Each MLB Contender's Biggest Roadblock to Reaching the 2016 Postseason

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2016

Each MLB Contender's Biggest Roadblock to Reaching the 2016 Postseason

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    Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

    We're midway through the final month of the 2016 MLB season and by all accounts, there are still five postseason spots up for grabs.

    On the National League side, the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals look like locks to win the Central and East Divisions, respectively, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are leading the NL West by four games, are a safe bet to reach the postseason in some capacity.

    That leaves the San Francisco Giants, New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals fighting for the two remaining spots.

    The American League side is far more crowded, with the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians looking like the only locks for October.

    The Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees are all still in the running for the AL East title, while the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros are all within four games of the second wild-card spot.

    In an effort to make sense of such a cluttered postseason picture, what follows is a look at each of the remaining contenders' biggest roadblocks to reaching the playoffs.

    Whether it's a specific area of weakness, a tough remaining schedule or a troubling home/road split, all of the 11 teams still fighting for their postseason lives have at least one significant hurdle to overcome.

Playoff Locks

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Barring something historically bad happening over the season's final three weeks, these teams appear to be locks to reach the postseason.

               

    Chicago Cubs
    Record: 92-51 (17.0 games up in NL Central)
    MLB.com Playoff Probability: 100 percent

    Cleveland Indians
    Record: 83-60 (6.0 games up in AL Central)
    MLB.com Playoff Probability
    99.6 percent

    Los Angeles Dodgers
    Record: 81-62 (4.0 games up in NL West)
    MLB.com Playoff Probability99.9 percent

    Texas Rangers
    Record: 86-59 (9.5 games up in AL West)
    MLB.com Playoff Probability
    100 percent

    Washington Nationals
    Record: 86-58 (10.0 games up in NL East)
    MLB.com Playoff Probability: 100 percent

Baltimore Orioles (78-65, Third in AL East)

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    Chris Tillman returned strong from the disabled list on Sunday.
    Chris Tillman returned strong from the disabled list on Sunday.Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

    Standings

    • AL East: 3 games back
    • Wild Card: 1 game up

    Remaining Schedule (19 games)

    • at BOS (2)
    • vs. TB (4)
    • vs. BOS (4)
    • vs. ARI (3)
    • at TOR (3)
    • at NYY (3)

    Biggest Potential Roadblock: Struggles away from Camden Yards

    For most of the 2016 season, the Baltimore Orioles' leaky starting rotation has been their biggest concern.

    Calling the rotation a strength now may be a bit of a stretch. But there's no doubt Baltimore's on a nice run of late, and the importance of Chris Tillman's healthy return can't be understated.

    If nothing else, it should allow the Orioles to bump the struggling Wade Miley to the bullpen after the Boston Red Sox shelled him Monday.

    Since the start of September, the fivesome of Kevin Gausman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Dylan Bundy, Yovani Gallardo and Tillman have gone 6-0 with a 2.79 ERA and 1.014 WHIP in eight starts.

    So with the pitching staff finally pulling its weight, the team's struggles away from Camden Yards appear to be its biggest weakness.

    The Orioles are 45-25 at home with a plus-47 run differential compared to 33-40 with a minus-22 run differential on the road.

    They'll begin an 11-game homestand once their series with the Boston Red Sox wraps up Wednesday, but they close out the season with six games on the road and a playoff spot likely hanging in the balance.

Boston Red Sox (81-62, First in AL East)

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    Clay Buchholz is back in the rotation but continuing to struggle.
    Clay Buchholz is back in the rotation but continuing to struggle.Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

    Standings

    • AL East: 2 games up
    • Wild Card: 4 games up

    Remaining Schedule (19 games)

    • vs. BAL (2)
    • vs. NYY (4)
    • at BAL (4)
    • at TB (3)
    • at NYY (3)
    • vs. TOR (3)

    Biggest Potential Roadblock: An inconsistent back of the starting rotation

    The Boston Red Sox have a trio of starting pitchers that stacks up to any in baseball right now.

