MLB Contenders' Weak Links That Can Send Playoff Hopes Crashing Down

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistAugust 16, 2017

MLB Contenders' Weak Links That Can Send Playoff Hopes Crashing Down

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Sometimes all it takes is one weak link for a team's playoff hopes to go down the drain.

    Whether it's a thin starting rotation, a leaky bullpen, a suddenly anemic offense or a crucial injury, all the teams still battling for a playoff spot have at least one potentially troubling area.

    Excluding the teams who are a lock to reach the postseason and those who have already fallen by the wayside, what follows is a look at the weak link that could be the demise of each MLB contender.

Postseason Locks and Non-Contenders

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Postseason Locks (90 percent playoff probability or better)

    These five teams are locks to be playing in October, and no one weak link will change that.

    • Houston Astros (100 percent)
    • Los Angeles Dodgers (100 percent)
    • Washington Nationals (99.9 percent)
    • Cleveland Indians (99.1 percent)
    • Boston Red Sox (98.9 percent)

    Non-Contenders (10 percent playoff probability or worse)

    With a month and a half to go and less than a 10 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, it's safe to say things have already come crashing down for these clubs.

    • Baltimore Orioles (9.4 percent)
    • Texas Rangers (9.6 percent)
    • Seattle Mariners (8.0 percent)
    • Toronto Blue Jays (7.3 percent)
    • Milwaukee Brewers (5.2 percent)
    • Pittsburgh Pirates (3.8 percent)
    • Miami Marlins (3.8 percent)
    • Detroit Tigers (0.4 percent)
    • New York Mets (0.2 percent)
    • Atlanta Braves (0 percent)
    • Chicago White Sox (0 percent)
    • Cincinnati Reds (0 percent)
    • Oakland Athletics (0 percent)
    • Philadelphia Phillies (0 percent)
    • San Diego Padres (0 percent)
    • San Francisco Giants (0 percent)

Arizona Diamondbacks (66-53, Second in NL West)

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    Fernando Rodney
    Fernando RodneyRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Division Margin: 18.5 games back

    Wild-Card Margin: 5.0 games up

    Postseason Probability: 84.6 percent

          

    Weak Link: Bullpen

    The Arizona Diamondbacks are averaging 4.9 runs per game and boast a starting rotation that ranks third in the majors with a 3.62 ERA—a group that should only improve down the stretch with the return of Robbie Ray.

    That leaves the bullpen as the biggest question mark.

    The relief corps has pitched to a solid 3.65 ERA on the year, good for sixth in the majors, but that's come with a less-than-stellar 29 saves in 45 opportunities.

    Closer Fernando Rodney has converted his last six save chances, but he's also pitched to a 4.81 ERA with five blown saves on the year.

    Meanwhile, lefty relievers T.J. McFarland and Jorge De La Rosa have struggled mightily since the break and the only notable addition at the deadline was former D-backs setup man David Hernandez.

    It might not be a glaring hole, but if anything is going to derail playoff hopes in the desert, it'll be the bullpen.

Chicago Cubs (62-56, First in NL Central)

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    Willson Contreras
    Willson ContrerasNam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Division Margin: 1.5 games up

    Wild-Card Margin: N/A

    Postseason Probability: 88.0 percent

          

    Weak Link: Catcher

    The easy answer for the Chicago Cubs might be to point to a struggling relief corps as the factor most likely to undermine their playoff hopes.

    We're going to dig a bit deeper, though.

    It's not out of line to call catcher Willson Contreras the team's most important player this season. And he was as hot as any hitter in baseball after the All-Star break, but a hamstring injury landed him on the disabled list last week.

    That led B/R's Jacob Shafer to write an article titled "Willson Contreras Injury Could Be Death Blow to Cubs' Playoff Chase" and that's not hyperbole.

    The 25-year-old was hitting .274/.342/.519 with 20 doubles, 21 home runs and 70 RBI at the time of the injury, and he was on fire in the second half with a 1.080 OPS, 10 homers and 29 RBI in 23 games.

    On top of his offensive production out of the cleanup spot, he's also quickly developed into one of the league's best defensive backstops.

    Replacing him with newcomer Alex Avila and rookie Victor Caratini could have a ripple effect on the pitching staff as well.

    The injury is expected to cost him four to six weeks.

