Every MLB Contender's Biggest Roadblock to a 2012 Playoff Appearance
If the road leading to the playoffs was newly paved and smooth sailing, everyone would make the postseason.
But we know that's not the case, and that the road is full of potholes, pitfalls, tailgating drivers and the jerks who weave in-and-out of traffic at a high rate of speed.
Roadblocks at every turn.
Some of these roadblocks are things that a team can control—others, not so much.
What could be in contenders' paths as they navigate their way towards meaningful October baseball?
Let's take a look.
Arizona needs this pair to wake up...and fast.
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Roadblock to Navigate: Underachieving Stars
Heading into the season, if you had said that the Diamondbacks had a legitimate candidate for the MVP and Cy Young awards, nobody would have questioned you. Both Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy were certainly on many short lists before the season got underway.
While neither is having an awful season, they haven't exactly endeared themselves to fans or lived up to expectations.
Upton's numbers are down across the board, and while his .275 average and .354 on-base percentage are solid, his lack of power and run production is baffling. Nine home runs and 46 RBI are far from acceptable from a 24-year-old that has the tools to be one of the game's biggest stars.
Kennedy, on the other hand, has followed up a Cy Young-caliber 2011 with an erratic year, sitting with a .500 record, an ERA of 4.35—the highest among Diamondbacks' starters—and a career-high 1.4 home runs allowed per nine innings.
For Arizona to have a legitimate shot of overtaking the teams ahead of them in their attempt to make the playoffs, both Kennedy and Upton are going to have to start producing at a level approaching the expectations people had for them entering the season.
The Braves need a healthy Hanson for the stretch run.
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Roadblock to Navigate: Staying Healthy
While they certainly haven't been decimated by injury the way that the Blue Jays have, the Braves have had their fair share over the course of the season.
Brandon Beachy, Matt Diaz, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Chipper Jones, Andrelton Simmons and Jack Wilson either have been or currently are on the disabled list, with Beachy out for the season.
If they can keep their best players relatively healthy and on the field, the Braves will be in good shape the rest of the way as they remain ahead of the race for one of the two wild-card berths in the National League.
Another injury to a key member of the team could send them sliding—and they may not be able to hit the brakes in time to prevent being on the outside looking in.
The Orioles are a disaster in the field.
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Roadblock to Navigate: Poor Fielding
No team in baseball has committed more errors (90) than the Orioles, who sit tied with the Rockies for the lowest fielding percentage in baseball (.980). For the sabermatricians out there, the Orioles' UZR is putrid (minus-31.8), and neither their RngR (minus-18.2) or their UZR/150 (minus-6.2) are much better.
Sure, the Orioles have persevered through the awful fielding and remain in contention—but defense and pitching wins championships, and there's no disputing that.
So while the Orioles' pitching has been sound, the gloves behind them are a major liability and a reason for concern—especially with the O's in a race where one game can be the difference between a playoff berth and watching the playoffs from home.
Chicago White Sox
Ventura's message needs to be "One game at a time."
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Roadblock to Navigate: Holding Off the Tigers
With less than a three-game lead over the Tigers in the AL Central, the White Sox have no more important games remaining on their schedule than the seven against Detroit, a team they have a losing record against in 2012.
As it stands, the Tigers have a game-in-hand on the White Sox, and Chicago takes on 20 contending teams in their last 43 games, while Detroit faces 18 in their final 44—so it's fair to say that Detroit has a slight edge when it comes to the remaining schedules for both clubs.
Skipper Robin Ventura will need to keep his team focused and motivated to finish strong; otherwise the White Sox could finish out of the playoff picture altogether.
Dusty Baker has the Reds playing at an extremely high level.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Roadblock to Navigate: Staying the Course
Playing without perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto since July 16, the Reds have gone 22-9, increasing their lead over the Pirates and Cardinals substantially.
With Votto yet to resume baseball activities and no timetable set for his return, the Reds will need to remain focused on the task at hand and not get overconfident with their sizable division lead.
There's no reason to think that they can't maintain their current level of performance—they went on a 10-game winning streak shortly after Votto went down with torn cartilage in his knee—but there's also no question that they are a far better team with Votto in the lineup than without him.
