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Each MLB Team's Most Intriguing Storyline Down the Stretch

Ely SussmanCorrespondent IAugust 23, 2013

Each MLB Team's Most Intriguing Storyline Down the Stretch

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    The playoff races are MLB's main attractions down the stretch, as we find out who gets the nod to compete in October.

    Of course, each team also provides its own intriguing storylines—conflicts, record/award chases, etc.—that keep us captivated. Even the downtrodden and dysfunctional give their fans reasons to stay tuned through the final moments of the regular season.

    Don't strain to come up with incentives to watch; Bleacher Report presents them all in this tidy list.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Paul Goldschmidt's NL MVP Case

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    As you'll see later on in this slideshow, Paul Goldschmidt isn't the odds-on favorite to take home the NL MVP hardware.

    With that said, his 2013 feats have been outstanding for a third-year player.

    The first baseman leads the Senior Circuit with 31 home runs, 100 runs batted in and a 157 OPS+. On top of that, he ranks in the NL top five in terms of both on-base percentage and slugging.

    Although the Arizona Diamondbacks haven't necessarily been fading, they simply cannot keep pace with the rival Los Angeles Dodgers. Therefore, Goldschmidt's individual quest is a much sexier story than their slim pennant chances.

Atlanta Braves: Jason Heyward's Recovery

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    The initial estimate says Jason Heyward will need four-to-six weeks to return to the Atlanta Braves after suffering a broken jaw on Wednesday afternoon.

    Heyward provides an indispensable combination of elite power, advanced plate discipline and spectacular defense in right field. For a month prior to taking a fastball to the face—a dominant month for the Braves overall—Heyward indeed appeared to be one of baseball’s most unstoppable forces (1.005 OPS since July 27). He specifically filled a void atop their batting order with his knack for consistently reaching base.

    Barring any setbacks, the 24-year-old will rejoin the roster when it needs him the most, but that hardly means he’ll be in peak condition. As Heyward’s abysmal beginning to this season suggests, getting his swing in order requires a considerable adjustment period because of all its moving parts.

    With the NL East virtually locked up already, paying attention to players the Braves don’t have interests us more than the guys in their clubhouse right now.

     

Baltimore Orioles: Chris Davis' Home Runs

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    Chris Davis isn't going to catch Barry Bonds' single-season home run record, and barring an unstoppable September, even Roger Maris' "clean" mark is out of reach.

    Nonetheless, the 27-year-old first baseman is impossible to ignore.

    His breakout season has been more entertaining than, say, Jose Bautista's in 2010 because he's doing it on a legitimate playoff contender. Davis' ability to use all fields adds an element of suspense, as you never know where his next home run might land.

    Davis is the leading threat to Miguel Cabrera's bid for a second consecutive American League Triple Crown. He has 46 home runs this season through 126 Baltimore Orioles games.

Boston Red Sox: Clay Buchholz's Comeback

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    Most franchises would be content with a postseason berth one year removed from finishing in last place.

    The Boston Red Sox, however, saw 2012 as an aberration. Their expectations were high entering this season; if not quite championship-or-bust, then they at least anticipated making a deep run into October.

    They'll need Clay Buchholz to accomplish that, preferably at the Cy Young Award-caliber level he performed at through early June (1.71 ERA, 2.45 FIP, 2.9 fWAR in 84.1 IP).

    Per Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald, the right-hander is scheduled to make his first minor league rehab start on Sunday and tentatively return to the Red Sox rotation in early September. Then again, he's had countless setbacks this summer while attempting to recover from a neck strain.

Chicago Cubs: Premature Trade Assessments

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    It normally takes years to fully grasp the far-reaching effects of an MLB trade.

    However, Chicago Cubs fans will spend the rest of 2013 enjoying the promising play from their acquisitions as they build toward the future. After all, it was clear from the start of 2013 that this would be a rebuilding year. 

    Their front office has been extremely busy, most notably flipping Scott Feldman, Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano for younger players.

    Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop (both from the Baltimore Orioles) have already worked some innings for the Cubs, and third baseman Mike Olt (Texas Rangers) could be a September call-up.

