Were we to rank the regular season months in reverse order of awesomeness, it would look something like this:
6. April: Four solid weeks of the phrase “small sample size.”
5. May: I was born in May, but I could still not seriously advocate it for anything higher than fifth out of sixth.
4. August: Every sweaty fan in the humid stands is in danger of getting suspended for sticky substances.
3. June: Going to a ballgame when school lets out for the summer still feels great, even when you’re not a student.
2. July: All-Star Game, Draft, trade rumors, Hall of Fame induction. July is more stacked than the Braves’ lineup.
1. September: The most Octobery baseball month this side of October.
Here are nine predictions for the ninth month of the year ... and the best month of the MLB regular season.
(As always, please don’t take any of these too seriously, except the stuff I accidentally get right, of course.)
1) The Rays will win the AL East.
It would not have been bold to make this prediction back when the Rays were 29-7. But as injuries ravaged their rotation and the offense came back to earth a bit, Tampa Bay lived off the fumes of one of the best starts in baseball history while the Orioles ascended.
Yet even with Shane McClanahan hitting the shelf and Wander Franco on administrative leave, the Rays have recaptured some of that ol’ mojo and momentum of late. Meanwhile, a young Orioles group entering September in pole position for the first time is navigating a new reality in which opponents are actually allowed to score runs in the ninth inning, now that Felix Bautista is out with an elbow injury.
These two clubs have a four-game face-off at Camden Yards on Sept. 14-17, and it should go without saying that’ll be one to watch. I’ve got the Rays winning the East, but I would think the Tampa Bay and Baltimore fan bases can agree that, as long as they both make the playoffs and the Yankees finish in last place, all is right with the world.
2) The Mariners will win the AL West.
This would have been a bold prediction a month ago. Now, it’s pretty much just … a prediction. But it was my prediction at the start of the year, so I might as well muster some sense of consistency here. Besides, the M’s got a little banged up this week (including Julio Rodríguez’s foot issue). And as any Mariners fan can tell you, predicting that things won’t go horribly off the rails in Seattle (a city that until last year had a playoff drought old enough to drink and that hasn’t celebrated a division title in 23 years) in the month of September is at least a little bold.
Anyway, I liked the M’s going into the season, and it’s been nice of them to spend the last month reminding me why I liked them.
The Astros will finish in second place and grab a Wild Card. And then probably win the AL pennant like they always do.
3) The Blue Jays win a Wild Card spot at the expense of the Rangers.
Honestly, I don’t know what to make of either of these clubs at this point. The Blue Jays have reached the playoffs twice in the last three years but are nevertheless one of the biggest disappointments in baseball in that span. They haven’t been able to assert themselves in the AL East with what had looked like a championship-caliber core. Now, Matt Chapman and Bo Bichette are both hurt, and that sure doesn’t help a club that has never completely clicked.
Still, the Rangers’ bullpen really worries me. And the Texas offense, which hit an MLB-best .296 with runners in scoring position in the first four months of the season, returned to earthen soil with a .211 mark in August. Regression to the mean is not out of the question for a club that has struggled in close games (11-19 in one-run games, 2-7 in extra innings) and has found very creative ways to lose, of late.
Interestingly, the Rangers and Jays have a four-game set in Toronto from Sept. 11-14.
4) The Guardians will win one more for Tito.
Terry Francona has made it pretty clear that he’s retiring without totally coming out and saying that he’s retiring. The Twins have been similarly noncommittal about claiming an AL Central crown that, frankly, they should have locked up after Tito’s Guardians punted at the Trade Deadline. But after taking two of three from the Twins earlier this week to pull within five games of first, the Guards suddenly grabbed Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López and Matt Moore off the waiver wire, with three games remaining against the Twins next week.
It might not be enough to actually win this division, but it’s enough to win this prediction! Whether it’s the Guards or the Twins, the winner of the AL Central gets to spray champagne. But, um, maybe not the good stuff.
5) The Cubs will win the NL Central.
