Every MLB Playoff Hopeful's Achilles' Heel Heading Down the Stretch
Even the best MLB teams have weaknesses. Sure, it all feels like good problems to have when you're in the postseason mix.
But the weaknesses can be the difference in being a serious contender, or just a team that won a bunch of games.
For some teams, it's a particular player or position group, maybe even the manager, holding them back from greatness.
Win 90-100 games and there's still an Achilles' heel somewhere. That's what we look to determine among this year's MLB contenders, defined in this exercise as teams within at least three games of either their division or wild card.
Let's start in the American League and work our way down to the National League.
Houston Astros: Center Field
The Houston Astros have been trying to figure out center field ever since George Springer left for the Toronto Blue Jays in free agency after the pandemic-shortened season in 2020.
They sent Myles Straw to the Cleveland Guardians ahead of last year's trade deadline but have not received the production expected from Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers (recently demoted to Triple-A) or José Siri, who they traded to the Tampa Bay Rays ahead of this year's deadline.
Houston's center field position ranks 23rd in wRC+, while Astros hitters overall rank sixth in that category.
General manager James Click addressed their offensive issues by trading for Trey Mancini and Christian Vázquez. They also added left-handed reliever Will Smith to their bullpen, and he's been better lately.
But there is still an obvious hole in center, between McCormick and Mauricio Dubón. In the postseason, don't be surprised to see All-Star right fielder Kyle Tucker move over to center to allow their best bats into the lineup.
New York Yankees: Middle Infield
All season, the New York Yankees' obvious holes have been in the middle infield. Trading for Isiah Kiner-Falefa this offseason left a lot to be desired, especially considering Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Trevor Story headlined the free-agent class of shortstops.
It seemed like the Yankees were settling until they were ready to promote talented shortstop prospects like Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza.
That notion has only been validated by their lack of production at that position. Yankees shortstops rank 22nd in WAR and 18th in wRC+. Defensively, they are 26th in outs above average and tied for the 10th-most errors at the position.
And it's not just shortstop.
Second baseman Gleyber Torres has underperformed again this year, posting career lows in batting average and on-base percentage.
No one is going to feel sorry for the Yankees with that lineup, with a top-five OPS powered by AL MVP candidate Aaron Judge. Their pitching overall is posting impressive numbers: top five in ERA, WHIP and opponent batting average.
But if there is a clear weakness on this team, it's those middle infield spots.
Cleveland Guardians: Run Production, Youth
While the Cleveland Guardians have been a pleasant surprise as leaders of the AL Central with under 30 games to play, it's been interesting to watch them do it without a ton of offense.
Aside from April, when Cleveland ranked sixth in OPS and tied for the sixth-most runs scored, this has been a below-average offense getting by with playing well-rounded baseball.
In August, the Guardians ranked 25th in OPS and 26th in runs scored. Only the Detroit Tigers, Miami Marlins and Oakland Athletics hit fewer home runs for the month.
Entering Wednesday's action, only the Guardians and Marlins had fewer than two home runs in September, and Miami had played two fewer games than Cleveland.
Add to this the Guardians having the youngest team in baseball and it's easy to see them having hiccups down the stretch, even as they try to win a weak division.
Tampa Bay Rays: Slugging
Of the contending AL teams, the Rays are only hitting better than the Cleveland Guardians, who are young and have surprised MLB just being in this position.
Across baseball, Tampa Bay ranks 23rd in home runs, 19th in slugging, 18th in runs scored and 21st in OPS. Obviously, those are all below-average numbers for a team hoping to make its second World Series appearance in three seasons.
This Achilles' heel has not kept the Rays from winning games. They are tied with the Seattle Mariners for the second-best AL record since the Aug. 2 trade deadline, when Tampa was not active in making big-time acquisitions.
The Rays have relied on their typically elite pitching, which ranks in the top five in ERA, WHIP and opponent batting average.
But they lack the consistent firepower to keep up with the Yankees, Blue Jays or Astros. Aside from Randy Arozarena, there isn't really a player who strikes fear in the opposition.
