With the way the Blue Jays’ season started, it sure didn’t look like the team would be playing meaningful-ish games in mid-August. But unlike last season when it took 89 wins for Toronto and Baltimore to secure the two AL wild card spots, it’s going to take a lot less to sneak into the play-in game this year. After a not-so-terrible August, the Jays sit only 3.5 games out of the second wild card spot. That’s the good news. The bad news? There are six teams between them and the Angels, who currently hold the second wild card slot.
So which teams pose the biggest threat to the Jays quest for a third straight playoff appearance? Let’s investigate.
Los Angeles Angels (62-59)
Run differential -5
Expected Winning Percentage .496
Aside from Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons, the Angels offence has struggled to produce, as the team sits 24th in baseball with 511 runs scored. Buoyed by a pitching staff thank ranks 10th in team ERA, a starting rotation relying of Ricky Nolasco, Parker Birdwell and JC Ramirez make you wonder if the Angels pitching will continue to perform at its current level – even if a bullpen that has been imploding recently can hold up it’s end of the bargain and Andrew Heaney successfully returns from Tommy John surgery. The Angels look like a team that could take a step backwards in the next six weeks.
Kansas City Royals (61-59)
Run differential -17
Expected Winning Percentage .485
Surprisingly enough, despite getting something resembling career years from Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Whit Merrifield, the Royals rank only 20th in baseball with 526 runs scored. Their pitching staff continues to enjoy the fruits of a strong defense and big ballpark – and given their rotation, they are going to need to do the same to stay in contention. Acquiring Melky Cabrera helps shore up an underproductive corner outfield. Playing in the AL Central means the Royals will also get a few more games against non-contending teams than those in the West and the East. Kansas City should be able to stay in the fight.
Minnesota Twins (59-58)
Run differential -57
Expected Winning Percentage .452
The Twins have the lowest expected winning percentage of any team ahead of Toronto in the standings. As is the story for most of baseball in 2017, the Twins lack of pitching will likely hurt their chances at contending. With Brandon Kintzler now in Washington, Jose Berrios potentially tiring as his innings increase and Ervin Santana likely to see a regression in his performance (his ERA is a run and a half lower than his FIP), expect the Twins pitching to hurt their chances of staying in the wild card chase too much longer.
Seattle Mariners (61-61)
Run differential -16
Expected Winning Percentage .487
With their three best starting pitchers (James Paxton, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma) currently on the disabled list, the Mariners are going to need someone in the rotation to step up and support a strong offensive group that is 5th in the American League in runs scored. If Ariel Miranda and Marco Gonzales can hold the fort until Paxton and Hernandez return from injuries, the Mariners have a shot at staying in the race; but that’s no easy task.
Texas Rangers (59-60)
Run differential +26
Expected Winning Percentage .521
The Rangers, who have one of the best offensive teams (only the Yankees have scored more runs in the American League), will need their rotation to be better if they are going to stay in the race. Cole Hamels and Andrew Cashner are the only two starters with ERAs under 5.00 but the peripherals suggest that both could regress significantly down the stretch. Hamels, the staff ace, is surrendering a batting average on balls in play 50 points below his career average (.285) at an unsustainable .236, with a K/BB rate of 2.00 – also the lowest of his career. Texas may have been able to make a strong push if they had kept Yu Darvish, but they are a different team without him, one that just doesn’t have the starting pitching to stay in the race.
Tampa Bay Rays (60-62)
Run differential -10
Expected Winning Percentage .491
They have one of the better run differentials (-9) of the teams in contention and their pitching could take a step forward if they decide to call up prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon or if Alex Cobb is able to return from the DL. The Rays acquired Lucas Duda to share in the first base/DH duties and Kevin Kiermaier is returning from a hip injury. Wilson Ramos can’t be this bad either – expect a lineup that has struggled mightily to score runs of late to be a little bit better over the next six weeks. The Rays could be one of the last teams hanging around the wild card chase.
Baltimore Orioles (59-62)
Run differential -44
Expected Winning Percentage .465
The Orioles seem to be following their confounding recipe for success: a strong offense, good bullpen and not-so-great starting pitching. The rest of the AL East is perpetually left scratching their head when the Orioles contend. It sure doesn’t seem like trading for Jeremy Hellickson to bolster your rotation is a good way to get into a wild card game, but we said that last year when they traded for Wade Miley, and the year before that when they signed Ubaldo Jimenez. Don’t count them out, even if it makes sense to…is what I have to say, even if I don’t believe it.
What Does It All Mean for the Blue Jays
The Rays, Royals and Mariners appear to be the strongest teams in the hunt for the second wild card. The Angels (by way of their current record) and Orioles (by way of devil magic) could hang around the race as well, but these are all flawed teams.
The Jays currently sit at 58-62 with a -78 run differential and expected winning percentage of only .433. Both numbers suggest they have actually been lucky to win as many games as they have so far this season. The Jays will face a tougher schedule down the stretch than some of their rivals – being stuck in the AL East means that they don’t get to play as many games against the White Sox, Tigers and A’s as some of their competitors do, either.
If there is a reason to hope, it’s that it’s not impossible to see the Jays performance improving in the second half.
While the Jays pitching staff has struggled as a whole, they do look like a team that could be better than 20th in team ERA, if they can get contributions from the return of Aaron Sanchez (likely in the bullpen) and Joe Biagini, or if the flyer they took on often-injured Brett Anderson (3.69 ERA/3.97 FIP over 180 innings 2015) pays dividends.
Josh Donaldson, who was mired in what was likely an injury related slump earlier this season, looks to be back to his MVP-caliber self. If Russell Martin and Devon Travis can return from the disabled list sooner rather than later, the lineup should improve as well.
None of this however, is a small order.
The odds on the Jays climbing over all these other contenders are definitely long (3.6% according to Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds Report, 5.6% at Fangraphs), but with a bunch of imperfect teams ahead of them, the second wild card winner will likely come down to health and luck, more than true talent. Given how the year began, and the injuries the Jays have endured, as small as it may be, a Lloyd Christmas-esque chance at the playoffs is more than the Jays could have hoped for.
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