On that anonymous winter day when baseball releases its schedule, it's impossible to tell who made out well and who got stiffed.
Turns out the schedule makers weren't too kind to the defending champions.
With less than 20 games left in most teams' seasons, who they play has as big a bearing as how they play. And the Chicago White Sox have the toughest row to hoe in the waning weeks of September.
With series against the top two teams in the American League West and Central divisions, plus three games at a hot Cleveland Indians team, the White Sox could be in trouble. Same goes for the surprising Florida Marlins, who seven times face the team with the best record in baseball, the New York Mets.
Who, incidentally, have the easiest schedule, even if only eight of their final 20 games are at home. In the AL, the struggling Tigers got a reprieve, with six games against major-league-worst Kansas City.
Here is a breakdown of the 15 teams in the playoff hunt, from toughest to easiest, taking into consideration combined winning percentage of opponents and ratio of home-to-road games.
1) Chicago White Sox (82-61, 1½ games back of AL wild card, 3½ games back of AL Central)
Series remaining: at Los Angeles (3-game series), at Oakland (3), Detroit (3), Seattle (4), at Cleveland (3), at Minnesota (3)
Opponents' combined record: 464-391 (.543)
Key Series: The series against the Twins could be for the wild-card – or the division if Detroit keeps faltering.
Outlook: Bleak. This is a meatgrinder of a schedule, with the Angels playing perhaps the best they have this season, the A's cruising, Detroit needing victories and Cleveland being the best team, record-wise, in baseball the past month.
2) Florida Marlins (72-71, 2½ games back of NL wild card)
Series remaining: New York (3), at Atlanta (3), at New York (4), at Philadelphia (3), Cincinnati (3), Philadelphia (3)
Opponents' combined record: 460-395 (.538)
Key Series: The Marlins came back to split a four-game series with Philadelphia this weekend. Their series at Citizens Bank Park could shake up the wild-card standings.
Outlook: A 10-game road trip in September is no team's idea of fun, but the Marlins have defied expectations all year, so who's to say they can't do it once more?
3) Oakland Athletics (82-60, leading AL West)
Series remaining: at Minnesota (3), Chicago (3), Cleveland (4), Los Angeles (3), at Seattle (3), at Los Angeles (4)
Opponents' combined record: 455-400 (.532)
Key Series: Taking three games from Minnesota could debilitate the Twins, who no one wants to face in a short series.
Outlook: Good, but it won't be easy. The A's don't have a cakewalk series the rest of the way, though they've got a healthy enough lead to drop a few without stumbling completely.
4) Los Angeles Angels (77-66, 5½ games back of AL West, 6½ games back of AL wild card)
Series remaining: Chicago (3), at Texas (4), at Kansas City (2), at Oakland (3), Texas (3), Oakland (4)
Opponents' combined record: 446-413 (.519)
Key Series: The Angels remain within striking distance of the A's, and if they keep it that way, the season's final series will have some meaning to it.
Outlook: Seven games against the team they're chasing bodes well for the Angels – and seven against a mediocre Texas team doesn't hurt, either.
5) Minnesota Twins (leading AL wild card, two games back of AL Central)
Series remaining: Oakland (3), at Cleveland (4), at Boston (3), at Baltimore (3), Kansas City (4), Chicago (3)
Opponents' combined record: 424-432 (.495)
Key Series: The season finale, of course, against the White Sox. If the race is close, Johan Santana will pitch that weekend – and he hasn't lost at the Metrodome in more than a year.
Outlook: Palatable. The 10-game road trip is a drain, but Baltimore is like a gas station for any team on empty. Then four against the Royals before what might be the most important series in all of baseball this year.
6) San Francisco Giants (72-71, two games back of NL wild card)
Series remaining: Colorado (3), at St. Louis (3), at Colorado (3), at Milwaukee (4), Arizona (3), Los Angeles (3)
Opponents' combined record: 418-439 (.488)
Key Series: The Dodgers to close the season at home. If the Giants keep playing like they have and Barry Bonds keeps hitting like he has, it could mean something.
