If the season were to end today, the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres, and Philadelphia Phillies would make the playoffs.
Of course, we still have a month left. Most of the above teams will make the playoffs, as end-of-August division leaders almost always do. But there are still plenty of questions revolving around these playoff contenders and a few teams that remain in striking distance heading into September.
What will the future hold for 10 of baseball's playoff contenders? Let's find out.
Buster Posey is going to win the National League Rookie of the Year. Yeah, Jason Heyward has had a very good season, as has Jaime Garcia. Stephen Strasburg had a great month and a half. Mike Stanton and Starlin Castro have also had good rookie years. But Posey is the only choice.
Since a call-up in early June, Posey has hit .329 with a .372 OBP and a .505 SLG. An above-average defensive catcher OPS'ing .877 is impressive, especially when that catcher is a rookie.
Despite Posey's impressive season, and unexpected success from Aubrey Huff, the Giants offense has struggled this season, and with time running out, it appears as though San Francisco will finish the season on the outside looking in, as they have in every season since 2003. The Giants still have a chance, but it's fading fast.
I'd put my money on San Diego.
With a month to go in the season, the National League MVP race has developed into a flat-footed tie. Joey Votto, the Reds' young first baseman, leads the league in average, slugging percentage, and wOBA. Albert Pujols leads in home runs, RBI, OBP, and OPS.
Both players seem to have a legitimate shot to take home the Triple Crown, and with that, the MVP award. Votto is a great player, there's no doubt about that. But Pujols is special. If I had to put my money on one of these guys pulling off the Triple Crown, give me Phat Albert.
Should Pujols win the Triple Crown, the MVP race is over. Same thing with Votto. If Pujols comes close, given his reputation and the historic nature of a third straight MVP award, I think voters will give him the benefit of the doubt.
While I think Votto and the Reds will narrowly edge out Pujols and his Cards, Pujols will take home the hardware—and quite possibly the first Triple Crown in four decades—come November.
Before his injury, Justin Morneau was the American League MVP favorite. For much of the season, Morneau led the league in average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage while playing Gold Glove defense at first base.
When Morneau suffered a concussion on July 7th, the Twins were actually not in first place, and from that perspective, his injury does not appear to have caused them much trouble.
They still lead the Majors in batting average. Their rotation, led by Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano, has been solid, as has their bullpen. And as of today, they have a 4.5-game lead in the division.
The Twins seem to be in good position to hold off the White Sox and reach the playoffs, but you never know. They have a talented and well-rounded roster. But as was the case at the beginning of the season, Minnesota does not appear to be a team of the caliber of the Yankees, Rangers, or Rays. Even if they make the playoffs, a first round exit seems likely.
A healthy Morneau, playing like he was for three months this season, could change that. But with his return in doubt, the Twins postseason chances aren't looking too hot. It's another talented slugger who could spell trouble for Minnesota though...
A little over two years ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired Manny Ramirez from the Boston Red Sox. Manny was having a subpar season, but caught fire with LA and led the team to the playoffs, hitting over .400 in his two months out west.
Fast forward to 2010, and the Dodgers are the team unloading Manny, sending him to the South Side of Chicago after only 66 games with the team this year. Manny's numbers for the season are good on the whole, with an average over .300 and an OPS over .900, but injuries and a lack of power have kept him from having a truly Manny-esque season.
Yes, Manny is two years older now. But I've always believed that, when he wants to, Ramirez can do just about anything. That's not to say he's lazy, or doesn't care, but with the Dodgers out of contention, and the relatively poor way his post-2008 Dodgers' career has turned out, it's not surprising that he's struggled.
Manny is playing for a contract now. He's on a competitive team in a new city. The fans there will embrace him, and he'll reward them with a strong month of September.
The White Sox rotation is fairly strong. Mark Buehrle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd represent a solid if not spectacular top three, and Edwin Jackson has found something since his trade from Arizona. The White Sox also have a talented back-end to their bullpen, led by Bobby Jenks, Matt Thornton, and JJ Putz. They also have a solid offensive core (Pierre, Konerko, Rios, to name a few).
Add a motivated Ramirez, and this team could upset the Twins and storm into the playoffs as the Central Division winner.
The Padres have the best record in the National League as of today, and look poised to take the National League West for the first time since 2006. I can't say I expected this kind of success. But the real question at this point is simple...can the Padres compete with the likes of Cincinnati and Atlanta, teams with inferior records but better rosters on paper, come October?
I respect the job Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Padres organization has done this past year rebuilding one of the worst teams in baseball, and seemingly overnight turning them into a contender. They have one of the best defensive rosters in all of baseball. They also have a deep and talented rotation, led by phenom Mat Latos. And their bullpen—Heath Bell, Mike Adams, Luke Gregerson, Tim Stauffer, Joe Thatcher—is without a doubt, the best in baseball.
As great as the Padres are at preventing runs, I don't see them as the team to beat in the National League. Come playoff time, just about anything can happen. But if I had to put my money on a potential Philadelphia-San Diego series, I'll take the Phillies.
The Padres' offense simply cannot compete. As much as I admire Adrian Gonzalez, one of the five best hitters in the league, in my opinion, no one man can carry an offense. And that's what the Padres have right now. They'll make the playoffs, but I can't see them advancing to the World Series.
The Rays are tied with New York for the best record in baseball, and while I consider the Yankees the superior team, it's impossible not to appreciate the Rays' rotational depth.
