Nightmare Scenarios for Every MLB Playoff Contender

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 31, 2012

Nightmare Scenarios for Every MLB Playoff Contender

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    Give or take a couple days, there is one month of baseball left to be played in the 2012 MLB season. Time is running short.

    However, there's still plenty of time for things to go horribly awry.

    No team is safe from Murphy's Law as we prepare to enter the season's final month, not even the good ones. Just look what happened to the Boston Red Sox and the Atlanta Braves in 2011. They seemed to be locks for the postseason, but the baseball gods decided to smite them.

    The baseball gods could choose to smite another team or two this September as well. All they have to do is pick their targets and push the right buttons.

    Every team has a nightmare scenario waiting just around the corner, and we'll know which teams the baseball gods have chosen for sacrifices if these nightmare scenarios start coming true.

    Here's a look at one scenario each contender in baseball should be afraid of.

    Note: Stats come from unless otherwise noted. We'll start in the AL East and proceed to the NL West.

New York Yankees: What If Their Injured Stars Don't Contribute?

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    The Yankees are having a characteristically great season, but their 2012 campaign has been anything but ordinary. Due to an endless string of injuries, both their depth and their willpower have been tested.

    So far, the Yankees have passed these tests with flying colors. A 75-55 record, given the circumstances, is impressive.

    However, the signs are there that the Yankees may be running out of gas. They're barely over .500 since the All-Star break at 23-22, and they've lost seven of their last 11 games dating back to the middle of August. With the Baltimore Orioles closing in on them, the Yankees are going to need a strong September to hold onto first place in the AL East.

    The Yankees are capable of enjoying a strong finish, to be sure, but they need all their injured players back and ready, willing and able to contribute. Right now, that list includes stars such as Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova.

    The word from Marc Carig of The Star-Ledger is that A-Rod could be back as soon as Monday. Teixeira, Pettitte and Nova could return shortly thereafter if all goes well.

    Of course, it's not a lock that all will go well. It could be that one, two or all four of these players suffer setbacks that keep them off the field for the rest of the season. Even if all four of them do return, it's possible that they won't produce.

    The Yankees don't want to see any of these eventualities come to fruition. Their hold on the AL East is loosening. To hold onto it, they need all hands on deck.

Baltimore Orioles: How Much Gas Does the Bullpen Have Left?

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    A lot of people are baffled as to what exactly makes the Orioles such a good team.

    Their bullpen has a lot to do with it. The Orioles have one of baseball's best closers in Jim Johnson, and Buck Showalter also has an array of excellent setup men at his disposal. 

    If these guys get a lead, the game is basically over. The Orioles are 49-3 when leading after six innings, 56-0 when leading after seven innings and 59-1 when leading after eight innings.

    This is all well and good, but the one issue with Baltimore's bullpen is that it's had to cover a lot of innings due to the team's unpredictable starting pitching. O's relievers rank third in baseball with 429.1 innings pitched. 

    One cautionary tale that's relevant to the Orioles is that of the 2011 Atlanta Braves. Their bullpen was their best asset in 2011, but it too had to work a ton of innings because of unreliable starting pitching.

    By the end of the season, Atlanta's bullpen was gassed. Braves relievers lost nine games last September, and star closer Craig Kimbrel blew three saves. The last of those came on the final day of the season, and it cost the Braves a shot to go to the playoffs.

    If bullpen woes could lead to a collapse such as Atlanta's last season, they could lead to a collapse in Baltimore this season as well.

Tampa Bay Rays: Even with Evan Longoria Back, Do They Have Enough Offense?

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    Evan Longoria looks like he's getting back on track. Over his last 13 games, Longo has a .913 OPS to go along with five home runs and 10 RBI. He hit two bombs in Texas on Wednesday.

    However, Longo's return to the lineup in early August hasn't exactly triggered the offensive explosion the Rays were hoping for. They've certainly been a better team, but offensively, they're just as unpredictable as they were before Longo came back.

    Sure, the Rays have enjoyed a couple 10-run games and generally have proven capable of putting upwards of five or six runs on the board in a given game since Longo returned. But they've also had a perfect game thrown against them, and they've been shut out in three of their last nine games. In each of those shutouts, they wasted great pitching performances.

    The Rays' pitching is going to be just fine in September (though an injury to David Price is another nightmare scenario), but there's nothing even remotely close to a guarantee that their offense will be able to pull its weight.

    And that's a scary thought, as the Rays are scheduled to face quality offensive teams like the Yankees (twice), Rangers and White Sox in September. Offensively, they're no better than other opponents they'll have to face such as the Orioles and Red Sox.

