As the long, and sometimes grueling MLB season reaches its finish, the excitement is only beginning as division battles begin to reach their epic conclusions. This season has seen the resurgence of the formerly downtrodden Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, while surefire playoff locks like the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox have fallen to the depths of the American League. As September nears, the playoff race will only get more competitive as division rivals will play the majority of their games against each other.
Very few divisions feature a team locked into a playoff spot, and the parity throughout baseball this season has made the second wild card spot even more valuable. Here are the teams that look poised to finish strong and capture a playoff spot in 2015.
AL East: Toronto Blue Jays
Projected Record: 93-69
It’s no secret that since acquiring David Price and Troy Tulowitzki, the Blue Jays have been among baseball’s best in terms of both runs scored and pitching dominance. Their offense is formidable as any other across MLB; led by MVP candidate Josh Donaldson, sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and Tulo, the team has a weapon from leadoff all the way to the 9-hole.
While the offense has been nothing short of dominant, the starting rotation has been solid since acquiring Price back in late July. With a 1-2-3 punch of Price, former Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, and Mark Buehrle, the team has veterans capable of leading a deep playoff run – despite the lack of depth at the back end of the rotation.
The Yankees look to be the only serious threat to the Blue Jays come the end of September, but with their older roster it’s possible they may hit a wall at some point soon. The Blue Jays have momentum and are showing no signs of giving it away as they look to secure their first playoff spot since 1993.
AL Central: Kansas City Royals
Projected Record: 98-64
This one’s a no brainer. The Royals have been one of the best teams in baseball since the second half of last season, and haven’t looked back. Despite losing to the San Francisco Giants in last year’s World Series, the team has proved their magical run was no fluke.
The concern surrounding the Royals entering the season was their lack of a definitive ace after letting James Shields walk in free agency, and after Yordano Ventura’s struggles through the first half of the season something had to change. In come Johnny Cueto. The former Reds’ ace hasn’t quite been electric in KC, as evidenced by his 3.95 ERA, but Cueto should turn things around come playoff time.
Even if their pitching struggles, the team’s lineup has once again proven to be among the best in baseball. Eric Hosmer is continuing his ascent as one of the game’s top first basemen, Mike Moustakas has finally figured things out at the plate (.790 OPS and a 10.7 strikeout percentage), while new addition Ben Zobrist has settled in nicely as the team’s utility man.
Kansas City has already run away with the division after the Tigers called it quits on the season, and it looks as if the Royals are once again primed for a deep playoff run.
AL West: Houston Astros
Projected Record: 92-70
It’s a worn out idea that pitching wins championships, but it still reigns true in 2015 – and the Houston Astros have plenty of it. With a starting rotation consisting of Cy Young candidate Dallas Keuchel, newly acquired veteran Scott Kazmir, Colin McHugh, and Mr. No No Mike Fiers, the team has enough depth to rely on a different player each night. Their bullpen has also been rock solid, as offseason acquisition Luke Gregerson has proven to be a sneaky good addition, posting a 2.88 ERA in 50 innings pitched.
The offense has some star power, too. With young studs George Springer (who’s nearing a return from the DL), Carlos Correa, and Jose Altuve, the team has a core capable of leading them for the next decade. Veterans like their new acquisition Carlos Gomez, Evan Gattis, and Jed Lowrie provide just as much offensive punch as the youngsters – leaving the current Astros squad in a good position to contend.
In what was initially a surprise run early in the season has turned into a legitimate chance at making a run come October. Where the Angels were predicted to run away with the division once again, LA has become an afterthought among the Astros’ sudden resurgence. Houston has put the league on notice, and may only improve as more prospects arrive onto the Major League scene.
AL Wild Card: New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels
Projected Records: NY 91-71, LA 89-73
The Yankees have been neck and neck with the Blue Jays since Toronto’s resurgence at the All-Star break, and that should continue for the rest of the season. New York is full of veterans with playoff experience, which would be beneficial in the one-game Wild Card game – but it remains to be seen if said veterans can hold up through September.
The Angels, one year removed from winning a whopping 98 games, have scuffled the past few weeks due in large part to a struggling offense. Mike Trout hasn’t been Mike Trout since the beginning of August due to a wrist injury, but the reigning MVP can’t stay cold for too long. Expect Trout and Pujols to heat up come September and fend off the Rangers and Twins for the oh-so coveted second Wild Card spot.
