At the outset of the 2018 season, a nearly unanimous concern among baseball fans and pundits dominated preseason conversation. The fear manifested itself in the form of seven “super teams,” who appeared poised to secure a postseason spot with little competition. As August comes to a close and the September race to the postseason begins, this unwavering preseason belief in the “super teams” has been challenged and, in some cases, disproven outright.
While the American League Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will each almost definitely find themselves playing in October, there have been speed bumps along the way. The Astros, for example, were recently tied for the AL West lead with the red-hot Oakland Athletics.
Meanwhile, their National League “super team” counterparts, the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals, have faced stiff divisional competition all season and now face a difficult final month of baseball.
In the NL East, the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies have each completed their rebuilds sooner than expected, and both currently have substantial leads on the Nationals.
The Nationals’ inability to put together a winning season is especially puzzling, as, on paper, they have a World Series-caliber roster. However, an underwhelming 2018 performance from right fielder Bryce Harper, intermittent injuries to key players and continued bullpen inconsistencies have created a perfect recipe for mediocrity.
Though Harper, whose becomes a free agent at the end of the season, could re-sign with Nationals, it appears more and more likely that he will land elsewhere in the offseason. Should he sign elsewhere, the Harper era in Washington will be best-defined by playoff disappointments and an inability to meet the lofty expectations placed on the Nationals over the last few seasons.
The Braves and Phillies, one of which will end the season as the NL East champion, have shocked MLB in 2018, as neither was expected to compete for a playoff spot until 2019. Left fielder Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia’s young star, picked up where he left off in 2017 and has clubbed 27 home runs to date and has been a boon to the Phillies’ lineup. Atlanta’s 20-year-old rookie superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. lit the world on fire after the All-Star break, and his season slash line sits at a remarkable .287/.355/.565.
The Braves currently hold a multi-game lead over the Phillies, but the division will likely not be settled until the end of the month, when the teams will face off in two of their last three series.
In the NL Central, the Cubs are fighting to hold off the new-look Milwaukee Brewers, powered by offseason outfield acquisitions Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, and the surging St. Louis Cardinals, led by an offensive renaissance from corner infielder Matt Carpenter.
Though the Cubs sit somewhat comfortably atop the division, the Brewers and Cardinals will continue to nip at their heels through September, and both Milwaukee and St. Louis could find themselves in the NL Wild Card Game come October.
The NL West has proven to be perhaps the most surprising race in baseball, as the defending National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers have yet to find their stride for any length of time this season.
The Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers are all within one game of each other in the NL West, setting up a three-team race that will likely not be decided until late in the regular season.
The Rockies continue to outplay their projections, and though they have a negative run differential this season, they continue to find ways to win games and keep themselves in the mix. Historically, pitchers struggle at the hitter-friendly Coors Field, the Rockies’ home park. Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland, however, has pitched his way to an excellent 2.91 ERA this season.
The Dodgers made several trades at the deadline in an effort to fend off their NL West rivals, including a deal to bring in the crown jewel of the 2018 trade deadline, infielder Manny Machado. The Dodgers still have not found their rhythm, though, and the possibility of missing the postseason still looms large.
In short, the postseason picture remains fairly murky, especially in the National League, where eight legitimate contenders will battle over five playoff spots in what will surely make for thrilling September in baseball.