As we look forward to September, we have a surprisingly accurate idea which teams will be sitting home when the postseason starts and which teams will be suiting up for October action. That doesn't mean that the last month is to be taken lightly. As the Cardinals (the winner of last season's inaugural wild-card play-in game) and Giants have shown recently, sometimes it's not the best team on paper that wins it all, but the team that has everything come together at the right time. With fewer than 30 games remaining in the season, let's run through the division leaders and find out exactly what they need to go right to give themselves a running start if they are fortunate enough to reach October baseball.
•This must be the new and improved Will Middlebrooks. Boston's third baseman started off the season poorly, posting a .642 OPS through May 23. After a lengthy stint with Triple-A Pawtucket following a stint on the DL with back spasms, the Sox promoted him on Aug. 10 and since then he has been on fire, posting a .940 OPS in 18 games. If he can manage to stay hot for another 26 games and carry it into the post season, the Red Sox lineup will give opposing pitchers nightmares.
• Jon Lester has to avoid the blow-up start. It is tough to tell from his 3.97 ERA, but Lester has pitched quite well lately. Since the start of July, he has gone at least six innings and allowed two or fewer runs in seven of 10 starts. In the other three starts, however, he allowed 14 runs in 15 2/3 innings. In fact, of the 27 starts he has made this season, he has allowed five or more runs in seven of them. Fortunately for Lester, he still has a handful of starts to iron out the kinks before blow-up starts start really mattering.
• David Ortiz must continue avoiding Father Time. The numbers Ortiz has put up since 2010 are quite impressive considering his age. He has an adjusted OPS of 155, making this season among the five best of his career. The only other designated hitters in the American League who have come close to matching his production have been Joe Mauer and Edwin Encarnacion and that's without setting a minimum number of games as a DH. The Red Sox offense is quite good all around, but there is no question that Ortiz is the backbone, and as he goes, the Red Sox go.
•Miguel Cabrera needs to be covered in bubble wrap. I say this jokingly, as the Tigers have a 7.5-game lead over the Indians in the AL Central, so they can’t afford to play it super safe with Cabrera yet. However, he left Friday's game with abdominal discomfort, the latest of many minor injuries the slugger has suffered over the grind of the 135 games thus far. Cabrera would love every opportunity to pass Orioles first baseman Chris Davis for the AL home run lead and take over the lead in all three Triple Crown categories, but the ultimate goal of any team in any season is to win a championship, personal accomplishments be damned. If that means pulling Cabrera from games early, giving him scheduled games off, or using him at DH, then so be it. The Tigers can' t afford losing Cabrera when it matters most.
•Prince Fielder needs to start hitting. If Cabrera wasn’t putting up historically great numbers, Fielder would likely be receiving a lot more criticism for the drop in production. Last year, he finished with a .940 OPS, slightly above his career average .914. This season, his OPS is down, at .797. While the storylines about breakthrough players coming through in the clutch are nice -- like David Freese in 2011 -- the goal is to have the players you’re paying the most to be reliable. By the end of the 2020 season, the Tigers will have paid Fielder $214 million.
•The bullpen, beyond Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly, must be figured out. Since regularly taking over the closing duties for the Tigers, Benoit has been lights out, posting a 1.51 ERA and averaging better than a strikeout per inning of work. Similarly, lefty Smyly has been as reliable as reliable gets in the late innings, allowing manager Jim Leyland to neutralize fearsome left-handed hitters. After those two, though? No one has stepped up. Consider that eight Tiger relievers have logged at least 20 innings. Half of them -- Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke, Darin Downs, and Jose Alvarez -- have posted an ERA of 4.85 or worse. Good teams will find a way to get to your middle relief.
•Alex Rios needs to start hitting. Since joining the Rangers from the White Sox on Aug. 10, Rios has barely hit, posting a .678 OPS in Ranger red. He has just five extra-base hits, including one home run, to his name. Had their schedule since then not been paper thin, the Rangers would be a whole lot worse than 12-6 since then. With Nelson Cruz serving a 50-game suspension, Adrian Beltre is the only regular in the lineup who strikes any kind of fear into opposing pitching. Getting Rios, who hit 12 home runs and stole 26 bases as a member of the White Sox this year, back on track would be huge for the Rangers, who are clinging to a two-game lead in the AL West.
•Jordan Schafer needs to set the table in the wake of Jason Heyward. Heyward had found his niche before an ugly jaw injury ended his regular season. Manager Fredi Gonzalez put Heyward in the leadoff spot on July 27. From that point until he was injured on Aug. 21, Heyward had a .345/.418/.586 slash line. The Braves went 19-4 in that span. Since losing Heyward, they have gone 5-3. Schafer, taking Heyward's spot in the lineup, has posted an OPS under .600. While the Braves have plenty of capable hitters in the lineup, it was important for them to have Heyward’s excellent plate discipline and ability to get on base at the top.
