It happens every year. The National Football League as well as college football roll into action just as the major league pennant races heat up. The net result is a smorgasbord of professional games to watch on weekends with game times conflicting and loyalties tested. Channel jumping is common. Especially in cities where the baseball team is in contention for a postseason berth.
As I have chronicled several times this season, the American League lags behind the National League regarding pennant races and drama. In effect, all that must be decided in the junior circuit is the identity of the Wild Card teams. Division leading Boston, Cleveland and Houston appear to be safe with roughly two weeks remaining. Of those division leaders, only Houston appears to have a reason to sweat, as the Oakland Athletics are playing outstanding baseball and have been on the Astros heels for a few weeks now. I still think it will be the Astros winning that AL West crown. But they may have to sweat a bit.
It also appears safe to say that the Wild Card teams will be the Athletics (or Astros) and the New York Yankees. The league playoff gifts have been wrapped, sealed, have bows ready to be placed on top of the packages and final delivery is being prepared-but that final playoff configuration is yet to be determined. It could be a nail biter until the end.
The National League still has considerable nail biting activity. How about the race between the Brewers, the Cubs and the Cardinals in the National League Central? Frankly, any of those three teams can win the division. The Cubs have been favored by baseball experts since the offseason. Why not? They have enough pitching (not great, but enough) solid offense and players like javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant to lead the way.
Given the leadership of new manager Mike Shildt, I still would not rule out the Cardinals in the division. While the Brewers have been inconsistent, they have the firepower to rise to the occasion as well, having played the Cubs tough in a big series this week. The Cards are currently 5.5 games out, but stranger things have happened. It’ll be Cubs and Brewers down the stretch.
But it is the National League West that really has me clinging to every game. The East division looks to belong to the upstart Atlanta Braves (more discussion about them next week). The Philadelphia Phillies have wilted badly under the pressure of late summer. Their losing streak earlier this week has left the Braves ready to roll into the postseasons as the NL East Champs.
But in the West, any team from among the Colorado Rockies, the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Arizona Diamondbacks can win the division’s pennant. Here are my thoughts on those three very competitive teams in the very competitive race to the finish:
Each team’s schedule from Monday, September 17 until their final regularly scheduled game is listed adjacent to the team name below.
All statistics are through Saturday morning September 15, 2018.
ROCKIES: At the Dodgers for three, at the Dbacks for three, home against the Phillies for four, home against the Nationals for three.
The Rockies have six of their final games against the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. All of them are on the road. That might be all right. They will eliminate the Coors Factor for their pitchers. However, their hitters may also face greater challenges than they would at home. A humidor exists in Chase Field in Phoenix. Any of the Rockies sluggers can take the ball over the fence, but it isn’t as easy as it has been in previous Chase Field seasons.
Trevor Story is now leading his team down the stretch. Story is hitting .291 and has 33 home runs and 102 RBIs. Story has an incredible 40 doubles as well. He has also stolen 25 bases while being caught only six times. He is having an under the radar MVP season. People don’t speak in terms of Story winning the MVP. I do. I get to see a great deal of him. He’s a force at the plate and now, even on the bases. We may forget that Story ran and stole bases in the minor leagues. He just hasn’t done it as much with the parent club. Story is not a free-agent until 2022. However, he is eligible for arbitration for the 2019 season, and the Rockies will be paying dearly if they intend to keep him. And they better keep him if they want to continue to be competitive.
Adding to the luster of Story’s season is the fact he is the first major-league shortstop in history to have 40 doubles, at least 30 homers, and steal at least 25 bases in a season. Now really, those are MVP numbers, without a doubt. Will he win? Who knows?
Charlie Blackmon avoided free agency by signing a four-year contract for $77MM that expires in 2021. Then there are two team options at $21MM and $10MM to follow. Blackmon is a stable presence in their lineup, hitting 26 homers, driving in 64 runs, and hitting .287. But the major factor comes in the runs he scores. He has scored 108 runs to set the pace from the top of the lineup.
The third major offensive force may be the best of the three. Nolan Arenado is a terrific baseball player and he remains the best third baseman I have ever seen. I will say, however, that there are others in the game threatening his defensive status, including the Athletics Matt Chapman. As good as Arenado is at third base, he may be an even better hitter. Now with 34 home runs and 100 RBIs, Arenado hits some of the loudest line-drive home runs in the game. He’s a 298 hitter and he’s always, always dangerous with a bat in his hand. Playing in Coors Field helps, but he’ll get games at Chase Field as well, where he could thrive next week.
