As August turns into September, we're down to the home stretch: The final four weeks of the 2014 regular season. In addition to the several wide-open playoff races that Cliff Corcoran previewed here, what follows is a look at five key storylines at the forefront for the month.
1. The possible end of the Royals' 28-year streak without a playoff berth
Beyond the nuts and bolts of the AL Central and Wild Card races in which the Royals — whose lead in the division race has dwindled to just half a game — find themselves is a bigger picture. Kansas City hasn't reached the postseason since 1985, they year it took advantage of umpire Don Denkinger's infamous blown call in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series against the Cardinals, then trounced them in Game 7 for the franchise's lone title. Since then, the Royals have finished above .500 just eight times in 28 seasons, only two of which have come since the turn of the millennium, going through 10 managers in the process. They haven't even finished second in a division race since 1995, when they were 70-74.
When the Royals won 86 games last year, it not only marked the first time in general manager Dayton Moore's 7 1/2 years at the helm that they finished above .500, but also the first time since 2003. And while their streak of losing seasons wasn't as long as the one the Pirates finally broke (20 years, from 1993-2012), the Bucs made the playoffs; the Royals did not. For this year’s squad to reach the postseason would validate Moore's insistence on sticking with the homegrown core of Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas through some fairly lean times. It would do the same for the James Shields/Wil Myers blockbuster, which fortified both the rotation and, via Wade Davis, the bullpen at the expense of a Rookie of the Year who has posted a dismal sophomore campaign (.213/.296/.329) marked by a 12-week absence due to a wrist fracture.
Mind you, these Royals aren’t assured of anything just yet. They'll have to hold off not only the Tigers (74-62) but also the suddenly resurgent Indians (70-64), who have won three in a row and led KC 4-2 in the 10th inning of Sunday night's game before rain forced the suspension of the contest; it will be completed on Sept. 22 in Cleveland prior to the start of a three-game series between the two teams. Today's Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds actually credited the Indians with the win, bumping the Royals' chances at winning the division down to 36.7 percent, with a 19.8 percent chance at the Wild Card.
2. The MVP races
At this point, there's relatively little suspense to be had regarding the two Cy Young races given the dominance of Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez in their respective leagues, but the MVP races are another matter. In the AL, Mike Trout appears to be on the verge of capturing his long-awaited hardware. The 22-year-old has hit .290/.374/.560 with a career-high 31 homers and a league-leading 290 total bases; while his 6.6 WAR (Baseball-Reference.com version) is second in the league behind Josh Donaldson's 7.1, the Angels own the majors' best record (83-53) and a five-game AL West lead on the plummeting Athletics. Their likely playoff berth should reduce some of the long-standing resistance to voting for Trout, who whupped Miguel Cabrera on the advanced statistical front in both 2012 and 2013 — and made all kinds of history for a 20- and 21-year-old in the process — but lost out on the MVP awards because his team didn't contend, while the Tigers won their division.
Meanwhile, the NL MVP race has been thrown wide open due to injuries, starting with the season-ending torn hip labrum of Troy Tulowitzki back in late July. Reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen appeared primed to fill the breach before a fractured rib knocked him out of action for 14 games; he's playing through pain now, and while he has three homers in 11 games since returning, he's hit just .268/.295/.488 in that span, and his 5.1 WAR is just seventh among NL position players. Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton is enjoying the best season of his career, batting .292/.401/.550 with the league leads in homers (33), RBI (98), walks (89, including 23 intentional), total bases (275) and slugging percentage for a team that's remained in the vicinity of .500 (66-69) despite losing Jose Fernandez to Tommy John surgery; his 6.1 WAR is second among NL position players behind the defense-driven 6.4 of Jason Heyward, which is likely to be dismissed by voters.
But wait, there’s more! Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy has hit .298/.364/.480 with 13 homers and a league-leading 46 doubles en route to 5.6 WAR, which ranks third; that figure doesn't include his 16.6 framing runs, the league’s second-highest total for a team that’s led the NL Central since the season’s first week. And then there's Kershaw, who despite missing five weeks due to a shoulder problem early in the year has racked up a whopping 7.2 WAR via a 1.73 ERA and 10.8 strikeouts per nine — all league-leading figures — over 161 1/3 innings. He could join Justin Verlander (2011) as just the second pitcher since 1992 to take home both the MVP and Cy Young in the same season; no NL pitcher has completed the feat since Bob Gibson in 1968.
