Earlier this week, we took stock of the American League East, with plenty of focus on how the division is primed for multiple playoff contenders not just this year, but in the future as well. Today, we’re going to hop on over to the other divisions, and see how the other major contenders are shaping up as the playoff race begins to reach its stretch run.
Oakland Athletics (72-53, 8 GB, 0.5 WCGB)
Much like the Tampa Bay Rays, the Oakland A’s somehow find their way into relevance year after year. They started the year off poorly, before steadily clawing their way into the playoff hunt, and although they are still eight games behind the Houston Astros, they have gained ground due to Houston’s recent slide, as they were 11 games out as recently as August 11.
Their offense, led by corner infielders Matt Olson and Matt Chapman, has been consistently above-average, albeit not elite. They’re fairly similar on the mound as well, with Mike Fiers, Brett Anderson, Chris Bassitt, and trade deadline acquisition Tanner Roark leading a staff that has done enough to win, but lacks a significant difference-maker. Ace Frankie Montas’s breakout season was cut short due to a PED suspension, while trade acquisition Homer Bailey has not provided the expected reinforcement. Closer Liam Hendricks, used twice as an opener, has been elite, but the rest of the bullpen has been inconsistent.
At the surface, the A’s appear to be in the second tier of teams in the American League, below the Yankees, Twins, Indians, and the Astros. Their performance this past weekend against Houston, in which they took three of four, however, shows that they can play with the big boys.
Cleveland Indians (74-53, 3 GB, leading Wild Card)
On June 1, the Indians were 29-29, seemingly en route to their worst season in recent memory. Since then, they have been one of the hottest teams in the league, going 17-9 in June and 18-6 in July. They have dropped to “only” 11-7 in August, a 99-win pace. The real story, however, is not that the Indians have been so hot, but how they got there.
Nothing has gone right for Cleveland’s pitching staff, with Corey Kluber making only seven starts with a 5.80 ERA due to injury and Carlos Carrasco unfortunately being sidelined due to a fight with leukemia. Even so, they remain among the best thanks to the performance of the rest of their starting pitchers, led by Shane Bieber, and their elite bullpen, led by Brad Hand. They traded from their strength at the trade deadline, flipping Trevor Bauer for Franmil Reyes and Yasiel Puig to improve their offense, which ranks as the worst among contenders in the American League.
While Puig has provided a much-needed spark into the offense, the biggest boost the Indians have received has come from within. Before the All-Star Break, third baseman Jose Ramirez posted a .218/.308/.344 slash, with seven homers and 13 RBI; since then, he has found his stroke, slashing .331/.366/.725 with 13 dingers and 39 RBI in fewer than half the number of games. Added to Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana, Puig and Ramirez have stoked the Cleveland lineup.
Minnesota Twins (77-50, leading AL Central)
The Twins have slowed down considerably since their hot start (only 21-16 since the All-Star Break), but nonetheless remain one of the most dangerous teams in the American League. Their offense continues to be both elite and incredibly deep, with twelve of their fifteen players with more than 100 plate appearances having an OPS+ of greater than 100. Of those below 100, only Willians Astudillo has one lower than 96. They are behind only the Yankees with 5.87 runs per game, and with 244 home runs, are on pace to shatter last year’s record of 266 home runs. This offense alone will be enough to make them dangerous.
Their pitching, meanwhile, while lacking a top-flight starter, has been consistent, with a 4.16 ERA (4.17 FIP). Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi have been a strong one-two punch at the top of the staff, although none of Kyle Gibson, Martin Perez, and Michael Pineda have performed well enough to be counted on as a difference-maker in the postseason. Even so, their pitching remains competent enough that it should not prove too big a weakness in the divisional or championship round so long as they hold off Cleveland for the division or win in the wild card round.
Houston Astros (81-46, leading AL West)
The Astros were a super-team, with a top-flight offense, two bona fide aces, and a deep bullpen. Then they went and traded for Zack Greinke.
Does Houston have any weaknesses? Truth is...not really. Their offense, albeit a step below the Yankees and Twins juggernauts thus far, contains several of the best players in the league (Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and George Springer) and has only gotten better with the addition of Yordan Alvarez, whose start to his career rivals that of Gary Sanchez in 2016. Even if one of Greinke, Justin Verlander, and Gerrit Cole were to get hurt, they would not only still have the other two, but also Wade Miley, who has put up a 3.18 ERA (albeit a 4.34 FIP), as well as a deep bullpen that includes Roberto Osuna, Ryan Pressly, and Will Harris. Their is nothing you can point to and say, “This is something we can exploit.”
But are they unbeatable? Also no. Just last week, they went on a five-game losing streak that involved losing two of three to the 56-69 Chicago White Sox as well as losing three straight to the Oakland A’s, cutting down their divisional lead to eight games in the process. They are a great team for sure, and the Yankees’ biggest threat in the postseason, but they are human.
It just won’t be easy.