We are in the home stretch of the long, arduous MLB season. The Minnesota Twins have wrapped up the AL Central, while five others (New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds) are all pretty much guaranteed spots.
That leaves the quartet of the Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies jockeying for the final two postseason spots: the National League West Crown and the NL Wild Card.
While each team has their strong points, such as the Padres pitching, and the Rockies having MVP candidates Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez (nice move Billy Beane), they also have their issues.
Below are the top ten players or factors that could affect teams already in or fighting for a postseason spot.
1) Justin Morneau
How bad was that innocuous slide into second base on July 7th for Morneau and the Twins? Well, it turned out to be very harmful, as Morneau has not played since that day, missing over 60 games with a concussion.
Prior to the injury, Morneau hit .345 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs and the former 2006 MVP was on his way to another award this season.
There is no set timetable for Morneau's return, and while he did take batting practice last week, his symptoms persist.
The Twins have fared very well in Morneau's absence (Michael Cuddyer has moved to first base and filled in admirably), but that was mostly against the mediocre at best AL Central foes. The absence of Justin's big bat in the middle of the lineup could prove fatal in the post season against a team like the Rays, Yankees or Rangers.
2) Joe Mauer
Not only has Morneau missed considerable time, but now the other M of the "M & M Boys" is out with an injury. Mauer hurt his left knee swinging during a game this past Sunday, but an MRI has revealed no structural damage.
This is great news for the Twins who were hoping Mauer did not aggravate a prior left knee injury he suffered in 2004 which ended his rookie season. That injury to his meniscus required surgery.
Winning the division on Tuesday night gives the Twins time to get Mauer needed rest and hopefully back into the lineup for the Division Series.
3) Josh Hamilton
Will Hamilton be able to overcome the pain and play in the post season? Finally diagnosed with two slightly cracked ribs, Hamilton hasn't played since September 4th. The Rangers lost that game and have been 8-8 with Hamilton out of the lineup.
That is not good enough in the postseason. The Rangers heavy right handed hitting lineup needs Hamilton's left handed production to win.
My bet is Hamilton plays through the pain.
4) AJ Burnett
The Yankees were ecstatic when Andy Pettitte pitched six high quality innings in his first major league outing after missing two months with a groin strain. Why he was not allowed a seventh inning is still puzzling, but his success gives the Yankees another consistent, top starter for the postseason.
With Phil Hughes back on track after last night's performance, the Yankees have their third starter ready to go.
But unlike last season, when the Yankees rode three starters to a World Series title, they need four this year.
That is where AJ Burnett comes into play.
Will he be good AJ or bad AJ? He had a horrible June (0-4, 11.35 ERA) and August (0-4, 7.80 ERA), but a great April (3-0, 2.43 ERA) and July (3-1, 2.00 ERA).
His four starts in September have been OK, but unless the Yankees crush the ball in a game, none have been good enough to win a tight postseason game.
He will get a start, but whether it is in Game 2 or Game 4 will depend on how AJ pitches in his last couple starts.
5) Matt Garza and All Rays Pitchers Not Named David Price
This is basically all about the Rays starting pitching, and many of their relievers too. Widely recognized as the premier organization in developing starting pitching, this facet of their team has been terrible in September.
And their relievers have not been great either.
After the recent debacles by Garza and James Shields in the Bronx, Rays starters are 4-6, with a 5.47 ERA and 1.510 WHIP. Remove the four starts by Price, and Rays starters are 2-6, 7.11 ERA in September.
As mentioned previously, the relievers have not fared much better, posting a 4-4 record, 5.07 ERA and 1.459 WHIP.
But with his prior postseason success, Garza again needs to be the No. 2 man behind Price. Other than that, it is up in the air, and if I were Joe Maddon, I would not hesitate to start rookie Jeremy Hellickson in a postseason game.
6) Francisco Cordero
The Reds closer has recently been nothing short of a nightmare. In eight September appearances, Cordero has a 1-1 record with two blown saves and a couple more really scary moments.
His walk rate of 4.8 per nine innings pitched is an insanely high rate for a reliever, let alone a closer. And now he is giving up well more than a hit per inning this past month.
With Aroldis Chapman slinging 103 MPH fastballs and hard-breaking sliders, if Cordero continues to falter in the next two weeks, the Cuban defector is a viable option to close for Reds manager Dusty Baker.
But closing in postseason games is another matter and Chapman has only a month of major league baseball under his belt. My guess is Baker sticks with Cordero, good or bad.
Red fans hope it is the former.
7) San Francisco's Lineup
If the Giants lose a postseason spot in 2010, they will look back at the time from the season's commencement through May 27th.
Why? Those days contained the 47 games in which Buster Posey did not play for the Giants. The Giants management told their fans that Posey was "not ready" for the majors behind the plate, but they still needed his bat.
