This race just got a lot more interesting

June 8th, 2022

Two weeks ago, you almost wondered if the American League playoff chase was already settled. Now, the battle for the third and final AL Wild Card spot -- a new feature in this year’s expanded postseason -- is shaping up to be a thrilling free-for-all.

Back on May 24, the Yankees, Twins and Astros had clear leads in their divisions, and the Wild Card leaders had mostly separated themselves as well. The Rays, Blue Jays and Angels all were off to the sort of solid, well-rounded starts that made you think they were in this for the long haul. Every other “contender” was bouncing around .500 or well below it. Here were the Wild Card standings:

Angels, 27-17 (+3.5 games)
Rays, 25-17 (+2.5)
Blue Jays, 23-20
White Sox, 21-21 (-1.5 games)
Red Sox, 20-22 (-2.5)
Guardians, 18-21 (-3)
Rangers, 18-23 (-4)

From that point until now, the Blue Jays went 10-2, firmly establishing themselves atop the heap. The Rays went 7-6 -- hardly great, but not the sort of thing that will hurt them much. And only one of those teams chasing those top three, Boston, rose above .500. So it would seem like a holding pattern, yes?

Except this, of course: The Angels lost their 12th game in a row on Monday night against Boston and then dismissed manager Joe Maddon the following afternoon before extending the slide to 13 straight losses.

There are all sorts of reasons the Angels have fallen apart, and it’s not as if their season is totally over now. But there’s no question that their nightmarish two weeks has changed the entire landscape of the AL Wild Card chase. Those top five teams still look rather ensconced. The Yankees, Jays and Astros now all have playoff odds of at least 97%, according to FanGraphs, and the Rays are at 70%. Those odds are skeptical of the Twins -- they still peg the White Sox to win the AL Central -- but Minnesota is still four games up on both Cleveland and Chicago.

But that final Wild Card spot? It’s now wide open. And you don’t even have to be above .500 to be in contention.

The Angels’ losing streak has been a huge setback for them -- but a godsend for these five teams (listed in order of record through Tuesday):

Red Sox (29-27)
No team has turned its fortunes around more since May 11 than the Red Sox, who responded to an 11-20 start by going 18-7, through Tuesday's win over the Angels. The Red Sox have been one of the hottest teams in baseball over the last month, and while it hasn’t helped them that much in the AL East (they’re still in fourth), it has rocketed them into the third Wild Card spot, thanks to the Angels’ struggles. (If the Angels had merely gone 6-6 during those 12 games that cost Maddon his job, the Red Sox would still have been 5 1/2 games behind.)

This hasn’t just changed Boston’s fortunes, it has changed the entire trade market. If the Red Sox felt like they weren’t in realistic striking distance, they might have been more likely to start trading away some of their key pieces, perhaps even Rafael Devers or Xander Bogaerts. No longer: The Red Sox are right in the thick of this thing, and they have the Angels to thank.

Guardians (25-26)
It’s typically the rotation that keeps Cleveland in the race, but this year, it has been the bats (and parts of the bullpen). José Ramírez is having another MVP-caliber season, but Owen Miller, Andrés Giménez, Steven Kwan and Josh Naylor have lengthened the Guardians’ lineup to make it look better than it has in years. The rotation hasn’t entirely kicked into gear yet, but it probably will, which means the Guardians can feel fortunate about having plenty of growth potential. (They even have a positive run differential.)

Bringing in another bat probably wouldn’t hurt, though this hasn’t always been the most proactive franchise. But they’re in the game still, and they wouldn’t be without the Angels’ fall.

White Sox (26-27)
Like the Guardians, the White Sox are hardly out of the division race. (Again, FanGraphs still has them as the favorites in the AL Central.) That does seem a little optimistic, especially with the loss of Tim Anderson, who had been carrying this weary, banged-up team for a few weeks before heading to the injured list with a groin strain.

But there is reason for hope, and not just because the Twins don’t look as strong as the Yankees or Astros do atop their divisions. Lance Lynn should be back this week, Eloy Jiménez is on a rehab assignment and Anderson isn’t that far away. The Angels have given the White Sox a backup plan if they can’t crawl back in this division. It remains to be seen how much they will need it.

Rangers (26-29)
Again, if the Angels had gone 6-6 over those dozen games, the Rangers would still be in third place in the AL West, but 6 1/2 games out of second rather than tied with L.A. And let’s face it: No one would be considering the Rangers serious contenders. People might not be considering them that now, regardless. FanGraphs gives them 4.2% odds of making the playoffs, which is only a little bit higher than the Cubs. But the Rangers get to appear on this list because of the Angels’ fall.

Mariners (25-31)
Oh, no way we’re counting the Mariners out at this point. Their dreadful start had fans worried that their offseason optimism was just another example of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, but Seattle has been playing better lately. The Mariners are 6-4 in their last 10 games and have won each of their past three series (with a chance to make it four in Wednesday's finale in Houston). Seattle is suddenly 1 1/2 games behind the Angels and four games out of the last Wild Card spot. (FanGraphs has them with 12.2% playoff odds, which is perfectly respectable considering how this season started.) The Mariners could have been buried. But thanks to the Angels, they have hope. Though Mariners fans know how dangerous hope can be.

It is worth remembering, of course, that the Angels (25.5% odds) are hardly out of this themselves. It’s not as if things can go much worse than they are right now -- depending on the severity of Mike Trout's groin strain.

They’re only 2 1/2 games behind the Red Sox for that final spot. But when you think of where they were two weeks ago, and where they are now … well, it’s just a shame. A shame for the Angels, anyway. But for much of the rest of the American League? It’s a bountiful harvest.