September offers last chance for trio of fringe postseason contenders
- Examining the playoff chances for the Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners, each of whom entered September facing long odds to make it to October's dance.
The final full month of the 2016 season is upon us, but there are already a few certainties as baseball hurtles toward the end of the year. Three teams—the Rangers, Nationals and Cubs—appear to be locks to take home division titles, as each holds a lead of 8 1/2 games or more over the second-place team. The Indians, meanwhile, boast a 4 1/2-game lead over the Tigers in the AL Central and a 97.3% chance of making it to the postseason, according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report. Things are more jumbled in the AL East and NL West, where just two games separate first and second place, and in each league's wild-card hunt, where a handful of teams are still jostling for position.
But while there are some teams that can be penciled in for a playoff spot, others are seeing their postseason hopes rapidly dim as the calendar turns to September. Here's a look at three squads whose chances at playing in October are on life support (as determined by BP's odds) and whether there's any reason to expect a turnaround over the final five weeks of play.
All stats and records are as of Thursday, Sept. 1. Teams are listed in order of their playoff odds as calculated by Baseball Prospectus.
Record: 68-66, third in NL East (10 1/2 games out), fifth in wild-card (3 games out)
Playoff Odds: 9.8%
Flash back to the end of July, and you'll find the Marlins in a surprising place: contending for a playoff spot. At 57–48, Miami was a mere four games back of Washington in the NL East and only two games behind the Dodgers for the first wild card, holding a one-game lead on the Cardinals for the second and final wild-card spot. After struggling through a miserable slump for the season's first three months, outfielder Giancarlo Stanton was looking like his old self (.305/.371/.621 in July with seven homers). The rotation was struggling, but the Marlins had uncharacteristically been a buyer at the trade deadline, scooping up righthander Andrew Cashner from the Padres to bolster the starting five. With the injury-riddled Mets and Cardinals both struggling to stay in the race, Miami's playoff odds were a solid 38.9%, and its first postseason berth since 2003 seemed a very real possibility.
How quickly things can change in a month. After a brutal August in which they went 11–18 and won just a single series, the Marlins are now buried in the NL East and fading from the wild-card chase. Stanton is likely done for the year after straining his groin on Aug. 13, robbing the lineup of its best power hitter. The offense has followed suit, posting a .680 OPS in August that ranked third-worst in baseball in that span. The rotation has tried to pick up the slack, with a solid 3.93 ERA on the month, though Cashner has proved to be no help at all, posting a 4.61 ERA in five starts and missing his last start with a blister on his pitching hand.
There are some reinforcements on the horizon. Lefty Wei-Yin Chen, sidelined since late July with an elbow sprain, has begun throwing off a mound and could be back by mid-September, and fellow southpaw Adam Conley (blister) is likewise throwing once more. First baseman Justin Bour, however, has seen his rehab from a sprained ankle delayed by a setback. With Marcell Ozuna, Ichiro Suzuki and Dee Gordon all slumping and Stanton and Bour on the shelf, it's hard to see how Miami's offense will be able to keep the team in the playoff hunt much longer.
Kansas City Royals
Record: 69-64, third in AL Central (7 1/2 games out); sixth in wild-card (3 games out)
Playoff Odds: 5.9%
Has the power of the Rally Mantis finally worn off? Losing two out of three at home against the Yankees this week made for a sour capper to what had been an excellent August for Kansas City, which ripped off a nine-game winning streak mid-month to resurrect the team's moribund playoff hopes. The Royals had a massive hill to climb, however: They began the month six games under .500, 12 games out of first place in the AL Central (a division they won by a dozen games last season) and 8 1/2 games back of the second wild-card spot. Even after a 20-9 August, Kansas City still finds itself three games out of a playoff spot.
The truth is that the Royals' rally was likely too little too late—dropping that series to New York, for instance, lowered their playoff odds by nearly 10 points. They now need to pass four teams in just over a month just to claim the second wild-card spot. On the plus side, they still have 10 games left against the bottom-feeding Twins and Athletics, as well as six games against the Tigers, against whom Kansas City is 9–4 this year. The last two years have given everyone plenty of reasons to not count out the Royals. But just how far can a mediocre rotation (a 4.55 ERA) and an offense struggling to score (a mere .705 team OPS in that terrific August and just .711 on the season) carry them?
Record: 68-65, third in AL West (11 1/2 games out); seventh in wild-card (4 games out)
Playoff Odds: 5.4%
"Rollercoaster" probably isn't strong enough a word to describe the Mariners' season. Leaders of the AL West for much of April and May, Seattle fell apart in a calamitous month of June that saw the team go 10–18 and fall as many as 11 1/2 games back of Texas in the division. But after a mediocre July, the Mariners got hot in August, winning 11 of their first 14 games on the month and climbing back into the wild-card race; Seattle's playoff odds, which had bottomed out at 18.6% on July 31, skyrocketed to 54.3% on Aug. 20.
Since then, however, the Mariners have gone into free fall. Seattle went 2–9 over the last week and a half of August and has dropped its last five games, including an three-game sweep at the hands of the division-leading Rangers that featured a walk-off loss on Tuesday and a 14–1 shellacking on Wednesday. In that time, the Mariners have gone from one game back of the second wild card to four games out, and they trail five teams for that final playoff position. Things are even more dire in the division, where Seattle's deficit matches its biggest of the season.
Pitching has been the biggest problem of late: Seattle's hurlers have given up 41 runs during that five-game losing skid. That's been a problem for the Mariners all season, as Hisashi Iwakuma is the team's lone starter producing better-than-league average results (a 116 ERA+); Felix Hernandez may be showing the effects of having thrown the most innings in the majors since 2006, with a poor 4.01 ERA and 100 ERA+ over 166 injury-interrupted innings; and the team's young starters have either been ineffective (Taijuan Walker), hurt (James Paxton) or both (Nate Karns). Not helping matters is an offense that, aside from Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and burgeoning superstar Kyle Seager, has been bereft of impact hitters and has gotten little out of first base, shortstop and all three outfield spots.
Add that all up, and it's not hard to see why Seattle has been so up and down, and why it finds itself in its precarious position. A team this streaky could have another hot stretch left in it, but the Mariners are rapidly running out of time to do so.