    Rick Porcello is a bona fide AL Cy Young candidate at 20-3 with a 3.21 ERA, Drew Pomeranz has settled in nicely after a rocky start with the team and David Price has won seven straight starts with a 2.16 ERA and 0.820 WHIP during that span.

    It's the back end of the starting rotation that is a concern.

    Steven Wright pitched like a legitimate front-line starter for much of the season, earning a spot on the AL All-Star team, but he's sidelined with shoulder bursitis and has no clear timetable to return.

    That leaves the Jekyll and Hyde show of Eduardo Rodriguez and Clay Buchholz to fill out the No. 4 and 5 starter spots.

    Rodriguez has been sharp in his last two appearances, but he's been nothing if not inconsistent during his brief time in the big leagues. Only 54 percent of his 37 career starts have been quality starts.

    Buchholz was sharp in his return from bullpen exile, allowing one run over 6.2 innings last Tuesday.

    However, his second start back was a disaster. He lasted just three innings and allowed four hits, four walks and six earned runs.

    The 32-year-old has turned in more bad than good this season, going 3-9 with a 5.91 ERA prior to his demotion at the beginning of July, so relying on him at this point is risky.

    The Red Sox have a chance to be a dangerous team in October, but the prospect of handing the ball to E-Rod and Buchholz in crucial games down the stretch is unsettling to say the least.

Detroit Tigers (77-66, Second in AL Central)

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    Can Miguel Cabrera lead the Tigers offense against the rest of the AL Central?
    Can Miguel Cabrera lead the Tigers offense against the rest of the AL Central?Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    Standings

    • AL Central: 6 games back
    • Wild Card: 1 game back

    Remaining Schedule (19 games)

    • vs. MIN (3)
    • at CLE (3)
    • at MIN (3)
    • vs. KC (3)
    • vs. CLE (4)
    • at ATL (3)

    Biggest Potential Roadblock: Struggles against the rest of the AL Central

    The good news: The Detroit Tigers have six games left with a bad Minnesota Twins team that they've gone 11-2 with a plus-30 run differential against so far this season.

    The bad news: They still face the Cleveland Indians seven more times and the Kansas City Royals three times, two teams they've gone a combined 7-21 against with an abysmal minus-72 run differential.

    Arguably the biggest chip in the Tigers' favor in their pursuit of a wild-card berth is the fact that the three AL East teams vying for a spot will continue to beat up on one another the rest of the way.

    In order for that to be an advantage, though, they'll need to take care of business against their AL Central foes.

    This upcoming weekend will be a big first test, as they head to Cleveland for a three-game series with the first-place Indians.

    Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris are slated to toe the rubber for the Tigers in that series, while the Indians will hand the ball to their three best starters in Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer.

    Provided the Tigers can stick around until the final days of the season, a three-game set with an Atlanta Braves team that could be playing for the No. 1 pick in next year's draft is a nice way to close out the regular season.

Houston Astros (75-69, Third in AL West)

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    With Dallas Keuchel on the sideline, an already weak starting rotation has become an even bigger issue for the Astros.
    With Dallas Keuchel on the sideline, an already weak starting rotation has become an even bigger issue for the Astros.Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

    Standings

    • AL West: 10.5 games back
    • Wild Card: 3.5 games back

    Remaining Schedule (18 games)

    • vs. TEX (2)
    • at SEA (3)
    • at OAK (3)
    • vs. LAA (4)
    • vs. SEA (3)
    • at LAA (3)

    Biggest Potential Roadblock: A shaky starting rotation

    The starting rotation has been hit-and-miss for the Houston Astros all season.

    They've used 10 different starting pitchers on the year, and that group has gone a combined 51-54 with a 4.43 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP.

    Those are middle-of-the-road numbers relative to the rest of the league and only better than three other contending teams (Royals, Yankees, Orioles) in the ERA department.

    However, it's the rotation's recent performance that paints a grim picture.

    Doug Fister, Mike Fiers, Collin McHugh, Joe Musgrove, David Paulino and Brad Peacock have combined to go 2-6 with an 8.30 ERA and 1.97 WHIP in 11 starts this month, with Musgrove turning in the lone quality start.

