It is possible that, within four days, the fourth-place team in the AL East could be tied for first place in the division.
That's not a likely outcome, as such a scenario not only would require the Yankees to sweep four straight games from the Red Sox in Fenway Park but would also require at least two losses from the Blue Jays and three from the Orioles. Nonetheless, the mere fact that a single series sweep has a chance to reconfigure the division dramatically underscores the improbable state of baseball's most hotly contested division in years.
Any of the four teams could enter the playoffs as the division winner. Any of the four teams could miss the playoffs, and at least one team is certain to lose the game of playoff musical chairs, which features three available spots (AL East title, two wild cards).
That possibility raises a question: With 17 games remaining for all four division rivals, what sort of odds do the Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Yankees face in their pursuit of a playoff spot? Using odds calculated by Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, here is a look.
Red Sox (81-64)
Division status: First place, one-game lead
Division odds: Fangraphs — 61.4 percent; Baseball Prospectus — 65.8 percent.
Wild-card status: Three games ahead of the Tigers (the AL team currently closest to the second wild-card spot).
Wild-card odds: Fangraphs — 29.7 percent; Baseball Prospectus — 26.8 percent.
Total playoff odds: Fangraphs — 91.1 percent; Baseball Prospectus — 92.5 percent.
Remaining games: Yankees (7), Orioles (4), Rays (3), Blue Jays (3).
Not only are the Red Sox leading the division, but based on individual player performances this year (as well as career track records), most forecasting systems expect them to be the best team in the division going forward. The round-robin nature of their schedule against divisional foes suggests potential volatility, and there are no guarantees that the Sox will win the AL East or even secure a wild-card spot.
And even with their recent two-game skid, the Sox' position is fairly solid. They'd have to lose at least three games of ground to at least three teams to tumble out of the division lead and both wild card spots.
That wouldn't be unprecedented, but it's not likely. Since the playoffs expanded to a 10-team format in 2012, 28 of the 29 teams (96.6 percent) that had a record of 81-64 or better through 145 games reached the playoffs. The lone exception was a 2013 Rangers team that lost a one-game playoff in the 163d game of the season.
Division status: Second place, one-game deficit.
Division odds: Fangraphs — 20.3 percent; Baseball Prospectus — 19.0 percent.
Wild-card status: Top wild-card seed, two games ahead of the Tigers.
Wild-card odds: Fangraphs — 45.8 percent; Baseball Prospectus — 46.9 percent.
Total playoff odds: Fangraphs – 66.1 percent; Baseball Prospectus – 65.9 percent.
Remaining games: Rays (4), Red Sox (4), Diamondbacks (3), Blue Jays (3), Yankees (3)
The expectation that their starting pitching eventually would fuel a collapse has proven unfounded, though projection systems maintain their yearlong skepticism that the team can defy that deficiency — at least to the point where they'd be a favorite to unseat the Sox atop the division. That said, with seven games remaining against teams with sub-.500 records (the Rays and the season-long study in implosion that is the Diamondbacks), the Orioles do have arguably the easiest path forward.
Meanwhile, the fact that they've outperformed projections and their expected record based on runs scored and runs allowed (they have the profile of a team with a 75-70 record) suggest that no one should be surprised if the Orioles end up claiming the AL East.
Blue Jays (79-66)
Division status: Third place, two-game deficit.
Division odds: Fangraphs — 17.0 percent; Baseball Prospectus — 12.8 percent.
Wild-card status: Second wild-card seed, one game ahead of the Tigers.
Wild-card odds: Fangraphs — 46.1 percent; Baseball Prospectus — 46.7 percent.
Total playoff odds: Fangraphs — 63.1 percent; Baseball Prospectus — 58.5 percent.
Remaining games: Angels (4), Yankees (4), Mariners (3), Orioles (3), Red Sox (3).
When a manager's "optimistic" declaration includes mention of the fact that a team has hit "rock bottom," as was the case with Toronto skipper John Gibbons after his team's loss to the Rays Wednesday, it sounds a less-than-promising note about the status of the team. The Jays now have to endure a transcontinental back-and-forth, with a seven-game West Coast swing through Anaheim and Seattle representing a potentially defining stretch.
The Angels have lost seven of eight, suggesting the possibility of a lifeline for the Jays, though the three road games against a Mariners team that is just 1½ games behind the Blue Jays for the second wild-card spot represent a tall order.
Playoff-odds calculations don't factor in specific circumstances such as the injured hip that forced MVP candidate Josh Donaldson to get an MRI Wednesday; if he's unavailable, then an already struggling offense may be runs-starved.
Division status: Fourth place, four-game deficit.
Division odds: Fangraphs — 1.3 percent; Baseball Prospectus — 2.4 percent.
Wild-card status: Outside looking in. Two games behind the Jays for the second wild-card spot, and also trailing the Tigers by a game and the Mariners by a half-game.
Wild-card odds: Fangraphs — 8.1 percent; Baseball Prospectus — 7.7 percent.
Total playoff odds: Fangraphs — 9.4 percent; Baseball Prospectus — 10.1 percent.
Remaining games: Red Sox (7), Blue Jays (4), Rays (3), Orioles (3)
That the Yankees are a consideration at all represents a staggering development. The biggest enemy of their late-season surge is time; it's rare to eradicate a four-game division deficit in the final 17 games of the year, though of course the chance to play seven games against the Red Sox creates a possibility that the Yankees can alter their odds forecasts considerably in short order.
Still, their rotation behind Masahiro Tanaka is suspect, and for all of the attention garnered by their young lineup members, the offense has averaged a modest 4.7 runs per game (tied for fifth-worst in the AL) since the start of August, following their massive roster turnover.
Still, in small samples — such as a 17-game stretch — nearly anything can happen, and the Yankees have positioned themselves in a fashion where a single hot streak has brought the postseason — and even the division — into the realm of possibility, if not likelihood.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.