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Handicapping the divisions: AL West

The AL West was supposed to be locked up before the season began, but the emergence of the A’s, and the Mariners’ ability to hang around, have made things interesting.

Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

In 2002, the Mariners were coming off an MLB record 116-win season. They were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs in the divisional series, but everyone figured they would get back to the playoffs.

They did not get back to the playoffs.

2002 was, of course, the year of the Moneyball A’s. Led by Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder, the A’s went on 20-game winning streak to upset the Mariners who finished third in the AL West despite winning 93 games.

Fast forward 16 years and the Mariners still haven’t been back to the playoffs. It appeared they would end their drought this year. The 2018 Mariners are nowhere near as good as the 2002 Mariners, but the 2018 Mariners had the fortune of playing in a league without a lot of competition aside from the superteams. They were in first place in the AL West as of June 14th with no clear contenders for the Wild Card. They were going to the playoffs by default.

It didn’t matter that the rotation behind James Paxton and Marco Gonzales was a mess. It didn’t matter that Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger were carrying the offense. No one else in the severely stratified American League could even think about contending.

Then, the A’s, led by Sean Manaea, Trevor Cahill, and Edwin Jackson went on a torrid 41-16 stretch since the last day the Mariners held the top spot in the division. At the time of writing, the A’s are in tie with the Houston Astros while the Mariners are 3.5 games back of both the division and the Wild Card.

The Mariners and A’s have essentially switched places in the playoff odds charts. It has to be hard for Mariners fans to get upset by another Cinderella A’s team even if this year they were playing way over their heads.

This isn’t to say that the A’s haven’t had their disappointments since the Moneyball year. They were also bounced from the divisional series and they haven’t won a playoff series since. Their season is still one of the best stories to come out of this season, but it’s coming at the expense of an even more beleaguered team.

The A’s, though, have a great chance of not only making the playoffs but winning the division. Luis Torres wrote about how the A’s have gotten here, and it’s worth pointing out how the Astros have gotten here as well.

Over the last 10 days, the Astros’ odds of winning the division dropped 10 points. They’re still around an 85 percent chance of winning the division, so it’s not like they’re doomed. Things are, however, less certain than they were a week ago before they dropped two out of three to the A’s this weekend.

The Astros’ struggles as of late are largely attributed to injuries. It should be noted that the Astros have been supremely lucky with injuries all year. Even with Lance McCullers going on the disabled list, the Astros have still used five starting pitchers all season. Think about your own team’s depth chart and how much worse their starting pitchers get after their number five. The Giants, for instance, have had to use ten different starting pitchers this year and seven of them have ten or more starts.

It wasn’t just their rotation that had been bulletproof. They also had some fortuitous health from their position players until recently. They had to go six weeks without Carlos Correa and a week without George Springer. The Astros were also without José Altuve until yesterday after his rehab assignment in Triple-A went well.

In the second half, the Astros are 11-15 despite outscoring their opponents. The Astros are still the best team in that division, and with the exception of McCullers, they’re back to full strength. The projections still have them at a 98 percent chance of making the playoffs, but the projections are confident nothing weird will happen.

Something weird might happen.

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the Astros have to settle for the Wild Card, and it’s not a stretch to think they could miss the playoffs entirely. All it would take is for the A’s to continue playing well and for the Mariners to regain some of that magic from earlier in the year.

Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, McCovey Chronicles, and BP Wrigleyville. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.