Chicago White Sox: Possible End of the Paul Konerko Era

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    Paul Konerko is having a horrible individual season for the Chicago White Sox. 

    The longtime team captain has a .241/.308/.354 batting line in what could be his first season in a decade with fewer then 500 plate appearances. After years as Chicago's primary first baseman, he has spent exactly half of his 94 games this summer at designated hitter.

    Konerko tells Doug Padilla of ESPN Chicago that he isn't thinking about retirement, but Padilla notes that even if his major league career does continue, it won't necessarily be on the South Side.

    He'll be a free agent this winter.

Cincinnati Reds: Johnny Cueto's Rehab

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    The update on Johnny Cueto's lat strain is, in a word, discouraging.

    From John Fay of The Cincinnati Enquirer:

    Cueto underwent an MRI and a scan of his strained right lat muscle.

    “They showed basically about 75 percent of the strain is healed,” trainer Paul Lessard said. “He’s going to continue to do the strengthening stuff for another week and then we’ll re-scan him again and see if that 25 percent has closed up.”

    Still, it's too soon to give up on the injured ace, who could undoubtedly bolster the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff down the stretch.

Cleveland Indians: Terry Francona for Manager of the Year

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    Terry Francona took a year off from managing to write a book, try national broadcasting and find some zen after a disappointing end to his Boston Red Sox career.

    It could be a long while before he gets that kind of downtime again. The contract offers will keep coming for someone with such advanced baseball intellect and genuine passion for the game.

    In their first year under Francona's guidance, the Cleveland Indians have already topped last summer's win total. A few new faces have helped, but the 54-year-old is also getting more production from the same players who were with the Tribe previously.

    You'd be hard-pressed to find another American League skipper more deserving of award recognition.

Colorado Rockies: Todd Helton's Likely Departure

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    Todd Helton's significance to the Colorado Rockies is eerily comparable to Paul Konerko's value to the Chicago White Sox.

    The former is two-and-a-half years older, however, and is believed to be a likely retirement candidate; at least that's what Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post reports.

    Colorado's first-round pick in the 1995 draft, Helton holds countless single-season and lifetime records with the franchise. That includes his 362 home runs, the majority of which he hit prior to his 30th birthday.

Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander's Shakiness

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    “Mediocre” is perhaps too strong of a word to describe Justin Verlander’s season. He is, after all, surrendering fewer runs than the typical American League starter and well on his way to 200-plus innings.

    Of course, the former AL Cy Young Award winner was projected for excellence entering 2013. Those who picked the Detroit Tigers to capture another pennant cited Verlander’s consistent dominance as one of the biggest reasons for their optimism.

    On paper, however, he’s arguably the fourth-best option for Jim Leyland.

    His next few starts could either allow the Tigers to run away with a playoff berth or drag them into a dog fight with the Cleveland Indians. Moreover, what Verlander does in the coming weeks will affect where he’ll be slotted in the shortened October rotation.

Houston Astros: Contract Extension Watch

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    Nobody is safe on the Houston Astros roster until proven otherwise.

    In 2013, they've released or traded several impending free agents, but they've also moved controllable assets like Bud Norris. Outfielder Justin Maxwell changed uniforms at the July 31 deadline and hasn't even gone through arbitration yet!

    The front office committed $12.5 million to Jose Altuve in just his third major league season. Catcher Jason Castro or third baseman Matt Dominguez could be next.

Kansas City Royals: Possible September Relevance

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    It's been decades since the Kansas City Royals actually had the nation's attention during the season's final month. They last qualified for the playoffs in 1985, and they haven't even amassed 85 victories since 1989.

    Losers of five straight games and eight of their past 10, the Royals basically need to be the American League's best team down the stretch to attain a postseason berth.

    K.C.'s final homestand of 2013 features series against the contending Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers. It would be exhilarating if, for the first time in a generation, the team wasn't playing spoiler in that situation.

Los Angeles Angels: Waiting for Heads to Roll

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    You can't put a finger on what specifically has gone wrong with the Los Angeles Angels, because they've been failing on multiple fronts.

