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Who’s who in the American League wild card race

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There are nine teams fighting for three postseason berths in the American League with three weeks left. Fight, fight, fight!

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

You want parity? According to Major League Baseball, the standings at the start of Tuesday featured as much parity as we’ve had since 1995, with 18 teams within at least five games of a postseason berth. That was, uh, before the Seattle Mariners lost. Good job, good effort, Mariners. That’s still a lot of people checking box scores and scoreboard watching at the beginning of September. Which is the point, I suppose. That’s what happens when a third of the teams in baseball play beyond their 162nd game. And, technically, all of these teams still have a chance to win the World Series.

But all wild card chances are not created equal. So mostly for my edification, and partially to keep you from doing whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing at your job, it’s time to look at all of the teams still within spitting distance of the wild card in either league, starting with the American League.

Seattle Mariners

Games back of second wild card
Six games back with 24.

Odds of reaching the postseason
2.1 percent, according to FanGraphs. I'm putting them here to be polite.

Should they be here?
Depends on how you define "here." Contending? Sure, if you can call it that. Falling short of their goals? Yeah, they should be here. Endlessly drifting through the formless void, free of all temporal restraints and expectations? Probably. The Mariners are a cup of lukewarm tea in a coffee shop that plays Coldplay albums on a loop. You’ve seen what Hell looks like in Hieronymus Bosch paintings, and this ain’t it.

But things could sure be a lot better.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
Because they can’t pitch. Ain’t this some Gift of the Magi stuff right here. The Mariners finally get some hitters, and they can’t pitch well enough to break away and dominate.

Prognosis
The formless void beckons.

Kansas City Royals

Games back of second wild card
Four back with 24 to play.

Odds of reaching the postseason
4.7 percent, which sounds low until you remember that they were down to a 2.9-percent chance of winning the Wild Card Game in 2014 and a 1.6-percent chance of coming back to win Game 5 of the ALDS in 2015. They spit on these kinds of odds.

Should they be here?
Probably not. Their gamble on Ian Kennedy has paid off, and Danny Duffy has been a revelation, but this is a slap-hitting team that’s having trouble scoring runs. They’re a nice team — Pythagorean record of 69-69 — don’t get me wrong, but the injury to Mike Moustakas and the inconsistent rotation doomed their chances a long time ago.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
The Cleveland Indians being excellent, for one. Injuries, for two. Eric Hosmer being average, at best, for three. The lamentable disappearance of Alex Gordon for four, five and six. They’re fourth from the bottom in the AL for OBP, and second from the bottom in slugging percentage. There isn’t enough speed and defense to make that up.

Prognosis
An interesting offseason, but no miracle wild card finish. There are just too many teams ahead of them.

New York Yankees

Games back of second wild card
3.5, with 25 to play

Odds of reaching the postseason
4.6 percent

Should they be here?
Ha ha ha, no. Look at this 2013 team. Lyle Overbay. Vernon Wells. Alfonso Soriano. A bottom-feeding minor league system at the time. Over the next two seasons, they introduced exactly zero of their top 20 prospects into their everyday lineup or rotation. That is a team in need of a total, complete rebuild.

Of course the Yankees didn’t rebuild. And of course they’re here, chasing a wild card spot against all odds.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
Because they didn’t go with their youth movement earlier? That seems pretty simplistic. Aaron Judge has plummeted back to earth, and there’s no way they could have predicted Gary Sanchez would hit more homers in 30 major league games than he did in 71 Triple-A games.

So to answer the question, they’re not running away with their division because they aren’t good and I have no idea how they’re doing this. The Yankees’ adjusted OPS is 89, their only reliable starting pitcher is Masahiro Tanaka and they traded away two of their best bullpen arms.

Prognosis
They won’t make the postseason, but they’ll give the Yankees confidence that a total rebuild isn’t in order. Again.

Houston Astros

Games back of second wild card
Two games back with 24 to play.

Odds of reaching the postseason
24.2 percent

Should they be here?
Probably not. They have the talent to avoid the wild card entirely.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
Dallas Keuchel has been pitching like a fifth starter instead of a Cy Young winner, and now his shoulder problems are threatening his season. The entire rotation has been inconsistent, hurt or worse. They signed Doug Fister toward the end of the offseason almost as an afterthought. It’s hard to imagine where they would be without him.

Prognosis
Not good, but they’re still close enough to dream. The Astros can hit with any team in the league, with a young top-four of the lineup that is the envy of every team in baseball. But without a healthy, effective Keuchel and Lance McCullers, the rotation is just too disappointing to expect much.

Detroit Tigers

Games back of second wild card
One game back with 24 to play.

Odds of reaching the postseason
50.4 percent.

Should they be here?
In theory, sure, but that’s if you assumed before the season that Justin Upton would have a breakout season and Anibal Sanchez would have bounced back. Both players have been among the most disappointing players in baseball, and yet the Tigers are still just a game out of postseason contention.

You can’t give all the credit to one player, but I’m shoveling it toward Michael Fulmer anyway. Maybe he can share some with Cameron Maybin.

Oh, and Justin Verlander is a Cy Young candidate again. Did we mention that? Seems important. It might be one of the most under-the-radar stories in baseball, and I can’t figure out why it’s not getting more attention.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
See the first paragraph in the last section, combined with a hurt, ineffective Jordan Zimmermann. The lineup is as stacked as everyone expected, with Victor Martinez bouncing back magnificently, but the rotation behind Fulmer and Verlander has been an unending procession of struggling, erratic pitchers.

Prognosis
Better than you might think. Matt Boyd has helped the rotation settle down, and there’s a chance that Zimmermann’s problems were more about health than general decline. Add it up, and the Tigers suddenly have a fine front four to go with their sluggers. Their bullpen is iffy, but what are the odds of that happening? No one could predict that the Tigers would have an iffy bullpen, back off.

