10 Degrees: Playoff possibilities could be a picture of pure chaos

Considering the tectonic shift in the American League playoff picture over the last two weeks, the opportunity exists for pure, unadulterated chaos over the final half-month of the season. Technically, this scenario is feasible: Three teams tie for the AL West championship and four others outside the division match their record. It is like baseball drawn by Picasso, a thought so abstract that even MLB’s official tie-breaking procedures, all 2,366 convoluted words of them, do not bother to dream it up.

And yet if the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and Houston Astros falter, the Los Angeles Angels and Minnesota Twins forge ahead and the Cleveland Indians and Baltimore Orioles surge, the seven-way tie for three playoff spots could happen. Reality, of course, reminds us that the chance of it is about the same as Yoenis Cespedes winning National League MVP.

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Still, it’s fun to dream of the Rangers, Astros and Angels finishing the season with identical records and setting into motion the most crazed few days imaginable. Presuming the Yankees hold on and join Toronto and Kansas City, who should clinch their playoff spots this week, that would leave two spots. For giggles, let’s throw in another team – the Twins have the best record among the other “contenders” – and see how a four-way tie would play out.

Put the Twins aside for a moment. The first tiebreaker among the AL West teams is head-to-head record. Right now, the Rangers beat the Astros, the Astros beat the Angels and the Angels beat the Rangers, which means the team with the best combined head-to-head mark among the three gets to choose a letter: A, B or C. Right now, naturally, the Rangers and Angels are tied there, too, so the Angels would get their pick for winning the season series.

Team A would host Team B, and Team C would host Team D – Minnesota. If the Twins won, they’d get the wild card and the winner of A vs. B the AL West title. If Team C beat the Twins, it would travel to the winner of A vs. B for another game whereby the winner would claim the division and the loser would get the wild card.

So it’s possible that the …

Cole Hamels and the Rangers seem to be full of surprises. (AP)
Cole Hamels and the Rangers seem to be full of surprises. (AP)

1. Texas Rangers

could host the Angels in Game 162 on Oct. 4, play the C vs. D game in Arlington against Minnesota on Oct. 5, travel to Anaheim to determine the division title Oct. 6, fly to New York for the AL wild card Oct. 7 and start the division series in another country Oct. 8.

And unlike the seven-team apocalypse, this isn’t all that far-fetched, except for the idea that it includes the Rangers blowing the 1½-game lead they’ve built in the AL West seemingly out of nowhere. Just seven weeks ago, at the trade deadline, the Rangers were seven games back of the Astros, below .500, non-factors and entertaining trades for Yovani Gallardo even after they’d gotten Cole Hamels. That was a play more for next year, when Yu Darvish returns from Tommy John surgery and an overload of offensive talent – Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Rougned Odor, Shin-Soo Choo, Mitch Moreland, Delino DeShields and Josh Hamilton, with Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara and Lewis Brinson on the come – gives them myriad possibilities.

Here they are instead, 29-17 since the deadline, 38-23 since the All-Star break, playing an interesting sort of baseball because they’re not known for anything in particular. Over the time they’ve played .630 baseball since the break, here are some of their ranks among the 30 teams in baseball:

ERA: 17th
Bullpen ERA: 16th
Strikeouts per 9: 25th
Walks per 9: 18th
Batting average: 5th
On-base percentage: 2nd
Slugging percentage: 13th
Home runs: 17th
Runs: 7th

Seeing as their first-half ranks in OBP and runs scored were 18th and 15th, respectively, the leap in the former certainly has helped the latter. Especially excellent has been Shin-Soo Choo, finally looking like a $130 million player with a .349/.459/.552 second-half line. It’s the best OBP in the AL and third behind the two best hitters in the NL, Bryce Harper and Joey Votto. And it still doesn’t get the Rangers anywhere close to the .345 team OBP the

2. Toronto Blue Jays have put up in the second half. It beats their first-half output and has helped fuel an offense that scored 77 more runs than any team before the All-Star break and is best in the second half, too, 10 ahead of the Mets. That the Blue Jays’ offense isn’t on pace to score 900 runs – they’re five short – is something of a surprise, even though the last team to hit the mark was the 2009 Yankees.

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That’s how good the Blue Jays are. It’s not just Josh Donaldson – the presumed MVP even though, it should be noted, Mike Trout has jumped ahead of him in slugging percentage and maintains more than a 30-point advantage in OBP – Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, their slugging triumvirate. Chris Colabello has been an unsung monster (.329/.376/.528), Russell Martin his steady self and Justin Smoak a surprising source of power. Even if Troy Tulowitzki isn’t back in time for the postseason, the Blue Jays get to ride the game’s best lineup with David Price, a reinvigorated R.A. Dickey (6 2/3 innings per start, 2.98 ERA in the second half), the returning Marcus Stroman and a bullpen anchored by Brett Cecil (second-half ERA: 0.00) and rookies Roberto Osuna and Aaron Sanchez, whose Saturday of terror was a rare misstep in splendid rookie seasons.

