MLB Metrics 101: Updated Postseason MVP Rankings on Eve of World Series

The Los Angeles Dodgers punched their World Series ticket Thursday with an 11-1 win over the Chicago Cubs. The New York Yankees can do the same with a win Friday against the Houston Astros, or the 'stros can force a decisive Game 7.

No matter what, we are on the doorstep of the World Series. 

With that in mind, let's check in with another installment of B/R's MLB Metrics 101 series and update the postseason MVP leaderboard.

To be clear, we are looking for MVP candidates from the playoffs as a whole, which means we're zeroing in on the three teams left in the dance as of Thursday: the Dodgers, Astros and Yankees.

Small-sample caveats apply, but that's what October is all about.

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Clayton Kershaw Can Erase Playoff Failures By Pitching Dodgers to World Series

The Los Angeles Dodgers failed to punch their World Series ticket on Wednesday. Up 3-0 in their National League Championship Series matchup with the Chicago Cubs, the Dodgers lost 3-2 at Wrigley Field.

It was Los Angeles' first loss of the 2017 postseason, and the champion Cubbies live to fight another day.

That day is slated for Thursday on the North Side, when Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw will toe the slab. It isn't a must-win for L.A. They technically get three more tries. 

It is, however, a must-dominate for Kershaw if he wants to erase his past playoff failures.

First, to stipulate: The Dodgers left-hander has been the best pitcher in baseball over the past seven seasons. Since 2011, he's led all pitchers with 47.4 WAR, per FanGraphs, while winning three NL Cy Young Awards and an MVP. 

It's a Hall of Fame resume, and the guy's only 29 years old.

In October, meanwhile, Kershaw's record is decidedly bumpier. In 100.1 postseason innings, he owns a 5-7 record and 4.57 ERA. In two mediocre starts in the 2017 playoffs, he has surrendered five home runs in 11.1 frames.

It's tempting to joke that Kershaw and pumpkins have something in common—they both get carved up in October.

Yes, he's had his moments, including a gritty relief effort in the 2016 division series against the Washington Nationals. But the Dodgers have never advanced past the National League Championship Series on his watch.

In fact, they haven't made it past the NLCS since 1988, the year Kershaw was born.

That historic malaise can't be blamed on the Dodgers ace. The last several years can, however. When the lights get bright, Kershaw all too often turns into a ho-hum performer. 

Is it mental? That's tough to diagnose, but listen to the man himself prior to the Cubs' Game 4 victory, via Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times:

"Yeah, it's a tough spot for me just because I have to prepare to start [Game 5]. I can't assume we're going to win and then it just so happens I have to pitch. I have to expect to pitch and then be surprised when we win. 

"It's a tough spot because, obviously, I believe in our team and I believe that we can win tonight. But I can't let myself mentally go there. But we'll see."

Spoken like a guy who...believes in himself?

Back in 2014, Madison Bumgarner famously took the San Francisco Giants on his back and carried them to the confetti-strewn promised land. That example will rile Dodgers fans, but it's apt. 

Kershaw, another top-shelf lefty from the NL West, has been unable to do the same. Here's his chance, served on a platter. Bon appetit.

Last season, the Dodgers' playoff run ended at Wrigley Field. Kershaw coughed up a pair of homers and four earned runs in five innings and took the loss.

Almost a year later, he can avenge that defeat and author a new autumn legacy. 

"I wouldn't say that the pressure is on us," manager Dave Roberts said, per Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. "I think that we're in a pretty good spot. We've got our No. 1 pitcher going tomorrow, and we've got two of the guys at the back end [of the bullpen] rested."

It's telling Roberts referenced setup man Brandon Morrow and closer Kenley Jansen, neither of whom pitched Wednesday. 

They've been rock-solid in the playoffs. Kershaw, as usual, has wobbled. His 4.76 ERA fits better with a No. 5 starter than a man who signed a $215 million contract in 2014.

Roberts surely believes in his ace, but he feels the need to qualify. That says it all.

All of the past disappointments will be erased, however, if he can put together one start for the ages. One start that reaches the breathtaking heights the best pitcher in baseball shows on a nightly basis from April through September.

Put the final nail in the Cubs' coffin Thursday night, and you're no longer the guy who couldn't get it done in the big game. You're the guy who finally ended the drought.

It'll be a big deal for the Dodgers if they punch their World Series ticket Thursday. If Kershaw gets the W, that might be even bigger.

And that really says it all.

         

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Comeback-Kid Yankees Are Scary with Awakening of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez

This wasn't supposed to be the New York Yankees' year. Just don't tell the Yankees.

After dropping the first two games of the American League Championship Series to the 101-win Houston Astros, the Yanks won Game 3 8-1 on Monday.

Then on Tuesday, New York engineered an inspiring comeback in the Bronx to even the series. Even more frighteningly for Houston, burgeoning bashers Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez awoke to enable the 6-4 win.

These pinstripes-clad whippersnappers are two victories away from a trip to the World Series—and it genuinely feels like they could get there.

On Tuesday, the Astros built a 4-0 lead and held that advantage heading into the bottom of the seventh.

That's when Judge launched one of his signature, stratosphere-tickling home runs to center field. Let's take a gander, courtesy of YES Network, because it was an "all rise" turning point:

Later in the inning, Sanchez made it 4-2 with a sacrifice fly. In the eighth, Judge doubled to tie the game, narrowly missing a second home run, and Sanchez capped the comeback with a two-run double of his own.

Let's look at both of those hits, backed by the stylings of Celine Dion if you want to turn up the volume, via Titanic Baseball:

An impeccable, two-strikeout ninth by closer Aroldis Chapman sealed the deal. The Yankees—a wild-card entrant allegedly in the midst of a rebuild—are now 5-0 at home in the 2017 playoffs.

They overcame a 0-2 deficit to defeat the favored Cleveland Indians in their American League Division Series. Now, they're trying to do the same to the Astros.

The dynamic duo of Judge and Sanchez could be the key.

Neither has consistently raked in the postseason. Entering Tuesday, Judge was 5-for-34 with 21 strikeouts. Sanchez was 6-for-38 with 15 strikeouts.

Both crushed it during the regular season, however. Judge locked down American League Rookie of the Year honors and put himself in the MVP conversation with a 1.049 OPS and 52 home runs. Sanchez followed his 2016 rookie breakout with an .876 OPS and 33 home runs.

Judge stands next to the Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton as the game's co-most fearsome slugger. Sanchez might have passed the San Francisco Giants' Buster Posey for the title of best offensive catcher in baseball. They're good, to state the painfully obvious.

And yet, the October lights can blind even the best youngsters. No one would have been shocked to see Judge and Sanchez stumble in their first autumn foray. Chalk it up to a learning experience.

On the other hand, I harken back to a conversation I had with Sanchez in November 2016. The Baby Bombers were fresh off a winning season that stopped short of a postseason berth. I asked Sanchez if he felt pressure to carry the franchise after his eye-opening debut.

He deferred, giving credit to the other 24 guys on the roster. He sounded unfailingly confident, even through an interpreter.

