The Week Ahead: Three-way battle for AL supremacy

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The American League playoff field is set, with the Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins clinching their divisions, and the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays soon to sort out who will be the AL East champion and who will be the wild card team.

But there is one big thing left to watch for in the AL during the final week of the season, and that is the three-way battle for best record – and thus home-field advantage – through the first two rounds of the playoffs. (See a breakdown of the playoff races here.)

Entering the week, the Tampa Bay Rays (93-62) are sitting atop the AL, with the New York Yankees (93-63) and Minnesota Twins (92-63) right behind. All three have a shot to secure home field in the ALDS and ALCS. Because the All-Star Game decides the home-field edge in the World Series, that honor will go to whichever team emerges from the National League.

The Rays seem to have the edge. Not only are they ahead in the standings and hold the tiebreaker over the other two teams, they also have the easiest remaining schedule with three games against Baltimore and four against Kansas City. The Yankees have six road games, three at Toronto and three at Boston, while the Twins are at Kansas City and at home against Toronto. Minnesota is already guaranteed home field in the ALDS, as the Twins will play the AL wild card team. The AL East winner will face the Texas Rangers.

But will home-field advantage even matter in the playoffs? The Yankees (52-29), Rays (48-29) and Twins (52-25) are all excellent at home, but the head-to-head records between these teams don’t reveal any significant trends.

The Rays actually have a winning record against the Yankees both in New York (5-4), and in St. Petersburg (5-4) this season, but only marginally so. And while the Rays are 3-1 against the Twins in Minnesota, they are only 2-2 against them in St. Petersburg. As far as the Yankees and Twins go, New York took two of three at Target Field, yet the teams split four games in the Bronx this season.

All in all, it’s a pretty insignificant sample size that doesn’t give us much to go on. The Yankees certainly recognize that, preferring to rest and prepare their rotation for the playoffs instead of gunning for the AL East title.

As the defending champs who didn’t go to a final deciding game in any series last season, I’m going to trust their judgement.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Mariners at Rangers, Sept. 27-29:
The Rangers are going to the playoffs, the Mariners are battling for a high draft pick. But one thing of note is that Felix Hernandez will get one last chance on Tuesday to convince voters he is a Cy Young candidate.

Astros at Reds, Sept. 28-30: The Reds can clinch their first playoff berth since 1995 with a win over the Astros. Of course if the Cardinals lose on Monday, it will be all over, and Cincy fans will spend this series recovering from the party.

Yankees at Red Sox, Oct. 1-3: The schedule-makers probably thought they had a doozy of a series set up here, but Boston’s inability to keep up with the Yankees and Rays in the brutal AL East has taken away some shine. Still, the Red Sox can take pleasure, small as it may be, if they keep the Yankees from grabbing the AL East title.

Phillies at Braves, Oct. 1-3: The Phillies will probably have clinched the NL East crown by the time this series rolls around, but Atlanta should still be in the thick of the wild card race, so this will carry plenty of meaning.

Padres at Giants, Oct. 1-3: They’ve been taking turns leading the NL West for a week now with neither team playing great, neither team folding tent. With the Braves struggling, there is a chance both of these teams will make the playoffs, but there has to be big incentive to win the division and hopefully avoid the Phillies in the NLDS.

ON THE TUBE
Wednesday, 4:30 p.m.: Marlins at Braves (ESPN)
Wednesday, 8:10 p.m.: Red Sox at White Sox (ESPN)
Wednesday, 10:05 p.m.: Diamondbacks at Giants (ESPN)
*Check local listings

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Nationals succeeded by spending money

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Throughout the playoffs, the Nationals have been cast as plucky underdogs fighting and scrapping their way into the World Series. It’s somewhat true: the Nats overcame a dreadful start to the regular season after losing their star outfielder in Bryce Harper, and were heavy underdogs in the NLDS against the Dodgers, who won 13 more games. But the Nationals are not David in a David vs. Goliath story. They’re closer to Goliath because they have flexed their payroll muscle to fill the roster with talented players.

The Nationals didn’t come close to matching the 13-year, $330 million contract the Phillies wound up agreeing to with Harper, instead offering a 10-year, $300 million deal of which about $100 million was deferred. Losing Harper has somewhat defined their 2019. But they did sign starter Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract, and they’re paying Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg $38.33 million and $37.4 million, respectively. As we saw in the NLCS, it was the starting rotation that carried them into the World Series.

Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, will not win the award again this year most likely, but he once again ranked among the game’s best pitchers. During the regular season, he posted a 2.92 ERA with 243 strikeouts across 172 1/3 innings. Strasburg led the league in wins with 18 and innings with 209 while authoring a 3.32 ERA with 251 strikeouts. Corbin continued to impress with a 3.25 ERA and 328 strikeouts in 202 innings. As a unit, the Nationals’ 3.53 ERA from starting pitchers ranked second-best in baseball behind the Dodgers. Sounds about right for a rotation collectively earning about $100 million.

We — the royal we — have been quick to point out when an uncommon strategy works, like the Cubs’ and Astros’ rebuilding strategies before they came in vogue or the Rays’ use of the “opener.” It’s only fair to point out that a time-tested strategy, spending money on good baseball players, also works. The Nationals’ current payroll of about $204.5 million is third-highest in baseball, according to USA TODAY.

In September, the Nationals’ NL East rival Phillies were reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal to have curtailed efforts to compete for a Wild Card because of a lack of certainty. The front office didn’t want to invest significant resources into grabbing a lowly Wild Card only to have to match up with the behemoth Dodgers in the NLDS. But that’s exactly what the Nationals did. The Nationals also swept the slumping Phillies in a five-game series September 23-26.

The Phillies aren’t alone. We’ve seen in the last few offseasons that teams have become loath to invest in free agents, particularly ones 30 and older. Even Scherzer took notice. Asked about the Nationals’ collective age, Scherzer said via The Athletic’s Rustin Dodd, “It just seems everybody wants younger and younger players. And everybody wants to forget about all the old guys. We see it in free agency, we’re not dumb. And the fact (is) we’re the oldest team and we won the National League.”

Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Josh Donaldson will highlight the upcoming free agent class. They could be joined by Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman, and J.D. Martinez if they exercise the opt-out clauses in their contracts. In the cases of Cole and Rendon, at least two-thirds of the league should be actively pursuing them but if the past few years are any indication, the actual interest will be muted and they won’t end up signing until after the new year. Front offices have continued to blindly recite the phrase “aging curve” while pointing at the Rays in an effort to scale back payroll. The Nationals, meanwhile, are putting the “money” back in Moneyball and they might win a championship because of it.