There is still plenty of drama to watch as the MLB regular season winds down, including the Red Sox trying to lock up the American League East, the Rockies trying to lock up the second National League Wild Card spot, and home-field advantage still being up for grabs in some instances. But the postseason is almost here -- we can practically taste it. And it's only natural to look ahead a bit.
While we're not going to get into predictions right now, at the very least we can ask questions constructed on things we learned during the full season or some recent trends. (We'll focus on teams that have already punched their ticket to the postseason, leaving Colorado out for the moment, but check back here again if the Rockies manage to clinch that second NL Wild Card spot over the next few days.)
ASTROS: Can they avoid a track meet?
The 'Stros are strong in so many spots, but they are deficient in one area that can become amplified come October. Astros catchers (primarily Brian McCann and Evan Gattis) have combined to throw out just 12.4 percent of opposing baserunners, the lowest such percentage in baseball this season.
Controlling the running game will have to be a point of emphasis for Houston in the days leading up to its AL Division Series because the top six stolen-base percentages this season belong to postseason squads in both leagues, and four of those teams -- the Yankees (80.4 percent), Indians (78.5), Twins (77) and Red Sox (76.7) -- are in the AL.
CUBS: Is Jake Arrieta OK?
Arrieta admitted after Tuesday's abbreviated outing against the Cardinals that he's still feeling the left hamstring injury that forced him to miss two weeks. Without the ability to drive off that left leg, he struggled to command his fastball and slider.
That's a problem for a Cubs team that already has other issues in its rotation (when asked earlier this week to compare this year's rotation to last year's, the first word out of Joe Maddon's mouth was, "Woof"). In 2016, the Cubs had a rare run of good health that has, as expected, proved unrepeatable. They need a return to normalcy from Jon Lester, who recently endured left shoulder fatigue, and, probably more than anything, they need Arrieta to overcome the hammy.
INDIANS: Will Kipnis in the outfield work?
Kipnis was a center fielder in college and for seven games of his pro career before a permanent shift to second base. But in the throes of the playoff race, with the infield defense elevated in Kipnis' injury absence, things have changed. The last two weeks of the regular season are serving as an on-the-fly-training ground. Kipnis is a good athlete who has always been comfortable tracking popups and who has generally handled the shift well so far. But there was a moment earlier this week when speedy Twins center fielder Byron Buxton tested his arm by tagging up from second on a fairly routine fly ball. Buxton strode into third easily. That was the kind of moment that can fundamentally change a game come October.
Tyler Naquin's suspect center-field defense came back to bite the Indians big-time in the World Series last year, so even for a club with the greatest staff strikeout rate of all-time, this is a risky venture, and Kipnis, who has had a down year offensively, will have to deliver at the plate to make it worth the Tribe's while.
NATIONALS: Will Bryce Harper's bat be up to speed?
Because of the bone bruise and left calf issue that kept him out of the Nats' lineup for 42 games, Harper will have played a maximum of six games -- and then sat around for four days -- by the time the NL Division Series against the Cubs begins. That's not an ideal lead-up to such an important October (Harper's post-2018 free agency hangs over this franchise in a big way), but it sure beats the alternative of not having Harper at all.
Washington's offense, which for the full season leads the NL in OPS, took a major dip when Harper was hurt. Some of that was attributable to the comfort of a large lead and the impact that had on Dusty Baker's lineups, but some of it had to do with the way opposing pitchers approach the heart of the order when Harper is not a part of it. The quicker Harper establishes that he's all the way back both in body and bat, the quicker the Nats reach their true offensive potential on the big stage.
DODGERS: Can the starters deliver depth?
October has become all about early hooks (last postseason, starters averaged just 5.1 innings). But for a Dodgers team with a setup situation made shaky by the late-season declines of Pedro Baez and Ross Stripling, strong and deep starts might be essential for advancement.
We know Clayton Kershaw is at the forefront, and people will rightly or wrongly harp on his October record. We know Yu Darvish comes next, and people will wonder if his ace-type outing against the Padres this week was a sign that he's made some necessary mechanical tweaks. Rich Hill is a strong No. 3 now that he's seemingly over his blister issues. But whether the No. 4 spot goes to Alex Wood or Hyun-Jin Ryu, there will be scrutiny over the selection -- unless Kershaw comes back on short rest, as he has done in five of his 14 career postseason starts (but that decision would face severe scrutiny for the simple fact that Kershaw has battled back issues).
RED SOX: Is the rotation good enough?
In the post-David Ortiz era, the Red Sox are built around their pitching, and that might be more true than ever with Eduardo Nunez, Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez all banged up late in the season. So the rotation must rise to the occasion, and it must do so with David Price confined to a bullpen role after he ran out of time to get stretched out after going idle again with a left elbow injury.
Obviously, Chris Sale fronts this staff, and Sale, even with a dazzling performance against the Orioles on the night he notched his 300th strikeout, has been more homer-prone in the second half. He'll also be pitching into October for the first time, which will be as large or small a concern as he makes it. There are added concerns in the back end of the rotation, where Rick Porcello has regressed and where Doug Fister and Eduardo Rodriguez have been inconsistent. But the biggest concern might be No. 2 starter -- and known injury risk -- Drew Pomeranz's velocity, which has been headed in the wrong direction.
D-BACKS: Can they get relief?
You've got to feel good about this offense going into the NL Wild Card Game. And you've got to feel good about Zack Greinke taking the ball. But the need for Greinke to pitch deep into that game -- and the need for every other D-backs starter to do the same should Arizona advance -- is particularly pointed given the state of this bullpen. Archie Bradley was a multi-inning monster much of the year, but lately he's had to assume more of a traditional setup role out of necessity in a 'pen short on consistent options and defined roles. Fernando Rodney can close it out… or he can totally implode. Depends on the day.
Beyond that, there's not a whole heck of a lot of clarity to this group. Rookie skipper Torey Lovullo and his staff deserve a ton of credit for taking what has largely been a revolving cast in the bullpen and turning it into one of the lowest relief ERAs (3.83) in the NL. The ability to continue to play the right matchups will face a stiff test come October.
TWINS: Can they keep outhitting their shortcomings?
As if the Trade Deadline departures weren't damaging enough, the Twins lost slugger to Miguel Sano to a left shin injury on Aug. 19 and … somehow improved? As of this writing, they are averaging more runs per game than any team in baseball in that span (6.4), and that is the primary reason they were able to maintain their position in the AL playoff picture.
In the AL Wild Card Game in the Bronx, their offense will be tested not just by presumed Yankees starter Luis Severino (against whom they fared well last week) but, perhaps more meaningfully, one of the deeper bullpens in the game. It sure doesn't look like Sano's going to be back in time, so the Twins will have to keep outhitting their projection to advance deep into October.
YANKEES: Will dominant 'pen pieces stay in control?
Forget Aaron Judge. Well, OK, don't forget Aaron Judge -- he's awesome. But the single biggest threat the Yankees post to their opposition on the October stage is their deep bullpen, which is loaded with strikeout machines. Trouble is, as we've seen at times this season, Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and even recent acquisition Tommy Kahnle can often lose the strike zone without much notice.
Chapman's walk percentage has climbed from 8.1 last season to 10.0 this year. In his brief time in pinstripes, Kahnle's walk percentage has gone from 5.0 with the White Sox to 8.0. And Betances' mark has jumped from 9.4 in 2016 to 16.8. Joe Girardi has a lot of weapons at his disposal, with Chad Green a multi-inning force and David Robertson the steady presence he was brought back to be. But the Yanks are going to need the total package -- perhaps as soon as the Wild Card Game vs. the Twins -- if they're going to advance.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.