David Price is 15-6 on the season with a 3.01 ERA, and a leading Cy Young candidate. The Rays No. 2, Matt Garza, who burst out of the gates this April, only to struggle throughout the summer, has regained his early season form this month.
The Rays' newest rotation member, Jeremy Hellickson, was one of the top pitchers in the minor leagues before receiving the call. In four starts this year, Hellickson is 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA and a 6.25 K/BB rate.
But the Rays dark horse is none other than James Shields, once a dependable No. 2 starter who has struggled this season with an ERA in the high-fours. Shields has demonstrated well above-average control and an ability to strike batters out. If he can just catch a break down the stretch, he could regain his early season form, giving the Rays possibly the league's best rotation.
Either way, the Rays' talented, deep, and well-rounded roster, especially their rotation, will be too much for Boston to handle. They'll slide into the playoffs with the second-best record in baseball, barely losing out on the AL East to New York.
As great a season as Cliff Lee is having, his two months with the Rangers have been anything but perfect. Lee, who was acquired by Texas in early July, and leading the American League Cy Young race then, has a 2-5 record and 4.50 ERA with the team.
But those numbers are misleading. Lee's underlying numbers remain nearly identical with the Rangers, as his strikeout rate has dropped just 0.2, from 7.9 to 7.7, and his walk rate has risen just 0.2, from 0.5 to 0.7 walks per nine innings. These numbers are all very impressive. And while his K/BB rate has declined in the Lone Star State, Lee's 11.17 mark as a Ranger would still break baseball's all-time record.
What's happened to Lee? It's pretty simple. He's had a run of bad luck since joining Texas, and as a fly-ball pitcher in Arlington, things have gotten ugly. In the month of August, Lee has a .382 BABIP, about 80 points above the league average, and a HR/FB rate of 10.2, around league average but far above what one would expect from Lee.
Lee will be alright. He pitched eight innings a start and strikeouts 13 batters for every one he walks. He's had a bad month, but everyone does every once in a while. Come October, when the Rangers are crowned AL West champions, Lee will again be the best pitcher in the American League, and will lead a strong Rangers rotation in the ALDS and beyond.
As great a season as Jason Heyward is having, especially for a rookie, imagine what his numbers would look like had he not played through an injury this June?
Heyward, who's hitting .272 on the season with a .385 OBP and .464 SLG, has an impressive .849 OPS and 129 OPS+. However, in every month outside of June, Heyward has posted an OPS above .880, including a 1.081 OPS in the month of May.
Heyward followed up his tremendous May by hitting just .181 while playing hurt in June, but has since rebounded with two impressive months.
Heyward is possibly the Braves' best offensive player, and has carried the team for stretches this year. Along with Brian McCann, one of the league's better rotations, and a bullpen led by Billy Wagner, the Braves look poised to win the National League East. A first-round matchup against the Reds seems to favor the Braves ever so slightly.
But can Atlanta defeat its division rivals in the NLCS?
Is there any doubt that Roy Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball? Halladay hasn't won the Cy Young award since 2003, but that's not for lack of success. His 2009 season would have been enough in most years. And since moving the Phillies, his game has again reached another level.
Forget the perfect game, that's just icing on the cake. Halladay leads the National League in ERA, strikeouts, and K/BB rate. He's got one fewer win than leader Adam Wainwright, and has a chance to reach 20 wins by the end of the season. Halladay, like Pujols, is in great position to win his respective Triple Crown, and capture the most prestigious award in his profession.
The Phillies, like their ace pitcher, have dominated the baseball landscape the last few years, making it to the last two World Series and winning one of them. Despite a relatively mediocre 2010 season, the Phillies lead the National League Wild Card race, and in the playoffs, they could again be extremely dangerous.
Imagine having Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, or Roy Oswalt start almost every game your team plays in October. That's what the Phillies can throw at teams in a month. I expect them to capture the Wild Card, defeat the Padres in the first round, and also defeat their division rivals in an NLCS to remember.
The Yankees have the best record in baseball, and lead far and away baseball's best division. But they aren't without their flaws.
Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Derek Jeter, their three best players just a season ago, have struggled on the season. Their rotation, led by Cy Young contender CC Sabathia, has been otherwise quite shaky. And until recently, their bullpen appeared to be in shambles outside of closer Mariano Rivera.
But all that changed around a month ago. The Yankees acquired reliever Kerry Wood from the Indians, and the re-energized bullpen has the best ERA in baseball over the past month. Wood, who has 15 strikeouts and only a single earned run since joining the team, has stepped into the setup role. Former setup-man Joba Chamberlain has also settled down, with a 2.25 ERA on the month, and Rivera has been solid all season long.
Can this continue?
Mariano is Mariano, and Wood has some track record of success from the bullpen, showing off his closing skills with the Cubs in 2008. Joba, despite his early season failures, also has a track record as a premier middle reliever, and his underlying numbers, especially his strikeout rate, have been strong all season. 25-year-old David Robertson is also one of baseball's most dominating young middle relievers, and despite shaky control, his incredible stuff makes him a solid option for any bullpen.
The Yankees have the best lineup in baseball, but a rotation that is, for now, quite shaky. With this kind of offense and bullpen backing them up however, Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte, and Co. will have a much easier time winning games come October, and should be able to return the Yankees to the World Series.