Then he said something prescient: "I can tell you that we are going to work hard to bring a championship to New York."

Maybe at the time he meant the diaper-clad Yankees would bring a championship in 2018 or 2019. Now, the 2017 Commissioner's Trophy is within reach.

Two more wins against the potent Astros won't be easy. If they manage that, they'll need to deal with either the big-spending Los Angeles Dodgers or defending champion Chicago Cubs.

Leave those worries for another day. The Yanks are riding high and making history, per ESPN Stats & Info:

"We've been in that situation a lot this year," Judge said after Game 4, per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch and Brian McTaggart. "We get down, but we keep fighting, keep putting out quality at-bats. We're never out of a game with the kind of offense we have.

"I have a lot of faith in this team."

This wasn't supposed to be their year. Just don't tell them that.

   

All statistics current as of Tuesday and courtesy of MLB.com.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Dallas Keuchel Continues to Be Yankees’ Worst Nightmare in Game 1 Masterpiece

Dallas Keuchel has been many things in his Houston Astros career: Gold Glove recipient, All-Star Game starter, undisputed ace, Cy Young Award winner.

Now, add another accolade to the left-hander's sterling resume: New York Yankees slayer.

In Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday, Keuchel twirled seven shutout innings, allowing four hits and one walk and striking out 10.

The Yanks plated a run in the ninth when first baseman Greg Bird took Houston closer Ken Giles deep, but Giles locked down the save, and the 'Stros prevailed, 2-1, at Minute Maid Park.

Astros second baseman and presumptive AL MVP Jose Altuve went 3-for-4 with a stolen base and a run scored. Shortstop Carlos Correa and first baseman Yuli Gurriel picked up key RBI. Left fielder Marwin Gonzalez conjured an indispensable outfield assist.

But the night's unqualified hero was Keuchel.

Coming into the game, Keuchel owned a 1.41 ERA in six career regular-season starts against the Yankees with 45 strikeouts in 44.2 innings. Current Yankees batters were hitting .181 against him with a .287 slugging percentage.

In the 2015 Wild Card Game, the hirsute Houston hurler went six scoreless with seven strikeouts against New York as the Astros prevailed, 3-0.

Cry small sample size. Call it blind luck. For whatever reason, Keuchel had owned the Yankees with a capital "O."

Want a sprinkling of salt, Bronx faithful? Here you go, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info:

Or how about this, via Sportsnet Stats:

Sorry, now we're just going to slather lemon juice directly into the wound:

"It's not just because it's the Yankees," Keuchel said prior to Friday's ALCS Game 1, per Dan Martin of the New York Post. "I think it's just been a culmination of command, location, maybe a little bit more confidence. And just because it's the Yankees you kind of get a little bit more amped and a little more jittery because it is the pinstripes and such a storied organization."

Keuchel is acknowledging he's motivated by the Yankees even as he's denying it. More importantly, he's proving he's the co-ace Houston needs.

The Astros acquired righty Justin Verlander at the waiver deadline from the Detroit Tigers. They can trot out Verlander, the playoff veteran and former AL Cy Young Award and MVP winner, in the October crucible.

They still need Keuchel to play Robin to Verlander's Batman. And perhaps vice versa. 

Verlander posted a 1.06 ERA in five starts with the Astros but owned a 3.36 ERA overall. Compare that to Keuchel's 2.90 overall ERA, and you see why the sinkerballing southpaw is ostensibly Houston's horse.

Keuchel missed almost two months this season with a neck injury. He sported a 4.55 ERA in 2016 after dominating in 2015. There were reasons to wonder if he was a big-game pitcher or a big-time liability.

Those doubts were laid to rest Friday.

"He's just special," Correa said after Friday's win, per MLB.com's Brian McTaggart and Bryan Hoch. "He's special to watch. I love playing behind him."

It's only one game, and the Yankees could come storming back. Just ask the defending Junior Circuit champion Cleveland Indians, who learned the hard way what it means to underestimate these irrepressible pinstripe whippersnappers. 

This series is merely getting started, and we should all be pleased about that. Buy the ticket and enjoy the ride.

If the Astros were looking to throw down the gauntlet, however, throw it they did. They are on track to break one of MLB's quietest championship droughts.

And the gauntlet was thrown, fittingly and promisingly, by the left arm of Dallas Keuchel.

He could throw again in Game 5 on normal rest, and be available in a potential Game 7 in this new era of the postseason starter-reliever. 

He's been many things in his Houston career. Now, he has a chance to be a certified Yankee killer—and possibly a world champion.

   

All statistics current as of Friday and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Corey Kluber Is Right Man to Face Haunting of Indians’ ’16 World Series Collapse

When the Cleveland Indians jog out of the dugout Wednesday at Progressive Field for Game 5 of their American League Division Series, they won't simply be facing the New York Yankees. They'll be staring down history—both recent and far-reaching.

First, there's last season's October collapse, when the Indians blew a 3-1 World Series lead against the Chicago Cubs and lost the Fall Classic in seven gut-wrenching games.

Then there's the fact that, dating back to Game 7 of the 1997 World Series against the then-Florida Marlins, the Indians are 4-17 in potential postseason clinchers.

On top of the mounting angst pile, shovel baseball's longest active championship drought. The last time Cleveland won it all was 1948. If you're doing the math at home, that was a long time ago.

After winning the first two games of the ALDS against the Yankees, the Tribe dropped Game 3 on Sunday and Game 4 on Monday in the Bronx.

A stirring comeback in Game 2—aided by some head-scratching missteps by Yankees manager Joe Girardi—put them in the driver's seat. Now, the Indians are trying not to careen off the road.

OK, some good news for the northeastern Ohio faithful: Corey Kluber, the pitcher who will take the ball for Cleveland in Game 5, is the right man for the job.

The presumptive American League Cy Young Award winner, Kluber went 18-4 with an MLB-leading 2.25 ERA and 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings in the regular season.

More than that, there's Kluber's even-keel, cyborg-esque demeanor. They call him the Klubot for a reason.

"I'm sure he's cracked a smile, but he comes in that dugout and you can't tell if he's given up five or none," Indians manager Terry Francona said in late September, per Zack Meisel of Cleveland.com. "Fortunately it's more [often] that it's none, but he just ... there's times where you can't tell by his body language that maybe he got squeezed a little bit or something happened behind him. He won't let you know, which I think is a big advantage."

It's an especially large advantage in a do-or-die contest—when every pitch, every hit, every call is magnified. Showing emotion isn't necessarily a bad thing, but being able to tune out the din and rise above the pressure is paramount.

In the 2016 postseason, Kluber was mostly brilliant, striking out 35 in 34.1 innings and posting a 1.83 ERA. Cleveland wouldn't have gotten to the brink of a champagne celebration without him.

That said, Kluber took the hill in Game 7—his third start of the Series—and coughed up six hits, two home runs and four earned runs in four innings.

He also wobbled in Game 2 of this year's ALDS against the Yankees, surrendering six earned runs in 2.2 innings before Girardi and the Indians' bats bailed him out.

