With a month left to go in the season, the American League is as wide open as it's been all year -- unlike the National League, where two of the three divisional races are all but wrapped up (barring some sort of madness on the part of either the Arizona Diamondbacks or the Washington Nationals) and the third race is mainly to determine which of three teams will win the division and which other two will be the two NL Wild Card. The AL has two legitimate division races on the coasts and a Wild Card hunt featuring no fewer than four teams, and August has only made those races tighter and more interesting going into the final stretch of the 2013 season. As a general disclaimer, all stats mentioned or referenced below are current before the games played on August 29 unless otherwise noted.
In the American League West, Texas and Oakland remained locked in their second consecutive dogfight for the division title -- thanks to the Angels' collapse and the Mariners and Astros not being in contention cycles at the moment, the two teams have the top of the West to themselves, with third place Los Angeles of Anaheim 17 1/2 games out of the division lead. The Rangers made some noise earlier this year when they acquired Matt Garza from the Chicago Cubs to bolster their rotation; this is the second year in a row that Texas has dealt assets to Chicago to bring over a starting pitcher, and it's the second year in a row they've been somewhat disappointed by the return. Last year that pitcher was current Red Sox starter Ryan Dempster; he'd thrown 104 innings of 2.25 ERA ball for the Cubs at the time of the trade, but when he came to Texas with catcher Geovany Soto midway through the year, he only managed 69 innings of 5.09 ERA ball the rest of the way. Garza, a much better pitcher than Dempster in terms of proven talent and past results, had thrown only 71 innings of 3.17 ERA ball when Texas acquired him; since putting on a Rangers uniform, he's thrown 48.2 innings with a 4.44 ERA. Nevertheless, he's in a rotation that contains both Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, who is having a career year -- he should end 2013 with his most innings pitched in any single season and best ERA since being called up by the Rangers in 2009 and meet or beat his highest strikeout rate -- so the Rangers have been able to manage Garza's shaky start in Texas to date. They've had a fantastic August, going 19-6 and taking first place back from an Athletics squad that held the top spot in the West for most of late July into the first half of the month, though they'll need to keep hitting to keep that up; despite lackluster offensive numbers on the season for every regular not named Adrian Beltre or (now-suspended) Nelson Cruz, the Rangers scored 10 or more runs against an opponent five times in August and put up a team OPS of .771 (Texas's team OPS on the year is .743, and the league average is .716, though it should be noted that Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is the best non-Coors Field hitting environment in baseball).
The Oakland Athletics, meanwhile, are fighting a two-pronged war: they need to catch up to the Rangers if they want to repeat as American League West champions, but they also need to fend off the Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees in the Wild Card chase. As the month comes to a close, the A's and Rays are nearly deadlocked for the first Wild Card, which means home field advantage in the one-game Wild Card play-in; while the Athletics would rather host the Wild Card game than go on the road, ideally they'd bypass the "coin-flip" game entirely and win the division outright. In a reversal of past trends, the A's are hitting better than the Rangers when park adjustments are applied (Oakland's .727 team OPS rates as a 105 OPS+ due in part to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum being a pitcher's park, while Texas's .743 on the year rates as exactly league average at a 100 OPS+), but those same park adjustments make Oakland's team ERA of 3.66 (104 ERA+) less impressive than Texas's 3.65 ERA (116 ERA+). Jed Lowrie, acquired by the Athletics from the Houston Astros before the season began, is looking like one of the better pickups of the year -- 543 plate appearances of .291/.350/.433 hitting from the shortstop position, good for a 121 OPS+. The knocks on Lowrie coming into the season were two-fold: first, that he wasn't strong enough defensively to hold down the shortstop position on an everyday basis, and second -- and more importantly -- that he was unable to stay healthy long enough to be a top contributor. Lowrie's defense is what it is (bad), but his bat is strong enough to make playing him in the middle infield worth it, and after six trips to the disabled list over the past four seasons (including a rather horrific bout of mononucleosis that cost him 94 games in 2010) the former Red Sox prospect hasn't made a single visit there yet this season, playing in 126 of the team's 132 games.
The two biggest offensive contributors for the Athletics, however, are the team's corner infielders: Josh Donaldson, whose 2013 is going a long way to establishing him as one of the top third basemen in the game, and first baseman Brandon Moss, who is following up a blistering 296 plate appearances of .954 OPS hitting in 2012 with a more reasonable but still very good 419 plate appearances of .828 OPS production this season. Last year's most celebrated standouts -- outfielders Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes -- have had down years, battling injuries while struggling at the plate; Cespedes' .711 OPS is slightly worse than league average (98 OPS+), while Reddick's .658 (86 OPS+) is alarming for a player who had a solid overall line in 2012 but ended the season in a massive funk, hitting only .215/.256/.391 in the second half. Baseball has adjusted to Reddick and he has yet to adjust back.
