There are roughly 50 games left in the Major League Baseball season. Some teams have more, some teams have fewer, but it's pretty much around that number -- and it will go by like that. All you can reasonably hope for, if you are a team that is on the fringes of contention -- particularly with first-place teams owning massive leads like Los Angeles, Houston and Washington -- is to at least have a shot.
This year, plenty of teams still have skin in the game thanks to the American League Wild Card chase, which looks like it's going to be lunacy. From the Wild Card leader (the Yankees) entering Monday's action to the team that's five spots out of the second slot (Minnesota), you have only 5 1/2 games of separation. Texas, a team that just traded away its ace, is closer to a Wild Card spot than the closest Wild Card team in the National League. It is jammed, essentially top to bottom. Keep your eye on these standings!
So let's take a look at every contender, what their chances are and what the stakes are moving forward. We have to cut off the definition of a "contender" at some point, so for the sake of discussion, we'll omit Texas, Toronto and Detroit, all of whom were sellers at the Deadline. We do this even though Texas is only one game behind Minnesota (also sort of a seller, but no matter). It's crazy this year, and we may have to revisit this in a few more weeks if any other teams go on a run. Also, right now, the Red Sox, thanks to a six-game win streak, have opened up a three-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East. That division is far from settled, but for the sake of discussion, we'll include the Yankees but not the Sox. That, like everything else, could change quickly.
New York Yankees
Record: 59-51, holding first Wild Card spot, two games up.
Playoff projections on MLB.com: 74.7 percent
What's at stake: The Yankees still haven't finished below .500 since 1992 -- a truly astonishing feat -- but they missed the playoffs last year and haven't won a postseason game since Oct. 12, 2012. This season, they've gotten their fans invested again through youth, smart Deadline moves and, of course, a 6-foot-7 rookie named Aaron Judge. If they somehow fail to make the postseason, the whole Yankees Carrying Unstoppable Upward Momentum narrative would be stalled. The Yankees are at last buyers again. At the very least, they need that Wild Card Game, and they probably need to host it.
Fans' reasonable optimism level: High. The Yanks are still in a competitive division, and they still somehow have 10 games left with the Red Sox -- a fifth of their remaining season -- but according to Baseball Reference's Simple Rating System, they've been the third-best team in baseball this year behind the Dodgers and the Astros. They have to be considered the Wild Card favorites moving forward … unless they end up winning their division.
Kansas City Royals
Record: 57-54, tied for the second Wild Card slot, 2 1/2 games out of the first Wild Card spot.
Playoff projections on MLB.com: 41.4 percent
What's at stake: As previously established, the Royals are all-in at the end of history. They will likely lose most of their free agents -- the core of their World Series team -- in the offseason, and this year has the vibe of a bunch of close friends having one last crazy party before summer camp ends and reality hits. The Royals don't look like the most talented team here, but they've encountered doubters before, including the year they won the World Series. So why should now be any different? Let it ride.
Fans' reasonable optimism level: Gloriously irrational. It doesn't make any sense that the Royals are still hanging around, and the cold, clinical, logical move probably would have been to ship everybody out a month ago. But even now that they've cooled off after their big win streak a week ago, they're hanging on to the second Wild Card spot as they battle in-state rival, the Cardinals, in KC this week. The Royals have the advantage of playing like there is no tomorrow, because for them, there is, no tomorrow. Either the Royals are going to give their fans one last crazy run at the postseason, or they will all get to say goodbye to the Royals' Greatest Generation. Even if they lose, Royals fans can't lose.
Tampa Bay Rays
Record: 58-55, tied for second Wild Card spot.
Playoff projections on MLB.com: 33.5 percent
What's at stake: The Rays are perpetually the team that statistical analysts are excited about heading into the season, but who usually fall apart under the strain of their payroll and their division. They're also historically streaky. They hadn't posted a winning season their entire existence until 2008, when they made the World Series, and then had six straight winning records. But they haven't been above .500 since '13, the last time they made the playoffs. The Rays have a more loyal, devoted fan base than they're given credit for, and they've hung around this year, in large part thanks to unexpected breakthroughs from Logan Morrison, Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza Jr. This is a fun team that has had a lot of things go right at once. But they don't get these opportunities very often. It'd be wise for them to take advantage of this one.