That's two straight poor playoff starts for Cleveland's best pitcher. Toss another shovelful on the angst pile.

On the other hand, there's no reason to believe Kluber is suddenly broken. He's almost surely going to win his second Cy Young Award. He posted a 0.84 ERA with 50 strikeouts and three walks in September. In his career, he's held current Yankees hitters to a meager .155/.204/.250 slash line.

On Wednesday, he'll pitch in front of a raucous home crowd desperate to see the Indians advance. His counterpart, veteran lefty CC Sabathia, showed life in Game 2 but is a shell of his former self.

Yeah, the young Yankees have momentum. The scales tip toward Kluber and the Indians, however.

"I can't imagine giving the ball to somebody better," Francona said, per Cleveland.com's Paul Hoynes. "We tried to set up a five-game series with plans, contingency plans ... a lot of things have happened. So we go to Game 5, we're at home, and we have Kluber."

That brings us back to history—last year's pain, the decades-spanning struggles in must-win scenarios. It's there, staring Cleveland in the face, weighing down the team and the whole dang city.

This is the moment for the Klubot to stoically shoulder the load.

It says here he can.

   

All statistics current as of Tuesday and courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Joe Girardi, Lauded Bullpen Bury Yankees’ Postseason Dreams in Game 2 Collapse

The New York Yankees entered Game 2 of the American League Division Series with a seemingly impossible task: Vanquish Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber.

The Yanks improbably succeeded, tagging Kluber for six earned runs in 2.2 innings. By comparison, the Klubot allowed four earned runs in the entire month of September.

Down 1-0 in the series and facing the presumed American League Cy Young Award winner, it was an inspiring showing by New York.

Then, "thanks" to the bullpen and the head-scratching machinations of manager Joe Girardi, it went to manureand all but buried the Yankees' postseason hopes.

The second-guessing begins with Girardi's decision to pull starter CC Sabathia after 5.1 innings of admirable if imperfect work. The veteran lefty wobbled early but appeared to be in control after throwing just 77 pitches. Once he departed, the wheels came off.

Girardi summoned right-hander Chad Green, who threw two innings in the American League Wild Card Game on Tuesday and got up three times in the bullpen Friday before taking the hill. 

After retiring left fielder Austin Jackson on a fly ball, Green yielded a double to catcher Yan Gomes that put runners on second and third. 

Then, an 0-2 pitch to pinch-hitter Lonnie Chisenhall was ruled a hit-by-pitch. It appeared to hit the knob of Chisenhall's bat, per PitcherList.com's Twitter feed:

Girardi, for some reason, opted not to challenge the call, despite catcher Gary Sanchez's obvious protestations.

The next batter, Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, blasted a grand slam that made an 8-3 game 8-7. All the Yankees' hard work against Kluber was virtually erased. 

"There was nothing that told us that he was not hit on the pitch," Girardi told reporters after the game of his decision not to challenge the call. "By the time we got the super slo-mo, we were a minuteprobably beyond a minuteit was way too late. They tell us we have 30 seconds. ... Being a [former] catcher, my thought is I never want to break a pitcher's rhythm. That's how I think about it."

"Think," here, is a generous term. Had Girardi challenged the call, chances are it would have been overturned and ruled a foul-tip strike three, inning over. 

Instead, the momentum shifted to the Indians, who tied the game 8-8 in the eighth on a Jay Bruce home run and won it in the 13th on a walk-off Gomes double down the third base line.

The defending AL champions celebrated an inspiring comeback. The Yankees slumped into the dugout after a dispiriting defeat. 

Some of the blame goes to New York's vaunted bullpen, which surrendered six hits and five earned runs. In addition to Green, David Robertson, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman all looked mortal.

The stinkiest goat, however, is Girardi, who yanked his starter too soon, overworked and misused his relievers and failed to contest the game's linchpin play.

It was, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post put it, "A Stump Merrill inning. A Bucky Dent inning." If those references don't resonate, go ahead and Google 'em.

To make matters worse, Girardi got in front of a live microphone and offered an incoherent, bumbling "defense" of his puzzling inaction. Making a mistake is one thing. Failing to own it is salt in the wound.

Now, instead of vanquishing Cleveland's ace and heading back to the Bronx with the series knotted 1-1, the Yankees are on the brink of elimination.

Say what you will about this being a young team that should be happy to gain October experience. This is a missed opportunity, period. Girardi blew it, period.

And, barring a miracle of Ruthian proportions, New York is finished. Period.

          

All statistics and series information current as of Friday and courtesy of MLB.com.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Joe Girardi, Lauded Bullpen Bury Yankees’ Postseason Dreams in Game 2 Collapse

The New York Yankees entered Game 2 of the American League Division Series with a seemingly impossible task: Vanquish Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber.

The Yanks improbably succeeded, tagging Kluber for six earned runs in 2.2 innings. By comparison, the Klubot allowed four earned runs in the entire month of September.

Down 1-0 in the series and facing the presumed American League Cy Young Award winner, it was an inspiring showing by New York.

Then, "thanks" to the bullpen and the head-scratching machinations of manager Joe Girardi, it went to manureand all but buried the Yankees' postseason hopes.

The second-guessing begins with Girardi's decision to pull starter CC Sabathia after 5.1 innings of admirable if imperfect work. The veteran lefty wobbled early but appeared to be in control after throwing just 77 pitches. Once he departed, the wheels came off.

Girardi summoned right-hander Chad Green, who threw two innings in the American League Wild Card Game on Tuesday and got up three times in the bullpen Friday before taking the hill. 

After retiring left fielder Austin Jackson on a fly ball, Green yielded a double to catcher Yan Gomes that put runners on second and third. 

Then, an 0-2 pitch to pinch-hitter Lonnie Chisenhall was ruled a hit-by-pitch. It appeared to hit the knob of Chisenhall's bat, per PitcherList.com's Twitter feed:

Girardi, for some reason, opted not to challenge the call, despite catcher Gary Sanchez's obvious protestations.

The next batter, Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, blasted a grand slam that made an 8-3 game 8-7. All the Yankees' hard work against Kluber was virtually erased. 

"There was nothing that told us that he was not hit on the pitch," Girardi told reporters after the game of his decision not to challenge the call. "By the time we got the super slo-mo, we were a minuteprobably beyond a minuteit was way too late. They tell us we have 30 seconds. ... Being a [former] catcher, my thought is I never want to break a pitcher's rhythm. That's how I think about it."

"Think," here, is a generous term. Had Girardi challenged the call, chances are it would have been overturned and ruled a foul-tip strike three, inning over. 

Instead, the momentum shifted to the Indians, who tied the game 8-8 in the eighth on a Jay Bruce home run and won it in the 13th on a walk-off Gomes double down the third base line.

The defending AL champions celebrated an inspiring comeback. The Yankees slumped into the dugout after a dispiriting defeat. 

Some of the blame goes to New York's vaunted bullpen, which surrendered six hits and five earned runs. In addition to Green, David Robertson, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman all looked mortal.