Baltimore Orioles

Games back of second wild card
They’re leading the second wild card, and they’re one back in the AL East with 24 games left

Odds of reaching the postseason
48.9 percent. That’s lower than the Tigers, who are behind them, which gives you an idea of how confident FanGraphs’ numbers are in the Orioles.

Should they be here?
Before the season, I picked them for fourth place, saying their odds of winning the division were "Decent. Better than decent?" Which led to several emails like this:

You picked my Orioles to finish 4th. You have always hated them , Grant you are f—— idiot . the Orioles are going to the playoff and i can't wait to see your moronic self seem like even more of a f——-- idiot than you already do. Go to hell Grant , F— YOU !!!

Reasonable. There were several of these — and I was the one who redacted the naughty words up there, not him, tsk tsk — either from different people or one dude with a stack of burner accounts. As such, I must be honest, I am rooting for the Orioles to lose 14 straight and fall into fourth place. Not because I’ve always hated them, but because I want this one person to be sad and regretful.

And I want to send an email back. Possibly with nothing but "lol" because that’s what adults do in 2016.

ANYWAY, yes, the Orioles should be here because they have historically significant power, and they were the perfect roster in the perfect ballpark to take advantage of the new rabbit ball. Wade Miley was a depressing, ill-conceived gamble, but if Chris Tillman returns at full strength, they’re a freaky team to face in the postseason. All power, a solid front of the rotation and death in the late innings.

(And, no, I’m not really petty enough to root against a team that I otherwise don’t care about just because of a couple emails. That was just an amusing anecdote. I’m a fake journalist, after all. I have objectivity and fake ethics.)

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
Because the dingers are monkey’s-paw dingers, coming at the expense of on-base percentage and low contact. Manny Machado is essentially the perfect baseball player, so he doesn’t count, but the rest of the lineup has warts, even as they’re on pace to be one of the greatest collections of sluggers in league history.

Also, they’ve had five starting pitchers make seven or more starts for them with an ERA between 5.00 and 7.15. Which is bad.

Prognosis
All they need to do is get into the postseason, and they’ll be terrifying. Ten of their 24 remaining games are against the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays, so they’ll have a lot of say in what happens.

Just imagine a three-game series against any of those teams, though, where the rotation lines up as Miley, Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo. Brrrrrrrr.

Boston Red Sox

Games back of second wild card
Leading the second wild card by one game, and they’re tied for both the AL East and the first wild card with 24 games left.

Odds of reaching the postseason
84.3 percent.

Should they be here?
With this lineup? They should be running away with the division, or at least in a battle for the top spot in the East with a comfortable wild card safety net.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
I can’t figure it out, really. They’re scoring five-and-a-half runs per game, whereas no other team in the AL is over five. They’re also second in the AL in adjusted ERA, with Rick Porcello having a tremendous bounce-back season, Steven Wright being one of baseball’s best surprises and David Price rounding into form. After some early shakiness, Drew Pomeranz is showing signs of lasting success (2.76 ERA in his last seven starts).

The best explanation? A shaky bullpen that’s hurting them in one-run games, and they're five wins behind their expected record. It’s always a cop-out to ascribe everything to bad luck, but, well, this team should be better, and that’s certainly one way to explain it.

Prognosis
They have one game left against the San Diego Padres and three games left against the Tampa Bay Rays. Other than that, they have 20 games against the Blue Jays, Yankees and Orioles. That’s stunning. And even if they might be the best team on this list (assuming Wright can come back this year), they’re in an ultra-precarious spot.

The Tigers have 10 games left against the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves, after all. And 10 of the Astros’ final 13 games are against the Oakland A’s or Los Angeles Angels. I wouldn’t bet against the roster of the Red Sox, but the schedule is making me gasp.

Toronto Blue Jays

Games back of second wild card
Leading the second wild card by one game, and they’re tied for both the AL East and the first wild card with 24 games left.

Odds of reaching the postseason
82.7 percent.

Should they be here?
Considering they nailed the offseason pitching chase, which they absolutely had to do? Yeah, absolutely. They would have been prohibitive favorites if they had signed Price, so they did something even better — they got J.A. Happ to pitch like Price for one-tenth of the cost. Add in the surprise of Marco Estrada and Aaron Sanchez, and they should be battling for 100 wins with the Red Sox, leaving the wild card race far behind.

Why aren’t they running away with their division?
Jose Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki can be pitched to this year, which makes their lineup of cruel and unusual punishment seem merely strong. Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion have been as good as ever, but the lineup has been good, not great. Consider that they’re sandwiched between the Angels and Twins in adjusted OPS.

Which means the pitching has had to carry them. They have the second-best raw ERA and third-best adjusted ERA in the AL. This wasn’t the plan. Put those stats in a reverse time capsule, and we probably would have pegged the Blue Jays for 110 wins. And that’s with Marcus Stroman being disappointing.

Still, it’s not like anyone will be comfortable pitching to them in October, and the pitching will still be there. They’re a scary team.

Prognosis
They have 14 of their final 24 against the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles, which qualifies as a lighter schedule compared to their AL East counterparts. They’ll probably be fine, and there’s a chance that both wild cards will come out of the East.

There’s also a chance that the East teams will beat each other up and allow the Tigers and Astros to sneak in with a well-timed hot streak.

There’s also a chance that we’ll have a five-way tie for two wild card spots and the top of the AL East, which will create tiebreakers, chaos, more tiebreakers and more chaos.

This is the best option, of course.

We should all root for the chaos.

[takes off robe]

[gently wades into the chaos]