    Notably absent from that list is reigning AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and right-hander Lance McCullers, who are sidelined with shoulder inflammation and a sprained elbow, respectively.

    "It's going to depend on where we're at as a team and where they're at," manager A.J. Hinch told the Houston Chronicle's Angel Verdejo Jr. on Monday. "Our idea is to continue positive progress with these guys and not set a timeline or a necessary deadline for them to have to meet. Otherwise we'll threaten further injury. ... One more setback for any of these guys and it's over."

    Keuchel has not been nearly as sharp this season as he was a year ago, but with a 4.55 ERA over 168 innings and a 62 percent quality start rate, he's still been a key piece of the rotation.

    McCullers has only made 14 starts while battling arm issues, but he's pitched to a 3.22 ERA over 81 innings.

Kansas City Royals (74-69, Third in AL Central)

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    An injured Lorenzo Cain won't pack the same punch the rest of the way.
    An injured Lorenzo Cain won't pack the same punch the rest of the way.Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Standings

    • AL Central: 9 games back
    • Wild Card: 4 games back

    Remaining Schedule (19 games)

    • vs. OAK (3)
    • vs. CWS (4)
    • at CLE (3)
    • at DET (3)
    • vs. MIN (3)
    • vs. CLE (3)

    Biggest Potential Roadblock: A lack of offensive punch behind Kendrys Morales and Eric Hosmer

    The Kansas City Royals' recent run of success has stemmed from things such as dominant relief pitching, terrific team defense and disruptive speed on the bases.

    So while they have not necessarily relied on a stacked lineup and a potent offensive attack, their lack of punch this season is still cause for concern, in part because of a less than dominant starting rotation.

    Ian Kennedy and Danny Duffy have emerged as a solid one-two punch atop the staff, but the starting rotation as a whole ranks 20th in the majors with a 4.58 ERA.

    That puts more pressure on the offense to shoulder the load, and it hasn't happened to this point.

    Kendrys Morales (1.205 OPS, 5 HR, 16 RBI) and Eric Hosmer (1.143 OPS, 4 HR, 11 RBI) have been red-hot in September, but the offensive attack more or less begins and ends with them at the moment.

    Alex Gordon is in a season-long funk, Lorenzo Cain has been shut down for a week as he continues to nurse a sprained wrist and the BABIP gods have started to catch up to Paulo Orlando and rookie Cheslor Cuthbert.

    The Royals have gone on an impressive run to climb into the wild-card picture after a rough start, but they still need to make up four games in the standings and may not have the horses to do it on the offensive side.

New York Mets (76-68, Second in NL East)

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    Seth Lugo has performed admirably, but how much longer can he keep it up?
    Seth Lugo has performed admirably, but how much longer can he keep it up?Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

    Standings

    • NL East: 10 games back
    • Wild Card: 0.5 games up

    Remaining Schedule (18 games)

    • at WAS (2)
    • vs. MIN (3)
    • vs. ATL (3)
    • vs. PHI (4)
    • at MIA (3)
    • at PHI (3)

    Biggest Potential Roadblock: A reliance on Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and Rafael Montero

    The New York Mets began the season with a starting rotation some were touting as one of the best in MLB history.

    Fast forward five months, and the staff is unrecognizable.

    Matt Harvey? Lost for the season in July to thoracic outlet syndrome.

    Steven Matz? Sidelined since August with a shoulder strain and perhaps done for the year.

    Zack Wheeler? Shut down for the remainder of the season, as his return from Tommy John surgery will have to wait until next year.

    Jacob deGrom? The Mets' best pitcher for much of the season is nursing a sore right forearm and perhaps headed to the bullpen once he returns, per NJ Advance Media's Maria Guardado.

    That leaves Noah Syndergaard and ageless wonder Bartolo Colon fronting a rotation that includes the unheralded trio of Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and Rafael Montero.

    Lugo has been the biggest surprise, following up a 6.50 ERA over 73.1 innings in Triple-A with a 2.40 ERA in five starts since joining the big league rotation.

    All three were expected to be nothing more than organizational depth this season, but instead they've provided a legitimate spark.