    Guaranteeing 10 years of monstrous salaries to a declining Albert Pujols was the biggest blunder from general manager Jerry Dipoto. Signing Josh Hamilton for $125 million comes close, and draining an already thin farm system to rent Zack Greinke is difficult to justify, especially now that fans are buying tickets to see him excel across town.

    The major league coaching staff—Mike Scioscia included—needs to be held accountable for the club's underachievement as well. Homegrown players like Garrett Richards and Mark Trumbo have not improved under their watch.

    As Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com writes, there isn't much to be optimistic about as the Halos fight for third place.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Invincible Clayton Kershaw

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    Don't be fooled by all of the nauseating rants about Yasiel Puig, like this one from Scott Miller of CBS Sports. The fate of the Los Angeles Dodgers this season does not hinge on his every move.

    Rather, Clayton Kershaw is the No. 1 influence on this team, not to mention its strongest candidate for National League MVP honors.

    If maintained, his 1.72 earned run average would be the best by a qualified starting pitcher in any season since 1968. Achieving that while leading the majors in innings pitched—which he currently is at 198.1 IP—would make that all the more awe-inspiring.

    Nothing that Kershaw does down the stretch will come as a surprise, but every bit of it makes for must-see TV. 

Miami Marlins: The Final Pitches of Jose Fernandez's Season

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    Joe Frisaro of MLB.com reluctantly reminds us that Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez won't stay in the rotation much longer. He tossed a career-high 134 innings last summer, and the organization doesn't want to stretch him too far beyond that number in 2013.

    The NL Rookie of the Year favorite has exceeded all expectations. Remember that Fernandez entered spring training at only 20 years old. 

    A 45.0 percent ground-ball rate to go along with his 2.41 earned run average is extremely encouraging. It has also been fascinating to watch the right-hander improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio each month, as we've often seen rookies wear down in the second half.

    Enjoy this while it lasts, Fish fans. Frisaro expects Miami to keep Fernandez on normal rest and shut him down around the first week of September.

Milwaukee Brewers: Capabilities of Young Pitching

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    Trading away Yovani Gallardo and/or Kyle Lohse would mean the Milwaukee Brewers are waving the white flag for 2014 before it even begins.

    At the same time, it could equip them with sufficient talent to surge back to the postseason a few years from now. Whether or not the team completely rebuilds will depend on the pitching. 

    Although Jim Henderson and Wily Peralta are promising and controllable, they won’t single-handedly lead the franchise back to relevancy. Every appearance from Johnny Hellweg, Tyler Thornburg, etc. should be closely analyzed.

Minnesota Twins: The Future of Ron Gardenhire

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    The Minnesota Twins understandably take pride in the remarkable continuity they've had at the managerial position. Tom Kelly occupied it full time from 1986 to 2001, and Ron Gardenhire has been at the helm ever since.

    What they don't take pride in, however, is their recent performance. The Twins will need to perform at or above the .500 mark through September's end just to avoid a third consecutive 90-loss season.

    That sort of mediocrity for a midmarket team with a relatively new ballpark simply isn't acceptable.

    Managers consistently receive undeserved praise and blame in this results-based industry, which means there's no guarantee of Gardenhire keeping his job down the stretch.

New York Mets: How the Rookies Finish Up

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    Various injuries and poor performances have opened the door for rookies to contribute to the New York Mets lineup and pitching staff.

    Juan Lagares and Zack Wheeler have excelled from the get-go, all but ensuring their inclusion on the 2014 active roster. You can probably clump Josh Satin into that group too.

    For others, it's still too early to tell. Travis d'Arnaud and Wilmer Flores, for example, were held in high regard as prospects, but we'll need to wait until the final hours of the regular season to pass judgement on them as contributors at the major league level.

    So that's how the Mets intend to use what remains of their 2013 campaign: marveling at and evaluating the controllable players coming up through their farm system.

