Matthew Trueblood: Wild Card X-factors? We have an honest-to-God race for the NL's second bid now, as well as the free-for-all in the AL. Fertile ground, perhaps. Little things could tilt these races.
Rob Mains: My X-factor: Strength of schedule (which you can see for all teams in BP's strength of schedule report). The AL contenders with the easiest remaining schedules are the Yankees and Twins. The toughest are the Rays and Angels. In the NL, the Brewers, Cardinals, and Rockies are really close. In a tight race, that gives an edge to the Twins and Yankees, doesn't it?
Trueblood: I think that's a key for each of those teams, yes. Their flaws aren't going to be on full display because of their opponent set down the stretch. Does anyone else feel like the peculiar competitive landscape has distorted a lot of records this year, and that it could even shape the races down the stretch? It's almost like an expansion year. The distinction between the really good teams, the middling ones, and the bad ones is not usually this clear.
Mains: The Twins have seven games remaining against a Tigers team that's worse than it was at the start of the year. Seattle has three against Houston and three against Cleveland, and at some point those teams could be mailing it in, resting key players. But in general, yeah, the lines of delineation seem really bright this year.
Bryan Grosnick: Is it fair to say the X-factor could be overall talent? If Garrett Richards comes back as maybe 70-80 percent of his old self, I think that there's an overall and a top-end talent gap between the Angels and the rest of the pack. Yeah, they have a steeper hill to climb than the Twins, but they grade out awfully good on paper and have the two best position players in the Wild Card race in Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons. (Sorry, Manny Machado.) Heck, they may even have the three best position players with Justin Upton in the mix.
Trueblood: I think the health of Richards, and the extent to which it holds, is itself an X-factor.
Wilson Karaman: Rob, what you alluded to there regarding teams maybe or maybe nor mailing it in very much qualifies as an X-factor, insofar as it's really difficult to predict strength of schedule on account of that variable. We don't really know who's going to phone in the last couple weeks, which mediocre, ostensibly competitive teams (hello Orioles) will lose six of their next seven and cash out. Strength of schedule is problematic as a factor in its own right, let alone the valid points about rampant mediocrity in the middle this year.
Meg Rowley: Just to name one before my head cold-addled brain collapses into nothingness: When do the Mariners get James Paxton and Felix Hernandez back, and what versions of them do they get when they do?
Trueblood: To add to Richards, Felix, and Paxton as AL Wild Card health questions: can Miguel Sano get back on the field for the Twins? Their offense needs him if they're going to bash their way past people.
Mains: Do Apple Watches figure in?
Craig Goldstein: Just thinking out loud regarding X-factors (I half-hate the term because it … can be anything), but do any of these teams gain a particular advantage with the expansion of rosters? I'd normally argue that the influx of bullpen arms would benefit the teams that have crap rotations, but that's literally all of them, so …
Grosnick: If there's a team that has slightly higher platoon splits or exceptional positional depth … I dunno, maybe the Orioles can up their platoon game a hair? (Probably not.)
Mains: Just thought of this: Weather. Not weather catastrophes, just weather in general. We're at the point in the season at which teams and umpires are going to do everything in their power to get games played, because if they're not, they'll have to be rescheduled, and there are hardly any open days left on the schedule. The Rangers had to play a doubleheader, with the attendant toll on the pitching staff, due to a rainout in Atlanta. A line of storms in the Northeast or Midwest could really screw things up for the affected teams.
Trueblood: Re: roster expansion, I think the Rockies are one team that benefits. They're carrying 17 pitchers right now, which has to be a relief, because they rode their starters hard early and a lot of them are wearing down a bit. One could make the same case for the Brewers, who racked up a heavy collective workload for their relievers in the first half, but I don't think spreading the work around works at the same level when it's your bullpen that's already tired.
In that same vein: Raimel Tapia got called up by the Rockies. It's time to talk about Carlos Gonzalez's playing time, his recent hot streak notwithstanding. An X-factor for Colorado could be whether and to what extent they're willing to shove aside a guy who has been killing them all season, despite the (perfectly valid) reasons to keep running him out there: his track record (though he's been so consistently dreadful that I think that argument is a bit watery), and his status as an icon of the franchise. They could get better by sliding any of three or four other guys into his regular lineup position.
Grosnick: Matt, were you talking about the Rockies and Gonzalez there, or the Angels and Albert Pujols? (Though the team's replacement designated hitter or platoon options of Ben Revere, Eric Young, Dustin Ackley, or Nick Franklin are, let’s just say "not appealing.")
Trueblood: No question, same issue applies to the Angels. For that matter, I dunno, could the Royals be doing better than continuing to roll with Alcides Escobar?
Grosnick: Maybe, but it is a little tougher to find a competent shortstop. You would've had me with Alex Gordon (2012 me is very unhappy to say that), who may actually lose more time with the Jorge Soler call-up.
Mains: Going into the games last night, the Yankees were 3.5 ahead of the Twins, who were 1.0 ahead of the Angels, 2.5 ahead of Kansas City and Baltimore, 3.0 up on Baltimore and Seattle, and 3.5 up on Tampa Bay. Colorado trailed Arizona by 5.0 and led Milwaukee and St. Louis by 3.0 each. Tampa Bay’s had a series with the Yankees moved to New York because of Irma, and of the players mentioned here (this discussion took place over the past week), Richards is still pitching, Hernandez and Paxton aren’t, and Pujols and Escobar are still in their teams’ starting lineups.