Top 2016 MLB Pennant Race X-Factors with 1 Month to Go

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistAugust 26, 2016

Top 2016 MLB Pennant Race X-Factors with 1 Month to Go

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    Sandy Leon has improbably become a vital contributor to the Boston Red Sox.
    Sandy Leon has improbably become a vital contributor to the Boston Red Sox.Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

    For MLB teams in the thick of a pennant race, it's better to be healthy than good.

    Several squads competing for a postseason bid have suffered debilitating injuries over the season. Giancarlo Stanton, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Chris Tillman, Matt Holliday, Aledmys Diaz, Michael Wacha, Wade Davis and practically the entire Los Angeles Dodgers rotation are watching a playoff race unfold on the disabled list. Others (Jose Bautista) are just coming back from the shelf.

    Whoever heals the most in September could determine who sneaks into the playoffs. Although four division leaders have established a comfortable lead, the wild card lives up to its moniker in both leagues. Thirteen teams are within five games of participating in a winner-take-all showdown.

    That means more than half the league harbors hope with August winding down. Along with the health of household names, some unexpected players have emerged as make-or-break contributors.

    Let's take a look at some of the biggest X-factors looming over the late-season playoff hunt.

Key Revivals for Resurgent Kansas City Royals

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    Alex Gordon has hit the Kansas City Royals back into playoff contention.
    Alex Gordon has hit the Kansas City Royals back into playoff contention.Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    Wait, aren't the Kansas City Royals out of contention?

    Not so fast. After dropping to 56-60 on August 13, the defending world champions looked finished. But then they went on a nine-game winning streak that propelled them back into a packed wild-card picture.

    Two demonstrative turnarounds have sparked their recent success. Alex Gordon, the longest-tenured Royal, is hitting .291/.371/.557 with six homers this month. He entered August batting .206/.313/.335 with seven long balls in 2016.

    Kansas City holds the fifth-worst weighted on-base average (wOBA) this season, and the offense continues to labor in spite of Gordon's rebound. Those toils make the veteran all the more vital to the club's second-half rally.

    "He's a leader of this team," Eric Hosmer said of Gordon, per the Kansas City Star's Rustin Dodd. "We feed off of him. I think his play has kind of characterized how the whole team has been playing as of late."

    Expected to anchor Kansas City's rotation, Yordano Ventura instead nearly pushed himself out of it. The fiery 25-year-old righty amassed nearly as many walks (33) as strikeouts (38) over the first two months. When he stopped giving hitters an express ticket to first, they passed the base with 19 extra-base hits during June and July.

    Ventura's wildness returned with two four-walk games to commence August. Since then, he has issued four bases on balls in three starts, accumulating 22 strikeouts and four runs allowed. He now boasts a 2.65 ERA in eight second-half outings.

    The Royals will need Gordon and Ventura to keep clicking in order to pull off another improbable comeback.

Returning Yoenis Cespedes Looks to Save Sinking New York Mets

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    Yoenis Cespedes (right) homered three times in his first three games since returning from the disabled list.
    Yoenis Cespedes (right) homered three times in his first three games since returning from the disabled list.Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    Last year, Yoenis Cespedes vaulted the New York Mets into the postseason with 17 homers in 57 games. They were in much better shape than they are now.

    A productive David Wright returned down the stretch. Michael Conforto and Travis d'Arnaud hit everything in sight. All of their young aces were healthy and rolling. Daniel Murphy turned into Rogers Hornsby during the playoffs.

    They probably would have still won the National League East if they hadn't acquired Cespedes before the trade deadline.

    This summer, however, the Mets need a Herculean finish from the Cuban slugger to salvage a letdown season. Wright, Harvey, Matz, Zack Wheeler and Lucas Duda are all hurt. An offense that could do no wrong late last year is now a major liability, and the Mets are simultaneously fighting to stay above .500 while treading water in the crowded wild-card picture.

    After missing two weeks with a quad injury, Cespedes returned just in time to face the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, who are currently slated to clash in the play-in game. He ignited a three-game winning streak—the Mets' longest stretch of victories since July 1-4—by going 6-for-13 with three homers and a double.

    Although he was presented as the knight in shining armor last year, the entire team clicked alongside him. This year, the outfielder will need to carry some dead weight into October. 