NL East: New York Mets
Projected Record: 92-70
Say what you will about the Mets offense through the first four months of the season, but the team has turned a corner in August. The Mets have improved their runs per game average to 4.06 on the season, and have scored a league high 210 runs since the All-Star break. The addition of Yoenis Cespedes has proven to be a solid one as his power and defense are translating nicely to Citi Field. With an outfield of rookie Michael Conforto, Cespedes, and the resurgent Curtis Granderson – the Mets have the pieces to finish out the season strong and take home the division crown.
While the offense has improved, the Mets would be meddling in the middle of the division if it weren’t for their dominant starting pitching. A rotation consisting of Matt Harvey, reigning Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, rookie Noah Syndergaard, and veterans Bartolo Colon and Jon Niese – soon to be joined by rookie Steven Matz – has the potential to finish as one of the best squads in the past 25 years.
The Mets are back, and despite a better overall roster constructed by the Washington Nationals, New York looks to have the advantage in terms of schedule and pitching heading into September.
NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals
Projected Record: 99-63
Not much needs to be said about the Cardinals. Their winning culture is consistent from the major league level all the way down to the rookie leagues. It seems as if every season a prospect from Triple-A is called up and immediately contributes to the big league squad. This year, the Cards have three of those players; outfielder Randal Grichuk put himself into Rookie of the Year contention with a .284/.333/.561 slash line to go along with 15 home runs, while other rookies Stephen Piscotty and Tommy Pham have provided a boost offensively to complement their strong pitching staff.
The Cardinals rotation and bullpen have once again been rock solid in 2015, even without ace Adam Wainwright for most of the season. Assuming Wainwright comes back in time for the playoffs and young studs Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez continue throwing well, the team is poised to fend off the Pirates and Cubs to once again capture the division crown.
NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected Record: 90-72
With a payroll exceeding $300 million, it’s hard to believe the Dodgers are only two and a half games up on the San Francisco Giants in the NL West. The team’s veterans have been decent, but not good enough to give the Dodgers much separation from the rest of the pack this season. In the second half, rookie Joc Pederson has struggled and dropped his average nearly 20 points (.230s down to .213), while only hitting two home runs since his spectacular showing in the Home Run Derby.
If the Dodgers have any hope of seriously shutting the door on the Giants, top shortstop prospect Corey Seager may be the answer. It’s assumed he’ll be called up once roster expand in September, but it remains to be seen if he’ll overtake the starting job from incumbent veteran Jimmy Rollins. Seager might be the shot in the arm Los Angeles needs as he’s posted a .293 average with 18 home runs across AA and AAA this season.
The Dodgers offense may not need to absolutely dominate in September, as the team boasts one of the best pitching rotations in the game led by the otherworldly Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Trade deadline acquisitions Alex Wood and Mat Latos should eventually prove to be very good pickups as both pitchers have solid major league track records. Like years past, the Dodgers bullpen remains a concern – but if Kershaw and Greinke can make it seven or eight innings each time they go out, it shouldn’t be a major problem.
Despite their dominant pitching, it’s hard to see the Dodgers winning more than 90 games with a determined San Francisco squad and unexpectedly good spoiler team in Arizona.
NL Wild Card: Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals
Projected Records: PIT 95-67, WAS 89-73
The Pirates are pretty much a lock for the playoffs at this point. A combination of their solid offense and great pitching is one any team would love to have. While they won’t overtake the Cardinals to win the division, they would easily win most of the other division crowns.
The Nationals are a different story, and them winning the Wild Card could be a stretch. Washington is currently NINE games back of Chicago in the Wild Card standings and actually have a better chance of overtaking the Mets in the NL East (currently 6.5 games back). Let’s just take a second and think about this.
The Nationals have a roster full of experienced stars with track records of success in September, and well, the Cubs simply do not. The Cubs roster of youngsters could easily wear out mid-way through September, and that’s where the Nationals strike. Anthony Rendon won’t struggle forever. Stephen Strasburg is back to his dominant form. And well, they have Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer.
It’ll be a close battle between Washington and Chicago, but the Nationals have a very forgiving schedule come mid-September.
The final month of action in MLB should prove full of drama and storylines, and a surprise team may emerge as a legitimate playoff contender due to the newfound parity among MLB.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Nick Fustor