The stinkiest goat, however, is Girardi, who yanked his starter too soon, overworked and misused his relievers and failed to contest the game's linchpin play.

It was, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post put it, "A Stump Merrill inning. A Bucky Dent inning." If those references don't resonate, go ahead and Google 'em.

To make matters worse, Girardi got in front of a live microphone and offered an incoherent, bumbling "defense" of his puzzling inaction. Making a mistake is one thing. Failing to own it is salt in the wound.

Now, instead of vanquishing Cleveland's ace and heading back to the Bronx with the series knotted 1-1, the Yankees are on the brink of elimination.

Say what you will about this being a young team that should be happy to gain October experience. This is a missed opportunity, period. Girardi blew it, period.

And, barring a miracle of Ruthian proportions, New York is finished. Period.

          

All statistics and series information current as of Friday and courtesy of MLB.com.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

MLB Metrics 101: Ranking the Greatest Postseason Performances of All Time

Before the confetti has settled on the 2017 MLB postseason and the last champagne is popped, there will be heroes. Players will rise to the challenge, put up big numbers and etch their names forever in the annals of October.

Some will be superstars; others may be little-regarded role players. That's the beauty of the playoffs. Anything can happen.

With that in mind, let's check in with another segment in B/R's MLB Metrics 101 series and take a look back at the 10 greatest postseason performances of all time.

A few notes:

  • We're looking at numbers amassed in a single postseason, not individual games or career achievements. Of course, if a guy had a spectacular overall postseason that also featured some iconic single-game moments, all the better. But, for example, despite his perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Don Larsen didn't make the cut because he threw just 10.2 innings overall with seven strikeouts, four walks and four unearned runs allowed.
  • Stats are our starting point, but a high degree of subjectivity seeps in given the small sample sizes and difficulty in comparing between positions (pitchers versus hitters) and especially eras. What would Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig circa 1928 have done in the expanded postseason format? We can only speculate.
  • That said, we're using Baseball-Reference's baseline as our minimum standard for consideration: at least 20 plate appearances or nine walks and hits for position players and at least 15 innings pitched or three decisions for pitchers. And, fair or not, guys who played more games and thus compiled more counting stats have an edge. 

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Postseason Showing Even Top Aces Won’t Stop MLB’s ‘Year of the Home Run’

The home run is back. That was true after Game 162, and it's no less true after the American League and National League Wild Card Games.

There were 6,104 home runs hit in the 2017 regular season, which broke the record of 5,693 set in 2000 at the apex of the steroid era.

Say it's a new all-or-nothing approach by hitters unafraid to strike out. Say it's a juiced ball. No matter what, it's an undeniable phenomenon. 

The question was, would the fence-clearing trend continue into October against the game's top aces? So far, the answer is a resounding "yes."

The American League Wild Card Game, which saw the New York Yankees defeat the Minnesota Twins 8-4 on Tuesday, featured five home runs.

The upstart Twins hit a pair, both of which came in the first inning, courtesy of second baseman Brian Dozier and outfielder Eddie Rosario. Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius responded by nailing a three-run blast at the bottom of the frame. New York left fielder Brett Gardner added another homer in the second. 

The star of the night, though, was Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge, who clubbed 15 home runs in September and set a rookie record with 52 overall. On Tuesday, Judge launched a two-run tater and hit a laser-beam foul ball that still may not have landed. 

On Wednesday, the NL Wild Card Game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies kept the dinger-centric trend going.

In an 11-8 D-backs win, the Snakes got home runs from first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and second baseman Daniel Descalso, and the Rockies got bombs from third baseman Nolan Arenado and shortstop Trevor Story.

If you're keeping score at home, that's nine homers in two postseason games. And we haven't even sniffed the division series.

Granted, those games were played at Yankee Stadium and Chase Field, the second- and fourth-most homer-happy yards in baseball, according to ESPN's Park Factors statistic

The six teams remaining in the playoffs, however, are all among the top 12 scoring offenses in baseball. The Houston Astros and Yankees rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, followed by the Chicago Cubs (No. 4), Washington Nationals (No. 5), Cleveland Indians (No. 6), Diamondbacks (No. 8), Boston Red Sox (No. 10) and Los Angeles Dodgers (No. 12).

Additionally, the postseason will showcase four of MLB's top 10 home run hitters in Judge (52), the D-backs' J.D. Martinez (45), the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger (39) and the Indians' Edwin Encarnacion (38).

It's not as if the Wild Card Games featured scrub pitchers, either. The Yankees, Twins, Diamondbacks and Rockies all threw out their best starters in the one-and-done wild-card showdown. The Yanks' Luis Severino recorded just one out. The Twins' Ervin Santana managed only two innings.

Diamondbacks righty Zack Greinke lasted 3.2 frames, while Jon Gray went only 1.1. That's three of the game's top 11 ERA leaders in Severino, Greinke and Santana and an emerging stud in Gray.

Yeah, we've yet to witness the exploits of the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, the Indians' Corey Kluber, the Red Sox's Chris Sale or the Nationals' Max Scherzer. There are arms capable of mowing through even the most potent lineups.

If the trajectory holds, however, bullpens and big bats will define these playoffs.

Heck, when Dozier homered on Tuesday, he became the first player ever to open a postseason with a home run, per CBS Sports' Matt Snyder

Even if you don't believe in omens, that's an omen.

"The consensus among all the hitters I've spoken to, and hitting people I've spoken to, is ground balls are bad, fly balls are good, line drives are good," Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto told Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs back in May.

That's still true in October. And while Votto and the Reds aren't part of the dance, plenty of other mashers are.

The home run is back. And, as the playoffs propel forward like a baseball into the night, it's undeniably here to stay.

   

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of MLB.com.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Final 2017 MLB Awards Race Odds for MVP, Cy Young, ROY and More

Game 162 is in the rearview, and the MLB postseason is upon us.

As we plunge into baseball's annual October tournament—which kicks off Tuesday—let's check in with a final round of odds for the major regular-season awards in each league: Comeback Player of the Year, Manager of the Year, Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young and MVP Awards.

In some cases, such as National League and American League Rookie of the Year, the calls were easy. In others, such as National League and American League MVP, the voting should be close and possibly controversial.

Odds were generated by Bleacher Report; other oddsmakers may differ. And remember, this is who we think will win, not necessarily who we think should win.

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Champion Cubs Are Lurking as Dangerous $200M Postseason Underdogs

On Wednesday, the Chicago Cubs clinched a second consecutive National League Central crown. A year ago, they rained confetti on the North Side.

The defending champions are headed back to October. Screw the curse and the billy goat it rode in on.

At the same time, there are caveats. The Cubs will enter the postseason with the third-best record in the Senior Circuit, behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals.

They sport the fourth-best run differential (plus-119) in the NL, behind L.A. (plus-193), Washington (plus-148) and the wild-card Arizona Diamondbacks (plus-143).

OddsShark shows bookmakers put them behind the Dodgers, Cleveland Indians, Houston Astros and Nationals to win it all.

They aren't the favorites by any measure, despite a roster laden with emerging talent and a payroll that rounds up to $200 million, per Spotrac.

