MLB playoffs: Ranking all 18 contenders' schedules

MLB columnist

It’s less than a week into the new month, and the San Francisco Giants already have used 18 different pitchers in September. I would list them all, but I fear anyone without an LTE signal or Ethernet connection will run out of the necessary bandwidth to load the rest of the page, and I want everyone to read the next paragraph.

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September baseball is broken. If modern baseball is a mess of excessive pitching changes, platoon-split obsessiveness and foraging for the slightest marginal advantage, September baseball is its paste-eating cousin, wrong in a million and one different ways and dying to be fixed.

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Take the Giants’ game Sunday against the Cubs. Johnny Cueto pitched the first seven innings. Over the next six innings, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy used nine relief pitchers. Nine! Even with the bloat of modern pitching staffs, none has gone beyond eight relievers during an April-through-August game. September practically encourages managers to use pitchers for one or two outs, which Bochy did with two-thirds of his relievers. On Monday, he used the only three pitchers on his roster who hadn’t thrown in September yet.

And good for Bochy. If he has 18 pitchers he trusts, he should use them, seeing as the rules allow as much and he is perhaps the best at deploying his bullpen (Santiago Casilla excepted). The rules are just antiquated, relics of a time when September call-ups existed to give future major leaguers cups of coffee. Not anymore. Teams dare not bring their best prospects up in September, lest they forfeit valuable service-time days. Instead, it’s simply a bullpen-padding exercise.

While San Francisco is guiltiest, others contenders are far from absolved. The Nationals have used 15 pitchers, the Cubs, Astros, Blue Jays, Mets, Marlins, Rangers and Yankees 14 and the Royals, Mariners and Dodgers 13. Pittsburgh, Detroit and St. Louis are at 12, while Cleveland, Baltimore and Boston have thrown a reasonable 11.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy has made several trips to the mound so far in September. (Getty)
Giants manager Bruce Bochy has made several trips to the mound so far in September. (Getty)

September baseball should be exciting. And as the standings tighten, it will be — in spite of itself. Because managers, emboldened by their benches, will tinker to their heart’s content and use their worst pitchers as cannon fodder to save the arms of their best — something that seems to go against the competitive spirit of a playoff race.

Now, there’s an argument to be made that pushing fatigued arms is a recipe for injury and this mitigates it. And compelling though that may be, a compromise does exist. Others have posited the idea of unlimited call-ups with a daily 25-man roster, though all that does is encourage a manager to stack nine relievers behind a starter and expand his bench.

Perhaps the best option is a weekly 25-man roster. While it would give managers more choices — go with just four starters and eight or nine relievers, especially if there’s a day off — it would prevent the complete bastardization of the rule that’s in place today and better mimic the strategy of the season’s first five months.

The Giants’ bullpen use comes at the best time possible, with collective-bargaining negotiations churning into high gear and change afoot. This is an easy one. September should be a showcase for baseball, not a reminder that the desire to win has corrupted its flow to the cusp of unwatchability.

For those still interested in stomaching the parade of pitching changes, four weeks of games remain, and among the biggest factors in determining playoff positioning is the schedule. Yahoo Sports has broken down those of the 18 teams that consider themselves contenders and ranked them easiest to hardest. Congratulations are due to the team that for the second consecutive season gets the best crack at September — and a team that needs every bit of it — the …

1. New York Mets
Record: 72-66, 8½ games back in NL East, 1 game back of second NL wild card
Run differential: +15
Opponents’ winning percentage: .443
Home/road: 10/14
Off-days: Sept. 8, 15, 29
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 3 of 24
Key series: at Nationals, Sept. 12-14
Overview: Once again the Mets find themselves with the lowest opponents’ winning percentage down the stretch. Last year, they went into the final month facing teams with a .415 winning percentage, and they cruised to a division title. The difficulty of opponents isn’t quite the cakewalk this season, though a bad home-road split is mitigated by their solid play away from Citi Field and the three days off should help their panoply of busted arms rest. The Mets’ best bet at a wild-card spot may come during the 10-game homestand that accounts for all of their contests there. Visiting Queens: the two worst teams in baseball, Minnesota and Atlanta, along with Philadelphia. The schedule is perhaps the best thing going for the Mets, and it still won’t be enough to help them catch the …

