Now that we've reached the regular season's final week, the American League playoff picture is starting to take shape.
The Blue Jays, Royals, Rangers and Yankees all look poised to make it to the postseason, and just like I did with the National League recently, I figured it was a good time to examine how those clubs should be lining up their rotations for October. (The Astros, Angels, Twins and Indians are still in serious battles for a playoff spots, and they likely won't be in position to line up their rotations.)
All four of these clubs may not have the luxury to set their rotations as they'd like -- winning the division and home-field advantage are priorities, after all. But in a perfect world, each would open Game 1 of the Division Series with the starters discussed below.
Toronto Blue Jays:
On July 16, the Blue Jays sat under .500 -- at 45-46 -- and in fourth place in the AL East. Now, they own the best record in the Junior Circuit.
Although several players can be thanked for Toronto's ascension, none has been more responsible than southpaw David Price, who's become one of the most pivotal Trade Deadline pickups in memory.
In 11 starts with the club, Price has given quality and quantity, going 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA, and tossing at least seven frames on eight of those occasions.
With a four-seam fastball, changeup, sinker, cutter and curve, Price has plenty of weapons at his disposal. And there certainly is a different vibe at Rogers Centre when he takes the mound, so expect the Jays to feed off that energy in each of his home starts.
Kansas City Royals:
The Royals have reached another level of play this year, winning their first division title since 1985. Now, the club is aiming to seize home-field advantage throughout the postseason. (The AL has home-field advantage in the World Series by virtue of winning the All-Star Game.)
Determining KC's Game 1 starter has taken an interesting turn as of late. In late July, general manager Dayton Moore traded for one of baseball's best pitchers in Johnny Cueto, but a rough, five-start patch spanning August and September raised questions about the hurler's health and viability for October.
After a sit down with manager Ned Yost, and a couple of mechanical adjustments, Cueto appears to have returned to form -- he's tossed two-straight strong, seven-inning starts. If things continue along that path, look for the Royals to throw Cueto in Game 1 of the Division Series. However, further struggles could open the door for Kansas City to lead with young righty Yordano Ventura, who's had a solid sophomore season. The owner of stellar stuff, Ventura would be looking to continue his success from the 2014 Fall Classic, during which he posted a 1.46 ERA across 12 1/3 innings.
When Texas acquired Cole Hamels from the Phillies on July 31, the move was thought to be with future seasons in mind. The ace, after all, can remain under club control through 2019, and the Rangers were a postseason afterthought on non-waiver Trade Deadline day. According to certain projection systems, they had less than a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs at the time of the deal.
Having gone 34-19 since the calendar flipped to August, the Rangers appear to be on the verge of clinching the AL West.
Naturally, Hamels would seem to be the clear-cut call to start the Division Series opener. He's been hot since skipping a start in August, going 5-0 with a 2.78 ERA across eight starts. And guess what? The Rangers have won every one of his turns.
Another benefit to the addition of Hamels: His inclusion in Texas' rotation has pushed the team's other rotation arms -- Derek Holland, Yovani Gallardo and Colby Lewis -- into more complementary roles.
Of course, all of this is based on the Rangers clinching before Sunday and not having to pitch Hamels on the final day of the season. If he goes on Sunday, that changes everything.
New York Yankees:
The Yankees' starter for the AL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser -- provided they don't win the AL East -- is obvious. Should Toronto take the division crown, Masahiro Tanaka will toe the rubber in the Bronx against the league's second Wild Card winner -- most likely the Astros, Angels or Twins -- on Oct. 6.
The right-hander entered the year amid concerns over his elbow -- which many speculated would require Tommy John surgery -- but Tanaka got through the campaign with his arm intact. However, questions now abound over the hurler's hamstring, which he strained at Citi Field on Sept. 18. So, yes, the Yankees are thinking about Tanaka's health, but they also must allow him to give some length in his regular-season finale on Wednesday. Not doing so, perhaps, could hinder his ability to go deep into his first postseason game.
All this aside, there is no debating the quality of Tanaka's stuff. His fastball and split-finger combination is one of the most devastating in the game. And for all of his earlier elbow woes, the hurler has shown confidence in throwing the latter pitch: 35 percent of Tanaka's September offerings have been splitters.
The Yankees' chances in the postseason could rest with Tanaka's ability to stay on the mound long enough to hand the ball to the club's two relief aces: Dellin Betances and closer Andrew Miller.
Jim Duquette is an analyst for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.