The American League West is historically wide open, the second-best team in baseball remains a mystery, Shohei Ohtani’s free agency has unofficially begun and the playoff field might be lacking a dominant ace.
1. Who’s going to win the AL West?
Deesha Thosar: The final stretch for the Astros, Mariners and Rangers is must-watch television for baseball aficionados. The Mariners and Rangers will clash seven times out of their final 10 games, but Seattle has the toughest road out of this AL West trio because when the M’s aren’t playing Texas, they’re playing the Astros. Since the Astros have the easier schedule out of this bunch and they’ve won the division fives times in the past six years, I’ll go with a cold take here and give it to Houston.
Jordan Shusterman: I’ll still say Houston even with them slipping up a good bit recently, especially since Texas and Seattle will likely be beating each other up too much to catch the Astros, even with such a narrow gap to close. If Houston can’t take care of business at home against Kansas City, though … then it’s time to start sweating in H-Town.
Rowan Kavner: My gut still says it’s the Astros, though that’s based more on schedule than recent play. The Rangers and Mariners have to beat up on each other over most of the next 10 days. Houston, meanwhile, gets to play Kansas City three times. Of course, this is the same Astros team that dropped series to the Royals and A’s a couple of weeks ago. All three teams have had a chance to separate themselves and failed to capitalize, but someone has to win it. Houston has the best chance.
2. If the Braves are the unanimous answer for which team has demonstrated the highest ceiling this season, who’s next?
Kavner: The Rays started the season 27-6. The Dodgers went 24-5 in August. When playing at full strength, one of those teams would be my answer. But neither of those teams have the rotation they envisioned. Judging teams by their current state, I’ll go with the reigning champions. I just mentioned the Astros’ recent uninspiring play, but as up and down as this year has been for them, they still boast a top-10 offense and pitching staff and are healthy at the right time. They have all the pieces necessary for a return trip to the World Series.
Thosar: It’s tough to pick between the Dodgers and Rays, since both clubs have overcome multiple injuries and significant suspensions to still end up comfortably crossing the 90-win threshold. But I’ll give the edge to the Dodgers because they also faced the challenges of losing Cody Bellinger, Trea Turner and Justin Turner before they even played a single minute of the regular season yet still clinched the NL West in mid-September. Sometimes, the Dodgers’ winning ways can be monotonous, but this year’s successful performance was highlighted by their ability to overcome obstacles.
Shusterman: Again, sticking with Houston here especially considering the lineup is finally healthy, and the combination of playoff experience and talent on the pitching staff is still unmatched across the league. Their mediocre performance at home during the regular season has been puzzling, though I bet they start to pick it up once they are hosting playoff games.
3. What’s your initial guess for Shohei Ohtani‘s next contract (club, years, money)?
Shusterman: Even before the UCL injury that’s going to keep him off the mound in 2024, I always believed Ohtani might be heading toward not just one of the more lucrative contracts in MLB history but also one of the more creative. While I don’t think anyone really knows what Ohtani really wants in his next team, I am skeptical that the same guy who found himself stuck on a losing team for six straight years would fully commit to his next team for the next decade with no flexibility, even if it’s with a proven winner. So with the caveat that I think opt-outs will be involved in some form, I’ll say something like eight years, $440 million with the … Rangers. Sure!
Kavner: It wouldn’t be completely absurd for Ohtani to consider a short-term, high-AAV deal in which he can establish himself again as a pitching force in 2025 or 2026, then cash in while still in his early 30s. But that seems risky given the uncertainty that can come after a second elbow procedure. Even if he is only the best hitter on the planet, and not the two-way force of the past few seasons, that could still be enticing enough for a team to get him to the $500 million range. I find that too difficult to pass up. My initial guess would be 10 years, $500 million — with some sort of opt-out a few years in — to one of the California teams. Good luck, Oakland!
