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MLB playoff picture: Ranking the American League contenders as they head down the stretch

mlb playoff picture
Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With fewer than two weeks left in the regular season, the MLB playoff picture is becoming clearer. Yet only four of the 12 dance tickets officially have been punched: the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Ray Rays.

Once a team gets into the postseason, anything can happen. A potential juggernaut like the Braves could falter. A surprise addition such as the Arizona Diamondbacks or Baltimore Orioles could prove they aren’t too young to knock off the big boys.

The Philadelphia Phillies once again could illustrate that October is the proper time to get rolling on all cylinders.

So, this piece may not age well. But that’s OK. That’s baseball.

Here is an attempt to put the contenders in order per league, starting with the American League today.

1. Baltimore Orioles, Projected seed: No. 1

baltimore orioles
Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

    This certainly opens “homer” criticisms since I’ve covered this organization for more than two decades. As of a few days ago, I would have put the Orioles as the second most likely club to represent the AL in the World Series. That’s how most oddsmakers still see it.

    The Orioles’ four-game split against the Rays this past weekend, however, changed my thinking, especially while the Houston Astros were losing four of six to Oakland and Kansas City. These Orioles are young and mostly unknown, but they know how to win. They haven’t been swept all year (not since May 2022) and when they lost the first two against the Rays to set up a tie in the East, they immediately responded by winning the next two, including Sunday’s 11th-inning thriller.

    They are still being viewed nationally as a surprise, but if you watch them daily, they appear to be the real thing. They have a deep lineup, a bullpen that keeps them in games and a defense that is among the best in baseball. And manager Brandon Hyde has these guys believing they can beat anyone. Their rotation may not match up particularly well against some other contenders, but they’ve passed every test this season, leading to the best AL record.  

    2. Houston Astros, Projected seed: No. 2

    houston astros
    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    They are the defending champs, have vast experience and added future Hall-of-Famer Justin Verlander at the break. There is no reason this team can’t win it all. They just simply haven’t played as consistently well as they should have, partially due to various injuries. Losing recent series to the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s is headshaking as is their slow start to September.

    But no one would be surprised if the Astros suddenly win 10 straight and are baseball’s hottest team heading into the playoffs. They are that good and that balanced. However, they need another starter to step up behind Framber Valdez and Verlander.

    Cristian Javier has really struggled in the second half – a 5.40 ERA in 11 starts – which may open the door for rookies Hunter Brown or J.P France to potentially make an impact in October. This still has the feel of a World Series team, but they aren’t quite as polished or healthy as they were last year.

    3. Tampa Bay Rays, Projected seed: No. 4

    tampa bay rays
    Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

    The Rays have had arguably the most challenging season of any club in the majors, losing three legitimate starting pitchers to season-ending injuries and ultimately placing their best player, shortstop Wander Franco, on the restricted list due to sexual misconduct allegations.

    And yet the Rays are where they’ve been each of the past five seasons: in the playoffs. They are exceptionally balanced with a deep lineup and another strong pitching staff. They still have a chance to win the AL East and the No. 1 seed, but they lost a golden opportunity by splitting four games this week with the Orioles, who also own the tiebreaker.

    As the likely fourth seed, they’ll host the wild card round at Tropicana Field, and no MLB team has won more games at home this season than the Rays. So that means they’ll likely be favorited no matter who they play in the first round, with a second-round showdown potentially looming against the Orioles.

    4. Toronto Blue Jays, Projected seed: No. 5

    toronto blue jays
    Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

    This was my pick to win it all in March. The Blue Jays, for the most part, have been disappointing. They started out hot, taking a 17-10 record into May but have been a seesaw since. There’s no reason this club can’t put it all together and make a run as many expected when the season started.  

    It just won’t be easy now as a second or third wild-card team. If they are the fifth seed, that means they’ll face one of their two division rivals on the road: either the Rays or the Orioles. And if they win that series, they’d have to beat the other of those two to get to the ALCS.

    Can they make it? Sure. With maybe the deepest rotation in the AL, led by Kevin Gausman, and an offense that should be explosive, all the talent is there. They could be dangerous in the postseason, but they need to get on a roll.

    5. Seattle Mariners, Projected seed: No. 6

    seattle mariners
    Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

    The only consistency here is the inconsistency. By month, they were 11-15 in April, 17-11 in May, 9-15 in June, 17-9 in July, 21-6 in August and have lost 11 of 16 to start September. Bottom line here: The Mariners are either going to miss the playoffs or win it all.

    Seriously, it’s impossible to ascertain what we’re going to see in the final two weeks of this season from the Mariners. But that rotation is so good that it makes sense to pick them if it comes down to their arms versus the Texas Rangers’ bats for the final playoff spot.

    The two teams face off seven times in the final two weeks, including four games to end the season in Seattle. It could be a coin flip here, but I’ll go with the Mariners to advance to the playoffs during that last weekend at home.

    6. Minnesota Twins, Projected seed: No. 3

    Perhaps it is disrespectful to place a division winner at the bottom of these projections, but the Twins did this to themselves. Playing in the worst division in baseball, the Twins are playing at an 85-win pace, which wouldn’t get them a wild-card berth if they were in any other AL division.

    They are clearly the best AL Central team, but they likely will have a short run in the playoffs. The Twins will host a wild-card series, but they are a sub-.500 team on the road, and that does not bode well for a potential trip to Houston to start the second round — if they get that far.

    7. Texas Rangers, Projected Seed: Fall short

    This is a tough one. Along with the Orioles, the Rangers were the darlings of the AL for a while. They started the season 40-20, and their venerable skipper, Bruce Bochy, received lots of love as a potential Manager of the Year winner.

    But they lost 16 of 20 from Aug. 16 to Sept. 8 and fell from first to third in the West. A recent six-game winning streak has put them back in the mix for the final two wild-card spots and maybe the division, but without Max Scherzer for the remainder of the season the climb goes further uphill. Still, if they can dominate the Mariners these next two weeks, they’ll get in. And then they would jump the Twins in this order.

    Dan Connolly is an MLB Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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