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American League Playoff Predictions

Baseball Playoffs

After an excellent first half of the 2018 MLB Season and a thrilling All-Star game, it’s time to get down to business with all eyes on the playoffs. Based on what we’ve seen thus far, I’m feeling relatively confident that I know how the AL race will play out. So, will the second half follow the same trends that we’ve seen already this year? Can we just double every club’s record and get an accurate view of the playoffs?

For the most part, in the American League, that does seem likely. We probably know at least three of the clubs destined for the post-season, but there’s still some room for shakeups, especially in the Wild Card race. There’s going to be at least one outstanding team left on the outside looking in, and they’re probably coming from the West.

The Oakland A’s once again have a sneaky-good team that is going to pressure the Mariners down the stretch, despite Seattle having their best season in decades. The Red Sox look like the top team in Major League Baseball, but the Yankees are as formidable as they come themselves. A couple of well-timed winning or losing streaks could quickly determine the eastern division.

So, let’s break down what we’ve seen during the first half of the year and how things will play out from here. I’m going to go division by division and predict who the AL representatives will be when Fall baseball finally arrives. After a brilliant showing in the All-Star game, the expectations for the second half of the American League season are as high as ever.

American League West

The American League West is home to the best player in baseball. That person in Mike Trout and he’s not only the most talented athlete in the major leagues, but he’s having the greatest season of his career. Trout’s Los Angeles Angels also made the flashy free agent signing of the offseason bringing the two-way player and all-around phenom Shohei Ohtani. He’s lived up to the expectations so far, and despite being shut down from pitching due to some elbow inflammations, he’s still showing a real talent for hitting.

Unfortunately, while Trout’s season is undeniable, and Ohtani is a proven big-league, their squad is not a serious threat in the AL West division. The World Series-winning Astros seem to have a stranglehold on the top of the standings, while both the Mariners and Athletics look like they’ll be in a late-season slugfest for second in the West, which should be good enough for a Wild Card slot.

You have got to feel terrible for the Seattle Mariners. After years of ineptitude they’ve finally put together a winning ball club, that deserves to participate in the post-season. Unfortunately, they’ve got a couple of things working against them in 2018.

For one, the defending MLB champion Houston Astros are still incredibly good and on pace to win 107 games. The other problem is that the Mariners’ numbers suggest this might not be sustainable long term. They won their sixtieth game of the season while having a season-long run differential of -5. This makes them the first team ever to have won as many contests while being in the negative.

Furthermore, Robinson Cano has missed the majority of 2018 with injuries and suspensions and is currently serving his punishment for failing a test for performance-enhancing drugs. Seattle has been doing a solid job of keeping the wins coming despite the numbers and availability of one of their best players thus far, but will they have it in them to hold off the Oakland A’s down the stretch?

The Athletics are having one of their classic “Moneyball” seasons where they get efficient production from a roster of underappreciated athletes and threaten a playoff run out of nowhere. They don’t have the flashy names that other contenders may, but they have lots of reliable power in the lineup, 20 – 30 homer run guys who take lots of pitches and walks. On the mound, it’s the same story; a solid rotation of young, proficient throwers who are putting together great years.

So far, the Mariners have kept a winning pace and are set to earn a Wild Card spot. However, the mounting pressure of breaking the longest playoff drought in all of professional sports could work against them if the race is tight in September. Will the A’s ride their analytics-heavy roster and statistical approach to a come-from-behind Wild Card berth?

Houston Astros -1500 Odds at Sportbetting.ag

Houston AstrosSpeaking of analytics, there might not be an organization in the league as deeply entrenched in that style of strategy and management than Houston. After a long stretch as one of the worst franchises in Major League Baseball, the Astros saved up their draft picks and rebuilt their farm system to develop their young core.

The rebuild ultimately paid off, and after a trade deadline deal for Justin Verlander in 2017, Houston’s core of Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and George Springer smashed their way to a World Series win over the Dodgers. This season they’ve suffered multiple stretches throughout the first half, during which at least one of their stars was always slumping. Nevertheless, they haven’t needed last season’s offensive explosiveness to enter All-Star weekend with 64 wins.

