The All-Star break put a spotlight on the American League West, home of baseball’s best teams and most compelling storylines.
With a 59-36 record, the Oakland A’s should be coasting to the division title that spares them the trauma of facing sudden elimination in a loser-out wild-card game. But the A’s don’t have the luxury of coasting because the Los Angeles Angels (57-37) are channeling their inner War Admiral in a match race against Seabiscuit.
Baseball Prospectus estimates the Angels will finish at 95-67, one game in front of the 94-68 A’s. Of the 28 other MLB teams, only Los Angeles Dodgers (projected 94-68) and Detroit Tigers (92-70) are on pace to win as many as 90.
Since the leagues were split into three divisions in 1994, the number of times a division has boasted baseball’s best two records can be counted on one finger. It happened in 2001, when the A’s went 102-60 and still finished 14 games behind the Mariners.
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The following year, the A’s, Angels and Mariners were playoff worthy but only one wild-card spot was available, and the Angels (99-63) got it instead of the Mariners (93-69).
The 2002 Angels went on to become the AL West’s first — and only — World Series champion of the wild-card era, a drought that has helped sustain the notion of the AL East’s traditional supremacy.
Actually, it’s more than a notion: Over the past 20 seasons, the AL East has produced three teams with at least 90 victories 14 times, twice as many as any other division. During that span, the New York Yankees won five world championships and the Boston Red Sox won three others.
But as the Yankees cope with a seriously depleted starting rotation and the challenge of restocking an aging everyday lineup, and as the Red Sox wallow in fifth place, the league’s balance of power continues its shift from East to West.
Besides the A’s and the Angels, the AL West has a potential third playoff team in the Mariners.
Their aspirations to finish in first place are modest — put it this way: They’ve got just about no chance — but their hopes of surviving a wild-card game on the road are buoyed by reliable starting pitching and a road record (27-18) that’s among baseball’s best.
The AL West’s superiority extends beyond numbers. It has become a gathering place for glamor names, a trend that began when former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols signed a free-agent contract with the Angels on Dec. 10, 2011.
Two years later, the Mariners wooed free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano from the Yankees.
In an AL All-Star Game lineup stocked with elite hitters, Cano batted third, a distinction generally given to the best all-around offensive player.
(At least I presume that was Cano who batted third. The guy who stepped up to the plate in the first inning and took a helpless swing at a third-strike pitch that already bounced into the dirt looked nothing like the Cano who bats third for the Mariners.)
Preceding Cano in the lineup was the Angels’ Mike Trout, who showcased his crazy skills by hitting a triple in the first inning and a double, which put the AL ahead for good, in the fifth.
The Yankees’ Derek Jeter — rumor has it he’s retiring after the season — was a sentimental candidate to be named MVP of the 85th All-Star Game. But giving the award to anybody but Trout would have reduced the honor to a joke.
So it went to the Angel in the outfield, three weeks removed from his 24th birthday and already acclaimed as a Hall of Fame-bound superstar.
The AL West was represented well in Minneapolis. Oakland slugger Yoenis Cespedes, among the six A’s on the roster (or seven, if you count pitcher Jeff Samardzija, recently acquired from the Cubs), defended his Home Run Derby title.
Houston second baseman Jose Altuve, a 5-foot-7 (if that) dynamo, drove in a run. Texas ace Yu Darvish struck out one during his lone inning of relief work, and the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez, the AL starter, struck out two while allowing an infield “hit” that replays revealed to be an out.
No matter. The AL won, securing home-field advantage for a World Series that figures to open in an AL West ballpark occupied by either the A’s or the Angels or maybe — ya gotta have hope; musn’t sit around and mope — the Mariners.
Here are a few more midsummer forecasts: Hernandez will win his second Cy Young Award, Trout will win his first MVP, and the manager of the year vote will come down to the A’s Bob Melvin, the Angels’ Mike Scioscia, and the Mariners’ Lloyd McClendon.
Notice a pattern?
Twenty years after the 1994 labor stalemate abruptly concluded the first season of the wild-card era — a season that ended with the 52-62 Rangers in first place, and the 49-63 Mariners in the playoff hunt — the AL West is flexing its muscles and making a statement:
Best division in baseball.