Breaking down the AL wild-card race

There’s two-plus weeks to go and six teams within five games of a wild-card spot; there were seven before Oakland finished off the defending champion Royals. Here’s how the American League breaks down (stats through Thursday’s games).

  • Boston: Why they’ll make it: Because the Red Sox have the best offense in baseball, leading MLB, in runs scored (812) and OPS (.819). Because David Price has pitched in his last six starts — allowing two runs or few — as 20-game winner Rick Porcello as has most of the year. Because rookie Andrew Benintendi, who was hitting .324 before twisting his knee, is back. And because their closer, Craig Kimbrel, is the freshest in the AL East, having pitched just 45.1 innings. Why they won’t: Because the offense doesn’t score enough when the Sox most need it to — they’re 16-22 in one-run games. Because rookie Yoan Moncada was overmatched, fanned nine straight times and ran the bases as if addled, which is how Clay Buchholz is pitching. And because 11 of their last 17 games are on the road.
  • Toronto: Why they’ll make it: Because the Blue Jays, who led MLB with 23 home runs last year, are on pace to hit almost as many this year. They have 206 entering play Friday, 39 by Edwin Encarnacion, whose career-high is 39. No wonder the free agent to be isn’t talking contract. Because J.A. Happ, 19-4, is on his way to winning 20 games. And because second baseman Devon Travis, who missed the second half of last year and the first half of this year, is healthy and hitting. 303 and slugging .462. Why they won’t: Because Travis may be healthy, but Josh Donaldson, their best player and last year’s MVP, isn’t.  Because their rotation has turned into Happ and a lot of crap — Marcus Stroman, who started last year’s deciding game against Texas, has a 4.55 ERA; R.A. Dickey is at 4.60 and Marcus Estrada’s ERA, below 3.00 in late July, is approaching 4 and he has a bad back. And because free agent to be Jose Bautista, who said he wouldn’t talk contract after opening day, is batting .228 with 18 home runs, his lowest totals since 2009. He should be happy no one is talking contract because he wouldn’t like what anyone has to say.
  • Baltimore: Why they’ll make it: Because as many home runs as the Jays hit, the Orioles will hit more. They lead MLB with 232 and are likely to have four with more than 30 and five with more than 25 (Mark Trumbo 42, Chris Davis 37, Manny Machado 35, Adam Jones 27, Jonathan Schoop 24). If Home Run Derby were the tiebreaker, the Orioles would be in good shape. Because Zach Britton — four runs and one homer  allowed in 59.1 innings with a .418 OPS against — is the best closer in baseball. Because after his ERA peaked at 7.38 and he spent three weeks in the bullpen, Ubaldo Jimenez has four quality starts in a row. Because the Orioles have four games left with the Rays and three with the Diamondbacks and 11 of their last 17 at home. Why they won’t: Because no bullpen can rescue their rotation, which is 26th in MLB in ERA (4.88) and which features two of the worst free-agent signings of the last three offseasons:  Jimenez, who has a 5.98 ERA for $12.5 million, and Yovani Gallardo, who has a 5.77 ERA for his $11 million. Because Wade Miley, acquired by trade from Seattle, has an 8.31 in eight starts and keeps going out there because young pitchers Kevin Gausman (160) and Dylan Bundy (99.2) are at or approaching career highs in innings. Is a one-game wild-card appearance worth a Tommy John surgery to be named later? Because the Orioles’ +28 run differential is third in the AL East and sixth in the AL.
  • N.Y. Yankees: Why they’ll make it: Because everyone needs someone to root against in October.Because Gary Sanchez has 14 home runs in 38 games, a 60 home run pace for 162 games. Because Alex Rodriguez is gone. Because Billy Butler, released by the A’s for a clubhouse fight with a teammate, is here and he’s a lifetime .299 hitter vs. lefties. Because Tyler Clippard, who helped fill the void left by Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, has been better than either, allowing one earned run in 19 innings. Why they won’t: Because  the Yankees aren’t even outscoring opponents let alone outperforming them: their -14 run differential is ninth in the AL and 17th in MLB. Because Sanchez has struck out 16 times in 46 September at-bats. Because Butler slugged just .331 for the A’s and had one home run in plate appearances vs. lefties, or two less than Austin Romine. Because they don’t have Miller and Chapman or Carlos Beltran, and rookie Aaron Judge is likely out for the year after striking out every other at-bat (42 times in 84 ABs) and fellow rookie Tyler Austin (.206 average and 30 Ks in 68 ABs) hasn’t been much better. Has anyone wondered where the Yankees would be — and stipulated that they traded wisely for the future — if they had kept Miller, Chapman and Beltran and simply promoted Sanchez?
