With less than three weeks to go in the 2013 Major League Baseball regular season, the addition of the second Wild Card is helping to keep the American League especially exciting.
As I write this, six AL clubs are within 2 ½ games of one of the Wild Card berths – Texas, Tampa Bay, New York, Cleveland, Baltimore and Kansas City. Given that, there is no reason to suspect anything other than a race down to the wire.
That is not the case in the National League, however. In the Senior Circuit, the battles are pretty much over. The only exception is which of the three contending Central Division teams will win the division, with the other two the likely wild cards.
Yes, Washington is technically still in it, but eight games out with 16 to go, it is grim. coolstandings.com gives the Nats just a 2.7 percent chance of bumping off one of the NL Central squads to make the postseason.
In terms of true mathematical elimination, over half of the NL squads, eight of 15, have nothing for which to play except 2014. Over in the Junior Circuit, only five teams are already justified looking ahead to next year.
Couple these dynamics with September MLB roster expansion from the normal 25 to a theoretical maximum of 40, and fantasy managers’ challenges of assessing playing time changes become even greater. In some cases, attention on baseball is waning. The competition with football leagues that are still in their very early stages currently offer greater hope for owners.
In the final month, MLB teams typically add from six to 10 reinforcements from the minor leagues. Any and all of these players can be active on any given day. As a result, an MLB team that is out of the hunt may not only give starts to unproven prospects over tired regulars, the manager may pull more double-switches, too.
A handful of clubs have even gone to a temporary six-man rotation. This gives them the opportunity to observe more youngsters while managing pitch counts and can be done before formally having to commit to 2014 roles.
Considering all these variables, I asked several of my National League Tout Wars friends and competitors the following questions.
“Given the lack of close races in the NL, do you see any potential impact on your NL fantasy teams and how you manage them? Do you feel the lack of competitive races is a positive or a negative for your chances and why?”
Kind enough to reply all the way from Italy, where he was on vacation, BaseballHQ’s Phil Hertz cut right to the bone.
“I don't see much impact on my team,” Hertz said. “I just need guys to get healthy and that's looking less and less likely.”
Hertz is currently in sixth place, 12 ½ points out of the lead and just two points ahead of yours truly. The losses of Domonic Brown, Yonder Alonso, Marcell Ozuna and Starling Marte have shackled his offense.
USA TODAY’s Steve Gardner is tied for third, 6 ½ points out. Among the points Steve makes is that despite the expanded rosters, viable alternatives are few.
“In this case, I think it’s helped my team,” said Gardner. “I’ve needed to pick up several hitters off the waiver wire lately to fill holes created by injuries and trades. The guys I’ve plugged into my lineup (Donnie Murphy, Caleb Gindl, Andrew Brown, Justin Turner) are on non-contenders and may not have gotten much of a chance to play if their teams had been involved in the playoff chase."
“The one area where it could impact my team is if the Mets decide that they don’t have any reason to activate David Wright off the disabled list. I could really use his bat, even if it’s only for the last week or 10 days."
“From a pitching standpoint, the jury’s still out … but I like the fact that I have a staff that doesn’t have to worry about innings limits (Wainwright, Samardzija, Medlen, Arroyo, E. Jackson)."
“Overall, I don’t think it changes the way I manage my team, mostly because I don’t really have any alternatives to the players currently in my starting lineup,” Steve concluded.
Knotted with Gardner in the NL Tout standings is our own Lord Zola. He offers an excellent reminder about the potential of tied Wild Card races requiring a regular-season Game 163 to break ties. Now is the time to check your constitution to verify these games are included in your league scoring and act accordingly.
“When you're fighting and scrapping for points, any possible edge is a good thing,” notes Todd. “However in a league as deep as NL Tout Wars, the ability to manage your team to take advantage of the situation is limited by a four-man reserve list that may or may not have a player on one of the teams in contention."
“Teams in contention are more likely to continue to start their best players so that would provide the peace of mind your fantasy team is getting maximum at-bats. Maybe in a mixed league this would aid in decision-making at the fringes, but in NL Tout, you're going to have the player active regardless."
“On the flip-side, the star players on playoff teams with their spot locked may get more rest, but again in NL Tout, they're going to play anyway."
“One possible repercussion is with injured players. If you own Carlos Gonzalez and need the reserve spot, you can feel pretty confident in dropping him since there is very little chance he returns this season. On the other hand, I am carrying Allen Craig on my NL Tout reserve since the Cardinals will no doubt want to get him some at-bats to either secure a playoff spot or to get the rust off for the playoffs. At present, there is no one available for pick-up that I would use, but if there was, I'd have a tough decision to make if I needed that fourth reserve spot."
“Not to tip my hand, but I have kept an eye on the free agent list each week looking to see if there is a player from a team with a chance to play a 163rd game available. This may seem like a needle in a haystack, but a few years back, I was able to jump into the money in a National Fantasy Baseball Championship league on Rick Porcello's seventh strikeout in game 163. The caveat in Tout Wars is the rule that requires you to activate all free agent acquisitions following the week you win them,” Zola concluded.
In my own case, I am just hoping and praying my players will continue to be written onto their clubs’ lineup cards each day.
One complicating matter that is front and center right now is my glut of players on non-contending teams. Those competing for one of the five likely NL playoff clubs fill just four of my 23 active roster spots.
As a result, I feel vulnerable, but as the others noted, viable alternatives to play are few and far between. For draft day next season, I will need to make sure I am not so singularly focused on acquiring bargains that I draft a roster filled with players from non-contenders.
Special thanks to Phil, Steve and Todd for contributing to this article. Remember to check out their respective writings at BaseballHQ, USA TODAY and right here at Mastersball.
Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 14-year history. Though he is the only one to remember or care, he also finished second in each of the two subsequent seasons. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.