Ranking the 9 clubs chasing a playoff spot

September 12th, 2020

The potential postseason field -- not the seeding, but the teams involved -- has been static since the conclusion of play on Labor Day. In the context of a 60-game season with a 16-team playoff pool, that’s an eternity.

Rays, A’s, White Sox, Twins, Indians, Blue Jays, Astros and Yankees in the AL, in some order.

Dodgers, Cubs, Braves, Padres, Cardinals, Phillies, Giants and Marlins in the NL, in some order.

Why do I get the feeling there might be a change or two between now and the conclusion of the regular season on Sept. 27?

Oh, right, because this is baseball, that’s why!

So here’s one person's ranking of the nine clubs who entered play Saturday on the outside looking in, but still have a shot of advancing, in order from best chance to worst.

(For the sake of added context, we’ve listed each team’s remaining schedule strength, as determined by FanGraphs, which uses each club’s projected opponents’ winning percentage the rest of the way.)

1. Mets
Games back: 2 ½ GB of PHI for 2nd place in NL East; 2 GB of NL Wild Card
Games left: 15
Remaining schedule strength: .519

The Phillies have 18 games in the last 16 days of the season and don’t know when or if Zack Wheeler will pitch again because he tore his fingernail on his jeans (true story). The Marlins have 19 games in that same span and are young and unproven. So you’d better believe there’s a path to second place in the NL East or a Wild Card spot for the Mets (the first-place Braves are also extremely compromised in the rotation). Seizing the opportunity would require better performance in the clutch (the Mets’ .705 OPS with runners in scoring position was 27th out of 30 teams before Friday’s offensive explosion) and better performance from the non-Jacob deGrom portion of the rotation. Pete Alonso has heated up in September, and he could be the key to the whole darn thing.

2. Reds
Games back: 2 ½ GB of STL for 2nd place in NL Central; 3 GB of NL Wild Card
Games left: 15
Remaining schedule strength: .503

As was the case in 2019, the Reds have wasted some of the best starting pitching in baseball with an anemic offense (second-lowest average runs scored in MLB, entering the weekend), despite the big-name acquisitions of Nick Castellanos and Mike Moustakas. The Reds draw a ton of walks and hit their fair share of homers, but do little else. That desperately needs to change, and perhaps getting Nick Senzel back from injury next week will help. While the Reds’ remaining schedule is no cakewalk, they might benefit from the Brewers and Cardinals playing an inordinate number of games against each other (see below). So there’s a good opportunity to slide into second place -- and, ergo, into October -- and that’s why I’m listing them here.

3. Brewers
Games back: 1 GB of STL for 2nd place in NL Central; 1 ½ GB of NL Wild Card
Games left: 18
Remaining schedule strength: .501

Winning eight of 12 one-run games (thanks in large part to the dominance of Josh Hader and Devin Williams) is how a Brew Crew club with an iffy, at best, rotation and a light lineup has hung around. It’s hard to imagine a late rise that doesn’t include Christian Yelich getting back to his MVP level after a confounding seven weeks in which he's been mostly meh (.808 OPS, 113 OPS+). Milwaukee is paying the price for the Cardinals’ COVID conundrum, as those two clubs have three doubleheaders (and 10 games overall) remaining against each other. They might just pick each other off.

4. Rockies
Games back: 1 ½ GB of NL Wild Card
Games left: 16
Remaining schedule strength: .526

The Rox are living off the fumes of their 11-3 start, because they’ve been one of the worst teams in baseball since the second week of August. But they’re still alive. And while we always make a big deal about Colorado’s home/road splits, the Rockies have struggled at home and played .500 ball on the road. So the eight-game road trip to San Francisco and Arizona to close the season is … a good thing? Who knows? What we do know is that if the Rox maintain the 7.03 ERA they’ve posted since Aug. 9, they won’t be leaping into the playoff picture.

5. Tigers
Games back: 3 ½ GB of AL Wild Card
Games left: 14
Remaining schedule strength: .493

To quote John Belushi in "National Lampoon's Animal House," "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" No. Was it over when the Tigers were outscored, 31-0, in a 13-inning span against the Brewers and Cardinals this week? Also no. Detroit’s fate does seem dangerously tied to the performance of the inexperienced Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize in what has indisputably been a bad rotation (highest staff ERA in MLB, entering this weekend). It’s worth noting, though, that the Tigers are 19-17 against teams not named the White Sox, and they’re done with Chicago after this weekend. The Tigers’ inability to face and inflict direct hits on the Yankees team they’re chasing for that last Wild Card spot doesn’t help their cause, but closing the season with four against the Royals doesn’t hurt.

6. Mariners
Games back: 2 ½ GB of HOU for 2nd in AL West; 4 ½ GB of AL Wild Card
Games left: 16
Remaining schedule strength: .528

Maybe this is the way the longest active postseason drought in North American professional sports has to end -- totally out of nowhere! The M’s were supposed to be bottom-feeders in 2020, but have instead played with an unmistakable energy and scrappiness. They steal bases, they are playing much-improved defense, and their starting pitching has taken huge steps forward. The problem is that their schedule tightens up considerably down the stretch (with a daunting dose of the A’s, Padres and Giants), and their bullpen is suspect. But they do have three games with the Astros (Sept. 21-23) to try to put the pressure on.

7. Orioles
Games back: 4 GB of TOR for 2nd in AL East; 3 ½ GB of AL Wild Card
Games left: 16
Remaining schedule strength: .513

That the O’s are even in this conversation after a 108-loss 2019 is a success in its own right. They’re playing relevant games against the Yankees in September as if we’ve rewound the clock to 2012. Despite losing one of their best hitters, Anthony Santander, to injury, the O’s, boosted by rousing rookie Ryan Mountcastle, have shown an ability to keep putting up crooked numbers this month. But a schedule featuring the Braves, Rays and Blue Jays down the stretch isn’t especially forgiving.

8. Angels
Games back: 4 ½ GB of HOU for 2nd in AL West; 6 ½ GB of AL Wild Card
Games left: 14
Remaining schedule strength: .495

The Halos generally haven’t inspired a great deal of confidence that they have what it takes to get Mike Trout to October, although they have played a bit better in September -- including a big four-game sweep of the Astros -- to keep mathematical hope alive (with Trout making his usual bid for the AL MVP honor with a late-season surge). Shohei Ohtani’s pitching injury badly bruised this club, and it’s imperative that he get it going at the plate. The Angels’ schedule isn’t especially daunting. They do face the Padres and Dodgers in the last five games of the season, but the Dodgers will have sewn up the No. 1 seed by then, and the Padres likely will have sealed second place in the NL West.

9. Nationals
Games back: 5 GB of NL Wild Card
Games left: 17
Remaining schedule strength: .521

Washington is included here out of deference to its status as the defending champ and the incredible ability to routinely defy the odds in 2019. Plus, the Nationals have the amazing Juan Soto, which has to count for something. But if you thought last year’s run was magical, merely getting back to October now might qualify as a baseball miracle, especially with three doubleheaders on the docket.