While the Houston bats may not be back to their historically-great 2017 level, their pitching rotation is even more ridiculous. They’re featuring three legitimate Cy Young candidates in Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton. Former Cy Young caliber pitcher Dallas Keuchel doesn’t seem to have it this year, unfortunately, and it’s possible that the defending champs will look to reinforce their pitching staff at the trade deadline.

The bullpen will take precedence over the starting rotation for the Astros front office, especially now that it appears that their closer Ken Giles is officially irredeemable. They’re also rumored to be shopping for one more bat, with names like Jose Abreu being mentioned, though that’s more of a pipedream.

Whoever they land will only further Houston’s advantage over their AL West counterparts. While the rest of their division mates squabble for a Wild Card spot, Houston will be trying to get Correa healthy and all of their bats hot. They have some time to figure things out, and at this point, they’re only competing with the Red Sox and Yankees for American League supremacy. Everything before these three squads showdown in the Fall is a mere formality.

American League Central

The five best teams in the American League are split between the AL West and the AL East. Then there’s the AL-Central. Led by the 43 – 34 Cleveland Indians at midseason, the division has been outscored by a total of 254 runs, making it the weakest division in Major League Baseball.

At the bottom of the Central, the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox are already well out of the playoff picture. The Royals, who have the MLB’s worst ERA, lowest strikeout rate, and highest home run rate are competing with the Orioles for “worst club in the league.”

Chicago isn’t doing much better, and both are expected to be sellers at the deadline. There have even been talks of Jose Abreu getting moved for the right deal, though the White Sox are saying they’d rather keep him. The Cuban first-baseman has MVP potential if relocated to the right squad; he could be an enormous determining factor for this year’s World Series if he joins a contender.

The Twins are second in the AL Central despite having a below-league-average offense. Eddie Rosario and Eduardo Escobar are both having breakout campaigns, but Minnesota isn’t getting much from anyone else. Miguel Sano, drafted first overall in the 2008 draft, came with high expectations but officially bottomed out this year. He was sent down to the Single-A minors in June, though he’s worked his way up to AAA by the writing of this article.

Detroit isn’t very good either and finished with a 36-43 record in the first half. Miguel Cabrera is out for the year with a surgically-operated-on biceps, while Victor Martinez and Dixon Machado have been below par players. The bright spots for the Tigers are Jose Inglesias, Leonys Martin, and Nicholas Castellanos.

Without much to play for in 2018, the Tigers could be important sellers in the next few months. Castellanos’ breakout season may look appealing to the right contender. Detroit could get a decent return now, and there’s no guarantee that the right fielder will play at this level in subsequent years. He looks like a perfect “sell high” candidate.

Cleveland Indians-10000 Odds at Sportbetting.ag

Cleveland IndiansSomeone has to win this dreadful division, and that job looks to be going to the Cleveland Indians, the fifth-best American League team. Their roster is still comprised of the same core that led them to an AL Pennant and a World Series appearance versus the Chicago Cubs.

Corey Kluber is a stud and the ace of this efficient rotation. Trevor Bauer is having one of the best campaigns of his career with a 2.44 ERA, and Mike Clevinger is solid as well averaging a 3.00 ERA himself. While their rotation is a strength, they can’t always rely on his bullpen to finish the job. This really stood out in a first-half game versus the Astros in which Kluber went six scoreless innings and left the game up 2-0, before watching the Indians’ relievers give up eleven straight runs.

Jose Ramirez has been phenomenal anchoring the Indians’ offense, and is probably in contention with Mookie Betts for the title of “best player not named Mike Trout.” While Cleveland will continue to run away with the American League Central, I don’t see them making many waves in the post-season. In fact, I’d have them as the underdog against the winners of the AL East and West, as well as their Wild Card representatives.

