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Picking September's top MLB storylines: Playoff races, awards chases, more

As we enter the final month of the 2016 season, let's run down what to watch for in September, including tight battles for the wild cards, wide-open awards races and David Ortiz chasing history in his last year.

With the final full month of the 2016 season upon us, here’s a look at some of the top storylines we will be following as we race toward October and the playoffs. Unfortunately, I will not be covering these stories for, as budget cuts have resulted in my dismissal after nearly 10 years of covering baseball for the site. Nonetheless, I want to thank everyone who has read my work here, and I assure you that I will be covering at least some of these stories elsewhere in the near future.

1. Expanded rosters and September call-ups

Today marks the last day players can be acquired from outside an organization and be eligible for the postseason, so teams will have to look internally for help starting Sept. 1. Fortunately for them, active major league rosters expand from 25 to 40 men that same day, allowing teams to call up top prospects without having to worry about clearing space for them on the 25-man roster. The best of those prospects can be included on postseason rosters through the oft-exploited injury loophole. Meanwhile, teams out of the race can get an early look at their upper-level minor league talent in preparation for off-season roster adjustments.

Among the top prospects who could make their debuts is Pirates centerfielder Austin Meadows, who hit .311/.365/.611 in Double A before his first taste of Triple A was interrupted by a hamstring injury. A successful showing by Meadows could prompt Pittsburgh to shop Andrew McCutchen this winter. The Red Sox could call up Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada, who recently shifted to third base at Double A and was rated the best prospect in the game by Baseball America in July. The Dodgers’ rotation could be helped by 24-year-old righty Jose De Leon, who has excelled at Triple A this season and has yet to exceed his innings total from a year ago. The Braves could call up second baseman Ozzie Albies to reunite with double play partner Dansby Swanson, who was brought up to the big leagues in mid-August. The Padres, meanwhile, are expected to bring up centerfielder Manuel Margot, the top prospect acquired in the Craig Kimbrel deal, as well as former first-round pick Hunter Renfroe, a power-hitting rightfielder.

2. Key players returning from injury

The other source for in-house reinforcements in September will be the disabled list, which is currently home to the likes of Royals closer Wade Davis, Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg, Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, Cubs righthander John Lackey and Cardinals All-Star rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz, just to name a few. Of course, the biggest potential return-from-injury story is that of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, who has been working his way back from the herniated disc that has sidelined him since the end of June and threw a two-inning simulated game on Tuesday. The reports from Kershaw’s recent throwing sessions have all been positive, but at some point soon Los Angeles will have to accelerate his rehabilitation or shut him down for the season. It seems likely that Kershaw will return in September, but how quickly he gets back could determine whether the Dodgers or Giants capture the National League West crown.

Other key players who could return from the DL in September include the Tigers' Jordan Zimmermann and Nick Castellanos; the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole and Jung Ho Kang; the Red Sox’ Andrew Benintendi and Koji Uehara; the Orioles’ Chris Tillman and Darren O’Day; the Astros' Lance McCullers; Cubs relievers Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Joe Smith; the Cardinals’ Matt Adams, Matt Holliday and Michael Wacha; the Rangers’ Colby Lewis; the Mets’ Juan Lagares; Cleveland’s Yan Gomes; and the Marlins' Justin Bour, Adam Conley and Wei-Yin Chen.

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3. No more no-nos?

The Cubs' Jake Arrieta no-hit the Reds on April 21, but despite numerous close calls since, there has not been another no-hitter thrown this season. If the next 33 days pass without another no-hitter, this will be the first season since 2006 to feature just one. The last four months, meanwhile, represent the longest no-hitter drought since Anibal Sanchez’s September 2006 no-no broke a 15-month streak.

To a certain degree, the lack of no-hitters is indicative of this season's spike in offense. But it drives home the point that no-hitters are fluky by nature and, like any other random occurrence, can bunch up and spread out without the need for explanation.


4. David Ortiz's goodbye

He won’t come close to the 10.3 Wins Above Replacement Sandy Koufax compiled in his last season in 1966, but in terms of his production at the plate, David Ortiz is putting the finishing touches on one of the greatest final seasons by a hitter in major league history. The current record for best qualified OPS+ in a final season is Shoeless Joe Jackson's 172 in 1920 at the age of 32, after which he was banned from the game for life by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis over the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Next on that list is Ortiz at 164. That also stands as the highest qualified OPS+ by a player age 40 or older, edging out Willie Mays’s 158 mark from 1971. Ortiz’s final season seems likely to extend into the postseason, but the quality of his regular-season performance deserves recognition.

