After three endless days off -- how in the world do we make it through the winter, people? -- the Major League Baseball regular season continues tonight, albeit with just one game, between the first-place Cubs and the suddenly Mike Matheny-less Cardinals. With the trade of Manny Machado to the
After three endless days off -- how in the world do we make it through the winter, people? -- the Major League Baseball regular season continues tonight, albeit with just one game, between the first-place Cubs and the suddenly Mike Matheny-less Cardinals. With the trade of Manny Machado to the Dodgers finally going through, the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline is in full swing, with buyers and sellers texting each other as furious teenagers the night before prom (or, I guess, as furious as everyone on earth is texting everyone else on earth, all the time). But, knowing you are a buyer or a seller is its own sort of privilege this time of year. Say what you will about the Royals, but they know who they are. Not everyone is so fortunate.
But they will know soon. There are five teams, in particular, for whom the next 12 days are particularly critical. The Astros can go 0-12 in their next 12 games (they won't), and they're still all-in for this season. The Orioles can go 12-0 in their next 12 games (they won't), and they're still sellers. But these five teams will need the next 10 games to guide them. Watch every game from these five teams closely: Every one of them is pivotal. By July 31, we should know whether each of them is buyers or sellers. The next 12 games will tell us.
Current record: 51-45, two games out of first place in National League West, two games out of Wild Card
Fangraphs playoff odds: 20.9 percent
Next 12 games: at ARI, vs. HOU, vs. OAK, at STL
The Rockies were four games under .500 on June 27 and looked like a team that had its (brief) moment last year, but was now falling back to the pack. (One wondered if the Padres might catch them from behind.) Since then, they're 13-3 and are riding a five-game winning streak, including that amusing 19-2 win when Arizona's Daniel Descalso pitched against them in the fourth inning. They're hot.
But the odds are still against them, particularly now that the Dodgers have Machado, and have righted themselves after that horrid start. The Rockies also play their next 12 games against teams with winning records, teams highly motivating themselves to secure their contending status before the Trade Deadline. (One of them will show up later on this list.) The recent win streak has made it unlikely that Colorado will drop out of the race entirely unless the bottom truly falls out, but put it this way: With that schedule, if the Rockies are still only two games out of the Wild Card and the NL West on July 31, they'll have to consider that a massive victory.
Los Angeles Angels
Current record: 49-48, 14 games out of first place in American League West, nine games out of Wild Card
Fangraphs playoff odds: 2.8 percent
Next 12 games: vs. HOU, vs. CWS, vs. SEA, at TB
We're being a little nice including the Angels here -- they have a worse record than the Rays, for example, whom we aren't including -- but the Halos are playing under a different calculus. They clearly were building up specifically for this year, unlike the Rays, and they have Michael Trout, which gives them a certain professional obligation to do everything they can do to win as long as they have him, which, we remind you, is only two more years after this one.
So no team in baseball needs a 10-game winning streak more than the Angels do, who have now been passed not just by the Mariners, but by the A's. (They're farther back from the A's than the Mariners are back from the Astros. There is quite the hill to climb.) The positive news is that they start a 10-game homestand on Friday night, with six of those games against teams they're directly chasing in the AL West. But if the Halos lose two of three to the Astros and the Mariners in the next week and a half, it will be impossible for them to pretend any longer. And then it's going to be time for some very difficult questions.
St. Louis Cardinals
Current record: 48-46, 7 1/2 games out of first place in NL Central, four games out of Wild Card
Fangraphs playoff odds: 23.8 percent
Next 11 games: at CHC, vs. CIN, vs. CHC
No team has had more turmoil over the last fortnight than the Cardinals, who ended a series of off-field scuffles and on-field struggles by dismissing Matheny with just one game remaining in the first half. Under interim manager Mike Shildt, the Cards won that game, so everything should be totally fine now, right?
Shildt is considered a legitimate candidate to hang onto the job if the Cardinals have a more stirring second half than first half, and we'll know quickly: The Cards play the first-place Cubs eight times in the next 11 days. A five-game series at Wrigley begins tonight, and they return to Busch Stadium next weekend. At this point, Cardinals fans are just hoping for some answers one way or another: If they can somehow win four of five in Wrigley, they're all in; lose four out of five, and it's time to start looking forward to 2019. After the Matheny move, the Cards can perhaps be a little more forward-thinking; their major shakeup, after all, has already happened.
San Francisco Giants
Current record: 50-48, four games out of first place in NL West, four games out of Wild Card
Fangraphs playoff odds: 15.1 percent
Next 12 games: at OAK, at SEA, vs. MIL, at SD
The Giants are the only team on this list that has been outscored by their opponents, which is to say, they're pretty fortunate to be over .500 at all. As long as they are, they're going to be resistant to trading away any talent or packing in the season; their whole offseason, after all, was about building up for 2018. But San Francisco is probably stuck either way. If the Giants not going to trade away Madison Bumgarner -- and they're not -- they don't have much to offer contending teams anyway, and they don't have the prospects (or the payroll room under the luxury tax) to add much, even though they need pitching depth and an outfielder (and maybe two).
The Giants are in the strange position of not really being able to add or subtract, though this AL West road trip right after the break could be clarifying. Lose both those series to the A's and Mariners -- not to mention the Brewers coming into town afterward -- and any temptations to trade for, say, Adam Jones, likely fall by the wayside. Knowing San Francisco, though, it will go .500 over the next two weeks and we won't know any more than we do now.
Current record: 48-48, 5 1/2 games out of first place in NL East, five games out of Wild Card
Fangraphs playoff odds: 60.6 percent
Next 12 games: vs. ATL, at MIL, at MIA, vs. NYM
And we come across the most baffling team of all. The Nationals' inability to get going this year, despite all the talent and motivation in the world, has them somehow still idling at .500 coming out of the All-Star break. The emergence of the Braves and Phillies have made their inertia particularly dangerous, and they are running out of time.
But there is plenty of room for hope. Stephen Strasburg is returning from the disabled list Friday, Fangraphs remains wildly optimistic about the Nationals' chances (they're still considered NL East favorites!) and they still have Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper and Juan Soto and Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon and Sean Doolittle (and Mark Reynolds, who has a higher OPS than all of them). The Braves series this weekend is absolutely huge for them; imagine a nightmare scenario where they lose all three and are eight games out of first, with a trip to Miller Park directly afterwards. We've spent all season waiting for the Nats to wake up and make their run. We have reached the point in the season where they, and everyone else on this list, is running out of time. It gets late early out there.
Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.