With 11 weeks remaining in the season, five teams have all but secured a playoff berth while 19 others remain in contention. How will it pan out?
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — There are 11 weeks remaining in the baseball season, 19 teams are still in contention, and five teams already have playoff spots secured.
The postseason doesn’t start until Oct. 7, but let’s cut to the chase.
We want the New York Yankees and Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series for the third time in five years.
We want Atlanta and the New York Mets to revive ol’ times in the National League playoffs, resurrecting memories of Chipper Jones stepping to the plate at Shea Stadium.
And, at least the TV folks, want their ratings dream matchup of Yankees-Dodgers.
So here we are, one week before the Aug. 2 trade deadline, and we’ve got the division races lined up, predicting who is in, who is out, and what’s in store for the second half.
This is one of the finest divisions in baseball, perhaps the best outside the AL East, with three powerhouses in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.
A year ago, the Giants ended the Dodgers eight-year reign as division champions, but no one is going to topple the Dodgers this year, who are on their way to their fourth 100-victory season in the last full five seasons.
It’s got to be painfully frustrating for the NL West to watch the Dodgers to lose ace Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw for a month, and virtually their entire bullpen, and still remain 10 ½ games up on the Padres.
Oh, and if that’s not daunting enough, they are expected to get starters Dustin May and Buehler back in August and September, along with relievers Blake Treinen, Andrew Heaney, Danny Duffy and Tommy Kahnle.
“They been doing it for 20 years,” Padres All-Star third baseman Manny Machado says, “so that’s no surprise. They have a great farm system. They know what they’re doing over there, and have shown it day in and day out, year in and year out. They just know how to do it.
“For us to get to where we want to get to, we got to go through them.”
The Padres realize that even if they can’t win the division, a best-of-three wild-card round is a great safety net.
“If you come in second place,” All-Star starter Joe Musgrove says, “it is nice to have that (wild card). You take it for what it is. You don’t make excuses or complain about it.”
The Padres went 11-18 before the break, but they’re convinced they won’t have a sequel of a year ago when they were 18 games above .500 on Aug. 10, only to collapse by losing 34 of their final 46 games.
“I think we’ve got a completely different ballclub,” Machado says. “We’ve got a lot of guys that we didn’t have here last year.”
Prediction: Dodgers win the division for the ninth time in 10 years.
The Padres, perhaps with the addition of a new outfielder named Juan Soto, will be the wild-card team.
The Giants, after winning 107 games a year ago, will fall just short
There’s no reason in the world the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers won’t each be in the playoffs, one as the division winner the other as a wild-card team.
They each should win at least 90 games playing in the horrific NL Central with the Pirates, Reds and Cubs all expected to be worse after the trade deadline.
Certainly, the Brewers should take advantage of their schedule with 41 of their final 69 games at home, and just 29 games against teams with a winning record.
This is also a team that thrives in the second half with a .607 winning percentage since 2018.
The Brewers are expected to acquire a center fielder before the deadline to help the sagging offense, with Ramon Laureano, Cedric Mullins, Michael Taylor and Austin Hays as possibilities.
The Cardinals, who are in on Soto, also are expected to be aggressive at the trade deadline, desperately trying to acquire a starting pitcher, with their eyes on Reds ace Luis Castillo.
Certainly, they need to take advantage of the MVP-caliber seasons of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, and the last dance for Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and likely Adam Wainwright.
They certainly have the prospects to move with seven players ranked among the top 100, according to Baseball America.
The last time Pujols was a Cardinal, they won the World Series.
It would be a fitting farewell if they do it again for an encore, with Pujols needing 15 homers to join the exclusive 700-homer club.
“There’s an expectation here where a winning season isn’t above .500, that means nothing to me,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol told St. Louis reporters. “The way I was brought up in this organization, it meant nothing. Making the playoffs is great. It’s not the expectation.
“The expectation is what happened in 2011. That’s it. There’s nothing underneath that. You’re one or zero. You either win the whole thing or you don’t. In my eyes, above .500 means nothing. You either win or you don’t. There are 29 losers. There’s one winner. That’s it.”
The remaining schedule is delightful for the Cardinals, who play 47 of their final 68 games after the break against teams with losing records.
Prediction: St. Louis wins the division.
Milwaukee wins a wild-card berth.
CLASS OF 2022: Get to know the 7 inductees in the Baseball Hall of Fame
This could be this year’s version of the great Giants-Dodgers race of 2021 with the Mets and Atlanta.
