MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

6 questions as division battles heat up

6 questions as division battles heat up

Fans of many American League teams, especially, have reason to be clicking the Wild Card tab on the standings page and checking out that crazy, clogged playoff picture.

But the division races are still in their own class of captivation with 45 days remaining in the regular season. Here are six big questions about those division battles.

1. Is the AL West actually a three-team race?
The dominant storylines so far in the West have been a predominantly young and hungry Astros team trying to prove its late-season staying power and a defending division champion Angels team trying to overcome the offensive swoons that transpire when Mike Trout and Albert Pujols aren't raking.

But the Rangers have snuck back into the picture and have a variety of things going for them right now:

Cole Hamels and the newly activated Derek Holland have the potential to be a formidable 1-2 punch down the stretch.

• The Trade Deadline additions of Jake Diekman (the under-the-radar addendum in the Hamels trade) and Sam Dyson have infused the bullpen with power arms.

Shin-Soo Choo's monster second half has lengthened the lineup. Rougned Odor's improvement has reignited the middle of the infield.

Chris Gimenez and Bobby Wilson have been surprising offensive contributors in the absence of Robinson Chirinos.

• The additions of Mike Napoli and Will Venable add depth to the roster.

• They've won 12 of their past 14 at home after starting out 16-28 at Globe Life Park, and they've got eight more home games against the Astros and Angels.

So while the math is not necessarily on the Rangers' side -- they entered Thursday with just a 6.9 percent chance of winning this division, per Baseball Prospectus -- some other factors are. Don't count them out.

Hamels goes seven innings

2. Will the Dodgers' bullpen spoil their lead?
The bullpen proved to be the Achilles' heel of a $230 million club in 2014, and it's again the primary source of concern on a club with a payroll that now exceeds $300 million in '15.

Los Angeles entered its off-day Thursday with a new second baseman (Chase Utley) to fill in for an injured Howie Kendrick and with a 78.9-percent chance of fending off the Giants for another National League West crown. You'd better believe that if the standings remain tight, the Dodgers will do everything in their power to ensure the Giants see as much of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke as is humanly possible in the two clubs' seven remaining meetings.

But nailing down games -- especially on those nights when Kershaw or Greinke don't go deep or don't pitch at all -- has been an issue for this club when guys not named Kenley Jansen are on the hill.

In-season acquisition Jim Johnson has, uh, not panned out as planned (14 runs in only six innings since his arrival). The homegrown likes of Pedro Baez and Yimi Garcia had looked like emerging strengths, but both contributed to the bullpen's meltdown in a game against Oakland earlier this week.

Perhaps Chris Hatcher, who has pitched two perfect innings since his return from the DL, will solidify the setup situation, but the Dodgers are definitely scrambling in this area.

How Utley can help the Dodgers

3. Was the Yankees' inaction at the Trade Deadline as impactful as the Blue Jays' action?
Well, OK, it wasn't total inaction. The Yanks did add Dustin Ackley, who played all of three innings for them before landing on the disabled list. But obviously that addition pales in comparison to the alarms the Blue Jays set off with the acquisitions of David Price, Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere and others.

For the Yankees, the key to the Deadline was what they kept -- prospects Luis Severino and Greg Bird, who could have been two of their biggest trade chips had they decided to dabble in the Hamels, Price or Johnny Cueto markets. Instead, Severino has made an instant impact on a rotation that has been significantly more dependable this month (even with Michael Pineda on the shelf), while Bird has made an instant impact on what had been a sagging lineup (especially with Mark Teixeira missing some time with a bone bruise).

All of this has added up to the Yanks maintaining an edge in the AL East standings, even if it's not as comfortable an edge as it was before Alex Anthopoulos went on his midseason shopping spree.

This will remain a captivating race down the stretch, and the Deadline activity (and inactivity) involved will continue to shape its end result. Don't forget about a Baltimore club that has gotten strong returns from Deadline acquisition Gerardo Parra.

Must C: Bird goes deep twice

4. Will the Mets' young pitchers hold up down the stretch?
By this point, the Mets are about as tired of hearing about innings limits for their young starters as the rival Nationals were during the Great Stephen Strasburg Shutdown Saga of 2012.

But simply because those arms are venturing into new workload ground in the midst of a pennant race, it's worth wondering how these three guys, in particular, will respond:

Jacob deGrom: career high of 178 2/3 innings pitched (Majors and Minors), on pace for 208 1/3 innings this season.

Matt Harvey: career high of 178 1/3 innings pitched(Majors and Minors), on pace for 208 innings this season.

Noah Syndergaard: career high of 133 innings pitched (Majors and Minors), on pace for 201 2/3 innings this season.

The Mets are considering skipping one of Harvey's starts to get him closer to the initial soft cap they set at 190 innings. The return of Steven Matz in a couple weeks could help ease the workload. But Terry Collins has some difficult in-game decisions ahead, and the recent struggles of the bullpen add to the difficulty.

The Nats have no restrictions on Strasburg these days, and he's looked very sharp since his return from the DL. They will have to be careful with rookie Joe Ross, but that's small potatoes when compared to some of the other issues Washington has had this year, as we detailed earlier this week.

The Nationals also have one of baseball's softer schedules in the home stretch, so this one is very likely to come down to the wire. Fittingly, these two clubs meet each other in their final series of the regular season.

deGrom holds Orioles to one run

5. Can anything slow down the Cardinals?
Sure doesn't look like it. This week, they lost NL Rookie of the Year Award candidate Randal Grichuk to an elbow injury for the foreseeable future -- a loss that hits especially hard with Matt Holliday and Jon Jay not expected back until mid-September.

But did Grichuk's absence stop the Cards from taking two of three from the Giants this week? Of course not. They just watched Yadier Molina rediscover his power stroke to pick up the slack.

That's how it's worked all year for the Cardinals. That they're on pace for more than 100 wins in today's environment would be amazing even if they hadn't lost a single player to injury. That they're achieving such a rate with so many prominent pieces (not the least of which is Adam Wainwright in the rotation) is jaw-dropping.

We know, though, that the Pirates, especially, are going to keep pushing the Cards. A huge series looms Labor Day weekend in St. Louis.

Molina's 100th career homer

6. When will the Royals clinch?
That's the only question in the AL Central race. Put me down for Sept. 18 in the pool.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.