Each MLB contenders biggest issue heading into the stretch run

Baseball’s 2021 trade deadline was incredibly busy, a bit chaotic and completely thrilling. But why was the dial turned up a few notches? 

Several reasons, but here’s the biggest one: The secondary trade deadline — traditionally Aug. 31, when players who have been put on waivers can be moved — is a thing of the past. Without that safety net, teams had to address their weaknesses by the July 30 deadline or be content with what was currently in the organization. Technically, some trades are still allowed, but only for players not on a current 40-man roster, and those types of players generally aren’t “upgrades” 

So, basically, the weaknesses a team has now will likely be a weakness they’re dealing with the rest of the season, unless an injured player returns to fill the void. For some teams, that’s a big deal. For others, it’s nothing more than a tiny speed bump. 

Let’s take a look at the biggest weaknesses for every contender. We’re defining “contenders” as any team within four games of a playoff spot heading into Tuesday’s games. That’s 14 teams, total. 

Within striking distance

Mariners

Playoff position: 3 back of second AL wild card
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 3.0 percent

Biggest issue: Maybe this is nothing. Who knows? But remember when GM Jerry DiPoto traded elite closer Kendal Graveman the day after the club’s stirring come-from-behind victory against the division-rival Astros? Players were understandably upset. A club with momentum and belief was undermined by the front office. The Mariners have lost four of five since then, and a road bump to get past — they were one back of the second wild-card spot after that win — is starting to potentially look like a steep hill. 

Braves

Playoff position: 3.5 back in NL East
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 16.8 percent

Biggest issue: When inconsistency is a team’s only consistent characteristic, it’s tough to make a playoff push. And the only way to stay in a playoff race playing the way the Braves have lately is to get lucky and compete in a poor division. Such is life in the NL East in 2021. For real, look at this. 

Yep. It’s a bit of everything. When the pitching is good, the offense isn’t. When the offense is good, the bullpen falters. When the pitching and hitting is solid, the defensive makes a key hiccup or two. The Braves didn’t make any earth-shattering moves, but they did completely remake their outfield, bringing in Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler. It could be just the thing, but then again adding hitters with OPS+ numbers of 97, 85 and 82 for the season just might lead to more of the same.

Reds

Playoff position: 4 back of the second NL wild card
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 22.1 percent

Biggest issue: The pieces are here for the Reds to make a run, especially now that the bullpen reinforcements have arrived and Joey Votto is back to being Joey Freaking Votto. There just hasn’t been enough consistency in the rotation, outside of Luis Castillo (1.95 ERA since the start of June) and Wade Miley (2.92 season ERA). Sonny Gray was cruising along with a nice stretch, then had back-to-back hiccup starts in July. Tyler Mahle had a three-start stretch with a 5.51 ERA in July. 

Phillies

Playoff position: 2.5 back in NL East
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 26.5 percent

Biggest issue: Defense. The defense is, putting it kindly, very mediocre, which is why trading their best pitching prospect for a contact pitcher in Kyle Gibson felt like a strange fit for the rotation. Let’s look at the stat Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Here’s the definition, from MLB.com: “DRS quantifies a player’s entire defensive performance by attempting to measure how many runs a defender saved. It takes into account errors, range, outfield arm and double-play ability.”

Now, look at this statistic, from FanGraphs: By DRS, the Phillies are last in baseball, at minus-40. The Tigers are next-to-last, at minus-39. Know who’s in first place? The Mets, at plus-48 (tied with the Marlins). That’s a huge, massive gap. Really, it’s pretty incredible that the Phillies are even in the conversation in the division with a defensive disparity like that. 

Yankees

Playoff position: 3 back of second AL wild card
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 48.3 percent

Biggest issue: Let’s just borrow what we wrote for the post-deadline power rankings: Still, it’s fair to wonder how the pitching will hold up week to week, much less the next couple of months. Gerrit Cole has been up and down; he followed two brilliant starts (15 innings, one run) with back-to-back blah starts (10 1/3 innings, 10 earned runs). Andrew Heaney, the rotation trade addition, has secondary numbers that are better than his less-than-stellar ERA with the (5.27), so there’s reason to hope he’ll be a boost. Though, his Yankees debut wasn’t exactly stellar — four solo home runs allowed in four innings. And Nestor Cortes Jr. has been a nice surprise with an innings increase. But the bullpen has been iffy, at best, lately and the only relievers they added weren’t exactly great with their former teams: Clay Holmes had a 4.93 ERA with the Pirates and Joely Rodriguez had a 5.93 ERA with Texas. 

Blue Jays

Playoff position: 4 back of second wild card
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 31.5 percent

Biggest issue: Quite honestly, the Jays’ biggest issue right now is that they gave other teams a big ol’ head start before they added to their bullpen and traded for Jose Berrios. As currently constructed, this is one of the four best teams in the AL, but they’ve got their work cut out for them to actually make the postseason. 

Wild-card leaders

A’s

Playoff position: second AL wild card, 3 up
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 50 percent

Biggest issue: The A’s are another team that did an excellent job addressing needs at the trade deadline, including the deal for the play-everywhere Josh Harrison. Maybe, being picky, they would love Matt Chapman to return to form. He’s an all-world defender, of course, but after finishing seventh and sixth, respectively, in the 2018-19 AL MVP voting with an average 132 OPS+ and 7.8 bWAR, Chapman leads the league in strikeouts and has a 92 OPS+, to go with a 2.1 bWAR. If he gets back to producing like an MVP candidate, that would be a huge boost to the A’s. 