Outlook: Not terrible. Even split between home and road, and four series against teams that have been dreadful over the past six weeks.
7) Houston Astros (70-72, four games back of NL wild card, five games back of NL Central)
Series remaining: at St. Louis (3), Philadelphia (3), Cincinnati (3), St. Louis (4), at Philadelphia (1), at Pittsburgh (3), at Atlanta (3)
Opponents' combined record: 494-506 (.494)
Key Series: Could a makeup game really shape the wild card? If both of these teams are still alive, the Sept. 25 replay of a postponed game this week just might.
Outlook: The good: 10 straight home games. The bad: seven straight road games. The ugly: The ones on the road end the season.
8) Philadelphia Phillies (72-71, 2½ games back of NL wild card)
Series remaining: at Atlanta (3), at Houston (3), Chicago (3), Florida (3), Houston (1), at Washington (3), at Florida (3)
Opponents' combined record: 470-528 (.471)
Key Series: Should the NL West candidates somehow knock out one another, the Phillies could be hosting the Marlins in the year's final series with a playoff berth on the line.
Outlook: The Phillies are actually a better road team, so the prospect of 12 of their last 19 away from Citizens Bank Park isn't too terrifying. Ryan Howard, on the other hand, has been a terror, and he could carry this team.
9) San Diego Padres (74-68, leading NL wild card)
Series remaining: at Cincinnati (3), at Los Angeles (4), Arizona (3), Pittsburgh (3), at St. Louis (3), at Arizona (4)
Opponents' combined record: 416-442 (.485)
Key Series: Of all the teams to have trouble with, the Padres have struggled against the Diamondbacks, which makes the prospect of seven games with them all the more interesting.
Outlook: Lots of road games … and that's a good thing. The Padres actually hit better away from Petco Park, and they have as many good arms as any team in the NL.
10) St. Louis Cardinals (75-67, leading NL Central)
Series remaining: Houston (3), San Francisco (3), at Milwaukee (3), at Houston (4), San Diego (3), Milwaukee (4)
Opponents' combined record: 416-439 (.487)
Key Series: In the 2004 playoffs, the Cardinals conquered the Astros. In 2005, the Astros prevailed. And in 2006, if St. Louis keeps struggling, the four-game series at Minute Maid Park could be decisive.
Outlook: Like a rainbow. The small picture is sunny, with a healthy division lead and no team stepping up to challenge. In the end, though, the Cardinals' starting pitching is ugly, their lineup banged up and their prospects rainy at best.
11) Cincinnati Reds (71-72, 3½ games back of NL wild card)
Series remaining: San Diego (3), at Chicago (3), at Houston (3), Chicago (4), at Florida (3), at Pittsburgh (3)
Opponents' combined record: 386-471 (.450)
Key Series: If not out of contention already, the Reds and Astros will fight to represent the NL Central in the wild-card race.
Outlook: Not good. Even though Cincinnati gets 10 games against the two worst teams in the NL, it also plays 12 of its final 19 games on the road.
12) New York Yankees (85-56, leading AL East)
Series remaining: at Baltimore (1), Tampa Bay (3), Boston (4), at Toronto (3), at Tampa Bay (4), Baltimore (3), Toronto (3)
Opponents' combined record: 462-537 (.462)
Key Series: Against the Red Sox, if only to reassert who's boss in the East.
Outlook: Looks like smooth sailing for the Yankees. No long road trips, no eminently difficult teams and a healthy dose of the Devil Rays.
13) Detroit Tigers (86-58, leading AL Central)
Series remaining: Texas (2), Baltimore (3), at Chicago (3), at Baltimore (1), at Kansas City (3), Toronto (3), Kansas City (3)
Opponents' combined record: 461-541 (.460)
Key Series: By the time they come to Chicago next week, the Tigers could be out of first place. A series win would reaffirm them – for now.
