Yankees, Rays now put focus on division

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It was a dramatic night in the MLB playoff races on Tuesday, with the Cincinnati Reds clinching the NL Central for their first postseason trip since 1995, and the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays also assuring themselves places in the postseason, eliminating the Boston Red Sox in the process.

The AL teams are locked up, with the Twins and Rangers joining the Yankees and Rays in the field. And with the Reds joining the Phillies in the NL, six of the eight playoff spots are accounted for.

So what’s left? Let’s break it down:

AMERICAN LEAGUE: Who plays who?

Now that they have both secured a playoff berth, the Rays and Yankees can relax, right? Perhaps not. Remember that the team that wins the AL East will receive home-field advantage in the ALDS and likely play the Texas Rangers (87-70) who are on their way to finishing with the worst record among the AL playoff teams.

The team that settles for the wild-card spot will then have to play the Minnesota Twins, who as a division champ will hold the home-field edge even if the wild-card team has a better record. And remember that Minnesota is 52-25 in its first season at Target Field.

So the AL East title should matter to both teams.

“We still have aspirations of winning our division and trying to get homefield advantage,” Joe Girardi told the Associated Press. “I’ve got to pick my spots to rest guys.”

As far as head-to-head records this season, the only team with a distinct advantage over another appears to be the Twins against the Rangers, as Minnesota has beaten Texas seven times in 10 games. Those teams can’t meet until the ALCS, however. Here are the head to head matchups of possible first-round foes:

Yankees 6, Twins 4
Yankees 4, Rangers 4
Rays 5, Twins 3
Rays 4, Rangers 2

NATIONAL LEAGUE: It’s wild in the West

At an NL-best 94-64, the Philadelphia Phillies have guaranteed themselves home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, so look for Charlie Manuel to concentrate on keeping his players sharp while resting his regulars and setting up his rotation for the playoffs. This could bode well for the Atlanta Braves, who finish the season with a series against Philly. Other than that, not much is guaranteed in the National League at this point.

Like the Phillies, the NL Central champion Reds are also in. But aside from that there is much left to be decided, with the Giants and Padres battling for the NL West, and with whoever loses out on that race fighting the Braves for the NL wild card.

If the wild-card team comes from the NL West, they will face the Phillies in the first round. But if the Braves win the wild card, the Phillies will face either the Reds or the NL West champs, whoever has the worst record. Seeing as how the Braves (89-69), Reds (88-69), Giants (89-68) and Padres (87-70) are all within two games of each other, you might want to hold off on reserving any flights for a few more days.

To get a full breakdown on the remaining playoff races, click here.

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Cardinals, Dexter Fowler agree to a five-year, $82 million deal

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Dexter Fowler #24 of the Chicago Cubs reacts during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Getty Images
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The Cardinals have officially signed outfielder Dexter Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million contract. Fowler will also get a full no-trade clause.

The Cardinals gave Fowler a bigger deal than many speculated he’d get, as some reports predicted he’d get something in the $52-72 million range. His skills, however — he’s a fantastic leadoff hitter who plays a premium defensive position — definitely earned him some major dough. Fowler hit .276/.393/.447 with 13 homers, 48 RBI and 13 steals over 125 games in 2016 for the World Series champion Cubs.

For the Cardinals, this will allow Matt Carpenter to move down to the middle of the batting order and will shift Randal Grichuk to left field. It also takes a prime piece from the Cardinals’ biggest rival. For their part, earlier this offseason the Cubs signed former Cardinal center fielder Jon Jay. So that’s fun.

Are the Cardinals about to go on a free agent binge?

John Mozeliak AP
Associated Press
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The Cardinals have always emphasized building from within. In the 2016-17 offseason, however, they may end up being one of the bigger free agent buyers. At least according to some informed speculation.

St. Louis is already in agreement with Dexter Fowler. But Derrick Goold and Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch write today that the Cardinals “could become more aggressive than previously believed,” with Mark Trumbo and Edwin Encarnacion as “possible pursuits.” Worth noting that separate reports alleged some interest on the part of the Cards front office in free agent third baseman Justin Turner.

The Cardinals are already losing their first round pick due to the Fowler signing, so any other top free agent won’t cost them more than the money he’s owed. And as far as money goes, the Cardinals have a great deal of it, despite being a small market team. They have a billion dollar TV deal coming online and Matt Holliday and Jaime Garcia are off the payroll now. Spending big on a free agent or three would not cripple them or anything.

Encarnacion or Trumbo would be first baseman, which wold fly in the face of the Cards’ move of Matt Carpenter to first base (and, at least as far as Encarnacion goes, would fly in the face of good defense). Getting either of them would push Carpenter back to second, displacing Kolten Wong, or over to third, displacing Jhonny Peralta. If you’re going to do that, I’d say that Turner would make more sense, but what do I know?

Either way, the Cardinals may be entering a pretty interesting phase of their offseason now. And an unfamiliar one as, quite possibly, the top free agent buyer on the market.