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The predictable unpredictability of MLB's stretch run

Almost every playoff race is unsettled with less than a month to go in the regular season.

Will Adam Dunn be enough to stop the A's slide?
Will Adam Dunn be enough to stop the A's slide?
Thearon W. Henderson

There is less than a month left in 2014's regular season, and very little has been decided. A few division leads look safe, but there is just enough baseball left in the season for a miracle to change even that. Both wild-card races are wide open, maybe even more so than expected given the A's recent slide, but even for those spots, there is only so much time left for teams to make their moves.

Neither the American League or National League East are intriguing, at least not from a pennant race perspective. The Orioles are eight games up on a Yankees' team whose greatest strength to this point has been avoiding falling too far behind, while the Nationals are seven up on a Braves' club whose best games of 2014 might very well be behind them -- they're under .500 in the second half of the season, while the Nats are playing their best ball in the same stretch. There could be intrigue in either of these divisions, it's going to take a serious reversal of fortune for that to occur: We're talking a historically bad collapse, on par with the 2011 Red Sox or Braves, the 2007 Mets, and so on, and for that to be paired with success from the clubs chasing the O's and Nationals. For now, the Easts are about as settled as anything can be. Everything else is bananas.

The AL Central might end up with the closest race of all. The Royals, thanks to an incredible August that saw them go 19-10, find themselves a half-game up on the Tigers, who have struggled mightily in the second half but seem to be righting that ship. The wins lost to Kansas City's underperforming lineup in the first half -- most of the team didn't hit until June, and some parts of it still aren't -- can't be undone entirely, but they've got 26 games left to play well enough so that it doesn't matter. The Tigers' lack of depth has hurt them throughout the year, but acquiring David Price at the trade deadline will help them survive the loss of another high-quality arm in Anibal Sanchez, even if that wasn't the original intent for the deal. This race could go either way, and not just because the teams are evenly matched and equally talented: the Tigers have 25 games remaining, the Royals 26, and just about anything can happen in the course of a month, as fans of both of these clubs already know far too well.

David Price
Price's acquisition is that much more important now. (Photo credit: Jason Miller)

In the NL Central, the Cardinals have their largest division lead of the season, at one game. They should be getting Michael Wacha back soon, added John Lackey at the deadline, and are supposedly replacing Justin Masterson with one of a few young arms in order to round out the rotation for this final stretch run. The Brewers, on the other hand, should get Matt Garza back shortly, and have already added rookie Jimmy Nelson to their rotation. While their lineup is just about average overall, that's mostly Jean Segura's fault: The Brewers have a deep lineup with an excellent outfield, one of the game's best catchers in Jonathan Lucroy, and Aramis Ramirez is as dangerous to opposing pitchers as he's ever been. Like with the Royals and Tigers, this one is too close to call, and all four clubs might make the playoffs thanks to the wild card, anyway.

Before we get into that, though, the West needs our attention. The Giants aren't playing as well as they were to begin the year, but have held on just enough to keep the Dodgers from running away entirely: San Francisco sits just two back with 24 to play. In the AL, the A's looked like the strongest team in the majors even before acquiring Jon Lester, but the bats have cooled since, and they've slipped 4.5 back of the Angels, who have not been slowed by various injuries in both the lineup and rotation. Both the Giants and the A's still lead their leagues' respective wild card races, however, with the A's still 5.5 up on the Mariners for a wild card spot, and four games up on the Tigers, who currently possess the second wild card spot in the AL. The Giants don't have as large of a lead, but they're still three up on the Braves and 1.5 ahead of the Brewers, who hold the second wild card as of Tuesday.

Unless the A's fail to rebound from their late-season slump, chances are good they'll still make it to October -- adding Adam Dunn, who has quietly been productive in 2014 for a bad White Sox team, should help stop the bleeding. The real fight is between whichever of the Royals and Tigers fails to win the AL Central and the Mariners, with the Indians, Yankees, and Blue Jays also in the mix. Cleveland and New York are four games back of Seattle, which is far enough that it seems like a long shot but close enough that there's still far more reason to hope than to despair. The Jays might have it a little tougher, as they're 5.5 back, have played worse in the second half than in the first, and are essentially chasing five teams for one playoff spot. They're not out of it, either, though, but they're close, with Baseball Prospectus calculating their odds at the wild card at just over 1 percent: think of it as the Blue Jays successfully reaching the postseason in this situation in roughly one out of every 100 seasons where they're in this exact scenario.

As for the NL wild card, the Marlins sit 5.5 back of a spot and are similarly out of it barring a miracle, while the Pirates and Braves are just two and 1.5 games back of Milwaukee, respectively. The Braves, as mentioned, are playing much worse lately so even two games feels like a lot to overcome, while the Pirates have taken the opposite route, going 46-36 since June began after posting a 25-30 record in the season's first two months. The Pirates are also just three games back in the NL Central, muddling all of the potential outcomes even further.

About all we know at this point, with under 30 games and just weeks to go, is that we have no idea who is going to be in the 2014 playoffs. We have some general beliefs in mind, as teams like the Orioles and Nationals seem as good a bet as anyone can be at this stage, but the rest could be just about anyone you've seen referenced here. The Braves could rebound, the Giants could continue to slide, the Royals could wait until the last minute to disappoint fans who have been waiting 28 years for another meaningful October game, the Dodgers and A's could do what was unthinkable not all that long ago and both fail to reach the postseason, and so on. We have no idea who will make it to the playoffs, but it's clear that finding out over the next few weeks is going to be worth your time.