    If the Rays miss out on the postseason, it will be because of their bats.

Chicago White Sox: Beware the Kansas City Royals

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    By all accounts, the Kansas City Royals are a bad team. They're 12 games under .500 at 59-71, and their hopes for the postseason sailed long ago.

    This doesn't mean they're not dangerous. The White Sox can vouch.

    The White Sox have lost five straight games to the Royals, a span that has seen them beat both Chris Sale and Jake Peavy (twice). Amazingly, the Royals' pitching staff has held the White Sox offense to a mere 11 runs in their five-game losing streak to the Royals.

    With all due respect to the Detroit Tigers, the Royals are the one team the White Sox don't want to see again this season. The Royals have their number.

    Alas, the White Sox will see the Royals again this season. Six times, in fact.

    The White Sox can ill afford to keep getting pushed around by the Royals. Losses against them could see their slim three-game lead start to disappear, and they'll really be in trouble if they combine losses to the Royals with losses to the Tigers, who have seven games remaining against the White Sox.

    The White Sox appear to be in good shape now, but the Royals could do to them what the Orioles did to the Red Sox in 2011.

Detroit Tigers: What If Miguel Cabrera Slumps?

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    If it feels like nothing has gone right for the Tigers this season, that's because that's kind of true. They've underachieved all year, in part due to injuries (i.e. Doug Fister) and in part due to under-performing players.

    Two guys have been reliable as ever: Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.

    The Tigers won't be in too much trouble in September if they can't win games that Verlander starts. After all, they've made a habit out of that all season, as they're just 16-11 in Verlander's 27 starts. They're still alive despite these struggles.

    What the Tigers are not used to at this juncture is Cabrera not hitting. He's remained consistent all season long.

    He's probably not about to go into a slump in the final month of the season, but, well, what if he does?

    It wouldn't be unheard of. You may be surprised to hear that September is actually Cabrera's least favorite month of the year, as his .907 career OPS in September is his lowest for any month (which says a lot about how good he is). Keep in mind that this is the case even after Cabrera posted a 1.290 OPS last September.

    The September before that one in 2010 wasn't so good. Cabrera hit .256 with a mere .826 OPS.

    So a slump could happen. And if a slump does happen, the Tigers will be up you-know-what creek without a paddle. They already have an uphill climb ahead of them. There's no chance of them making it to the top if they don't have a productive Miguel Cabrera.

Texas Rangers: What If Josh Hamilton Slumps Again?

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    When it comes to the Texas Rangers, most people are freaked out about their starting pitching.

    And rightfully so. Rangers starters have been up and down all season, and they've posted a 4.78 ERA in the month of August.

    You'd never know from looking at the team's record this month. The Rangers are 18-10 in August, and they seem well on their way to yet another AL West title.

    A major reason why the Rangers have been able to win games this month despite poor starting pitching is Josh Hamilton's emergence from his two-and-a-half month slumber. 

    Between May 14 and the end of July, Hamilton hit .224 with a .731 OPS and a mere 40 RBI in 62 games. In August, he's hitting .309 with a .940 OPS and 28 RBI in 28 games. 

    Yeah, he's back. And not a moment too soon as far as the Rangers are concerned.

    But needless to say, the Rangers need Hamilton to keep it going. They're a different team when he's hitting, and they don't have much of a lead to gamble with heading into September. The Oakland A's are only four games off the pace.

    Another Hamilton slump would have dire consequences. The Rangers are one of MLB's elite teams when he's hitting well, but they're really no better than a .500 team when he's not hitting well. They proved that when they went 32-30 in Hamilton's 62-game slump.

    From the looks of things, a .500 record in September isn't going to be enough to hold off the A's.


Oakland A's: Can They Handle a Very Tough September Schedule?

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    After an extremely hot month of July, the A's endured a bit of a cool-down period at the beginning of August. They lost eight of their first 13 games to open the month.

    They've since won 14 of their last 16 games. For the A's, it's July all over again.

    However, you have to take these wins for what they're worth.

    The opponents the A's played during their recent hot stretch were, in order, Cleveland, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Cleveland again.

    The only contender of the bunch would be the Rays. The Indians are easily the worst team in the American League right now, and the Twins have been one of the AL's most hopeless teams since day one. Dominating them and the Indians isn't much of an accomplishment.

    Oakland's schedule in September won't be so easy. The A's are set to face the Angels (twice), Orioles, Tigers, Yankees and Rangers (twice). Mixed in are two series against a Mariners team that has played very good baseball since the All-Star break.