    The question is, how much longer can they keep it up?

    The Mets are essentially playing with house money every time one of them turns in a quality start, and counting on them to keep pitching at such a high level is a necessary evil at this point.

New York Yankees (76-67, Fourth in AL East)

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    Gary Sanchez propped up the Yankees' offense for weeks, but he's started to cool.
    Gary Sanchez propped up the Yankees' offense for weeks, but he's started to cool.Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    Standings

    • AL East: 5 games back
    • Wild Card: 2 games back

    Remaining Schedule (19 games)

    • vs. LAD (2)
    • at BOS (4)
    • at TB (3)
    • at TOR (4)
    • vs. BOS (3)
    • vs. BAL (3)

    Biggest Potential Roadblock: A cooling offense and a paper-thin starting rotation

    Now that Gary Sanchez is no longer producing at a superhuman level, the New York Yankees offensive attack is not a pretty sight.

    So far this month, New York's hit a combined .218 with a .685 OPS and 3.64 runs per game.

    The Orioles shut out the Yankees twice to begin September, and the Tampa Bay Rays and Dodgers held them to two runs in their last two contests (both losses). But that has not stopped them from going 7-4 to pull within two games of a wild-card spot.

    Then there's the starting rotation.

    Masahiro Tanaka has been rock-solid in the role of staff ace in 2016, going 13-4 with a 3.04 ERA, 1.066 WHIP and 160 strikeouts in 186.2 innings.

    After him, it's been a crapshoot.

    CC Sabathia was a nice comeback story for much of the season, but he's gone 2-4 with a 4.98 ERA since the beginning of August. Michael Pineda has a 5.07 ERA and a 39 percent quality start rate, and the rookie duo of Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa are both coming off of rough outings and have 10 career starts between them.

    The Yankees' climb into the playoff picture after selling at the trade deadline was an improbable one to say the least, but it looks like some of the magic is starting to wear off.

San Francisco Giants (77-66, Second in NL West)

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    The Giants have removed Santiago Casilla from the closer's role.
    The Giants have removed Santiago Casilla from the closer's role.Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

    Standings

    • NL West: 4 games back
    • Wild Card: 2 games up

    Remaining Schedule (19 games)

    • vs. SD (2)
    • vs. STL (4)
    • at LAD (3)
    • at SD (4)
    • vs. COL (3)
    • vs. LAD (3)

    Biggest Potential Roadblock: A shaky back end of the bullpen

    A reliable bullpen was one of the hallmarks of the San Francisco Giants' run to three World Series titles in a five-year span, but age has caught up to the core group they leaned heavily on during those playoff runs.

    Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo are still steady contributors in setup roles at 39 and 33 years old, respectively. But Jeremy Affeldt retired, and the Giants moved Santiago Casilla from the closer's role after his eighth blown save of the season.

    Manager Bruce Bochy will go with a committee approach the rest of the way. 

    "We're going to use everybody and put out the guy we think is the right guy to get us through the inning," Bochy told reporters prior to Friday's game against the D-backs.

    Romo, Lopez, deadline pickup Will Smith and hard-throwing Hunter Strickland could all be options, but rookie Derek Law may be the favorite to seize the job once he returns from an elbow strain Wednesday.

    The 25-year-old has posted a 1.94 ERA, 0.961 WHIP and a .212 opponents' batting average over 53 appearances, tallying 10 holds and nailing his lone save opportunity.

    Regardless of who winds up with the ball in the ninth inning, this is not the same rock-solid relief corps we've seen the Giants trot out in previous postseason runs.

Seattle Mariners (76-68, Second in AL West)

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    Taijuan Walker has not looked sharp since a hot start to the year.
    Taijuan Walker has not looked sharp since a hot start to the year.Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

    Standings

    • AL West: 9.5 games back
    • Wild Card: 2.5 games back

    Remaining Schedule (18 games)

    • at LAA (2)
    • vs. HOU (3)
    • vs. TOR (3)
    • at MIN (3)
    • at HOU (3)
    • vs. OAK (4)

    Biggest Potential Roadblock: A shaky starting rotation

    The Mariners offense can carry the team at times, and the bullpen has been better lately. But the starting rotation remains a major cause for concern.

