With September in the offing and the playoff races coming into sharper focus, let's take a few minutes to talk contenders and more specifically contender injuries. "What's each contender's most significant current injury?" is the the question we've concocted to guide this piece of blazing internet content.
The highlighted injuries to come are important in two ways. One, each injury has a bearing on the team's chances of making the postseason, or at least achieving the desired seeding in the postseason, and, two, each injury may have playoff implications if a return to health doesn't happen reasonably soon. As for the teams we're declaring to be contenders, we'll include any squad that's presently within 5.0 games of playoff position. Also, in most instances we're not considering those injuries that will surely sideline the player in question for the remainder of the season. Rather, we'll focus on those that could be resolved in time to make an impact.
For some additional context, we'll also include each team's current SportsLine Playoff Percentage, which is said team's chances of making the postseason by any means (i.e., as division champs or as wild-card entrant). Now, let us take a leisurely stroll through baseball's sick bay ...
The Baltimore rotation has been a bit of a jalopy in 2016. The most consistent exception has been Tillman, who in 26 starts has pitched to a 3.76 ERA and 118 ERA+. He's also averaged almost six innings per start. While that's hardly a jaw-dropping figure in isolation, consider that the O's as a team rank 13th in the AL at 5.4 innings per start. So Tillman was a "go long" guy by team standards. Thanks to shoulder discomfort, though, Tillman's on the DL and hasn't made a start since Aug. 20. The team's hoping he'll be back by the second week of September. That needs to happen, and Tillman needs to rediscover vintage form for his last four or so starts of the regular season if the Orioles are going to make the playoffs in 2016.
The Sox have a powerhouse offense this season (the pace the AL in runs scored and OPS), but left field hasn't been a source of strength despite the bat-first nature of the position. Benintendi, widely regarded as one of the top prospects in all of baseball, promised to change that. Through his first 74 big-league plate appearances, he put up a robust line of .324/.365/.485 with the potential to perform even better. Unfortunately, Benintendi suffered a left knee injury on the bases earlier this month. While he avoided any structural damage to his hinge, he's going to be out of game action probably until the final week or two of the regular season. The Sox have a reasonable fallback option in a Brock Holt/Chris Young platoon, but Benintendi's upside will be missed. SportsLine likes the Sox's chances to make the playoffs, so perhaps the goal will be to get Benintendi back to top form in time for October.
We could go with Kyle Schwarber, sure, but it seems unlikely he'll see the field again this season. Instead, we'll go with the compromised Cub bullpen. At present, right-handers Pedro Strop (knee), Joe Smith (hamstring), and Rondon (triceps) are on the DL. The Cubs' postseason blueprint on the pitching front seems to be relying on all these hard-throwing relievers (including, of course, closer Aroldis Chapman) so as to lock down the middle and late innings and ease the burdens on the rotation. That means getting healthy before the postseason begins. As for reducing it to a single player, we'll go with Rondon. He was the Cubs' pre-Chapman closer, and over the last three seasons he's pitched to a 2.14 ERA and 5.08 K/BB ratio. The good news for the North Siders is that Rondon could be back on the active roster by the weekend.
Michael Brantley is obviously the biggest Cleveland injury this season, but he's not going to play again this season. Instead, we'll go with Salazar. Salazar's not on the DL right now, but he is on the paternity list. Fatherhood, though, has nothing do with his presence on this list. Salazar recently took a turn on the DL with elbow inflammation, which is obviously a concern. Likely related to his elbow troubles is the decline in his numbers. At the end of June, he boasted a 2.22 ERA with six homers allowed in 93 1/3 innings. Since then, he's pitched to an ERA of 8.39 with eight homers allowed in 34 1/3 frames. The good news is that Salazar looked much stronger in his last start, but he needs to keep it going.
