Each MLB Contender's Biggest Concern as Races Intensify
Entering play on Thursday, 15 teams, or, half of Major League Baseball, entered play within 6.5 games of a postseason spot. With less than six weeks to play in the 2013 season, the races are intensifying and every game is increasingly important.
While pundits debate the merits of future award winners, including MVP and Cy Young in each league, contenders are only as deep as their weakest link.
We can easily point out the strengths of each team, but what about perceived or actual weaknesses as the season moves closer to fall?
In other words, what one pressing concern should loom like a dark cloud over the 15 teams still in the race?
The following concerns deserve your attention down the stretch run.
Boston Red Sox: Clay Buchholz's Rehab
According to the Boston Herald, Clay Buchholz could make his first rehab start as early as this weekend for Single-A Lowell.
The Red Sox held a slim one-game lead in the American League East coming into Thursday. Their chances of winning the division, thus avoiding a one-game wild card playoff, would be buoyed by adding a pitcher that racked up nine wins and an ERA under two before succumbing to injuries in June.
Of course, it's likely that Boston can qualify for October without Buchholz's services. They have an almost 90 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN, but it'll need him to survive the American League playoff gauntlet.
Tampa Bay Rays: Matt Moore
If the Rays qualify for October baseball, their pitching staff is capable of carrying them deep into the postseason for the first time since 2008.
Of course, that staff must be healthy. After successful returns from David Price in June and Alex Cobb in August, left-handed All-Star Matt Moore is the next domino to fall for Tampa's staff. After landing on the disabled list with a sore left elbow, the 24-year-old flame-thrower felt good after a bullpen session in Baltimore on Wednesday, according to MLB.com.
If he returns to form (14-3, 3.49 ERA, 8.5 K/9), Tampa's rotation can stack up with any in the crowded American League postseason picture.
A setback, however, would severely diminish Tampa's chances over the next five weeks.
Baltimore Orioles: Jim Johnson
One year ago, the Baltimore Orioles made an improbable run at 93 wins and an American League wild card berth largely on the strength of their ability to win one-run games.
In 38 contests decided by one run in 2012, Baltimore won a staggering 29 games. When playing in extra innings, the team went 16-2, including reeling off its final 16 after two straight extra-inning losses to enter the season.
A major reason for the Orioles' success was Jim Johnson's campaign. The closer locked down 51 saves, pitching to a 2.49 ERA.
In 2013, the narrative has changed. Baltimore is 14-22 in one-run contests this year. Part of that is because Johnson is making a run at the all-time blown saves record.
If the ninth inning continues to be a question mark for Baltimore, it could cost it a return trip to October.
New York Yankees: Starting Pitching
Heading into the season, the Yankees were expected to have issues with age, injuries and the ability to score runs.
If the Yankees were going to defy the odds and make the postseason, their starting rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte would have to lead the way.
While Kuroda has more than pulled his weight, the rest of the rotation, aside from the emergence of Ivan Nova after a stint in the minor leagues, has been average. A team ERA of 3.79 is buoyed by outstanding work (3.29 ERA in 363 IP) from the bullpen.
In total, the Yankees rotation has pitched to 4.04 ERA, good for eighth in the American League.
If CC Sabathia (4.83 ERA, 4.32 FIP), Andy Pettitte (4.39 ERA) and Phil Hughes (4.58 FIP) can't raise their game down the stretch, the new look offense will have to carry the load to keep the Yankees afloat.
Detroit Tigers: Complacency
While the last two Octobers have ended in disappointing fashion for the Detroit Tigers, there is something to be said for qualifying for back-to-back American League Championship Series and earning a World Series berth.
As the calender nears September, Detroit entered play on Thursday with a 5.5 game lead in the American League Central and boasting the best winning percentage in the league.
Barring unforeseen major injuries to Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer, the team is a virtual lock for October.
That's exactly why manager Jim Leyland needs to keep his veteran team from becoming complacent. It's all about October for the Tigers. Winning a World Series would cap off three years of great baseball with a parade in a city that desperately could use something to cheer for these days.
The Tigers have 36 games left to stay sharp and be mentally ready to perform in October. Approach is almost as important as results on the path to finishing the job.
Cleveland Indians: Next Week
Starting on Tuesday, Cleveland plays nine straight games against Atlanta, Detroit and Baltimore, respectively. All three are playoff-caliber teams with the chance to damage Cleveland's run at either the AL Central or a wild-card berth.
If the Indians can get through that gauntlet, however, the rest of September is very, very favorable.
Upon the conclusion of their series with Baltimore, the Indians schedule the rest of the way includes the New York Mets, Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins. Of that group, only Kansas City appears on this list of contenders.
The schedule is easy, but if Cleveland buries itself in Atlanta, Detroit and Baltimore, the cupcake slate in late September may not matter.
Kansas City Royals: Offense
Here's a quick look at the OPS-plus numbers (via Baseball-Reference) for the players that have received the most playing time in Kansas City this season. Reminder: 100 is league average.