D.J. LeMahieu may leave at the end of the year via free-agency. He’s a solid defender at second base, has good speed and hits for average with some pop in his bat. He may not be stealing as many bases as he did in the past, but LeMahieu is dangerous in all phases of his game. In 2019, the Rockies will likely have top prospect Brendan Rodgers ready to play either shortstop or second base in the infield, next to Trevor Story One of them will play the other position. Losing LeMahieu and saving his $8,500MM salary will probably help the team pay Arenado and others. And with Rodgers in the queue, the loss won’t sting as much.
Other than pitching, the Rockies biggest issue down the stretch might be who to play in the outfield? They have David Dahl, Charlie Blackmon, Carlos Gonzalez, Noel Cuevas, Matt Holiday, Gerardo Parra and Raimel Tapia all available to play at any given time. Yes, for those of you who don’t follow the Rockies regularly, it really is that Matt Holiday. And he is hitting. He has two home runs in his 13 games played. They’ll have to trim that outfield group for their playoff roster.
The rotation includes righty Jon Gray, lefty Kyle Freeland, lefty Tyler Anderson, righty German Marquez and righty Antonio Senzatela. Freeland is probably having the best season among them, with a record of 15-7 and a 2.96 ERA. His WHIP is 1.22 due to a bit of a high walk rate. Marquez has a great array of breaking balls that are really effective on the road where he can get more spin. He’s a 12 game winner and seems to be improving as the season progresses. Senzatela is the most vulnerable of the lot, and he is the most likely to be skipped for a start in the postseason and head to the bullpen.
Earlier in the season the bullpen was a major concern for the Rockies. Guys they had counted upon weren’t getting the job done. Unlike the Diamondbacks who are regressing in relief, it seems the Rockies are improving at the right time. But those bullpen hiccups could emerge at any moment.
Wade Davis leads the bullpen as the team’s closer. He has had some good games, and some very bad ones. He has 39 saves, but they haven’t come easy. His ERA is 4.55 in 59.1 innings pitched.
Adam Ottavino has a rough 2017, but he has bounced back very nicely this year, giving the Rockies a solid set-up man and co-closer if needed.
In July, the Rockies traded with Toronto to get Seung hwan Oh, a former closer and set-up man in his strong career as a reliever. Oh, 36, adds depth to the pen (when he’s healthy) along with Bryan Shaw, a right-hander the Rockies signed from the Indians as a free-agent reliever. After a tough first half of the season, Shaw is helping out in the pen and is becoming more reliable.
Jake McGee, a former closer who pitched with Tampa Bay is a veteran force in the pen as well. But like many of the Rockies relievers, he has had his ups and downs in the pen this year.
Lefty Chris Rusin logs plenty of innings in the middle of games as a bridge to the 7th, 8th and 9th inning relievers.
Where will the Rockies finish when it’s all said and done? I have them as 2nd in the West behind the Dodgers and ahead of the Diamondbacks. I think there are some trap games in the schedule including both the Phillies and Nationals. It may be a good thing those games will be played at Coors Field to finish off the season. Both the Phillies and Nationals have the offense to kill the Rockies title hopes in six big season-ending games.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS: Home against the Rockies for three, home against the Padres for three, away at the Diamondbacks for three, and away at the Giants for three.
The Dodgers will finish on the road, but considering the opponents are the Padres and Giants it should give them a tremendous advantage in the final week. Both those teams will be gunning for their division rival, especially the Giants. And both the Padres and Giants can be very dangerous with nothing to lose. Clearly though, the Dodgers should be able to pitch their way to victories against the last two teams in the division. Neither the Padres or the Giants have the teams to compete with the Dodgers with everything at stake at the end of the season.
The Dodgers lost a big bat when Corey Seager was placed on the disabled list and needed surgery, ending his season. But they did manage to pry free-agent to be Manny Machado away from the Baltimore Orioles to help add some offense. Machado hasn’t set the house on fire, but he has helped lengthen the lineup and he gives the opposition a very credible bat to be concerned about down the stretch. Machado has played 51 games for the Dodgers, hitting .272 with 10 homers and 28 RBIs. He has had some very, very timely offensive production as well.
Max Muncey managed to surprise the club with a great first half and a season that has seen him hit 32 homers in 122 games. He, along with veteran Matt Kemp set a torrid first-half pace on offense for the team. Kemp is still valuable and still dangerous, but he, too, has cooled as the season progressed.
