July 4th is typically considered to be the unofficial midway point of the Major League Baseball season, so it’s a good time to take a look at what teams are in a good position to make the playoffs and which teams are likely just playing out the rest of the season before they can begin their offseasons on October 1st.
We’ll begin with the American League, in which five teams may already have the playoff spots clinched. The junior circuit has four teams that are currently on pace to have 100-win seasons and, barring a major second-half collapse, those teams will make it to the playoffs, securing the two AL wild cards in the process. The Red Sox and Yankees hold the top two spots in the AL East, with the Red Sox a game ahead of the Yankees, and the Rays in third place, 15 games out of first. There’s a similarly close race in the AL West, with the Astros holding a half-game lead over the Mariners, with the third-place A’s eight games back of the division lead. With the wild cards likely coming out of the East and West, that means there will only be one playoff team coming out of the Central, and that appears to be the Indians, who are 11 games ahead of the Tigers; the Indians are also the only team in the division with a winning record.
While the five playoff teams seem to already be determined, seeding will be important heading into the postseason. The three division winners will secure themselves spots in the two ALDS, while the wild cards will have to play each other in the one-game playoff for the opportunity to play the No. 1 seed in an ALDS.
Looking back at my preseason picks, it looks like I’ll have an 80% success rate on the five AL teams I projected to make it to the postseason, with my only miss being picking the Angels over the Mariners for the second wild card. I had the Red Sox and Astros winning their respective divisions, and I’ll stick with that despite the fact that the Yankees and Mariners could easily end up as division winners.
The playoff picture in the National League is much murkier than in the American League, with seven teams currently within a half-dozen games of the league’s two wild cards. Not only are more teams in the race, but there are more surprising teams that weren’t expected to compete for playoff spots this season.
The biggest surprise is probably in the NL East, where the Nationals were the preseason favorites to win the division for the third straight season but find themselves a game under .500 after losing to the Red Sox on Wednesday, their fifth straight loss and giving them a 2-8 record in their last 10 games. Their subpar season has opened the door for the Phillies and Braves, and those teams are taking advantage of the opportunity for a different team to win the East. Despite losing their last series to the Yankees, the Braves remain atop the division, holding a 1.5-game lead over the Phillies. Most people expected both of those teams to start being competitive in a season or two, but they are ahead of schedule in their rebuilding processes and both look like they could be playing meaningful games in October for the first time in several years. The Nationals are seven games behind Atlanta.
Both the Phillies and Braves are getting production out of young guys, with young SPs Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin both recording sub-3.00 ERAs through the first half of the season for Philadelphia. For the Braves, 2B Ozzie Albies leads the teams in home runs and OF Ronald Acuna looks like he is on his way to earning NL Rookie of the Year honors. But it’s not just the rookies helping the Braves get to first place in the East. 1B Freddie Freeman is putting up good numbers and OF Nick Markakis could have a career year at the age of 34. While those teams are overperforming, its a subpar performance from OF Bryce Harper that is hurting the Nationals. The power is still there, with more than 20 home runs, but he’s hitting just .216 on the season.
The top two teams in the NL Central aren’t surprising, but the order may be. The Brewers hold a one-game lead over the Cubs, with the Cardinals seven games back, in third place. And there are four teams with a realistic chance of winning the NL West. The Diamondbacks currently lead the pack, followed by the Dodgers at 1.5 games back. The Giants are in third, 3.5 games out of first, and the Rockies are five games behind the D-backs.
The Cubs and Phillies currently hold the two wild cards in the NL, with the Dodgers, Giants, Cardinals and Rockies all within five games of the second wild card; the Nationals are 5.5 games back, while the Pirates still have a shot as they sit 7.5 games behind the Phillies.
Taking a look at the mess that is the NL playoff picture, I’m going to say that four of the five teams that currently hold playoff spots will stay there, with the Cardinals overtaking the Phillies for the second wild card. I think the Phillies will struggle a little in the second half and fall out of the wild card. I think the Cardinals have a run in them and will make the postseason. So my five playoff teams as of today are the Braves, Brewers, Diamondbacks, Cubs and Cardinals. So that is two changes from my preseason picks, above, with the Nationals and Dodgers falling out of my postseason projections.