The Nationals play 16 of their last 25 games at home. (Getty)
The Nationals play 16 of their last 25 games at home. (Getty)

2. Washington Nationals
Record: 80-57, 8½ games up in NL East
Run differential: +140
Opponents’ winning percentage: .458
Home/road: 16/9
Off-days: Sept. 15, 22
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 3 of 25
Key series: at Pirates, Sept. 23-25
Overview: The best team the Nationals play is the Mets. The only above-.500 team the Nats play is the Mets. And that pretty much says everything you need to know about what puts them in excellent position to lock down home-field advantage in the division series. (No matter how good the schedule is, neither they, nor anyone else, is catching the Cubs.) The other pluses: The Nationals have the most home games of any team. Their out-of-division games are against the sagging Pirates and the sad Diamondbacks. They don’t leave the Eastern time zone. Those secondary factors almost put the Nationals on top, and they’re joined in great-team-with-a-great-schedule company by the …

3. Texas Rangers
Record: 82-56, 8½ games up in AL West
Run differential: +23
Opponents’ winning percentage: .458
Home/road: 12/12
Off-days: Sept. 15, 22, 29
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 6 of 24
Key series: at Astros, Sept. 12-14
Overview: Like the Rangers need anything more going for them. They’re already pulling the oh-so-lucky record-differential-greater-than-run-differential trick, and after this current Seattle-Los Angeles-Houston road swing, they close out with 12 of 15 at home against five teams with a combined winning percentage of .432. In other words, the Rangers’ last 15 games come against the equivalent of a 70-win team. If they’re not hosting the AL wild-card winner in the division series, something went very wrong. They’ve got the lead. They’ve got the time off. And they don’t have the pressure of, say, the …

Time might be running out for the Kansas City Royals. (Getty)
Time might be running out for the Kansas City Royals. (Getty)

4. Kansas City Royals
Record: 71-66, 8½ games back in AL Central, four games back of second wild card
Run differential: -10
Opponents’ winning percentage: .480
Home/road: 14/11
Off-days: Sept. 8, 26
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 9 of 25
Key series: at Indians, Sept. 20-22
Overview: If the Royals are going to contend, they need to make their move over the next two weeks, when they’ve got four consecutive series against some of the dregs of the AL: at Minnesota, at Chicago, then four-game home series against Oakland and Chicago. Should they not have a week like last, when the Royals dropped four of six, they’ll at least be in position to strike against the Indians and Tigers in back-to-back series. Kansas City plays 14 of its last 25 at home, where it is markedly better than on the road. The schedule’s lone drawback: 17 consecutive days with games from Sept. 9-25. The last of those come against the …

5. Detroit Tigers
Record: 75-62, 4½ games back in AL Central, tied for second wild card
Run differential: +25
Opponents’ winning percentage: .479
Home/road: 14/11
Off-days: Sept. 8, 19
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 13 of 25
Key series: at Indians, Sept. 16-18
Overview: With seven games left against Minnesota — against whom they’re already 10-2 this season — the Tigers may have the biggest gimme of any team in baseball. Add that to a season-ending series against Atlanta, and Detroit may be the biggest beneficiary of the cannibalistic AL East. The one thing working against the Tigers is a series this week against the Orioles, and even that comes at home. Detroit needs every bit of help it can get for October, whereas a dandy September schedule is just fortune on top of fortune for the …

Chicago’s magic number to clinch the NL Central is 10. (Getty)
Chicago’s magic number to clinch the NL Central is 10. (Getty)

6. Chicago Cubs
Record: 89-48, 16½ games up in NL Central
Run differential: +229
Opponents’ winning percentage: .476
Home/road: 10/15
Off-days: Sept. 8, 22
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 9 of 25
Key series: vs. Cardinals, Sept. 23-25
Overview: These days, the Cubs vs. anyone feels like a complete mismatch. They’re now on pace to win 105 games, and considering their schedule includes four series against the dregs of the NL Central, betting the over doesn’t feel like much of a stretch. Granted, the Cubs play 60 percent of their remaining games on the road, though their 38-28 record away from Wrigley Field is the second best in baseball, behind only the inexplicable Cardinals, who are 30-37 at Busch Stadium and 42-27 elsewhere. The Cubs’ magic number for home-field advantage in the NL is 17 games, their magic number to clinch the Central just 10, and all this magic number talk sounds insane when considering the record of the …

