MLB stars facing most pressure heading into September

By Michael Dixon

With little more than a month to go in the MLB season, much is left to be decided.

Some teams need a good September just to reach the playoffs, while others are looking for seeding. Naturally, some players have bigger roles in that of others in making that happen.

Some players, like Giancarlo Stanton and Matt Carpenter, need to maintain the high level of play that we’ve seen that have recently. Others, like Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa, need to shake off the absences caused by lengthy DL stints.

Finally, it’s important for the likes of Mike Moustakas and Manny Machado to show their new teams exactly what they’re capable of.

The reasons are all different. But these are the players from each MLB playoff contender  most in need of a good September.

Stats and records are accurate through play on August 22. 

Kris Bryant, third baseman, Chicago Cubs

Chicago’s offense has struggled mightily of late. It figures to get a significant jolt with the return of Bryant, the former NL MVP. But what figures to happen and what actually will happen are often two different things. The Cubs are locked in a tight battle with both the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central title. In a very crowded National League, there’s absolutely no guarantee that the non-division winners will earn a playoff spot. Chicago needs Bryant to not only return to the lineup, but to start hitting like the guy who’s been one of baseball’s best hitters since his 2015 MLB debut.

Sean Manaea, starting pitcher, Oakland Athletics

The A’s are a darn good baseball team. If there’s one thing that we can see tripping them up, though, it’s the starting pitching, particularly in the front-half of the rotation. Oakland doesn’t have a guy who would seem to match up well with Luis Severino in the AL Wild Card Game, or against someone like Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, or Justin Verlander potentially twice in a playoff series. But when he’s on, Manaea can be that guy. While he may not be the most consistent starter in the rotation, he does have the highest ceiling. He needs to discover that ceiling in the season’s final month.

A.J. Pollock, centerfielder, Arizona Diamondbacks

The month of August has not been especially kind to Pollock. The Arizona centerfielder has hit .246/.309/.3775 with only one home run on the month. The Diamondbacks have had a problem consistently generating offense through much of 2018. A turnaround from Pollock would be quite helpful in holding off the Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. Beyond that, Pollock is a free agent at season’s end. A good month could have a significant positive impact on what kind of contract Pollock will sign in the offseason.

Giancarlo Stanton, left fielder, New York Yankees

The New York offense has understandably scuffled in the absence of Aaron Judge. Given that Judge’s return was (and still is) a mystery, that’s a problem. But of late, Stanton has taken control of the offense. Since the Yankees were swept in a four-game series at Fenway Park, Stanton has hit .323/.432/.742. Not coincidentally, New York is 11-5 in that stretch. If the Yankees are going to hold off the AL West runner-up and host that Wild Card Game, Stanton will need to stay hot.

Brad Brach, relief pitcher, Atlanta Braves

The Atlanta pitching staff is young. Generally speaking, that means short outings in September and, if need be, October. Short outings from the starters only test the depth of the bullpen. As such, it will be important for the right version of Brach to show up. If the man who posted a 4.85 ERA and 1.77 WHIP with the Baltimore Orioles shows up, the Braves are potentially in trouble. But if the man who’s posted a 0.87 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in Atlanta continues to take the hill, it bodes quite well for the Braves.

Robinson Cano, second baseman, Seattle Mariners

Robinson Cano suspended

Thanks to a red-hot team in Oakland and a cold stretch from Seattle, a playoff spot for the Mariners is very much in doubt. So, while Cano’s suspension means that he won’t be eligible for the playoffs, his team needs him to get hot if it’s going to play into October. Since returning from suspension, Cano has hit .306/.324/.472. Cano will have to be even better for the Mariners to make it. That, in and of itself, may not be good enough. But if Cano doesn’t sustain a hot streak through September, the playoffs will be nothing more than a pipe dream.

Jon Gray, starting pitcher, Colorado Rockies

We can really break Gray’s season down into two parts. Through June, Gray posted a 5.77 ERA and 1.49 WHIP, which got him sent down to the minors. Since getting recalled, he’s essentially been a different pitcher, putting up a 2.59 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. For Colorado to not only make the playoffs, but have a chance once there, Gray will have to continue to be that good. Kyle Freeland needs a solid running-mate atop the rotation. The relievers need another starter who can give them a rest by going deep into games. Gray’s been on the right track for a while. In September, he has to stay on that track.

