By Rowan Kavner
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Even the best teams in baseball aren’t flawless.
So as the playoff race heats up, here’s one question for every contender.
Note: The list below includes every team within five games of a playoff spot. Records and stats through play Sept. 6.
Los Angeles Dodgers (93-42, first in NL West): Who is closing games in October?
Craig Kimbrel has served as the Dodgers’ closer all year. Whether that continues in October will largely be based on his performance the rest of September. Dave Roberts has expressed faith in Kimbrel and said he believes the Dodgers are at their best when he is in that role, but the Dodgers’ manager has also intimated that the opportunity to close games will be based on results.
The Dodgers have demonstrated a willingness to switch things up at the back end (and front end) of games when the schedule turns to October. Last year, Kenley Jansen and Max Scherzer both recorded playoff saves. In 2020, it was Julio Urías finishing off the National League Championship Series and World Series. There’s still time for Kimbrel to get back on track and retain the primary closer role — he has thrown three straight clean outings to begin September, and things have bizarrely trended in the right direction since he started walking out to “Let It Go” on Aug. 21 — but it is one of the areas worth monitoring for a team rocketing toward a franchise wins record.
Atlanta Braves (85-51, T-first in NL East): Is this a blip or a trend for Kenley Jansen?
While the Dodgers figure out who will be saving games in October, their former closer is going through his own trials. Jansen is tied for the major-league lead in saves, but his ERA has recently escalated to 3.68 — his highest mark in the second half.
Jansen was working on seven straight scoreless outings when things suddenly collapsed on him Aug. 27 in St. Louis. He walked in the winning run that night, absorbing his first loss of the year in the process, and has yet to fully regain his form. He allowed two more runs in his next outing, threw a clean inning Sept. 1, suffered another blown save Sept. 3 and then threw a clean inning Tuesday.
The Braves remain one of the hottest teams in baseball, and a savvy addition of reliever Raisel Iglesias right before the deadline gives them more options should Jansen not rebound, but it’s a dangerous time for a closer to stumble.
New York Mets and Atlanta Braves heat up the NL East
Ben Verlander and Alex Curry look at the New York Mets, the Atlanta Braves and the NL East. Which team will win the division?
New York Mets (85-51, T-first in NL East): Can they muster enough offense for a deep October run?
The Braves’ competitors for the NL East crown don’t slug the same way they do. The Mets rank 16th in home runs overall and are 12th in runs scored in the season’s second half. They mustered just one run apiece in their final two games against the Nationals, then scored two runs in a loss to the Pirates to drop into a tie with Atlanta atop the division.
Pete Alonso and Francisco Lindor can mash, but the Mets lack the breadth of power threats possessed by other top NL contenders. And if that duo goes cold, the lack of thump in the Mets’ lineup becomes pronounced. Daniel Vogelbach was supposed to help in that regard and enjoyed a hot start in New York, but he has two homers in his past 25 games.
Home runs matter in the postseason — the World Series winner has ranked at least in the top half in baseball in homers each of the past six years — so at this rate, the Mets, who hit for average and get on base, will have to defy the odds. A rotation that includes Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Chris Bassitt can help mask other deficiencies.
St. Louis Cardinals (80-56, first in NL Central): Do they have enough arms?
This applies to both the starters and the bullpen. Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos make for a terrific 1-2 punch at the back end of games, and deadline acquisitions Jordan Montgomery and Jose Quintana have provided a gigantic and necessary boost to the rotation. But is it enough?
St. Louis has won 30 of its past 42 games, despite ranking 15th in the majors in WHIP (1.25) and opponents’ batting average (.245) and 22nd in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.43). In some ways, the Cardinals are the opposite of the Mets. They boast the best offense in baseball in the season’s second half, but pitching is the clear issue here. A healthy Jack Flaherty could significantly impact the way this staff looks.
Philadelphia Phillies (74-61, third in NL East): Do they have enough (healthy) arms?
This is a twist on the St. Louis question. In Philadelphia, the concerns are mostly about health and the bullpen. Phillies relievers are tied for 19th on the season in ERA (4.11) and rank 24th in WHIP (1.37). The move for closer David Robertson has helped, but the bullpen is still 3-5 with a 4.30 ERA since the deadline. Corey Knebel, who leads the Phillies in saves, is unlikely to pitch again this season. Seranthony Dominguez, who has the second-most saves on the club, hasn’t pitched since Aug. 17.
