Ricky Nolasco, Los Angeles Dodgers.
All MLB stars must cope with immense pressure in September. They're either leading teams into the playoffs, trying to buff up their stats for upcoming contract negotiations or responsible for exciting a non-contender's fanbase down the stretch.
Taking advantage of the first competitive season of your career can be just as important as ensuring that your last season before a deal ends finishes on a positive note.
The impact players around the majors who are managing the most stress at this stage of the season are those with uncertain financial futures. The difference between a player suffering a major injury this month and dominating the opposition could be worth tens of millions of dollars to him.
Don't be surprised to discover that many of the stars featured here will enter free agency this winter. It's always fascinating to watch which individuals embrace the pressure and who crumbles underneath it.
*Stats provided by FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. Updated through games of Sept. 9.
We noted previously how the New York Yankees bullpen is in poor shape at a critical stage of the season.
Bleacher Report's Joe Giglio makes it clear that the Bombers have virtually no margin for error as they contend for an AL wild-card berth.
That means Mariano Rivera won't receive much rest during the final September of his Hall of Fame-caliber career.
The 43-year-old's legacy, however, is safe. His dominance out of New York's bullpen from 1996-2012 was unprecedented and his tremendous quality and consistency will be impossible for anyone to replicate.
Of course, Rivera set sky-high standards for himself prior to this farewell tour. A 3.94 earned run average and five blown saves since the beginning of August certainly isn't acceptable to him.
Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago weighed in recently about Starlin Castro's mega-slump:
By his own account, it’s been the most frustrating year of his career. His average has hovered around .240 for most of the season, and his expected power surge hasn’t materialized. But that makes a strong finish all the more important, both for his own confidence and that of a desperate fan base.
For those who may have forgotten, here's a quick refresher summarizing how Castro became a "star" in the first place:
- .300/.347/.408 batting line as rookie in 2010
- Two-time NL All-Star selection (2011, 2012)
- Played every game in 2012 with 14 home runs and 25 stolen bases
There's no way to understate how disappointing the starting shortstop has been on the field for the Cubs in the first year of his $60 million contract extension.
Beyond his terrible plate discipline and sloppy defense, we've witnessed the all-too-familiar mental lapses. Vinnie Duber of CSN Chicago writes that forgetting how many outs there were back in mid-August "served as a microcosm" of Castro's struggles.
Castro told Duber, “I know that kind of thing won’t happen again.”
Rogers noted that Castro. "vowed to finish strong."
The 23-year-old is in store for a hellish winter if he doesn't validate those statements during the next few weeks.
Chris Davis put much of the pressure on himself in July when he deemed Roger Maris the "clean" single-season home run king during an interview with ESPN's Mike & Mike.
At that point, the powerful first baseman seemingly had a legitimate chance of surpassing Maris' 1961 total of 61 homers, and doing it without the aid of the performance-enhancing drugs that fueled Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and—in all likelihood—Sammy Sosa.
However, a post-All-Star break regression has made his pursuit increasingly unrealistic. Davis will need to contribute nearly one home run per game for the rest of September to finish with at least 62.
Although it's a daunting task, the Baltimore Orioles may not qualify for the postseason again unless he nears that magical number.
Their starting rotation has been very inconsistent and closer Jim Johnson isn't executing up to his 2012 standards. Scott Feldman, Adam Jones and Chris Tillman have kept the O's alive in the AL wild-card race, but they can't continue carrying such heavy loads.
Fair or not, Davis is being seen as Baltimore's savior. Moreover, he surely understands that every round-tripper he launches down the stretch strengthens his case to make big bucks as an arbitration-eligible player.
The crop of free-agent starting pitchers figures to be extremely weak this winter.
Thanks to those circumstances, Bartolo Colon's camp could try for an eight-figure payday, even with the right-hander approaching his 41st birthday.
Colon's 2.85 earned run average is the best of his 16-year MLB career. He continues to attack the strike zone with a hearty diet of fastballs while maintaining a reasonable home run rate.
However, his personal history tells us this might be too miraculous to last. Colon has crossed the 170-inning threshold this season for the first time since 2005, but since 2005, Colon has gotten into a habit of fading in September.
Beyond the financial consequences, this could be the right-hander's final opportunity to pitch in the postseason. Of course, Colon was serving a drug suspension when the 2012 Oakland Athletics made their improbable September surge.
He has experienced October baseball five previous times, but has never advanced to the Fall Classic.
Edward Mujica has always been terrific around the strike zone with only 48 unintentional walks from 2006 to 2012, but he's pounding the zone with unfathomable frequency in 2013.
As a first-time closer, the right-hander is locating nearly 75 percent of his pitches for strikes. That's better than Jonathan Papelbon, Mariano Rivera or Koji Uehara have done during any season of their outstanding careers.
This winter, however, teams will care less about that mundane bit of trivia and more about whether or not it suggests Mujica can continue thriving in the closer's role.
His age—Mujica turns 30 in May 2014—and relatively clean injury history will ensure he receives multi-year offers. Meanwhile, there ought to be some skepticism about his pedestrian strikeout rate and suspiciously low .234 BABIP.