If anything, these Cubbies are underdogs.

It's a familiar position. The franchise defined lovable losing for more than a century. Now, to hear skipper Joe Maddon tell it, they are re-embracing the role.

"No issues with that," Maddon said of the Cubs' underdog status, per Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune. "It's very understandable. So it's kind of fun to go on the other side of the street. I'm good with that."

There's some false modesty at play. After wobbling in the first half, the Cubs have led the majors in runs scored and OPS since the All-Star break.

Third baseman Kris Bryant (29 home runs, .949 OPS) is putting together a quiet defense of his 2016 NL MVP Award. First baseman Anthony Rizzo has clubbed 32 homers with 109 RBI, while whippersnappers such as catcher Willson Contreras (21 home runs, .852 OPS) and infielder/outfielder Ian Happ (23 home runs, .839 OPS) have leaped forward in a big way.

Chicago's bats are young and dangerous—just as they were last year.

On the pitching side, right-hander Jake Arrieta owns a 6.10 ERA in three September starts and lefty Jon Lester has a 4.79 ERA since the All-Star break.

Then again, Kyle Hendrickswho finished third in Cy Young Award balloting in 2016has been rounding into form after returning from a nagging hand injury.

"He's throwing the ball as well as I've ever seen him pitch," Maddon said, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. "I have not seen this combination of velocity and location."

Add trade-deadline pickup Jose Quintana, who has won five of his last six decisions, and the Cubs have enough in the rotation to make it work.

As for Chicago's bullpen, it ranks fifth in the NL in ERA and can lean on closer Wade Davis, who coughed up a pair of home runs Sept. 23 against the Milwaukee Brewers but is 32 for 33 in save opportunities with a 2.34 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 57.2 innings.

The Cubs will get a test in the division series against the Nats, who lead the NL in OPS and have a rotation fronted by Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. 

If they survive that test, they will probably clash with the Dodgers, who have hiccuped down the stretch but boast a stacked roster and the best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw. 

For what it's worth, the Cubs are 2-4 against Los Angeles this season and 3-4 against Washington.

That's just the National League. If Chicago qualifies for the Fall Classic, the loaded Astros or streaking Tribe (rematch!) could be waiting. 

Since 1979, only two teams have repeated as champions: the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993 and the New York Yankees, who threepeated from 1998 to 2000.

It's tough to do, in other words—no matter how good you are. The repeat road is dark and full of failure.

The Cubs, though, have the tools to do it. Shortcomings aside, they are a year older and wiser. They are cresting at the right time. Maddon says it's fun.

Mostly, they are dangerous underdogs—caveats be damned.

         

All statistics current as of Thursday and courtesy of Baseball Reference

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Return of Aaron Judge Home Run Barrage Makes Yankees a Postseason Nightmare

The New York Yankees haven't won a postseason game since 2012. In the Bronx, that counts as a drought.

On Saturday, the Yankees clinched an American League wild-card berth with a 5-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. They're a near lock to wrap up the top wild-card spot and host the play-in game, though they have virtually zero chance of catching the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox, whom they trail by five games entering play Monday.

Here's the thing: However the Yankees get in, they're more than a token October entrant. Thanks to the return of rookie Aaron Judge's thump—among other factors—they're a nightmare matchup for any opponent.

We'll start with Judge, whose recent struggles were well-documented. After looking like Babe Ruth reanimated as a 6'7", baseball-destroying demigod prior to the All-Star break, Judge crumbled into a heap of strikeouts and the dingers dried up.

Judge hit 30 homers in the first half. At the end of August, his total sat at 37. Was he hurt? Did the Home Run Derby short-circuit his swing? Had the league figured him out?

There may have been truth to each theory, but Judge has silenced the doubters by clubbing 11 homers in September.

Two of them came Sunday in a 9-5 loss to the Jays, putting him one shy of Mark McGwire's all-time rookie record.

Overall, Judge has 48 homers to go along with 105 RBI and a 1.026 OPS. The AL Rookie of the Year trophy is his, and he will garner MVP votes.

It's not just Judge, either. New York has a deep, balanced lineup populated by other rising stars such as catcher Gary Sanchez (32 homers, .880 OPS), whose stout sophomore season has been overshadowed by Judge's rise.

Meanwhile, veterans including left fielder Brett Gardner (20 homers, 23 stolen bases), shortstop Didi Gregorius (25 homers, 85 RBI) and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (.391 average and 1.063 OPS in September) have contributed to the cause.

"They're very young, talented," Blue Jays skipper John Gibbons said after the Yankees' clincher in Toronto, per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch. "They've got a lot of pop in their lineup. They've got some good pieces to go along with it, some speed with [Jacoby] Ellsbury and [Brett] Gardner. They've got a good ballclub. They've got good starting pitching, and like I said, arguably one of the best bullpens, if not the best. When they get to the playoffs, they can be awfully tough."

That's a nice segue into New York's other notable strengths. 

The Yankees would likely hand the ball to Luis Severino (3.03 ERA, 221 strikeouts, 187.1 innings pitched) in the do-or-die AL Wild Card Game.

If so, they'd have trade-deadline acquisition Sonny Gray (3.31 ERA, 151 SO, 157.2 IP) chambered to pitch a possible division series Game 1. Things get a tad dicier after that, with creaky-but competent veteran CC Sabathia, fallen ace Masahiro Tanaka and rookie left-hander Jordan Montgomery among the options.

Then again, countless teams have stormed through the playoffs on the strength of two excellent starters. Severino and Gray fit the bill, at least in theory. It's worth noting that Gray has thrown in the postseason only once, in 2013, and the 23-year-old Severino has never pitched past Game 162.

As for the bullpen Gibbons name-dropped, it can sure enough be great, shortening games to six- or seven-inning affairs. 

After posting a 9.00 ERA in August, closer Aroldis Chapman has twirled nine scoreless innings with 13 strikeouts in September while converting four of four save opportunities. Behind him, Dellin Betances has battled bouts of inconsistency but also fanned 99 in 57.2 innings.

Old friend and deadline acquisition David Robertson might be the most reliable arm in the 'pen. The former closer and current overqualified setup man owns a 1.16 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 31 innings since re-donning the pinstripes.

The Yankees aren't a perfect team. The back of the rotation is a gestating weakness, especially if Severino and/or Gray falters. Leaning on untested youngsters like Judge and Sanchez to carry the offense under the game's brightest glare is a risk.

For what it's worth, among the AL's clinched or likely division winners, the Yanks have a winning record against the Red Sox (11-8) and losing records against the Cleveland Indians (2-5) and Houston Astros (2-5).

They're coalescing at the right time, however. The ingredients are in place for a deep, "drought"-busting run.

As Sabathia slyly put it, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post, "That rebuild went quicker than anyone thought."

Indeed.

           

All statistics current as of Sunday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Chicago Cubs: 5 Players Stepping Up Big in Clutch Playoff-Race Pressure

At 85-67 entering play Friday, the Chicago Cubs hold a 4.5-game lead over the upstart Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. Considering they have 10 games left to play, it's a safe bet they will win the division.

