We Got Ourselves a Rowdy AL Wild Card Race

While many debate whether the New York Yankees, Houston Astros, or Minnesota Twins are the best team in the American League, a compelling AL Wild Card race is taking shape. Let’s take a look at the race — and at the competitors — for the Wild Card contest in the AL.

Tampa Bay Rays (53-39, Own First AL Wild Card Seeding)

The Rays began the regular season strong, and then faded, but finished the pre-All-Star break stretch strong. Currently 53-39, they own home field in the AL Wild Card Game — and when the Rays are firing on all cylinders they’re a hassle for opposing teams.

Even with a May injury to right-hander Tyler Glasnow and inconsistency from 2018 Cy Young Award recipient Blake Snell, the Rays pitching staff has been formidable. Charlie Morton has been stellar in his debut year with the Rays, Yonny Chirinos has been an unsung hero, and their bullpen has been a versatile, consistent force. Whether it be Ryne Stanek, Emilio Pagan, Colin Poche, Diego Castillo, or Jalen Beeks, among others, manager Kevin Cash has a multitude of relievers who he can pivot to for length.

The Rays have also boasted one of the most steady offenses in baseball this season. Austin Meadows, Tommy Pham, and Brandon Lowe have hit at All-Star-caliber levels; Yandy Diaz has been a reliable contact hitter; Avisail Garcia and Ji-Man Choi have been steady forces; Kevin Kiermaier is having a bounce-back season offensively, as he has driven in 41 runs. The Rays outfield rotation of Kiermaier, Pham, Garcia, and Meadows is amongst the elite in the sport.

This is a complete roster with the talent and unpredictability to pull out a one-game playoff.

Cleveland Indians (50-39, Own Second AL Wild Card Seeding)

The Indians are the hottest team in the AL right now.

Two months ago, this team looked dead in the water. Their offense was anemic, they suffered a handful of injuries to their starting rotation, and the Minnesota Twins were leaving them in the dust in the AL Central. Now they’re 50-39, own the second AL Wild Card seeding, and are 6.5 games behind the Twins for first place in the division.

Trevor Bauer has given the Indians length, and Shane Bieber has been the ace of their pitching staff. Adam Plutko, Zach Plesac, and Jefry Rodriguez have been dependable in the absences of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and, before he made a return roughly three weeks ago, Mike Clevinger. Manager Terry Francona‘s bullpen has taken a 180 from last season. They’re finishing off games in the late innings, escaping trouble, and went into their Friday night matchup with the Twins sporting a league-best 3.45 ERA.

Offensively, Cleveland has been mediocre, at best, but it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. Carlos Santana and Francisco Lindor have led the way, totaling a combined 34 home runs and 85 RBIs, while Roberto Perez provides pop (Perez has hit 16 home runs), and the rest of the order grinds through at-bats. Star third baseman Jose Ramirez came to life a bit before the All-Star break. This isn’t a team that’s selling at the MLB trade deadline; they’re playing for the playoffs and perhaps a run at the division.

Oakland Athletics (51-41, A Half Game Out of Second AL Wild Card Seeding)

The A’s lost some prominent members of their 2018 roster to free agency, limped out of the gates this season, and lost their ace, Frankie Montas, to an 80-game PED suspension, yet they’re 51-41 and a half game out of the second AL Wild Card seeding.

The A’s heartbeat is their offense. While they’re not a unit who hits for average, they have several efficient, power hitters. Matt Olson has hit 19 home runs in 59 games; Matt Chapman has continued to be a two-way star; Marcus Semien has been his steady hitting-self; Ramon Laureano has been an encouraging development in center field and at the plate, totaling 48 RBIs; Josh Phegley has shown a continued ability to call the shots behind home plate and drive in runs.