American League East

The American League East is finally looking like its old self again. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the best rivalry in the sport, are occupying the top two spots in the East, and two of the top three in the AL as a whole. Boston has the winningest record in all of Major League Baseball, while the Yankees are third, with only the Houston Astros between themselves and the Red Sox.

In the basement of both the AL East and all of Major League Baseball are the Baltimore Orioles. At the break, the Orioles struck a deal to trade their superstar shortstop Manny Machado, to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In this sense, Baltimore very well may have played a central role in determining this season’s Nation League pennant winner, if not the World Series champion. Not bad for the worst team in the league.

Tampa Bay is already out the running for the 2018 post-season as well. The Rays reached the midseason festivities only two games under .500, which is an achievement in itself. Sporting a roster without many noteworthy players at all, the misfit team in Tampa Bay is competing. They even have a zero run-differential. While there’s no Fall baseball in this club’s future, the season wasn’t a total loss.

The Blue Jays haven’t been so lucky. Rather than start a rebuild, Toronto kept their core of veterans intact, intent on making the playoffs, although they didn’t do much to improve upon the their squad in the offseason. The results have not been positive. The bulk of their experienced core including Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson, and Aaron Sanchez have all missed significant time and/or are done for the season.

At the moment, the Boston Red Sox are the best team in Major League Baseball. The heart of the AL East-leaders, Mookie Betts has a legit claim to at least be considered along with the likes of a super-talent like Mike Trout. Neither of these men appears to have hit their ceiling and are steadily improving, so it’s difficult to predict if Betts will catch the Angels’ star. Either way, he’s only a step behind the best now, which is a scary prospect for the rest of the American League.

The Red Sox are also enjoying much-improved power-hitting numbers in 2018, thanks to not-only Betts, but J.D. Martinez, who had 25 homers at the break, and left-handed slugger Andrew Beniteidi. Xander Bogarts has also been a pleasant surprise as he’s finally fulfilling past expectations. In fact, he already has more home runs than all of 2017. Boston also has a nice platoon situation that’s working at first base with Mitch Moreland & Steve Pierce.

There aren’t too many negatives to report on the first-place Red Sox, and they don’t have many weaknesses. It is looking less and less likely that Dustin Pedroia will ever return to action, and they’ve been missing Drew Pomeranz as well. Boston should be fine regardless of their absences, but they may look to trade for one more piece in response to Bradley Jr. and Christian Vazquez falling off this year.

While the Boston Red Sox are indeed the top team in the majors at the midseason hiatus, I’m not sure they’ll prevail over the Houston Astros and New York Yankees in the Fall. Actually, I don’t even have them winning the AL East, despite being the better squad at the All-Star break. I see this divisional race coming down to whichever team makes the splashier trade deadline acquisitions, and the Yankees getting healthier.

New York Yankees +130 Odds at Sportbetting.ag

New York YankeesThe New York Yankees exit the All-Star weekend festivities trailing the Boston Red Sox for first in the AL East. These two east coast juggernauts will be in a frenzied second-half race for the division title and are likely to be matched up in the Divisional Series no matter the order in which they finish.

As of midseason, the American League East appears to be the most likely to produce the best record in the MLB, while the second-place team will play as a Wild Card. Assuming they win the one-game play-in, in which they’ll be favored, the Wild Card winning Yankees or Red Sox would then face off in the ALDS.

While I believe the Red Sox have already been playing their best ball, if not somewhat above what’s sustainable, I see the Yankees as still improving. CC Sabathia is almost-miraculously still winning games as a starting pitcher. He’s lost weight and reinvented his career, becoming more of an off-speed pitcher with a nasty cutter.

Louis Severino is another bright spot in the pitching rotation. He’s been brilliant all 2018 and looks like one of the MLB’s best pitchers. Tanaka recently got healthy as well, so you can see how the longer this team plays together, the more formidable they can be. With sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in the heart of the lineup, if this team pairs their offensive capabilities with their potential pitching performances, they’ll be all-but-unbeatable.

