The best time to be a baseball fan, in my mind, starts right now, when the calendar flips to September, the rosters expand to 40, the trade rumors simmer and each game takes on added playoff intensity.
The storylines are aplenty this year, with 12 teams within five games of a playoff spot heading into Wednesday. Here are my top 10 …
10. Skippers trying to shed the “interim” tag
Their clubs may not be heading to the playoffs, but interim managers Edwin Rodriguez (Marlins), Daren Brown (Mariners), Mike Quade (Cubs) and Kirk Gibson (Diamondbacks) are competing for long-term jobs. Per standard protocol, each of their respective clubs have said they’ll be a strong candidate in the interview process, and how their teams play in September could go a long way in that regard. Also consider that several other openings — the Braves, Blue Jays, and possibly the Dodgers and Cardinals, to name a few — will come up this offseason, meaning clubs may be more willing to stick with what they’ve got.
9. Chapman leads the list of September call-ups
Unfortunately, Tommy John surgery deprived us of watching more of Stephen Strasburg‘s rookie season. But not to worry — Aroldis Chapman and his 100-plus mph fastball from the left side are here to dazzle us. He’ll be something to watch every time he steps out of the Reds’ bullpen. Also look out for John Mayberry Jr. (Phillies), Freddie Freeman (Braves), Desmond Jennings (Rays), Mike Moustakas (Royals) and several other prospects who will be called up this month.
8. Can Morneau make it back?
We know Minnesota won’t rush the return of Justin Morneau, who’s recovering from a concussion and has been out since July 7. But the Twins were already dealt a serious blow when closer Joe Nathan‘s elbow gave out in Spring Training, and it’ll be hard to see them advancing deep in the playoffs with Morneau also gone (despite Jim Thome‘s prowess at the plate this season).
7. Lee and Howard look to reverse struggles
Two of the game’s elites are looking to bounce back from rough Augusts. Cliff Lee had a nightmarish seven starts that month, posting a 1-4 record and a 6.37 ERA, after topping the Majors in WHIP and being nearly unhittable for most of the season. Ryan Howard, meanwhile, missed most of the month while on the DL with a left ankle strain and was batting just .111 with one RBI in his first nine games back before having a nice night against the Dodgers on Tuesday. Deep postseason runs aren’t possible on the Rangers and Phillies without these two in top form.
6. Low-budget Reds and Padres still doing it
Will that continue? The Reds’ win and the Cardinals’ loss put them a season-high seven games up heading into the month, even though Cincinnati didn’t make much in the form of in-season acquisitions. The Padres have scuffled recently, but they’ve been in first place in the National League West since June 16 and still hold a four-game cushion. It’ll be interesting to see if the Giants can catch up.
5. Injury-riddled Red Sox march on
Somehow, the Red Sox have managed to stay afloat in the toughest division in baseball despite being completely ravaged by injury this season. Things likely won’t get any better, either, since Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis all figure to be out for the year. But the Red Sox have plenty of chances remaining against the Rays and Yankees as the regular season winds down, and history us not to sleep on this team.
4. Bobby’s swan song
Can Bobby Cox, a sure-shot Hall of Famer, end his brilliant career with yet another playoff appearance? It sure seems that way, even though Chipper Jones has already been lost for the season. The Braves have been in sole possession of first place in the NL East since May 31 and don’t seem to be going anywhere. The health of Derek Lowe‘s elbow — which he says is nothing serious — will be something to monitor down the stretch, as will the production of recently acquired first baseman Derrek Lee, and whether or not Troy Glaus can give Atlanta anything as a third baseman.
3. Who gets the major awards?
It’s been one of the most impressive years for National League rookies in quite some time. So, who wins that league’s Rookie of the Year award? (I’m assuming either Austin Jackson or Neftali Feliz in the American League.) Jason Heyward, Jaime Garcia, Buster Posey, Mike Stanton, Gaby Sanchez and Strasburg, among others, are candidates. As for the two league MVPs? It’s up for grabs between Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera in the AL, while Joey Votto, Albert Pujols and Carlos Gonzalez will seemingly battle it out in the NL. The Cy Young, in my mind, will come down to Tim Hudson, Roy Halladay, Josh Johnson, Adam Wainwright, Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Carpenter in the NL; and Clay Buchholz, Felix Hernandez, Trevor Cahill, David Price and C.J. Wilson will go at it in the AL.
2. The race between the Yankees and Rays
Will any club separate itself in the AL East? The Rays and Yankees were deadlocked for a record-setting eight straight games until the Yankees took a one-game lead on Tuesday night. But this is far from over. The two clubs have been separated by no more than a game since Aug. 15 and are scheduled to meet seven more times before the regular season ends. The Rays lead the season series thus far, 6-5.
(Here’s a column I wrote on the Rays’ in-it-to-win-it mentality last week
1. Manny’s in Chicago
I am of the belief that Manny Ramirez‘s impact on the White Sox will be a great one. One that will get them over the top and into the playoffs, in fact. The skepticism is obvious, but one doesn’t have to look too far back to find a reason to believe. In 2008 — during a contract year, just like this one — Ramirez joined the Dodgers right before the non-waiver Trade Deadline, tore it up and got them in the playoffs. His run with the White Sox starts Wednesday, when he bats fifth and serves as the DH. Considering the Twins’ situation with Morneau, I believe he helps Chicago close the gap on their four-game deficit in the AL Central. Even if he doesn’t, a White Sox team with Ramirez (pictured below; Reuters) and Ozzie Guillen in the same dugout is a must-watch.
* Here’s a fresh story
on contenders gearing up for the stretch run, and look for a column on the five in-season moves that will have the biggest stretch-run impact on the MLB.com homepage
— Alden Gonzalez