David Phelps Transitions into Miami Marlins Rotation

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    David Phelps has pitched well since moving into the Miami Marlins rotation.
    David Phelps has pitched well since moving into the Miami Marlins rotation.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Despite enduring plenty of their own problems, the Miami Marlins sit two games ahead of the Mets and 1.5 behind the Cardinals at 66-61. Given all the roadblocks crashing their way, they may soon fall to earth.

    Dee Gordon is back, but Stanton, Justin Bour and Derek Dietrich are out. While Stanton will try to return before the season ends, rushing back for the final week won't save Miami's season. It especially won't fix the rotation gasping for breath without Wei-Yin Chen and Adam Conley.

    Desperate to mend the wounded starting staff, the Marlins moved David Phelps out of the bullpen. The 29-year-old has responded by allowing three runs in four starts, over which he tallied 26 strikeouts in 20.2 innings.

    Including his relief work, he has a 2.28 ERA and 11.40 strikeouts per nine innings this season. Any reasonable onlooker would have anticipated less punchouts in an expanded role, but he fanned 17 batters over his last two starting turns. Per Brooks Baseball, he has maintained an average velocity of 94.38 mph in the rotation, not far off from his 94.67 season average.

    Given all their other issues, the Marlins must hope this version of Phelps sticks around through September. Andrew Cashner and Tom Koehler can offer solid innings, but they lack a true No. 2 sidekick to ace Jose Fernandez.

    The offense will struggle without Stanton, so Phelps will play a pivotal role in Miami's postseason push.

Texas Rangers Bullpen Presents Regression Risk

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    Sam Dyson has provided some stability to a shaky Texas Rangers bullpen.
    Sam Dyson has provided some stability to a shaky Texas Rangers bullpen.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Texas Rangers have earned an American League-best 75 victories despite a middling plus-eight run differential. They're an outstanding 28-8 in one-run games despite possessing MLB's fourth-worst bullpen ERA (4.76). This all makes as much sense as the Chewbacca defense

    Winning close games is not a predicative skill or accurate measure of team success. The Cubs are 16-17 in one-run affairs, but their overall plus-217 run margin rates 78 runs higher than the second-place Washington Nationals. 

    A strong bullpen usually supports success in these situations, but Texas keeps pulling out games its relievers nearly surrender. Consider August 16's contest against the Oakland Athletics, where closer Sam Dyson lost a one-run lead in the ninth before Keone Kela yielded two more runs in the 10th.

    The offense bailed the bullpen out with a three-run rally, but it's a dangerous formula for a team also lacking a deep starting rotation.

    The Rangers are already regressing to the mean, going a more reasonable 21-17 since the All-Star break. If they're not careful, they could experience the inverse of last year, when they rallied to erase the Houston Astros' seemingly insurmountable American League West lead.

    Texas has created a 7.5-game edge over the Seattle Mariners and 8.5 over Houston, but look for some courageous comebacks to turn into gut-wrenching setbacks in September and October.

Aaron Sanchez's Workload

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    The Toronto Blue Jays demoted Aaron Sanchez last week to rest the 24-year-old starter.
    The Toronto Blue Jays demoted Aaron Sanchez last week to rest the 24-year-old starter.John Williamson/Getty Images

    How often does a team tied for first place demote an All-Star to Single-A in late August?

    The Toronto Blue Jays did just that with Aaron Sanchez, who is expected to return Wednesday. While they abandoned the initial plan to shut him down entirely, they are still taking measures to limit his innings.

    "We've talked a lot about this over the year," Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said, per an Associated Press report. "Not just over the last month, but as good as Aaron has become, we all along thought at some point we'll have to manage his workload. That's what this is about. He'll come right back in the rotation."

    Sanchez has accrued 156.1 innings, already 54 more than he threw last year. He has struggled in three August outings, relinquishing 11 runs over 17 frames. Toronto doesn't have the rotation depth to ditch its top starter, but a fatigued, ineffective Sanchez will do the club no good.

    Expected to be a weak link, the rotation has instead kept Toronto in the American League race. Led by Sanchez's 2.99 ERA, the starting staff leads all AL units in run prevention. It's the thunderous offense that has underwhelmed, especially with Bautista out of the lineup.

    The Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles are in the midst of an intense division showdown, and the second- and third-place finishers are far from guaranteed a wild-card consolation prize. The Blue Jays' veteran hurlers have delivered, but they'll need a few more strong starts from Sanchez in September.