Lastly, I see New York as having one or two more significant moves in them at the trade deadline. Thanks to the pace set by the Astros and Red Sox, the Yankees will feel pressured to be aggressive in the trade market. There are some big names out there that can be had for the right deal, and I expect someone significant coming to the Bronx.

If the Nationals continue to underperform, I wouldn’t even be shocked by a blockbuster Bryce Harper acquisition. The stretch between the All-Star break and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline will be crucial. Even if they make a less drastic move, I still expect the Yankees to improve their depth and make a serious run at the division title.

American League Wild Card Spots

The American League Wild Card qualifiers to the 2018 MLB post-season will be two of the top four teams in Major League Baseball. It’s likely that the best record in baseball will come from the AL East whether the division is won by the Yankees or the Red Sox.

Meanwhile, the Houston Astros appear to have a stranglehold on the AL West in the same season in which the Seattle Mariners are a playoff-caliber squad with a top-four record. They will spend the second half praying to catch Houston while fending off the scrappy Oakland A’s from their Wild Card berth.

Boston Red Sox

Boston Red SoxSince I’ve got the Yankees mounting a second-half assault that sees them take the top spot in the American League East, the Sox are going to have to participate in the Wild Card play-in game. Boston is likely to be a better-than-100-win team, but with so much power consolidated in the East, it’s unavoidable. A truly great team will be playing for their survival while their slightly-better rival waits in the Divisional Series round.

If the standings finish as I anticipate, the Red Sox will be playing the Mariners in the Wild Card Card-winning, a contest in which they’ll probably be favored. Should they win, as expected, they’ll be matched up against their division rival in a best-of-seven ALDS for the history books. The Astros, who look poised to draw the Indians in their first series will likely be waiting to play the East’s representative for the pennant.

Seattle Mariners

Seattle MarinersThe Seattle Mariners had an incredible first-half and a lot for which to be proud. Their team has significantly improved, and they’re one of the best teams in all of Major League Baseball. Plus, they’ll be getting Robinson Cano back in the Iglesias, which will boost the lineup. Unfortunately for them, life is all about timing. Their breakout season came at the wrong place at the wrong time.

While they’d probably be division champions in most years, in 2018, they’re up against a transcendent defending-champion Astros in the AL West. While Houston is unlikely to give up their extensive lead for the division title, the Mariners can still reach the post-season through a Wild Card spot.

That’s where they’re likely to face the second-place AL East squad who will have 100 wins and a top-two or three roster. This is a matchup in which Seattle will be a heavy underdog. While just advancing this far is technically enough to break their record-long absence from the playoffs, circumstances prevent this great Mariners team from being a real contender.

Final Thoughts

The final stretch of the 2018 MLB season in the American League is going to make for compelling television. With the top-three clubs in the entire sport all playing in the AL, how the playoff seeding works out, in the end, will have massive World Series implications. Currently, the Boston Red Sox are heading towards the best record in the league, but the Astros in the West and the rivaled Yankees are hot on their trail.

The trade deadline movement will be an enormous deciding factor in how this second-half of the season will play out. The Dodgers acquiring Manny Machado was massive; will anyone in the American League make a deal of this magnitude? There have been rumors around talents such as Jose Abreu, the type of athletes that can hugely alter the MLB power rankings if sent to a contender. Until we know how the player movement turns out, it’s hard to make too many assumptions about final standings.

Another interesting storyline to watch is whether the Astros want to play for the best record. If the top-seeded playoff team faces the Wild Card representative in the ALDS, that second-round matchup is most likely to be against either the Yankees or Red Sox. Those are much stronger Divisional Series opponents than the AL Central’s Cleveland Indians, who will face the second-best divisional champ. It might behoove Houston to let the American League’s winningest record come out of the East.

The next few months are going to have significant World Series implications, no matter what happens. From now until July 31, the top AL organizations will be searching for deals to fortify their weaknesses and gear up for the playoffs. After the deadline, we’ll have a better idea of how teams will look in the Fall when the public will be treated to one of the more fascinating playoff fields in years.