What's at stake in MLB season's final week? NL wild-card race, award battles and playoff strategy

Nolan Arenado needs a big week to get his team in the playoffs and possibly earn the NL MVP award. Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire

I'm not going to say the final week of the regular season will be anti-climactic, but there's a good chance the final week of the regular season will be anti-climactic. Four teams have clinched division titles and the other two have better than 99 percent odds to win their divisions.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins have pulled away from the dredge of mediocrity in the race for the second wild card in the American League, so that leaves the second wild card in the National League as the only playoff spot somewhat up for grabs. At least it's a three-team chase, giving us one final opportunity for chaos.

Here's what to watch for in the final week ...

National League wild-card race

The Colorado Rockies are two games up on the Milwaukee Brewers and 2½ up on the St. Louis Cardinals. Here are the final-week schedules:

Rockies (84-72): Marlins (3), Dodgers (3)

Brewers (82-74): Reds (3), at Cardinals (3)

Cardinals (81-74): Cubs (4), Brewers (3)

FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Rockies a 75 percent chance at reaching the playoffs, the Brewers 14 percent and the Cardinals 10 percent. Of course, we can still root for chaos and a three-way tie. Here's how that can happen:

  • The Rockies go 2-4 against the Marlins and Dodgers.

  • The Brewers go 3-0 against the Reds and 1-2 against the Cardinals.

  • The Cardinals go 3-1 against the Cubs and 2-1 against the Brewers.

Somewhat reasonable, right? So what happens if we get a three-way tie? The rules:

  • Teams are given A, B and C designations. Those rules are too long to list here, but you can read through them here. The season series so far: the Rockies went 2-4 against the Cardinals and 4-3 against the Brewers, while the Brewers are 9-7 against the Cardinals.

  • Club A would host Club B, and the winner of that game would host Club C to determine the wild-card team.

  • Based on the above rules, the teams would be ranked by winning percentage: Assuming the Cardinals win two of three from the Brewers, they would be 13-12 against the other two clubs, the Brewers 13-13 and the Rockies 6-7.

  • The Cardinals would get first choice on their designation, the Brewers second and the Rockies third. If I'm the Cardinals, I choose Club C. You have to play on the road, but you only have to win one game. So we would end up with the Rockies at Brewers on Monday and the winner hosting the Cardinals on Tuesday. Luckily, the NL wild-card game was already scheduled for Wednesday (with the AL on Tuesday). Whew. Got it? Me neither.

Magic numbers

Cubs: 2 to win NL Central

Red Sox: 3 to win AL East

Twins: 3 to clinch second wild card

Rockies: 5 to clinch second wild card

Home-field advantage

Cleveland Indians over Houston Astros for No. 1 seed in AL: 5

The other slots are essentially locked in, barring crazy stuff this week. The Dodgers, Nationals and Cubs will be 1-2-3 in the NL and the Red Sox will be the No. 3 seed in the AL. The Yankees and Diamondbacks will host the wild-card games.

For overall best record, the Dodgers are 99-57 and the Indians 98-58. The Dodgers won the season series 2-1, so if they finish with the same record and meet in the World Series, the Dodgers would have home-field advantage. Got it?

Worst overall record

It's a fight to the finish. While there doesn't appear to be a Bryce Harper-Stephen Strasburg obvious No. 1 pick at this point in next year's draft, if you're bad, you may as well hope to finish with the worst record. Four teams have a chance:

Giants: 61-95

Tigers: 62-94

Phillies: 62-94

White Sox: 63-92

Detroit has really gone in the tank with a 4-20 record in September. The Tigers finish with a road trip to Kansas City and Minnesota, so maybe they'll pull this out. They last drafted first overall in 1997, when they took pitcher Matt Anderson out of Rice (who didn't even end up as the best first-round pick that year from Rice, as Lance Berkman went 16th).

