MLB Insiders Roundtable: Pennant race predictions, September heroes and stretch-run dark horses

— -- Are the Mets and Royals destined to return to the playoffs? Who will fade away as the pennant races heat up? How many games will the Cubs win anyway? We asked. Our experts answered:

Which contender will fade down the stretch?

Jim Bowden:?I think the Orioles will fade down the stretch. Their starting rotation is shallow and inconsistent, and their schedule is among the most difficult of any contending team. Manager Buck Showalter is one of the game's best, but he can't take the mound every fifth day, nor can he change the schedule.

Keith Law:?Baltimore has already been fading, thanks to its starting pitching. The Orioles have the worst starters' ERA of any contender this season and the third-worst total ERA of any AL team in the second half.?

Buster Olney:?The Pirates, but maybe that has already happened. They came into the second half with such an enormous scheduling advantage, but through injuries and ineffectiveness, they just haven't really gathered lasting traction in the second half. I watched their loss to the Cardinals on Labor Day, and it really looked like the fight had gone out of them, for the first time.

Which dark horse team will make it?

Bowden:?My dark horse teams are the Tigers, Royals and Astros. Yes, all three of them. I love the Tigers' deep lineup and the great year Michael Fulmer has had. I love the fact the Astros won't give up. They keep grinding every night as Jose Altuve competes with Mookie Betts for AL MVP. And the Royals have been there so much lately that they could easily make another run to play October baseball again.?

Law:?Right now I wouldn't pick any team that's more than two games out of a wild-card spot to make it. Of everyone else, I'd say the Mariners have the best chance, but I still wouldn't predict them to make the playoffs.

Olney:?The Mets, partly because of the mediocrity of the teams around them, but also because of the performance of guys who've stepped in: the ReplaceMets, such as? Seth Lugo. To see a team built on the power of its rotation lose three of its five starters -- to say nothing of its first baseman, second baseman or third baseman -- and still be in position to win is shocking. It's hard to imagine the Mets keeping up with the Giants, but they might well knock them out.

Royals: Yea or nay, and why?

Bowden:?I'm not betting against the Royals getting to the playoffs. They've been to the World Series the past two seasons. They have found their ace in Danny Duffy, they still have one of the best bullpens in the game and their nucleus is in tact, led by Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar.

Law:?Nay. They're four games back of the last spot and would have to jump over three teams to get there. That's asking a lot of any team, and I don't think the Royals are that much better than their record to date that I'd predict a surge like that.

Olney: Their chances for reaching October are currently assessed at less than 5 percent, but scheduling dynamics could still make a difference for them. While the Blue Jays, Red Sox, Orioles, Yankees and Rays are all pounding away at each other over the last 3? weeks, the Royals get to play the weakest teams in the American League. So I still think they have a real chance to make the postseason with a late run. They really need one or two hitters to get scorching hot in the last two weeks to make this happen, though.

Who wins the AL East?

Bowden:?I picked the Blue Jays to win the AL East back in spring training, so why change now? The rotation is deep, and the bullpen has been more effective than Boston's in the sixth through eighth innings for most of the year. Josh Donaldson is having another MVP-caliber year, and Devon Travis is a secret weapon.

Law:?Toronto, by a game or two over Boston. I think the Blue Jays have a slightly more favorable schedule, and I don't think the Red Sox's relief issues are going away any time soon. But it's pretty close either way.

Olney: The Blue Jays. They are still the most complete team in the division, with a well-rounded pitching staff, and the difficulty of Boston's schedule and the Orioles' on-going rotation problems might eventually take down those two teams. But I will say this: I have chronically, consistently underestimated the Orioles all season. Before the year started, my thinking was that Baltimore was the one team that couldn't win the division because of its lack of starting pitching. What genius that turned out to be.

How many games will the Cubs win?

Bowden:?104 games. That's 15-9 the rest of the way. They could win more, but they'll rest enough of their players during the balance of the season to not win some of the games they could have.


Olney:?104. They're playing great, but I think they'll probably have at least a lull in performance this month as they face more desperate teams, and Joe Maddon will make sure his guys are rested for October. They'll need the extra time off to prepare for the pressure they'll face in the postseason, which might well be the most any team has ever seen. Whether this affects them is a completely different question.

Who's this year's Madison Bumgarner or Yoenis Cespedes (second-half heroes)?

Bowden:?Mookie Betts, Adrian Beltre, Jose Altuve, Josh Donaldson, Kris Bryant and Max Scherzer are this year's second-half heroes for me.

Law:?Nobody. That's the narrative people assign after the fact. Cespedes wasn't the only reason or even the main reason the Mets got to the playoffs last year, but that's how people like to tell the story. Maybe we'll tell the story of Detroit's surge to a wild-card spot thanks to Justin Upton getting a few days off in August to clear his head, but that won't be the only reason the Tigers get in if they do so.

Olney:? J.D. Martinez. With Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez in the same lineup, he's going to get a ton of opportunities to do damage in big spots, and he has shown he continues to develop as a hitter this year. He has been more patient, and his rate of harder contact continues to increase. No pitcher or manager will ever be convinced that it's a good idea to go after Miguel Cabrera, which means they'll have to attack Martinez, and he has responded well to this.