Colorado Rockies (66-53, Second in NL West)

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    Greg Holland
    Greg HollandMark Tenally/Associated Press

    Division Margin: 18.5 games back

    Wild-Card Margin: 5.0 games up

    Postseason Probability: 78.5 percent

          

    Weak Link: Bullpen

    For most of the season, Greg Holland has been one of the offseason's best signings, stepping into the closer's role for the Colorado Rockies.

    After missing the 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, Holland inked a one-year, $6 million deal in hopes of rebuilding his stock before another run at free agency.

    Entering the month of August, the 31-year-old had been one of baseball's most dominant relievers. Over 40 appearances, he converted 33 of 34 save chances with a 1.64 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 11.6 K/9.

    However, he's run into a rough patch here in August, blowing a pair of save chances and pitching to a bloated 11.57 ERA over five appearances.

    Fellow bullpen staples Jake McGee (8 G, 8.22 ERA) and Scott Oberg (9 G, 8.59 ERA) have also fallen off since the All-Star break, and deadline-addition Pat Neshek (9 G, 4.26 ERA) has not pitched at the same level he did pre-trade.

    There's no question the Rockies pitching staff as a whole has vastly improved this season, but it'll need to finish strong to punch their ticket to the postseason.

Kansas City Royals (60-59, Third in AL Central)

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    Jason Vargas
    Jason VargasNam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Division Margin: 6.0 games back

    Wild-Card Margin: 0.5 games back

    Postseason Probability: 29.3 percent

          

    Weak Link: Starting pitching

    Danny Duffy is a terrific pitcher and the Kansas City Royals were smart to lock him up with a five-year, $65 million extension during the offseason.

    The rest of the team's starting rotation is suspect at best, though.

    Soft-tossing veteran Jason Vargas overperformed during the first half to earn a place on the AL All-Star team, and he's come crashing back to earth with a 7.08 ERA and just two quality starts in his last seven games.

    Ian Kennedy (6 GS, 1-2, 5.73 ERA) has similarly struggled in the second half, deadline-pickup Trevor Cahill (3 GS, 0-0, 8.18 ERA) hasn't been much help and it's hard to know what to expect from rookie Jake Junis going forward.

    The Royals made an impressive first-half run to transform from clear sellers to mid-level buyers, but in the long run, that may wind up doing more harm than good.

    They held on to valuable trade assets that could have helped bolster a thin farm system, and if they wind up missing the playoffs, it will stand as a huge missed opportunity.

Los Angeles Angels (61-59, Second in AL West)

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    C.J. Cron
    C.J. CronEric Risberg/Associated Press

    Division Margin: 12.5 games back

    Wild-Card Margin: 0.5 games up

    Postseason Probability: 32.2 percent

          

    Weak Link: Offense

    Since taking the league by storm as a rookie during the 2012 season, Mike Trout has been forced to shoulder an inordinate amount of the offensive load for the Los Angeles Angels.

    The result has been just one postseason appearance in his five full MLB seasons—an ALDS sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals in 2014.

    And it's been more of the same this year. Here's a quick look at the team's offensive leaders by OPS+:

    • Mike Trout: 210
    • Andrelton Simmons: 118
    • C.J. Cron: 102
    • Yunel Escobar: 99
    • Cameron Maybin: 89
    • Kole Calhoun: 87
    • Martin Maldonado: 85
    • Albert Pujols: 75

    That's a lot of below-average production, including No. 3 hitter Albert Pujols, who is tasked with protecting Trout.

    The Angels have made a nice run in August thanks in large part to the offense putting up 5.0 runs per game, but is that sustainable the rest of the way?

Minnesota Twins (59-58, Second in AL Central)

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    Matt Belisle
    Matt BelisleJim Mone/Associated Press

    Division Margin: 6.0 games back

    Wild-Card Margin: 0.5 games back

    Postseason Probability: 21.9 percent

          

    Weak Link: Pitching

    A sputtering Minnesota Twins team was riding a 5-12 cold streak leading up to the July 31 trade deadline, and that led the front office to pull the trigger on trading All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler, as well as recently acquired starter Jaime Garcia.

    However, a 7-2 stretch of games heading into play Wednesday—including a six-game winning streak—has them right back in the AL wild-card picture.

    Now they're looking to add pieces once again.

    "We've already pivoted once in this process, and I think we demonstrated a willingness to respond to the way the team's performing," general manager Thad Levine told reporters"On a daily basis, we are active on the trade-waiver wire process. We've placed a lot of claims on players we think can help our team now and in the future."