The Mets are for real, and could be awfully dangerous once they pick up a bat at the trade deadline and get pitcher Jacob deGrom back.
But Atlanta, after winning the World Series a year ago, may be even better this time around.
The starting duo of Max Fried and Kyle Wright is sensational. Spencer Strider is having a monster rookie season, but Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson have struggled. Don’t be surprised if GM Alex Anthopoulos grabs another starter or reliever at the deadline, even with the potential return of starter Mike Soroka and reliever Kirby Yates.
They certainly have the potential of a lethal lineup with Ronald Acuña getting stronger by the day after recovering from ACL surgery, second baseman Ozzie Albies due back in August, and having rookie sensation Michael Harris III around the rest of the season.
“It’s going to make for fun baseball and some interesting baseball between us and the Mets,” Atlanta All-Star third baseman Austin Riley says. “We’ve got almost half a month of games with them left.”
The Mets are the lone team now standing in their way of a fifth consecutive division title.
“We have a wonderful opportunity in front of us,” Mets first baseman Pete Alonso says. “We’re playing excellent ball right now. We just need to keep working hard, focus on where our feet are. We have a hell of an opportunity. We just need to do what we can to grab onto it.”
It starts in earnest in August with nine games against Atlanta in a two-week span.
The Phillies won’t be in the race for the division title, but certainly could grab a wild-card berth, one game behind the Cardinals for third third wild-card spot. The Phillies are 27-16 since the firing of Joe Girardi.
They are hanging tight without Bryce Harper, going 12-10, but have a much tougher schedule than the Cardinals or Brewers, with the loser of the NL Central battling with the Phillies for a wild-card spot.
Prediction: Atlanta wins the NL East.
The Mets get the top wild-card berth.
The Phillies’ playoff drought extends to 11 seasons.
The Seattle Mariners are the hottest team in baseball. They won 14 consecutive games entering the All-Star break,and have the city partying as if it’s 2001 again.
Their starting rotation has been sensational, yielding an MLB-leading 2.89 ERA since May 27.
It’s hard to believe this is the same team that was 29-39 on June 19 and facing another miserable summer.
“We are riding some kind of momentum high right now,” manager Scott Servais told Seattle reporters. “The stretch we’re in, I don’t think anyone will ever forget it.”
The Mariners, who haven’t been to the postseason since 2001, the longest drought by any North American team in the four major sports, have 41 remaining games left against the worst 11 teams in baseball.
The Mariners’ playoff famine may be coming to an end, but no, they’re not going to catch the Astros.
The Astros no longer have Carlos Correa, George Springer or Gerrit Cole.
This is a team that pummeled the Yankees all season, winning five of seven games.
They even toyed with the Yankees, opening a game after the break with two consecutive bunt singles for the first time since the Colorado Rockies in 2015, and only the fourth in Astros’ franchise history.
These guys are bigger and better and more dangerous as ever.
Prediction: The Astros run away with the AL West.
The Mariners win a wild-card berth.
Say hello to the worst division in baseball, filled with mediocrity and rebuilds.
The Chicago White Sox should be embarrassed with their first-half performance.
“We thought we would just roll out of bed and be able to do what we did last year,” White Sox All-Star closer Liam Hendricks told reporters at the break, “and that is something that has proven not be true. That is actually going go be better for us in the long run.
“We’re putting the work in now to make it the exact opposite of what happened last year, where we came out of the gates strong and then faded toward the end. We started a little slow this year, and hopefully we can storm through at the end.”
They have the easiest remaining schedule with 39 games against teams with losing records the second half compared to 35 for the Guardians and 27 for the Twins.
Certainly, they better start winning at home, sitting with a 20-27 record.
And, of course, there are the Twins, who led the division throughout the first half.
Yet, they may be on fumes, losing seven of their last 10 games before the break.
They badly need another starter and several relievers to stay alive, even with Kenta Maeda expected to return in late August after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery. Veteran starters Sonny Gray, Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer have all struggled.
Prediction: The White Sox win the division.
The rest of the division stays home.
Well, the Yankees finally are showing a few flaws, and need some bullpen help, particularly with Michael King out the year with a fractured elbow, another starter, and another bat, but no one is going to catch them.
But, all of a sudden, their stranglehold on the league’s best record is in serious jeopardy, with just a 1½ -game lead over the Astros.
Certainly, the schedule favors the Astros.
They still have 20 games against the 11-worst teams in baseball from Aug. 20-Sept. 28, including 18 consecutive games against the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s.