    You could make a strong case that Ariel Miranda is the Seattle Mariners' best starting pitcher at the moment.

    That's not meant as a knock on Miranda. He's been a pleasant surprise after coming over from the Baltimore Orioles in the Wade Miley trade near the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline.

    That should be all you need to know about the state of the rotation, though.

    Ace Felix Hernandez worked six scoreless innings his last time out, but he gave up six runs in his two starts prior to that and carries a 3.58 ERA on the year after registering a career-best 2.14 in 2014.

    Hisashi Iwakuma is 4-4 with a 3.28 ERA in his last eight starts. But a good Texas Rangers offense knocked him around at the end of August, and he has struggled all season on the road with a 4.29 ERA and 1.420 WHIP away from Safeco Field. Two of his next three starts line up to be on the road, with the other against a tough Blue Jays lineup.

    Then there's the frustrating duo of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.

    Walker is 1-3 with an 8.34 ERA over his last five starts. He's capable of twirling a gem when he takes the ball, though, so he'll continue in the rotation.

    Paxton recorded a quality start on Sunday but failed to pitch beyond the fifth inning in his previous three starts. He recorded a 6.91 ERA in those contests.

St. Louis Cardinals (75-68, Second in NL Central)

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    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    Standings

    • NL Central: 17 games back
    • Wild Card: 0.5 games back

    Remaining Schedule (19 games)

    • vs. CHC (2)
    • at SF (4)
    • at COL (3)
    • at CHC (3)
    • vs. CIN (4)
    • vs. PIT (3)

    Biggest Potential Roadblock: Struggles at Busch Stadium

    The St. Louis Cardinals were nothing short of dominant at Busch Stadium during the 2015 season.

    A 55-26 record tied them with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best home record in baseball, and they outscored opponents by a whopping 65 runs over the course of their 81-game home slate.

    This season has been a different story.

    The NL wild-card hopefuls are the only team in the league with a winning record overall and a sub-.500 record at home. They've gone 32-40 at Busch Stadium this year.

    If your glass were half full, you'd say they've been a good road team. With a 10-game road trip beginning Thursday, that's good news for St. Louis.

    However, the Cardinals close out the season with seven games at home. The San Francisco Giants and New York Mets both look like they're in it for the long haul, so all of those contests could be huge.

    With an average home attendance of 42,783, second only to the Dodgers, fan support is not the issue. The Cardinals have about two weeks to figure out what's been plaguing them.

Toronto Blue Jays (79-64, Second in AL East)

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    All-Star Aaron Sanchez is dealing with an ongoing blister problem.
    All-Star Aaron Sanchez is dealing with an ongoing blister problem.Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Standings

    • AL East: 2 games back
    • Wild Card: 2 games up

    Remaining Schedule (19 games)

    • vs. TB (2)
    • at LAA (4)
    • at SEA (3)
    • vs. NYY (4)
    • vs. BAL (3)
    • at BOS (3)

    Biggest Potential Roadblock: The steady starting rotation starting to slip

    Looking at the 2016 season as a whole, it would be easy to call the starting rotation a major strength for the Toronto Blue Jays.

    It ranks fifth in the majors and first in the AL with a 3.86 ERA, and the rotation's third in MLB with 86 quality starts.

    However, things have not gone well of late.

    Since the beginning of September, the six-man rotation of Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey and Francisco Liriano has gone 1-5 with a 6.48 ERA and 1.540 WHIP.

    Estrada, Happ and Sanchez have been the staff leaders all season, but all three have faltered.

    Happ and Estrada were both knocked around over their last six starts—they registered ERAs of 4.32 and 6.99, respectively—while Sanchez is dealing with a blister problem that chased him from his most recent start and leaves his next start up in the air.

    The Blue Jays have the offensive firepower to pick up the slack and still claim a postseason spot, but if they are going to have any chance of contending for a title, the starting rotation needs to quickly return to form.

         

    All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted and current through Monday's games.