With just a little over six weeks until the end of Major League Baseball’s regular season, there are nine AL teams over .500 and within 5 1/2 games of at least a wild-card berth. Surprisingly, the two-time defending AL champion Royals aren’t in that group as of now. As the AL contenders enter the stretch run (we’ll analyze the NL on Thursday), which potential flaw should worry them the most? The concerns are diverse as the teams themselves.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY SportsMatthew Emmons
Rangers: The table-setter
They have the league’s best record and biggest division lead, but they don’t have Shin-Soo Choo, whose presumed season-ending forearm injury came on the heels of Prince Fielder’s career-ending neck surgery. Texas is used to being without Choo – this is his fourth time on the DL this season – but he isn't expected back this time. That leads a huge void in right field and atop the batting order. There are options in the field (Nomar Mazara, Joey Gallo, Ryan Rua, Delino DeShields, Drew Stubbs), but there isn’t an obvious replacement at leadoff.
Indians: The Michael Brantley reality
Brantley had surgery Monday that officially ended a 2016 season that never really started for him. To the surprise of many, Cleveland has performed remarkably well without arguably its best player. Some will credit the loaded rotation and some will note how Andrew Miller has fortified the bullpen. But make no mistake, the outfield quartet of Tyler Naquin, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jose Ramirez and Rajai Davis has managed to mask Brantley's absence. But considering that the aforementioned outfielders have far exceeded expectations thus far, is it unrealistic to expect a late-season slide?
Getty ImagesJason Miller
Blue Jays: Aaron Sanchez's limitations
The 24-year-old right-hander already has blown past his career high in terms of innings pitched during a breakout season that has seen him become Toronto's ace. Chances are, Sanchez will be skipped, limited or shipped to the bullpen soon, damaging a rotation that needs him to hold off the Orioles and Red Sox in the AL East and the rest of the AL in the wild-card chase. The Jays have solid starters in J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada, and they have rotation depth after the acquisition of Francisco Liriano, though he has struggled as much with Toronto as he did with Pittsburgh. But they must balance the present with the future when it comes to Sanchez.
Toronto Star via Getty ImagesCarlos Osorio
Orioles: The top-heavy rotation
They lead the major in homers, so the offense isn’t a problem. Neither is the Zach Britton-led bullpen, which has been outstanding. That leaves the rotation, which is anchored by Chris Tillman and littered with question marks. Kevin Gausman has emerged as a reliable arm but just surpassed his career high in innings in the majors. Dylan Bundy has been superb in six starts since rejoining the rotation, but has he truly arrived? After that, Baltimore must lean on Yovani Gallardo (5.18 ERA, 1.61 WHIP) and Wade Miley (7.04 ERA in three starts since being acquired) now that Ubaldo Jimenez has been exiled to the bullpen.
Getty ImagesLachlan Cunningham
Red Sox: Close games
No team has scored more runs than the Red Sox, who also lead the majors in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Not surprisingly, they are 21-9 in blowouts (wins by five or more runs). But let these other stats from baseball-reference.com sink in: Boston is just 14-14 in one-run games, 11-38 when scoring four runs or fewer (the worst such record of any playoff contender) and 5-32 when scoring three runs of fewer (only the Twins are worse). They can't all be 16-2 wins over the Diamondbacks, not with 14 games remaining against the Orioles and Blue Jays.
Boston Globe via Getty ImagesBoston Globe
Tigers: The ever-expanding DL
With OF Cameron Maybin, 3B Nick Castellanos , SS Jose Iglesias, and SPs Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey all on the disabled list, the acquisition of infielder Erick Aybar from the Braves on Tuesday seems the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a mortal wound. And we haven't even mentioned the biceps strain that caused red-hot 1B Miguel Cabrera to leave Monday's game early and miss Tuesday's contest, since that injury appears to be minor. Still, how much more can Detroit withstand and remain in the playoff hunt?
Getty ImagesAdam Glanzman
Mariners: The revitalized bullpen
The relief corps has been integral in Seattle's charge back into contention -- remember, this was a. 500 team sold (Mike Montgomery, Wade Miley, Joaquin Benoit) at the deadline. The Mariners' bullpen has a MLB-best 1.94 ERA since Aug. 1 after ranking 17th with a 3.79 ERA through July 31. Edwin Diaz has been untouchable since taking over as closer, while Tom Wilhelmsen, Nick Vincent and newcomer Arquimedes Caminero also have been lights-out in relief. But what happens if the magic ends as quickly as it began? We saw signs of that in Tuesday's loss.
Getty ImagesThearon W. Henderson
Astros: The incredibly disappearing offense
As they did last season, the Astros strike out, hit homers and steal bases often. They have even averaged roughly the same production in terms of runs per game (4.45) as in 2015. However, that production has been hit or miss recently. Since July 25, Houston has scored four or fewer runs 14 times in 21 games. Sandwiched in there is a three-game span in which it scored 32 runs, so the bats aren't always silent. But it can't always be Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, and it can't be so sporadic. Realizing that, the Astros recently parted ways with Carlos Gomez and soon will promote Yulieski Gourriel.
Getty ImagesBob Levey
Yankees: The youth movement
The very thing that has New York hopeful for the future could finally seal its fate this season. Gone are Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez and Ivan Nova. Plus, Nathan Eovaldi (elbow) is officially done. Taking their places are Aaron Judge, Tyler Austin, Gary Sanchez and Chad Green, among others. Sprinkle in a few remaining underachieving veterans, and the roster doesn't match up with those of the other wild-card contenders. The Yankees' youngsters will get some valuable late-season experience but not any postseason experience.