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5. All-time home run record chase

No, I’m not talking about Barry Bonds or Hank Aaron or Alex Rodriguez or even Albert Pujols. I’m talking about the all-time record for most home runs hit, by all players on all teams, in a major league season. The record currently stands at 5,693, a mark set in 2000 at the height of the steroid era. Through Tuesday’s games, there had been 4,595 home runs hit this season in 3,948 games; over a full 4,860 team games (assuming every team makes up every postponed game, which doesn’t always happen), that projects to 5,656 home runs. That is just 37 shy of the all-time mark, a difference of 0.6% of the overall total—close enough that there’s still a very real chance that the record could be broken.

6. Orioles chasing individual records/landmarks

Zach Britton gave up an earned run last week, just the fourth he had allowed this season, to put his ERA at 0.67 after 54 innings of work. The lowest ERA of all time for a pitcher with at least 50 innings pitched in a season is Fernando Rodney’s 0.60 from 2012. Britton is on pace to throw 66 1/3 innings this season, and if he reaches that mark without allowing another run, he’ll finish with a 0.54 ERA. If he allows just one more run, however, Rodney’s record will be out of reach (five earned runs in 66 1/3 innings equals a 0.68 ERA).

Britton isn’t the only Oriole chasing history. First baseman Chris Davis has struck out a major league-leading 181 times this season, putting him on pace for 222 on the year, one shy of Mark Reynolds’s single-season record of 223 set in 2009. Less significantly but still worth noting: Orioles rightfielder Mark Trumbo became the first man to reach 40 home runs this season with a two-run blast on Sunday. He’s on pace for 49 on the season, but if he gets to 50, he’ll be the first major leaguer to hit that mark since Davis did it in 2013.

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7. The awards races

The stage is set for some very compelling awards debates as the season draws to a close. Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager has the National League Rookie of the Year award sewn up and will likely win it unanimously, and Tigers righthander Michael Fulmer has a big lead for the AL Rookie of the Year. But Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez is making the AL ROY race interesting, and the MVP and Cy Young award races in both leagues remain wide open.

The Angels' Mike Trout and the Astros' Jose Altuve have been the best players in the AL this year, but if neither Los Angeles nor Houston makes the playoffs (and the Angels clearly won’t), the voters could get creative with their ballots. The Cubs' Kris Bryant would appear to have the lead for NL MVP, but he’s far from a lock and could easily lose the award with a September slump. The NL Cy Young race is fairly wide open—I had the Giants' Madison Bumgarner and the Nationals' Max Scherzer atop my most recent Awards Watch rankings—but nothing is as up for grabs as the AL Cy Young. I’ve already explained why I don’t think Britton would be a deserving recipient, but the lack of a clear favorite among the league’s starting pitchers could divert votes to a dominant reliever like him. Right now, I see that race as between the Indians' Corey Kluber and the Royals’ Danny Duffy, but the number of pitchers who could steal the award with an outstanding September runs into double digits.

8. The playoff races

Heading into Wednesday’s action, three divisional races appear to be over, with the Rangers, Nationals and Cubs boasting leads of 8 1/2, nine and 14 games and odds of winning their division of 98.0%, 99.2% and 100.0%, respectively, per Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds report. Cleveland is also in good shape in the AL Central, with a 4 1/2-game lead and an 87.5% chance of winning the division. The AL East, NL West and both wild-card races are wide open, though. Out west, the odds strongly favor the Dodgers, but just two games separate them and Giants for first place. Just three games, meanwhile, separate the top three teams in the AL East—the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Orioles—though the odds suggest Baltimore's chances of winning the division are slim (just 5.7%).

In the NL wild-card race, just 4 1/2 games separate the wild-card leading Giants from the fifth-place Marlins, who are 3 1/2 games out of the final playoff spot currently occupied by the Cardinals. The Pirates and Mets in the mix as well, all boasting at least a 9.5% chance of making the playoffs. That’s nothing compared to the AL wild-card race, where seven teams are within five games of one another, as the Tigers, Astros, Royals, Yankees and Mariners are all hoping to push one of those top three teams in the AL East out of the playoff picture. At 6.5%, New York has the longest odds of making it to the postseason from that bunch, but at a point in the season in which a third of the league’s playoff chances have reached zero (though none have been officially eliminated just yet), a 6.5% chance seems significant.

If nothing else, 10 of the AL’s 15 teams and 18 of the 30 teams in the majors will enter September with a real chance of making the postseason. That should make for a very exciting final month, no matter what laundry you are rooting for.