Biggest Question for Every MLB Playoff Hopeful Ahead of 2020 Postseason
Major League Baseball's shortened 2020 season has been the very definition of a wild ride. And with only a few days still to go, the expanded playoff picture is far from complete.
So, let's take one last look at what contenders must prove before they can aim for World Series glory.
Setting aside each division's last-place team, we considered questions for 24 clubs that have already clinched playoff spots or are still in the running. These questions addressed various weaknesses, injuries and other lingering concerns.
We'll proceed in alphabetical order by city.
Atlanta: Does It Have Enough Starting Pitching?
Record: 32-22 (1st in NL East)
Atlanta mainly has its offense to thank for how close the club is to a third straight first-place finish in the National League East. Said offense's .835 OPS is the best in the NL.
Albeit less visibly, the bullpen has also been an elite unit. It boasts a 3.39 ERA, with Luke Jackson being the only weak link among Brian Snitker's most heavily used relievers.
The rotation, on the other hand, is arguably in even worse shape than its 5.79 ERA indicates. Sans injured ace Mike Soroka, star lefty Max Fried and standout rookie Ian Anderson have been the club's only reliable starters.
Come the playoffs, two good starters may be good enough to get Atlanta through the best-of-three wild-card round. But after that, other starters will need to help.
Baltimore Orioles: Can Their Offense Find It Again?
Record: 23-31 (4th in AL East)
Even after an 11-23 slide that began August 16, the Baltimore Orioles are still alive in the American League wild-card race.
What's more, it's not out of the question that the Orioles will finish strong. Their last six games are all on the road, but they are against the lowly Boston Red Sox and slumping Toronto Blue Jays.
It would help if rookie slugger Ryan Mountcastle kept the power coming. But without Anthony Santander (oblique) and Jose Iglesias (wrist), it's frankly hard to see where additional offense might come from.
Chicago Cubs: Will Their Core Stars Show Up for October?
Record: 32-22 (1st in NL Central)
The Chicago Cubs certainly have concerns on the mound, where their rotation is iffy after Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks and their bullpen is weak underneath closer Jeremy Jeffress.
More alarming than these, however, is the sense that this Cubs offense has no business being such a below-average unit.
More specifically, red flags are flying over the heads of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber. In 2019, those four combined for an .887 OPS. This year, that collective OPS has declined more than 220 points to just .660. What's more, Bryant left Monday's game with a tight oblique.
Granted, the Cubs can probably clinch first place in the NL Central without further input from those four. But if they want to get back to the World Series, that foursome will need to show up in the postseason.
Chicago White Sox: Can Yoan Moncada Supercharge Their Offense?
Record: 34-20 (1st in AL Central)
With a postseason berth already clinched, all the Chicago White Sox can do now is claim the No. 1 seed throughout the AL playoffs.
Naturally, a team in this position doesn't have many red flags. Especially since August 16, the White Sox have been a well-rounded juggernaut that's outscored opponents 191-111.
Yet the offense does have one straggler in Yoan Moncada. After breaking out with a .915 OPS in 2019, the young third baseman is down to just a .693 OPS this season.
In fairness, it's hard to separate Moncada's struggles from the toll that the coronavirus took on him. But if he can get his bat going again, there may be no keeping the White Sox from the World Series.
Cincinnati Reds: Will Sonny Gray and Wade Miley Be at Full Strength?
Record: 28-27 (3rd in NL Central)
The Cincinnati Reds were trending toward disappointments for a while there, but the club's recent hot streak has put it in contention for a postseason berth after all.
The Reds could be a dangerous opponent in October because of one strength in particular: starting pitching. Cincinnati starters have a 3.52 ERA, as well as an MLB-high strikeout rate of 11.0 per nine innings.
For now, though, the catch is that Sonny Gray (back) and Wade Miley (shoulder) are on the injured list. Gray will return Tuesday, with Miley soon to follow. Even still, there's a question of whether they'll be at full strength.
If they aren't, the Reds might not even make the playoffs, much less go on a deep run.
Cleveland: Can It Compete Offensively?