Outlook: Aside from the rough one-day trip to Baltimore, Detroit has it easy, with six games against the Royals. Though the Royals, over the past two weeks, have taken series from Chicago, Minnesota and Boston.
14) Los Angeles Dodgers (76-67, leading NL West)
Series remaining: at Chicago (3), San Diego (4), Pittsburgh (3), Arizona (3), at Colorado (3), at San Francisco (3)
Opponents' combined record: 395-463 (.460)
Key Series: The Dodgers still haven't figured out San Diego. They head into the four-game series 3-11 against their neighbors, and while splits aren't generally advocated, the Dodgers will take one.
Outlook: Excellent. After the Padres, the Dodgers entertain two teams that are out of it, then travel to see one more. By the time the Giants series rolls around, they could have the division locked up.
15) New York Mets (88-54, leading NL East)
Series remaining: at Florida (3), at Pittsburgh (3), Florida (4), Washington (4), at Atlanta (3), at Washington (3)
Opponents' combined record: 393-465 (.458)
Key Series: The last one of the year, only because the Mets could be gunning for their 100th win.
Outlook: With home-field advantage almost a foregone conclusion, the rest of the regular season is a leisurely stroll for the Mets. The 14 teams above them only wish they had this easy of a schedule.
Frank Thomas, Oakland: There are four outcomes when pitching to Thomas: a single, a home run, a walk or an out. Lately, the homer has been the most popular. At 38, and seemingly on his last legs, Thomas is not exactly having one of his vintage seasons – he did win two MVPs, remember – but he is having a great one. With home runs in five straight games, Thomas is up to 35 this year, and with 97 RBIs, his usual stellar walk-to-strikeout ratio (73-to-68) and a batting average that has crept up more than 30 points in the last two months, he's simply adding to his Hall of Fame résumé.
San Francisco Giants: General manager Brian Sabean swung the unsung deal of the trading deadline when he acquired reliever Mike Stanton from Washington for Class A pitcher Shairon Martis. In the six games Stanton has pitched this month, he has saved four and won one. The Giants themselves have gone 18-8 since getting swept by the Dodgers in early August, and if they keep wining series – they've taken five of their last six – they'll be in great shape for the wild card.
Sidearmers: With Pat Neshek, Cla Meredith and Chad Bradford, sidearm throwers are not only en vogue again, they're wildly successful. Neshek, recalled by Minnesota on July 6, has struck out 42 in 29 1/3 innings and is 4-1 with a 2.15 earned-run average. Meredith, stolen from Boston by San Diego this season, extended his scoreless-innings streak to 31 on Sunday night and has a 0.69 ERA. Bradford, the grandfather of the group at 31 years old, has been among the Mets' most reliable relievers since Duaner Sanchez's injury, with a 4-2 record and 2.77 ERA.
Detroit: Keep this up and Jim Leyland is going to need a carton of Marlboro Reds a day. Jeremy Bonderman is in shambles. Nate Robertson is hurt. The Tigers can't get on base (a .293 clip in the last week). They strike out too much. Even their fielding lapsed in losing the last three in an embarrassing series against the Twins. Leyland's not panicking until his kid flunks math, huh? Fine. But the Tigers' report card right now does not look good.
Ian Snell, Pittsburgh: Generally, rookie pitchers for atrocious teams merit no mention in a story about the playoffs. Snell, however, invoked the Stupidity Clause, which grants equal time to reprobates. After giving up three home runs against Cincinnati, Snell first criticized pitching coach Jim Colborn for visiting him on the mound, then blamed the home runs on the size of PNC Park. Perhaps &ndash and just a guess here – he threw three bad pitches and needed his coach's tutelage.
Streaks: So, does anyone want, like, a playoff spot? For all of the urgency this time of year, particularly with half of the teams in fairly legitimate contention, there hasn't been a single winning streak of note. Were any of the wild-card teams to rip off a seven- or eight-gamer, we'd no longer be talking about a race. Instead, it's same-old, same-old, with half the teams last week going either 4-3, 3-4 or 3-3. Mediocrity is boring.