  • Detroit: Why they’ll make it: Because Miguel Cabrera (.308/382/545) and Justin Verlander (3.33 ERA, 200 innings, 216 strikeouts, .652 OPS against) have done this before. Because the Tigers have four players with 20 homers or more, and possibly a fifth if third baseman Nick Castellanos returns from injury. Because Michael Fulmer (2.76 ERA, .633 OPS) might be the Rookie of the Year. Because the Tigers have series left with the Twins and the Braves. Why they won’t: Because the Tigers spent $100 million on Jordan Zimmermann (4.94 ERA) and $132 million on Justin Upton (.235/296/418). Because catchers James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (with 13 at-bats by Bobby Wilson) have combined to hit .210 and strike out 172 times. Because until Castellano returns, it’s either Casey McGehee or Romine at third.Because the Tigers are 14th in MLB in runs scored and 19th in ERA. Because the Tigers just split four games with the Twins and lost two of three to the under-.500 White Sox, and because they have seven more with the first-place Indians.
  • Seattle: Why they’ll make it: Because the Mariners have three players headed for 30 home runs and 100 RBIs: Nelson Cruz (37 homers, 92 RBIs), Robinson Cano (33, 87) and Kyle Seager (29, 93). Because maybe if the Yankees had spent the money on Cano the Mariners did, they’d be in the playoffs. Because catcher Mike Zunino, who batted .193 with a .605 OPS in his first three seasons, has 11 homers and an .878 OPS in 125 at-bats this year. Because rookie closer Edwin Diaz has 77 strikeouts in 44 innings, an MLB-best 15.75 per nine innings. Because 24-year-old  Taijuan Walker, who had a 4.64 ERA entering the week, fashioned his best game as a big-leaguer Tuesday: shutting out the Angels on three hits, no walks and 11 strikeouts. Why they won’t: Because Cruz, Cano and Seager would all have 100 RBIs already if the Mariners had a better leadoff hitter than Nori Aoki (.336 on base). Because the Mariners sure could use Mike Montgomery (2.66 in 94.2 innings) as a starter or reliever, but they traded him to the Cubs when they thought they September would be blase. Because Zunino is still hitting .224 and has fanned 42 times in 125 at-bats. Because Tom Wilhelmsen, who had a 10.55 ERA in 21 games with Texas before being released, usually precedes Diaz. Because Walker is, as youth is prone to be, unpredictable: he couldn’t get out of the first inning two starts previously against the Angels.
  • Houston: Why they’ll make it: Because the Astros have the best middle infield in MLB in second baseman Jose Altuve (.341/401/551) and Carlos Correa (.271/361/453), both on their way to 100-RBI seasons. Because they have the best bullpen of any of the contenders, ranking fifth with a 3.42 ERA. Because after a 1-for-34 start, rookie infielder Alex Bregman is hitting .339 and slugging .649 in September. Because Cuban Yulieski Gurriel, promoted after 61 minor-league plate appearances, is batting .338 and slugging .521 in 75 plate appearances and is versatile enough to have played three positions in 21 games. Because the Astros have 10 games left with the Angels and Athletics. Why they won’t: Because Astros first basemen have combined to hit .234 and slug .392, the latter 28th in MLB, and too often it’s Marwin Gonzalez. Because the Astros’ rotation doesn’t have a starter with an ERA below 4.00 except for Brad Peacock, who’s made two starts this year, and they’re unlikely to get 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel back. Not that Keuchel, with a 4.55 ERA, would help much. Because Gurriel has walked just three times in those 75 plate appearances. Because the Astros also have six games left with the Mariners, and the Athletics just swept the Royals out of contention over four games by a 43-12 count.
  • Prediction: Possession is nine-tenths of a playoff berth, so the Red Sox look good for some kind of postseason. The Orioles’ bullpen and power should prevail; the Blue Jays if Donaldson returns. If not, the schedule favors the Astros.
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