•The Braves need to forget about B.J. Upton entirely. One of the luxuries of having a 14-game division lead is that you can afford to risk losing a few games to experiment with a struggling player. Had they not run away with the NL East so soon, one has to wonder if Gonzalez would have continued to allow Upton to rack up plate appearances even though he has had an OPS above .600 for exactly one day this season, on Aug. 7. Though Upton has shown flashes of competency at times, if he was going to figure out what was wrong, he would have figured it out at some point over the past five months. The odds of him figuring it out some time between now and the postseason are slim and the Braves know better than to put an odds-on out in the lineup game after game.
•Dan Uggla must adapt to his Lasik-enhanced eyes. Though Lasik eye surgery isn't exactly a risky procedure, it is one with results that take some getting used to. In fact, some players -- including Seth Smith of the Oakland A’s -- need to have a second procedure done. Uggla is 1-for-6 with four strikeouts since returning from the DL after spending the minimum amount of time sidelined after having the eye procedure to correct his vision. His numbers have declined sharply over the past three seasons, falling from a 131 adjusted OPS in 2010 to 107 to 97 to 88. His average is just .187 now, and he has been below the Mendoza line since July 30.
•The Cardinals will have to figure out who slots behind Adam Wainwright (2.98 ERA) and Shelby Miller (2.90) in the postseason rotation over the final month. Is it Lance Lynn (4.02), who has had a mediocre season but has plenty of playoff experience under his belt? Or is it Joe Kelly (2.91), who has shined since moving into the rotation on July 6? Do the Cardinals dare turn to Jake Westbrook (4.49)? The Cardinals know, better than almost every other team, that it isn't always which team has the best starters but rather the most rotation depth that decides who succeeds and who fails in a short series.
•David Freese must hit like it's 2011 again. When the Cardinals promoted prospect Kolten Wong, there was some worry that Freese might have lost his job. Wong hasn't hit at all since his promotion, though. Unfortunately, Freese hasn't taken advantage of it as both have posted an OPS below .500 since the middle of August. In 2011, Freese posted a .791 OPS, including 1.258 throughout the postseason en route to taking home NLCS and World Series MVP honors. The Cardinals would love to have that guy back even if just for a month and change.
Only three other teams have gotten less production out of the shortstop position than the Cardinals: the Royals, Marlins and Yankees. Not too long ago, the Cardinals had another light-hitting shortstop by the name of David Eckstein who happened to muster up enough strength to post an OPS just over .700 in both postseasons he spent with the Cardinals in 2005-06. In the land of small samples, you never know when you’ll need a fluke double from the likes of Pete Kozma.
•Leave Yasiel Puig alone. They say that if it ain't broke, don’t fix it. Since making his major league debut on June 3, Puig has been one of baseball's very best hitters. In fact, his .411 weighted on-base average in 323 plate appearances this season ranks fourth behind only Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis and Mike Trout and ahead of Troy Tulowitzki and Jayson Werth. Manager Don Mattingly has made it a point to reprimand Puig on several occasions for a perceived lack of effort. On Wednesday, Puig failed to slide into second base on a 4-6-3 double play, then lackadaisically caught two fly balls in the third and fourth innings. While the Dodgers’ intent on fixing Puig may be genuine and in his best interest, but doing it now only serves to disrupt what has been an historically great comeback and turn the fan base against the team’s best player.
•The Dodgers have to find a way to find playing time for four outfielders in three spots. Mattingly told the media that he doesn't intend to use Matt Kemp (left ankle) every day once he is activated from the disabled list some time next week. With Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Puig, the Dodgers already have three capable outfielders, so they have to get creative to fit Kemp -- the runner-up to Ryan Braun in the 2011 NL MVP balloting -- in the picture. Perhaps they ease Kemp back in by platooning Kemp and Ethier in center, and if one happens to catch fire, Kemp would get increasingly more playing time as October approaches. Whatever the Dodgers choose, picking from excess is almost always a good problem to have.
•Play it safe towards the end of the season. The Dodgers, like the Braves, have the luxury of a sizable division lead, meaning they have the chance to guarantee themselves a spot in the Division Series earlier than most. Once that is taken care of, the Dodgers should be extra careful with their prized possessions, particularly Hanley Ramirez, who has been on the DL twice this season and missed a total of 59 games. The Dodgers didn't go 49-13 since June 22 only to risk their postseason hopes on their best players not suffering fluky end-season injuries.
Bill Baer writes on the Phillies at Crashburn Alley and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.