Overall, the Dodgers lineup that includes Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig, Chris Taylor, Joc Peterson, Justin Turner, Brian Dozier, and Yasmani Grandel at various places in the batting order hasn’t delivered the thunder and lightning that most would expect from those names. Clearly, Brian Dozier has to be called a “disappointment” since his July arrival from Minnesota. He just hasn’t hit the way one would expect Dozier to hit. His average with the Dodgers in his 38 games played? .183 with 4 home runs and 16 RBIs.
Puig has been shifted to the 8 hole in the batting order, hitting in front of the pitcher. That has an impact on the quality of pitches he sees. But make no mistake, he is still a threat to break open a game as a strong right-handed hitter.
If the Dodgers offense has any major weakness, it could well be the lack of a true consistent power hitter such as Paul Goldschmidt in Arizona or Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado in Colorado. No such player exists on the roster in Los Angeles. Muncy has cooled and can’t be considered in that class. Before the All-Star Game Muncy had 22 home runs. Since that time he has only ten. After Muncy’s 32 bombs, the next highest home run total belongs to Yasmani Grandal with 23.
Injuries have required the Dodgers to mix and match in their rotation this season. The main ingredient remains Clayton Kershaw. However, who knows when his back will bark and he’ll miss more time on the mound? Kershaw has made 23 starts so far. He is only 8-5 with a stellar 2.51 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP. Still a very, very good starter, Kershaw may not be the cream of the major league starter crop any longer. His future will depend upon his health.
After Kershaw the current rotation includes highly regarded rookie right-hander Walker Buehler, lefty Rich Hill, lefty Alex Wood, lefty Huyn-jin-Ryu and righty Ross Stripling. That’s six high quality pitchers to use to close out the season. Each pitcher will get a bit more rest with the extra man in the rotation.
This week saw Alex Wood get smoked by the Cincinnati Reds on the road. Wood could be a key component down the stretch and his improvement in his next few outings could be crucial.
Most of the starters have missed time due to injury this season. Of course, the bad back of Clayton Kershaw can’t be ignored when the postseason looms. However, Rich Hill has a history of getting blisters on his pitching hand which has been much better, and the other starters have been dealing with various problems as well. A healthy Ryu would be a big boost to lengthen the rotation down the stretch.
But perhaps the biggest question mark going forward involves the bullpen. Closer Kenley Jansen has been dealing with an irregular heartbeat. He has missed time and concerns remain. In August, Jansen had a 7.88 ERA. He was having difficulty regulating his medications for his heart issues and he hasn’t been able to pitch much yet in September. Will he be healthy for the postseason? Can the team count on Jansen? Consider these statistics: Prior to the All-Star Game Jansen threw 46.1 innings. Since the All-Star Game he has thrown only 19.
Given all the issue on the Dodgers, from a lack of timely offense to the problems they have keeping their pitchers healthy, I still believe it will be Los Angeles that wins the National League West. Part of the reason is their final six games with San Diego and San Francisco. Those six games represent a golden opportunity to play against the worst two teams in the division. And again, the Dodgers pitching should prevail.
ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: Home for three against the Cubs, home for three against the Rockies, home for three against the Dodgers, away for three against the Padres.
The final contender for the National League West is the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Chicago Cubs are a formidable foe for the team to face early this coming week. Granted, all the games are at home. But the Cubs, like the Rockies and Dodgers who follow them in to Chase Field are fighting for their own division crown. The Cubs have players that can hit the ball out of the park, humidor or no humidor. It is the three games the Diamondbacks play against the Cubs before having to take on Colorado and the Dodgers that give me grave concerns about the Dbacks chances of winning the division. That and the fact they sit 3.5 games behind the Rockies and 3 games behind the Dodgers as of Saturday morning.
Paul Goldschmidt, a candidate to win the NL MVP has had one of the most remarkable turnarounds I have ever seen in baseball. Consider that in May of this year he hit .144 in 26 games. As we look at Paul Goldschmidt in September, his batting average is .299. He has hit .364 in June, .317 in July, .356 in August and .362 so far in September. He hit .281 before the All Star break. He has hit .332 since the All-Star Game.
Baseball analysts and talk shows were a buzz about Goldschmidt in May. Was he finished as a hitter? He had struggled to start the season in April and there was talk out loud about the fact Goldschmidt’s elbow must still have been an issue. Maybe it was. But for whatever reason, Goldy has had a fantastic season. Clutch as usual.
Other than Goldschmidt, the true offensive force on the Diamondbacks is David Peralta. Peralta has added some uppercut in his swing that has resulted in 27 home runs. An excellent barrel of the bat hitter, he has 24 doubles and five triples, using his speed to stretch his gap hits. Peralta doesn’t always play with the most energy on defense, but he can sure hit.
