As the 2018 MLB season nears the one-third mark, the playoff races in each league are beginning to take shape. While it’s no surprise that the majority of the sport’s so-called super teams have lived up to the billing thus far, several unexpected contenders may be emerging to challenge for postseason berths. None of the Mariners, Athletics, Braves, Phillies or Pirates were popular playoff picks entering the campaign, but all are in contention at this point, and a few of those teams even possess elite records.
The most successful of those clubs has been Seattle, which is one of just five teams with a winning percentage above .600. The Mariners have raced to a 32-20 mark (.615), the fourth-best record in the American League, even though they’ve had to go without superstar second baseman Robinson Cano for two weeks and won’t get him back in the near future. Cano suffered a fractured right hand in mid-May, but the 80-game suspension he incurred almost immediately after that injury is the more costly blow because it’ll render him ineligible for the playoffs – if the Mariners qualify, that is.
A postseason berth for Seattle would be its first since 2001, thus snapping the longest playoff drought in American sports. There’s clearly plenty of work for that to happen, particularly for a team that hasn’t been spectacular statistically and possesses a less shiny 27-25 Pythagorean record. But the Mariners’ actual record right now is so impressive that they won’t need to be great from here on out to remain firmly in the mix throughout the regular season. FanGraphs is projecting a mediocre 56-54 win-loss total over the Mariners’ final 110 games, but even in that scenario, they’d finish with 88 victories – three more than Minnesota amassed in 2017 en route to an AL wild-card berth.
The wild card is likely the M’s only path to the playoffs, as even though they’re just one game out of the AL West race, there’s little question the reigning World Series champion Astros will pull away with the division. Given the talent in the AL, a wild-card spot will be tough to come by for the Mariners, but general manager Jerry Dipoto seemingly increased his team’s odds last week when he acquired reliever Alex Colome and outfielder Denard Span from the Rays. The Mariners already owned one of baseball’s best bullpens without Colome, and his presence should make Seattle an even harder out in close games. At 15-8, the Mariners have been one of the majors’ top teams in one-run contests this season.
Staying in the AL West, Oakland has perhaps exceeded expectations at 28-25, though it has scored fewer runs than it has allowed (234 to 237). Still, despite its underwhelming Pythagorean mark (26-27), FanGraphs is projecting an above-.500 final record for Oakland (82-80) – which would be its first such season since 2014 and could keep it in the discussion into September. However, with the Yankees or Red Sox (whichever team doesn’t win the AL East), Angels and Mariners among the teams fighting for two wild-card positions, a playoff position looks a bit unrealistic for the A’s.
Over in the National League, both the Braves (30-21) and Phillies (29-21) have gone from serving as longtime NL East doormats to looking like two of the premier teams in the game. Milwaukee, arguably a surprise team but one that did garner some preseason hype after winning 86 games in 2017, is the lone NL club with a superior record to Atlanta and Philadelphia. And only the Cubs have a better run differential than the Braves, who have outscored their opponents by 60 (261 to 201).
The Braves’ arduous, years-long rebuild is clearly paying dividends now, as a host of players under the age of 25 – including Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna (who’s now on the DL), Dansby Swanson, Sean Newcomb, Mike Soroka, Luiz Gohara and A.J. Minter – have been among their driving forces this year. With that group joining a few slightly older, already established players (superstar Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte and Mike Foltynewicz, to name a few), Atlanta looks as if it’s going to be around for a long time. And it might be ready now to return to the playoffs, where it hasn’t been since 2013, though the NL East is going to be a dogfight with both the Phillies and favored Nationals (29-22) right behind the Braves.
As for those Phillies, they own an even longer playoff drought than the Braves (six years), but that streak doesn’t look as if it’ll last much longer. Like Atlanta, Philadelphia went through a few years of suffering while simultaneously managing to stockpile young talent (Aaron Nola, Odubel Herrera, Rhys Hoskins, Seranthony Dominguez, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, Scott Kingery) that has either already established itself in the majors or is in the midst of doing so. Philly’s also a sleeping giant in terms of payroll, a club capable of spending alongside other big-money juggernauts, and it’ll put that advantage to use in the coming years. It already started last winter with the expensive free-agent signings of Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, two additions which have paid off so far (Santana did endure a poor April, but he’s gotten off the mat this month).
As with the Braves, the Phillies should be around for a while, and a playoff spot this year certainly isn’t out of the question. Although, despite their tremendous starts, FanGraphs is projecting both teams to finish with 82 wins and extend their playoff droughts.
Baseball’s other Pennsylvania-based team, the low-payroll Pirates, lost the battle for public opinion over the winter when they traded two veteran cornerstones (Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole) for younger players and didn’t sign any free agents to major league contracts. Some Pirates fans even called for owner Bob Nutting to sell the team in the wake of those deals, but he didn’t oblige.
Now, the Pirates are a solid 28-24 (plus-22 run) and have gotten there with some help from Colin Moran and Joe Musgrove, two players acquired in the Cole package. Fellow offseason acquisition Corey Dickerson – whom general manager Neal Huntington stole from the Rays in another trade – has been even better, while veteran holdovers Starling Marte and Francisco Cervelli are also amid excellent seasons. Pittsburgh may be able to hang in the race all year, then, for the first time since 2015 – its most recent playoff berth. It’s going to be an extremely tall task to actually return to the postseason, though, with six NL teams – including the division-rival Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals – ahead of Pittsburgh in the standings and several more breathing down its neck.
Every year in baseball, surprise teams emerge to upset the preseason apple cart. Just as the Twins, Diamondbacks and Rockies crashed the playoff party last year, at least one of the Mariners, Athletics, Braves, Phillies or Pirates could do it in 2018. The question is: Which team has the best chance to play into the fall?
(poll link for app users)