Checklist for Dark-Horse MLB Teams to Make the Playoffs

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistAugust 23, 2013

Checklist for Dark-Horse MLB Teams to Make the Playoffs

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    With a little over a month to go in the 2013 MLB season, the playoff picture has really begun to take shape. For the teams currently on the outside looking in for a postseason berth, time is certainly not on their side.

    In the American League, the current playoff field would be the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers as division winners and the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics as wild cards.

    Over in the National League, the Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers rank as division leaders, while both wild cards stand to come out of the NL Central, taken by the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds.

    Outside of those 10 clubs, there are six teams as of now that are less than 10 games out of a postseason spot and still have a somewhat realistic chance of making a late-season push and finding themselves in October.

    Here is a closer look at those six teams and what they need to do to overcome the current odds and make it to the playoffs.


    *Postseason odds via Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report and ESPN MLB standings.

Cleveland Indians (69-58, 2.5 Games Back in AL Wild Card)

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    Postseason Odds

    BP: 33.2%

    ESPN: 30.0%


    Checklist for Reaching Postseason

    1. Finish strong against weak teams

    The Indians close out the season with 10 games against teams in the bottom five of my most recent power rankings: the Astros (30), Twins (28) and White Sox (26). That is the easiest finish of any team in the AL playoff race, and the Indians need to make the most of that and not allow those teams to play spoiler.


    2. Get back on track offensively

    In the first half, the Indians were one of the better offenses in baseball, hitting .258/.330/.418 as a team and averaging 4.8 runs per game. They've fallen off in the second half, though, with their triple-slash dropping to .240/.308/.379 with their runs-per-game average down to 4.1. All the pieces are still there for them to pile up runs; they just need to get hot again.


    3. Ubaldo Jimenez keeps pitching like an ace

    Ubaldo Jimenez has been an underperforming disappointment for most of his time in Cleveland, including a disastrous 9-17, 5.40 ERA season last year. However, he's posted a 2.12 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 29.2 innings over his last five starts. If he can give the team a second ace alongside Justin Masterson for the stretch run, it would certainly help.

Baltimore Orioles (68-58, 3.0 Games Back in AL Wild Card)

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    Postseason Odds

    BP: 16.9%

    ESPN: 22.7%


    Checklist for Reaching Postseason

    1. Beat division foes

    The Orioles will square off against AL East foes in 26 of their remaining 36 games, including nine games against the Red Sox and four against the Rays—the two teams they currently trail in the standings. The fact that 10 of those 13 games are on the road makes things harder, but they can make up ground quickly by winning those games.


    2. Figure out the back end of the rotation

    Chris Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen have been consistent all season for the Orioles, and deadline pickup Bud Norris is 3-1 with a 3.91 ERA in five games since coming to Baltimore, but the rest of the rotation is a question mark. Someone from the group of Miguel Gonzalez, Scott Feldman, Jason Hammel and Kevin Gausman needs to step up.


    3. Jim Johnson stops blowing saves

    While he leads the American League with 39 saves this season, Jim Johnson has also lost seven games and blown an MLB-high nine saves, including each of his last three chances. The AL Rolaids Relief Man winner last season, Johnson needs to return to the 2012 form that saw him lose just one game and go 51-of-54 on save chances with a 2.49 ERA.

New York Yankees (68-59, 3.5 Games Back in AL Wild Card)

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    Postseason Odds

    BP: 9.6%

    ESPN: 15.6%


    Checklist for Reaching Postseason

    1. String together some wins in upcoming 10-game homestand

    The Yankees' upcoming schedule features three games each visiting the Rays and Blue Jays, but after that they head home for a 10-game stretch against the Orioles, White Sox and Red Sox. They've played much better at home this year, with a 37-27 record in Yankee Stadium compared to 30-32 on the road. If they're going to get hot and string together some wins, this seems like the time they'll get that started.


    2. Get some run production outside of Alfonso Soriano and Robinson Cano

    The Yankees' deadline acquisition of Alfonso Soriano has been a great one, as he's posted an .895 OPS with nine home runs and 28 RBI in 25 games. Second baseman Robinson Cano has been great once again as well, putting up an .896 OPS with 23 home runs and 81 RBI on the year.

    Outside of those two guys, however, the lineup undoubtedly lacks punch and will need someone to help shoulder some of the run-production load down the stretch.


    3. Have CC Sabathia return to ace form

    Entering the season, few pitchers in baseball had been as consistently good as CC Sabathia over the past several years. He'd won at least 15 games and posted an ERA under 3.50 in each of the past six seasons.