The injuries continue in the rotation. Ace Zack Wheeler has been out since Aug. 21 (tendinitis). Wheeler and Dominguez (triceps tendinitis) are expected to return down the stretch, and Zach Eflin (knee soreness) could return in time to at least assist the bullpen. But time is running out for the Phillies, who are looking to get healthy while clinging to a wild-card spot. They’ve allowed an average of eight runs per game their past seven games.
San Diego Padres (75-62, second in NL West): Is there enough offense?
The Cardinals addressed their pitching deficiencies at the deadline, and now things are trending in the right direction in St. Louis. The Padres addressed their offensive deficiencies at the deadline, making the grandest move(s) by bringing Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Brandon Drury to San Diego, but similar production hasn’t followed.
The Padres’ .701 OPS since Aug. 3 ranks 16th in the majors. Their offensive output has been largely the same as it was before the moves. Bell is slashing .189/.318/.306 in San Diego, while Drury’s at .220/.262/.410. Manny Machado and Soto are superstars capable of carrying an offense, but they’re also the only two Padres with an OPS over .750 with the team. That will need to change for this squad to make a run in October.
Milwaukee Brewers (71-64, second in NL Central): Do they have the pop or relief to save their season?
The questions begin with an offense that hit .220 as a group in August. The Brewers did nothing at the deadline to create more offense, a curious decision that has contributed to their losing record since then and the Cardinals’ taking a commanding lead in the division. Milwaukee is slashing .218/.304/.380 since the deadline, posting a .684 OPS that leads only the Marlins in the National League.
Hunter Renfroe, Rowdy Tellez and Willy Adames have each blasted at least 25 homers this year, but the team’s overall subpar batting average and on-base percentage have been difficult to overcome. Combine that with a bullpen that has more blown saves (nine) than saves (eight) since the deadline, and it’s clear there are more questions than answers right now in Milwaukee.
MLB Power Rankings: Astros, Dodgers, Mets show no signs of slowing down
Ben Verlander gives his latest MLB Power Rankings, with the Dodgers, Astros and Mets holding firm at the top of the list.
Houston Astros (87-49, first in AL West): Do they have the lineup depth to go all the way?
As is the case with the Dodgers, any Astros questions should be taken with a grain of salt. They’re the clear-cut favorites in the American League and one of the most complete teams in baseball. They lead the AL in both starter and reliever ERA, but their offense hasn’t been quite as overpowering as their pitching (which has taken recent hits with Cy Young favorite Justin Verlander and closer Ryan Pressly going on the injured list).
Alex Bregman has been one of the hottest hitters on the planet the second half of the season, Yordan Alvarez and Jose Altuve each hold an OPS over .900, and Kyle Tucker has mashed 23 homers with 86 RBIs. But after that, things get less certain. Michael Brantley‘s out for the year. Starting first baseman Yuli Gurriel and shortstop Jeremy Pena each have a sub-.600 OPS in the second half — Gurriel hasn’t homered since July 1 — while catching acquisition Christian Vazquez hasn’t homered since joining Houston. Overall, Astros catchers are slashing .178/.243/.299 this season.
The Yankees are slashing .221/.300/.374 since the All-Star break. They hold the lowest OPS (.611) in the AL since the deadline, which is especially difficult to do when Judge has blasted 22 more home runs than the next AL player. It’s an alarming trend for a team that has dropped 20 of its past 32 games.
Health is also not on New York’s side. As Judge’s historic season continues, the only other Yankees with an OPS over .700 since the All-Star break — Anthony Rizzo (migraines), Andrew Benintendi (wrist) and Matt Carpenter (foot) — are all either on the injured list or heading there shortly. Suddenly, the Rays and Blue Jays are on the Yankees’ heels, which seemed almost impossible when New York jumped to a 70-34 record.
Yankees and Rays heat up the AL East
Ben Verlander and Alex Curry break down the AL East battle between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. Which team will win the division?
In a four-game span from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, the Guardians mustered a total of one run. That stretch came shortly after the Mariners shut them out in Seattle. Led by Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak, Cleveland’s bullpen has been nearly untouchable in the season’s second half — Guardians relievers have a 1.97 ERA since the All-Star break; no other group is under 2.50 — but holding on in the Central will be difficult without more pop.