Seattle Mariners: Carlos Santana
The Seattle Mariners traded for Santana from the Kansas City Royals in June to help with their bench. There have been some cool moments.
Santana slashed .282/.404/.539 in his first 12 games with Seattle, and the team went 11-1 in that span. But he's slashing .169/.272/.315 in his last 30 games.
Santana hit five home runs in July but has just three since Aug. 3. His production simply is not good enough to justify consistent at-bats.
The Mariners, to be clear, have been excellent since the All-Star break (26-17). It looks like they will finally break the franchise postseason drought dating back to 2001, the largest in baseball.
But now that Logan Gilbert appears to be pitching well again, Seattle's rotation looks loaded with Gilbert, Robbie Ray, Luis Castillo, George Kirby and Marco Gonzales.
The Mariners just aren't good enough offensively to waste at-bats on Santana as long as Ty France is healthy.
Toronto Blue Jays: Streakiness
When the Toronto Blue Jays put everything together, they are without question one of the most impressive teams in baseball.
They have power throughout the lineup, led by young stars Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. Their rotation with Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman features two of the best starters in the American League.
But the Blue Jays, by the players' own admission, are a streaky bunch. They follow good weeks with bad weeks. The back end of their rotation has major question marks.
Toronto was a preseason favorite to take a major step this season, going from barely missing the playoffs a year ago to being the AL's best team.
That has not happened, as they try clinging to a wild-card spot in the first year of the expanded postseason format. The Achilles' heel for the Blue Jays is simply not consistently playing up to their full potential.
Minnesota Twins: Bullpen, Overall Pitching
The Minnesota Twins are well-established as having one of the shakiest bullpens in baseball. If not for playing in such a weak division, it's hard to imagine this team contending at all.
Minnesota's bullpen ranks 24th in WAR. No other contender's bullpen ranks lower than 19th.
As an overall staff, Minnesota's pitching ranks 22nd in WAR. No other contending pitching staff ranks lower than 18th.
Given that the Twins offense is simply OK (16th in runs scored) but nothing to write home about, it's difficult to see them making up for the pitching deficiencies.
Carlos Correa likely opts out of his contract after this season, which would clear $35.1 million off the books. They should approach the offseason ready to spend money on pitching to make them serious competitors.
Chicago White Sox: Defense
One of the areas the Chicago White Sox were lacking after last season was defense. They finished 17th in outs above average last year and rank 24th this season.
Only the non-contending Pittsburgh Pirates and Colorado Rockies have more errors than the White Sox. They had the sixth-most errors last year.
So instead of improving, they've gone backward defensively. Leury Garcia, one of the worst hitters in baseball, only gets at-bats because he's one of their few good defensive players.
There is a logjam at first base, forcing non-outfielders into left field. It's really a mess.
On top of this, Chicago's been one of the unluckier teams with injuries even before an illness held out manager Tony La Russa indefinitely.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Starting Pitching
It sounds ridiculous that a pitching staff with the lowest ERA, WHIP and opponent batting average on a team with the best record in baseball could possibly be the Achilles' heel.
Let's be honest about this. The Los Angeles Dodgers have no clear or obvious weaknesses.
Aside from the pitching numbers, they also lead baseball in runs scored and have the highest OPS.
But if we're going to nitpick the Dodgers, it should start with taking a look at that rotation and wondering how good it truly is without Walker Buehler and a diminished Clayton Kershaw.
Julio Urías, Tony Gonsolin, Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney have all been excellent this year. They also give up contact, which will be less ideal once competition stiffens in the postseason.
Dustin May struggled with command in his third start since returning from Tommy John surgery.
The Dodgers have an embarrassment of riches, their pitching included. But if anything aside from injury would hold them back, it would be the rotation.
New York Mets: Middle Relief
At the top of their rotation, the New York Mets have two of the game's best in Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. In their bullpen, Edwin Díaz is arguably the best closer in baseball.
The bridge between starters and closer is far less impressive. In August, the Mets' bullpen posted the 10th-highest ERA (4.14). Manager Buck Showalter has Adam Ottavino and Seth Lugo as reliable relief options, but that's where it ends.
