If a team wants to be in playoff contention in mid-September, a viable strategy may be to give up in July.
That is what the Philadelphia Phillies did on July 31 when they traded away Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino in separate deadline deals. Despite that, the Phillies were three games back in the National League wild-card standings after winning Wedensday night. The Milwaukee Brewers gave up even earlier, letting Prince Fielder leave as a free agent before the season started and trading away the team’s best pitcher, Zack Greinke, on July 27. They were also three games out after winning on Wednesday.
The thought of the Phillies making the postseason may seem comical, but with a seven-game winning streak the team is clearly entertaining the idea.
“You hear it’s a cliche that this is what you play for, for September, but it’s true," shortstop Jimmy Rollins told reporters after Tuesday’s win over the Miami Marlins. “We have a lot of flags but we don’t have a wild-card flag, so this would be a good time."
Forty-five years ago, just two teams qualified for postseason play each year, but through Tuesday, 18 of the 30 teams were within five games of the 10 available postseason positions. If Major League Baseball was hoping to create parity through chaos in the playoff races, adding a second wild-card team in each league this year accomplished that goal.
It is not that the Phillies or the Brewers should start printing playoff tickets; overcoming a three-game deficit in the remaining weeks, especially with so many other teams having to fail, will be difficult. But the fact that two teams that sent up a white flag are hanging around a pennant race is a sign that meaningful baseball will continue to be played late in the regular season under the new playoff format, in which a third of the teams advance.
The list of contenders even includes two teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles, that are trying to attain their first winning seasons since the Internet became mainstream. The Orioles are nearly a lock, needing to go just 2-18 in the remaining games for their first winning season since 1997. The slumping Pirates have a tougher road, needing to go 10-10 to end their streak of losing seasons, which dates to 1992.
The only team officially eliminated through Tuesday was the Houston Astros. With the worst record in the major leagues, 45-97, the Astros were 40 1⁄2 games out of first place. In soccer they would be facing relegation to a lower division, but instead they will be sent to the American League West to balance the leagues at 15 teams each.
Taking a look around the playoff races shows one thing: chaos reigns. Major League Baseball will have to hope that where there is chaos, there is interest.
The three division races in the National League are the only places of tranquillity this season. Barring a collapse that only New York Mets fans would find reasonable, the Washington Nationals, the Cincinnati Reds and the San Francisco Giants will each win their division. Despite that, each team has had some drama.
The Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg, though the move was not as dire as many presumed, considering he has been the team’s third best starting pitcher behind Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. The Reds also shut down a young phenomenon, closer Aroldis Chapman, hoping it helps him regain some lost velocity. Having traded for Jonathan Broxton and already having Logan Ondrusek, Jose Arredondo and Sean Marshall, the team should be fine without him.
The Giants lost outfielder Melky Cabrera to a 50-game drug suspension, which will keep him out through the first week of the playoffs, but they have rode the hot bat of Buster Posey to a commanding lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers despite the blockbuster deal Los Angeles completed last month to acquire three of the Boston Red Sox’s most expensive players.
The American League is nowhere near as clear-cut. The Orioles and the New York Yankees remained tied for the lead in the East on Wednesday, three games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays; the Chicago White Sox were one game ahead of the Detroit Tigers in the Central; and the Texas Rangers were three games ahead of the Oakland Athletics in the West.
Seven teams are vying for three spots, with each team believing it can fall back on winning one of the two wild-card berths.
The addition of the second wild card is where things get crazy.
In the National League, the Atlanta Braves were safely in front for the first wild card, 51⁄2 games ahead of their nearest competitor, the St. Louis Cardinals. But the Cardinals had a one-game lead over the newly rich Dodgers, and a 2 1⁄2-game lead over the Pirates. Slumps by those three teams could put the Phillies or the Brewers in the playoffs despite their intentions to play for the future.
The American League, meanwhile, is a free-for-all. The Rangers appear safely on the way to the playoffs, either as a division winner or a wild card, but nothing else is guaranteed. The pool of teams to fill out the other five spots includes the Yankees, the Orioles, the Rays, the White Sox, the Tigers, the Athletics and the Los Angeles Angels.
The Orioles and the Athletics may seem strange fits among that list of high-profile and deep-pocketed teams, but both clubs have shown a flair for late-game wins that at some point has to get in the heads of their opponents.