The final month of the 2023 MLB regular season is upon us. Postseason and awards races will be decided over the next four weeks and two days, and, in some cases, jobs are on the line. Make the postseason and you could get a contract extension. Miss and you might be starting a job search in a few weeks. Such is life with September baseball.
Now that it's Sept. 1, let's take a look at the top storylines as we enter the regular season's final month. Come with me, won't you?
The AL West race
August was quite a month in the AL West. The Seattle Mariners have been the AL's best team since the All-Star break (31-13), the Texas Rangers lost eight consecutive games at one point, Framber Valdez threw a no-hitter, , and the .
Check out the AL West standings on Aug. 1 and Sept. 1:
|August 1||September 1|
1. Texas Rangers: 61-46
1. Seattle Mariners: 76-57
2. Houston Astros: 61-47 (0.5 GB)
2. Houston Astros: 77-58
3. Los Angeles Angels: 56-52 (5.5 GB)
3. Texas Rangers: 75-58 (1.0 GB)
4. Seattle Mariners: 55-52 (6 GB)
4. Los Angeles Angels: 64-70 (12.5 GB)
5. Oakland Athletics: 30-78 (31.5 GB)
5. Oakland Athletics: 39-95 (37.5 GB)
With all due respect to the AL East and NL Central, the AL West is by far the most compelling division race remaining. Three teams -- three very good teams -- are separated by one game, and it's not a lock all three will make the postseason. The third-place team in the AL West could find itself on the outside of the wild-card race.
Unfortunately, MLB and the MLB Players Association did away with Game 163 tiebreakers in the latest collective bargaining agreement. All ties are broken mathematically now, which is boring. We won't get a Game 163 should two AL West teams finish atop the division with identical records. A chaotic three-team tie will lead to more math, not more games, sadly.
The Astros, Mariners, and Rangers all have between 27 and 29 games remaining, including plenty left against each other. MLB's best division race this season is out west, and it involves three teams, not just the usual two. Should be a real fun finish in the AL West.
The AL wild-card race is not as tight as I would like, but it's certainly not over, and the NL version is pretty wide open at the moment. Here are the wild-card standings as we enter September:
|American League||National League|
1. Tampa Bay Rays: 82-52 (+6.5 GB)
1. Philadelphia Phillies: 74-59 (+4.5 GB)
2. Houston Astros: 77-58 (+1 GB)
2. Chicago Cubs: 71-62 (+1.5 GB)
3. Texas Rangers: 75-58
3. San Francisco Giants: 70-64
4. Toronto Blue Jays: 73-61 (2.5 GB)
4. Arizona Diamondbacks: 69-65 (1 GB)
5. Boston Red Sox: 69-65 (6.5 GB)
5. Cincinnati Reds: 69-66 (1.5 GB)
6. Miami Marlins: 67-67 (3 GB)
No other team in either league is within 7.5 games of a postseason spot, so, for all intents and purposes, it's a five-team race in the AL and a six-team race in the NL. Three teams earn wild-card berths in each league and seeding matters, because only the top wild-card team hosts the best-of-three Wild Card Series. The other two wild-card teams have to go on the road.
In the AL, the case can be made the third wild-card spot is preferable to the first or second. Sure, you have to go on the road in the Wild Card Series, but on paper, you get more favorable matchups. These are the AL wild-card scenarios using the current standings:
- First wild card (Rays): Host the Astros in the Wild Card Series, then face the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS if you advance.
- Second wild card (Astros): Go on the road to play the Rays in the Wild Card Series, then face the O's in the ALDS if you advance.
- Third wild card (Rangers): Go on the road to play the AL Central winner (Minnesota Twins) in the Wild Card Series, then face the Mariners in the ALDS if you advance.
Would you rather face the Twins and then the Mariners, or have to go through the Astros/Rays to meet the Orioles? With all due respect, I'd rather go through Minnesota and Seattle. Of course, this is baseball, and the most favorable matchups on paper don't always ensure a win. This isn't the NBA or NFL, where the best team often comes out on top.