Record: 30-24 (3rd in AL Central)
Cleveland is still hoping manager Terry Francona will return from gastrointestinal and blood-clot surgeries before this season is over. But even if he does, he's not going to grab a bat and help out the offense.
Pretty much everyone not named Jose Ramirez must do better, but none more so than Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana. After posting an aggregate .883 OPS in 2019, they've fallen to a .722 OPS this year.
Whatever the case, even Cleveland's many talented arms may not be able to carry the team deep into October if more offense doesn't materialize.
Colorado Rockies: Can They Wake Up Their Offense?
Record: 24-29 (4th in NL West)
The Colorado Rockies were one of the hottest teams in MLB at the outset of the season. Since August 9, however, they've been in a 13-26 tailspin that has their playoff hopes on life support.
Frankly, a lot must go right for the Rockies to somehow sneak into October. But the turnaround must start with their offense, which has been the NL's worst since August 9.
Not you, Trevor Story. You're doing fine. But such grace applies to nobody else, and the Rockies are now in that much more trouble after placing Nolan Arenado (shoulder) on the injured list Monday.
Extra offense will therefore have to come from other players. Maybe Charlie Blackmon. Or Daniel Murphy. Or David Dahl. Whatever the case, more of the same will doom the Rockies.
Detroit Tigers: Can They Count on Their Young Arms?
Record: 22-30 (4th in AL Central)
Yes, the Detroit Tigers are still in the AL wild-card race even though they're eight games under .500 with a minus-64 run differential.
This probably won't be the case for much longer, as the Tigers don't have much going for them as they prepare for a six-game road trip to cap their season. But if there's any hope for them, it's contained within their young starting pitchers.
To this end, Spencer Turnbull merely needs to maintain the form that's led him to a 3.83 ERA. Otherwise, the Tigers need better than the 6.84 ERA they've gotten out of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Michael Fulmer.
Though the results aren't there, those three certainly have potential. Maybe they'll realize it just in time for October.
Houston Astros: How Far Can They Go Without Justin Verlander?
Record: 27-27 (2nd in AL West)
Also Saturday, however, the Astros learned Justin Verlander is out for the remainder of the season and possibly all of 2021. The two-time AL Cy Young Award winner needs Tommy John surgery.
Barring a late charge by the Seattle Mariners, the Astros are going to make the playoffs. And to their credit, the starting trio of Zack Greinke, Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier has pitched to the tune of a 3.71 ERA.
Even still, the Astros will surely need pick-me-ups from other pitchers to last long in October without Verlander.
Los Angeles Angels: Can They Hang with the Big Boys?
Record: 24-31 (4th in AL West)
Don't look now, but the Los Angeles Angels have actually been playing well. Mainly by way of a hot offense, they're 12-6 since September 3.
It's possible the Angels will keep this up just long enough to steal a playoff spot. It's no great surprise Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon are both hot, after all, and the Angels have also gotten a huge boost from rookie slugger Jared Walsh.
Trouble is, the hot streak has happened mostly against Colorado, Texas and Houston, none of whom has been playing well in September.
With the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers due up, the Angels are only getting into October if they finally prove they can hang with the big boys, too.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Will Cody Bellinger Ever Snap Out of It?
Record: 38-16 (1st in NL West)
As evidenced by their record and their plus-119 run differential, not a whole lot has gone wrong for the Dodgers this season. They already have a playoff spot, and they can also clinch the NL's No. 1 seed.
And yet even now, the question of what the heck is going on with Cody Bellinger persists.
Bellinger won the NL MVP Award in 2019 on the strength of a 1.035 OPS and 47 home runs. This year, however, he's slipped to a .746 OPS and 11 home runs.
Though the Dodgers offense has been fine without Bellinger at his best, it could stand to be better. Especially if it has to match strides with, say, the Atlanta or San Diego units in October.
Miami Marlins: Are Their Young Starters Ready for the Big Stage?
Record: 28-26 (2nd in NL East)
Despite their upstart status and their minus-27 run differential, the Miami Marlins are this close to returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
The Marlins may therefore be only a few reliable starters away from being a threat to play deep into October. To this end, Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Sixto Sanchez are answering the call with an aggregate 3.37 ERA.