Jim Leyland needs to keep his club from looking ahead and focused on the task at hand.
Jason Miller/Getty Images
Roadblock to Navigate: Playing Down to the Competition
Of the 44 games remaining on Detroit's schedule, only 18 are against contending teams—including seven against the White Sox. Chicago, on the other hand, takes on contenders in 20 of their final 43 games.
With their last 13 games split between the Royals and Twins, whom the Tigers have a combined 14-6 record against this season, Jim Leyland's club should be able to go end the season on a hot streak.
Should they become overconfident or take their opponents for granted, however, they could find their postseason aspirations spoiled by two teams that really have no business beating them.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Can Mike Trout carry this team into the postseason?
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Roadblock to Navigate: Their Schedule
The Angels sit on the outside of the playoffs looking in, and with one of the tougher schedules left among playoff contenders—their opposition has a .514 winning percentage—they have their work cut out for them.
Of the teams ahead of them in the playoff race that the Angels still have games with, they are a combined 14-23 against on the season. Not only will the Angels need to reverse that trend and pick up their level of play, but they might need help from other teams if they have any chance of making the playoffs.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers need to see less of this when they take on the Giants.
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Roadblock to Navigate: Win in the Division
The Dodgers have 27 games remaining against the rest of the NL West, and for whatever reason, they've struggled to beat their division rivals.
Arizona has won 8-of-12 from the Dodgers this season, and they have six games left against them—the same number of games the Rockies have against L.A., and that season series is tied at six wins for each team.
The Padres have lost 8-of-12 to L.A., so the six games that the Dodgers have remaining against them should be a reprieve. But it's the division-leading Giants—now playing without Melky Cabrera—whom the Dodgers really need to turn it on against.
With nine games remaining between the two teams, and the Giants holding only a half game lead over L.A. in the division, the Dodgers have to take advantage of the fact that they got stronger while the Giants have been weakened.
The two teams meet at Dodger Stadium in the final series of the season, and that very well could determine which of the two clubs makes the playoffs.
New York Yankees
The health of A-Rod, Pettitte and Sabathia will be key for the Yankees going forward.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Roadblock to Navigate: Health
With Andy Pettitte, Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia all on the shelf, the Yankees have managed to hold their own and maintain a solid lead in the AL East.
Sabathia's left elbow isn't thought to be a serious issue, and he will likely return to action next week. For Pettitte and A-Rod, their return dates aren't as certain.
A-Rod was seen at Yankee Stadium tossing a football around to keep his arm strength up, per Dan Martin of the New York Post. Yankees manager Joe Girardi indicated that A-Rod's situation was improving: “It’s definitely better. The brace will come off. He’s not quite ready to swing, but he will start doing strengthening exercises, so that’s a good sign for us.”
Pettitte, on the other hand, has seen his broken leg improve in X-rays—but he's seen his rehab be delayed after suffering a setback in July, as he explained to reporters (h/t USA Today).
Whatever I did in Seattle, the thing swelled up on me and I stopped the healing process. Right now it looks like it probably set me back 10 days. I wasn't able to walk. When we came back from Seattle, I had a hard time getting around. I was shut down. I've beaten myself up enough over that.
That's all I care about. I'm trying to just do what they tell me to do and take it as easy as I possibly can until I can get on the mound. That'll give me an idea of when I can be ready. I know now that if I have another setback that we've got serious problems and my season's probably over. Now we're probably going to be overcautious and try to figure out what we can do just to make sure I'm back and what I need to get ready.
It goes without saying that the Yankees need the three of them back—and productive—if they are going to make a serious run at adding another World Series ring to their collection.
It would be helpful if Pennington contributed on offense.
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
Roadblock to Navigate: September
Other than two games against the Red Sox and six against the Mariners, the A's face a formidable schedule in September—one that will either validate or derail their playoff hopes.
While the A's are .500 or better against the rest of their September opponents, you'd be foolish to call games against the Orioles, Tigers, Angels, Yankees or Rangers easy. Any one of those teams is capable of shutting down the A's offense, an offense that has scored the fewest runs on the season out of any contending team.