Sandy Leon's Improbable Breakout

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    Sandy Leon continues his highly unexpected breakout party.
    Sandy Leon continues his highly unexpected breakout party.Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Sandy Leon has been baseball's best hitter this season.

    OK, so the Red Sox catcher hasn't played enough to qualify for such a title, but he boasts a .437 wOBA in 176 plate appearances. That mark tops teammate David Ortiz's .429 for MLB's highest clip among anyone with 150 trips to the batter's box.

    Last season, Leon hit .184/.238/.202 with two extra-base hits (both doubles) in 128 plate appearances.

    The 27-year-old has not only fortified Boston's area of offensive weakness, but he has given the dangerous lineup another weapon. Yet according to the Boston Herald's Steve Buckley, Leon has not come to grips with absorbing Babe Ruth's powers after thunder struck his baseball bat. Heck, he still doesn't feel like a starting catcher.

    "Not right now," he said. "When I come to the field, see that I'm playing, I tell myself I'm going to do what I can to help the team. It can be anything, like bunting to move a runner. Just trying to do some little things."

    Logic says this can't last. How many light-hitting catchers transform from one of baseball's worst sluggers to one of its best?

    An insane .447 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) certainly helps, but it doesn't explain his massive power uptick. Entering 2016 with one career home run, he has belted seven this season in addition to 14 doubles and two triples.

    The Red Sox would love for Leon's breakout to keep going, but even average offense behind the plate represents a massive victory for them.

Matt Carpenter Getting His Groove Back

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    Matt Carpenter has struggled since returning from an oblique injury.
    Matt Carpenter has struggled since returning from an oblique injury.Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    One of the game's least appreciated studs, Matt Carpenter entered the All-Star break with the fifth-highest wOBA (.414) among all qualified hitters. Along with his magnificent batting eye, he sustained last year's late power breakout by hitting 14 first-half homers.

    Had he not missed a month with a strained right oblique, the Cardinals third baseman may still frequent the National League MVP discussion. Instead, he's trying to snap out of a funk for an injury-ravaged team that needs him at his best.

    Since returning from the disabled list in early August, Carpenter is hitting .217/.299/.362 in 17 games. The Cardinals have enjoyed power barrages from Brandon Moss and Jedd Gyorko, but they will eventually feel the losses of Holliday and Diaz.

    When Moss and Gyorko fall down to earth, they'll need Carpenter to reemerge. In the last 166 games, he has gone deep 35 times while maintaining a 13.4 walk percentage. The 30-year-old is a star player without the star treatment.

    Narrowly clinging to a wild-card lead, the Cardinals will depend on that star resurfacing in September. Although they won't win the NL Central for the first time since 2012, they still have an NL-best streak of five straight playoff appearances to uphold.

Los Angeles Dodgers' Rotation Woes

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    With six of their starting pitchers on the disabled list, the Los Angeles Dodgers need Clayton Kershaw to return.
    With six of their starting pitchers on the disabled list, the Los Angeles Dodgers need Clayton Kershaw to return.Norm Hall/Getty Images

    The Dodgers are stacked with pitching depth. Well, the club's all-injured team is.

    Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brett Anderson are all on the disabled list. After making his long-awaited team debut on Wednesday, Rich Hill joins Kenta Maeda, Julio Urias, Ross Stripling and a shrug emoji in a depleted rotation.

    If one more Dodgers player needs an extended absence this season, they'll set an MLB record for most players placed on the disabled list. Kazmir and Anderson recently led them to tie the 2012 Red Sox's mark of 27.

    Yet because of baseball's best offense since the All-Star break, the Dodgers hold a two-game lead over the Giants in the NL West. They don't need all 12 injured players to return. Just their ace.

    Per the Los Angeles Times' Andy McCullough, Kershaw threw a bullpen session without any discomfort earlier this week. If his next extended session goes well, he could advance to tossing a rehab start or simulated game.

    Kershaw, who has missed the last two months due to a back injury, still leads all MLB starters in WAR. He boasted a 1.79 ERA and unprecedented 16.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio before his body paused an all-time great season. If their bats can't keep holding the fort down, the Dodgers will at least need Kershaw back in time to start the NL Wild Card Game.

    In the meantime, Hill's health will prove a pivotal role in the NL West race. Aside from the 36-year-old resurgent lefty, the Dodgers will rely on 20-year-old Urias more than they planned. It would also behoove them to call up Jose De Leon, who has registered a 2.86 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 78.2 Triple-A innings.

    Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.