Still, the MLB champions are fighting for momentum. They have won eight of their last 10 and elevated their run differential to a solid plus-102, but they will almost surely be the weakest division winner in the Senior Circuit by record, behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals.

As such, the Cubbies need players to come up clutch in the playoff-race crucible. They busted the ancient curse of the billy goat last year, but winning a second consecutive Commissioner's Trophy is nearly as daunting. 

Here are five Cubs players who are doing their part to get Chicago back on the October stage and rain more confetti on the North Side.

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Cy Young Favorite Corey Kluber Has Taken over Best Pitcher in Baseball Throne

Attention all big league hitters and potential postseason foes: The Klubot is fully activated.         

After posting a 4.19 ERA in April and making only one start in May because of a balky back, Corey Kluber has re-morphed into the ace of the Cleveland Indians staff. More than that, as the Tribe streaks toward the playoffs, he's assumed the mantle of best pitcher in baseball.

That's a bold statement in a world where Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale exist. Kluber, however, leads all pitchers with 1.9 WAR over the past 30 days, according to FanGraphs' calculation.

On the season, his 6.9 WAR is second only to Sale's 7.6, which is especially impressive considering he missed nearly a full calendar month.

Sale is squarely in the American League Cy Young Award mix after reaching the 300-strikeout plateau in a 9-0 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday. For a time, the Boston Red Sox southpaw seemed destined to waltz away with the hardware.

Kluber, though, has come on strong and is now the nominal favorite to set a second Cy Young alongside his 2014 prize. Sale's body of work is noteworthy, but Kluber is finishing the 162-game marathon at a speed-of-sound sprint.

He's third in baseball in strikeouts (252) and second in opponents' batting average (.188). He's won 14 of his last 16 decisions and sports an 0.87 ERA with 37 strikeouts and one walk in September.

Keep mining the stat sheet and the absurd numbers keep popping up, but you get the idea. There are studs and then there are Studs. Kluber is in the capital "S" club.

OK, fine, here are a few more retina-melting figures, courtesy of FanRag Sports' Evan Davis:

"Kluber has struck out 37 percent of the batters he has faced since June 1, while walking less than 4 percent. He has only allowed 0.76 home runs per nine innings. His xwOBA in April and May was at a poor .342; it’s been .219 since he got back to the big leagues.

In fact, Kluber’s strikeout rate and xwOBA allowed have led all of major league starters from June 1 onward. He’s been the best strikeout pitcher, the second-best walks pitcher and has been the best contact pitcher in that time frame."

You don't need to know what xwOBA is to understand that's impressive—though, if you're curious, it's an advanced metric that uses Statcast data to determine expected on-base average with defense removed from the equation. 

Writing for TheAthletic.com, Ken Rosenthal suggested Kluber should get MVP consideration.

"He's doing it effortlessly," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said, per Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. "We talk about it on the bench. You used to watch Michael Jordan play when he was the best, and you looked up and you were like: 'He’s got 40 points? I didn’t even realize that.' The other night, Kluber's got 12 strikeouts and it didn’t even seem like that, just because he's so comfortable out there."

As Kepner noted, Kluber and Jordan don't share much in the personality department. Jordan was an outspoken competitor and might still be the most famous basketball player on the planet 15 years after his retirement. 

Kluber is stoic and even-keel—hence the Klubot nickname. Even after ripping through the postseason last year and posting a 1.83 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 34.1 innings, he's barely a household name among casual fans. 

Speaking of his 2016 postseason: If his recent performance is any indication, Kluber could be poised to top it this October.

Inevitably, any pitcher looking to sling a team over his back and carry them to a Commissioner's Trophy will get compared to Madison Bumgarner. In 2014, you'll recall, the San Francisco Giants left-hander came as close as any player can to singlehandedly winning a championship.

The Indians don't need Kluber to do that, per se. They've got the sixth-highest scoring offense in baseball, another top-tier starting pitcher in Carlos Carrasco and a bullpen fronted by the two-headed monster of closer Cody Allen and lefty Andrew Miller.

Still, for a franchise toting MLB's longest active title drought, an extra-strength Kluber would be a massive boon.

He's already arguably baseball's best pitcher. Now, imagine he vanquishes Sale and the Red Sox in either the division series or American League Championship Series. Then let's say he hurls his way past Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers or Scherzer and the Washington Nationals in the World Series.

The debate wouldn't be over, but his case would be even stronger than it is now.

The Klubot is fully activated—and it's time to see how far he can go.

   

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Ranking Each MLB Wild-Card Contender’s Chances in a 1-Game Do-or-Die Playoff

Say what you will about MLB's wild-card play-in game. Just don't say it's not exciting.

Sure, there's an inherent contradiction in boiling a 162-game season down to a one-and-done death match. Maybe it's capricious; perhaps it's unfair.

But, boy, does it offer must-watch drama.

As we barrel toward mid-September, let's rank the realistic wild-card contenders in both leagues based on their chances of surviving the do-or-die showdown, should they be fortunate enough to get there.

To be clear: This isn't a ranking of who was the best team from April to autumn, but rather who boasts the stud ace, bullpen depth, health, experience and offensive firepower to win a single contest when it matters most.

One other note: For our purposes, we're defining wild-card contenders as non-first-place squads that have at least a 10 percent chance of making the postseason, according to FanGraphs' calculation, which leaves us with seven hopefuls.

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Trading Phenom Slugger Eloy Jimenez Will Come Back to Haunt Chicago Cubs

Recently, Eloy Jimenez visited the Chicago White Sox's dugout and spoke with reporters.

"I truly believe that I can be playing here right now," the 20-year-old said, per Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune.

The numbers back that up: Jimenez hit .312 with a .947 OPS and 19 home runs in 89 games between High-A and Double-A this season. The kid seems ready for The Show.

He's also a talent the Windy City's other franchise will regret giving away.

OK, "giving away" is unfair. The Cubs sent Jimenez—along with hard-throwing right-hander Dylan Cease and two other prospectsto the South Side in the swap that netted left-hander Jose Quintana. You've got to give something to get something.

Quintana is indeed something. The 28-year-old has eclipsed 200 innings in each of the last four seasons and is locked into an affordable contract that runs through 2020 with a pair of club options. He's posted a mediocre 4.03 ERA with the Cubs, but that doesn't make him a bad acquisition. Still, letting Jimenez go may haunt the defending champions. 

Granted, the Cubs roster is littered with homegrown talent. Their outfield situation, however, is murky. 

Left fielder Kyle Schwarber, whom the Cubs refused to trade at the 2016 deadline, according to 670 The Score's Julie DiCaro (h/t NJ.com), is hitting a scant .207. Jason Heyward is an elite defensive player in right field but owns a ho-hum .700 OPS. Albert Almora Jr. is a fine ancillary piece, but far from a star.

Of the team's top 10 prospects, via MLB.com, only one plays the outfield, and that's 24-year-old Mark Zagunis, who has intriguing on-base capabilities but is no one's idea of a franchise building block.