Another concern for the Athletics is the health of staff ace Bartolo Colon, as bizarre a sentence as that is to type in 2013. Colon, 40, has rejuvenated his career in Oakland despite serving a 50 game suspension split between the end of last year and the beginning of this year after testing positive for a banned substance (his name surfaced in the Biogenesis scandal this season, but it was determined that was not a separate violation of the Joint Drug Agreement and he was not suspended again). He is the best pitcher on the Athletics by far, throwing 154 1/3 innings of 2.97 ERA ball going into his start Thursday against the Tigers. It was only his third start in August, however; Colon went on the 15-day disabled list earlier in the month for a groin strain after allowing 10 runs in only 6 2/3 innings pitched over two starts. His outing against Detroit was something of a return to form -- he only allowed one run -- but Colon lasted only five innings in which he gave up seven hits and struck out only one batter. Considering his age, injuries and general fatigue could affect him far more than they might a younger man, and if the Athletics are going to make a run at first place in the West -- let alone make some noise in the playoffs -- they need Colon healthy.
Speaking of the Tigers, while they don't quite have the AL Central wrapped up the same way that, say, the Braves are dominating the NL East or the Dodgers are currently smothering the NL West, they are clearly poised to take the division crown, with second-place Cleveland trailing them by six and a half games and third-place Kansas City by eight and a half with only a month left to play. After the Rangers, the Tigers were the team most hurt by the fallout of the Biogenesis scandal, losing shortstop Jhonny Peralta for the remainder of the regular season and presumably the playoffs (like Cruz, Peralta will be eligible to return to the team for postseason play, but will not have faced live MLB pitching in well over a month); Detroit dealt with the hole in their everyday lineup by dealing outfield prospect Avisail Garcia to the Chicago White Sox and reliever Brayan Villarreal to the Boston Red Sox as part of the three-team Jake Peavy deal, getting young defensive wizard Jose Iglesias from Boston in return. Iglesias has become the team's everyday option at short, spelled by veteran utilityman Ramon Santiago only when manager Jim Leyland thinks he needs a day off, but while Iglesias put up Rookie of the Year numbers in Boston (fueled by an insanely high batting average on balls in play), in Detroit so far he's looked like the guy he's always been: a great fielder who slaps singles, when he gets on base at all -- Iglesias has only three extra-base hits in his 86 plate appearances since joining the Tigers, good for a slugging percentage of .329. Considering the circumstances of his acquisition, though, and how otherwise poor the Tigers are in the field, Detroit will be satisfied as long as he can keep his offensive numbers somewhere north of Pete Kozma's season line.
The American League East, like the AL West, has two credible contenders for the division title that have been jockeying for position all season in the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays. Unlike the AL West, third place Baltimore and fourth place New York are in very good position to make life tough for the teams above them in the standings and sneak into the playoffs as a Wild Card, or even the division winner, if things break right for them. Although Boston only has two players having outstanding offensive seasons -- 37-year-old designated hitter David Ortiz, who seems to be aging in reverse (478 plate appearances of .956 OPS, 155 OPS+), and Seattle Mariners cast-off Mike Carp, who is up there with Lowrie for best offseason trade pick-up, though in limited playing time (196 plate appearances of .913 OPS, 143 OPS+) -- the entire Boston starting nine, from top to bottom, are at least having very good years at the plate if not great ones: shortstop Stephen Drew is the latest free agent to come to Boston on a one-year deal to rebuild his value and deliver great results both at the plate and in the field, while Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Nava, Dustin Pedroia, Jonny Gomes and even Shane Victorino, who looked like a dead duck at the end of last year, are all putting up numbers in the .760-.800 OPS range. The only Boston hitter that has seen 2013 lower their stock is young third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who has been up and down between the Red Sox and Triple-A Pawtucket after floundering in his second MLB season.
That consistency at the plate has been helpful considering the inconsistency in the team's starting rotation and bullpen, though Boston seems to have corrected those problems just in time for the season's home stretch. When the year began, the Red Sox' pitching was supposed to be the team's strength, and while the Joel Hanrahan trade immediately blew up in Boston's face, starters Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey all had fantastic starts to their year, but in June the Sox were faced with the one-two gut punch of Lester suddenly falling apart on the mound (7.62 ERA in five starts that month) and Clay Buchholz, who seemed to be taking over the race for the American League Cy Young Award (1.73 ERA in 72 2/3 innings pitched the first two months), went on the disabled list with shoulder bursitis and has only just started making rehab starts in the minors. The burden fell on the shoulders of Lackey, Lester, 25-year-old Felix Doubront in his second year as a regular starter, disappointing free-agent signing Ryan Dempster and a press-gang of call-ups/tweeners like Alfredo Aceves, Franklin Morales, Allen Webster and Brandon Workman to keep the ship righted.