While the math going into September might not make this completely bold (Chicago trails Milwaukee by only three games after taking two of three at Wrigley this week), the Brewers are still the better and more time-tested team on paper, while the North Siders are still one of the more absurd stories of this fun season, having gotten hot just in the nick of time before a Trade Deadline for which they had been expected to be sellers.
Marcus Stroman’s availability could be an X-factor in this race. Even if Stroman’s recovery from a rib cage cartilage fracture allows him to make only one start in the final week, the Cubs and Brewers just so happen to face each other in the final series of the season in Milwaukee. Hmm.
6) The Phillies, Brewers and Marlins will be the NL Wild Cards.
Regarding that final spot, I picked the D-backs before the season, which can only mean they’re cursed. The Giants and Reds are in the mix, but (unless you think the Padres are going to suddenly learn how to win baseball games or the Nats are about to have the most unlikely playoff surge in history), the Marlins entered Thursday with the biggest deficit (three games) among the genuine NL Wild Card contenders.
So … a Marlins team with a minus-60 run differential leaping over three teams to claim their first full-season postseason spot since 2003? Bold enough for me!
7) Mookie Betts will finish the season as the consensus NL MVP favorite.
To be clear, I’ve been on Team Acuña since November, and Ronald Acuña Jr. has done nothing to lose his front-runner status going into September.
But Mookie’s monster August -- capped with two home runs against Atlanta on Thursday night -- was enough to spark serious discussion about an award race that wasn't really taking place previously. It’s going to compel more voters to take a look at the rarity of a guy spending roughly 60% of his time in right field and 40% of his time in the middle infield while potentially cranking out 40-plus home runs and what is, so far, the best OPS (1.033) and OPS+ (172) in the NL.
Once you acknowledge that, you get into one of those philosophical discussions (and aren’t those always a treat?) about which of these elite players has meant more to his elite team.
With a grand slam Thursday, Acuña has the first 30-homer, 60-steal season in AL/NL history … with a full month to go. But some might dock him for doing so in the new rules environment where it’s easier to swipe a bag. And one could argue that Mookie’s positional movement has had more impact on his team’s bottom line because of how it’s helped the Dodgers account for their glut of outfielders and the absence of Gavin Lux.
8) Kyle Schwarber will be the MLB home run champ.
Far be it from me to talk about Shohei Ohtani as if he’s an actual human being and not a cyborg, but it sure seems like maybe a pending free agent on a team that is not only going nowhere but put nearly 25% of its roster on waivers this week should consider getting his UCL fixed sooner rather than later?
If it soon comes to that -- and, with Ohtani endearingly still suiting up and swatting, that’s a big if -- then it could take him out of the running for the homer crown. Here was the top five through Thursday:
Matt Olson, 43
Pete Alonso, 39
Kyle Schwarber, 37
The obvious alternate pick is Olson, but this column isn’t centered on obviousness … or accurateness, for that matter.
So let’s root for one of those sizzling Schwarber surges (dare you to say that five times fast). It’s a tall order, but this is the same guy who rattled off a dozen bombs last June (and 10 last September), so perhaps he can catch fire as Olson and others go cold.
Anyway, as the game gets more athletic and explicitly tries to venture away from Three True Outcomes territory, a stocky dude with exactly as many homers as singles has become a bit of a sympathetic figure. Make us proud, Schwarbs.
9) The A’s won’t finish with MLB’s worst record.
Oakland needs five wins this month to avoid the 2003 Tigers’ AL “record” for lowest winning percentage (.265) post-World War II. That doesn’t sound too difficult, but, well, we are talking about a team with only 39 wins all year, so you never know.
Not only do I think the A’s can win five games this month, I think they can catch the Royals. With Kansas City in a six-game funk entering September, the A’s are only one game back in the loss column. The Royals have gotten excellent returns from Aroldis Chapman trade acquisition Cole Ragans, but the rest of their rotation had an ERA of 5.83 in August. That kind of performance is – dare I say – Oakland-like.
I see an A’s team that has gotten a 4.1 WAR from rookies and only a 1.5 WAR from non-rookies using its fresh legs to finish … well, “strong” is too strong a word, but… better than they have been.