The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.
Atlanta Braves – Contender
Lost amid all the chicken-and-beer noise out of Boston a year ago was the fact that the Atlanta Braves also choked away a massive lead for a playoff spot, while also losing a heart-breaker on the final day of the season. This year the Braves ship appears to be much sturdier, as they find themselves in a similar position. The starting pitching is excellent once again, as is the bullpen, led by closer Craig Kimbrel, who has absolutely dominated hitters posting a 1.29 ERA in 49 innings. The offense is also packing a punch this season, led by a bevy of above average hitters including Chipper Jones (135 OPS+), Jason Heyward (123 OPS+), Freddy Freeman (118 OPS+), Martin Prado (112 OPS+), and Michael Bourne (104 OPS+). Any team with a lineup this deep is a legitimate playoff threat, giving Atlanta the inside track on one of the Wild Card spots.
Arizona Diamondbacks – Pretender
Earlier this week I discussed the D-Backs chances at sneaking into the playoffs. Basically it boils down to this: Arizona is 9.5 back in the NL West and 6.5 back in the Wild Card chase, but they have 11 more games against the Dodgers and Giants, both of whom are sitting ahead of the snakes in the standings. If Arizona can make some big gains in the head-to-head matchups, Justin Upton, Paul Goldschmidt, and Co. have a chance. Anything less than 7-2 against those two formidable foes will signal an end to Arizona’s brief reign of the division.
Cincinnati Reds – Contender
The franchise that currently holds the best record in baseball also holds the largest division lead in baseball. Cincinnati has bucked their recent trend of relying on offense, and instead has been carried by an excellent and durable pitching staff that ranks 2nd in the NL (only behind Washington) in runs allowed. Johnny Cueto is one of the leaders in the NL Cy Young race, due to his fantastic peripherals (17-6, 2.48 ERA, 144 K’s, 172 ERA+), and the rest of the staff has been solid. Mat Latos has really come on nicely of late and his presence gives the Reds a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation. The offense will need to get Joey Votto up and running at peak form again if they want to do damage in the postseason, but the NL Central looks to be safely sewn up.
Los Angeles Dodgers – Contender
The Dodgers are one of the most puzzling teams in the league to figure out. They’ve traded for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford (injured), Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, and Hanley Ramirez. To put it bluntly: this is a radically different ball club than the one Don Mattingly began the year with. So far there have been mixed reviews. Gonzalez, the key cog in the $260 million dollar transaction last week, is off to a slow start, hitting just .182/.250/.273 in his first 8 games in Dodger blue. The other big piece of that particular trade, Josh Beckett, has only made two starts, one good, one bad, but he looks to be happier, which should mean an improvement in performance. A change of scenery hasn’t done much to help Shane Victorino, who’s hitting .248 in LA, or Joe Blanton (6.67 ERA in 28.1 innings) but on the flip side, Hanley Ramirez has rediscovered his power swing, clubbing 9 homers and 35 RBI in 36 games. This team is shouldn’t be forgotten however, because Matt Kemp has the ability to hit .400 over the final month with 9-10 homers and Clayton Kershaw (12-8, 2.88 ERA) will be favored in every start.
Milwaukee Brewers – Pretender
The Brewers, much like Arizona above and Philadelphia below, have to play nearly flawless baseball from here on out if they want a shot at sniffing the playoffs. Ryan Braun has set the league on fire as of late, raising his season line to a gorgeous .310/.387/.606 (160 OPS+)with 36 homers and 92 RBI. Even though he’s outproducing his MVP season from a year ago, he won’t get near the podium this time, which is a shame, but also the price you pay for eluding a positive drug test. The pitching staff has been better recently, even with the departure of Zach Greinke, but the expensive back end of the bullpen (Axford and K-Rod) have been far too unreliable to make a run to the postseason. The odds are long on a return to the playoffs for the Brew Crew, so don’t count on it.
Philadelphia Phillies – Pretender
Technically, at 64-69 the Phillies aren’t dead in the water yet. They’re just very, very close. Philadelphia trails in the Wild Card race by 8 games and has a cushy stretch of play coming up in early September. The Phillies are slated to play 13 straight against the Mets, Astros, Rockies, and Marlins. Say the Phillies are able to nearly run the table and go something like 11-2, they’d find themselves right in the thick of the playoff chase. Anything less probably spells an end to their thus far disappointing season. Key cogs Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have been solidly above average since returning from injury, but with so much ground to make up in so little time, another playoff appearance is a long shot.