Thosar: I still think Ohtani goes to the Dodgers on a long-term deal. My guess is somewhere around nine years in the $450 million range. It could still be close to the half a billion that many in the industry have predicted he’ll get, but I think we’ll see some sort of contract markdown following Ohtani’s elbow surgery that limits him to just hitting next year. It will be fascinating to see how that contract is structured, including player opt-outs and club options, given that longevity of Ohtani’s career as a two-way player is unknown. Regardless, the Dodgers have always made the most sense for Ohtani’s next landing spot.
4. Among pitchers on teams in the playoffs, or still in the hunt, who would be your first choice to start an elimination game this October?
Kavner: I’m tempted to pick the Atlanta ace with the nearly unprecedented strikeout rate, but I’ll go with a slightly more unconventional route and take the guy who earned the win in last year’s deciding World Series Game 6. After a breakout All-Star season in 2022, Framber Valdez is quietly posting even better strikeout and walk rates this year to go along with the second-best ground-ball rate in the game. He will keep the ball in the yard, he has demonstrated his postseason mettle — the Astros won all four of his playoff starts last year, and he didn’t allow more than two runs in any of them — and he is playing his best baseball at the right time with a 1.59 ERA over his past five starts.
Shusterman: Gimme Luis Castillo. If my season is on the line, I want some combination of certainty and upside, and Castillo looks like the most reliable choice. He’s the only starting pitcher in baseball to go at least five innings in every single start this season, and it’s not like he’s just munching innings, either — he’s seventh in MLB in ERA and sixth in strikeouts.
Thosar: Before his latest clunker against the Pirates and his inability to stop the bleeding, I would’ve said Cubs southpaw Justin Steele for his slow pulse and solid splits against right-handed batters. But Steele’s previous two starts show his workload might be catching up to him. So, I’m moving on from Steele and going with Spencer Strider. Though Strider crumbled last year in his lone postseason appearance against the Phillies, he’s a more dominant pitcher this season and Atlanta wins when Strider takes the mound. Plus, his major-league leading 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings are exactly what the Braves would need if they again find themselves in an elimination game.
5. We’ve seen the new rules alter the game in various ways during the regular season. Which rule change do you anticipate affecting postseason baseball most?
Shusterman: We’ve seen stolen base numbers explode during the regular season, and I can’t wait to see how much the pitch clock, larger bases, and disengagement rules enable teams to run wild when every baserunner feels immensely valuable the way it does in October. Will the higher stakes make teams less aggressive out of caution? Or will the increased opportunity to put runners in scoring position late in a close game prompt teams to just go for it even when the season is on the line? I can’t wait to find out.
Kavner: In terms of the fan experience, it’s the pitch clock. Even if players are used to it, the tension and build-up between each pitch will be less dramatic and drawn-out now. But in terms of the action itself, I think it might be the bigger bases. I’m really curious to see how the speedier clubs, especially the underdogs, use it to their advantage to put pressure on pitchers who are slow to the plate. Teams generally won’t risk running into outs in the playoffs — will they be more daring now?
Thosar: Definitely the pitch clock. I had hoped MLB would consider removing it for the playoffs, granted that would’ve been another big adjustment for players. But long, dramatic at-bats in late, high-intensity moments are, to me, a staple of exciting postseason matchups. While I have appreciated the pitch clock speeding up regular-season games, imagining a critical Game 7 ending on a violation is just plain infuriating. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but MLB has certainly allowed it to become a possibility by leaving the pitch clock in effect for October.
Bonus question: What’s the best thing you’ve eaten at the ballpark in the last year?
Thosar: The Phillies’ media dining food is where it’s at, and the ice cream served by none other than the legend, Frank, is unmatched. Until someone comes out with Thai drunken noodles at the ballpark, Citizens Bank Park’s ice cream and media food selection will always be the best thing I eat at the yard.
Kavner: There’s a reason the outside of Globe Life Field looks like a grill, and that’s because Hurtado BBQ is simmering on the inside. Texas barbecue for the win, always.