Imagine if the Cubs had Jimenez waiting in the wings, ready to join a lineup fronted by the likes of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Ian Happ etc.

Jimenez made waves in March when he lit up the Cactus League and yours truly highlighted him as a phenom on the rise. 

"Sky's the limit," Cubs vice-president of player development Jason McLeod said at the time, per Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. "I think he's someone who can sit in the middle of a lineup and wreak a lot of havoc on some pitching across the major leagues."

A shoulder injury put a speed-bump in Jimenez's path, but after raking across two minor league levels, he's on the express lane to MLB success.

"I think his skill set is evident," White Sox manager Rick Renteria said, per Vinnie Duber of CSN Chicago. "I think, obviously, every level brings its own challenges, even coming to the big leagues will bring its own challenges. But I think if he continues to maintain the consistency in which he's going about doing what he's doing, there's no reason why he's not going to continue to want to push that door open as soon as possible."

If and when he does, he'll be pushing it open as a member of the Sox, not the Cubs.

That doesn't doom the Cubbies. Again, they've got burgeoning talent on the 25-man roster and, despite an uneven season and persistent challenges from the pesky St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, they're poised for another October run.

Quintana may prove to be a valuable asset, especially if ace Jake Arrieta bolts this winter via free agency. It's unfair to call this trade a bust just yet.

The fact remains, however, that the Cubs and executive Theo Epstein cashed in a blue-chip prospect who plays the outfield, which looks like an area of need for the club now and going forward. 

There's a plausible scenario where Jimenez is a star in a couple of years, and the Cubs are kicking themselves for coughing him up.

"This kid's a major league hitter," White Sox amateur scouting director Nick Hostetler told Matt Spiegel and Danny Parkins on 670 The Score (via CBS Chicago). "You can see it in his approach, the way he takes at-bats, he takes pitches, his strength. Offensively, there's not anything he can't do."

Well, there is one thingand that's contribute to the Cubs.

             

All statistics current as of Tuesday and courtesy of Baseball-Reference

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

The 1 Thing That Could Doom Each MLB Contender in the 2017 Postseason

As September barrels along, the field of MLB playoff hopefuls is dwindling.

On Sunday, the Washington Nationals became the first club to lock down a playoff spot by clinching the National League East. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians will soon follow suit.

The wild-card chases in each league are more open-ended, as are the battles in the NL Central and American League East, where the defending champion Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox are fending off persistent challenges.

As we sift through the picture, let's identify one thing that could keep each contender from either reaching the postseason or succeeding once it gets there.

For our purposes, "contender" is defined as any team with a 12.5 percent or better chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs' calculation.

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How Bryce Harper Never Coming Back in 2017 Would Shake Up Postseason

First, some good news for Washington Nationals fans: Bryce Harper has begun running on a NASA-inspired anti-gravity treadmill and throwing from the outfield, Nats general manager Mike Rizzo told 106.7 The Fan (via CBS DC).

Harper, in case you've forgotten, suffered a bone bruise when he slipped on a rain-slicked first base Aug. 12 and hasn't played since.

"He's moving around effortlessly," Rizzo said. "No limp in his gait."

Weightless running and long toss are nice, and it's excellent to hear Harper isn't limping. That's a long way from game action, though, and the playoffs are approaching fast.

Here's what Harper said of the healing process, per Mark Zuckerman of MASNSports.com: "It takes time, but we don't have much."

Back to the subject of good news, Washington clinched the National League East on Sunday. That's cool, no denying it. Cue the champagne and attendant good vibes.

Without Harper, however, their ability to advance past the division series and challenge the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs for Senior Circuit supremacy is in mortal doubt.

Say what you will about his brash antics and recent, ill-fated experiment with cornrows (seriously, Bryce, don't). 

We're talking about one of the game's preeminent offensive players, a guy who has won a Rookie of the Year award, NL MVP trophy and made five All-Star teams before his 25th birthday.

Consider this: In 2016, Harper posted an .814 OPS with 24 home runs and 21 stolen bases. That's a solid season by almost any standard, yet fans and pundits were wringing their hands, wondering what was wrong.

That's because Harper posted an otherworldly 1.109 OPS with 42 home runs in 2015 en route to his MVP. 

This year, he was clearing that impossibly high bar with a 1.034 OPS and 29 homers when he got hurt.

The Nats offense isn't moribund without him. As of Sunday, they paced the NL in runs scored, slugging percentage and OPS.

First baseman Ryan Zimmerman (.301/.358/.557, 31 HR), second baseman Daniel Murphy (.321/.381/.547, 22 HR) and third baseman Anthony Rendon (.302/.401/.536, 23 HR) all boast notable stat lines. 

The duo of Max Scherzer and a healthy Stephen Strasburg gives Washington one of the best 1-2 starting-pitching punches in either league.

Speedy sophomore Trea Turner has showed signs of life since returning from the disabled list, and he has collected eight hits in his last five games.

All of that, again, was enough for the Nationals to cruise to a second straight division title. Without Harper, though, the balance of power shifts away from the nation's capital come October.

"He's definitely one of those guys that you can't replace on a team," right-hander Edwin Jackson said at the time of Harper's injurious slip-and-fall, per ESPN.com.

The Nats have gone 19-10 in Harper's absence, though 20 of those games have come against teams with losing records. The wheels aren't falling off.

The Dodgers, however, are loaded for bear out west after adding righty Yu Darvish at the non-waiver trade deadline to an already ridiculously stacked roster. Yeah, they've dropped 10 straight, but that feels less like a harbinger of doom and more L.A. finally getting some losing out of its system.

The Cubs, likewise, have suffered bumps in the road and have yet to lock down the NL Central thanks to the pesky Milwaukee Brewers. Make no mistake, though: The defending champions will be a formidable opponent come playoff time.

To remain in that elite group, the Nationals need Harper. It would be best if he could return for a tuneup in the waning days of the regular season, though the more probable scenario is a comeback in the postseason. Hey, it worked last year for Chicago and Kyle Schwarber.

Either way, the Nats need Harper's bat. They need his bravado. They need the pedigree and eyeball-commanding prestige he brings to the clubhouse, dugout and batter's box.

With him, they're a legitimate World Series player. Without him, they're a hobbled also-ran destined for another early exit.

Harper's space-age treadmill may be weightless, but his injury is as heavy as it gets.

         

All statistics current as of Sunday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

How a Giancarlo Stanton Offseason Blockbuster Could Destroy Your Team

Everyone wants Giancarlo Stanton in theory.

He's the game's preeminent slugger. He's got a shot at passing Roger Maris for second place on the all-time single-season home run list (yes, Giancarlo, we said second place). He's 27 years old.

In a vacuum, that's a general manager's dream—a strapping franchise cornerstone with a huge stick and face-of-MLB potential.

Stanton doesn't exist in a vacuum, though. He exists in the context of his contract, which is worth more than $290 million through 2028, including a $10 million final-year buyout, unless he opts out after the 2020 campaign.

