The final month of the season begins later this week and teams have between 30 and 35 games remaining to determine their fates.
Three division races look to be all but over with Washington, the Chicago Cubs and Texas each having leads of 8 games or more. The races in the AL East, AL Central and NL West involve teams with leads of less than 5 games with the one in the AL East the most contentious. Toronto, Boston and Baltimore are separated by 3 games.
The Wild Card races continue to be extremely competitive with 7 AL teams excluding division leaders less than 4 games out of at least one of the two berths. There are 5 such teams in the NL. As September dawns no fewer than 18 of baseball’s 30 teams (60 percent) have a realistic chance to make the postseason. It’s just how MLB envisioned it when the second Wild Card was added to each league.
Rosters expand from 25 to 40 active players on Thursday. The additional 15 players give managers much more flexibility in making in game decisions with more pitchers in the bullpen to call upon in specific “one out” situations plus more players on the bench to call upon to pinch hit.
Things can get fuzzy from a handicapping situation during the season’s final month when many teams give their younger players, many of whom spent much of the season in AAA or AA. There will be a number of starting pitchers who will make their MLB debuts this month, usually for teams out of contention and looking towards 2017 and beyond.
There will be many very high priced favorites when teams out of contention are giving pitchers their first starts against teams contending for a division title or a Wild Card.
This makes for an interesting dynamic in the current market environment. The traditional non-professional bettors will often look to lay the big price, put such teams into parlays or lay the run and a half. The newer breed of handicappers and bettors will look for the “value” and take the usually overinflated price and play the outmanned underdog.
We could see great volatility on a frequent basis over the next month in games pitting contender versus non-contender which will bear watching for potential middle opportunities seized upon by the professionals.
There often is a team that makes a surprising September run to make the playoffs after playing lackluster baseball for much of the season. One team that could fit this profile is Pittsburgh.
The Pirates have made the playoffs the past three seasons but have languished within a few games of .500 for much of this campaign. They start the week a half game behind St. Louis for the second Wild Card and could be the team that makes that run, especially with former MVP Andrew McCutchen still capable of breaking out of what has been largely a season long slump.
In the AL that team could be the New York Yankees with their revamped lineup following the release of Alex Rodriguez. Promoting some of their potential stars of the future, including red hot catcher Gary Sanchez whose defensive skills have been overshadowed by his offensive prowess, has breathed life into the Bronx Bombers.
The Yanks are still a solid underdog to make the playoffs. Even though they start the week just 3.5 games behind Baltimore for the second AL Wild Card, they have four teams – Detroit, Houston, Kansas City and Seattle – between themselves and the Orioles.
The Royals would not be that surprise team for two reasons. First, they are already in great form, winning 10 of 12 entering this week. Also, they are the defending World Series champions and two time AL pennant winners. So maybe a continuation of their current run can almost be expected.
Here’s a look at three series to be played over the Labor Day weekend.
Giants at Cubs
In mid-May the Giants took 2 of 3 at home from the Cubs. Although it was a low scoring series that saw just 18 total runs scored, 2 of the 3 games went OVER the total. The lone UNDER resulted from Chicago’s 1-0 win in the series finale in which the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner bested Kyle Hendricks.
Look to play the Giants as underdogs of any price in a start by Bumgarner and as pups of +120 or more in a start by Johnny Cueto or +140 in a start by former Cub righty Jeff Samardzija. The Cubs can be backed at -150 or less not facing those three Giants starters. Look to play OVER 9 or less when Bumgarner or Cueto are not starting for the Giants or John Lester or Hendricks start for the Cubs. In a matchup of Bumgarner or Cueto against Lester or Hendricks UNDER 8 or higher can be considered.
Tigers at Royals
The first 7 games were played in Kansas City with the Royals winning 5 of the 7. The next 6 games were played in Detroit with the Royals also having the edge, winning 4 of 6 including a 3 game road sweep of the Tigers two weeks ago. The UNDER is 7-5-1. Detroit has the better talent overall but the Royals rate a big edge in the bullpen. That might make for a First 5 Innings play on the Tigers, especially when their best starters, Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer get the start. Lefty Matt Boyd has also shown signs of development.
The bullpen difference would make Kansas City an attractive play against other than Verlander, especially as underdogs. A strategy to consider is Detroit and OVER for the First 5 Innings but KC for the full game as underdogs not facing Verlander or as -125 or less favorites in starts by Danny Duffy or Ian Kennedy not facing Verlander. Play UNDER 7.5 or higher if Verlander or Fulmer match up against Duffy or Kennedy. If none are involved look at playing OVER 9 or less.
Marlins at Indians
The lone interleague series this weekend involves a pair of teams in playoff contention. On balance Cleveland has the better starting pitching although some of their starters, most notably Danny Salazar, have been shaky lately. The Marlins have the best individual starter, Jose Fernandez and although he has been much better at home than on the road.
Fernandez can be backed against any Cleveland starter if favored by no more than -120 or made the underdog. That might occur against Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco. In such a matchup consider the Marlins as dogs as well as UNDER 7.5 or higher. The other Miami starter to back would be Tom Koehler who has pitched very well over the past two months. The Indians can be backed as -150 favorites not facing Fernandez or Koehler.