Ranking the Top 2014 MLB Pennant Race X-Factors with 1 Month to Go

Karl Buscheck@@KarlBuscheckContributor IIIAugust 25, 2014

Ranking the Top 2014 MLB Pennant Race X-Factors with 1 Month to Go

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    The baseball season is a grind.

    As the 2014 MLB pennant race hits the stretch drive, it's not just about which teams are playing the best, but also about which teams stay the healthiest. Looking around the league, there are lots of clubs that have recently lost or will soon be regaining key contributors. 

    With a heavy dose of injury-related storylines, what follows is a rundown of the biggest X-factors for the MLB playoff race. The ranking criteria are simple.

    From Masahiro Tanaka to Hanley Ramirez, the players who crack this list are ranked in order of how profoundly they will impact the chase between now and the end of the season. That means that where a given player's club sits in the standings is of critical importance.

6. The Potential Return of Masahiro Tanaka

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    Somehow, Masahiro Tanaka avoided the knife.

    The Japanese right-hander has not only dodged surgery, but he could soon be an option in the New York Yankees rotation. On Saturday, Tanaka threw a 35-pitch live batting practice to a couple of the Yankees' bench players, as Chad Jennings of The Journal News reports.

    Pitching coach Larry Rothschild described the workout as "a good progression" for the rehabbing starter, according to Jennings. Tanaka was more critical, via Jake Kring-Schreifels of MLB.com.

    "I wasn't able to hit my spots as much as I wanted to," he said.

    Still, the fact that the 25-year-old had no issues with his partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow is highly encouraging.

    Up next for Tanaka will be a simulated game Thursday, as manager Joe Girardi explained, via Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. Girardi told Jennings that Tanaka will need to go on a rehab assignment at some undetermined date. Making that happen will require some "creative" maneuvering, as the minor league season is rapidly coming to an end.

    If Tanaka does return, it could be as part of a six-man rotation. As Joel Sherman of the New York Post writes, Rothschild is exploring that idea as a means of keeping the team's arms healthy in 2014 and beyond. With the plague of elbow injuries in baseball in 2014, that will definitely be a trend to watch out for moving forward.

    Still, the potential return of Tanaka ranks last because even with the starter back in the fold, the Yankees have the worst chance of making an October trip of all the teams on this list.

5. The Possibility of Michael Wacha Rejoining the St. Louis Cardinals Rotation

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    Last year, Michael Wacha made quite the late-season impression in St. Louis. The rookie went 2-1 with a 1.72 ERA in September before reeling off a 4-1 record with a 2.64 ERA in the postseason.

    The St. Louis Cardinals are hoping the right-hander will be able to make a similar impact in 2014.

    A stress reaction in his right shoulder has kept Wacha out of action since the middle of June, but the 23-year-old is edging closer to a return. According to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Wacha threw a 35-pitch bullpen session earlier this week, and manager Mike Matheny liked what he saw.

    "It looked really close to what we normally would see when he’s out there [on the mound]," said Matheny.

    The starter will throw three simulated innings and live batting practice to the Cardinals Double-A club on Wednesday and could make a rehab start by the weekend, according to Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com. Following such a timeline, Wacha could rejoin the big league rotation in early September.

    That's excellent news for a club that's looking to surpass the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central—or secure a wild-card spot, at the least.

4. Justin Verlander Finding a Way to Rediscover His Old Form

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    The 2014 season has been a debacle for Justin Verlander.

    The owner of a 4.82 ERA, the 2011 AL Cy Young Award winner is one of the worst starters in the league in that department. With the Detroit Tigers looking up at the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central standings, the club needs Verlander to rediscover his form if the Tigers hope to be playing in October.

    On Saturday, the right-hander took a small step in the right direction, scattering eight hits over 5.2 innings to earn a win against the Minnesota Twins. That performance was especially important considering that the Tigers had been outscored 32-10 in the previous two contests.

    "We needed this one," said Verlander, via Chris Iott of MLive.com. "We definitely needed to win this one, especially with the way we lost the last couple."

    The starter has made a habit of stepping up during the stretch drive. The second-place Tigers will need Verlander to do that again. Otherwise, Detroit could be on the outside looking in when October rolls around.

3. Brandon Moss Regaining His Swing Before the End of the Season

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    There's been all sorts of talk about how the Oakland Athletics offense has disappeared ever since the club jettisoned Yoenis Cespedes to the Boston Red Sox on July 31. There's no question the A's are missing the presence of the Cuban, but it's also worth noting that 2014 AL All-Star Brandon Moss has tumbled into a major slump.

    The 30-year-old has been ice cold in August, hitting .177 with zero home runs in 19 games. Part of that slide can be attributed to the fact that Cespedes isn't hitting after him anymore. Of course, Moss is also one of the streakiest players in all of baseball.

    There's still plenty of time for the left-handed hitter to go on one of his patented tears. That could be exactly what Oakland needs to spark its offense back to life.

2. The Los Angeles Angels Overcoming the Loss of Garrett Richards

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Quietly, Garrett Richards has become one of the most imposing starters in the AL.

    Now that the right-hander has torn the patellar tendon in his left knee, the Los Angeles Angels won't be able to call on Richards for the rest of the season. As Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times points out, the loss is particularly devastating for the Angels, as the club lacks internal replacement options.

    The timing of the injury doesn't help either. With the July 31 trade deadline having already passed, it will be nearly impossible for Los Angeles to swing a waiver trade. The Angels own the best record in baseball, which means the team has the lowest waiver priority of all 30 teams.

    It's difficult to imagine that any of the Angels' playoff rivals would allow even a decent starter to fall to the team. According to Peter Gammons, the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles have been "claiming everyone" that hits the waiver wire. As a result, the job of replacing Richards will fall to one of the starters already on the staff.

1. The Los Angeles Dodgers Getting Healthy at the Right Time

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    The Los Angeles Dodgers might be in first place in the NL West, but there's no disputing that the club has disappointed in 2014.

    The Dodgers have never hit their stride, and it hasn't helped that the team has been dealing with an array of injuries. Fortunately for manager Don Mattingly, the Dodgers are starting to get healthy at just the right time.

    Hanley Ramirez, who spent three weeks on the shelf with a right oblique strain, returned over the weekend. Third baseman Juan Uribe, who is out with a strained hamstring, could be joining Ramirez on the left side of the infield by the beginning of September, as Mattingly explained, via Everett Cook of the Los Angeles Times.

    The rotation should also be getting stronger in the near future. According to Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register, Hyun-Jin Ryu could be back in the mix by the weekend. Plus, as Plunkett reports, the Dodgers still haven't ruled Josh Beckett out for the year.

    All stats and videos courtesy of MLB.com.

    If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.