McDonald's first half seems like it was years ago.
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Roadblock to Navigate: Lack of a Quality Third Starting Pitcher
Losing has been prevalent in Pittsburgh for so long that it's hard for many to take the Pirates seriously—including their own fans.
With a 7-9 record in August, those losing ways seem to be slowly creeping back in—and they can't allow that to happen.
James McDonald, who was 5-2 with a 2.82 ERA and 0.97 WHIP before the All-Star break, has fallen apart. In six second-half starts, he's pitched to an ERA of 8.71 and WHIP of 2.04 while walking nearly as many batters (21) as he's struck out (26).
Wandy Rodriguez has been awful since the Pirates acquired him, with a 5.47 ERA and 1.54 WHIP.
Jeff Karstens has been solid (3.89 ERA), but the Pirates need McDonald and Rodriguez to straighten themselves out—and quickly.
San Francisco Giants
Cabrera's suspension didn't just impact his future earnings.
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Roadblock to Navigate: Hitting with Runners in Scoring Position
Only two teams in all of baseball—the Marlins and Padres—have been more inept when it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position than the Giants. With a team batting line of .244/.323/.362, it's easy to see why they rank near the bottom of the barrel.
Melky Cabrera's suspension certainly doesn't help things, as the Melkman posted a line of .314/.358/.479, one of the few Giants to be productive in that situation.
Other than Cabrera, the only two Giants' regulars who are hitting over .270 with runners in scoring position are Angel Pagan (.273/.377/.414) and Buster Posey (.343/.441/.543).
The rest of their lineup is going to have to start generating runs when the opportunity presents itself if they have plans to make a deep postseason run—if they can weather the storm and make the postseason at all.
St. Louis Cardinals
Holliday is having an MVP-caliber season for the Cards.
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Roadblock to Navigate: Making up Ground
The Cardinals sit two games out of a wild-card spot and eight games behind the Reds for the NL Central title.
But the Cardinals have shown us time and time again that you can never count them out, regardless of the deficit they face in the win column. So while the eight games behind the Reds is a significant number, we would be fools to bet against the Cardinals being able to make up serious ground on anyone ahead of them in the standings.
Tampa Bay Rays
Evan Longoria is good, but can he carry this team into the playoffs?
Jeff Golden/Getty Images
Roadblock to Navigate: Lack of Offense
Currently sitting in one of the wild-card spots in the American League, the Rays have struggled to produce runs all season long.
While the return of All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria certainly strengthens their lineup, the fact remains that the Rays are a light-hitting team, evidenced by their .235/.314./.378 batting line on the season.
Tampa needs more than Longoria and B.J. Upton producing at the plate if they have any hope of holding onto that playoff spot.
The Rangers must be having second thoughts about the Dempster trade at this point.
Rick Yeatts/Getty Images
Roadblock to Navigate: Starting Pitching
There's no question that the Rangers have one of the most prolific offenses in baseball, and their lineup is powerful enough to atone for mistakes made by their pitchers.
But do they have the pitching needed to make a deep postseason run?
Rangers' starters have a 4.31 ERA on the season, good enough for 21st in baseball.
Ryan Dempster has been downright atrocious since being acquired from the Cubs, throwing to an ERA of 8.31. Yu Darvish has seemingly hit a wall, with a 6.60 second-half ERA.
As a matter of fact, only Matt Harrison (3.63) has a second half ERA under 4.50 of all the Rangers' starting pitchers, and that's not a good sign.
The rest of their rotation is going to need to step up their games.
Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Roadblock to Navigate: The Strasburg Debate
The chances of the Nationals not making the playoffs, regardless of whether they shut Stephen Strasburg down or not, are slim-to-none. For them to miss the postseason would require a collapse of epic proportions.
That being said, one has to wonder whether they are setting themselves up for failure by shutting down one of the five best pitchers in all of baseball.
Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez both have ace stuff themselves, while Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson are solid middle-of-the-rotation arms.
But none of them have the same intimidation factor as Strasburg, and with no clear idea as to who will replace him in the rotation, the Nationals could find themselves in an unfamiliar position after they shut him down—playing from behind.