Fans' reasonable optimism level: Reasonable. When you break down all the Wild Card teams after the Yankees, the Rays look like the ones with the most balance. The offense has been better than it has in years, and while the rotation hasn't been dominant (and Chris Archer continues to be the guy you're certain is about to turn into an ace but just … doesn't), it's still a solid 1-2-3. (The emergence of 24-year-old Jacob Faria has helped.) The Rays have some holes and still don't have top-shelf talent, but they're as good a bet as anyone.
Record: 57-56, second Wild Card runnerup, 1 game out of a second Wild Card spot.
Playoff projections on MLB.com: 21.7 percent
What's at stake: Oh, just a whole decade of the franchise. The Mariners still haven't made the playoffs since that 2001 team -- remember, there are players currently in the Majors born in 1997 -- which is the longest playoff drought in baseball and the second-longest playoff drought in the four major professional North American sports, behind only the Buffalo Bills. This is also an older team with a middling farm system. The Mariners are either going to do this now, or they're never going to do it.
Fans' reasonable optimism level: Stricken. The Mariners have put their fans through this before, finishing three games out of the Wild Card last year and one game out in 2014. The Yonder Alonso trade fills a hole, and no one wants to face James Paxton in a one-game playoff … but you can forgive Seattle fans if they're not coming out of hiding just yet.
Record: 56-56, third Wild Card runnerup, 1 1/2 games out of second Wild Card spot.
Playoff projections on MLB.com: 8.2 percent
What's at stake: This last little boomlet of Baltimore baseball success. The Orioles, against all odds, have been one of the best teams in the AL for the past five years, but they've never broken through and made a World Series. They've also been loathe to move on even when it might be more prudent to rebuild, so they're back being all-in despite peripherals that argue they're not much better than Toronto. The O's have a reckoning coming, but they're trying to sneak in one more crazy run. One is right to be skeptical. But one has been right to be skeptical of the Orioles before, and that didn't stop them then either.
Fans' reasonable optimism level: Skeptical, but curious. It made no sense for the Orioles to trade for Jeremy Hellickson and Tim Beckham at the Deadline, but not much about the Orioles has made sense over the past five years. Illogic has been their fuel. They're flooring it once again, even if it's off the cliff.
Los Angeles Angels
Record: 55-58, fourth Wild Card runnerup, three games out of second Wild Card spot.
Playoff projections on MLB.com: 9.8 percent
What's at stake: The last few years of the best player in baseball. The Angels have been trying to cobble together a mediocre team around Mike Trout for a few years now, with no luck. This year has been different in that Trout missed two months and the Angels somehow treaded water. (Andrelton Simmons is quietly having a superstar season -- he's third in the AL in FanGraphs WAR -- which helps.) But the odds are still stacked against them. It would help to get something, anything, out of Albert Pujols. There are 514 American League position players who have enough at-bats to register a WAR rating this season. Pujols is ranked 513th in WAR.
Fans' reasonable optimism level: Realistic. Three more years of Trout left. They are a little closer to the playoffs than they were last year. But that feels like the fighting of gravity.
Record: 54-56, fifth Wild Card runnerup, 2 1/2 games out of second Wild Card spot.
Playoff projections on MLB.com: 5.5 percent
What's at stake: The Twins have had a nice little bounceback season, and they were even in first place not that long ago, but their Trade Deadline piece Jaime Garcia clued you in that they know what they are. The Twins are a young team on the rise. They'll have their moment. This year will help them down the line. But no one will shed many tears over missing the playoffs in 2017.
Fans' reasonable optimism level: Fully aware. Honestly, I only included them because they're merely a half game behind the Angels and one game behind the Orioles, both of which consider themselves serious contenders.
Playoff odds of teams not listed:
Record: 53-58, sixth Wild Card runnerup, 4 1/2 games out of second Wild Card spot.
Playoff projections on MLB.com: 4.4 percent
Toronto Blue Jays
Record: 52-59, seventh Wild Card runnerup, 5 1/2 games out of second Wild Card spot.
Playoff projections on MLB.com: 4.3 percent
Record: 51-60, eighth Wild Card runnerup, six games out of second Wild Card spot.
Playoff projections on MLB.com: 2.4 percent
So, your guess about how this turns out is as good as mine. And as good as any of the teams involved, all told.
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