But can those three—who are 25, 24 and 22—keep it up in the pressure cooker that is the postseason? The Marlins must hope so.
Milwaukee Brewers: Can They Hop on Christian Yelich's Back?
Record: 26-27 (4th in NL Central)
The Milwaukee Brewers pitching staff is one of the great unsung heroes this season, as it's carried the team while its offense has struggled to be so much as average.
There are many reasons for Milwaukee's offensive ineptitude, but none is more shocking than the fall of Christian Yelich.
Between the 2018 All-Star break and the end of last season, Yelich was the best player in baseball. But he's been just OK with an .810 OPS and 11 home runs.
Yet Yelich has been more hot-and-cold than bad, and the Brewers can also take solace in his still-excellent batted ball metrics. All they need, really, is for Yelich to finally get hot enough to carry them into and through the playoffs.
Minnesota Twins: Can They Squeeze More Out of Their Offense?
Record: 33-22 (2nd in AL Central)
The Minnesota Twins have already clinched a second straight playoff berth, so the season's final days are merely about earning the highest seed they can get.
But if there's something about the Twins that just feels off, it's surely their offense. They slammed a record 307 home runs and practically led MLB in runs per game in 2019. This year, neither their home run nor their run output leaps off the page.
Nonetheless, all the necessary pieces for an elite offense are still there. It's just a question of how many of them will live up to their potential, and when.
We're specifically looking at Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, Mitch Garver and Jorge Polanco, who are trending well below their 2019 production.
New York Mets: Do They Have a No. 2 After Jacob deGrom?
Record: 24-30 (4th in NL East)
The New York Mets got a scare when two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom left his Wednesday start after just two innings with a hamstring injury. But come Monday, he was back on the mound.
Rather, the Mets should be worried about just how many reliable starters they have outside of deGrom.
They've mostly relied on Rick Porcello, David Peterson, Michael Wacha and Steven Matz, and the four of them have flopped with a 5.99 ERA.
Because they have an elite offense and an arguably better-than-advertised bullpen, the Mets could be a threat in October if their non-deGrom starters show up in time. But that's a huge if.
New York Yankees: Can They Pick on Teams Their Own Size?
Record: 31-23 (2nd in AL East)
As the New York Yankees can vouch, there's no better way to snap out of a funk than with a 10-game winning streak to clinch a playoff berth.
The Yankees indeed looked like the superteam that was promised as they were winning 10 in a row from September 9 to 19. Their offense cranked 29 home runs and scored 85 runs, while their pitching allowed only 25 runs.
Yet the Yankees won these games against two lousy clubs (Baltimore and Boston) and one fading contender (Toronto). That fits with a larger trend in which they're 21-8 against losing teams but just 10-15 otherwise.
If the Yankees don't overcome that, their stay in October will be brief.
Oakland Athletics: Do They Have Another Gear?
Record: 33-20 (1st in AL West)
The Oakland Athletics are already in the playoffs, having clinched a spot with a victory over the cross-bay San Francisco Giants on Friday.
And yet it's oddly difficult to sell these A's as a World Series contender, because finding specific things they do well is an exercise in frustration.
There is the bullpen, which has been simply spectacular in putting up an MLB-best 2.42 ERA. The A's otherwise have a just OK offense and a defense that's provided mixed results, and both will miss injured third baseman Matt Chapman (hip). A's starters, meanwhile, have a modest 4.47 ERA.
In short, the A's will need to be greater than the sum of their parts in the playoffs.
Philadelphia Phillies: Can They Be Anywhere Close to Full Strength by October?
Record: 27-27 (3rd in NL East)
For the Philadelphia Phillies, the most consistent concern has been a bullpen that's struggled with an MLB-worst 7.11 ERA.
Thanks to the injury bug, however, there are more pressing matters.
It's unclear whether hurlers Jake Arrieta and Spencer Howard will pitch again this year, while there's also uncertainty around lineup stalwarts Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto. The last thing the Phillies needed was an injury to Bryce Harper, but that happened when he exited Sunday's game with a stiff back.