The Diamondbacks have relied upon utility player Daniel Descalso for some very big hits this season. He can and has played anywhere on the diamond, always seeming to produce results at some point during the game. While no statistic really jumps out, Descalso has been a steady participant waiting in the wings to drive in a key run or make a big play. The Dbacks wouldn’t be anywhere near the top without him.
One of the big offensive surprises has come from Gold Glove caliber shortstop Nick Ahmed. Ahmed has found a stroke this year and has almost avoided swinging at the first pitch, an issue he carried with him most of last year. Ahmed has a surprising 16 homers and 67 RBIs for a shortstop that has always been valued for his tremendous defense at shortstop.
Jake Lamb was considered to be a crucial component of the 2018 Diamondbacks. Injury has sent Lamb to the sidelines following a 56-game start to the season when he hit .222 with six home runs and 31 RBIs. But the Dbacks traded for a spark plug type player in Eduardo Escobar, a third baseman, shortstop, second baseman with the Minnesota Twins. The Dbacks gave up three lower-level prospects to Minnesota for the last year of Escobar’s contract. Escobar is an energetic player. He gets the big hit, puts the bat on the ball and he has a very positive impact in the clubhouse. Not a power hitter, Escobar is just a good, solid baseball player and in my opinion, he is an upgrade over Jake Lamb at third base on both offense and defense.
The Dbacks have had their share of disappointing offensive players as well. I count center fielder AJ Pollock, right fielder Steven Souza Jr. and catchers Alex Avila and Jeff Mathis among the biggest flops. Souza Jr. is hitting only .229 with an on-base percentage of .319. I think the Diamondbacks were hoping for more from him. Much more.
Pollock can become a free-agent after this season. His value has decreased since he missed so much time in his career due to injury. Healthy this year, he did nothing to increase his market position by hitting .266 with 17 home runs and 59 RBIs. Most importantly, counted on for his speed on the bases, Pollock has stolen only 11 bases in his 13 tries. He is a good runner, but just hasn’t shown confidence running the bases. I think the Dbacks counted on him for at least 22 to 23 homers. I doubt that will happen.
Souza Jr. has only 227 at-bats after missing considerable time at the beginning of the season. Counted upon to fill some of the gap left by the departure of All Star J.D. Martinez, Souza has had a horrible campaign. As of today, he has just four home runs and 28 RBIs. They had to give up promising lefty Anthony Banda to the Rays and third baseman Brandon Drury to the Yankees (since traded to Toronto) to fetch Souza. Players to be named later Sam McWilliams and Collin Poche were also sent to Tampa Bay in the deal.
Like their mentors at the Boston Red Sox, the Dbacks have deployed a three-man catching staff since Mike Hazen and his staff have come over to Arizona from Boston. Alex Avila, Jeff Mathis and John Ryan Murphy form a hapless trio of catchers with little offense to offer. Avila is a huge disappointment, leaving runners on base with little production in his 182 at-bats. Hitting .165 with an on base percentage of .303, Avila is signed for another year. I have no idea what the Brass was thinking when they signed the journeyman catcher to a two-year deal. But Mathis and Murphy are equally inept at the plate.
Catching is a black hole for the Diamondbacks and the lack of production has helped kill rallies.
There are two completely different stories regarding Dbacks pitching.
First and foremost, with the exception of a couple clunker outings, Zack Greinke has been outstanding. The ace of the staff, Greinke has made 30 starts and has pitched to a 3.11 ERA and 1.05 WHIP to achieve his 14-9 record. He made fade a bit late in these final two weeks, and that’s a concern for me. He has lots of pitches on that right arm. But if Greinke can pitch like Greinke, the Dbacks may be all right. Might be. But I doubt it.
Patrick Corbin can be a free-agent after this year. Fully recovered from Tommy John surgery in his past, the lefty has been a steady performer forming a one-two punch on the mound along with Greinke. Corbin has started 30 games and has pitched to a record of 11-5 with a 3.05 ERA, even better than Greinke’s. He has a WHIP of 1.03 also better than Greinke, but in two fewer innings pitched. Both pitchers will exceed 200 innings this season.
Knowing the Red Sox organization as well as they do, former Red Sox front office personnel are now with the Diamondbacks in player operations. General manager Mike Hazen and his staff traded for former Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz to help fill a void left by the reinjury to ineffective starter Shelby Miller who is on the disabled list. Buchholz has provided an excellent option in the Dbacks rotation, starting 16 games and pitching to a record of 7-2 in 98.1 innings. Buchholz is now injured and will be unable to pitch the remainder of the season.
