Key X-Factors Who Will Decide Which Teams Clinch MLB's Final 2014 Playoff Spots

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistSeptember 23, 2014

Key X-Factors Who Will Decide Which Teams Clinch MLB's Final 2014 Playoff Spots

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    We've reached the final week of the 2014 MLB season, and there are still five postseason spots up for grabs heading into Tuesday's slate of games.

    The National League field is essentially set, with the Milwaukee Brewers all but eliminated at five games back in the wild-card standings. The big question is who will host the Wild Card Game, as the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates are currently tied atop the standings.

    Those teams could still conceivably catch the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals to win their division titles, but at this point, it looks like they'll be battling it out for a spot in the NLDS.

    The American League picture is a bit cloudier, especially with the Cleveland Indians making a late-season push for the No. 2 wild-card spot.

    The Oakland Athletics currently hold a one-game lead over the Kansas City Royals in the wild-card standings, with the Seattle Mariners (two games back) and Indians (3.5 game back) on the outside looking in for a playoff berth. The Royals are also just a game behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central standings, so a division title is well within reach.

    One way or another, only three teams are going to emerge from that group of five, and these next few days are what September baseball is all about.

    So, to recap, there are currently seven teams, two NL and five AL, that are legitimately still in the hunt for what boils down to five postseason spots.

    With that in mind, what follows is a look at the biggest X-factor for each of those clubs who will determine whether it punches a ticket to the playoffs before the week is over.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Overcoming Struggles on the Road This Season

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    There might not be a hotter team in baseball right now than the Pittsburgh Pirates, as they have won 14 of their last 17 games, and as a result, they are currently tied atop the NL wild-card standings with the San Francisco Giants.

    Locking down home-field advantage for the one-game Wild Card Round is huge, but perhaps more so for the Pirates than any other team pushing for a wild-card spot this season. The Pirates have been absolutely dominant at PNC Park this season, going 51-30 while playing in front of a fanbase that has been rejuvenated by the team's recent run of success.

    It's been a different story entirely on the road, though, where they are just 34-41 on the season, and the splits really tell the story.

    StatHomeRoad
    BA.274.245
    OPS.752.713
    RPG4.324.09
    ERA3.173.79
    WHIP1.211.32

    Wouldn't it figure, then, that the team's remaining six games are all on the road, with three more in Atlanta after a 1-0 win Monday night, followed by three in Cincinnati to close out the year.

    The Pirates won the Wild Card Game in front of the home fans last season, and they will need some late-season success on the road if they hope to host that elimination game once again this season.

San Francisco Giants: CF Gregor Blanco

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    On the surface, Gregor Blanco may seem like an odd person to target as the X-factor in the Giants' push to secure the No. 1 wild-card spot, but hear me out.

    A strong case can be made for Angel Pagan being the most important player on the Giants roster the past two seasons, and the team's win-loss record with and without him while he's battled various injuries backs that up.

    Last year, the Giants went 39-32 (.549) when he was in the lineup, compared to just 37-54 (.407) without him. It's been the same story this year, as they are 57-39 (.594) with him and just 28-32 (.467) without him.

    So why not call Pagan the team's X-factor, then?

    Unfortunately, the injury-prone speedster is once again hurt, as he re-aggravated a back injury Sept. 19 and may very well miss the rest of the regular season.

    Enter the aforementioned Blanco, who will be taking over in center field and atop the lineup for the time being.

    The 30-year-old is having a solid season, hitting .260/.337/.378 with 28 extra-base hits, 37 RBI, 48 runs scored and 16 stolen bases over 373 at-bats. Perhaps more importantly, he's hitting .296/.351/.493 with 10 extra-base hits in 71 at-bats this month.

    That included a home run to lead off the game Monday, his first long ball since Aug. 29. Continued production from him out of that leadoff spot would go a long way in helping the Giants offense keep from dropping off without Pagan.

Cleveland Indians: Starting Pitchers Not Named Corey Kluber

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    The Cleveland Indians have done an impressive job clawing their way back into the AL wild-card picture over the past few weeks, and while they remain a long shot at 3.5 games back with five to play, crazier things have happened.

    A vastly improved starting rotation behind Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber has been the obvious difference-maker, and if there is any chance of them completing their last-season push, those guys are going to continue to be the key.

    Kluber was 9-6 with a 3.01 ERA in 20 first-half starts, and he's been even better since the break, bringing his season totals to 17-9 with a 2.53 ERA and 258 strikeouts in 227.2 innings of work.

    No other starter had an ERA below 3.80 in the first half, though, and that was a big reason why the Indians were a .500 team heading into the All-Star break.

    PlayerFirst HalfSecond Half
    Carlos Carrasco 23 G, 4 GS, 2-3, 3.74 ERA16 G, 9 GS, 6-3, 1.77 ERA
    Danny Salazar8 G, 8 GS, 1-4, 5.53 ERA11 G, 11 GS, 5-3, 3.06 ERA
    T.J. House9 G, 8 GS, 1-2, 4.40 ERA9 G, 9 GS, 3-1, 2.60 ERA
    Trevor Bauer12 G, 12 GS, 3-4, 3.84 ERA13 G, 13 GS, 2-4, 4.26 ERA

    Each of those guys has one start remaining, and with every game being a "must-win" for the team at this point, each will have to pull out one more big second-half start.