The only thing impeding their march toward home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is the possibility the …

Royals closer Greg Holland hasn't been dominant this season. (Getty)
Royals closer Greg Holland hasn't been dominant this season. (Getty)

3. Kansas City Royals

stop playing like the worst team in the American League. Were it not for Houston, the Royals could lay claim to that honor for September. Since the month began, they’re 6-12, the last two losses particularly ugly walk-offs by Detroit that exposed the warts plaguing Kansas City as it clings to a one-game lead over the Blue Jays.

The deepest concern involves something that for 2½ years manager Ned Yost never needed to give considerable thought: the bullpen. In September, Royals relievers have posted a 5.18 ERA, helping contribute to the team giving up a major league-worst 106 runs. They’re walking more than a batter every other inning. They’ve given up the second-most home runs in the AL and induced the fewest groundballs in all of baseball. And the numbers tell only half the problem.

Yost needs to remove Greg Holland from the closer’s role. He needed to do it a couple months ago, frankly, when the inconsistency of Holland’s stuff spoke to a problem likely to manifest itself later in the season. And with his fastball hovering around 90 mph recently, Holland does not have the sort of command necessary to thrive with a diminished repertoire. Every fastball is liable to be fat, every slider a threat to leave the strike zone and put him in a hole. With Wade Davis ready to close, it’s not even a choice.

Multiple questions concerning Holland’s future exist upon his demotion, which is nigh. How does he accept a lesser role? And what sort of role will that be? Putting him in the eighth inning seems defeatist, and shipping him to mop-up duty is unbecoming of someone who, over the last four years, put up a 1.86 ERA in more than 250 innings.

Once the Holland issue sorts itself out, the Royals can hope the Johnny Cueto problems do, too, and that he’s much more who he was Friday than who he’d been his previous five starts. The Royals aren’t anywhere near as bad as they’ve been lately, and that was evident over the first 125 games of the season, when they built a strong enough lead that the …

4. Minnesota Twins have no shot of catching them in the Central. The Twins nevertheless find themselves in position to take the second wild card, even though they lost five in a row before Sunday's win over the Angels. The timing of this streak – their fourth skid of at least four games in the second half alone – was inopportune, unfortunate and, frankly, unsurprising.

For the entirety of the season, the Twins have looked like little more than an average-at-best team playing above-average baseball. They’re good, then they’re not. In the second half, they’re hitting .239/.300/.400. They don’t field particularly well. Their pitching is mediocre. Maybe this is where they belong, on the outside looking in, needing more than the awesomeness of Miguel Sano to drag them along as the …

5. Los Angeles Angels make another push toward respectability in spite of trotting out the single worst offense in the league since the second half began. That the Angels have managed to do this with the best player in the world on their team adds some noteworthiness to the feat.

Nevertheless, not only did they ride a manhandling of the Twins over the weekend to the cusp of the second wild card in the AL, they’ve closed the gap with the Rangers to four and Astros to one with three games in Houston coming up and four at Texas to finish the regular season. This is an OK team playing like a good one at the right time, and as much as randomness and variance play a role in baseball, playing well in September matters more than doing so in April because there is less opportunity to bridge deficits.

Here’s the truth: Had the …

6. Houston Astros spent September playing even like an average team, the world of hurt in which they currently find themselves wouldn’t exist. On Sept. 1, the Astros were 73-59 and held a four-game lead on Texas. In less than three weeks, not only did they bleed that lead but they are 1½ games back and barely clinging to the wild card. It’s a collapse. Not an epic one. Not an all-timer. It’s rather egregious, though, and, frankly, quite shocking.

The Astros spent most of the season looking like one of the two best teams in the AL alongside Kansas City. Before Toronto went 40-17 in the second half and the Rangers made their move, it was the Royals and the Astros, one having been there last year, the other primed for a half-decade of playoff runs like this. While most of that sentiment remains true, one thing the Astros don’t want is another run like this.

Beating Sonny Gray on Saturday snapped a five-game losing streak and gave Houston its fifth win in 17 games this month. Offense isn’t the problem. The Astros are hitting .270/.331/.454. Their pitching, on the other hand, has reached some fancy levels of futility. It takes skill to allow 30 home runs in 145 1/3 innings, as the Astros have. Even though just nine have come from their relief pitchers, they’ve got a 6.44 ERA, the worst of any bullpen this month. Josh Fields, Vince Velazquez, Pat Neshek all have been really bad to really, really bad in September, and the Astros’ flirtation with an October at home is on their pitchers.

Unless they can reclaim first from the Rangers, they’re headed to the road not just for the wild-card game but any series thereafter. This is not good. The Astros are 29-46 away from Minute Maid Park, the worst road record in the AL. It’s not Braves/Phillies bad, but it’s Marlins/Reds/Rockies bad, and for a playoff team to be mentioned in that company feels odd. Then again, the …

7. Cleveland Indians and Baltimore Orioles have spent enough time under .500 late this season to have no business being in the hunt for a playoff spot, and yet enough hope remains that a big week would keep both alive as the calendar turns.