As a team, the Guardians rank 27th in slugging percentage since the All-Star break. They also rank 27th in home runs in August and have just one through their first six games of September. That homer came off the bat of Josh Naylor. Perhaps Naylor or Rookie of the Year contender Steven Kwan can help Ramirez (.280/.351/.531) and Gimenez (.303/.371/.483) provide the offense necessary to hold off the rest of the AL Central.
Tampa Bay Rays (76-58, second in AL East): Is there enough pop for the good times to continue?
The surging Rays are making the East interesting down the stretch, something that didn’t seem possible a few weeks ago. Tampa Bay went 18-9 in August and has started September 4-1. It’s largely because of a pitching staff that holds a 3.06 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and major-league-best 4.23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half. It is not because the Rays are consistently tearing the cover off the ball.
In fact, the Rays have posted a .696 OPS on the year, which ranks 21st in the majors. They’ve still managed to score runs in a variety of ways. Randy Arozarena is playing like a star in the second half, and Yandy Díaz has a .349/.423/.547 slash line over his past 23 games. Pickups David Peralta and Jose Siri have both looked like solid acquisitions. Getting and keeping Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe healthy would go a long way toward completing this lineup.
Seattle Mariners (77-59, second in AL West): Will they hit enough to back up their rotation?
The Mariners have boasted arguably the top rotation in baseball since the trade deadline. Their starters are 16-5 with a 2.89 ERA since Aug. 3, leading the way for a Seattle team currently in prime position to make the postseason for the first time since 2001, despite an offense lagging behind.
They can thump — the Mariners’ 55 homers in the second half rank fifth in the majors — yet as a team, they’re slashing just .216/.300/.375 in the second half, ranking 28th, 25th and 24th in the three slash-line categories. Rookie of the Year hopeful Julio Rodriguez is a sensation, Cal Raleigh and Eugenio Suarez are mashing homers regularly, and Ty France should be getting his due, but the Mariners rank toward the bottom half of the league in scoring. They’ll have to hit enough to back up that formidable rotation.
Toronto Blue Jays (75-60, third in AL East): Who are they, exactly?
It seems weird to be asking this question on Sept. 7, but what a wacky season this has been for an incredibly talented group in Toronto. The Blue Jays fired Charlie Montoyo with a 46-42 record (.523) and hired John Schneider, whose 29-18 (.617) tenure can be broken down into sections.
The Blue Jays started the second half 8-2, then went 3-9 over the next 12 games. They followed by going 7-1 in the following eight games, then got swept in Anaheim. They have six All-Stars, yet they’re clinging to the final wild-card spot. They’ve scored the fifth-most runs in baseball and have four players with an OPS over .800 in the second half, but they posted a .688 OPS as a group in August.
They have an All-Star starter in Alek Manoah, an All-Star closer in Jordan Romano and another ace in Kevin Gausman, yet a host of pitchers have failed to either stay healthy or meet expectations. The question with this team is about consistency and identity because there is little doubting the quality of the players.
Orioles rookies providing a spark
Ben Verlander and Melanie Newman talk about the impact of rookies Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson on the 2022 Orioles.
Baltimore Orioles (72-64, fourth in AL East): Is there enough magic for the ride to continue?
Even now, with the team 3.5 games out of a playoff spot, FanGraphs gives the Orioles a 4.9% chance of making the playoffs. It’s difficult to believe what the eyes are seeing, but this resilient Baltimore club doesn’t seem to care. The Orioles aren’t trotting out the same household-name starting pitchers as most of their AL East rivals, but Kyle Bradish, Austin Voth, Dean Kremer and Jordan Lyles are getting the job done.
The pitching as a whole has been about average. The hitting — the Orioles have a 99 wRC+ as a team — has been around average, too. Together, though, magic has ensued. The Orioles traded closer Jorge Lopez at the deadline, and Felix Bautista is 10-for-10 in saves after the All-Star break. They dealt Trey Mancini to the Astros, and rookies Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson have helped boost the offense. A relatively tough schedule is ahead the rest of the way, but it’s pretty late in the year to still be doubting this enthralling group.
Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.
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