American League MVP race

It's back on, right? With 11 home runs and 23 RBIs in his past 19 games, Aaron Judge has climbed back on the heels of Jose Altuve. Their WAR totals entering Sunday (and Judge's will be a couple tenths higher at least after hitting his 47th and 48th home runs):

Baseball-Reference: Altuve 8.2, Judge 7.1

FanGraphs: Altuve 7.2, Judge 7.0

Jose Ramirez is probably third behind those two, and don't ignore Corey Kluber or Chris Sale. Mike Trout, with a mediocre September and a lengthy DL stint, has probably dropped out of the top three.

Judge leads Altuve in both runs and RBIs, which in the minds of some voters will cancel out Altuve's edge in WAR. Altuve is probably still the favorite, but how awesome is this sport that the biggest hitter in the game and the shortest are the leading MVP candidates?

National League MVP

A couple of little things have changed from last week. Giancarlo Stanton did have a big week with three home runs and 13 RBIs and is now tied with Nolan Arenado for the RBI lead. That helps Stanton, but Arenado can still help himself by doing something big as the Rockies make the playoffs. I still say it's between those two and Paul Goldschmidt. I think the advantage Stanton has is that most voters will put him in the top three. Arenado or Goldschmidt may end up with more first-place votes, but also more down-ballot votes. It's going to be a tight vote no matter what.

Cy Young races

Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer both pitched (and won) on Sunday, so they'll each have a final tune-up start before the playoffs. The numbers (WAR totals before Sunday's starts):

Zack Greinke blew any chance he had by giving up eight runs in his last start. And, hey, Gio Gonzalez actually leads in Baseball-Reference WAR at 6.9 with a 2.68 ERA. His peripherals aren't in the class of Kershaw or Scherzer, so he's a distant third at best.

Scherzer has the edge over Kershaw in WAR, Kershaw has the edge in wins and ERA. In 26 more innings, Scherzer has allowed 16 more runs, so the extra innings he has pitched haven't been that valuable. One note about Scherzer. Due in part to the soft NL East, just eight of his 30 starts have come against winning teams. Kershaw has faced winning teams in 12 of his 26 outings.

Who do you have?

We've talked about the AL race enough. With another gem on Sunday, I think Kluber has locked it up, even though Sale reached 300 strikeouts this past week.

Playoff rotations

Some teams won't make an official announcement on their playoff rotation until the dead time between the end of the regular season and the start of the division series, but you can kind of get an idea by looking at how the rotations line up throughout the week. The Cubs, for example, have Jon Lester going on Monday and Jake Arrieta on Tuesday, followed by John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. That would seem to suggest Lester, with his history of October success, is still the No. 1 guy, even though he has been the team's worst starter this month. Of course, the Cubs would have four days off from the final Sunday until the division series starts on the following Friday, so that group could be rearranged in any manner.

As far as potential wild-card game starters, Arizona will probably line up Greinke, who starts Wednesday, giving him six days of rest before the wild-card game. Likewise, Jon Gray starts Wednesday for the Rockies. The Brewers are without injured ace Jimmy Nelson, but have 17-game winner Zach Davies going Tuesday and Sunday as they scramble to catch the Rockies. That could leave Chase Anderson for the wild-card game. The Cardinals have ace Carlos Martinez going Tuesday and Sunday as well, so that would point to Lance Lynn or Michael Wacha in the wild-card game. (And none of that gets into potential tie-breaker scenarios.)

Batting titles

Yes, it's OK to still care about batting titles. Altuve has a 17-point lead in the AL, so he's going to win his third title. In the NL -- don't be shocked here -- Charlie Blackmon leads Justin Turner, .326 to .321. Blackmon also finishes with six games at home, where he has hit .387 this season. He'd be the fourth different Rockies player in five seasons to win a batting title (DJ LeMahieu, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer), sixth different since 2007 (Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Holliday) and ninth different in Rockies history, which only goes back to 1993 (three-time winner Larry Walker, Todd Helton, Andres Galarraga).

If you want to win a batting title, go play for the Rockies.


Bryce Harper could return to the Nationals' lineup for the first time since he suffered a bone bruise in his left knee since slipping on a wet base while running out a grounder Aug. 12. Manager Dusty Baker said the team is "still trying to make up our minds."

Will he be well-rested after his stint on the DL and team bonding on "Game of Thrones" trip? Or will the rust of not playing show in the playoffs?

You'll have to watch to find out.