Mike Moustakas, third baseman, Milwaukee Brewers

Moustakas is not a high OBP guy. He’s the kind of guy who can change the course of a game with one swing of the bat. The problem is that he hasn’t really done that since going to Milwaukee. Sure, the sample size is limited, but that’s inherently going to be the case with a rental player. In 23 games with the Brewers, Moustakas has hit only two home runs and slugged .383. This is compared to a .468 slugging percentage that he had with the Kansas City Royals in 2018, and a .521 mark in 2017. Moustakas has more in the tank. And for a Milwaukee team lodged in a tight playoff race, it’s important that he finds it.

Rick Porcello, starting pitcher, Boston Red Sox

For the Red Sox, the rest of the regular season is really about getting ready for the playoffs. Especially with Chris Sale’s injury, solidifying the remainder of the rotation is priority No. 1. That means getting Porcello back to his early-season form. Porcello was solid in his first 10 starts of the year, posting a 3.39 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. Porcello has struggled since, though, posting a 4.64 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. Things have been even worse in the more recent outings. If Porcello can get locked in as we head towards October, Boston’s chances of winning a fourth World Series since 2004 will look pretty solid.

Matt Carpenter, first baseman, St. Louis Cardinals

https://twitter.com/JedYork2/status/1032777475997106176

At the end of April, Carpenter was hitting .155/.305/.274. Since May, though, he’s hit .296/.403/.645 and actually gotten into the MVP race. The thing is, he’ll likely need to sustain that level of play for the Cardinals to make the playoffs. St. Louis is still 2.5 out in the NL Central, only one-half game up on Milwaukee for the top Wild Card spot, and only one game clear of the Colorado Rockies, the first team out of the playoffs. For his team to wade through such a tight race and reach the playoffs, Carpenter will need to sustain the incredibly high level of play that we’ve seen for nearly four months.

Cody Allen, closer, Cleveland Indians

Much of the uncharacteristic struggles of Cleveland’s bullpen in 2018 can be pinned on the injury to Andrew Miller. But Miller has been quite effective (1.17 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 10.6 K/9) since returning. Allen, though has had a difficult season. His 4.17 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and 10.5 K/9) are all noticeably worse than what we saw over 2016 and 2017 (2.73 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 11.9 K/9). The good news is that the AL Central race is effectively over. But for Cleveland to have a chance in an incredibly strong AL postseason, Allen will need to be sharp. He’ll need to spend the month of September being sure he gets there.

Odubel Herrera, centerfielder, Philadelphia Phillies

Philadelphia headed into the All-Star break as one of baseball’s best surprises, going 53-42 in the first half of the season. Since then, the Phillies have gone 15-16. Herrera’s performance has been a big part of both. In the first half, Herrera hit .275/.327/.460 with 16 home runs. Since then, he’s struggled. Herrera has hit .227/.292/.351 and hit only two homers. This guy has been a bellwether for the Phillies. If they’re going to get back into the postseason mix, he’ll need to find some of that pre-All-Star break magic again.

Carlos Correa, shortstop, Houston Astros

While Correa has dealt with injury this year, he’s also struggled when healthy, hitting .253/.336/.442. While that’s quite good for a shortstop, it’s well short of the .315/.391/.550 mark that Correa reached a season ago. It’s awfully hard to imagine the Astros not making the playoffs. But it’s rather easy to imagine Houston not winning the division. Correa heating up would be a big positive for the Astros if they’re going to avoid that single-elimination game.

Manny Machado, third baseman, Los Angeles Dodgers

It’s not that Machado has been terrible for the Dodgers. He’s hit .273/.363/.453 with five home runs. While that doesn’t quite match his pace while with the Orioles, it’s not bad for a 32-game sample size. The problem, though, is that Machado is a rental. He was not acquired to simply be, not bad. The Dodgers traded for him to give them the edge in not only the NL West, but the NL and even MLB, in general. But now, the Los Angeles is another poor week away from being in real trouble. Machado isn’t the only Dodgers hitter who needs to elevate his game. But it would certainly help the Dodgers if he did.