Joely Rodríguez is the only left-hander in their bullpen, and his ERA is 4.91 in 46 appearances.
They traded for Mychal Givens at the deadline, but his ERA through 15 appearances with the Mets sits at 6.60, compared to 2.66 in 40 appearances with the Chicago Cubs earlier this year.
Tylor Megill is pitching a rehab assignment in Triple-A, but the Mets still need to figure out exactly how he transitions into a reliever after a shoulder strain landed him on the injured list in June.
St. Louis Cardinals: Shortstop
The St. Louis Cardinals are going to win the NL Central but will do so without elite play from their shortstop position.
Paul DeJong was bad enough early in the season to get sent down to Triple-A. Edmundo Sosa, DeJong's replacement, was not much better and eventually traded to the Philadelphia Phillies at the deadline.
Like last year, the Cardinals remain the best defensive team in baseball, ranking first in outs above average. At shortstop, St. Louis ranks fourth in this metric.
But they are middle of the pack in creating runs at shortstop, ranking 15th in wRC+. St. Louis shortstops rank 23rd in batting average.
DeJong is hitting .158 with a .573 OPS on the season. To make up for DeJong's lack of production and get him out of the lineup, the Cardinals are having to move the versatile Tommy Edman from second base to shortstop and move Nolan Gorman to fill Edman's role at second.
Atlanta: Left Field
For as good as Atlanta is, no team is getting less from left field than the defending World Series champions.
Atlanta ranks last in WAR and 28th in wRC+ at left field. Only the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers are worse at created runs from that position.
Marcell Ozuna is hitting .221 with a .672 OPS. Eddie Rosario has been a far cry from the player they traded for last year, when he won NLCS MVP. Rosario is slashing .187/.243/.301 in 62 games played this season, compared to his .271/.330/.573 slash line in 33 games last year.
Atlanta acquired veteran Robbie Grossman at the trade deadline, and he might turn out to be their best option in left.
Philadelphia Phillies: Ranger Suárez
Philadelphia Phillies pitching has been solid this year, but they still have a lot to sort out. The rotation is still waiting for Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin to return. The bullpen still needs Seranthony Domínguez.
Whether Ranger Suárez could start the third game of a playoff series is an open question. He pitched well from mid-June until late-August.
Suárez is carrying a heavier workload than ever before with 127.2 innings pitched.
Couple this with Wheeler (right forearm tendinitis) and Eflin (bruised right knee) returning from injury, and pitching looks vulnerable for the Phillies. That's especially if they have to rely too much on a pitcher who isn't used to the workload.
San Diego Padres: Sean Manaea
Sean Manaea's been so bad lately, the San Diego Padres decided to skip his next start just to help him get right.
His ERA since the All-Star break is 8.36 with a 1.70 WHIP in eight starts. Manager Bob Melvin told reporters the plan is to let him throw a bullpen session or two so maybe they can rejuvenate his arm.
Manaea hasn't been dominant at any point since being traded to San Diego from the Oakland Athletics in April. But he was usually turning in quality starts in the beginning of the season.
Thirteen of his first 17 outings were quality starts, but he's only gone more than five innings once in his six starts since August.
Even without Manaea, the Padres should be able to get by with Yu Darvish, Mike Clevinger, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell. Still, the reason for acquiring Manaea was to give San Diego as many starting pitching options as possible down the stretch.
Milwaukee Brewers: Andrew McCutchen
Andrew McCutchen has been Milwaukee's primary DH. Yet, at this point in his career, he is not even one of its top 10 hitters. That says a lot on a Brewers team not necessarily known for its offense.
The 35-year-old McCutchen's OPS (.709), WAR (0.2) and wRC+ (97) are the lowest they have ever been besides the pandemic season. McCutchen had two hits, including a home run, Wednesday night and is still capable in big moments.
But making Keston Hiura their primary DH has to be something the Brewers consider, if they are serious about contending.
Hiura strikes out far too much (41.8 percent), but when he makes contact, good things happen. His .822 OPS over 197 at-bats is closer to McCutchen's career numbers (.839).