Of course, we could go with Jordan Zimmermann, but Castellanos gets the nod because of his performance spike this season. He's been out with a fractured hand since he was struck by a pitch against the Mets on Aug. 6. He's recently resumed playing catch, which is a positive sign, and that means he could be on track to return by mid-September. Thus far, Castellanos has enjoyed a breakout campaign at the plate, as he owns a 2016 batting line of .286/.331/.500 (123 OPS+) with 18 homers in 105 games. Those numbers were trending downward at the time of his injury, so perhaps some time off will wind up benefiting him upon his return. Casey McGehee has been pinning down third base in Castellanos' absence, and that's obviously not an optimal state of affairs in 2016.
The Astros presently rank a middling eighth in the AL in rotation ERA, so that hasn't exactly been a source of strength this season. That brings us to McCullers, who's registered a 3.22 ERA (124 ERA+) while striking out 106 batters in 81 innings. That kind of run prevention and swing-and-miss is need in Houston, even with the potential of Joe Musgrove. McCullers is on the DL retroactive to Aug. 3 with an elbow sprain. While he's not been able to throw off a mound yet, but he is making progress with his throwing program. The hope is that he'll be back before the end of the regular season, but nothing's certain at this point.
Without Davis, the Royals have barged back into contention, but there's no question that they miss the elite reliever who's run an astounding ERA of 1.09 since the start of the 2014 season. Davis has been out since late July with a flexor strain. That's a worrisome injury, to say the least, but Davis is presently on rehab assignment in Triple-A and could return to the Royals by the weekend. Even before his trip to the DL, Davis' command-and-control indicators were down sharply this season, so the lengthy layoff could abet more characteristic dominance from Davis.
Los Angeles Dodgers
SportsLine playoff percentage: 97.5 percent
Biggest injury: Clayton Kershaw, SP
And here's the big one. When Kershaw went down with a back injury in late June, he was likely the frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award and the NL MVP Award. The best pitcher on the planet was pitching like the best pitcher on the planet, that is to say. In spite of Kershaw's absence, the Dodgers have clawed their way to first place in the NL West, thanks in large part to the Giants' utter collapse since the break. As well, Kershaw is one of six Dodger starting pitchers presently on the disabled list. The good news on the Kershaw front is that by the time you read this the franchise lefty may have already pitched a simulated game. Assuming all goes well, he could be activated in a matter of days. The corollary hope is that perhaps the reduced workload for Kershaw will mean he's fresher in the postseason, assuming, of course, the Dodgers get there.
SportsLine playoff percentage: 16.6 percent
Biggest injury: Giancarlo Stanton, OF
Stanton's probably out for the year, but there's at least a sliver of hope that he returns from his strained groin before the season is up. Given the recent struggles of Ichiro Suzuki and the uninspiring option of giving regular duty to Jeff Francoeur, Stanton's already being missed. The slugger probably won't be back in time to give the Fish a significant lift when it comes to making the postseason, but if they get there then perhaps Stanton will be ready to contribute. In either case, his absence is being acutely felt in the NL playoff race.
New York Mets New York Mets
SportsLine playoff percentage: 22.3 percent
Biggest injury: Steven Matz, SP
There's not Matt Harvey or Zack Wheeler, and the recaptured Jon Niese may not provide much the rest of the way, either. So the Mets need Matz back in the rotation as soon as possible. The 25-year-old lefty, who's pitched to a 3.40 ERA and 4.16 K/BB this season, has been on the DL since Aug. 15 with shoulder tightness. The Mets had hoped that Matz would return to the rotation on Thursday, but recently he felt some discomfort after a throwing session. Now, it's not certain when he'll return. The next time he picks up a ball and throws will be telling.
New York Yankees
SportsLine playoff percentage: 19.7 percent
Biggest injury: None
Yep, the Yankees, who have gotten back in the contending fray after selling off at the non-waiver trade deadline, don't have many lamentations on the injury front. Sure, they could pine for Greg Bird, but he's highly unlikely to play at all this season after spring shoulder surgery. Given that rosters are about to expand, the Yankees right now have no concerns on this front.
