For a lot of Major League Baseball teams, September either means frantically trying to secure a spot in the postseason or gearing up for what will hopefully be a deep run through the playoffs.
For others, September is a grim reminder of what should have been and a time to try to find reasons to be optimistic for next season.
Before all the focus turns toward the postseason, we wanted to take a moment to look at that latter group of teams in hopes of identifying the non-playoff clubs most likely to turn things around next year.
You might really need to squint to see October 2022 potential for a few of these teams. But some of them have been playing even better than postseason-bound teams over the past month or two, so expectations will be high if they're able to make even the slightest splash during free agency.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order by location.
The many-million-dollar question in Colorado is: Can the Rockies convince Trevor Story to return for at least one more season?
Since the widely condemned decision to not trade Story before the July 30 deadline, the Rockies (who were 44-59 heading into July 30) have been an above-.500 ballclub with one of the most potent offenses in the National League.
Story hasn't even been that good over the past two months relative to his career averages, either. Rather, guys like Brendan Rodgers, C.J. Cron and Elias Diaz have been red hot throughout the second half.
There's plenty of work to be done if they want to legitimately compete with Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco (if the Giants can keep this magic going for another year) for the 2022 NL West crown. For instance, having even one starting pitcher with a sub-4.00 ERA would be a swell improvement.
But Colorado is a heck of a lot closer to the postseason than Arizona is—the Diamondbacks have demonstrated how ugly things can get for a bad team in this division.
If the Rockies lose Story, Cron and Jon Gray as free agents, though, this positive momentum from the past two months may well follow them right out the door. But until we know how those contract negotiations pan out, Colorado's play of late at least feels potentially relevant.
One-fifth of the way through the regular season, Detroit was the worst team in the majors.
At the end of the day on May 7, the Tigers were 9-24 with a run differential of negative-72. At that point, they had allowed the most runs of any team, and only the New York Mets—who had played five fewer games than the Tigers—had scored fewer runs.
Since then, however, Detroit has been quite respectable.
From May 8 through Sept. 26, the Tigers went 66-56 with a plus-20 run differential. Though they've had nothing to play for lately, they sure have been causing problems for teams that haven't been eliminated from the playoffs. Thus far in September, Detroit has gone 11-5 against the combination of Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Oakland, Tampa Bay and the White Sox.
And it's not like one or two players have been shouldering the load.
The Tigers don't have a single player with 25 home runs, nor is anyone batting better than .285. The ace of their staff (Casey Mize) has a 3.63 ERA and made only two quality starts in the past three months. The only pitcher with at least 20 innings of work and a sub-3.00 ERA is Spencer Turnbull, and he had Tommy John surgery in July.
Per FanGraphs, Detroit's batters are dead last in the American League in wins above replacement, and its pitching staff ranks 22nd in the majors.
But something is working, and the good news is with the exception of a few replaceable pitchers, no Tigers are hitting free agency this winter. And despite owing Miguel Cabrera another $64 million over the next two seasons, there's plenty of room in the budget to make a splash or two in free agency.
Also worth noting: Detroit has two highly touted prospects waiting in the wings in Spencer Torkelson (No. 1 overall pick in 2020) and Riley Greene (No. 5 pick in 2019). They've both been playing at the Triple-A level for more than a month and should at least get a chance in spring training.
Kansas City Royals
It has been a tale of three seasons for the Kansas City Royals.
Early on, they were great. They went 16-9 through their first 25 games and entered May in sole possession of first place in the AL Central. The next two months? Not so great! They lost 38 of their next 55 games and were 14 games below .500 when the calendar flipped to July. But they've been pretty much a .500 ballclub since then.
Which version shows up in 2022?
We probably shouldn't expect Salvador Perez to make another run at a 50-homer season, but he'll remain a great anchor at the heart of a respectable lineup—one that should get a nice boost from top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. if and when he's ready for the big leagues. If he's anywhere near as good as advertised, he should at least make up for the loss of K.C.'s only impending free-agent hitter, Michael A. Taylor.
The Royals aren't losing much from the pitching staff, either, although they definitely need to improve in that area.
All five of the team leaders in games started have an ERA no better than 4.52, which is certainly no way to compete for a pennant. But four of the five are 26 years old or younger, and three of those four were considerably better in a previous season in the majors. In other words, it's well within the realm of possibility that they bring back the same starting five with a much better result next year.
