season ended today, the Tampa Bay Rays would host the Wild Card game. They hold a two game lead over the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers, who are tied for the AL West lead. The Baltimore Orioles are 1 1/2 games behind the second Wild Card slot, with the Indians 2 1/2 games back and the Royals five games out. The New York Yankees are seven games behind the second Wild Card slot, and with a 6-12 record since the All-Star Break I think it's safe to count them out of the race.
Baseball Prospectus sets the playoff odds of the respective teams in a fairly predictable fashion: the Rays sit at 90.6% while the Rangers and A's are at 80.1% and 72.4%, respectively. Despite a larger deficit, the Indians' odds are at 31.2% while the Orioles are at 24.7%. The Royals are fighting an uphill battle, with their odds at just 3.7%.
The table below gives us a look at the current Wild Card standings, along with the strength of each team's remaining schedule (in terms of combined win percentage of their remaining opponents), the number of home games remaining, and series remaining against other teams on the list.
|Team||Record||Games Back||S.O.S.||Home Games||HEAD-TO-HEAD|
|Tampa||66-47||+2.0||0.507||23||@ BAL, @ OAK, vs TEX, vs BAL|
|Texas||65-50||-||0.459||24||@ OAK, vs OAK, @ TAM, @ KC|
|Oakland||64-49||-||0.481||26||vs CLE, @ BAL, vs TAM, vs TEX, @ TEX|
|Baltimore||63-51||1.5||0.519||23||vs TAM, vs OAK, @ CLE, @ TAM|
|Cleveland||62-52||2.5||0.475||22||@ OAK, vs BAL, vs KC, @ KC|
|Kansas City||58-53||5.0||0.505||27||@ CLE, vs CLE, vs TEX|
From this data, we see that the Rangers have a relative cakewalk to a playoff berth. They play a combined 17 games against the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels down the stretch, teams that they are 17-4 against this season. The A's have a fair number of divisional games left, but face tougher non-divisional opponents in Cleveland, Baltimore, and Detroit.
The Indians have the second-softest schedule remaining, with 16 combined games left against the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox. The Tribe are 11-2 against the Sox, but just 5-4 against the Twins in 2013. Consecutive series at Atlanta and Detroit at the end of August should tell us more about their playoff chances once the calendar rolls into September.
It's worth noting that the Indians are 59-40 against teams other than the Tigers, good enough for a .596 winning percentage. They have outscored their non-Tiger opponents 477-398, a +79 run differential that would rank third in the American League. If the Tribe could have limited the damage in their first 15 games against the Tigers to a 6-9 record, they would be tied for the division lead.
The Orioles have positioned themselves well and made the playoffs in 2012 despite everyone wondering when they would drop off, but their magic might run out in 2013. Twenty-seven of their 48 remaining games are against divisional opponents, and 16 of those 27 games are on the road. However, they have a 30-26 record away from Camden Yards and arguably improved themselves more than any other team mentioned in this post at the trade deadline. Bud Norris and Scott Feldman have shored up their rotation, and Francisco Rodriguez was a much-needed upgrade in the bullpen.
The Royals' difficult schedule heading down the stretch is largely due to the fact that they have 11 games remaining against the Tigers. The streaking Tigers haven't bothered the Royals much in 2013, however. Kansas City is 5-3 against Detroit this year, though six of those games have been played at Kauffman Stadium. It's worth noting that the Royals have played .580 ball or better in three of the four months of the 2013 season; an 8-20 May record is all that is holding them back.
The Rangers are getting hot at the right time and have a very weak schedule down the stretch, which should ultimately be the difference in the AL West. Meanwhile, the Rays should clinch the first Wild Card spot if they don't catch the Boston Red Sox atop the AL East. It's tough to bet against a team that is 97-65 in their last 162 regular season games played, but something tells me that the Oakland A's are on the outside looking in this year. The Indians are playing near-.600 ball against everyone beside the Tigers and their pitching is shaping up much better than expected.
And come on: could you imagine the media storm if the A's finish one game behind the Indians after this?
What do you think? Is this Cleveland's year? Or will the AL Central be limited to one playoff representative again in 2013?