The final AL playoff team will surprise us

August 26th, 2020

At the beginning of this season, my colleague Mike Petriello introduced, for this season, the concept of the “AL Middle.”

The idea was that each of the three divisions in the American League had clear, set-apart favorites in the top two spots: The Yankees and Rays in the East, the Twins and Indians in the Central, the A’s and Astros in the West. This essentially meant that the last two playoff spots, the Wild Card spots, created another division entirely, the “AL Middle.” The rest of the AL is battling with itself for those final two crumbs.

One month later -- which is to say, roughly half the season later -- Petriello’s math very much checks out. Those six teams are, indeed, all 1-2 in their divisions, and here are their odds of making the playoffs, according to Fangraphs:

AL East

Rays: 99.5 percent
Yankees: 99.3 percent

AL Central

Twins: 99.5 percent
Indians: 97.9 percent

AL West

A’s: 99.9 percent
Astros: 97.1 percent

You can’t get much more locked in than that. But one thing has happened that Petriello didn’t anticipate: The emergence of the Chicago White Sox. The South Siders have won eight of their last nine, including that glorious Lucas Giolito no-hitter on Tuesday night, and they are in fact tied with the Indians for second place in the AL Central. Their playoff odds are nearly as astronomical as those six above teams: 97.7 percent.

So, while I feel bad taking so much suspense out of the season that’s only halfway over, it sure looks like seven of the eight AL playoff spots are already sewn up. Which means that “AL Middle” isn’t a fight for two playoff spots anymore: It’s a fight for one.

That’s the bad news for the teams not in that top seven. The good news is that two of the teams many preseason observers thought would be fighting for those spots -- the Red Sox and Angels -- have watched their seasons drop through a trap door. So, there is going to be a team that makes the playoffs this season that almost no one saw coming.

But which team is it going to be? It could be any of them. That’s sort of the fun thing about the AL right now: Even the Red Sox and Angels could still get hot and make a run. Let’s take a look at what’s left of the AL Middle … and try to figure out who will end up its champions, crowned with the final playoff spot.

The Clubhouse Leader: Blue Jays

First off, the Blue Jays are the only one of these teams at .500, and the way it’s playing out, getting to .500 may be enough to win you that last slot. The Blue Jays are a little above average in everything: They’re 11th in team OPS and eighth in team ERA, which is a solid recipe at staying at .500 or even getting a little bit above it. Bo Bichette is hurt but will return soon, and you have to think Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will get it going at some point, but this is still a thin team with lots of questions. But there isn’t a team left in the AL Middle that doesn’t have questions. Fangraphs has the Jays at 56.1 percent for that last playoff spot. They’re the obvious favorite.

The 'Wait … They’re Doing What Now?' teams: Orioles, Tigers, Royals, Mariners

The widely understood consensus on all four of these teams heading into this year was that 2020 was another gap year, a season to play young players, find out what your longterm pieces are and hope the young kids at the satellite camps are keeping busy. But these four teams -- any of whom you would have gotten 300-1 odds to win the World Series heading in -- are in fact the next four teams behind the Jays.

The Orioles are a half-game back of Toronto; followed by the Tigers (two games back), Royals (three) and the Mariners (3 1/2). Even in the context of a 60-game season, that’s essentially nothing; you could wipe that out in a weekend. (The Orioles will in fact try to do that very thing in Buffalo this Friday-Sunday.)

What’s interesting about all four of these teams is that none of them are likely to go all-in for this season at the Trade Deadline. They certainly won’t be trading future pieces to make a run for the eighth spot. But you might see more of them being aggressive like the Tigers have with calling up Casey Mize and other young starters.

If you ever wanted to find out how one of your phenoms would handle a pennant chase, well, it turns out, these teams suddenly find themselves in one. Might as well go for it now! Ryan Mountcastle is already up for the O’s! Could Seattle called up Jarred Kelenic! Let’s do it!

The team with a decision to make: Rangers

The Rangers have a lot going for them, from an AL Cy Young Award contender in Lance Lynn, to a bullpen that’s better than many expected, to Joey Gallo, who hasn’t gotten it going yet but could explode at any minute. They also have a brand-new stadium they’d like to show off someday to fans with a winning team and recognizable stars. But they also have a ton of holes, and they’ve now actually fallen behind Seattle. Will they consider trading Lynn? Will they take the Orioles/Tigers route? Or will they hang around and try to make something happen now? The Rangers have always felt a little bit in the middle ground for a few years now. That’s never been clearer than now. A reckoning may be at hand.

The teams who watched the bottom fall out … but are in fact still alive: Red Sox, Angels

These teams have the worst winning percentages in the AL, and only the Pirates have a worse record in all of baseball. This is particularly galling because each of them, ostensibly, had playoff hopes heading into the year, and they each obviously have top-shelf superstars on their rosters. But it turns out that pitching is super important in baseball, and neither team has much of it. Still: Their seasons aren’t over.

The Red Sox are only five games behind the Blue Jays -- a team they play six more times, including today -- and the Angels are only six games behind Toronto, and I’m still not entirely convinced the Rangers and Mariners are better than the Angels. We’ve seen teams make up deficits like that in 30 games or so before. We see it all the time.

The White Sox have made the "AL Middle" race a tighter one, with less margin for error. But if you’re a fan of an AL team, any AL team, your team is still in this.

What a year.