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As September barrels along, the field of MLB playoff hopefuls is dwindling.
On Sunday, the Washington Nationals became the first club to lock down a playoff spot by clinching the National League East. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians will soon follow suit.
The wild-card chases in each league are more open-ended, as are the battles in the NL Central and American League East, where the defending champion Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox are fending off persistent challenges.
As we sift through the picture, let’s identify one thing that could keep each contender from either reaching the postseason or succeeding once it gets there.
For our purposes, “contender” is defined as any team with a 12.5 percent or better chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs’ calculation.
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The Arizona Diamondbacks have the National League’s top wild-card spot pretty well in hand, but they’ll enter the postseason with a serious ruh-roh at the back of the bullpen.
Closer Fernando Rodney has been an inconsistent enigma this season, posting a 4.68 ERA with six blown saves.
The Diamondbacks bullpen is solid overall and ranks second in the NL in ERA. As recent postseasons have shown, however, a shutdown closer is key to a deep run.
Rodney’s 6.23 September ERA doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
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The Boston Red Sox are the favorites to repeat as AL East champions. Their offense, however, needs to find a consistent groove.
Sure, they scored 18 runs in two games Sept. 8-9, but overall Boston ranks 22nd in MLB in OPS. Key contributors such as right fielder Mookie Betts and shortstop Xander Bogaerts have taken a step back, while veterans including Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia have battled injury and inconsistency.
“We’re not a big-swing-of-the-bat type of lineup,” said manager John Farrell, per Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, which counts as damning with no praise.
Rookie third baseman Rafael Devers has injected some life, but a Boston team accustomed to slugging its way through October during the David Ortiz years looks vulnerable in the batter’s box.
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It’s been a bumpy season for the defending champion Chicago Cubs, who still can’t shake the rival St. Louis Cardinals and upstart Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.
Things have been looking up on the North Side, however. The offense has scored the most runs in baseball since the All-Star break, and the pitching staff is rounding into form behind resurgent ace (and impending free agent) Jake Arrieta.
Until, that is, Arrieta’s hamstring decided to rebel.
The injury Arrieta suffered Sept. 4 was a Grade 1 strain, but as of Sunday there was no firm timetable for his return, per MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat (h/t CBSSports.com).
There’s no cause for panic yet, but Arrieta’s recent dominance had stabilized a shaky Cubs rotation. And, not to get morose, but hamstring issues can linger.
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Things are going pretty swell for the Cleveland Indians. As in, 19-game winning-streak swell (as of Monday).
The defending AL champions are on track to grab another division title and, possibly, bust the longest active title drought in baseball.
Whether they achieve the latter will depend upon the status of left-hander Andrew Miller’s injured knee.
Miller, whose historic bullpen work helped carry Cleveland to Game 7 of the World Series last year, threw a simulated game Sept. 8, a positive sign for anxious Tribe fans.
Until the left-hander shows his stuff in a game that counts, however, there will be angst.
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Pitching will always be an issue for the Colorado Rockies. They ply their trade a mile above sea level; that’s the nature of the rarified beast.
This year, Colorado has managed to pitch some, which is why it’s the nominal favorite to claim the NL’s second wild-card spot.
Still, Rockies starters rank 19th in the game in ERA, and the pitching staff overall has posted the ninth-worst ERA in baseball since the All-Star break.
There’s ample talent in the rotation, including right-handers Jon Gray and German Marquez and lefty Kyle Freeland, but they’re short on experience, and the results have been mixed.
Come October, that could spell disaster at any altitude.
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The Astros bolstered their starting rotation by acquiring Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers at the waiver trade deadline. The bullpen, meanwhile, is a question mark for the presumptive AL West champs.
Houston’s ‘pen ranks 21st overall in ERA, and closer Ken Giles owns a 6.00 ERA in September.
The Astros’ offense is stacked, and if left-hander Dallas Keuchel can stay healthy and regain his Cy Young form, he and Verlander could be a 1-2 buzzsaw come October.
The Indians and Red Sox, however, rank first and second, respectively, in bullpen ERA. As Houston tries to challenge those clubs for the pennant, this could be a difference-making weak spot.
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Credit the Los Angeles Angels for getting outfielder Justin Upton and second baseman Brandon Phillips at the waiver deadline to build around Mike Trout and try to get the game’s best player back to the postseason.
And, indeed, the Halos are in the thick of the AL wild-card scramble.
If they don’t get in, starting pitching may be their undoing.
Overall, Angels starters are middle-of-the-pack with a 4.57 ERA, but this isn’t a rotation that inspires much confidence.
