Taking stock of the chaotic three-team AL West race

August 30th, 2023

The Wild Card races are setting up to be thrilling sprints to the finish in both the American League and the National League, which is a good thing, because, well, division-wise, there are fewer close races than you’d like. The Twins have pulled away from the Guardians in the AL Central, and the Brewers are in the process of doing the same from the Cubs and Reds in the NL Central.

The Braves have essentially had the NL East in the bag since, uh, May, and the Dodgers have been so hot lately they have an even bigger lead in their division today than the Braves do. The AL East is going to have a tight battle between the Orioles and the Rays, sure, though we all know both those teams are making the playoffs anyway; it’s exciting, and that first-round bye will be important, but they’re both moving on either way.

The AL West, though: That’s the good stuff right there. First off, unlike every other division race, there are three teams in the mix: The scorching white-hot Mariners, the defending champion Astros, and the reeling but still well-positioned Rangers.

They’re all absurdly bunched together, with the Mariners, Astros and Rangers all virtually tied, and, even more exciting, none of those teams are assured of a Wild Card spot, not with the Blue Jays (and to a lesser extent the Red Sox) lurking behind them. The difference between first place and third place in the AL West could be the difference between a first-round bye … and not making the playoffs at all.

That’s what you want from a playoff chase. So, as we head into Labor Day weekend and the home stretch of the regular season, let’s take a look at the three major contenders in the AL West, and make the case for them being the team that will ultimately come out on top .. and the case against.


Record: 75-57

How It’s Going Lately: Splendid! The Mariners are the hottest team in baseball, having just won seven in a row and 12 of their last 14. They’re doing it in a variety of ways. Their patchwork bullpen has turned out to be surprisingly stout post-Paul Sewald trade. The rotation is holding up despite a relentless cavalcade of injuries to pitchers both young and old.

But the main reason they’re doing it, let’s face it, is that Julio Rodríguez is playing out of his ever-loving mind. The guy is hitting .429 in August and slugging .724; he looks like the all-world, Seattle-savior superstar we all dreamed he was going to be. He has carried this team to the top of the division … and, aside from some left foot soreness that made him a late scratch from the lineup Tuesday, he doesn’t look like he’s slowing down anytime soon.

The Case For: Julio is on an all-timer of a heater right now, and his vibe is contagious. It took a while to get going, but if you’re going to go streaking, there isn’t much better of a time to do it than heading into September. It’s not just Julio, by the way: Teoscar Hernández has been coming along, and Luis Castillo is looking like the Game 1 playoff starter they brought him in to be.

The Case Against: The schedule, first off. As fun as this run has been, the wins have come against the Royals, the White Sox and the A’s. (And three against the Astros that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.) After this A’s series ends, the Mariners head east for 10 games against the Mets, Reds and the Rays, then return home to face the Angels and the Dodgers. And after September 21, every game they have is against the Rangers or Astros. Will Julio still be this hot then? He may have to be.

Verdict: Julio, it seems fair to guess, will not have four hits in every game the rest of the season. You worry a little about that bullpen holding up, and it could end up being enough to make it difficult to hold onto that division lead. But a playoff spot? Barring a sudden hot streak from the chasing Blue Jays, you like the Mariners’ chances.


Record: 76-58

How It’s Going Lately: The Astros haven’t looked like their dominant World Series-winning team of last year much this year, but that isn’t to say they’ve ever looked bad. They have just sort of lurked all year, first behind the Rangers and now the Mariners.

They’ve been good in August, just like they were good in July, but never enough to pull away from the pack. They’ve never faltered the way the Rangers have recently, though. One thing worth keeping in mind: They’re tied with the Mariners and Rangers in the standings but one game behind in the loss column. They have two fewer games to play than Seattle and Texas the rest of the way.

The Case For: The Astros have been here before and closed things out just fine: They have won five of the last six division titles, after all. (The only one they didn’t win was the truncated 2020 season, won by the A’s, if you can believe that.) They’re reasonably healthy right now, they have a terrific top of their rotation and they still have Kyle Tucker, Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez in their lineup. We’ve seen it before. We may well see it again.

The Case Against: Not to rely too much on vibes here, but why haven’t the Astros ever felt quite right this year? The return of Justin Verlander hasn’t changed the fundamental sense that this year’s team isn’t on the same tier as last year’s. They’ve had the chance to put the Mariners and the Rangers in their rearview mirror, and they haven’t done it. Isn’t it about time for them to?

Verdict: The Mariners and Rangers are wonderful stories, but the Astros, even with all their issues, look like the most complete team in this division. Count on their talent and experience to win out in the end.


Record: 75-57

How It’s Going Lately: Not great, Bob! After a scorching start to August, winning their first eight and building off an active Trade Deadline, the Rangers have face-planted since August 16, losing nine of 12 and falling from 3 1/2 up to tied for first. A comeback win against the Mets on Monday night, their first win of the year when trailing after eight innings, was desperately needed: The Rangers and their fans were starting to worry this might be careening out of control.

The Case For: Everything that has made the Rangers one of the surprise stories in baseball this year is still here: A deep rotation (buoyed considerably at the deadline), Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, a resourceful bullpen, an experienced manager. One losing skid isn’t going to scare these guys, particularly with the schedule getting a little easier.

The Case Against: Five of those recent losses have been by one or two runs, exactly the sort of games the Rangers can’t afford to lose. If the Jays get hot, it’s the Rangers who are most vulnerable, particularly with those four games in Toronto.

Verdict: It’s difficult to overstate how huge those four games in Seattle will be to close the season, both for this division and the Wild Card race. As long as the Rangers can avoid any more injuries, here’s betting they can hold off the Jays and get all three of these AL West teams into the postseason.