The Yankees have just nine games against the 11-worst teams during the same stretch.
Still, the AL East belongs to them.
The Boston Red Sox?
Forget about it.
They have gone 6-16 in the last 22 games, dropping out of a wild-card spot.
They need to find a way to beat AL East teams before they can think about even a wild-card spot.
They were 12-36 against the AL East in the first half, hitting just .234 in July, and opened the second half getting trounced 28-5 by the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Rays, who have the third-best record in the league, are expected to get better the second half once they get healthy, having 16 players on the injured list, with a young nucleus that is gaining valuable experience.
“We’re very optimistic,” Rays GM Peter Bendix told reporters. “This group has gone through a lot of ups and downs, but it’s still a very talented group that’s pretty well positioned right now.
“They’re still really young. I think every day that they go through the season and experience different things, they are going to be better off for it. And I think that by the end of the season, this group has a chance to be really, really a team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.”
The Blue Jays were supposed to be a threat to win the AL East, which isn’t happening. They underachieved, causing the firing of manager Charlie Montoyo, but that could certainly change in the second half.
“I think (the second half) is going to be pretty special,” said Blue Jays All-Star starter Alek Manoah said during the break. “We’ve played maybe a few weeks of our best baseball the whole year and we’ve played some of our worst baseball in the first half.”
Prediction: The Yankees run away with the division.
The Blue Jays win a wild-card berth.
So do the Rays.
Around the basepaths
► Many executives believe that Juan Soto won’t be traded until the winter because there’s not enough time for the Nationals to thoroughly analyze everyone’s farm system, while giving teams time the ability to adjust by trading major-league players as well as prospects.
Look, the Nats aren’t just going to trade Soto for prospects. There’s zero guarantee on prospects, but major-league players, even those not yet eligible for salary arbitration, are proven.
This is going to take time unless some team overwhelms the Nats a package that addresses their immediate and future needs.
The early teams who have checked in: The Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Mariners and Cardinals.
The Padres and Mariners may prove to be the most aggressive bidders.
► While everyone wonders why the Nats would dare trade Soto before the team is sold, permitting the new ownership to decide whether they want to spend $500 million on Soto or not, one high-ranking official said it makes perfect sense if there’s already a new prospective ownership group in place.
If a group looks like the clear front-runners, it’s quite possible they want Soto gone simply because of public-relation appearances.
Who wants to be the new owners arriving into town and the first move they make is trading away perhaps the best young player in the game?
If he’s gone, they can come into town as the new owners who will turn the franchise into a powerhouse, again.
► There have been so many potential deals floated for Soto involving a bevy or prospects, how about a simple one-for-one?
Atlanta outfielder Ronald Acuña for Soto.
Atlanta gets an upgrade, with a cost of about $60 million over the next two years before he’s eligible for free agency.
And the Nats gets a young star who’s under control through 2028 with a cheap contract paying him just $17 million a year.
Sorry, not happening.
Atlanta isn’t giving up four years of control, and Acuña isn’t going in any deal.
► Prayers to beloved former manager Lou Piniella, who once again is battling serious health issues.
► The Yankees appear willing to increase their $213.5 million offer to Aaron Judge, but he still is seeking a deal closer to $290 million, getting an AAV of about $36 million, the same as Mike Trout’s 10-year, $360 million extension, but for likely eight years.
► They are printing money these days in Atlanta, averaging 38,130 fans a game – up 17% from the same point in their last full season with fans in 2019.
► The Padres are moving close to signing ace Joe Musgrove to an extension to lock him up before he hits free agency.
► It was a curious move by the Giants signing former All-Star closer Trevor Rosenthal to a two-year, $4.5 million contract that’s pro-rated this season. He hasn’t thrown a pitch in the big leagues since 2020.
“Obviously it’s been some time and he hasn’t been on a mound in a while,’’ Giants manager Gabe Kapler told reporters, “but the talent hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s an electric arm and a physical, strong body.”
► Astros veteran starter Lance McCullers Jr., who has been out since Game 4 of the AL Division Series against the White Sox last season with a flexor tendon injury, is expected back by mid-August, giving the Astros even a lethal rotation for the playoffs.
► The Mets grabbed first baseman/DH Daniel Vogelbach from the Pirates for reliever Colin Holderman, but still are seeking more offensive help, shopping first basemen Dominic Smith and J.D Davis.
The Mets’ DH collection hit just .208 with a .317 slugging percentage with six homers in the first half.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale