Buy or sell? It could come down to AL vs. NL

0:40 | MLB
Cubs designate Miguel Montero for assignment after catcher calls out Jake Arrieta
Thursday June 29th, 2017

In the world of season-long interleague play, now in its fifth year, there’s less significant difference than ever between MLB’s leagues. We still have the DH, a reliable source of impassioned debate after all these years, but even that difference may be on the way out. Any divide between American and National leagues now is mostly due to luck, but it can still occasionally manifest in dramatic ways. Such is the case this year. If you are a mediocre baseball team, you want to be in the American League. (…No, not because of the DH. Hush, NL fans.)

Look at two teams having somewhat disappointing seasons, each finishing play on Wednesday at .500. The Royals, despite everything that has gone wrong for them this season, are two and a half games out of the division lead and two games out of a wild card spot. The Cubs are one game out of the division lead… and nine games out of a wild card spot.

The difference in their outlooks is, of course, the difference between playing in the NL and the AL in 2017. The Royals, according to their Pythagorean W-L (33-42), have been somewhat lucky this year in the way their hits and runs were distributed—but they’ve also been fortunate to play in the AL where, through the luck of the draw, parity has created an astonishingly broad, CinemaScope playoff picture.

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Almost every American League team is still in the running—whether they really want to be or not. The White Sox sold off much of their major league talent to stockpile prospects who are expected to contribute a few years from now, yet despite their best efforts they are only seven games out of a playoff spot (and as recently as last week, they were 3.5 games out). Only two other AL teams are more than 3.5 games out of a wild card spot: The A’s (5.5) and the Tigers (6.5).  The Royals have a core of players approaching free agency, at least some if not most of whom they will not be able to re-sign: Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar. In many ways, it would likely be better for the franchise to be sellers at the deadline so they could restock with that in mind. But however flawed your team and however limited your chances—Baseball Prospectus’s playoff odds currently give the Royals a 7.9% shot at the postseason—can you in good conscience punt on the season when you’re two games out?

In the NL, on the other hand, rebuilding teams—most notably the Phillies (26-51) and the Padres (31-46)—have had no difficulty remaining out of contention. The Reds (33-44) were not expected to compete and, despite a nice start, they won’t; the Giants were expected to compete but somehow are 30-51, a slow-motion disaster grislier than anything the AL currently has to offer.

While the NL’s worst teams are also worse than the AL’s, their best teams, as a group, are also better. Four NL teams—the Dodgers, Nationals, Diamondbacks and Rockies—have a winning percentage of .580 or higher, a 94 win pace. In the AL, only the Astros can say the same. The vast majority of teams now find themselves in a vast middle.

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This time a year ago, no .500 teams were so close to the division lead as the Royals now find themselves. Ditto 2015. The Marlins in 2014 and the 2012 Indians are the only other instance of this, at this point in the season, since the second wild card was added in 2012. This is an arbitrary cutoff, but the point is that the position not just the Royals but teams like the Mariners (39-41, three games out of a wild card), Orioles (38-39, 2.5 out) and Blue Jays (37-40, 3.5 out) find themselves in is still fairly unusual: at or below .500 yet still, at least by the standings, very much alive. As we’ve seen over and over in the wild card era, once you get to the postseason—however you get there—anything can happen.

Some of those teams are more in contention than others. On Wednesday BP gave the Mariners a 21.8% chance at the playoffs (a figure that might surprise even some of Seattle’s most loyal fans), the Blue Jays an 8.3% chance and the Orioles 6.7%. Those are estimates, and you can quibble with them plenty, but in the end a number of AL teams are going to have to make some very tough choices at the July 31 trade deadline. Still, it’s a tough choice that many NL teams only wish they got to make.

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