SportsLine playoff percentage: 42.6 percent
Biggest injury: Gerrit Cole, SP
Fortunately, Cole does not appear to have any structural damage in his injured elbow. However, he's still on the DL with an elbow malady at precisely the wrong time of year. Cole's been strong on a rate basis in 2016, but injuries have limited him to just 20 starts. The rest of the Pittsburgh rotation isn't terribly inspiring ( Jameson Taillon being the sustainable exception), so they need Cole back soon. The earliest he can return is Sept. 9.
St. Louis Cardinals
SportsLine playoff percentage: 39.8 percent
Biggest injury: Aledmys Diaz, SS
The rookie Diaz has been one of baseball's pleasant surprises this season. After Jhonny Peralta got hurt in spring training, the Cardinals appeared to be in a bind at the shortstop position. But then Diaz went out and hit .312/.376/.518 in 96 games. He stabilized that vital position and made the All-Star team for his troubles. However, he's been out since the last day of July, when he fractured his thumb after being struck by an Andrew Cashner pitch. The Cardinals have impressive depth this season, but Diaz's production has been missed.
San Francisco Giants
SportsLine playoff percentage: 80.2 percent
Biggest injury: Matt Cain, SP
Cain has been downright bad this season (5.81 ERA, 5.38 FIP after 17 starts), but the Giants need someone to soak up some innings at the back end of the rotation. Cain doesn't need to do much more than that after the deadline addition of Matt Moore, but an ERA in 4.00s would be preferable to what he's done thus far. He's been on the DL since the middle of the month with a strained lower back. However, with Jake Peavy just recently hitting the DL (and banished to the bullpen before that) and Chris Heston struggling on rehab assignment, Cain may be last best hope for adequacy from the fifth spot.
SportsLine playoff percentage: 4.9 percent
Biggest injury: None
Yep, none. Maybe you could name-check a few relievers of dubious quality presently on the DL, but, again, wear within spitting distance of expanded rosters. In light of that, it's not a big problem. Elsewhere, the M's are in fighting shape. That's a good thing, since SportsLine doesn't much like their chances.
SportsLine playoff percentage: 99.7 percent
Biggest injury: Shin-Soo Choo, OF
The Rangers' current outfield situation is such that they recently inked Astros castoff Carlos Gomez. Nomar Mazara has struggled with his consistency, and Ian Desmond's gradual regression is ongoing. Choo, meantime, owns an OBP-heavy OPS+ of 107. He's been out since Aug. 16 with a fractured forearm, and his return this season is left to question. Choo's said he aims to return by the postseason. His initial timeline would put him on target to return in time for the ALCS, but perhaps he'll beat those estimates. Since the Rangers are all but locks for the playoffs, Choo's situation bears monitoring.
Toronto Blue Jays
SportsLine playoff percentage: 97 percent
Biggest injury: None
No big worries for the Jays. If there's any roster uncertainty at the moment, it's whether Cy Young candidate Aaron Sanchez remains in the rotation for the remainder of the season, however much said remainder entails. For purposes of limiting a big jump in his innings load, the Jays first pondered moving the 24-year-old to the bullpen but then settled on a six-man rotation. If they make the postseason, then they'll be faced with another decision when to balancing those short- and long-term interests. (You go for the championship, future be damned, it says here.)
SportsLine playoff percentage: 99.9 percent
Biggest injury: Stephen Strasburg, SP
The Nats' have good rotation depth, but Strasburg is the most apt No. 2 guy behind Scherzer. Since we're talking about the team that will almost certainly win the NL East, how that playoff rotation shapes up is not a premature discussion. Strasburg's been on the DL since Aug. 18 with elbow soreness, which isn't a positive thing for a Tommy John veteran with some scapular loading in his delivery. Before the injury sapped his effectiveness and sidelined him, Strasburg was having a Cy Young Award-caliber season. The realistic hope is that the Nats get Strasburg (and Joe Ross) back before late September and give him time to get stretched back out before the postseason begins.