As of this writing, the Kansas City Royals are 63-61. It places them 1.5 games back of the Minnesota Twins for the second Wild Card in the American League. In between the Twins and the Royals are the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, currently 0.5 games back. Just behind Kansas City are the Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Tampa Bay Rays, and Baltimore Orioles, all of whom are within five games of the second Wild Card spot.
In other words, half of the American League is in play for the last Wild Card spot, and nobody is particularly sure who the front runner is. Or even if there is a front runner. And is the lack of this front running a product of good baseball or bad teams. And if there is or is not a front runner who may or may not be good at baseball, is that good or not good for baseball?
That is how confusing this gets.
I will say, the idea of a multi-team tie for the final Wild Card spot is something that I want to see. As much guff and grief we may have given Major League Baseball for implementing the play-in game, it has been one of the more exciting parts of baseball over the past half-decade. Now imagine that there are five teams who have to play each other in a do-or-die battle royale just for the privilege of playing in a one-game playoff, which will decide who plays alongside the three division winners in the ALDS.
But that does not really speak to the question at hand: is the American League competitive, or is it just bad? And perhaps even more important than that is, does it matter?
The Twins currently hold the second Wild Card spot with a negative run differential. Five of the seven teams mentioned have a negative run differential, and the Angels are one blowout loss away from dipping into the red themselves.
The Mariners, Rangers, Rays, and Orioles are all under .500. The Rangers traded away their best pitcher. The Mariners and Rays made a trade with each other, which would at least somewhat imply that neither team saw the other as a threat for a playoff spot. Baltimore’s big moves were bringing in Jeremy Hellickson and Tim Beckham, the latter of which came over from the Rays, who despite making two separate deals with their enemies, are kind of sort of probably trying to win by acquiring Lucas Duda from the New York Metropolitans. And the Twins? They traded for Jaime Garcia and then immediately traded him to the Yankees while shipping out Brandon Kintzler to the Nationals.
The Royals traded for Trevor Cahill, Brandon Maurer, and Ryan Buchter, one-third of whom are on the disabled list, and collectively they have an ERA of 6.75. They also traded for Melky Cabrera, who is a treasure of a different kind, but he also has earned -0.2 Wins Above Replacement with Kansas City.
So it is probably okay to be a little unclear as to how, why, in what way, or whom is actually competing in the American League, considering half the teams who are “in it” do not seem to be particularly sure of their own ability to compete, and the rest made moves to compete only to fall back.
Does that make the American League mediocre then? If there is not one or two teams that seem to be taking the initiative to distance themselves from the rest of the league, does it necessarily hold that the AL is less good? Or does it simply imply that the talent is more evenly distributed throughout the league?
I would lean more towards even distribution. Looking at the top 30 hitters in the American League this season, all of the competitive teams are represented, with most teams (sorry, Minnesota) having multiple representatives. Kansas City has three (Lorenzo Cain, Whit Merrifield, Eric Hosmer), and only the Twins (Brian Dozier) have a single representative. The pitching list looks pretty much the same, with Kansas City knotting three more guys in the top 20.
But, the winning percentage of all of these teams put together is something like .502, which means collectively they win half their games and lose half their games. That feels mediocre, doesn’t it? And certainly just by watching the games, when Brandon Maurer gets relevant innings because every single Royals reliever pitches a terrible inning only to have it revealed after the game that he was actually pitching while riddled with bullets from a bank heist the Tuesday before last, that yeah these teams are not the best.
But Kansas City also has Mike Moustakas chasing home run titles, Lorenzo Cain being great as usual, and Salvador Pérez returning to a pitching staff that floundered without him. Every American League team is a story like that, one of flaws and talent and beauty and grotesquerie. Every story being deep and complex does not make them all bad.