7. Miami Marlins
Record: 68-70, 12½ games back in NL East, five games back of second NL wild card
Run differential: -8
Opponents’ winning percentage: .488
Home/road: 15/9
Off-days: Sept. 8, 15, 29
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 12 of 24
Key series: vs. Dodgers, Sept. 9-11
Overview: One of those schedules where winning percentage doesn’t tell the full story. Yes, the Marlins have a series against the Dodgers and two more against the Nationals. None of those is easy. They’ve also got 12 games remaining against the Braves and Phillies. And 15 of 24 games at home. And three off-days. Classifying them as playoff contenders, frankly, is a stretch, especially the way they’ve caved in the past week and a half, losing 9 of 10. If they don’t win four of their remaining five games this week, they’re probably done. Should they somehow weather the Dodgers this weekend — and Friday night is the pitching matchup of the year, with Jose Fernandez against the returning Clayton Kershaw — the Marlins’ next week consists of Braves and Phillies. It looks about as grim as the post-All-Star break …

The Giants will play the Dodgers six more times this season. (Getty)
The Giants will play the Dodgers six more times this season. (Getty)

8. San Francisco Giants
Record: 73-64, four games back in NL West, lead first NL wild card by ½ game
Run differential: +55
Opponents’ winning percentage: .482
Home/road: 13/12
Off-days: Sept. 8, 26
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 10 of 25
Key series: at Dodgers, Sept. 19-21
Overview: The Giants have about as nondescript a schedule as possible, which is a good thing seeing as they’ve been about as nondescript a team as possible for the last six weeks. They don’t have any long homestands or road trips. They don’t play any patently awful or incredibly dominant teams. Their closest thing to a stretch against poor teams comes over the next week, and after that the Giants play games on 17 consecutive days, during which Bruce Bochy undoubtedly will exploit every advantage his super-sized bullpen affords. If the first-half Giants ever show up, they’ve got only 10 games against winning teams, so this is a team capable of a jag. It’s still not too late to threaten the …

9. Los Angeles Dodgers
Record: 77-60, four games up in NL West
Run differential: +70
Opponents’ winning percentage: .478
Home/road: 9/16
Off-days: Sept. 8, 26
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 9 of 25
Key series: at Giants, Sept. 30-Oct. 2
Overview: Here’s what the Dodgers have going for them: Their toughest opponent, at least record-wise, is the Giants, who are 16-31 since July 15. This is a positive. So are the two series against the Diamondbacks. Yes, the Dodgers have to go on the road for nearly two-thirds of their games, and they’re a below-.500 team away from Dodger Stadium. Similarly, to avoid starting the postseason in Washington, they need to play some serious catch-up in the standings. And that’s going to be awfully tough with the forthcoming Los Angeles-to-Miami-to-New York-to-Phoenix-to-Los Angeles trip during which they don’t get a single day off. Eek. Still, the opponent’s winning percentage is the opponent’s winning percentage, and the Dodgers’ biggest out-of-division challenge is the Yankees, who find themselves in similar playoff limbo to the …

The Mariners only have a 3 percent of making the postseason. (Getty)
The Mariners only have a 3 percent of making the postseason. (Getty)

10. Seattle Mariners
Record: 70-67, 11½ games back in AL West, five games back of second wild card
Run differential: +21
Opponents’ winning percentage: .484
Home/road: 13/12
Off-days: Sept. 15, 22
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 12 of 25
Key series: vs. Astros, Sept. 16-18
Overview: The Mariners have the 10th-best record in the AL. They are playoff contenders like the Marlins are playoff contenders, here only because the whims of baseball say that five games is not insurmountable, even if it necessitates a leap over five teams to get there. Seattle could well find itself fully out of contention by the middle of the week after a series with the Rangers, or it could set itself up for a trip to Oakland and Los Angeles where hay can be made. They’ve got ample days off and enough home games. They’ve also got about a 3 percent chance for all this to happen, according to move prediction algorithms. Joining the Cubs, Nationals, Rangers and Dodgers in the 99-percent range are the …