Well, he seemed pretty good to me, and his bat was definitely ready. So, instead of trying to save money by eliminating his Super 2 status, the struggles of Bengie Molina warranted Posey's call up before the Giants really intended.
But waiting so long might have cost the Giants a few wins early in the season. The Braves are happy they brought up Jason Heyward early. Imagine where the Braves would be now if they did not have Heyward's .292 AVG/.400 OBP/.578 SLG/.978 OPS in April and May?
Since Barry Bonds last played in 2007, the Giants have always struggled with their offense. They added Aubrey Huff and desperate for offense, the Giants signed two of the biggest negative clubhouse influences in Pat Burrell and Jose Guillen.
Those moves were made because last year's hitting star, Pablo Sandoval, has struggled all season. The Giants are 12-6 in September, but have scored two or fewer runs in 11 of those contests.
That will not get it done the last dozen games.
Burrell and Guillen have helped in spurts and surprisingly have not caused any issues, but the Sabermetrics guys would say their short time in San Francisco would be a "very short sample."
The pitching is there in San Francisco, but guys like Sandoval need to hit better, and Burrell and Guillen need to be more productive.
You would hate to have to look back on the first two months and think what might have been? Especially if the Giant miss out on the postseason while Heyward and the Braves sneak in as the Wild Card.
8) San Diego's Confidence and Strength
The Friars suffered through a stretch where they lost 10 straight games, but still held on to the NL West lead. But after sweeping three games from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Pads went on to lose five of their next 12.
Now they are a half game behind the division leading Giants and a full game behind the Wild Card leading Braves. Interestingly, none of these games are in the loss column, as all three teams have 66 losses.
But this season for the Padres will not come down to their offense (anemic, but still better than the Giants) or their pitching (good, but nearly as good as the Giants), but their constitution and strength.
While they are a small market team with a low payroll, this is NOT a exceedingly young team. Veteran presence is strong with Adrian Gonzalez, David Eckstein, Yorvit Torrealba and recent additions Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick.
Three of the starting pitchers are young, including ace Mat Latos (who has been bombed in his last two starts), but veterans Jon Garland and an experienced bullpen headed by Heath Bell and Mike Adams are sound.
My feeling is that the Padres' veterans and staid manager Buddy Black overcome this lowpoint and come away with a postseason spot. This will be helped by a favorable schedule which sees two more games versus the lowly Dodgers and a seven game homestand against long-distance travel teams in Cincinnati and Chicago.
But the final three game trip to San Francisco is going to be must watch TV late at night here on the East Coast.
9) Joulys Chacin
They have Tulo and CarGo, and Jason Giambi probably is wearing his golden thong again. The lineup has produced a .298/.370/.476/.846 OPS helping lead the annual September surge for the Rocks.
But their pitching staff is just OK, and even with Ubaldo Jiminez seeming to round back into form, their starters are only 8-8 with a 4.05 ERA in September.
A key for them is of course, Jiminez, but Joulys Chacin needs to throw the ball well in his last two starts to keep the bullpen rested and to add another ace to the staff. The Rockies bullpen is throwing more than three innings per game in September with a 4.47 ERA over this span.
The 23-year-old Venezualan rookie is 4-1, 1.88 ERA in his last seven appearances, but has only averaged six innings in those starts. He must be allowed to go longer in his starts like his last outing of eight innings.
10) Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson
In September, the Braves starting pitchers are 7-10 with a 4.88 ERA but the relievers are much better with a 2-1 record and 2.27 ERA.
Much of that starting pitcher nastiness is centered on two guys, youngsters Mike Minor and Jair Jurrjens. They are a combined 1-4, 7.87 ERA and 1.781 WHIP in 32 IP over seven starts!
And Jurrjens was removed from his last start with what is diagnosed as a small horizontal tear in his meniscus. This injury is to his right knee, his posting leg when on the hill. I would not let him pitch again this season.
With all these injuries and subpar performances, the Braves big three starting pitchers need to produce like they have most of the season. If Derek Lowe (3-0, 1.35 ERA in September), Tommy Hanson (2-1, 2.77 ERA) and Tim Hudson (1-3, 5.33 ERA, but a good last start) can perform well, they can balance out the pitching and a recently shaky offense.
Much of these issues revolve around pitching, mostly starting pitching. Great pitching is paramount in September and in the postseason.
In regards to injuries, with the minor league seasons over, this eliminates game situations for injured starts for Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Josh Hamilton before they get into a meaningful game. Even if they play, and Mauer and Hamilton are locks to play in the postseason, how will their layoffs affect their performances?
That is what pressure players do. They perform when the odds are against them. The stars who do play well, and the rotations which perform the best, will get those last two coveted spots in the National League and will decide who advances to the World Series.