Los Angeles Angels
After nine consecutive years of finishing in the top five of the AL MVP vote, Mike Trout was only able to play in 36 games before suffering what turned out to be a season-ending calf strain.
After four straight years of finishing 11th or better in an MVP race, Anthony Rendon only played in 58 games and was pretty clearly hampered by the hip injury that resulted in multiple IL stints and season-ending surgery.
Even though Shohei Ohtani has been unbelievably fun to watch and Jared Walsh has been a slightly unexpected source of power, it's hard to win with any regularity while getting minimal production out of the two guys getting paid more than a combined $65 million this year.
The pitching staff has also been all sorts of banged up. Ohtani is the only Angel who has logged at least 100 innings pitched this season, and they routinely gave him six or more days off in between starts to protect his arm.
All 30 teams undoubtedly have some "we'd be better if players X, Y and Z had stayed/gotten healthy" thoughts near the end of every season, but the Angels were especially afflicted by the injury bug. If they're able to get at least B-plus production for 150-plus games out of Trout, Rendon and Ohtani in 2022, they will at least have the bats to compete with anyone.
We'll have to wait and see what happens with the pitching staff, considering Alex Cobb, Dylan Bundy and Raisel Iglesias are all hitting free agency this winter. But if the Angels take the combined $32.45 million they paid those three guys for this season and turn it into an ace free agent—Clayton Kershaw, maybe?—that would be a game-changer.
San Diego Padres
Desperate to at least reach the NLCS for the first time since 1998, San Diego went all-in on this season, trading for Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove this past winter. The Padres already had a respectable rotation in 2020, but the hope was that trio plus Chris Paddack and Dinelson Lamet would be an excellent enough starting five to take down the mighty Dodgers in the playoffs.
But, to put it lightly, it hasn't worked out that way.
Musgrove has been solid, but both Darvish and Snell have underperformed, as have Paddack and Lamet while battling injuries. San Diego's team ERA (4.01) is actually worse than it was last year (3.87).
And though Fernando Tatis Jr. has been sensational while healthy, the Padres bats have taken a substantial step backward since last season, particularly those of Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers, each of whom has an OPS more than 100 points worse than he posted in 2020.
Taking all that into account, San Diego might not even finish with a .500 record.
The good news is this roster was constructed with multiple World Series runs in mind.
The most noteworthy Padres bats hitting free agency this winter are Tommy Pham and Jurickson Profar, both of whom are replaceable, so they should be running it back again with more or less the same lineup. The pitching staff will also be mostly intact, though we'll see whether closer Mark Melancon decides to stick around on the $5 million mutual option for next season. If the pitching bounces back, Tatis stays healthy and Hosmer and Myers start hitting like it's 2020 again, this could absolutely be the team to beat in 2022. At the very least, this should be a playoff team.
Because even with the shortcomings, this really should have been a playoff team this year. San Diego was 17 games over .500 on August 10 before crashing and burning in painfully spectacular fashion over the past six weeks or so. So, the Padres very much aren't trending in the right direction lately, but they'll inevitably be a popular postseason pick by next spring.
It is nothing short of dumbfounding that the Washington Nationals were unable to compete for this year's NL East crown.
Just between Trea Turner and Juan Soto, this should have been one of the better lineups in the league. And then once Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber started heating up in mid-May, they really should have taken off.
Outside of Max Scherzer, though, the pitching staff was a disaster. Stephen Strasburg made just five starts (with an IL stint between his second and third) before undergoing season-ending neck surgery. Patrick Corbin is making roughly $25 million for a roughly 6.00 ERA. While closer Brad Hand was lights-out in April, he lost the ability to get anyone out right around the time Bell and Schwarber got rolling. And let's just say the other starters and middle relievers weren't much better.
But after trading a substantial chunk of the active roster at the July 30 deadline, we're already starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The two main prospects the Nationals got in the Turner/Scherzer-to-the-Dodgers deal (Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz) have shown a lot of promise. (Gray was great initially, at least. He has gotten shelled in most of his recent starts.) Josh Rogers was a free agent they signed on a whim around the time Strasburg got hurt again, but he had a 2.16 ERA through his first four starts in September. Corbin is bound to improve next year. Maybe Strasburg will be healthy. They still have Soto to get on base in nearly 50 percent of his plate appearances. And they have all sorts of money freed up in advance of a loaded free-agent class.
Washington might be able to make a 2022 postseason push as is. If they can go out and grab a guy like Kris Bryant, Trevor Story or maybe even bring Scherzer back home, the Nats will be in excellent shape.