Starter Zack Godley is where the trouble begins. Godley has a record of 14-9. He has thrown 163.2 innings in his 29 starts. But Godley has walked 70. Compare that to 37 for Greinke and 42 for Corbin. Look at all the statistics, and it is Godley’s walks and his 159 hits yielded that have led to a high 1.40 WHIP and 4.67 ERA. Godley gets himself in trouble and he can’t get out. He walks hitters and digs a deep hole, and he doesn’t pitch as well out of the stretch. His sinking pitches are very umpire dependent. If he isn’t getting the low strike, he elevates his pitches and gets hit. He and Robbie Ray could hold the keys to the final two weeks.
Robbie Ray has a great arm and great stuff. When he was with the Tigers he was wild. He was supposed to turn into a late-blooming, flame throwing lefty with increased command and control as his career developed. He was good in his past two seasons, giving hope that he could be an All-Star type pitcher. This season Ray’s wildness has crept into his game once again. He has walked 59 while striking out 142 in 21 starts, nine less than Greinke. That walk rate cannot be acceptable to him. The Dbacks clearly hoped for more from Ray.
Until the beginning of September the Diamondbacks bullpen had saved their bacon. They were a solid, dependable unit that went from reliable Japanese import Yoshihisa Hirano in the 7th inning to Archie Bradley in the 8th to closer Brad Boxberger in the 9th.
That was a superb first half script, a time when the Diamondbacks were playing tremendous baseball and looked like a sure contender for the postseason. And yes, the bullpen was a major factor in the optimism.
But the second half began to expose some leaks. Hiccups in all three of the late-inning relievers has caused concern enough to change the end-of-game mix. Manager Torey Lovullo will now mix and match from among his available arms at the end of games.
One of the helpful later season additions to the pen has been Brad Ziegler, who returned to Arizona from a stint with the Marlins. Ziegler gets enough sink on his pitches to induce ground balls and as a result, he can get a hitter to hit into a much needed double-lay. Ziegler will be a very, very important member of the Dbacks September (and beyond, perhaps) bullpen.
Jake Diekman came over from the Rangers after a series with Texas in Arizona. He’s been meh. Other lefties, Andrew Chafin and T.J. McFarland will be very important at any point in the game for Arizona.
For me, Arizona must get by the Cubs by winning at least two games in that series and then at least split the games with the Rockies and Dodgers to have a shot in their final games against the Padres. But those three are on the road in San Diego and danger awaits.
I think the National League West will finish like this: Dodgers, Rockies, Diamondbacks. But as of Saturday morning, it is the Rockies who must be chased, as they lead the NL West by a slim half game over the Dodgers. The Dbacks find themselves 3.5 games behind the Rockies after a disastrous trip to Colorado.
Based upon their record, Oakland would win the Central if they played in that division.
Led by Blake Snell, Tampa Bay is a great team to watch. They play with energy and excitement. They win and they have fun in the process. If things continue on this path, American League East teams can be a bit fearful of the Rays. Snell deserves Cy Young votes.
Alex Bregman is still underrated in my opinion. He has a major-league leading 50 doubles.
There is great competition, as always, for MVP Awards in both leagues. But the Braves Ronald Acuna could win the MVP and Rookie of the Year Award in the National League.
By virtue of their 101-47 record as of Saturday morning, the Boston Red Sox are the first team to earn a playoff berth.
If they totally collapse and miss the playoffs, Diamondbacks fans may make them pay the ultimate price by not buying season tickets for next year. Dbacks fans come from all over the country, and gaining loyalty from the transplants has been a massive challenge. All the effort may be threatened if the team ends up watching the postseason on TV with their fans.
The new Milwaukee Brewers spring training renovation in Maryvale-a suburb of Phoenix-is coming along wonderfully. Fans and Brewers personnel will be enjoying a newly constructed, state of the art facility on the same site as the now demolished spring training venue. What a tremendous project for everyone involved.
The return of Aaron Judge to the Yankees lineup this week couldn’t have come at a more crucial time, with the playoffs looming.
Baltimore has lost 105 games with two weeks to go in the season. I see more of that in their future.
I will start next week by watching the Dbacks take on the Cubs at home on Monday. Then I will be in Cleveland for the rest of the week to watch the Indians play the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox. I’ll be tweeting from each of those games and I hope you follow me then.
Follow me on Twitter @Bernie Pleskoff