Even though the Phillies stand a good chance of qualifying for the postseason, all this is what you would call "not so good."
San Diego Padres: Will Mike Clevinger Be Good to Go?
Record: 34-20 (2nd in NL West)
Things are mostly looking up for the San Diego Padres, as they welcomed Eric Hosmer back from the injured list and, oh yeah, punched their first postseason ticket in 14 years.
But what of Mike Clevinger?
The right-hander was the biggest piece of San Diego's huge haul ahead of the August 31 trade deadline, and he made a good first impression by allowing just six runs through three starts.
Because of biceps tightness, however, Clevinger was scratched from his scheduled start Saturday. Padres manager Jayce Tingler said the club was just being "extra cautious," but now there's a question of whether the rotation will have a healthy Clevinger for its World Series push.
San Francisco Giants: Can Their Offense Get Hot Again?
Record: 26-27 (3rd in NL West)
The San Francisco Giants are in the NL playoff picture largely because of what happened from August 18 to September 9, when they ripped off a 15-5 record.
Somewhat surprisingly, it was their hitters who led the way. The Giants featured one of the most dangerous offenses in baseball during that span, and it was a case of basically all their regulars being red-hot.
Yet even accounting for their 14-run outburst in Oakland on Sunday, the Giants have cooled along with their offense over the last nine games. They've scored only 33 runs and gone 3-6.
San Francisco will need another offensive push to get into October, much less last long if it gets there. To that end, its first hope must be that Mike Yastrzemski (calf) gets well soon.
Seattle Mariners: Are They Built to Take on Goliaths?
Record: 24-30 (3rd in AL West)
If nothing else, this season has driven home the point that the Seattle Mariners are moving toward a bright future. It will hardly be a tragedy if they fall short of October.
Yet they still have a shot at actually getting there, and it exists because they've found their stride since August 19. They've won 17 of their last 29 games.
To this point, however, no American League team has had more trouble (8-20) against .500 or better clubs than the Mariners. And they can't avoid such teams this week, as they have six games remaining against Houston and Oakland.
So if the Mariners are going to make the playoffs, they're going to earn it.
St. Louis Cardinals: Can They Avoid Another Offensive Catastrophe?
Record: 26-25 (2nd in NL Central)
Last year's St. Louis Cardinals won the NL Central and survived the first round of the playoffs, only to see their offense score just six runs in a sweep by the Washington Nationals in the National League Championship Series.
New year, same threat.
Especially if they have to play Los Angeles, San Diego or Atlanta, the Cards will simply need more from their bats if they make it into the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Rays: Can They Count on Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton?
Record: 36-19 (1st in AL East)
With a playoff spot already clinched, the Tampa Bay Rays are gunning for the No. 1 seed in the American League.
There's also a perspective from which the Rays look like the favorites to represent the AL in the Fall Classic. They may not have the star power of the White Sox or Twins, but their depth is intimidating.
And yet it's fair to ask: What exactly do they have in Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton?
The two right-handers pitched like aces in 2019, combining for a 2.75 ERA over 45 starts. But they've fallen to a 4.38 ERA in 18 starts. Tampa Bay's World Series chances may hinge on the duo reverting to their form of last year.
Toronto Blue Jays: Does Their Starting Pitching Go Deep Enough?
Record: 28-26 (3rd in AL East)
The Toronto Blue Jays have imperiled their playoff chances by going 4-8 over their last 12, but not all is lost.
They still have a playoff spot in hand, and the parts that could make them tough to beat are plainly visible. Teoscar Hernandez, Bo Bichette and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. lead a deep and multitalented offense, while their bullpen hierarchy is sorted around a strong late-inning core.
The starting pitching, on the other hand, doesn't look so hot after Hyun-Jin Ryu and Taijuan Walker. Those two boast a 2.94 ERA, while Matt Shoemaker, Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson and Robbie Ray have a 6.37 ERA.
For the Blue Jays to have any shot at the World Series, at least one of the latter three will need to find a little something extra.