While any number of factors -- many of them unforeseen -- wind up deciding both the October field and its ultimate result, it is only natural that our first order of business in assessing the postseason picture is to hone in on the rotations.
And right now, among contenders, there are a ton of starting pitching questions hanging in the air.
• Did a Mariners-Orioles trade change the complexion of the American League Wild Card chase?
At the non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Orioles gave up Ariel Miranda to get Wade Miley from the Mariners and, well, let's just say Miley hasn't exactly been an upgrade for that much-maligned O's rotation.
But the M's have been baseball's hottest team of late in part because of Miranda's key contributions. He is 4-1 with a 3.63 ERA with Seattle and hasn't allowed any runs in his last seven innings. The Mariners have been one of the streakiest teams in baseball this season, and their rotation hasn't always been the backbone it was hoped to be. But right now, with Miranda pitching in, Taijuan Walker (who allowed no walks while striking out 11 in a shutout of the Angels on Tuesday) seemingly having turned the corner and James Paxton and some guy named Felix Hernandez healthy, this is a dangerous ballclub that will play seven of its final 10 against also-rans.
That O's-M's trade could loom large as those clubs butt heads in the playoff pursuit.
Back in Spring Training, the O's were talking about capping Bundy, who had Tommy John surgery in 2013 and opened the year in the bullpen, at about 70 innings. He's now at 99 2/3, having been thrust into their second-half rotation out of desperation. The Orioles have gotten quality work out of Bundy (115 ERA+), but as he's ventured into unchartered workload, consistency has not been a strength and some command woes have crept up from time to time. Piecing together and effective starting group has been a struggle for this club all year, and monitoring Bundy's pitch counts and how his arm responds remains a must.
Here we go again. The Nats are entering October without the uber-talented but oft-injured Strasburg, and this time it's not by choice. But they are well-positioned to absorb the blow at the top end. Max Scherzer, who starts Friday night in Atlanta, is a National League Cy Young Award candidate (2.78 ERA, 150 ERA+, Major League-leading 251 strikeouts), but also on the fringes of the NL Cy Young conversation is the vastly underrated Tanner Roark (2.75 ERA, 152 ERA+).
Unfortunately, it's a little less defined from there. Actually, because the Nats' current NL Division Series opponent would be a Dodgers team that struggles against left-handed pitching, maybe prioritizing Gio Gonzalez for the Game 2 start would make some sense. But really no telling what the Nats do with their fourth spot. Joe Ross, who returns from shoulder troubles this weekend, could emerge as an option.
It's a direct parallel to the Strasburg situation, as both Tommy John alums are dealing with a flexor strain that is sometimes a precursor to ulnar collateral ligament issues. Neither can be assumed as an October option.
For the Indians, life without Salazar has been a reality for much of the second half, but as they try to nail down the AL Central, his absence certainly increases the onus on Trevor Bauer to shine in their October No. 3 spot behind AL Cy Young Award candidate Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. The bigger worry is the fourth spot, which could go to Josh Tomlin, who looked much-improved in a five-inning effort in Chicago on Wednesday after a second-half showing that more closely resembled the Home Run Derby, or rookie Mike Clevinger.
The Rangers pushed Darvish's next start back a few days, which, given his recent history, rang alarm bells that could be heard from here to Japan. Pitching coach Doug Brocail said Darvish had some recent post-throwing soreness, but he called it "good soreness," related to Darvish working on his arm extension. So probably nothing to worry about as Darvish takes the mound Saturday against the A's, but, thanks to the schedule tweak, this weekend will be a good look at the Rangers' perceived playoff rotation of Cole Hamels, Darvish and Colby Lewis, who will be making just his second after missing more than two months with a lat strain.
• Have the Dodgers finally found traction?
It's been a ridiculous road to get to this point, one that has seen the Dodgers start 15 different men over the course of 2016. But Clayton Kershaw is back after a 75-day absence, and he showed flashes of his Koufax-like peak in the Bronx on Wednesday night. And when you group Kershaw, Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda together, as the Dodgers have done, you have the ingredients for a deep October run.
Unfortunately, all of those guys come with question marks. We have to see how Kershaw's back responds as his workload ramps up, Hill's recent blister woes were problematic (and dangerous) enough for Dave Roberts to yank him from a perfect seven-inning effort in Miami and Maeda has been at his best when kept on an every-sixth-day schedule more in line with what he was accustomed to in Japan -- something that'll be awfully difficult to adhere to come October.
The Tigers' rotation from Aug. 27 through Wednesday: 0-8, 5.72 ERA. They've gotten a resurgent season from Justin Verlander, a AL Rookie of the Year-worthy effort from Michael Fulmer and hugely positive signs from Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris at times, but they appear to be running on fumes, and the bullpen has had some recent struggles, too. Zimmermann has an ERA north of 8 over his last 10 starts and his mechanical issues after his latest DL stint were striking enough for the Tigers to dial back and have him throw a simulated game Wednesday. Detroit really needs its $110 million man to come through in the final run at the AL Wild Card.
• How will the Cubs line up their postseason rotation?
My colleague Phil Rogers weighed in on this at length, and it's pretty nice when this is your most pressing issue. The postseason isn't always about pedigree or who has had or will have the best career; it's often about who is the hot hand right now, and there is no hotter hand in the NL than that of Kyle Hendricks. Manager Joe Maddon will have the tough -- but ultimately fun -- challenge of deciding where to slot him in among the October-tested likes of Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.