Lackey wasn't fazed -- he's remained effective (3.19 ERA in 155 innings pitched) all year -- Doubront has done everything asked of him (3.74 ERA in 146 2/3 innings pitched), and Lester would recover quickly from his bad month (2.91 ERA in 65 innings pitched since the end of June), but the addition of Chicago's Jake Peavy at the deadline has given them one of the deeper and more formidable rotations in the league to go with their great offense. Peavy's health and dwindling effectiveness in Chicago earlier this year were a major concern; he returned from the DL only days before being dealt to Boston, which is part of the reason the White Sox only got back Garcia and some non-prospects for him. Since putting on a Red Sox uniform, however, he's looked much more like the old Jake Peavy: five starts, 32 2/3 innings pitched and an ERA of 3.31. He's not striking out batters at quite the rate he's used to (5.5 K/9 in Boston vs. 8.6 in Chicago this year and 8.7 for his career), but that's more likely to be small sample size noise than indicative of a change in approach for the 32-year-old righthander. Combined with a bullpen that seems to have settled down since Koji Uehara took over closing duties in July, the 2013 Red Sox are a model of consistency in almost every aspect of the game and expect to go deep in the postseason.
The Tampa Bay Rays have given them quite a chase, however. The Rays have also been consistent at the plate -- the only regular with an OPS+ under 100 is veteran catcher Jose Molina, who is one of the best defensive catchers in the game -- and bolstered their lineup as the year has gone on by calling up 22-year-old top prospect Wil Myers in June and adding outfielder David DeJesus from the Cubs by way of the Nationals just this past week. Myers started out on a torrid pace after his MLB debut culminating in a .963 OPS in July, but in August he's been more than underwhelming: .210/.301/.309 in 93 plate appearances in the month so far. It's lucky for the Rays, then, that the beginning of DeJesus's time in Tampa has been similarly white-hot, with the 33-year-old outfielder hitting .438/.500/.563 in his first five games. That level of production isn't going to last, but in a pennant race like this every bit of lightning in a bottle helps.
Coming into the 2013 season, few people -- actually, let's go with no one -- expected the two best starting pitchers on the Rays to be Chris Archer and Alex Cobb, but it's the end of August and both men have thrown about 100 innings of 2.81 and 2.87 ERA ball respectively. Archer came to the Tampa organization in the Matt Garza trade with the Chicago Cubs a few years back, while Cobb is another one of the Rays' homegrown talents; in a season where David Price struggled to stay healthy and effective early on, Jeremy Hellickson suddenly lost the ability to get batters out, Matt Moore's hot start collapsed in on itself in June (culminating in a trip to the DL for elbow soreness from which he has not yet returned), and free-agent signing Roberto Hernandez has been continually flirting with an ERA around five, Archer and Cobb have been huge factors in keeping the Rays near the top of the AL East.
Both the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees are still technically in the division race -- at the time of this writing, the O's are six and a half back and the Yankees are eight games back, with games against the Rays, the Red Sox and each other still on the schedule for September -- the Wild Card is probably their best way into the playoffs now. Both teams, along with fellow Wild Card contenders Cleveland and Kansas City, are good but flawed -- and of course they are; if they weren't, they'd be winning their divisions. The Orioles have a powerful, slugging-heavy offense anchored by an MVP candidate in Chris Davis, but their pitching has gone back and forth between merely acceptable and downright ugly all year; the Yankees have seen the returns of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano to the Bronx temporarily fix their offensive problems, but outside of Hiroki Kuroda -- easily one of the best free agent signings the Yankees have made in years, if not decades -- and Ivan Nova, the New York rotation is a fragile thing that could fall apart at any moment, with Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and occasional starter David Phelps all sporting ERAs north of four. Cleveland continues to rely on an offense powered by Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana to make up for the shortcomings and inconsistencies in their starting rotation, while Kansas City does the reverse, trusting James Shields, Ervin Santana and one of the best bullpens in decades to keep better-hitting teams than themselves off the board. And of course lurking at the top of the Wild Card standings are whomever's not in first place in the West and the East at the moment -- Oakland and Tampa Bay. All four of these bubble teams have had decent enough Augusts -- Baltimore and Cleveland played slightly worse than .500 ball while New York and Kansas City both were a couple games over .500 -- but "decent enough" isn't going to knock off the Athletics or the Rays and get them into the postseason. If any one of these teams is going to be playing in October, they'll need to turn it on in September in a big way to close the three-to-six game gap between them and a spot in the Wild Card play-in.
Which is entirely possible, of course; three to six games in the standings are nothing, especially if a team goes on a run. But they'd better act fast. We're on September's doorstep now. Time is running out.