The Indians can’t seem to get momentum, trading wins and losses recently and not taking advantage of their typically strong starting pitching. Three games at Minnesota and three more at Kansas City this week not only offer an occasion to enhance their status but keep division foes from their goals. Once Baltimore lost 15 of 18 bridging August and September, their hopes looked cooked. A solid stretch found their heartbeat, and they could really defibrillate their season with sweeps at Washington and Boston this week.

Both are long shots, done in by 5½ faulty months. The Indians could’ve brought Francisco Lindor up earlier, and the Orioles could’ve better fortified their rotation at the trade deadline knowing Chris Davis and Matt Wieters and Wei-Yin Chen and Darren O’Day are headed for free agency, and both get to live with their mistakes. Chances are they’ll be watching the …

Cardinals starter Lance Lynn has struggled of late. (AP)
Cardinals starter Lance Lynn has struggled of late. (AP)

8. St. Louis Cardinals just like everybody else. They, too, have had issues, though none necessarily self-inflicted: the Achilles of Adam Wainwright and quadriceps of Matt Holliday and Matt Adams aren’t exactly things within their control.

St. Louis does manage its destiny with home-field advantage, and while other teams have shown a four-game lead means just about nothing, with only two weeks of games left it’s still significant enough to make the Cardinals big favorites to hold on to home field in the NL. Much like their cross-state counterpart, they’ve got some late-September housekeeping to take care of. Lance Lynn has been a mess this month, as has Michael Wacha – both have 11 walks, Lynn in 11 2/3 innings and Wacha in 15 – and Jaime Garcia hasn’t been much better.

Whom Mike Matheny chooses for his postseason rotation is one of the Cardinals’ burning questions. John Lackey is pitching the best of the group and has the most playoff experience, so he’s in. Beyond him, it’s a grab bag among Lynn, Wacha, Garcia and Carlos Martinez. Figuring that out, getting a proper outfield rotation with Holliday, Jason Heyward, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham and Greg Garcia, and getting better out of Jhonny Peralta (.185/.224/.222 in September) and Yadier Molina (.140/.224/.163) are the other issues.

They’re the sorts of issues for which other teams would kill. Even if they don’t win 100 games, the Cardinals remain a force, good enough to hold off the Pirates and the …

9. Chicago Cubs in a division reminiscent of the AL East because of how strong it is at the top. The Cubs’ ascent came from a 32-14 surge after the trade deadline, the best record in the NL entering Sunday, even ahead of the 31-14 Mets. Now, with Jorge Soler off the disabled list – and hitting 108-mph rocket home runs – the game’s highest-scoring offense in September gets even better.

The Cubs’ depth is absurd, from an outfield with Dexter Fowler, Kyle Schwarber, Chris Coghlan, Austin Jackson and Soler to an infield with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and Tommy La Stella. There are too few positions for the Cubs to adequately stack their lineup, and while that means a world of trade possibilities in the offseason, for now it’s up to Joe Maddon to do his magic in October.

The NL Manager of the Year – all due respect to others, but this, like Bryce Harper’s NL MVP candidacy, isn’t particularly close – stirred up the Cardinals over the weekend during Chicago's series win by comparing them to Tony Soprano. Then, the next day, Cubs pitchers hit Cardinals batters three times. Maddon, apparently, is more the Phil Leotardo sort.

Barring the Cubs and Pirates usurping the Cardinals, Maddon gets to send Jake Arrieta out to face Gerrit Cole in a tremendous wild-card matchup. If it’s at Wrigley Field, even more excitement will suffuse the moment. And if it can play counter to the …

10. Texas Rangers and the rest of the AL turning into a giant tangle of ties and possibilities, all the better. No matter who’s doing the playing, extra baseball is good baseball, and all of the machinations would make for fascinating theater, not to mention copious Monday-morning quarterbacking.

Something as simple as whether to pick A, B or C in the case of the four-way tie matters. Would the Angels opt to take the C and host Minnesota, knowing the Twins would likely start Phil Hughes, and be willing to travel to Texas or Houston after that – and then New York and Kansas City? Or would the Angels prefer A – a home game against Dallas Keuchel with a reward of another home game to win the division and avoid the wild card altogether?

While a four-way tie is a dream, a two-way that would create a third do-or-die game alongside the wild cards is a pretty sweet possibility, too. And even a poor-man’s version of four years ago, when the Night of 162 gave baseball perhaps its finest hour ever, would more than suffice.

Somewhere in the middle of it all will be the Rangers, the most surprising division leader by a fair margin. Once Darvish went down, the path for their season to do the same widened by a few lanes. Rookie manager Jeff Banister handled the Darvish injury with aplomb, weathered an ugly start and now has the Rangers on the verge of their first playoff appearance since Hamilton was booed at home during the 2012 wild-card game.

Whether it’s in the division series or wild card, Hamels will stand on the mound, out of his Philadelphia purgatory, and look to do for Texas what he did for the Phillies in 2008. The Rangers, like everyone in baseball, see the parity across the game and harbor hopes for a championship. It’s about which team gets hot at the right moment, and all it takes is a chance, whether it’s a team that ran through its division or one ready to give the world some drama for its admission ticket.

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