Padres

Playoff position: second NL wild card, 4 up
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 76.6 percent

Biggest issue: It’s not that the wheels have fallen off, but the bolts are loosening all over the roster. Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack just landed on the IL. Yu Darvish had a 7.36 ERA in five July starts and Blake Snell either looks brilliant or completely lost on the mound: Seriously, look at the earned runs his past six starts: 7, 0, 0, 4, 1, 7. And they didn’t bring in the massive-impact guy they were hoping, such as Max Scherzer to top the rotation or Joey Gallo to thump in the middle of the lineup. It’s a strange time for a still-very-talented club.

Red Sox

Playoff position: first AL wild card, 3 up
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 87.4 percent

Biggest issue: The “can Kyle Schwarber play first base” question is legitimate, but that’s not the biggest worry, in my opinion. Aside from Nathan Eovaldi, the rotation is a collection of four five-inning starters with ERAs north of 4.50, and that’s a tough formula to depend on for 162 games. 

Martin Perez: 4.56 ERA, 21 starts, 98 2/3 innings
Nick Pivetta: 4.57 ERA, 21 starts, 112 1/3 innings
Garrett Richards: 5.15 ERA, 20 starts, 101 1/3 innings
Eduardo Rodriguez: 5.60 ERA, 20 starts, 99 2/3 innings

Chris Sale is on his way back, and he’s looked really good in four rehab starts in the minors (1.76 ERA, 27 strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings). If he returns to the bigs for the first time since 2019 and looks anything like his old self, that would go a long way toward allaying the concerns of Red Sox fans. 

Dodgers

Playoff position: first NL wild card, 7.5 up 
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 99.3 percent

Biggest issue: Ask most any Dodgers fan, and they’ll probably admit the back of the bullpen scares them. The team stuck with Kenley Jansen as the closer this offseason, and he was great through the first couple of months of the season. But he hasn’t thrown a 1-2-3 inning since June 20 — spanning 12 appearances — and he owns an ERA of 18.00 since the All-Star break, allowing eight runs, 11 hits and six walks in four innings over five appearances. It’s a bit disconcerting. 

MLB division leaders

Mets

Playoff position: first in NL East, 2.5 up
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 60.7 percent

Biggest issue: More like issues, plural. There are so many questions. Right now, Marcus Stroman feels like the only sure thing in the rotation, with Jacob deGrom out until September. Francisco Lindor’s on the IL shelf for a while, too. The offense has shown signs and Javy Baez could be the answer, but he’s only one person. The bullpen has issues, too. If they played in any other division in baseball, they’d be at least seven games out of first place. Instead, in the NL East, they have a 2.5-game lead.

Rays

Playoff position: first in AL East, 1 up
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 81.2 percent

Biggest issue: The pitching feels like it could be an issue, but the Rays always seem to have a stable of pitchers ready to step up and prove the doubters wrong. This year, after trading starter Rich Hill and closer Diego Castilla after the All-Star break, is not much different.

Brewers

Playoff position: first in NL Central, 7.5 up
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 96.7 percent

Biggest issue: Even with the addition of Rowdy Tellez and Eduardo Escobar, there are questions about the Brewers’ offense. They need Christian Yelich to produce like the Yelich of old — he has a .221 average and 107 OPS+ the past two seasons, after producing a .327 average and 171 OPS+ in 2018-19 — and they need Jackie Bradley Jr. to do something (anything) at the plate. He’s batting .175 with a 46 OPS+.

Astros

Playoff position: first in AL West, 4.5 up
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 97.4 percent

Biggest issue: It’s honestly hard to find any issues here. This is a good team that addressed its lone sore-thumb weakness in a big way at the trade deadline. The bullpen is good. The rotation is good and the lineup is good.

Giants

Playoff position: first in NL West, 3.5 up
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 98.0 percent

Biggest issue: Staying healthy. Injuries are a reality for every team, but the Giants seem especially vulnerable to stints on the IL with a roster full of 30-somethings. Brandon Belt (Age 33 season) and Evan Longoria (35) are on the IL right now, and starters Buster Posey (34), Brandon Crawford (34), Donovan Solano (33), Alex Dickerson (31), Mike Yastrzemski (30) have all spent time on the IL. At full strength, they’re an outstanding team, and they’ve done an outstanding job weathering the absences of their star players. Just look at the standings. Trading for the versatile Kris Bryant was a smart move. But health’s always going to be a question for this club.

White Sox 

Playoff position: first in the AL Central, 8.5 up
FanGraphs’ playoff odds: 99.6 percent

Biggest issue: The White Sox have only one regular-season goal, and that’s to finish with the best record in the AL to secure home field advantage. The division is wrapped up, and has been for a long time. The Sox just need to get healthy. Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert — two big bats — should be healthy and productive for most of the last two months, but they’re not there just yet. Setbacks do happen. And Dallas Keuchel has struggled lately; in five July starts, he posted a 6.26 ERA and gave up nine home runs in 27 1/3 innings. 

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