11. Cleveland Indians
Record: 79-57, 4½ games up in AL Central
Run differential: +100
Opponents’ winning percentage: .499
Home/road: 12 of 26
Off-day: Sept. 19
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 16 of 26
Key series: at Tigers, Sept. 26-29
Overview: And … this is where it starts getting tougher. The real killer: Just one off-day on Sept. 19. Another dagger: After their series against the Twins this week, the Indians close with six consecutive series against teams with winning percentages of .474 or better. They’re all from the AL Central, against whom the Indians are 36-17 this season, so perhaps that isn’t as problematic as it looks. And it’s important, because Cleveland wants to maintain first-round home-field advantage, especially if they want to avoid starting the playoffs in the madhouse that is Rogers Centre or the intimidating Fenway Park or at the team with a better home record than Toronto or Boston, the …

The Orioles will finish the season traveling to the Blue Jays and Yankees. (Getty)
The Orioles will finish the season traveling to the Blue Jays and Yankees. (Getty)

12. Baltimore Orioles
Record: 75-62, two games back in AL East, tied for second wild card
Run differential: +18
Opponents’ winning percentage: .504
Home/road: 11/14
Off-days: Sept. 8, 26
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 16 of 25
Key series: at Blue Jays, Sept. 27-29
Overview: The lack of home games could be an issue. Baltimore is 45-25 at Camden Yards and 30-37 elsewhere. And all 11 of their home games come in one fell swoop. First they need to head from Tampa Bay to Detroit to Boston. Then its Rays, Red Sox, Diamondbacks at home without a day off among them. Finishing the year in Toronto and New York isn’t much help. But it’s the best in the division, and it beats the task of the …

13. Toronto Blue Jays
Record: 77-60, one game up in AL East
Run differential: +99
Opponents’ winning percentage: .509
Home/road: 13/12
Off-days: Sept. 8, 22
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 18 of 25
Key series: at Red Sox, Sept. 30-Oct. 2
Overview: The good news? Next week the Blue Jays get a reprieve from their over-.500 gauntlet by hosting the Rays and then traveling to the Angels. The bad news? That Toronto-to-Los Angeles-to-Seattle-to-Toronto trip is a monster, and it includes an off-day only after the Blue Jays finish the Seattle series. Going to the West Coast in September stinks, and there may be no worse trip for an East Coast team than LA-Seattle. Compound that with the ascending difficulty of a Mariners-Yankees-Orioles-Red Sox finish to the season, and the scheduling god did the Blue Jays no favors. Of course, they could be playing 27 games in 27 days like the …

Twenty-seven days in 27 games for Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates. (Getty)
Twenty-seven days in 27 games for Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates. (Getty)

14. Pittsburgh Pirates
Record: 67-68, 21 games back in NL Central, 4½ games back of second wild card
Run differential: -12
Opponents’ winning percentage: .498
Home/road: 13/14
Off-day: Sept. 19
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 12 of 27
Key series: vs. Nationals, Sept. 23-25
Overview: Yup. Not a misprint. Twenty-seven days, 27 games. The Pirates’ one off-day is counterbalanced by a doubleheader against Cincinnati on Sept. 17, which is part of an eight-games-in-seven-days stretch that happens to fall in the middle of an 11-game road trip. And, yes, there are four worse schedules than this. The bright side for the Pirates is a chance to make a run coming up. If they can grab these next two games from St. Louis, they get a Cincinnati-Philadelphia-Cincinnati-Milwaukee stretch of 15 eminently winnable games. And in the NL wild card race, that’s plenty of runway. And just when everything looks peachy for the Pirates, set up for them to make the NL wild card game for the fourth consecutive season, comes the gut punch to end the season: three vs. Washington, four vs. Chicago, three at the …

15. St. Louis Cardinals
Record: 72-64, 16½ games back in NL Central, lead second wild card
Run differential: +79
Opponents’ winning percentage: .515
Home/road: 14/12
Off-day: Sept. 22
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 9 of 25
Key series: at Giants, Sept. 15-18
Overview: Six games against the Cubs isn’t good for any team in September, even if the Cardinals are 7-6 against them this season. One day off isn’t very good, either. The oddest issue for the Cardinals, though, is that what should be an advantage, with 14 games at home, doesn’t necessarily register as such, seeing as St. Louis is playing sub-.450 ball at Busch Stadium this season. Couple that with just one series each against the Brewers and Reds, and the Cardinals are the rare NL Central team staring at a difficult stretch. Granted, it’s not nearly as bad as the next 10 days for the …