Skeptical Hometown Columnist of the Week
Drew Sharp, Detroit Free Press
One month ago today, the Tigers were 37 games over .500, their highest mark this season. Since then, the Twins have gained seven games on them, the White Sox four, and, at 28 games over .500, the Tigers are in the crosshairs of every keyboard-toting person within 50 miles of the 48216 ZIP code – including Sharp.
Just as the Tigers' 10-game advantage has shrunk in the last few weeks, you can't help but wonder how bad it will get in the season's last three weeks.
They're not necessarily scared, but they're certainly tentative.
They're tiptoeing to the finish, placing their faith, it seems, less in themselves and more in those chasing them as time runs out.
And that's a dangerous assumption. Despite their divisional lead, the Tigers soon may well be playing for wild-card consideration.
Matchup of the Week
Philadelphia Phillies at Houston Astros
A sweep by either team would likely knock the other out of contention for the NL wild card (and isn't it about time it turns into a race and not a free-for-all?).
Though it's not that possibility that excites as much as the thought of Ryan Howard teeing off with the Crawford Boxes only 315 feet down Minute Maid Park's left-field line. Howard has hit 17 of his home runs at home the opposite way this season, and the fences at Citizens Bank Park are about 15 feet deeper.
Plus, if Howard homers, he'll have to earn it. Roger Clemens is expected to start the first game Friday, then Andy Pettitte on Saturday before the Astros ad lib with a starter (Chris Sampson? Dave Borkowski? Wandy Rodriguez? Jason Hirsh?) to close out what will be the most important series of their season so far.
If MVP awards are won in September, Johan Santana and Ryan Howard are off to an excellent start. Here are the numbers for the top MVP candidates in each league since Sept. 1.
Jermaine Dye, Chicago
Travis Hafner, Cleveland*
Derek Jeter, New York
Justin Morneau, Minnesota
David Ortiz, Boston
Johan Santana, Minnesota
Carlos Beltran, New York
Miguel Cabrera, Florida
Ryan Howard, Philadelphia
Albert Pujols, St. Louis
Jose Reyes, New York
* – Injured on Sept. 1. Out for the season
Playoff odds report
At least someone still believes in the Tigers.
Granted, it's a computer. But Detroit will take all the love it can get. Baseball Prospectus, which calculates the likelihood a team makes the playoffs by simulating the remainder of the season 1 million times, still sees the Tigers with nearly a 97 percent chance of getting in.
While the standings haven't shuffled much in a week, the percentages certainly have. (Last week's percentages in parentheses.)
New York Yankees: 99.99 percent (99.91 percent)
Detroit Tigers: 96.97 percent (98.58 percent)
Oakland A's: 80.05 percent (93.86 percent)
Minnesota Twins*: 77.68 percent (53.61 percent)
Chicago White Sox: 24.96 percent (46.61 percent)
Los Angeles Angels: 20.19 percent (6.07 percent)
New York Mets: 100 percent (100 percent)
St. Louis Cardinals: 86.16 percent (92.35 percent)
Los Angeles Dodgers: 82.04 percent (90.03 percent)
San Diego Padres*: 63.10 percent (48.68 percent)
San Francisco Giants: 14.06 percent (12.04 percent)
Philadelphia Phillies: 14.02 percent (18.24 percent)
Cincinnati Reds: 12.90 percent (15.50 percent)
Houston Astros: 12.82 percent (8.23 percent)
Florida Marlins: 8.13 percent (12.22 percent)
* – Wild card leader: Better known, in the AL, as the Battle for Second in the Central. Right now the Twins, at 59.53 percent, are well ahead of the White Sox, at 20.88 percent, and the Tigers, at 19.20 percent. In the NL, the Padres have extended their lead, too, to 36 percent, with the Dodgers, Phillies and Giants the only teams with greater than a 10 percent chance.