    Things have not gone as smoothly this season, though, as he's 11-10 with a 4.83 ERA over 26 starts, including 2-2 with a 7.86 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break. He has to pitch like a front-line starter if the Yankees are to have a chance.

Arizona Diamondbacks (65-61, 7.0 Games Back in NL Wild Card)

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    Postseason Odds

    BP: 4.4%

    ESPN: 12.4%


    Checklist for Reaching Postseason

    1. Play well during Sept. 5-11 road trip

    Chasing a postseason spot, every game is important for the Diamondbacks at this point, but their early September road trip for seven games against the Giants (4) and Dodgers (3) could be a turning point in their late-season push. The Giants will be looking to play spoiler, and the Dodgers could be playing for home-field advantage, so this stretch looks to be one to circle.


    2. Have someone step up in the rotation behind Patrick Corbin and Wade Miley

    The Diamondbacks had enough starting pitching depth that they were able to deal underperforming Ian Kennedy to the Padres at the deadline, but they continue to struggle at finding consistent production behind young left-handers Patrick Corbin and Wade Miley.

    Randall Delgado has had a solid season, but he has a 6.00 ERA in four August starts, and veterans Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy have been even worse this month.


    3. Get a huge final month from MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt

    In just his second full season in the majors, Paul Goldschmidt has taken his game to an elite level, and he currently leads the National League with 100 RBI and is tied for the league lead with 31 home runs. He has 10 home runs and a .931 OPS since the All-Star break, and they need him to be an absolute beast down the stretch and to carry their offense.

Kansas City Royals (64-62, 7.0 Games Back in AL Wild Card)

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    Postseason Odds

    BP: 0.9%

    ESPN: 4.3%


    Checklist for Reaching Postseason

    1. Survive 12-game stretch against top division rivals

    From Sept. 6 to Sept. 18, the Royals play six games each against the Tigers and Indians—the two teams currently situated above them in the AL Central standings. If they can come away with a winning record during that stretch, they close the season with seven games against the Mariners and White Sox and might still be able to pull this off.


    2. Improved offense needs even more players to step up

    After addressing the pitching staff in the offseason, it is the offense that has been the biggest issue in Kansas City this season. Billy Butler (.894 OPS, 13 RBI), Eric Hosmer (.837 OPS, 19 RBI) and Mike Moustakas (.836 OPS, 14 RBI) have all stepped up their games since the All-Star break, and others will need to join them if the Royals are to have any chance at pulling this off.


    3. Bullpen must remain dominant

    Despite the trade of Jonathan Broxton at the deadline last year and the departure of Joakim Soria in free agency, the Royals bullpen is as good right now as it's been in years. Their 2.65 ERA is tops in the American League, and closer Greg Holland (34-of-36 SV, 1.44 ERA, 14.0 K/9) might be the AL's most dominant reliever.

    That strong performance will need to continue down the stretch, as they can't afford to give away any potential wins. 

Washington Nationals (63-64, 9.5 Games Back in NL Wild Card)

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    Postseason Odds

    BP: 1.1%

    ESPN: 2.1%


    Checklist for Reaching Postseason

    1. Make the most of their remaining games against lesser NL East teams

    Generally, when you’re trying to make up ground in a postseason race, knocking off the teams above you is priority No. 1. In the Nationals' case, however, they have the opportunity to pile up some wins with a ton of games remaining against the teams below them in their own division.

    With a grand total of 23 games remaining against the Marlins, Mets and Phillies, the Nationals may be able to close the gap by simply winning the games they’re supposed to.


    2. Get Jordan Zimmermann back to his first-half form

    Entering the season, most viewed Jordan Zimmermann as a solid pitcher but the clear No. 3 starter on the Nationals behind Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. A first half in which he went 12-4 with a 2.58 ERA quickly changed that opinion, though, as he was not only the best pitcher on his team but one of the best in all of baseball.

    He’s gone just 2-3 with a 6.75 ERA in six starts since the break, however, and the team desperately needs him to get back on track.


    3. Give Jayson Werth some support in the lineup

    Viewed by many as being vastly overpaid since joining the Nationals, Jayson Werth is finally healthy and has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball since the break. The 34-year-old is hitting .393/.492/.654 with eight home runs and 23 RBI in 32 games since the break.

    The rest of the team is hitting a collective .245 in the second half, though, and guys like Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman are going to have to get red-hot if the Nationals are going to claw their way back into the picture.