3. The potential return of Masahiro Tanaka
Before he went down with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in early July, the Yankees' 25-year-old Japanese import built a strong case for himself in both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year races by beginning his stateside career with 16 consecutive quality starts before his elbow problems surfaced. Even with a pair of rough outings before going on the disabled list, Tanaka's key numbers — a 2.51 ERA, 9.4 strikeouts per nine, a 7.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 3.8 WAR — were stellar.
The Yankees believed that the tear in Tanaka's elbow was small enough that he could avoid surgery via rest and platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy. He began a throwing program in early August and had progressed all the way to throwing a 49-pitch simulated game on Aug. 28, but "general soreness" in his right arm has slowed his comeback. He played catch on Sunday, and his next bullpen session is scheduled for Thursday. Any further setback could prevent him from having an impact on the Yankees' fading playoff hopes, but the team would still like to see whether he can take the mound under competitive circumstances. New York needs to know what it has in Tanaka going into the winter — a pitcher who will miss the 2015 season due to Tommy John surgery, one who could be back near full strength following a few more months of healing, or a high-risk pitcher somewhere along that spectrum.
4. Farewells to Derek Jeter, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko
Unless you've been hiding under a rock this entire season, you're aware of the Jeter Farewell Tour, which has included warm ovations but also awkward moments and a whole lot of unneeded gifts — cowboy boots? A paddleboard? a vacation in Banff? — for a player who has earned more than $265 million for his career. While Jeter's climb up the all-time hit list to No. 6 at 3,445 has been worth following, the 40-year-old shortstop is a shadow of his former self; an August nosedive (.207/.226/.261 in 116 PA) has lowered his overall line to just .261/.308/.312 with three homers, and like Mariano Rivera last year, he may not make it back to the postseason before the clock runs out. Still, you can bet that the Yankees will send Jeter off in grand fashion, not only holding a day for him on Sept. 7 but also likely keeping some surprises in store for Sept. 25, his final regular season home game.
With considerably less fanfare, the 18-year career of Konerko, the White Sox' captain since 2006, is winding down as well. The arrival of likely AL Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu has forced the 38-year-old first baseman into a bench role, and he's hit just .219/.264/.344 with five homers in 197 PA. Even so, the six-time All-Star and owner of 439 home runs is universally respected throughout the game, and he's beloved on the South Side for his 16 years with the White Sox, whom he led to their first World Series win in 88 years back in 2005. The Yankees paid tribute to him on Aug. 24, and you can bet other teams will as well.
Konerko could regain some playing time thanks to Sunday's trade of Adam Dunn to the A's. The 34-year-old slugger waived his no-trade clause for a chance to reach the postseason for the first time in his 14-year career, but in doing so announced that this season would be his last. The Three True Outcomes icon has bashed 460 career homers, including 20 this year, but his time in the majors has been a polarizing one; former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi was the first but hardly the last front office type to accuse him of not loving the game or not staying in shape. Dunn has hit .220/.340/.433 with 20 homers in 435 PA this year; before he departs the scene, he'll be charged with injecting some life into a slumping squad that has lost 14 out of 20 and scored just 3.55 runs per game — including a 29-inning scoreless streak over the weekend — since trading Yoenis Cespedes to Boston in the Jon Lester deal.
5. The Cubs' prospect-o-rama
While the Astros' rebuilding effort has garnered more attention — for better or worse — the recent arrivals of highly-touted prospects Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler have turned the Cubs into one of the majors' most compelling teams, and those rookies should get ample opportunity to strut their stuff in September. Their progress at the major league level thus far has been uneven at best. Alcantara has hit .218/.278/.378 with seven homers in 213 PA while playing second base and centerfield, Baez has hit .188/.216/.411 with seven homers and a troubling 49/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 116 PA while playing second, and Soler has gone 8-for-15 with two doubles and three homers in his four games since being recalled.
Though the Cubs are just 61-76 overall, that trio is hardly the only reason to check in. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have both rebounded from dismal 2013 showings to earn All-Star honors, Jake Arrieta is finally fulfilling the promise that drew him regard while he was with the Orioles, rookie Kyle Hendricks has pitched to a 1.91 ERA in nine starts since being recalled, and onetime prospect Matt Szczur is now on the scene as well. Don't wait up for Kris Bryant, however. Although the 22-year-old third baseman and second overall pick of the 2013 draft has bashed 43 homers between Double-A and Triple-A this year, GM Jed Hoyer has ruled out promoting him this month because he's not on the 40-man roster, and the team is anticipating a crunch in terms of who it can protect this winter.