Between Aug. 28 and Sept. 5, no Angels starting pitcher made it through six innings. Garrett Richards is just coming back from a prolonged injury absence. Ricky Nolasco owns an ERA north of 5.00. Tyler Skaggs and Andrew Heaney aren’t aces even if you squint.
Who pitches a one-and-done wild-card play-in, assuming Los Angeles gets there? That’s anybody’s guess.
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The Dodgers acquired Yu Darvish from the Texas Rangers to be a right-handed co-ace for southpaw Clayton Kershaw and push the club to its first pennant and World Series win since 1988.
Instead, Darvish has battled a back injury and posted a 5.34 ERA in 30.1 innings with L.A.
The Dodgers are going to win the NL West, despite their recent struggles. They are a loaded team with talent littered across the roster.
Darvish was supposed to be the final ingredient, though, the hired gun who would render any short series virtually unwinnable for the opposition. Instead, he’s been a hobbled source of consternation.
“We’re still learning each other,” manager Dave Roberts said diplomatically, per Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times. “He’s still happy to be a Dodger. And I know that he still wants to pitch well for us and for his teammates. All he can do is his best.”
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Give all the credit in the world to the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brew Crew were supposed to be mired in a rebuilding year. Instead, they’ve given the Cubs fits and are in the mix for either a division title or a wild-card spot as mid-September nears. That’s impressive.
The Brewers have done it with surprisingly stout pitching and an offense that ranks second in the Senior Circuit in home runs.
Something they haven’t done? Hit for average and get on base.
Milwaukee ranks 22nd in the game in team batting average and 21st in on-base percentage. Long balls are great, and they’re certainly all the rage in today’s MLB, but eventually that lack of plate discipline can catch up to a club, especially come October.
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Like Milwaukee, the Minnesota Twins are a great Cinderella story. One season after losing 103 games, they’re a legitimate playoff factor in the AL.
They’re also the only team on this list with a negative run differential—minus-10, to be exact.
That doesn’t automatically doom them, not with long-hyped outfielder Byron Buxton streaking and an imperfect mix of Junior Circuit wild-card contenders.
That said, with a so-so starting rotation and the third-worst bullpen ERA in the AL, that run differential starts to look less like an afterthought and more like a harbinger.
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Sure, this is an odd moment to pile on Aaron Judge.
The Yankees slugger belted two home runs on Sunday. Plus, New York has had hiccups in its vaunted bullpen and issues elsewhere on offense. Even the starting rotation, good as it’s been of late, isn’t rock solid.
Nothing in Yankee land screams trouble more than Judge’s second-half slide, however.
After looking like the love child of Babe Ruth and Giancarlo Stanton in the first half, Judge has hit .191 with 79 strikeouts since the break and appeared frequently lost at the plate.
Whether it was the league catching up to him, the curse of the Home Run Derby or a shoulder injury, the results were ugly, and New York’s offense suffered accordingly.
Sunday’s output is cause for optimism, but if Judge can’t rise like he did in spring and early summer, the Yankees may wilt come autumn.
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Despite seeming to wave a white flag when they dealt right-hander Mike Leake to the Seattle Mariners at the end of August, the Cardinals have surged into the races for both the NL Central and the NL wild card.
They’ve done it behind superlative starting pitching and the exploits of 35-year-old catcher Yadier Molina, who appears to have supped from the fountain of youth.
Molina homered Sunday and now has 17 on the year. Unfortunately for the Cards, in a season that’s been all about fence-clearing, they’re lagging in the power department.
St. Louis ranks 17th in baseball in home runs, and one of its better power hitters—outfielder Tommy Pham—is dealing with an eye issue.
The Cardinals are accustomed to October and may make this improbable run a reality. If they do, it’ll be with a collection of bats that are less than fearsome.
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Almost exactly a month after injuring his knee, Bryce Harper has begun running on a NASA-inspired anti-gravity treadmill and throwing from the outfield, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told 106.7 The Fan (via CBS DC).
That’s positive news for the Nats, but it’s a far cry from Harper contributing on the field.
Washington clinched its second straight NL East title Sunday and has enough talent on offense and on the mound to be a threat come October.
Without Harper, however, who owned a 1.034 OPS and 29 homers when he slipped on a rain-slicked first base Aug. 12, the club is unlikely to challenge the Dodgers and Cubs for the pennant, or even advance past the division series for the first time in franchise history.
As right-hander Edwin Jackson put it, per ESPN.com: “He’s definitely one of those guys that you can’t replace on a team.”
All statistics current as of Monday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference.