We're midway through September, and everything is just as you'd want it to be -- divisions are still up for grabs, and Wild Card races are gaining full steam.
Stoked? Good. Glad we're on the same page.
The first round of postseason action is slated to begin on Oct. 6, which just happens to be 24 hours after the new release of the 1993 smash arcade hit, "NBA Jam."
It's only fitting, then, that we break down the postseason picture in vintage Super Nintendo fashion, selecting two players -- one hitter, one pitcher -- from each prospective playoff squad and separating the duos into tiers. A little "MLB Jam," if you will -- the ultimate hybrid.
No, that doesn't mean we'll get to see Nick Swisher in rocking John Stockton Baby Gap shorts, or Matt Holliday draining half-court shots over Horace Grant at the buzzer. What it means is that we'll look one-by-one at the most integral part of each team's playoff quest, breaking down who's got the best shot to catch fire when it matters most.
Ready? Let's go.
Oakland Athletics: 71-71; 8 1/2 games back in AL West, 15 back in Wild Card.
MLB Jam duo: Kurt Suzuki & Trevor Cahill
Alternates: Andrew Bailey, Brett Anderson, Kevin Kouzmanoff
What better way to start this whole shebang off than to play the role of killjoy? Simply put, it's been a frustrating year for A's fans. You know you've had a rough season when your team is built around pitching and you lose your Opening Day starter (Ben Sheets) to season-ending surgery and have your reigning Rookie of the Year closer (Andrew Bailey) and the consensus, can't miss, fantasy breakout starter (Brett Anderson) make a few pilgrimages to the disabled list. Add in a bitter cup of coffee that desperately needed some cream and two sugars from top prospect Chris Carter (0-for-19, 9 Ks) and, well, you get the point. The good news for Bay Area fans is that it looks like they've found an ace in Trevor Cahill, who is my odds-on favorite to be the centerpiece of everyone's yearly "Hey, have you heard of this guy? He'd be the Cy Young winner if he played on a playoff team!" column. Unfortunately, the (more) bad news is that Kurt Suzuki (.245/.309/.372) is your consensus MLB Jam starting hitting representative. Ay caramba! (Is it time to bring that back? No? OK, just checking.)
Boston Red Sox: 79-64; Eight games back in AL East, 7 1/2 back in Wild Card.
MLB Jam duo: David Ortiz & Jon Lester
Alternates: Adrian Beltre, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia
You have to hand it to the Red Sox. Despite losing Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis to season-ending injuries, the team kept chugging along, staying in Wild Card contention while using the likes of Bill Hall, Daniel Nava and Darnell McDonald on a regular basis. But let's skip the Pintos 'n Cheese here and dive right at the Grilled Stuft Burrito, because I know what you're all thinking.
Yes, I'm going with Big Papi (.260 AVG, 29 HR, 88 RBIs) over Adrian Beltre (.326 AVG, 27 HR, 96 RBIs) as Boston's "MLB Jam" default hitting rep despite having obvious inferior numbers.
Reason No. 1: Of all the healthy Red Sox batsmen this season, Papi is bar none the face of the franchise.
Reason No. 2: The original 1993 "Jam" always valued sizzle over steak.
Case in point, they picked Bill Laimbeer instead of Joe Dumars as Isiah Thomas' sidekick on the Detroit Pistons. Laimbeer is my favorite Detroit athlete of all time, but even I'll admit that Billy could barely walk in the '93 season.
Reason No. 3: Imagine Big Papi skywalking through the air, parlaying a triple somersault into a tomahawk thunder jam with "big head" (obviously) turned on. You can't stop smiling, can you? CAN YOU? I have no problem dancing with myself on this one.
Chicago White Sox: 77-61; Six games back in AL Central, 7 1/2 games back in Wild Card.
MLB Jam duo: Manny Ramirez & Edwin Jackson
Alternates: Alex Rios, Paul Konerko, Chris Sale
The trade for Manny Ramirez not only landed the White Sox a potent, playoff-experienced bat for the middle of their lineup, but it also displaced Paul Konerko and Alex Rios from "MLB Jam" starting contention. For whatever reason, it seems like everyone has forgotten that only two years ago Manny pretty much single-handedly mashed the Dodgers into the playoffs by hitting .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs in just 53 games. Hey look, video game numbers! Can he do it again? I wouldn't bet against him. The real question is whether Edwin Jackson (3-1, 2.94 ERA, 1.07 WHIP in seven starts since his arrival) and the rest of the South Side rotation can work deep into games in order to save manager Ozzie Guillen from having to turn to a depleted, injury-riddled and Bobby Jenks-ified bullpen. Selfishly, I'm beyond giddy at the prospect of flame-throwing rookie reliever Chris Sale (15 2/3 IP, 0.57 ERA, 21 K) going all '06 Joel Zumaya and '08 David Price on positively petrified hitters come October.
St. Louis Cardinals: 74-67; Six games back in NL Central, 6 1/2 games back in Wild Card
MLB Jam duo: Albert Pujols & Adam Wainwright
Alternates: Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter, Yadier Molina
There might not be a stronger one-two punch in the game. If this list was based solely on MLB Jam-ability (MLBJA for my sabermetric friends out there) they'd easily be in the top three. You have the greatest hitter of the past decade paired with (arguably) the best starting pitcher of the last two years. Don't count me among those counting them out -- and that's a lot of counting. What's promising for the Redbirds is that 14 of their final 21 games are loaded against sub-.500 teams, with 12 of them against the Cubs and Pirates. YES and PLEASE!
San Diego Padres: 80-62; Tied for first place in NL West
MLB Jam duo: Adrian Gonzalez and Mat Latos
Alternates: Heath Bell, Miguel Tejada, Jon Garland
Wow that was a painful "alternates" list to write. Anyway, it seems as though the Padres have been playing this season with computer assistance turned on. After building a cushy 6 1/2-game lead by Aug. 26, the Friars proceeded to lose 10 straight and now are clawing onto their handlebars tied atop the NL West with the Giants. The good news is that pitching has been their calling card all season, with a Major League-leading 3.31 staff ERA. The bad news is that someone needs to clue them in that it's 2010 and no one uses calling cards anymore, as their .247 team batting average is the second-lowest in the NL. They'd better right their offensive woes in a hurry if they want to hold off the Giants and Padres and play in the big boys' sandbox come October.
Is it the shoes?
Minnesota Twins: 82-57; 4 1/2-game lead atop AL Central.
MLB Jam duo: Joe Mauer & Francisco Liriano
Alternates: Justin Morneau, Delmon Young, Carl Pavano (just for the 'stache)
The Twins always seem to be that team that either has a marginal lead atop the AL Central or are somewhere lurking around. The weird part is that everyone keeps forgetting about them. All right, I folded my laundry, walked Roscoe around the park and chewed on a piece of Dubble Bubble that fell to the ground without anyone noticing -- my day is complete. Wait, what?? Ahhh! The Twins! I forgot about the Twins!
Don't worry, it happens to everyone.
We don't really know what's going on with Justin Morneau, we don't really know what their starters will give them outside of Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing (8-2, 2.02 ERA; that's not a typo), and we don't really know what this whole get-every-other-team's-closer (Matt Capps, Brian Fuentes) fetish is all about. With all that said, I'm somehow convinced manager Ron Gardenhire will make this work. He always does.
San Francisco Giants: 81-63; Tied with Padres atop NL West
MLB Jam duo: Buster Posey & Tim Lincecum
Alternates: Pablo Sandoval, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson
There might not be a more exciting and electric duo in this group than Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum. That's why this might be the only pair that easily passes the T-shirt Jersey Test. What's the T-Shirt Jersey Test? Let's say you take a random casual Mariners fan that has no vested interest in the success or failure of the San Francisco Giants, but is visiting some friends in the Bay Area and wants to check out AT&T Park for the first time. What are the odds he/she will plop down the $25 and buy an orange or black T-shirt jersey of Buster Posey or Tim Lincecum? Exactly! Never underestimate the power of a team that has two players who pass the T-Shirt Jersey Test. (Other players who unequivocally pass the T-shirt Jersey Test: Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Stephen Strasburg, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, Aroldis Chapman,'07 Ryan Braun, '09 Matt Kemp, '01 Ichiro, '08 David Price, '07 Joba Chamberlain.)
Colorado Rockies: 79-64; 1 1/2 games back in NL West, 2 1/2 games back in Wild Card.
MLB Jam duo: Carlos Gonzalez & Ubaldo Jimenez
Alternates: Troy Tulowitzki, Huston Street, Todd Helton (sizzle/steak rule)
Everyone has enjoyed the 2010 Carlos Gonzalez Experience, I know I have. But I don't think everyone fully realizes just how incredible of a season CarGo's actually having. As things currently stand, Gonzalez is just seven homers behind Albert Pujols in home runs with 32 taters, and four behind Pujols in RBIs. Pepper in the fact that his .337 average easily paces the Senior Circuit and all that is standing in the way of CarGo leading all three Triple Crown categories is seven homers and four RBIs. Considering no one has won the Triple Crown since, ya know, 1967 (!), this should be a bigger deal.
Now, add in a pitching staff that includes All-Star starter and 18-game winner Ubaldo Jimenez and two fireballers in Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin, and the Rockies are cooking some serious chili out in Mile High Country. No wonder they've won 10 straight games, are seriously creeping up the standings and are the classic "team that no one wants to face."
He's heating up!
Cincinnati Reds: 81-62; Six-game lead atop NL Central.
MLB Jam duo: Joey Votto & Aroldis Chapman
Alternates: Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen, Francisco Cordero
Despite losing seven of their past 10 games, the Reds are sitting pretty with a six-game lead on the Cardinals in the NL Central. And trust me, the Cardinals will need a lot of help to make up that kind of ground. That's because the 2010 Reds' offense has been gangbusters all season. Cincinnati leads the NL across the board in all the important offensive categories, including batting average (.271), slugging percentage (.433), OPS (.771), and runs scored (703). Not too shabby. But what really brings in both da noise and da funk into the Queen City is the fact that the Reds are 42-25 vs. divisional opponents and still have 10 games remaining against their NL Central frienemies.
Atlanta Braves: 82-62; One game back in NL East, lead Wild Card by one game.
MLB Jam duo: Jason Heyward & Billy Wagner
Alternates: Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Chipper Jones (sizzle/steak rule)
The Braves have all the tasty ingredients you want in a classic seven-layer postseason dip: (1) Steady veteran ace (Tim Hudson); (2) lights-out closer (Billy Wagner); (3) All-Star middle-of-the-lineup masher (Brian McCann); (4) ready-to-explode franchise player (Jason Heyward); (5) random guy having a career year (Omar Infante); (6) necessary Trade Deadline acquisition (Derrek Lee); (7) a midseason top prospect callup (Mike Minor). The fact that this is manager Bobby Cox's swan song, giving them the always-dangerous "Win one for the Gipper" battle cry, is really just the icing on the cake. What, you really thought I was finished with the food analogies?
Philadelphia Phillies: 80-60; One-game lead atop NL East.
MLB Jam Duo: Ryan Howard & Roy Halladay
Alternates: Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt
Not only do the Phillies have back-to-back World Series appearances neatly folded in their back pockets, but they might be baseball's hottest team heading down the stretch. The Phillies trailed the Braves by seven games in the NL East on July 22. Since then, Charlie Manuel's troops have gone 31-14 and don't appear to be slowing down any time soon. If they can just break even and split their two remaining series vs. the Braves, they should finish the year as the East's belles of the ball, with the rest of their schedule consisting of dates with the Mets, Marlins and Nationals. Did I mention that a first-round rotation trio of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt would be downright petrifying? Wait, don't answer that, I'll just re-read the paragraph.
He's on fire!
Texas Rangers: 80-63; 8 1/2-game lead atop AL West
MLB Jam Duo: Josh Hamilton & Cliff Lee
Alternates: Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Nelson Cruz
We've now reached the tier of teams where something historically awful would have to go down (Hey there, '09 Tigers, '07 Mets) for any of these squads to not reach the postseason. And with a five-game winning streak sitting neatly in their team fanny pack, the Rangers appear to be all systems go. With that said, I'd feel a lot better about them dancing into the postseason moonlight if their MVP candidate (Josh Hamilton) returned from his nagging ribcage injury, and if their ace (Cliff Lee) wasn't dealing with back problems. Oh, and if someone can explain to me how Lee has gone 3-5 with a 4.36 ERA over his 12 starts with the Rangers despite an utterly ridiculous 77/9 K/BB ratio and 1.08 WHIP, that'd be just super.