New York Yankees: Alex Rodriguez's Feud with Brian Cashman, Entire Organization

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    Alex Rodriguez says he wants a temporary ceasefire between his legal representatives and the New York Yankees front office. The polarizing third baseman, who has quietly been effective in the heart of the lineup, reportedly won’t answer questions about the suspension he’s appealing, his relationship with Brian Cashman or anything not directly related to his baseball performance.

    Wonder how long that will last.

    Even if A-Rod doesn’t personally provide back-page material for the New York tabloids, you’d figure leaks will continue coming from external sources anyway. Rest assured, his name will make headlines for reasons other than extra-base hits.

     

Oakland Athletics: Bartolo Colon’s Health and Effectiveness

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    The Oakland Athletics were bold to re-sign Bartolo Colon as a starting pitcher for his age-40 season, especially considering he was recently caught and disciplined for using performance-enhancing drugs.

    They have been richly rewarded. The hefty right-hander boasts a 2.97 earned run average this summer (eighth in the American League) and has tossed three complete-game shutouts in 24 starts.

    Now, unfortunately, Colon is on the disabled list with a strained groin. The A's have consequently drifted dangerously close to the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees in the race for the second AL wild-card spot.

    Oakland's pitching needs to be terrific down the stretch because power hitters like Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick haven't been quite as productive in 2013.

Philadelphia Phillies: Seeing What Roy Halladay Has Left in the Tank

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    Roy Halladay underwent shoulder surgery in May after a handful of un-Halladay-like outings (8.65 ERA, 1.46 WHIP in 7 GS). With no structural issues to correct, there was always a possibility of him returning later in 2013.

    He’s finally competing again on a minor league rehab assignment (albeit with ordinary results).

    Halladay will be one of the most intriguing free agents this winter, and the Philadelphia Phillies have the inside track to re-sign him, he told the media in spring training, according to David Murphy of Philadelphia Daily News. Coming off a second straight disappointing season, he can be had at a steep discount from the $20 million per year he earned over the course of his latest contract extension.

    The right-hander’s play down the stretch will go a long way in shaping the market for him and affecting Philly’s chances at retaining him.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Andrew McCutchen's NL MVP Candidacy

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    It's been 21 years since the Pittsburgh Pirates last qualified for the postseason or even finished with a winning record.

    In leading the Bucs to a division title in 1992, Barry Bonds was the runaway winner of the National League MVP award. Then he left the Steel City for free-agent riches.

    We'll be writing a completely different script if Andrew McCutchen matches Bonds' feat this season. The cool-mannered center fielder will stay with Pittsburgh through at least 2017 (2018 club option).

    He finished third to Buster Posey and Ryan Braun in the 2012 NL MVP race. His stellar offensive numbers have held since then (.312/.399/.512, 52 XBH this season), but improved team performance and individual fielding—and the absence of extraordinary candidates—arguably make him the front-runner for 2013 honors.

San Diego Padres: Who Plays Again This Season

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    MLB.com's Corey Brock confirms that Tommy John surgery survivor Cory Luebke won't pitch for the San Diego Padres this season.

    The Padres are holding their breath that several other long-term pieces make it back in September.

    Injuries have prevented Cameron Maybin from enjoying a bounce-back season. Bill Center of U-T San Diego reports that his knee isn't 100 percent coming off a torn posterior cruciate ligament. The Padres needed to pull their center fielder off his minor league rehab assignment to give his knee time to "calm down."

    Brock has the latest about slugger Carlos Quentin:

    "Carlos is in a situation where for him to do any baseball activities, it's painful, especially the defensive or on the running side," Padres manager Bud Black said Tuesday. "He can get into his stance and hit, but we're staying away from it just to let the knee heal. He's feeling better but not to the extent where he can get on the field."

    Then there's Kyle Blanks, who's trying to recover from Achilles tendinitis. MLB.com's AJ Cassavell explains that a rehab assignment is within sight for the soon-to-be 27-year-old.

San Francisco Giants: Fixing Matt Cain

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    The San Francisco Giants won a pair of World Series titles while paying Barry Zito top dollar to be a No. 5 starter.

