With the MLB regular season winding down, many didn't think the Cleveland Guardians would be in the position they're in – this publication included. But, as of last night's win over the Los Angeles Angels, Cleveland maintains in first place atop the AL Central. They're currently 3.0 games ahead of the Chicago White Sox and 5.0 games ahead of the Minnesota Twins, two teams that Cleveland will be battling down the wire for the divisional crown.
Sure, the Guardians have the youngest clubhouse in the majors but fit the bill as a division-winning squad. Again, no one expected them to be here. But, now that it feels like a playoff berth is within reach for Cleveland, how far can they go? Ultimately, it all ends on who the Guardians draw and, today we'll begin breaking down teams Cleveland could end up facing come playoff time.
More on that in a second since, before we get started, a quick housekeeping note. I participated in the ninth-ever VeloSano, which is Cleveland Clinic’s premier fundraising initiative in which 100% of every dollar raised supports lifesaving cancer research at Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Children’s. Thanks to your support, I was able to shave off nearly 30 minutes from my time last year. But, we're still a little short of the initial goal overall. Thankfully, you still have until October 1 to donate if you're able!
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A quick refresher on the MLB playoff format
During the recent negotiation of the new collective bargaining agreement, players and owners agreed to a new and expanded postseason structure moving forward. That new structure began with this current season, and here's a quick refresher on how it will work:
- The postseason field grows from 10 teams to 12 teams with the addition of an extra wild-card entrant in each league.
- The Wild Card Game has been replaced by the best-of-three Wild Card Series, which functions as the first round of play. The higher seed in each Wild Card Series will host all the games of that series, be it two or a maximum of three games.
- The top two division winners in each league, as determined by the best overall record during the regular season, get a first-round bye. That means they advance straight to the best-of-five Division Series that functions as the second round.
- The four wild-card round participants in each league comprise the division winner with the worst record among division winners and the three non-division winners with the best records. That division winner is automatically the No. 3 seed regardless of whether one or all of the other wild-card teams has a better record.
- To summarize, here's how the playoff seeding will work in each league — No. 1 seed (bye to LDS): Best record in the league; No. 2 seed (bye to LDS): Second-best record among division winners; No. 3 seed: Third-best record among division winners; No. 4 seed: Best record among wild-card teams; No. 5 seed: Second-best record among wild-card teams; No. 6 seed: Third-best record among wild-card teams.
The League Championship Series and World Series remain best-of-seven series with the home-field advantage going to the team with the best record in each series and there's no re-seeding after any round.
Now here's where things stand right now when it comes to the races for these berths and seeds in the American League:
- Byes: 1. Houston Astros, 2. New York Yankees
- Wild Card Series 1: No. 5 Blue Jays at No. 4 Seattle Mariners, winner plays Houston
- Wild Card Series 2: No. 6 Tampa Bay Rays at No. 3 Cleveland Guardians, winner plays New York
Since Cleveland is leading the AL Central, it's the only realistic path to making the playoffs. Record-wise, the Guardians are firmly behind the Rays, Blue Jays and Mariners so Cleveland isn't in the mix for the wild card in the event they blow the division. But, it's a fairly tight race in the wild-card bracket so there's a chance the Guardians could face any of these squads. So, today, we'll be breaking down all three possible opponents for the Guardians.
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So, for now, the Guardians would play their opening playoff series against the Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card round. The series itself would open in Cleveland before heading to Tampa Bay. If necessary, a third, and final, wild-card game would be played at Progressive Field. Against the Rays, the Guardians have only completed one series, which they won 2-1 in late July. Towards the end of September, Cleveland and Tampa Bay will have their second, and final, series of the regular season in Cleveland.
That series will be an indicator of how a possible playoff series could go between the Rays and Guardians. Since they last saw each other, the Rays have become one of the hottest teams in baseball and almost caught the Yankees for the AL East title. Like the Guardians, the Rays are a team that is having its overabundance of young talent hit their stride. So, it could be an interesting tilt between two squads that could lead the future of baseball.
Again, the tone for how this series could go will be set later this month. While any sport is dynamic and never static, it could provide some insight for either club on what to expect when the games have a little more depth to them. The Rays are boasting a bit more firepower of as of late and are one of the best teams in baseball at home. But, they don't have the pitching strength the Guardians do. This series could be a true toss-up.
If the Guardians want to avoid anyone, it would have to be the Mariners. Cleveland is 1-6 against Seattle on the season and has lost by a combined margin of 29-11. Photo credit: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Unlike their time spent facing Tampa Bay, Cleveland has wrapped things up for the year with the Seattle Mariners. Based on how things went, the results would be more than suboptimal for the Guardians if they hosted the Mariners come playoff time. Overall, Cleveland is 1-6 against Seattle on the season and has lost by a combined margin of 29-11. In a recent series in early September, the Guardians were swept and lost by a combined margin of 16-4.
To be fair to the Guardians, the Mariners are one of the hottest teams in baseball. It's been 21 years since Seattle last made the playoffs and are one of the deepest teams in baseball at the moment. The pitching staff has been electric as of late and the team has gone 7-3 in their last ten games. The Mariners will play their next handful of games against teams .500 or better before concluding the regular season with 20 games against clubs with losing records.
If there was a team that Cleveland somehow wanted to avoid, then it's Seattle. Thankfully, as the Mariners keep winning, they'll keep climbing up the wild-card standings, further lessening the chance they see one another.
Of the three teams we've deep-dived into, the Blue Jays are the optimal target for the Guardians to face come playoff time. Overall, Cleveland has gone 5-2 against Toronto and won by a combined margin of 37-22. Sure, the Blue Jays have been one of the hotter teams as of late and Bo Bichette has been playing out of his mind.
But, Toronto's pitching has been suspect all season long and continues to be exactly that. In fact, the Blue Jays as a whole have been wildly inconsistent all season long and will only go as far as Bichette's bat will take them. Toronto at this point controls its own destiny heading into the playoffs with a healthy lead over the Orioles. If their inconsistency continues to hamstring them, they could be headed to Cleveland for the first round of the playoffs and the Guardians couldn't be any happier about it.
Featured image credit: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at email@example.com. Did you enjoy this edition of Right Down Euclid? You can get it in your inbox two to three times a week by subscribing here. All it takes is either your Facebook account or email address!