5 pressing questions in the AL East
Some teams are playing for October, while others are already looking ahead to next spring. But no matter what position each respective club is in, the final month of the season still holds some intrigue.
Here's one looming question that remains for each American League East team in the regular season's final 3 1/2 weeks.
The question: What will become of Aaron Sanchez?
Two years ago, Sanchez posted the lowest ERA in the AL among qualified starters. He appeared to be on the brink of establishing himself as one of the most dominant pitchers in the game, but he has barely pitched since. Last year, a lingering blister resulted in a lost season. In 2018, it was a right middle finger contusion. The good news is that Sanchez is finally healthy and has one month to salvage what remains of the year. People often forget that '16 was Sanchez's first season as a full-time starter. He doesn't have a long track record of success and he needs to finish the year strong to regain his upward trajectory. With two years of control remaining on Sanchez's contract, the Blue Jays desperately need that to happen, too.
The question: Are outfielder Cedric Mullins and infielder Jonathan Villar 'guys'?
As Baltimore continues its rebuild, the club is looking for guys who can be a part of the long-term plan. So far, Mullins and Villar have set themselves apart as intriguing options, each playing terrifically since joining the team last month. Mullins became the first Orioles rookie to record a three-hit debut, while Villar -- acquired in the Jonathan Schoop trade -- has six homers and 16 RBIs through his first 31 games. Both have also played superb defense, which is something this organization has to get back to if it is going to contend in the future. The next month will be a proving ground for the duo -- along with several other notable young players -- to state their case to stick around.
The question: Can Blake Snell finish strong?
Snell had a monster August, going 4-0 with a 1.04 ERA in five starts. His success followed a stint on the DL for left shoulder fatigue. The left-hander has already thrown 151 2/3 innings, moving him close to his career high for innings (173 1/3 in 2017 for Triple-A Durham and Tampa Bay), so the Rays will want to be cautious with how they handle their No. 1 starter. If Snell can find a way to repeat his August success, he'll not only find himself in the AL Cy Young Award hunt -- the Rays might very well find a way to earn an AL Wild Card spot.
The question: Is the bullpen good enough?
It is clear the Red Sox have the best lineup in the game, one that is potent enough to make for a long and exciting run into October. But it won't matter if the bullpen can't hold leads. Though the Sox are on pace for the most wins in franchise history, relief roles are still shaking out in front of ace closer Craig Kimbrel. The Red Sox need more consistency out of Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, Richard Hembree, Tyler Thornburg and Brandon Workman. Fortunately, Ryan Brasier has come out of obscurity to be Boston's best setup man. Before the postseason, some other pitchers must prove their reliability to manager Alex Cora.
The question: Will Aaron Judge return, and if so, what can he offer?
The simple act of Judge taking dry swings and hitting off a tee created ripples in the Yankees' universe this week, as it marked his first time picking up a bat since sustaining a fractured right wrist on July 26. Judge's next steps will include soft toss, batting practice and facing live pitching before finally getting into a game, which he believes could happen in a week or two. Will Judge show signs of rust, facing big league pitching in the thick of a playoff push? Perhaps, but general manager Brian Cashman recently recalled the presence that Darryl Strawberry and Alex Rodriguez had late in their careers. Even at less than 100 percent, you can argue that Judge's presence in the batter's box still makes a substantial difference.