    Good, so we know it's possible for them to compete even if Matt Cain continues struggling with consistency, as he has in 2013.

    The right-hander will earn $20 million annually for another four seasons. His performance this year, however, has been well short of that.

    The presumed ace of this pitching staff has thrown five innings or fewer in six of his outings. Cain's earned run average sits at 4.43 despite nearly half his starts coming at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park.

Seattle Mariners: Eric Wedge Returning to the Dugout

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    In an interview with Seattle's ESPN radio affiliate, Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge, 45, describes what it was like suffering a stroke during batting practice last month (h/t Seattle Post-Intelligencer):

    I just remember not having control for the first time in my life. I just (was) standing there in the cage, just another day. We were rolling, they’d won six in a row, (I was) thinking about how to take this to the next level. For whatever reason it just took me over. I started losing my head a little bit, started losing my legs a little bit to the point where I couldn’t take a step.

    Friday night's matchup with the Los Angeles Angels marked his return from medical leave.

    The M's posted a 13-15 record in games managed by bench coach Robby Thompson.

St. Louis Cardinals: Sorting out Pitching Roles

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    Unless the Arizona Diamondbacks or Washington Nationals benefit from divine intervention, the five National League playoff teams have already been determined.

    That means the St. Louis Cardinals can focus on which pitchers will fill which roles once the elimination games get underway.

    Manager Mike Matheny knows that his starting rotation will feature Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn (probably in that order). Key bullpen arms will include Randy Choate, Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica.

    For the remainder of the regular season, his primary task is determining which youngsters are best suited to join the staff and whether veteran right-hander Jake Westbrook can still be trusted.

Tampa Bay Rays: Continuing to Defy the Norms

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    The Tampa Bay Rays' off-beat activity is motivated just as much by Joe Maddon's quirkiness as it is by the franchise's modest budget.

    They have a rookie (Wil Myers) occupying an everyday spot in the middle of their lineup. They traded for an injured free-agent-to-be (Jesse Crain) and signed former draft pick Delmon Young, even though he's been performing far below replacement level.

    Strange as the Rays behave, they're currently tied for the fewest losses in the American League.

Texas Rangers: Mending MLB Veterans

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    Major League Baseball's hottest team is 18-4 since being shut down by the Cleveland Indians on July 28. A long-awaited offensive tear has allowed them to leapfrog the Oakland Athletics in the AL West standings.

    However, pitching depth is always imperative to October success, and the Texas Rangers will soon be getting more of it.

    Gerry Fraley of The Dallas Morning News reports that Neftali Feliz threw a scoreless inning at Triple-A. He could be recalled to the big leagues as soon as he shows increased velocity, pitches multiple innings and appears on consecutive days.

    Despite a recent bout of hand numbness, left-hander Matt Harrison isn't being ruled out, either, according to Todd Wills of ESPN Dallas.

Toronto Blue Jays: Who Is Josh Johnson?

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    Alex Anthopoulos' favorite piece of last winter's 12-player blockbuster hasn't come close to meeting expectations.

    The Toronto Blue Jays general manager anticipated that Josh Johnson would stabilize the top of the team's starting rotation. A 6.20 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in only 16 appearances is not what he had in mind.

    A forearm strain has sent the right-hander to the disabled list for the second time this summer, but Ken Fidlin of the Toronto Sun reports that "there is still hope" for him to return to action in 2013.

    He'll reach free agency this offseason. What Johnson does in September could decide whether or not he even receives major league offers.

Washington Nationals: Identifying Davey Johnson's Successor

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    CBS' David Elfin lists a whole bunch of potential replacements for 70-year-old Davey Johnson. They range from in-house candidates like Trent Jewett and Randy Knorr to accomplished major league skippers like Ron Gardenhire and Charlie Manuel.

    It's an extremely attractive position for 2014 and beyond considering all the outstanding talent on the Washington Nationals roster.

    With the exception of Dan Haren, just about every prominent player is either under contract or team control for next season. The team's composition hasn't changed much since 2012, when the Nats led baseball with 98 wins.

     

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