First and foremost, the impending free agent must focus on helping the St. Louis Cardinals preserve their slim lead atop the NL Central. If he can generate more swings-and-misses along the way, even better.
Andrew McCutchen and the Pittsburgh Pirates have already shaken the 20-year-old gorilla off their backs by winning their 82nd game of the regular season. For the first time since 1992, the Bucs will finish above the .500 mark.
Of course, McCutchen's work isn't nearly complete.
You may recall that the Bucs were quite competitive in 2012 until their MVP-caliber center fielder faded down the stretch. This year's team has already surpassed that one, but the expectations were much higher for them from the beginning.
Anything less than a division title would be heartbreaking.
As I had writtem in a previous piece for Bleacher Report, Pittsburgh isn't designed to advance deep into the playoffs as an NL Wild Card. The Pirates need home-field advantage and a longer series to showcase their deep starting rotation. To ensure those luxuries, they need to leapfrog the St. Louis Cardinals and hold off the Cincinnati Reds.
Being their most talented everyday player, McCutchen will understandably receive a disproportionate amount of credit for that achievement...and plenty of blame if the Bucs fail.
Roy Halladay has four more scheduled starts, but only one which will come against a competitive team.
Even so, his performance in that small sample could be the difference between an incentive-laden, one-year contract and something in Ryan Dempster's neighborhood of a deal for two years and $26.5 million.
Unfortunately, all indications are that the former NL Cy Young Award-winner isn't close to returning to top-of-the-rotation form.
Since rejoining the Philadelphia Phillies' rotation following shoulder surgery, the right-hander has a respectable 4.24 earned run average and .233 batting average against. On the other hand, with more walks than strikeouts in that span and an ugly 5.93 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) rating, it's clear that Halladay has been more lucky than effective.
Halladay's declining velocity caused an uproar in spring training and Brooks Baseball shows us that the 36-year-old continues to trend in the wrong direction.
He's essentially blind heading into these final matchups. Division rivals on the schedule like the Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins and New York Mets have made dramatic lineup changes since early 2012, which was the last time that Halladay actually resembled an ace.
Ricky Nolasco's age and recent excellence create a safety net that Roy Halladay doesn't have.
Then again, those factors also leave open the possibility of him signing a much-more lucrative contract.
For the fifth time since 2008, the veteran right-hander has surpassed 180 innings pitched.
Bronson Arroyo and A.J. Burnett are the only other impending free agents who can make that same claim. As a 30-year-old, Nolasco is obviously the best candidate of the three to receive a long-term guarantee.
An in-season trade also boosted his earning potential because it eliminated the possibility of receiving a qualifying offer. That means any team can commit to him in free agency without worrying about sacrificing a future draft pick.
Although his entire MLB career has been spent on National League rosters, his dominance of AL lineups this season is encouraging (2.18 ERA, 0.94 WHIP in 33.0 IP). He has surrendered three earned runs or fewer in each of his dozen outings since joining the Los Angeles Dodgers and the change of scenery has coincided with a slight uptick in his strikeout rate.
Nolasco's start-to-start consistency distinguishes him from other potentially available pitchers (five-plus innings pitched in 47 consecutive starts). It's extremely important that his performance down the stretch reinforces that reputation.
That zillion-dollar, Alex Rodriguez-esque, free-agent deal might not be available for Robinson Cano this winter.
As ESPN.com's Buster Olney points out, the Los Angeles Dodgers no longer appear to be a logical landing spot.
They're finalizing contract negotiations with Cuba's Alexander Guerrero, according to Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com, on a $32 million agreement. He's considered someone with starting potential.
Moreover, Jon Heyman of CBS Sports hears that the Los Angeles Angels will try to exchange Howie Kendrick for young pitching. The 2011 All-Star has several weeks remaining to prove he's fully healthy. Anything close to the .301/.341/.437 batting line he posted prior to suffering a knee sprain will ensure he gets plenty of attention on the trade market.
Cano is enjoying another durable and insanely productive campaign. He's batting .308/.382/.512 with 26 home runs, trimming his strikeout rate and continuing to shine defensively.
If this dynamic Dominican star wants to entice other contenders to enter a bidding war with the New York Yankees, he cannot take his foot off the accelerator.
Texas Rangers left-hander Matt Harrison was already shut down for the season due to lingering back issues. On Monday, he underwent a third procedure to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome.
Although general manager Jon Daniels expects the talented lefty to return for 2014, this development will surely compel the Rangers to get more serious about pursuing starting pitching this winter.
With Lance Berkman, A.J. Pierzynski and Nelson Cruz coming off his payroll, Daniels can contend for Matt Garza's services.
Of course, Garza's league interest—and those of all other potential fits—will gradually wane if the right-hander continues slumping. He has pitched to a 5.13 ERA and .804 OPS against during the past six outings, each time exiting after seven innings or fewer.
The dry spell serves as a reminder that Garza surrenders more home runs than prototypical front-line starters and so perhaps he shouldn't be viewed as one. It's going to require downright dominance for the California native to dispel that perception and incite a true bidding war between Texas and other determined buyers.
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