Detroit Tigers: Joe Nathan and the Bullpen

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    When Joe Nathan turned down his end of a mutual option to become a free agent last offseason, the Detroit Tigers jumped at the chance to add the active saves leader to their bullpen, signing him to a two-year, $20 million deal.

    The 39-year-old has been far from the shutdown arm the team was hoping he'd be in the ninth inning, though, converting just 33 of 40 save chances with a 5.01 ERA on the year.

    "You'd love it if your closer always got three straight outs on three straight pitches," manager Brad Ausmus told Tom Gage of The Detroit News. "But the nature of being a closer is that you are in danger when you take the ball. The game is already on the line."

    The team acquired Joakim Soria from the Texas Rangers at the trade deadline and paid a hefty price to land him, but it has opted to stick with Nathan at closer for the stretch run.

    Nathan's struggles have been magnified by his status as the team's closer, but really, the entire bullpen outside of Al Alburquerque (70 G, 2.60 ERA) and Blaine Hardy (36 G, 2.17 ERA) has been a mess this season, ranking 27th in MLB with a 4.21 ERA.

    Starter Rick Porcello (0-3, 5.57 ERA) has struggled this month, and Justin Verlander (2-1, 4.73 ERA) has continued his subpar play as well, so the rotation will need to pick it up in the final week.

    However, the X-factor in the Tigers locking down a fourth straight division remains their shaky bullpen, and it will continue to be a hurdle for them to overcome into October if they do secure a playoff berth.

Kansas City Royals: Middle of the Order Run Production

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    The Royals offense has done just enough to get by all season, averaging 3.98 runs per game and hitting an MLB-low 93 home runs overall.

    The pitching staff remains one of the best in the business, but with that run production dipping to 3.30 runs per game here in September, there has been even more pressure on it to carry the load down the stretch.

    Nori Aoki (.406 BA, .988 OPS) and Alcides Escobar (.297 BA, .739 OPS) have done a great job this month setting the table from the top two spots in the team's lineup, but the middle-of-the-order bats have to step up their production to help stake their pitching staff with more run support.

    Alex Gordon (.149 BA, .517 OPS, 8 RBI), Billy Butler (.152 BA, .389 OPS, 3 RBI) and Salvador Perez (.234 BA, .555 OPS, 7 RBI) have all gone cold this month, and the Royals have been forced to shake up the lineup as a result, with Lorenzo Cain moving into the No. 3 spot in the order.

    If those three slumping hitters can turn things around the final week, it would go a long way in righting their recent offensive struggles.

Oakland Athletics: SP Sonny Gray

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    Despite what has been a disastrous couple of months, the Oakland Athletics are still in a very good position to reach the postseason this year.

    A lot has been made of their offensive struggles, and understandably so, as the A's have gone from the highest-scoring team in baseball at the end of July to averaging just 3.57 runs per game over the past two months.

    However, this was a team that was supposed to be led by one of the deepest starting rotations in all of baseball, and those guys have not carried their weight down the stretch either.

    Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija look to be a solid duo at this point, while Scott Kazmir and Jason Hammel have struggled mightily of late and will likely be on a short leash the rest of the way.

    The X-factor here is right-hander Sonny Gray, who was the ace of the staff not all that long ago but has scuffled badly of late. Gray was 10-3 with a 2.79 ERA at the All-Star break, and shortly after that, he wrapped up a month of July in which he went 5-0 with a 1.03 ERA in five starts.

    He's been hit-and-miss since the beginning of August, though, going 1-6 with a 4.64 ERA and six quality starts in 10 games.

    The 24-year-old is slated to take the ball Tuesday, and then again for what could be a deciding final game of the regular season Sunday. So if there's one pitcher the team is counting on to step up down the home stretch, it's Sonny Gray.

Seattle Mariners: SP Felix Hernandez

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    For a team that sports the best ERA in the American League at 3.18, there are an awful lot of question marks surrounding the Seattle Mariners starting staff as we enter the last time through the rotation.

    James Paxton had been the team's second-best starter in the second half, but he was shelled for nine runs (eight earned) in 2.2 innings of work Monday night against the Toronto Blue Jays.

    The team's No. 2 starter for most of the season, Hisashi Iwakuma, has a 9.35 ERA in four starts this month and has turned in just one quality start in his last six outings.

    Chris Young is one of the league's better comeback stories this year, going 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA, but he has averaged just 3.2 innings per start over his last five, and the team will skip his final start of the year.

    Highly touted Taijuan Walker will fill one of the two remaining starts, and he's been solid since being recalled when rosters expanded in September. He still has just seven starts and 45 major league innings to his credit, though, and his next start will be by far the biggest of his career.

    Those three guys, and whoever fills the spot vacated by Young, will all be on a short leash due in large part to the fact that the Mariners have the best bullpen in baseball (2.58 ERA) at their disposal. However, they can't afford to burn those guys out either.

    The one known commodity here is ace Felix Hernandez, and he's having the best season of his career, going 14-5 with a 2.07 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 226 innings of work.

    He has a 0.96 ERA in four starts this month, and the way the rotation lines up, he'll take the ball two more times, starting Tuesday against the Blue Jays and then in the final game of the regular season Sunday.

    A dominant performance Tuesday could give the bullpen a needed day off, and there's little doubt that Sunday will be a must-win game if the Mariners are still in the mix. So while it may sound obvious, there is no question King Felix is the X-factor for the M's in the final week.

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and cover games through Monday, Sept. 22. All injury information comes via MLB Depth Charts team pages, per Roster Resource.