    The A's already have a thin margin for error. If they can't hang with the bad boys they're set to face in September, their revival this season is going to come to a disappointing end.

Los Angeles Angels: What If Mike Trout Finally Hits a Wall?

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    Wait, are the Angels even still legit contenders?

    For now, yes. Thanks in large part to their recent domination of the Josh Beckett-less, Adrian Gonzalez-less and utterly hapless Red Sox, the Angels are only 3.5 games out of the AL Wild Card race heading into the final month of August.

    One can only imagine where the Angels would be without Mike Trout, who is basically baseball's answer to Chuck Norris. He's hitting .335 with 25 homers and 41 stolen bases, and he still has another month to add to his totals.

    The question is whether September will bring better fortunes for Trout than August has.

    This hasn't been such a great month for Trout. He's hitting a mere .288 with an .881 OPS; numbers that are pretty pedestrian for him. 

    I mean, the dude hit .392 with a 1.259 OPS in July, for crying out loud.

    If Trout continues to trend in the wrong direction in September, the Angels are doomed. They've been bad enough, even despite Trout's brilliance over the last couple months. If Trout ceases to be brilliant, it stands to reason that the Angels will be even worse.

    That is, unless Vernon Wells feels like saving them.

    ...And I wouldn't bet on that.

Washington Nationals: What If Stephen Strasburg Is Pushed Too Far?

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    A lot of things could go wrong for the Nationals in September, but the one nightmare that they're afraid of the most is the one that would put a dent in their hopes both this season and next season.

    This, of course, would be a season-ending injury to Stephen Strasburg.

    Strasburg has already undergone Tommy John surgery once, and we all know that he's not going to be around much longer this season. The Nationals have made it pretty clear that they don't want to push their luck with him.

    ...But they seem to be doing that anyway. The oft-referenced 160-inning limit never seemed to be an actual plan, but the Nationals made it pretty clear early in the year that Strasburg was going to be shut down well before the end of the 2012 season came to an end.

    It's looking like he might not miss that much time. According to Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, Strasburg has been told that he has "two or three starts" left in him.

    If it's three, then Strasburg will make his final start of the season in the middle of September. He could be sitting on as many as 170 innings by the time that start comes to a close.

    Honestly, I'm cool with this. The Nationals have a division title to wrap up, and a couple more starts from Strasburg will definitely help seal the deal.

    But even I realize that this could end in disaster. Strasburg could end up pitching one inning too many, resulting in a catastrophic arm or shoulder injury that will set his career back once again.

    Make no mistake about it: This possibility is keeping Mike Rizzo awake at night these days.

Atlanta Braves: What If Their Offense Doesn't Come Back Around?

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    You can worry about the Braves' starting pitching if you want, but I wouldn't. Braves starters have been excellent in August, especially Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen and Paul Maholm.

    It's Atlanta's bats that people should be worried about.

    The Braves were one of the top scoring teams in the league in July, finishing eighth in baseball in runs scored with 126. In August, however, the Braves rank toward the lower end of the spectrum with 114 runs scored.

    There are good reasons for Atlanta's team-wide slump. Michael Bourn is hitting .245 in August. Brian McCann is hitting .194. Freddie Freeman is hitting .227. Dan Uggla is hitting .207.

    Only Jason Heyward has really stood out this month, hitting .280 with an .893 OPS. He's gone yicketty seven times.

    The Braves are set to face some pretty light competition in September, so they should be able to avoid a total collapse like the one they suffered in 2011. The fact that they have good starting pitching this time around will help a ton.

    If their hitting woes get worse, however, the Braves could once again find themselves at the mercy of the baseball gods.

Cincinnati Reds: What If Joey Votto Gets Hurt Again?

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    Joey Votto's lengthy absence hasn't killed the Reds. For that matter, it hasn't even given them a flesh wound. 

    Since Votto last played on July 15, the Reds are 30-14. Their lead in the NL Central now sits at 8.5 games, and their pitching is simply too good for them to suffer some kind of Red Sox-like collapse.

    Granted, one of Cincinnati's worst nightmares involves one of their starting pitchers finally suffering an injury, but I'd wager they're more worried about something happening to Votto once he comes back.

    And that will be pretty soon, apparently. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Votto could be activated on Saturday.

    Which, you know, is kind of soon seeing as how Votto has only been playing rehab games since Tuesday and he's admitted that his surgically repaired knee has held him back from going 100 percent.

