We've got seven weeks left in this marathon we call a baseball season, but contrary to what any pessimistic pundit tried to tell you at the start of the season, things haven't proved very predictable at all. If you saw the Phillies, Braves, A's and Mariners coming, if you saw the Red Sox obliterating the Yankees and the likes of the Dodgers, Cubs and Nationals having to sing for their supper, well, good on ya. The rest of us are pleasantly surprised that so much is unsettled as we hit the home stretch.
Here are 10 big X-factors for these waning weeks of the regular season.
1. The Dodgers' bullpen
The Dodgers took their position-player depth to another level with the additions of Manny Machado and James Dozier ahead of the non-waiver Trade Deadline. They're healthier in the rotation than they've been in a long, long time. But if there was one post-July 31 critique of this club, it was that it left itself a little short in the bullpen that still hasn't really accounted for the offseason depature of Brandon Morrow.
In a market in which the likes of Zach Britton and Brad Hand moved, the Dodgers added John Axford. And now, with closer Kenley Jansen on the shelf for at least a month with an irregular heartbeat, the Dodgers, who are third in the National League in relief losses (23), are at the mercy of what they have on hand (how the starting surplus affects the 'pen will be interesting), what they might have coming in their system (Julio Urias?) and what's available in the waiver period.
2. The waiver wire's impact on the Mariners' and Brewers' rotations
The continuing decline of Felix Hernandez made his move to the 'pen unavoidable, but it's not as if the Mariners had a ready-made replacement on hand. Erasmo Ramirez is nearing a return from a right shoulder strain, but what do you want to bet Jerry Dipoto works the waiver-wire wheels for some sort of addition (Matt Harvey is the most obvious option, but August trade activity is tricky) between now and the end of the month?
As for the Brewers, in their first eight games of this month of August, they averaged 5.4 runs per game … and went 3-5. It's not supposed to work like that, and this only lent credence to the expressed concerns about what the Brew Crew did and didn't do at the Deadline, particularly after losing starter Brent Suter to Tommy John surgery. Maybe bashing the opponent into submission will work in a larger sample, but for now you have to wonder if they, too, will make an external addition.
3. The returns of Stephen Strasburg and Sean Doolittle
The Nationals' issues have been a moving target all year, and that's generally the sign of a not-great team. They're underperforming their expected winning percentage (based on run differential) by six wins, which is generally the sign of not-great management.
But there's no telling how the young Phillies and Braves will handle the home stretch, and, yes, you'd have to imagine adding a healthy Strasburg (he's nearing a return from a neck issue) and Doolittle (he's begun throwing after suffering a stress reaction in his left foot in early July) would help the cause.
4. Aaron Judge's wrist
Because of continued discomfort, Judge, as of this writing, is still not taking dry swings. Which means he's still pretty far away from taking, um, wet swings. Which means that initial three-week timetable for his return from a chip in his right wrist (suffered July 27) isn't happening.
In the roughly four-month sample with Judge in the lineup, the Yankees had a .789 team OPS. In the first two weeks without him, it was .716. Gary Sanchez is also out of the picture with a groin issue, but this one really is pretty simple: Losing your best player hurts. And you never know how a wrist situation will affect a power hitter even after he returns.
5. Ronald Acuna Jr.'s energy
The Braves are in a stretch of 24 games in 22 days with zero days off, and their remaining schedule, in general, is a bear, loaded with clubs above .500. They need all the youthful energy they can get, and it doesn't come much younger than the 20-year-old Acuna, whose output in the leadoff spot has a drastically direct impact on which direction this club goes.
Acuna is slashing .321/.389/.614 in Braves wins and .182/.221/.554 in losses. Acuna has battled an injury and inevitable adjustments this year, but if his recent offensive surge becomes his new norm, that's huge.
6. The A's late-inning luster
It is fair to wonder about the staying power of any statistical anomaly. The anomaly guiding the A's in this epic 2018 is that they fare far better offensively against relievers than they do starters. Their .705 OPS in the first six innings of games is the fourth worst in the American League. Their .830 OPS in the seventh inning or later is far and away the best in baseball. Their plus-81 run differential after the seventh inning is absurd.
Now, the A's keep beefing up their bullpen (they added both Shawn Kelley and Fernando Rodney this past week), so that should help them continue to limit the opposition late. But Oakland's continued ability to do damage against an opposing bullpen will, in all likelihood, determine whether it can nail down an October berth (and would make the A's pretty dangerous, if they get there).
7. Seranthony Dominguez's fatigue factor
This 23-year-old kid is on the periphery of the NL Rookie of the Year Award race for the work he's done for the Phillies in late innings this season, most notably not giving up a run in 14 2/3 innings over his first 12 games. Nine relievers have saved a game in Gabe Kapler's always-rotating bullpen cast, but Dominguez has most consistently gotten the call to close things out.
But blown saves on back-to-back days last week made one wonder if Dominguez, who didn't pitch above Class A last year, might run out of gas by year's end.
8. The Cardinals' Nos. 3 and 4 spots
Matt Carpenter's sensational second half is powering the Cardinals, who are still alive in the playoff hunt after canning their manager and moving pieces at the Deadline, out of the leadoff spot. But Carp obviously can't do it all. Lackluster production from the heart of the order has been a longstanding issue for the Cards that hasn't been resolved in 2018.
They've gotten the second-worst OPS in baseball from the No. 3 spot, though Jose Martinez and Paul DeJong (who both see time at No. 3) have shown some needed signs of life in recent days. Same goes for cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna, whose first season with St. Louis has been a big disappointment, but who is certainly capable of getting hot in a hurry.
9. Eduardo Escobar's staying power
You could have guessed that Machado has the highest 2018 WAR mark of any position player dealt before the Deadline; but you might not have guessed that Escobar ranks second.
For a D-backs team looking for some sort of streak that can push them past the Dodgers (Arizona hasn't won or lost more than three in a row since June 21-24), that lost third baseman Jake Lamb to season-ending left shoulder surgery and that has struggled against right-handed pitching (their .700 OPS against righties is the lowest among any MLB contender), Escobar was a vitally important add in the midst of the best year of his career (126 OPS+). If he can keep it up, they can continue to contend with Los Angeles.
10. Three key Cubs injuries -- Kristopher Bryant, Morrow and Yu Darvish
The Cubs made additions to their rotation (Cole Hamels) and bullpen (Jesse Chavez and Brandon Kintzler) at the Deadline, and David Bote has provided surprisingly integral impact in Bryant's absence with shoulder inflammation.
But the Cubs rank 10th in the NL in runs per game since the All-Star break, and the longer Bryant is out, the longer it could take for him to get his timing down. Darvish (triceps) hasn't pitched since May, but he still potentially looms as an important piece for a rotation that has an ERA north of 5 since the break. And Morrow, out since July 19 with a biceps injury, might actually be the most important missing piece, given the adjustment his absence from the ninth requires for the rest of the 'pen. The Cubs haven't let their adversity prevent them from getting back atop the NL Central this season, but their ceiling seems limited without these three guys.