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Assessing the wildcard competition

Where do the Red Sox stand with just a few weeks left to go?

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Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Red Sox are caught up in a, well, wild Wildcard race right now, just barely holding onto a playoff position. They are technically tied with Toronto for the top spot (though the Blue Jays hold the edge in the loss column) while the Yankees trail by one game as Seattle and Oakland both trail by three. For all my math heads out there, that’s five teams within three games, all fighting for two spots. There are now just three full weeks remaining on the schedule until this all has to be figured out, so it seems like an opportune time to take a minute to acclimate ourselves with the competition. We’ll go in order of their current standing.

Toronto Blue Jays

Record: 89-54

Trend: Impossibly Hot

Strength: Star Power

I was tempted to just say Vlad Jr. here, but the son of a Hall of Famer is just one of the concerns when looking at this Blue Jays roster. They are absolutely stacked with players to fear, and that’s both in their lineup and rotation. With the bats, there is the aforementioned Guerrero, who probably wins the MVP in a non-Ohtani year, but also Marcus Semien, George Springer, Bo Bichette, and Teoscar Hernández. And then in the rotation they have a top three of José Berríos, Robbie Ray, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. There are so many guys on this roster that can take a team on their back for stretches at a time. And when they have multiple players clicking? Well, they play like they are right now, winning 14 of 16.

Weakness: Bullpen

This is more in theory than reality, at least lately, but it’s the closest thing to a weakness I can find right now. Toronto’s bullpen has pitchers who can get hot at the right time and provide more than serviceable performances in the late innings. That said, they don’t have the same kind of star power here, and if they are going to hit a road block before the end of the season it seems reasonable to look for it in late and close games.

X-Factor: Alejandro Kirk

The one weak spot in this Blue Jays lineup, on some days at least, can be found with the catching position. Danny Jansen plays there most of the time, and while he’s a solid hitter for a catcher he’s still below-average overall. Kirk being able to catch every day is probably a pipe dream for 2021, but if they can get him in more often that certainly adds even more punch to their lineup and could make this a group that truly has no holes.

Schedule: Mixed

The Blue Jays look like they can beat anyone right now, and that will be put to the test with six of their next nine games coming against the Rays. That said, they also have two more series with the Twins, and one more with the Orioles, along with a matchup against the Yankees.

New York Yankees

Record: 79-64

Trend: Impossibly Cold

Strength: Power in the lineup

The Yankees lineup still has more bark than bite, meaning the names are more intimidating than the results have seemingly been. But that threat is still there. This is still a lineup with a heart consisting of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, Joey Gallo, and Gary Sánchez. All of those hitters have their flaws, and we’ve certainly seen those more than the strengths of late, but if this group gets going it doesn’t matter who they are facing. They will put up runs, and just generally terrify every opponent.

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Weakness: Defense

Seems like we can pick everything here, but the Yankees defense is something of a mess right now. They don’t really have a true center fielder, with Judge having to play there sometimes or them having to sacrifice offense and putting Brett Gardner in. And even then, Gardner is not the athlete he once was. And then in the infield, Gleyber Torres has been a mess at shortstop, and Gio Urshela isn’t the sure-handed third baseman he used to be. And that says nothing of the problems from Sánchez behind the plate. They have enough problems right now, and they’re making things worse by creating their own jams.

X-Factor: Bullpen

On paper, the Yankees should be able to shut things down late in games. That’s been their MO for years now, and they still have Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green. But they haven’t been as consistent as they should be. It’s hard to expect it at this point, but if those two get back to form and Jonathan Loaisiga can get back in the fold, their games can become significantly shortened.

Schedule: Soft at first before hardening

One saving grace for Yankee fans right now is that they have a chance to get on track right now with a soft schedule for the next week or two. They have one game coming up against the Twins Monday afternoon, then their next three series are against the Orioles, Cleveland, and Rangers. They need to take advantage because they then finish with Boston, Toronto, and Tampa Bay.

Oakland Athletics

Record: 77-66

Trend: Neutral

Strength: Top of the rotation

The Athletics are honestly kind of a difficult team for me to figure out right now. They don’t have anything that stands out as particularly horrible, but nothing really stands out as great either. That said, their top two right now is scary. Former Red Sox prospect Frankie Montas is pairing with former first rounder Sean Manaea to give quality innings twice every five days. Neither of these pitchers are going to carry a team like, say, the Blue Jays top-end is capable of, but they’re hitting their strides and are tough matchups.

Weakness: Reliable offense

The Athletics are a mix and match kind of team, which can work with the right group (see: The Rays for the last half decade) but can also just prevent hitters from getting in rhythms. Starling Marte and Matt Olson are doing well for the lineup right now, but it’s been a bit of a mystery lately where that extra help will come from beyond those two right now. They’re using a lot of platoons, and it’s only resulting in a middling offensive performance.

X-Factor: Chris Bassitt

Bassitt could really take that top of the rotation to another level if he can make it back to the group. The righty has been their best pitcher this year, but was struck in the face with a line drive. It’s not clear if he’ll be back this year, but the team seems to think so. That said, even if he does return it’s also not clear whether or not it’ll be in the rotation. If it is, they can flash back to the Moneyball days when their top three starting pitchers helped carried them to postseason play.

Schedule: Getting tough late

The Athletics really need to use this time right now to gain momentum with their next two series coming against the Royals and Angels, because after that all of their remaining games are against the Mariners and Astros.

Seattle Mariners

Record: 77-66

Trend: A little cold

Strength: Bullpen

The Mariners are the big surprise in this group, and it doesn’t get any less surprising when you look at run differential. Their -57 run differential is far and away the worst of this group, with New York being second worst at +27. Some of that is certainly luck, but the other way you outperform run differential is with a great bullpen. And Seattle has that. They don’t have the biggest names, but they really go four deep with guys they can trust in the highest leverage situations. Especially when games get this important and the urgency rises, having that many guys you can trust as a manager is a game changer.

Weakness: Offensive star power

The Mariners are here and have some talented hitters, but they don’t really have the kind of middle-of-the-order star power that can really change the game. Ty France is having a phenomenal season, but it’s not really in terms of game-changing power. Kyle Seager can hit the ball a long way, and he’s gone on some hot streaks, but the overall batting profile is more good than great. There are players who are capable of covering this weakness, but not enough players who can count on to do just that.

X-Factor: Jarred Kelenic

The guy who has the best potential to mask that weakness is Kelenic, who was one of the best prospects in the game coming into the season before serving as the biggest reminder of the current gap between Triple-A and major-league pitching. But the talent is still very much there, and he’s been above-average in September. If he can flip that switch another notch or two for the final couple weeks of the month, he can be the superstar bat they ride to a shocking playoff bid.

Schedule: Opportunity abound

The Mariners get a whole lot of face time with the teams they’re competing with in this race, including three starting tonight against the Red Sox. They also have two series against Oakland before the close of the season, as well as two against the Angels and one against the Royals.

So, what say you? Where do the Red Sox stand here? And for what it’s worth, as a reminder Boston has this series against Seattle as well as a series against the Yankees to go with two series against the Orioles, a two-game set against the Mets, and a three-game set against the Nationals.