Tampa Bay Rays: 86-56; half-game behind Yankees in AL East, lead Wild Card by 7 1/2 games
MLB Jam Duo: Carl Crawford & David Price
Alternates: Evan Longoria, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza
There might not be a team better suited for "MLB Jam: Tournament Edition," where rosters expand from three to five players, than the Rays. If you wanted to make a case for Evan Longoria, Matt Garza or Rafael Soriano as their "MLB Jam" reps, you easily could and I wouldn't be asking for fisticuffs. Frankly, as long as there's a cheat code that could get a playable and spectacled Joe Maddon into the game, I'm a happy camper.
New York Yankees 87-56; half-game lead atop AL East
MLB Jam Duo: Derek Jeter & Mariano Rivera
Alternates: CC Sabathia, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez (sizzle/steak rule sneaks him in over Mark Teixeira)
Just like Stockton and Malone with the Utah Jazz in the late '90s, it wouldn't feel right if the Yankees' duo consisted of anyone other than Jeter and Rivera. Yes, I'm as amazed as anyone that Jeter has been able to stay in character and keep his Alex Cora impression going all season long with a .261/.329/.369 triple-slash. But ask any Yankees fan if they'd rather have Cano or A-Rod instead and they'll immediately go all Joe Pesci from "Goodfellas" on you. It will be interesting to watch the Rays and Yanks battle it out for AL East supremacy, as they face each other seven times in a span of 11 days in mid-September. Add in six more dates vs. the Red Sox, and you might want to press the pause button before handing New York that divisional crown.
Just to stir the pot a little, here's my list of every team's "Jam" reps. I listed their starting duo first with the following three rearing up the bench.
Because how is this possibly a bad idea, right?
(And just to be painfully biased, I'd 100%.com select the Tigers' 1-2 punch of Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander with the first pick in my "MLB Jam" mock draft.)
Feel free to leave a comment or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to disagree.
Baltimore: Matt Wieters, Brian Matusz, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Koji Uehara
Boston: David Ortiz, Jon Lester, Adrian Beltre, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia
New York: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, CC Sabathia, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez
Tampa Bay: Carl Crawford, David Price, Evan Longoria, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza
Toronto: Jose Bautista, Shaun Marcum, Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Kevin Gregg
Chicago: Manny Ramirez, Edwin Jackson, Alex Rios, Paul Konerko, Chris Sale
Cleveland: Shin-Soo Choo, Fausto Carmona, Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner (sizzle/steak rule), Chris Perez
Detroit: Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Jose Valverde
Kansas City: Billy Butler, Zack Greinke, Joakim Soria, Yuniesky Betancourt, Alex Gordon (?)
Minnesota: Joe Mauer, Franicsco Liriano, Justin Morneau, Delmon Young, Carl Pavano
Anaheim: Kendry Morales, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Torii Hunter, Hideki Matsui
Oakland: Kurt Suzuki, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Andrew Bailey, Kevin Kouzmanoff
Seattle: Ichiro Suzuki, Felix Hernandez, Franklin Gutierrez, Jose Lopez, Chone Figgins
Texas: Josh Hamilton, Cliff Lee, Elvis Andrus, Nelson Cruz, Neftali Feliz
Atlanta: Jason Heyward, Billy Wagner, Brian McCann, Tim Hudson, Chipper Jones
Florida: Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, Dan Uggla, Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison
New York: David Wright, Johan Santana, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Oliver Perez
Washington: Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg (even with injury), Adam Dunn, Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper (why not?)
Chicago: Starlin Castro, Carlos Marmol, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Dempster
Cincinnati: Joey Votto, Aroldis Chapman, Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen, Francisco Cordero
Houston: Hunter Pence, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn
Milwaukee: Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Trevor Hoffman (sizzle/steak rule)
Pittsburgh: Andrew McCutchen, James McDonald, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata
St. Louis: Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter, Yadier Molina
Arizona: Justin Upton, Daniel Hudson, Mark Reynolds, Chris Young, Stephen Drew
Colorado: Carlos Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez, Troy Tulowitzki, Huston Street, Todd Helton
Los Angeles: Andre Ethier, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Matt Kemp, Rafael Furcal
San Diego: Adrian Gonzalez, Mat Latos, Heath Bell, Miguel Tejada, Jon Garland
San Francisco: Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson
Dave Feldman is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.