Pittsburgh Pirates – Pretender
I am absolutely torn on what to do about the Pirates. All season long I’ve by enthralled by the way that Andrew McCutchen has carried the team on his back, bringing the joy of baseball back to the Steel City. Even with his recently slump, McCutchen is still hitting .346/.410/.567 (169 OPS+) with 24 homers and 80 RBI. The rest of the lineup outside of Neil Walker, Garret Jones and the occasional binge by Pedro Alvarez, has been pretty decrepit. Clint Barmes get on base in less than a quarter of his at-bats (.246 OBP), has 1 homer, and still has received over 400 plate appearances. Jose Tabata has hit .231 with just 3 homers in 321 plate appearances. The fun may be coming to an end. Pittsburgh is just 11-18 since August started, and the pitching staff, which had been excellent during the 1st half, is starting to come back down to earth. They rank 6th in the NL in team ERA, 5th in runs allowed, and 12th in strikeouts. That doesn’t make this season a failure however, because this team can still finish with a winning record for the first time in 20 years, and Andrew McCutchen should still be the heavy favorite entering September to win the MVP.
San Francisco Giants – Contender
The NL West leaders entering play today have started to build a cozy lead in their division since the big Adrian Gonzalez trade. The Giants have a nice 4.5 game lead, and have played solid baseball even without All-Star outfielder Melky Cabrera, who was suspended 50-games for failing a drug test. Buster Posey has stepped up in his absence, bludgeoning the baseball to the tune of a .403 average with 9 homers since the All-Star break. San Francisco is once again anchored by a deep pitching staff, although the big names at the top are a little different this year. Matt Cain (13-5, 2.82 ERA, 125 ERA+, and one perfect game), Madison Bumgarner (14-9, 3.07 ERA 115 ERA+), and Ryan Vogelsong (12-7, 3.02 ERA, 114 ERA+) have formed one of the most dominant trios at the top of any rotation in baseball. The team’s ace for the past 4 seasons, Tim Lincecum, has been dealing with a career-worst year for any number of supposed reasons ( drop in fastball velocity? problems with location?). Lincecum has been a little better over the last month, posting a 3.71 ERA, and if he can continue to be an average pitcher, the Giants will cruise to the NL West title.
St. Louis Cardinals – Contender
The National League’s run differential leader for most of the season finally lost their crown to Washington after losing 4 straight games by the combined score of 32-1. The pitching staff has been solid this season, led by career years from the young Lance Lynn and veteran Kyle Lohse. On offense, St. Louis still has the highest octane attack in the NL, pacing the league by scoring an average of 4.8 runs per game. Matt Holliday (.304/.378/.520, 24 HR, 90 RBI) and Yadier Molina (.324/.375/.510, 17 HR, 62, RBI, 11 steals) are both emerging as potential MVP candidates if things fall into place over the season’s last month. The rest of the collection on offense, Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Allen Craig, and Jon Jay make up a very solid core and give St. Louis enviable depth throughout the lineup. If Lance Berkman can give the Cardinals some useful at bats down the stretch, St. Louis could find itself in a similar position to the one they were in a year ago – needing to win on the last day to get into the playoffs as a Wild Card. And with a potent offense and just enough pitching they just might get the job done.
Washington Nationals – Contender
The Nats have held 1st place in the NL East for most of the summer, and as we head toward fall baseball they look to be as good a bet as any to advance out of the National League. Washington is led by their elite pitching staff, which has allowed the fewest runs in baseball, while posting the best team ERA (3.25) and ERA+ (122). Stephen Strasburg (15-6, 3.05 ERA, 11.1 K/9 inn) has been either the team’s best or 2nd best pitcher all season, but will probably be shut down come October. That means the rest of the rotation, which includes, Gio Gonzalez (3.10 ERA), Jordan Zimmermann (3.01), Edwin Jackson (3.53 ERA) and Ross Detwiler (3.32 ERA) will have to pick up the slack. The Nats have also been much better on offense recently and now rank 7th in the NL in runs per game. Their lineup has started to fill out with Jason Werth returning from injury, Bryce Harper contributing from the #2 hole, and Ryan Zimmerman finally hitting like the Zimmerman of old. If Washington keeps up the offensive onslaught, the team has more than enough pitching to easily claim the NL East.
With so many teams in contention in the National League, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a tie at the end of the season and the accompanying 1-game play-in game on October 4th. The playoff race is neck-and-neck right now and any number of factors from the weather to injury to a hot streak by a September call-up could be the deciding factor. And this is only an appetizer for what’s building to be a fantastic October.