Regardless of seeding, the wild-card races remain wide open as we enter the season's final month, particularly in the NL. We have one extremely compelling division race (AL West) and plenty of wild-card chaos coming these next few weeks.
Will Ohtani have Tommy John surgery?
This question is relevant more for 2024 than 2023 now that the Angels have crashed out of the wild-card race, though it remains a very important September storyline. Ohtani wasand we don't know anything about the severity of the injury. Not every UCL tear requires Tommy John surgery. Will an offseason of rest do the trick? We don't know.
Ohtani will not pitch again this season but-- he is 8 for 22 (.364) with three doubles and a triple since the torn UCL diagnosis -- though of course the elbow will be on everyone's mind this offseason. Ohtani will be a free agent and interested teams will want to know what they're going to get. Will he be able to pitch in 2024? Will he miss time as a hitter following Tommy John surgery?
As a pitcher, Ohtani would miss the entire 2024 season regardless of whether he has Tommy John surgery on Sept. 1 or Oct. 1. There's no rush there. But, the sooner he has it, the sooner Ohtani would be able to return as a hitter. He had his first Tommy John surgery in October 2018 and returned as a hitter in May 2019. Having it now could have him ready to DH on Opening Day, or soon thereafter. Wait until after the season, and Ohtani may not be able to hit in games until next June or July.
Of course, we don't know whether Ohtani actually needs the full surgery — or any at all. Many UCL injuries require Tommy John surgery and it's easy to assume the worst, but it's not always necessary, and in Ohtani's case, we're talking about his second career Tommy John surgery. The second comes with more risk than the first, and surgery is always the last resort. It's a major, major procedure. The baseball fan in me hopes he avoids it. We'll get official word fairly soon, I imagine.
Acuña vs. Mookie (vs. Freeman)
For much of the season, Atlanta Braves wunderkind Ronald Acuña Jr. was the overwhelming favorite to win the NL MVP award. He still might take home the hardware, but Los Angeles Dodgers star Mookie Betts is charging hard. Betts has multiple hits in 19 of his last 28 games and he's leaped Acuña for the position player WAR lead. .
Here is the head-to-head comparison:
Betts has played 67 games on the infield this season (51 at second base and 16 at shortstop) and that versatility has been incredibly valuable to the Dodgers. It's the kind of thing that could help break a tie when the MVP voters sit down later this month and figure out who gets their first-place vote and who settles for second.
Freddie Freeman deserves a mention here as well. He's having a remarkable season -- .338/.414/.584 -- and, if the season ended today, I suspect Freeman would finish third in the NL MVP voting behind Acuña and Betts (in whatever order). Acuña was the NL MVP frontrunner most of the season. Betts (and Freeman) has made this a real race.
Will the Yankes finish with a winning record?
At 65-69, the New York Yankees are in danger of posting a losing record for the first time since going 76-86 in 1992. They have to go 17-11 in their final 28 games just to get to 82 wins, and considering they've won only 17 of their last 45 games, winning 17 of the final 28 seems like a tall order. It's doable, for sure, but it won't be easy.
New York's 30-season winning season streak is the second-longest such streak in baseball history behind the 1926-64 Yankees (39 seasons). The St. Louis Cardinals have the second-longest active winning season streak at 15 seasons, and that's coming to an end this year. The Rays have the American League's second-longest active streak at just five seasons.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman recently called this season a "," though the likely end of the team's winning season streak is only a small part of that. Still, going three decades between losing seasons is remarkable, and New York's nearly unmatched run of being competitive is in serious jeopardy.
Cabrera and Wainwright farewells
The end of the season often means saying goodbye to all-time greats and longtime big leaguers. Already this season Nelson Cruz was unceremoniously released, possibly ending his career. In a few weeks, future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera and four-time top-three Cy Young finisher Adam Wainwright will hang up their spikes.
