Heading into play Tuesday, there’s only one division where the lead is two games or fewer. That’s the AL West, which has a pair of teams within two games of the frontrunner. Whoever wins the division is very likely to get a first-round bye — all three teams are at least five games clear of the AL Central-leading Twins — adding extra incentive for the clubs to secure more than a Wild Card spot.
With the Angels now 11 games out and the A’s on their way to 110+ losses, we’ll take a look at the three remaining teams with a plausible path to contention:
Texas Rangers, 72-53 (lead division by 1.5 games)
The Rangers have had a share of the division lead for all but one day of the season. They’ve been in sole possession of first place going back to May 6, stretching their margin out to 6.5 games in the final week of June. Texas has allowed the gap to close in recent weeks, playing slightly below .500 ball between June and July. They rebounded to win 10 of 11 to start August but have dropped six of eight since then (including five in a row).
Texas has been far and away the best offensive team in the division. They trail only Atlanta overall in runs and all three slash stats. They’ve cooled off a bit following a scorching start, ranking eighth in scoring since the All-Star Break. Even after losing Jacob deGrom, the rotation has held up remarkably well — and deadline acquisitions Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery couldn’t have performed much better through their respective first four starts in a Ranger uniform.
The biggest question mark, as has been the case the entire season, is the bullpen. Texas relievers rank 25th in ERA overall; they’re 24th with a 4.96 figure since the start of the second half. The front office added to the relief corps this summer, bringing in Aroldis Chapman and Chris Stratton. They’ve each been effective (although Chapman blew a save in last night’s extra-inning loss in Arizona) but the group has been shaky enough overall to contribute to a handful of frustrating defeats.
Texas is 9-17 in one-run contests and 2-5 in games that go to extra innings. There’s probably some amount of poor fortune baked into that mark, but it’s hard to attribute those struggles all to luck (particularly after the Rangers were a staggering 15-35 in one-run games a season ago).
Among all major league teams, only the Braves have a superior run differential to the Rangers’ +184 mark. Few teams are capable of bludgeoning an opponent the way Texas can. Can they lock down enough tight games to hold off their two top competitors?
Houston Astros, 71-55 (1.5 games back of Texas, 0.5 ahead of Seattle)
The defending World Series winners entered the season as the favorites to capture another AL West crown. Yet this year’s Houston club, while very good, hasn’t played at the same level as last year’s 106-win squad.
That’s primarily a reflection of a step back on the pitching front. Last year’s club finished the regular season eighth in run scoring; they’re sixth in that regard this season. Their run prevention has regressed a bit, as they’ve dropped from second to fifth in ERA. After finishing second in the majors with a 26% strikeout rate a season ago, they’re down to ninth (at 24%) this year.
It’s certainly not a bad pitching staff — Houston is still in the upper third of the league in most categories — but injuries slowed them early in the year. Luis Garcia won’t return from Tommy John surgery. They got nothing from Lance McCullers Jr. because of persistent forearm issues. Allowing Justin Verlander to depart in free agency subtracted the defending Cy Young winner for the season’s first few months. He’s back in the fold but hasn’t been as dominant in 2023 as he was a year ago. José Urquidy missed a couple months with shoulder issues, while Cristian Javier has been inconsistent after an excellent start to the year.
Strong rookie showings from Hunter Brown and J.P. France were instrumental in keeping the club afloat while Garcia, McCullers and Urquidy were on the injured list. With Urquidy now healthy and Verlander back, Houston’s rotation again runs six deep. The lineup is nearing full strength with Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez healthy and Michael Brantley on a rehab stint. First baseman José Abreu is in an uncertain spot because of a back injury, though he hasn’t produced even when healthy.
The Astros have never really had a chance to fire on all cylinders. They haven’t spent a single day with even a share of first place since losing on Opening Day. They’ve hung around, though, and they’re getting closer to trotting out the roster they’ve more or less envisioned.
Seattle Mariners, 70-55 (2 games back of Texas, 0.5 back of Houston)
The Mariners have been the hottest team in the American League over the past two months. Seattle had been remarkably average for the first few months, never winning nor losing more than four consecutive games through the end of July. Even after going 17-9 in July, the M’s trod an uncertain course at the deadline. They dealt away closer Paul Sewald to add MLB-ready but more controllable offensive help in the form of Dominic Canzone and Josh Rojas. Unlike their division rivals in Arlington, Houston and even Anaheim, the Mariners didn’t make any headline-grabbing deadline acquisitions.
No matter, Seattle is an AL-best 15-4 since the calendar flipped to August. They’ve rattled off separate win streaks of seven-plus games (the latter of which is ongoing) this month. Part of the front office’s logic in trading Sewald was their confidence the bullpen was deep enough to remain excellent; the relief corps is indeed fourth in ERA and fifth in strikeout rate since the deadline.
Seattle’s rotation has been among the league’s best all year. They lead the majors in innings and rank sixth in ERA. Rookies Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo have stepped in well behind the star trio of George Kirby, Luis Castillo and Logan Gilbert. The biggest recent turnaround has been the offense. A lineup which president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto frankly conceded four weeks ago was “an average major league offense” trails only Atlanta and Philadelphia in scoring this month.
After accounting for the pitcher-friendly nature of T-Mobile Park, they lead the league in wRC+ in August. They’ve gotten contributions throughout the batting order. Of the 11 Seattle hitters with 40+ plate appearances, only Rojas has posted below-average numbers. Julio Rodríguez has arguably been the best player on the planet over the past three weeks, while Ty France and Teoscar Hernández have caught fire after previously underwhelming seasons by their standards.
All of a sudden, the Mariners are firmly within striking distance of what could be their first division title since 2001. They’ll control their own destiny into the season’s final week and a half. As Mike Petriello of MLB.com observed (on Twitter), Seattle’s final three series are against the clubs they’re trying to track down. They’ll finish the regular season with a three-game set in Arlington, three at home against Houston, and then four more against the Rangers at T-Mobile Park.
How does the MLBTR readership envision things playing out? Which team will take home the division crown, and for good measure, how many teams from the AL West will snag a Wild Card berth?