Ranking schedule strength

CHICAGO -- General managers look at strength of schedule all the time; players and managers almost never look at it, because they’re in the fight and focused on the micro, rather than the macro.

But the GMs are always watching the upcoming slate of games because it gives context and shapes decisions. The Pittsburgh Pirates, for example, had by far the toughest on-paper starting schedule in the majors -- and once they got through that stretch with a respectable record, they vaulted toward the top of the NL Central.

Here are the strength-of-schedule rankings for Major League Baseball’s contending teams in the second half; they are listed toughest to easiest. I considered every team within eight games of the top of its division as of Saturday afternoon.

1. Kansas City Royals

Games against teams with records of .500 or better: 35

Home/road: 37 of 71 games at home

Schedule quirks: Between the rain makeups that have squeezed out their off days and 20 games remaining against Detroit and Cleveland, the Royals have a major challenge ahead of them -- and it starts right away, with seven games against the Tigers and Orioles right out of the break. From July 30 through Sept. 11, Kansas City will play 44 games in 44 days.

In mid-September, the Royals will play four consecutive series against the Tigers and Cleveland, so they will have an opportunity to run down the teams in front of them.

The big finish: The Royals close out with a week on the road -- three games at Seattle, then four games against the White Sox.