The final month of the 2014 MLB season is right around the corner, and with roughly 17 teams still in a legitimate position to contend for a playoff spot, it promises to be an exciting month of baseball.
For now, though, let's turn our attention to the teams that are not in the playoff hunt. They may not be gearing up for an October run, but the non-contenders can still shake things up for the teams looking to reach the postseason by playing spoiler down the stretch.
What follows is a look at the three non-contending teams in the best position to spoil pennant races.
When selecting these three teams, two major factors separated them from the pack.
- Opportunity. In order to play spoiler, a team obviously needs to be matched up against contenders. These three teams all have several games remaining that will affect both the division and wild-card standings.
- Recent Performance. August records, with particular attention to run differential, served as a useful tool in gauging how the team is performing of late. All three of these teams have a positive run differential and are at least approaching a .500 record for the month, which could be a good indicator for continued success moving forward.
With that, here are the three teams in the best position to play the role of spoiler down the stretch.
All signs point to a fourth straight season with 90-plus losses and another last-place finish for the Cubs this year, but there is plenty of reason for excitement on the North Side.
Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are enjoying bounce-back seasons, Chris Coghlan has been one of the better scrap-heap finds of 2014 and uber-prospect Javier Baez has finally arrived in Chicago along with Arismendy Alcantara and Kyle Hendricks.
"These young men are getting a taste of being in the big leagues, playing against a lot of clubs that are competing for the postseason," manager Rick Renteria told reporters. "We hope that we are relevant in that process in terms of how we go out and play the game."
Hendricks (8 GS, 5-1, 1.78 ERA) has teamed with Jake Arrieta (7-4, 2.53 ERA) to form a dynamic and completely unexpected duo atop the rotation.
Meanwhile, 33-year-old rookie Tsuyoshi Wada (7 GS, 3-1, 2.75 ERA) has more than held his own.
After putting three teams in the playoffs a year ago, the NL Central once again has three teams in position to legitimately contend in the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Cubs have gone a combined 15-23 against those teams, but that is skewed a bit by a 4-9 record against the Pirates.
They still have seven games left with the Cardinals and six each with the Brewers and Pirates, while also matching up with the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers in their remaining non-division series. Therefore, they will have plenty of opportunities to play spoiler.
They may not have anything to play for here in 2014, but this is a Cubs team on the rise with plenty of young players that have something to prove for 2015.
More call-ups are likely on the way once rosters expand in September, and with a newfound optimism and excitement in the organization, the Cubs will be far from pushovers down the stretch.
The Twins surprised more than a few people when they opened the year 23-21, and while they have fallen off since, they are a respectable 10-12 in August with a plus-18 run differential.
Despite their 58-71 record, they have actually played well against the three AL Central contenders. They have bested the Detroit Tigers so far at 6-5 on the year, while they are 6-7 against the Cleveland Indians and 7-9 against the Kansas City Royals.
That leaves them with three games to play against the Royals, six against the Indians and eight against the Tigers, including a four-game series in Detroit to close out the year.
They also match up with the Los Angeles Angels and Baltimore Orioles for non-divisional series down the stretch as those two teams try to solidify their place in the postseason as well.
Starting pitching has been an issue in Minnesota once again this year, as its 5.02 ERA among starters is good for 28th in MLB.
Outside of Phil Hughes (14-8, 3.65 ERA), that continues to be an issue in the second half. However, with guys like Trevor May, Tommy Milone and potentially Logan Darnell and Alex Meyer hungry to prove they deserve a spot in the 2015 rotation, that could change in August and September.
Offensively, they continue to quietly be one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball, ranking seventh in MLB at 4.31 runs per game.
Brian Dozier is officially a member of the 20/20 club, Joe Mauer is back healthy and rookies Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas have been terrific in unexpectedly large roles.
More than anything, scheduling puts the Twins in position to play spoiler, but they have the right mix of solid veterans and rookies hungry to prove themselves to make some legitimate noise.
San Diego Padres
The Padres have quietly been playing really good baseball since the All-Star break, going 18-15 and posting a plus-33 run differential.
They had the potential to be dark-horse contenders this season, but an anemic offense kept that from happening. Instead, they find themselves playing for third place in the NL West while the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants battle it out for the division title.
They're in a position to spoil that division race for someone, as they have six games remaining against the Dodgers and seven against the Giants.
Those seven games with the Giants sandwich a home series with the Colorado Rockies to close out the year.
Both the Dodgers and Giants have ranked in the middle of the pack offensively in August, and with the Padres boasting one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, that could be an issue.
With a 3.16 ERA overall, the team currently trails only the Seattle Mariners (2.93) and Washington Nationals (3.07), and its 2.41 bullpen ERA is the best in the National League.
Tyson Ross (11-12, 2.68 ERA) and Odrisamer Despaigne (3-5, 3.44 ERA) have been terrific atop the rotation, while Ian Kennedy (9-11, 3.72 ERA) is enjoying a nice bounce-back year. Opening Day starter Andrew Cashner is finally back after an extended stay on the disabled list.
Which team is in the best position to play spoiler?
The relief corps is still terrific even with Huston Street traded. Joaquin Benoit (48 G, 1.64 ERA) has slid into the closer's role, and Dale Thayer (57 G, 2.05 ERA), Alex Torres (57 G, 2.78 ERA) and Nick Vincent (44 G, 3.79 ERA) still give them plus setup options.
On the offensive side of things, they have been historically bad this season, but even that has improved here in the second half.
After averaging 2.94 runs per game in the first half, they have improved that number to 4.38 since the All-Star break.
Jedd Gyorko has finally snapped out of what was a season-long slump, while deadline acquisition Yangervis Solarte has provided a nice spark as well.
This team still has some work to do if it hopes to contend, but it is in a great position to play spoiler in the NL West and will by no means be an easy matchup down the stretch.
Advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.