The Week Ahead: It's clinching time

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rivera_yanks_090927.jpgThe New York Yankees are in. The St. Louis Cardinals, too. The Los Angeles Dodgers are assured at least the NL wild-card slot, and will soon be celebrating a division title. And these traditional powers are about to have a lot more company very soon.

What’s left in baseball’s playoff races? Not a whole lot, really.

[Breakdown of playoff races  |  Standings] 

The Texas Rangers, hanging on by a thread in both the AL West and wild-card races, essentially have to run the table this week and receive a ton of help to even have a chance. They open the week with a four-game series against the Angels, and any loss in that series will end their division hopes.

In the wild-card race, the Boston Red Sox can clinch by going just 2-5 this week – even if the Rangers win out.

In the NL, the Phillies can clinch the NL East with a 3-4 week – even if the Braves run the table — and the aforementioned Dodgers can clinch the West with a mere two wins this week – no matter what the second-place Colorado Rockies do.

That leaves only two races with any sort of drama left, the NL wild card and the AL Central. In the NL, the Atlanta Braves have ridden a 5-game winning to move within 2 ½ games of the leading Rockies. And there is reason for hope in Atlanta. If the Braves can get past the Marlins in the early part of the week, they finish with four games at home against the Washington Nationals, whom they just swept by a combined score of 21-9.

Colorado has a much tougher road, with three games at home against Milwaukee before heading to Los Angeles for three games against the Dodgers. L.A. is 12-3 against Colorado this season.

In the AL Central, the Tigers are trying to fend off the Twins, who are hanging two games back as the teams enter a four-game series on Monday in Detroit. A split would put Detroit in good shape, as the Twins would then almost certainly need a weekend sweep against Kansas City – and they’ll face leading AL Cy Young contender Zack Greinke on Saturday.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Marlins at Braves, Sept. 28-30: The Marlins are pretty much cooked, but they Braves still have an outside chance of catching the Rockies for the NL wild card spot. Florida wouldn’t mind playing spoiler

Rangers at Angels, Sept. 28-Oct. 1: The Rangers haven’t been eliminated yet from either the AL West or wild card races. That being said, anything less than a four-game sweep of the Angels spells doom. The drama here could end real quickly.

Twins at Tigers, Sept. 28-Oct. 1: This is pretty much it for the Twins, who trail Detroit by two games heading into this four-game series. If Minnesota doesn’t win at least three, you can pretty much give Detroit the division.

Royals at Twins, Oct. 2-4: As we said above, Greinke and the Royals get a chance to play spoiler here. And Greinke has something to play for, too, as he aims to grab as many wins as he can to impress Cy Young award voters.

Rockies at Dodgers, Oct. 2-4: The Atlanta Braves must look at this series and think “Ahah. We have hope.” While Atlanta will be playing the lowly Washington Nationals, Colorado draws Los Angeles. Colorado is 3-12 against the Dodgers this season. The Braves must just make sure they are close enough heading into the weekend.

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If you Twitter, you can find me there at @Bharks.

The deeper implications of the A.J. Ellis trade

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 17:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers heads to the dugout at the end of the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Dodger Stadium on May 17, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The trade of a light-hitting backup catcher is normally about as inconsequential as it gets. The trade of A.J. Ellis by the Dodgers to the Phillies, however, is anything but that. Indeed, it may be the public manifestation of long-simmering, well, maybe “feud” is too strong a word, but a definite butting of heads between the team’s front office and its best player.

While almost all of the clubhouse drama in Los Angeles has surrounded a talented but aggravating corner outfielder currently toiling in the minors, Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times wrote last night that the Ellis trade could very well be seen as the front office’s shot across Clayton Kershaw‘s bow:

Kershaw’s preference of Ellis was the subject of a longstanding tug-of-war between Kershaw and the front office, which wanted Yasmani Grandal behind the plate as much as possible . . . Some players interpreted the trade as a message from the front office.

This isn’t Kershaw’s team. It’s not Corey Seager’s team or Adrian Gonzalez’s, either.

It’s Friedman’s.

The notion that Kershaw likes to pitch to Ellis is pretty well-known, but the idea that it was so strong a preference that it created a dispute as to whether he has final say over a roster spot is news, at least to people who aren’t around the Dodgers all the time. Hernandez is a good columnist and is particularly well-plugged in to the Dodgers after many years of being their beat writer for the Times. He wouldn’t throw the notion of there being something of a power struggle in this regard out there all willy-nilly in order to stir the pot or something. I don’t doubt for a second that something bigger than most of us have seen is going on here.

As for the trade itself: yeah, it’s pretty debatable as to whether it makes any kind of sense. Carlos Ruiz is likely an upgrade over Ellis, but it’s a pretty marginal upgrade when you consider how few plate appearances the Dodgers backup catcher will make for the rest of the year. It’s especially marginal if you assume, as Hernandez and others assume, likely with reason, that the loss of Ellis is going to harm morale. At least in the short term before they get to know Ruiz well (worth noting, though, that he comes pretty highly recommended from Kershaw-caliber aces for all the same reasons Ellis does). I can see a lot of reasons not to make that deal even for an extra hit or two a week that Ruiz may give you over Ellis.

All of which speaks to what we don’t know. What we don’t know about the mind of Andrew Friedman and whether or not there is something more going on here than is immediately apparent. About the relationship between him and Kershaw and, for that matter, him and the rest of the team that would cause him to make a deal that plays as poorly with his own players as this one does. It could be something about Ellis. It could be something about Friedman’s relationship with Kershaw. It could be something totally unrelated to any of that, such as offseason plans and the roster in 2017 (Ruiz has a team option for next year, Ellis is a pending free agent). Unless or until Friedman speaks or a reporter gets someone to shed more light on this, there will continue to be questions.

In the meantime, I’ll grant that there are certainly different rules which apply to superstars than mere mortals, but veto power over a trade and/or playing time for other players isn’t typically one of them. If, as Hernandez suggests, there was a sense that Kershaw and Friedman didn’t see eye-to-eye on that and it wasn’t otherwise being resolved, it makes Friedman’s move somewhat more understandable.

World Baseball Classic pools, venues announced

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - MARCH 10:  Miguel Cabrera #24 of Venezuela gets a hit and drives in a run against Spain during the first round of the World Baseball Classic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium on March 10, 2013 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Yesterday the folks who run the World Baseball Classic (i.e. the Rand Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people, under the supervision of the reverse vampires, the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission) announced the groupings and venues for next springs’s tournament. It breaks down thusly:

  • Pool A will play in Tokyo, featuring Australia, China, Cuba, and Japan;
  • Pool B will play in Seoul, featuring Chinese Taipei, Korea, the Netherlands, and either Brazil, Israel, Great Britain, or Pakistan (final participant to be determined at a qualifying tournament in New York next month);
  • Pool C will play in Miami, featuring Canada, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and the United States;
  • Pool D will play in Guadalajara, featuring Italy, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela.

A winner and a runner-up will advance from each pool following a round-robin competition. That will result in a second round robin made up of Pool A and B — which will be called Pool E, because it HAS to be complicated — and which will be played in Tokyo. Meanwhile, Pool C and D’s representatives will make up Pool F, who will play in San Diego at Petco Park.

The winner of Pool F will then take on the runner-up of Pool E in a semifinal at Dodger Stadium, while the winner of Pool E will face Pool F’s runner-up there as well. The winners of those matches will play in the WBC final, also at Dodger Stadium.

Got it? Good.

Now we wait. And listen to people tell us how much we should care about the World Baseball Classic between now and March.