    Presumably, Votto will still be holding back no matter when he's activated. He's not going to try to steal any bases or go barreling into the catcher in a play at home plate. He apparently has a high pain tolerance, but he's not stupid.

    Of course, this doesn't mean that he's guaranteed to stay on the field once he returns. Injuries can happen at any time, and Votto's left knee will practically be begging for another injury once he comes back.

    The Reds will still be able to make the playoffs even if Votto is taken out of commission again. Exactly how far they can go without him is what they should be worried about.

St. Louis Cardinals: Beware the Road

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    The Cardinals aren't such a great road team, as they're just 31-34 away from Busch Stadium.

    The good news is that the Cardinals will finish the season with a six-game homestand against Washington and Cincinnati. If they make the most of those games, the Cardinals should make the postseason.

    ...But those games could also be next to irrelevant by the time the Cardinals get to them. It all depends on how they fare in a brutal stretch in the middle of September in which they'll be on the road a lot.

    Between September 10 and September 26, the Cardinals will play 13 out of 16 away from Busch Stadium. The competition won't be too bad, as they're scheduled to play four beatable teams in the Padres, Dodgers, Cubs and Astros. One of those teams, however, is looking to qualify for the playoffs, and the other three will all be looking to play spoiler.

    Keep in mind that the Cardinals are in the middle of a tough road trip right now, one that won't end until Sunday in Washington. They'll finally get to go home after that, but only for a six-game homestand before they hit the road again.

    A stretch such as this can wear on a team, and that's not what the Cardinals need. They have enough problems to battle. They don't want to start battling fatigue, too.

Pittsburgh Pirates: What If Andrew McCutchen Keeps Slumping?

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    Andrew McCutchen was the hottest hitter in the National League in July, hitting a staggering .446/.510/.739 with seven bombs. The Pirates reaped the benefits by going 17-9.

    August hasn't been quite so kind to the Pirates, and McCutchen has a lot to do with that. His bat has cooled down considerably, as he's hitting a mere .252/.347/.346 this month with two bombs.

    We saw something similar to this happen last year, when McCutchen hit .266/.352/.459 in August and the Pirates stumbled to an 8-22 record.

    He only got worse in September. In 24 games, McCutchen struggled to the tune of a .171/.316/.315 triple-slash line. The Pirates went 10-16 and missed the postseason.

    So...what if the exact same thing happens this season?

    It's looking like that could be the case. McCutchen hasn't been much of a difference-maker over the last two weeks, and now he's playing on a bum ankle.

    The Pirates aren't in line to make the playoffs now. If McCutchen doesn't start hitting again, they surely won't make the playoffs.

    He also has an MVP award to secure with a strong month of September, if that helps.

San Francisco Giants: Another Buster Posey Catastrophe

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    When Buster Posey was lost for the season last May, some wondered whether he would ever catch again.

    He's catching again, alright. He's also hitting better than ever before.

    Posey has come back stronger than anybody could have possibly hoped, hitting .329/.407/.534 with 19 home runs and 82 RBI through 119 games. He's a top candidate for the NL MVP award (I think he should win it).

    And for now, things are good. The Giants started Friday with a 4.5-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, and the Dodgers don't look like they're up to the task of closing the gap.

    But if something were to happen to Posey...

    ...You know, something like what happened to him last season...

    Instant doom.

    That is all.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Do They Have Enough Starting Pitching?

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    The Dodgers' new-look offense hasn't packed quite as much punch as we all thought it would. In their last four losses, the Dodgers have scored a total of six runs.

    But let's face it: It's hard to be concerned about an offense that features the likes of Shane Victorino, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez. An offense that features names such as those won't stay down for long.

    It's L.A.'s starting pitching staff that should have everyone worried.

    Clayton Kershaw is an absolute beast, but there aren't many trustworthy souls beyond him in L.A.'s rotation these days. Josh Beckett will be solid, but he's not about to start dominating anytime soon. Chris Capuano has hit the skids. Joe Blanton is barely worth starting at this point. Aaron Harang is the very definition of the word "mediocre."

    Chad Billingsley has been great this year, but the latest reports on his elbow aren't encouraging in the slightest. He's on the disabled list with an elbow problem, and the word from is that his season could be over if his elbow doesn't respond to an injection of platelet-rich plasma.

    With this rotation, the Dodgers are going to have their work cut out for them once they get into the portion of their September schedule that features consecutive series against San Francisco, Arizona, St. Louis, Washington and Cincinnati.

    The Dodgers are struggling now. If their pitching doesn't come around, things are only going to get worse.

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