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4 best races to watch after All-Star break

12 of 15 AL teams within 5 games of playoff spot; 3 division up for grabs
MLB.com @philgrogers

Here's hoping Jeff Banister is staying busy. If he finds himself with time on his hands, the Rangers' manager is going to stumble across a harsh fact of life -- the distance his team is behind the powerhouse Astros in the American League West standings. He was in denial not that long ago.

"We don't look at it; we pay more attention to what we're doing,'' Banister said. "I couldn't tell you right now how far back we are. I know because we haven't been winning, we're not leading.''

Here's hoping Jeff Banister is staying busy. If he finds himself with time on his hands, the Rangers' manager is going to stumble across a harsh fact of life -- the distance his team is behind the powerhouse Astros in the American League West standings. He was in denial not that long ago.

"We don't look at it; we pay more attention to what we're doing,'' Banister said. "I couldn't tell you right now how far back we are. I know because we haven't been winning, we're not leading.''

Nor even within eyesight, as it turns out.

Video: Astros to improve upon championship caliber roster

On pace to win 109 games, the Astros are leading the AL West by 16 1/2 games. It's one of three divisions with a front-runner that's at least 7 1/2 games ahead of the competition. But don't worry, there's going to plenty to get excited about in August and September, including maybe the wildest Wild Card race ever, featuring Banister's Rangers.

Here's a look at four races that seem likely to go the distance.

1. AL Wild Card
Houston is the only team in the AL that can feel secure about where it stands. The good news for fans is that 11 of the other 14 teams are within five games of a postseason spot at the break.

The Red Sox and Indians have a leg up, because they're leading their divisions, and the Yankees and Rays will exit the All-Star break positioned for the two AL Wild Card spots. But in terms of their pedigrees and commitment to making something from this season, the Royals, Rangers, Orioles and Blue Jays stand as major threats.

And you know there are a lot of people around the Twins, Angels and Mariners who believe the second half of 2017 can be a magical time for their teams.

If the Twins seem ahead of schedule, that's only because nobody passed out a schedule in Spring Training. The arrival of precocious right-hander Jose Berrios has created excitement for a young lineup that is learning what it's like to contend. The Angels are getting Mike Trout off the disabled list, and general manager Billy Eppler is looking to add reinforcements to the pitching staff.

Video: Trout's return can spark resurgence for Angels

First-place teams excluded, the AL Wild Card race features nine teams separated by five games. While the Yankees are leading, they're only on pace to win 85 games. Somebody's going to come out of the pack to win 90 games and a spot in the postseason. But which team will do that? Your guess is as good as mine -- and I'm leaning toward the Royals.

2. NL Central
Take the first-place team out of the equation, and the standings are intriguing but not shocking. The Cubs are tied with the Cardinals, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Pirates. Sounds about right, doesn't it?

Well, except for the fact that the Brewers are threatening to run away from the division. They're the only team with a winning record, taking a 5 1/2-game lead even though they didn't win as many as five games in a row until last week.

Their strength played a role in the Cubs paying heavily to acquire left-hander Jose Quintana from the White Sox on Thursday. The Brewers have shown that they're for real, and catching them won't be easy.

Video: Cubs send four prospects to White Sox for Quintana

The Brewers have the right combination of veteran poise and naive young talent to be extremely dangerous. They went into the All-Star break winning nine of 11 to build their semi-comfortable lead. But holding off teams built around Anthony Rizzo and Yadier Molina under August heat will be a formidable challenge.

"We're only halfway through the season, and we've played very consistently through that stretch,'' Brewers general manager David Stearns said. "We also have a lot of games left. Ultimately, where you are in mid-July doesn't matter a whole lot; it's where you are at the end of September. We're very cognizant of that. We're very cognizant that we need to continue this level of play and continue to grow and continue to improve for this to really be a meaningful season. That's the goal.''

Video: Brewers looking to add pitching for second half

Stearns is looking to improve the Brewers, with the idea of adding a controllable starter like Quintana or the Athletics' Sonny Gray likely his priority. The Cubs reacted to that by taking Quintana off the market.

The Cubs, meanwhile, are in shock after winning 103 games and running away with the NL Central last season. They've put together a great track record in August and September under Joe Maddon, but can they do that a third year in a row?

St. Louis is perfectly positioned for a classic Cardinals finish, playing best when it matters the most. Andrew McCutchen is playing with swagger, and when he has that, the Pirates can be dangerous. This no longer is the Cubs' division to win.

3. AL East
The most recent time the Red Sox and Yankees finished first and second in the division was 2009, and the gap that year was eight games. Their most recent real head-to-head race was '07, when Boston won 96 games and New York won 94.

The competition then was watered down by both teams advancing into the AL Division Series, with the Red Sox gaining only a minor advantage for winning the division title. But this year's race could be classic Red Sox-Yankees, battling like fiends to avoid the chance of being eliminated in the AL Wild Card Game.

Both the Yankees and the Rays are 3 1/2 games behind the Red Sox, so this could be more than just a two-team race. But the 14 head-to-head games between Aaron Judge's Yankees and Mookie Betts' Red Sox should provide major drama. The Yankees visit Fenway Park for four games this weekend, including a day-night doubleheader on Sunday, so it won't take long to get a read on this race.

Video: Yankees push for playoff berth in second half

Boston was widely seen as the AL favorite after adding Chris Sale in a blockbuster offseason trade, but it took awhile to get going. The Red Sox are 29-18 since their 21-21 start, passing the surprising Yankees. Joe Girardi's team had led the East as late as June 28, but the Yankees showed their vulnerability over the past month, going 7-18. It may be time for them to add the kind of rotation upgrade that the Red Sox received in the offseason.

4. AL Central
The Indians play with purpose after falling one big hit short of beating the Cubs in Game 7 of the 2016 Fall Classic. And despite an inconsistent first half, Cleveland holds a 2 1/2-game lead over the surprising Twins. But there's a problem for both those team: the roll that the Royals have been on over the past month.

The club that won back-to-back AL pennants in 2014 and '15 had gone 18-6 before being swept by the Dodgers last weekend. These days, you get a mulligan for going 0-for-Dodger Stadium. The stretch that mattered more was the one in which Ned Yost's team won five of six series against AL teams.

The Royals were 7 1/2 out of the NL Central lead on May 24, but they sit three back of the Tribe now, in third place. There's talk that GM Dayton Moore will add pitching rather than sell off pieces from a large group of soon-to-be free agents (Eric Hosmer , Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar included).

Video: Royals have the talent to make run at playoffs

The Indians were strong favorites when the season began, and they still should be. But the young Twins and battle-hardened Royals are going to make this an interesting race, even if the Tigers finally wave a white flag at the non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.