Cabrera and Wainwright have both already announced this will be their final season. Cabrera, 40 is a slam dunk, no-doubt-about-it, first ballot Hall of Fame. He has not played much this year, getting into only 79 of Detroit's 134 games, and he's hitting .243/.312/.335 with three home runs. That said, Cabrera will take at least 3,150 hits and 510 home runs into Cooperstown.
As for Wainwright, he owns an 8.10 ERA in 18 starts around a shoulder issue, and he has been stuck on 198 career wins since June 17. He's allowed 51 runs in 39 2/3 innings in 10 starts since his last win. Getting that 200th win (or even that 199th win) has been a real challenge and Wainwright only has another handful of starts to get there.
Of course, 200 wins is nothing more than a nice round number milestone. Wainwright's 198 wins are 121st all-time and getting to 200 would move him into ... 121st all-time. Still, the just-turned-42-year-old has been one of the game's best pitchers and all-time good guys throughout his career. More than a few folks want to see him get to 200 wins, including many outside St. Louis.
Several others who have been among the game's best during their generation could be entering the final weeks of their career too. Will Joey Votto play next season? Zack Greinke? Charlie Morton? Unclear. We know Cabrera and Wainwright are walking away from the game (as players) after the season. Others will as well, even if they (and we) don't know it yet.
Rosters expand today, Sept. 1, and teams get one additional pitcher and one additional position player in September. No longer can teams summon their entire 40-man roster in September. Now they get two extra players and that's it. The new rules take some of the fun out of September call-ups, but they are still a thing.
Already we know the, and the crosstown . , some just to get their feet wet and prepare for a larger role in 2024, and others with a chance to impact postseason races.
Notable September series
With the final month comes postseason races, and with postseason races come important high stakes series. Here are five series to circle on your calendar in September.
Sept. 4-6: Astros at Rangers: The Lone Star State rivals will meet for three games next week as they battle for the AL West title. Because this series is so early in the month, it won't really decide anything, but it will help shape the division (and wild-card) race in the coming weeks. The Astros lead the season series 6-4 and this is the last time these two clubs will meet during the regular season.
Sept. 7-10 and Sept. 15-17: Cubs vs. D-Backs: Four games at Chase Field and then three games at Wrigley Field a few days later. The Cubs and D-Backs are separated by only a handful of games in the wild-card race and they still have their entire season series remaining. We'll see what the standings look like when these series roll around, but, right now, the D-Backs are doing the chasing, so these games will be of paramount importance to them.
Sept. 14-17: Rays at Orioles: The O's enter September with a 1.5-game lead in the AL East and the Rays are charging hard, going 13-4 in their last 17 games. The two rivals wrap up their season series with four games at Camden Yards later this month. The Orioles lead the season series 6-3 and that's important. They're in great position to win the season series and thus clinch the tiebreaker. In that case, Tampa would be crowned AL East champion should they finish with the same record as Baltimore. There will be a lot on the line in these four matchups.
Sept. 22-24 and Sept. 29 to Oct. 1: Mariners vs. Rangers: The final 10 days of the season could be total chaos in the AL West. I can't wait. The Mariners and Rangers will play seven games down the stretch -- three games at Globe Life Field and then four games at T-Mobile Park to close out the season -- and those seven games could decide the division. On top of that, the Mariners have three games with the Astros between these two Rangers series. Seattle closes the regular season with 10 straight games against the state of Texas. Excellent work, schedule makers.
Sept. 29 to Oct. 1: Cubs at Milwaukee Brewers: Between Mariners vs. Rangers and Cubs vs. Brewers, we could be in for two "the division title is on the line during the final weekend" series this season. There's a long way to go between now and then, but the Cubbies just took two of three from the Brewers at Wrigley Field, and Milwaukee enters September with a three-game lead in the NL Central. The baseball fan in me dearly hopes these two clubs stay close the next few weeks, and this series at American Family Field is for all the marbles.