It's understandable why teams are interested and why rumors have swirled that the Miami Marlins could move him this winter.

At the same time, jettisoning a haul of prospects and taking on that albatross deal could cripple or destroy your favorite club.

Yes, yours.

Let's begin with the San Francisco Giants, who are "expressing the strongest interest," per USA Today's Bob Nightengale. That rumor came before the sale of the team was finalized, but the new ownership group—headlined by former New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter—is reportedly open to a swap, per Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports (h/t CBS Sports).

On the surface, it makes sense. The Giants are in the midst of a dreadful season, buried more than 30 games under .500 and in the National League West basement. They rank dead last in either league with 112 home runs.

Stanton would immediately and immeasurably improve San Francisco's offense. No argument there.

He'd also decimate a thin farm system Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter ranked No. 26 in the game.

There's no telling what the Marlins would demand for Stanton, but it's safe to say the Giants would have to part with some or all of their top prospects, including infielder Christian Arroyo, first baseman Chris Shaw and right-hander Tyler Beede.

The worst part, though, would be the money.

Even if the Fish swallowed some of Stanton's contract—a concession for which the Giants or anyone else would have to surrender extra MiLB chips—he'd be an enormous payroll drag.

Here's a stark way of viewing it: Assuming San Francisco shouldered Stanton's entire deal, it could have $144 million committed to eight players over the age of 30 in 2020, as McCovey Chronicles' Grant Brisbee outlined. 

For those keeping score at home, that leaves 17 roster spots to fill for a club that already ranks sixth in the game with a $188.8 million payroll, per Spotrac

Acquiring Stanton would prevent the Giants from spending on any noteworthy free agents for a long while. Certainly they would be out of the vaunted class of 2018-19.

Perhaps he'd be worth it. Maybe the Orange and Black have one more even-year run in them and Stanton is the missing ingredientBarry Bonds without the performance-enhancing drug baggage.

More likely, he'd be a fence-clearing distraction on a franchise in decline.

What about other possible landing spots? Surely some team with a rumored connection to Stanton makes for a decent fit?

In addition to San Francisco, Nightengale name-dropped the St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies.

Texas is essentially in the same boat as San Francisco, with a farm system Reuter ranks No. 21 and a payroll of $185.8 million. 

The Cardinals (No. 11 farm) and Phillies (No. 6 farm) have better prospects and more financial flexibility, especially in the case of Philadelphia. 

Still, Stanton's contract is poison for any front office. And if the Marlins are going to absorb enough of it to offset that fact, they'll undoubtedly command a farm-leveling return.

He burns any team at both ends, depleting the minors while financially handicapping the big club. 

Heyman reported the Yankees "did make a call" on Stanton. They've got the money in theory and the prospects in practice, but they also have Stanton's younger doppelganger in Aaron Judge, who is a fine long-term right field solution despite his second-half slump.

Heyman also speculatively tossed the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers on the heap, though both have ample depth in the outfield and, in the case of the Red Sox, a depleted farm system.

The Dodgers make some sense—Stanton was born in Southern California—but his contract would hobble even their gargantuan payroll.

It's also worth noting that Stanton played 119 games in 2016 and a scant 74 in 2015 while battling various injuries. He's put those concerns behind him with a healthy 2017, but it adds another eyebrow-raising caveat to those mega-mega-bucks. 

"I personally would never have signed that kind of contract for any individual player in this marketplace," former Mets general manager Steve Phillips said, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. "It's not a judgment of him. I would love to have him on my team. I don't know how a small market team survives with that kind of a contract to one player."

Even big-market teams should blanch.

Someone may trade for Stanton. They might benefit from his Herculean tendencies. Everyone wants him in theory.

In practice, it's a potentially disastrous gamble.

             

All statistics and contract information current as of Thursday and courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yankees Must Let Aaron Judge Get Healthy Before They Ruin Him

For much of the 2017 season, the catchphrase around New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge has been "all rise."

Now, it's time to shift into "all sit." As in, give the kid a break.

Judge's first-half dominance was as well-documented as his second-half struggles, but let's recap both.

Prior to the All-Star break, he appeared to be the second coming of Babe Ruth melded with an alien upgrade of Miami Marlins masher Giancarlo Stanton.

The strapping 25-year-old hit .329 with a 1.139 OPS and 30 home runs, and looked like a lock for not merely American League Rookie of the Year honors but an MVP trophy as well.

Since the break, Judge's numbers have plummeted like a cinder block in the East River. His average has tumbled to .182, his OPS to .707 and he's added only eight home runs to his season total. His robust 49 percent hard contact rate has dipped to 34 percent. 

A number of theories have been floated to explain Judge's malaise. Maybe it's the league adjusting to him, as it does to all young hitters, even the great ones.

Maybe participating in the Home Run Derby threw off his mechanics, which Yankees hitting coach Alan Cockrell intimated, per Dan Martin of the New York Post.

Or, perhaps it's Judge's bum shoulder.

That last possibility is the most probable and most troubling. Judge has been icing his left shoulder "heavily" after each game, per Brendan Kuty of NJ Advance Media. 

"I've got ice on my shoulders, my knees. I wish I could ice my whole body," Judge said, per Mike Mazzeo of the New York Daily News. "I've got to ice it every day. The whole body is kind of beat up."

That's par for the course this time of year. The 162-game grind takes its toll on everyone, especially rookies.

The question is: Should the Yankees risk the long-term health of their franchise bopper

At 74-63, New York is 2.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox for first place in the AL East. It holds the Junior Circuit's top wild-card position.

The "rebuild" is blossoming ahead of schedule in the Bronx. This club has a realistic shot at October.

At the same time, the Yankees are constructed for the future, with a fertile farm system, homegrown talent on the MLB roster and money slated to come off the books, setting them up to spend on the vaunted 2018-19 free-agent class. 

Judge is, literally, a massive piece of that future. 

What if New York keeps trotting him out and the shoulder gets worse? What if, DiMaggio forbid, he needs surgery?

"I believe his struggles are mechanical [and] have nothing to do, in our mind, with his shoulder," skipper Joe Girardi said, per Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post. "He feels pretty good about it, so I feel pretty good about it." 

Players are supposed to say they feel pretty good about it. They're conditioned to rub on some dirt and get back out there. 

It's up to coaches and front offices to step in and do what's best for the long haul, even if it stings in the here and now.

This is the part where we mention Judge homered Sunday for the first time since Aug. 16. It could be the beginning of a resurgence. 

Also, there's something to be said for striking while the iron is hot. The Yankees have a shot at the playoffs. They haven't advanced as far as the division series since 2012, which counts as a protracted drought at 1 E. 161st St.

Taking care of your burgeoning assets is paramount, though. New York wants Judge to be launching dingers in 2018, 2019, 2020 and beyond.

Overtaxing him now, and pushing his shoulder from annoyance to lingering problem, doesn't make sense. Not to be overly dramatic, but these are the decisions that can ruin players.

All rise is all well and good. Sometimes, though, even a Judge needs to hit the bench.

           

All statistics current as of Tuesday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs.

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