Clay Buchholz and Matt Moore
Barring a sensational surge from the Orioles or even the Yankees, it's going to be the Red Sox or Rays walking away with the title in what was a predictably brutal AL East, and the returns of Buchholz to Boston and Moore to Tampa Bay are going to play big roles in the result.
Moore is slated to return on Tuesday, in Anaheim, and the Rays' upcoming, 10-game West Coast swing will be a big test. So Moore, who was 14-3 with a 3.41 ERA before hitting the disabled list with an elbow injury, arrives right on time.
Buchholz's exact return date isn't known, but he's in the midst of a rehab stint that should place him back in the rotation by mid-September. He's missed a considerable amount of time with shoulder inflammation, and his stuff was understandably not at its sharpest in his first rehab start. So you don't expect him to return at the level he was prior, when he was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA.
If healthy, both Boston, with a reinvigorated Jon Lester, and Tampa Bay, with David Price back to his Cy Young self, haves aces you'd feel good about in the must-win setting of the Wild Card round. But both teams also have the depth to avoid that fate by winning the division outright, and they're both about to get deeper.
The Rays and Red Sox go head-to-head Sept. 10-12.
Rangers, A's and corner production
If you are, indeed, only as strong as your weakest link, then the first-place Rangers and second-place A's know a good place to point as they do battle for the AL West crown. They both have deep pitching staffs, and they've both gotten enviable output from their third-base spot (Adrian Beltre in Texas, Josh Donaldson in Oakland). But if you're looking for an X-factor in the final month, one could be whether or not either club gets a sudden jolt from an area that has hampered them offensively -- the corner outfield.
Nelson Cruz's suspension was obviously a big blow to the Rangers' offense, and Alex Rios has provided only marginal offensive improvement since his arrival on Aug. 10. The A's, meanwhile, have seen unexpected regressions of Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick this season, and Reddick just landed on the DL with a sprained wrist.
The Rangers, right now, have the upper hand on winning the West, with the chance to gain some important separation when the two clubs face each other Monday through Wednesday of next week. But the A's just got Bartolo Colon back from the disabled list to help a rotation that had struggled with consistency after a strong first half and Brett Anderson to help out in relief. It's not at all out of the realm of possibility that the AL West will once again be decided in the season's final week.
If that's the case, then the play of Cespedes and Rios, in particular, could take on added pertinence, because both have the capability to get on a hot streak. Now would be a good time for one of those.
The underdogs in the Wild Card derby
If you're playing the percentages, the Tigers will win the Central, the A's or Rangers will win the West, the Red Sox or Rays will win the East, and the runners-up on each coast will duke it out in the Wild Card round.
But baseball has taught us time and again not to play the percentages. Things can get a little crazy out there.
The Indians, Orioles and Yankees all remain in the Wild Card craze. Of the three, the Tribe, coming off a 94-loss season, probably has the best shot at a postseason berth, given the relatively soft schedule they'll face in the season's final three weeks -- Mets, Royals, Astros, White Sox and Twins. But the O's and Yanks aren't out of it, either, and with seven games against each other in the next two weeks (three this weekend in the Bronx and a four-gamer Sept. 9-12 in Baltimore), they each have the opportunity to effectively knock the other out of the mix.
The Yankees, O's and Indians have each endured their own specific struggles -- the Yanks trotting out lineups unbefitting the Bombers tag, the Indians' inability to beat the Tigers and the O's struggling against sub-.500 squads. But by the graces of the expanded postseason format, all three have a pulse, and we have plenty of reasons to keep an eye on them.
Miggy and the Crown
A friend once bemoaned the financial ramifications of having to buy his fiancée a wedding band after already buying her an engagement ring.
"Can't I just engrave a check mark on the ring?" he asked.
That memory comes to mind as I think about Miguel Cabrera's remarkably realistic bid for a second consecutive Triple Crown.
Last year, MLB presented Cabrera with an actual, gold-plated crown in recognition of the feat. Prior to that, an actual, MLB-sanctioned "crown" did not exist -- a whiskey company created one for Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and his last name was spelled wrong.
If Cabrera pulls this off, a check mark won't suffice. In fact, they might as well double the size of last year's trophy, because, as much as modern math might discount how the Triple Crown is viewed by some, watching this guy become the first to do it in back-to-back seasons would be pretty darned cool, as even Chris Davis, the only guy standing between Miggy and the crown, admits.
"That would be awesome," Davis told The Detroit News.
Cabrera has maintained a healthy distance from Davis in the RBI count (130-120) and from Mike Trout in the batting average tally (.357-.332). All that's left is to overtake Davis in home runs, where Miggy trails by four (47-43). It will be difficult, especially with Davis now batting in the Orioles' No. 3 spot, where he's assured of pitches to hit ahead of Adam Jones. Davis had been batting in front of the slumping Matt Wieters.
However it turns out, Cabrera, with a 201 adjusted OPS, has had an offensive season arguably as good as any by a reigning Triple Crown winner, right up there with Ty Cobb in 1910 (206 OPS+) and Mickey Mantle in 1957 (221 OPS+).
Another Tiger chasing history
Max Scherzer starts Thursday afternoon against the A's, so, by the time you read this, it may or may not be a moot point. But as of this writing, he's 19-1, good for a .950 winning percentage that puts him on pace to break the all-time single-season mark held by Pirates reliever Elroy Face, who went 18-1 (.947) in 1959.
Among starters, the record is the .938 mark set by Johnny Allen (15-1) for the Indians in 1937.
As with Cabrera and the Triple Crown, you can understand the full context of the wins stat and still appreciate this fascinating feat. But to break the records of Face and Allen, Scherzer simply can't lose another game, because he probably only has six starts remaining, including Thursday's.
Rivera closes it out
An 8-1 record and 0.70 ERA, with 42 saves and a 0.759 WHIP.
Man, what a season that would be.
Instead, even more impressive, that's Mariano Rivera's career postseason stat line. Will he get a chance to add to it?
You might have noticed much of the focus on the Yankees in recent weeks has revolved around some other guy, but it's fair to assume Rivera will get his deserved due on this final lap of his farewell tour.
Even at age 43, Rivera has remained one of the game's elite closing commodities, but issues with other aging areas of the roster have obviously impacted the Yanks' bottom line. And the bottom line is that if they don't overcome their Wild Card deficit, they'll miss the playoffs for just the second time in Rivera's career.
It's a career that could come to an end on Sept. 29 in Houston, which, interestingly enough, is one of only two Major League cities -- Pittsburgh is the other -- where Rivera has not appeared in a regular-season game (he got a save in the 2006 All-Star Game at PNC Park).
The managerial merry-go-round
The purge of Charlie Manuel in Philadelphia stands as the lone move made this year in a position not exactly known for its stability. That can't possibly last, and the AL is where the merry-go-round is especially interesting.
Baseball's two longest-running managerial marriages are Mike Scioscia and the Angels (est. Nov. 18, 1999) and Ron Gardenhire and the Twins (est. Jan. 4, 2002). Right now, there's no telling if those marriages will continue into 2014, given that the big-budget Angels will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year and the Twins could lose 90-plus for the third straight season.
But Scioscia, with a contract that runs through 2018, probably has better footing than Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto, who is only under contract through next year. Minnesota GM Terry Ryan, meanwhile, undoubtedly recognizes that the Twins' struggles of recent seasons are more a problem of development than management, but that might not prevent a change.
So those are situations worth monitoring, as is Eric Wedge's status in Seattle and Ned Yost's in Kansas City. Both have overseen situations in which expected strides in competitive standing have not come to fruition.