Astros rookie Alex Bregman is hitting .467 in September. (Getty)
Astros rookie Alex Bregman is hitting .467 in September. (Getty)

16. Houston Astros
Record: 73-64, 8½ games back in AL West, two games back of second wild card
Run differential: +46
Opponents’ winning percentage: .519
Home/road: 13/12
Off-days: Sept. 15, 29
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 15 of 25
Key series: vs. Rangers, Sept. 12-14
Overview: Three in Cleveland. Three at home against the Cubs. Three at home against the Rangers. That’s enough to destroy a season. Or embolden an up-and-down team every bit as talented as the rest of the AL. That’s been the most frustrating part about these Astros: On paper, they’re in the upper echelon of the league, and with Alex Bregman doing a star turn and Jose Altuve an MVP turn, plus Carlos Correa and George Springer their typical great selves, the Astros should be more. Except Dallas Keuchel is hurt. And Lance McCullers is hurt. And if anything will do the Astros in, it’s their pitching. The biggest test of the year is these next nine games. After them, we’ll have a far better sense whether these are the playoff-good Astros of last year or a version that falls disappointingly short. If they can survive, their opponents’ winning percentage the rest of the way is just .469, a full 50 points below the full-month figure shared by Houston and the …

17. Boston Red Sox
Record: 76-61, one game back in AL East, lead first wild card
Run differential: +142
Opponents’ winning percentage: .519
Home/road: 10/15
Off-days: Sept. 8, 26
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 20 of 25
Key series: at Orioles, Sept. 19-22
Overview: Nothing quite like the AL East to brighten a team’s September day. After their wicked San Diego-to-Toronto trip this week, the Red Sox get 14 consecutive games against teams with .522-or-better winning percentages. Then, after a breather against Tampa that happens to fall in the middle of a 10-game road trip, making it more like high-altitude breath, Boston returns home for one last series against … the Blue Jays. It’s pretty simple: The AL wild card is there for the taking, and the AL East teams are in danger of beating themselves up and letting others sneak in and poach it. Such is life in September, when financial might doesn’t matter nearly as much, seeing as the teams with the two most trying Septembers are the Red Sox and the …

18. New York Yankees
Record: 71-65, 5½ games back in AL East, 3½ games back of second wild card
Run differential: -15
Opponents’ winning percentage: .522
Home/road: 15/11
Off-day: Sept. 19
Games vs. teams .500 or better: 19 of 26
Key series: at Red Sox, Sept. 15-18
Overview: One day off. Eleven-game road trip. One out-of-division series … and it’s against the Dodgers – with Clayton Kershaw pitching at the back end. Let’s first acknowledge: The Yankees’ chances this season are minuscule. Compound all the talent they traded at the deadline with this schedule and it would torpedo anyone. Extract seven games against Tampa Bay from the Yankees’ schedule, and the average winning percentage of the rest is .557 – about 90-win baseball. Nineteen games against 90-win teams over the next month is sandpaper rough. Cross-borough jealousy is absolutely warranted seeing as the …

19. New York Mets have nine games left against sub-.400 teams … of which there are only two in all of baseball. So even if their rotation is made up of Noah Syndergaard’s balky arm, Bartolo Colon’s hefty boiler, Seth Lugo’s spinnin’ curve, Robert Gsellman’s odd consonant blend and Rafael Montero’s reanimated corpse, and their lineup is held together by duct tape and silly string, the Mets are a serious threat to pass the Giants and Cardinals because of how the next 27 days line up.

Imagine that. Matt Harvey? Out with arm surgery. Jacob deGrom? Out with arm issues. Steven Matz? Out with arm issues. Zack Wheeler? Never back because of arm issues. Eighty percent of the Mets’ dream rotation is on the shelf because of their arms, and the other 20 percent is pitching with elbow issues itself, and David Wright may have to retire, and Neil Walker is out for the year, and Terry Collins is somehow still manager, and the Mets are a serious threat to pass the Giants and Cardinals.

If all of this sounds weird, it was mildly predictable, at least the part about the Mets having an easy stretch run. Major League Baseball wants in-division games to dominate September. The NL East has two awful teams, and beyond that, New York got a gift of a series against Minnesota. Sometimes that’s all it takes. A little fortune, a little luck and the ugliness of September baseball allowing a team missing its frontline talent to manage one patch at a time.

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