C (Salvador Perez): 87
1B (Eric Hosmer): 115
2B (Chris Getz): 62
3B (Mike Moustakas): 81
SS (Alcides Escobar): 57
LF (Alex Gordon): 101
CF (Lorenzo Cain): 89
RF (David Lough): 97
DH (Billy Butler): 123
Outside of the breakout campaign from first baseman Eric Hosmer and consistently excellent Billy Butler at designated hitter, every member of the Royals offense, including All-Star Alex Gordon, has been average or significantly below average this season.
Led by James Shields and a stellar bullpen, the team has enough pitching to compete, but it will be hard to make the postseason field with an offense ranked 13th in the AL in runs scored.
Oakland Athletics: Starting Pitching Depth
The improbable Oakland run of 2012 was hatched on the back of an underrated and deep pitching staff that carved the way to 94 victories and the American League West championship.
This summer, many of those same names are back, but hardly pitching as well. When Bartolo Colon, the grizzled and big-bodied veteran strike-thrower went down earlier this month with a strained left groin, it left the staff in a flux.
Outside of the consistent Jarrod Parker, Oakland is running out three pitchers (Tommy Milone, Dan Straily, A.J. Griffin) with below average ERA-plus marks for the season. The addition of rookie Sonny Gray may help, but his first few starts are hardly an indicator of how he'll hold up in a pennant race.
If Brett Anderson can return from injury next month, the staff will get a boost, but until then, every five days will be an adventure through Oakland's rotation.
Texas Rangers: Winning Without Dominance
The 2013 Texas Rangers arelikely to qualify for the postseason. With Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Matt Garza atop their rotation, they are also a decent bet to make noise in October.
Still, they aren't as dominant as in past years.
Entering play on Thursday, Texas has actually out played its Pythagorean W-L record by three games. Based on their run differential (plus-72), the Rangers have profiled more like a 71-win team rather than the 74 wins they've banked.
Without the presence of Nelson Cruz or Josh Hamilton in the middle of the order, 12-1 blowout victories are rarer in Texas these days.
It doesn't mean the Rangers can't win and close out another postseason berth, but it's just a little more difficult to do so.
Atlanta Braves: Jason Heyward's Recovery
When Jason Heyward was struck by a Jon Niese fastball on Wednesday, the Atlanta Braves' hopes of winning big in October may have went down with him.
With a 15-game lead in the National League East heading into play on Thursday, there's little reason to believe the Braves won't seal up the division in early to mid-September, but Heyward's availability for the first round of October looms large.
Heyward boasted a .341 average as a leadoff hitter this year. Against pitchers like Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Mat Latos, A.J. Burnett, Adam Wainwright and Francisco Liriano, the Braves will need every ounce of offense they can muster in the postseason.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Finishing
At 74-52, the narratives can stop about the Pirates "collapsing" or failing to finish over .500 for what feels like the 1,000th straight year.
The ability of Clint Hurdle's team to finish this season strong, however, should be a concern.
If Pittsburgh suffers a losing streak, regardless of its excellent chance to withstand it and still make the postseason, will the Pirates question their confidence heading into the franchise's biggest stage in over 20 years?
The talent is clearly there. Now we're going to find out just how good this team can be when trying to hold off St. Louis and Cincinnati in the NL Central.
St. Louis Cardinals: Shelby Miller's Stamina
In 2012, between stops in the minors and majors, Cardinals No. 2 starter Shelby Miller threw 149.4 innings. His dominance late in September set the stage for his breakout campaign in 2013, but now, as the season creeps closer to the end, Miller's ability to carry over his ability into September and October of 2013 are of concern.
At 138.2 innings pitched this season, Miller will pass the 150-inning mark by early September.
Will he have enough left in the tank to join forces with Adam Wainwright atop St. Louis' rotation in October?
Cincinnati Reds: Johnny Cueto's Health
The 2012 Cincinnati Reds rode the back of one of baseball's most durable rotations to October. This summer, one of the stalwarts of that rotation, Johnny Cueto, has been out most of the year with a lat strain.
As Matt Snyder of CBS Sports pointed out, the recent news on his progress wasn't good. Cueto's injury is only about 75 percent healed, and there is no timetable for his return.
If Cueto can resurface for the Reds, he can pair with Mat Latos atop the rotation to give the Reds the top-shelf pitching they thought they possessed last October.
For a team with on-base machines like Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto, an ace like Cueto could be the difference between a sustained October run or wild card game exit.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Peaking Too Early
As Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated pointed out last year, teams that have big success don't necessarily come into the posteason with momentum from a strong September run.
For the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers, that may be a good thing. Unless they've truly morphed into an all-time elite team since June, it's likely that they won't come close to their 42-8 stretch from now through the rest of the season. In other words, they have probably already peaked
That doesn't mean they can't win 11 games in October to capture a World Series, but if they stumble or play just really good—as opposed to amazing—baseball over the next month, expect the peaking themes to emerge.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Odds
In another league or in another year, the Arizona Diamondbacks might be in a much, much more enviable position at 65-60 through 125 games.
This year, however, they only have a small chance to make the postseason.
With the potential of three 90-plus win teams in the NL Central and the runway train that is the Los Angeles Dodgers zooming to an 8.5 game lead in the NL West, it's tough to project a big run for Arizona moving forward.
It's a good club, but in the current state of the National League, there are too many better teams above it.