We're more than halfway through the season from math's perspective, and are coming up on the more accepted halfway point of the All-Star break. Despite this, it's unclear who the real competitors for the American League's two wild card spots are. Unless you're willing to go with "basically everyone".
This odd joint proximity to the playoffs, in which being a little better than mediocre could result in a playoff spot, is going to produce an awkward trade deadline if something doesn't change soon. Some teams who should be going for it might decide that the price is too high, while others who maybe shouldn't have thrown in all their chips will do it anyway. Only flags fly forever, sure, but you've got teams like the Blue Jays who haven't been to the postseason since before the wild card even existed*. Getting to October at all matters, at least to a degree.
Alternate eye-popping take: The Blue Jays haven't made the postseason since before R.A. Dickey, who is 39 years old, was drafted. In fact, Dickey had just graduated high school.
Entering July 10th's games, the AL wild card standings are thus:
The Angels have a comfortable lead, as they're 4.5 games ahead of the Mariners, who currently hold the second wild card spot. That puts them six up on the Royals, 6.5 up on Toronto, and so on -- it's not insurmountable, not with just under half of the season left, but it's a pretty good spot to be in, and is also the second-best record in the entire AL, behind only their division mates, the Athletics.
After the Angels is where things get crowded. You have seven teams within 5.5 games of two playoff spots, with a few of them heading in opposite directions. The Royals' offense was a joke for two months, but they rebounded in June: Combined with their strong pitching, they could be as good, if not better, than anyone else vying for a spot. The Blue Jays were in first place in the AL East, but they've come down from that a bit and have now lost slugger Edwin Encarnacion to a quad injury: Encarnacion is fourth in the AL in OPS+ among qualifying players, so losing him for any length of time could be a problem given how close this race is. The Yankees are 2.5 back, but as has been discussed here recently, they're lucky to own the record they do, and a potential injury to their ace Masahiro Tanaka will not be overcome with Brandon McCarthy alone.
The White Sox were supposed to be rebuilding -- the Twins, too -- so they're just far enough out that anything they do should be focused on improving them in 2014 and beyond, not just now: being a few games better than expected is no reason to start selling off the future. Then you've got teams like the Mariners, though, who, by signing Robinson Cano, were clearly interested in making things happen in the now: if they get a chance to improve their rotation or lineup before the season's last couple of months, then they should, even if it means shipping off prospects.
The next few weeks will determine whether the Red Sox and Rays are buyers or sellers at the deadline. Boston is nine back of the wild card and has a 2.4 percent chance at the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus, but the recent injection of youth into the lineup and rotation might turn the season around. Enough, anyway, that they might feel compelled to package prospects together on July 31 for a deal that helps now but hedges toward later as well. In 2012, general manager Ben Cherington took the long view of things and added Craig Breslow cheap when he could rather than do something huge, and his predecessor, Theo Epstein, added Jarrod Saltalamacchia in 2010, a similar situation in which the playoffs were no sure thing. As a comeback now is more of a long shot than it was in either of those two seasons, we'll likely see them selling off Jake Peavy and then possibly Felix Doubront, John Lackey, or Jon Lester depending on what other teams are offering instead of adding outright.
Would you rather be the Rangers or Astros?
The two Texas teams are at a crossroads. Which one would you rather helm for the foreseeable future?
As for the Rays, they're in a similar hole in both the division and wild card races, but a strong last few weeks of July could compel them to wait until the offseason to deal off David Price. They have replacement arms in the minors, though, and are far enough back that even a miracle second-half run might not do the trick: this isn't 2011, where the Rays "just" had to catch the Red Sox in the midst of a colossal meltdown. The Rays are chasing eight teams, and only two of them need to outplay the Rays the rest of the way for any comeback to be fruitless.
It's difficult to just give up when a playoff spot is within reach, so if we want an exciting deadline -- and we do -- we need some of these teams to decide they're bad and have it show up in their record. If the Indians, White Sox, etc. can't make up additional ground, they can start to focus completely on the future and sell some present-day pieces. The Jays and Royals will likely do their part to shore up their teams in bids to break the lengthiest postseason-free streaks in baseball, so unless they both tank in the next few weeks, expect them to be buying. The Yankees, well, a lot of that depends on the results of Tanaka's MRI.
Regardless of who it ends up being, some of these hangers on need to slip off so that there is someone available to sell to the four or five teams that should be going all-in for our amusement. The potential for an exciting deadline is here: We just need some bad baseball to be played between now and July 31 for that potential to be realized.