    The obvious need is on the pitching side of things.

    Young starters Jose Berrios (3 GS, 1-1, 7.04 ERA) and Adalberto Mejia (2 GS, 0-1, 9.00 ERA) have both struggled in August, and the team is currently relying on veteran Matt Belisle in the ninth inning without a proven closer.

    The fact that Bartolo Colon might legitimately be their best pitcher right now speaks volumes.

New York Yankees (63-55, Second in AL East)

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    Masahiro Tanaka
    Masahiro TanakaJulie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Division Margin: 4.5 games back

    Wild-Card Margin: 3.0 games up

    Postseason Probability: 68.9 percent

          

    Weak Link: Starting pitching

    The New York Yankees briefly had an abundance of starting pitching after acquiring Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia at the trade deadline, as they employed a six-man rotation at the beginning of the month.

    However, with CC Sabathia (knee inflammation) and Masahiro Tanaka (shoulder inflammation) both landing on the disabled list last week, the rotation crop has been thinned once again.

    After a rocky start to the season, Tanaka was once again looking like an ace with a 2.89 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in eight starts prior to a poor start on Aug. 9 that served as a precursor to his DL trip.

    "There is no structural damage, according to manager Joe Girardi, and Tanaka isn't expected to miss too much time. Instead, the injury was something that Tanaka said 'gradually built up' and was caused more by fatigue than a specific incident," wrote Matthew Martell of MLB.com.

    Jordan Montgomery has returned to the rotation in place of Sabathia, and Luis Cessa was recalled from the minors to fill in for Tanaka, while top prospect Chance Adams could be an option at some point as well.

    Still, starting pitching has been the big question for the Yankees all season, and after seemingly addressing the issue at the deadline, it once again looks like the biggest potential roadblock in their path to the postseason.

St. Louis Cardinals (61-58, Second in NL Central)

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    Brett Cecil
    Brett CecilTim Spyers/Associated Press

    Division Margin: 1.5 games back

    Wild-Card Margin: 5.0 games back

    Postseason Probability: 32.7 percent

          

    Weak Link: Bullpen

    The St. Louis Cardinals bullpen has come a long way since April when the relief corps posted a brutal 5.55 ERA with three blown saves and three losses.

    It's still far from a strength, though.

    Trevor Rosenthal has returned to dominant form in the ninth inning, a healthy Zach Duke has been a welcome second-half addition and Tyler Lyons has been flat-out untouchable (12 G, 11.0 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 16 K) since the All-Star break.

    However, the lefty duo of Kevin Siegrist (8 G, 5.14 ERA) and Brett Cecil (14 G, 7.07 ERA) has continued to struggle in the second half, last year's closer Seung Hwan Oh is not the same reliable weapon he was a year ago and the rest of the pen is largely unproven.

    Deploying rookie Luke Weaver as a reliever once rosters expand is one potential in-house option, but for the most part, it will be up to the current group to pitch up to its potential if the Cards are going to capture the NL Central title.

Tampa Bay Rays (60-61, Fourth in AL East)

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    Corey Dickerson
    Corey DickersonChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Division Margin: 9.0 games back

    Wild-Card Margin: 1.5 games back

    Postseason Probability: 18.8 percent

          

    Weak Link: Offense

    Feeble? Anemic? Lifeless? Nonexistent?

    Take your pick of harsh adjectives to describe the Tampa Bay Rays offense since the All-Star break, a stark contrast from the first half when it was a legitimate strength.

    • 1st Half: .257 BA, .774 OPS, 4.8 RPG
    • 2nd Half: .214 BA, .642 OPS, 3.1 RPG

    And things are not trending in the right direction:

    • August: .204 BA, .603 OPS, 2.3 RPG

    Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times wrote:

    "When a team is going as bad as the Rays are, including Monday's 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays, there has to be somebody to blame, right?

    When a team gets shut out five times in an eight-game span? Scores a stunningly low 12 runs in a 10-game stretch? Comes up empty in 81 of the last 91 innings it batted?

    To this point, there has been no finger-pointing in the clubhouse. No widespread sense of panic, or desperation. No massive wave of negativity that has washed over them."

    Positivity is great, but unless the offense can right the ship soon, the Rays will be watching the playoffs from home.

          

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and accurate through Tuesday's games. Playoff probabilities courtesy of FanGraphs and current as of Tuesday night.