Oakland’s pitching staff has been precisely what it was last season: A staff with a deep bullpen and efficient starting pitchers. Whether it be Liam Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit, Ryan Buchter, Blake Treinen, or Joakim Soria, manager Bob Melvin has the makings of a reliable bullpen. Meanwhile, their rotation has shown signs of life. After a treacherous start, Mike Fiers has turned his season around, surrendering no more than three earned runs in each of his last 14 starts; Brett Anderson is having arguably the best season of his career; Chris Bassitt has held his own in his first season starting on a consistent basis.

Every aspect of this team could use improvement, but the fact that they’re 10 games over .500 with that being the case is remarkable. They’ve been hit hard by the injury bug and lost their ace to a suspension — and, if they make it to such play, the postseason —  but are finding ways to win games. If the A’s get hot and/or make a big move before the MLB trade deadline, they could very well make a return to the postseason.

Boston Red Sox (50-41, One Game Out of Second AL Wild Card Seeding)

Being third place in the AL East and out of the playoffs isn’t the set of circumstances the defending World Series-champion Red Sox expected to face in spring training. Fortunately for Boston, they’re still in the thick of the playoff picture.

The Red Sox had the most productive offense in baseball last season. While select individuals haven’t performed to their capabilities, the likes of Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, Christian Vazquez, and Michael Chavis have, yet again, formed one of the most dangerous offenses in the sport. Boston’s issue is their entire pitching staff.

Chris Sale and Rick Porcello are having the worst season of their careers, Eduardo Rodriguez owns a 4.43 ERA, and Nathan Eovaldi has been on the injured list for most of the season and is likely going to be coming out of the bullpen when he returns to the field because they’ve been a wholly unreliable unit; Boston’s bullpen has blown as many save opportunities as they’ve executed (18).

To have your pitching staff, from top to bottom, struggling and still be nine games above .500 is astonishing. Boston’s bats are going to continue to produce at a high level. President Dave Dombrowksi has to make a move for a pitcher, regardless of the role that pitcher assumes. Plus, Boston has veterans in their rotation capable of righting the ship; don’t count out the Red Sox.

Texas Rangers (50-42, 1.5 Games Out of Second AL Wild Card Seeding)

The Rangers have been one of the biggest surprise teams in MLB this season, from all aspects of the game.

The most distinct aspect of the Rangers is their high-octane offense. Joey Gallo owns a 1.061 OPS; Hunter Pence is having a captivating revival campaign, totaling 48 RBIs and hitting .294; Elvis Andrus is hitting .304; Danny Santana is hitting .307; Shin-Soo Choo has been his well-rounded hitting-self; Rougned Odor and Nomar Mazara have been consistent sources of power.

Manager Chris Woodward‘s pitching staff is defined by three factors: Mike Minor, Lance Lynn, and a versatile bullpen. Minor is having the best season of his career, was on the AL All-Star Game roster, and owns a 2.54 ERA; Lynn has pitched through the sixth inning in each of his last 14 starts and is performing like the pitcher baseball was accustomed to with the St. Louis Cardinals; the Rangers bullpen has picked up the slack for the inconsistency and ailing bottom half of their starting rotation.

When Minor was dealing early in the season, the recurring question was when were the Rangers going to trade him? Now he’s likely going nowhere, as the Rangers have a shot at making the playoffs, and they could be trade deadline buyers. Adding a reliable bullpen arm, or middle-of-the-rotation starter, would be a significant enhancer. And if the Rangers crack the one-game playoff, their bats have the capability to tee off on whatever pitcher takes the hill. That makes them arguably the most dangerous team in this race.

The Competition is Great for the Sport

The AL has five teams who are at least eight games above .500 competing for two Wild Card seedings. This is the competition MLB aspired to have when it implemented the one-game playoff in 2012.

It’s not like the National League Wild Card race where there are teams sporting a .500 record and just two games out of the playoffs. While eight teams being in the playoff mix is unique, it’s not a competition between teams viewed as pennant threats. Having a lot of teams’ names in the ring can be fun, but it’s better when the teams have a chance to win their respective league — even if it means having a couple less teams.

There’s a case for five teams to claim one of two AL Wild Card seedings. This robust playoff race is great for baseball and its fans.

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