Opportunity binge

All the MLB series to watch in September — for good and for bad

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By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer

September baseball is here, and like the SEC, It Just Means More.

Well, technically the wins from May count exactly the same as those tallied this month, but with October inching ever closer, the stakes are irrefutably higher for teams that can still sniff a postseason spot.

I don’t know about you, but I have always thought about the MLB schedule in two repeating chunks: weekday series that take place in two to four games between Monday and Thursday and weekend series that run Friday to Sunday, occasionally starting Thursday. Using this framework, I broke the September schedule into nine chunks and identified the best series to watch in each. 

What makes a series watchable?

For the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to let the standings dictate that. Yes, Shohei Ohtani is must-see TV, and I will continue tuning in for his starts and at-bats. But I have very little invested in the outcomes of the games for the perpetually at-or-around .500 Angels as they continue to exist in the uncompelling middle ground — too good to have a high draft pick but nowhere near the postseason picture.

My attention stays locked on the teams vying for those 10 spots in October. Particularly after last year’s wonky, 16-team playoff field, the return to the usual format has each aspiring October participant’s final month feeling all the more dire. Nearly every game these teams play down the stretch is high-stakes, but when they play one another in September? This is the good stuff.

But wait — there is another side of the standings: the bottom.

Now, I am certainly not a proponent of tanking in sports. And it’s important to acknowledge the reality that no single baseball player taken atop a draft can change a franchise the way one can in basketball or football. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t help to have a higher draft pick. And sometimes, how the bottom of the standings shake out by the end of Game 162 can make an enormous difference. 

The most extreme example in recent history was the incredible plummet down the standings by the Washington Nationals in September 2008. In that case, there was a generational talent worth losing down the stretch for — his name was Stephen Strasburg.

Washington lost nine of its last 10 games, including an ultra-clutch sweep at the hands of the similarly terrible San Diego Padres, who were also “vying” for the chance to select Strasburg. The Seattle Mariners, meanwhile, totally bungled it. After losing 11 in a row earlier in the month, they inexplicably swept Oakland on the last weekend of the season to finish 61-101, 1.5 games better than the Nationals (59-102).

The Mariners selected Dustin Ackley with the No. 2 pick of the 2009 draft. The Padres selected a high school outfielder named Donavan Tate. Strasburg became a World Series MVP. In a sense, those last few weeks for those bad teams changed the course of baseball history.

Now, the 2022 draft doesn’t have a super-duper obvious No. 1 pick like Strasburg or Bryce Harper or, more recently, Adley Rutschman. Right now, there are two tremendously exciting high school hitters to consider: Elijah Green, an uber-athletic outfielder from Florida who compares physically to Ronald Acuña Jr., and Termarr Johnson, an undersized but freakishly gifted infielder from Georgia with one of the best hit tools scouts have seen in a long time.

On the college side, there’s a bevy of talented infielders — Texas Tech’s Jace Jung, Vanderbilt’s Carter Young, Cal Poly’s Brooks Lee and LSU’s Jacob Berry — but none has moved into his own tier just yet. 

And that’s before we even mention any of the pitchers, of which there are plenty to dream on. 

But regardless of whether there’s a clear top pick, it’s undeniable that having a higher draft pick is advantageous. Higher pick equals higher bonus pool equals more good baseball players (in theory). It’s also possible that a clear best player in the class will emerge next spring, and that No. 1 pick will turn out to be worth the extra losing. All in all, it makes the games between the teams near the bottom compelling in their own silly way.

Granted, we might not feel the impact of these results anytime soon, but I promise you that in 2026, we’ll be looking back at the 2022 draft and thinking, “Wow, if only the Pirates had lost a few more games in September 2021, they could’ve had [UNDETERMINED FUTURE SUPERSTAR X] to help in their pennant chase.”

Now we know what we’re looking for:

Good teams playing good teams …

… and bad teams playing bad teams. 

Without further ado, here’s your viewing guide for the final month of the 2021 regular season, with must-see series listed first and series that will matter in 2026 listed last:

F-S = Friday-Sunday
M-W = Monday-Wednesday
M-T = Monday-Thursday
T-T = Tuesday-Thursday
T-S = Thursday-Saturday

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Friday, Sept. 3 – Sunday, Sept. 5
* Dodgers at Giants (F-S)
* Astros at Padres (F-S)
* A’s at Blue Jays (F-S)
* Cardinals at Brewers (F-S)
* Pirates at Cubs (T-S)

The good teams: Whether the Dodgers can catch the Giants and claim a ninth consecutive NL West title will surely be one of the biggest storylines of September. This series at Oracle Park will be an excellent opportunity for L.A. to gain some ground.

The bad teams: A clear tier of four teams — Baltimore, Arizona, Texas and Pittsburgh — will in all likelihood make up the top four picks. After that, though, the race for No. 5 is wide open. Cubs fans, if you’re not enjoying watching all your former All-Stars play for other teams, at least know that a top-five pick is very much in play for 2022. (Patrick Wisdom is pretty cool, too.)

Monday, Sept. 6 – Thursday, Sept. 9
* Blue Jays at Yankees (M-T)
* Dodgers at Cardinals (M-T)
* White Sox at A’s (T-T)
* Rays at Red Sox (M-T)
* Phillies at Brewers (M-W)
* Mariners at Astros (M-W)
* Rangers at D-backs (T-W)

Good: This four-game set in the Bronx could either completely bury the Blue Jays or give them new life and make the Yankees start to sweat a whole lot more. That’s gonna be fun.

Bad: It’s only two games, but for whichever one of these teams wants to “catch” Baltimore for the No. 1 pick more, losing these games could prove crucial. 

Friday, Sept. 10 – Sunday, Sept. 12
* Reds at Cardinals (F-S)
* Padres at Dodgers (F-S)
* Red Sox at White Sox (F-S)
* Yankees at Mets (F-S)
* Nationals at Pirates (F-S)

Good: Serious credit to the Cardinals for hanging around to this point. If the Padres continue to struggle, this home series against the Reds could be a huge opportunity for St. Louis to jump into the second wild-card spot. 

Bad: The Pirates have played much better of late, winning six of their past 10. They’re now 7.5 games “back” of Baltimore for No. 1.

Monday, Sept. 13 – Thursday, Sept. 16
* Red Sox at Mariners (M-W)
* Padres at Giants (M-T)
* Cardinals at Mets (M-W)
* Rays at Blue Jays (M-W)
* Marlins at Nationals (M-W)

Good: If the Mariners haven’t fallen out of it entirely by this point, this could be an especially spicy series.

Bad: The Nationals’ deadline fire sale certainly helped vault them into a near-guaranteed top-10 pick in 2022, and the Marlins look to be their biggest competition for a spot in the top five. These games could mean a lot.

Friday, Sept. 17 – Sunday, Sept. 19
* Padres at Cardinals (F-S)
* Dodgers at Reds (F-S)
* Braves at Giants (F-S)
* Phillies at Mets (F-S)
* Pirates at Marlins (F-S)

Good: This could be a fun rematch of the highly competitive firstround matchup we saw in last year’s funky playoffs. Again, if the Cardinals are still in it by this point, I’ll be so impressed. I’m really not entirely sure how they’re doing it.

Bad: If the Pirates continue their winning ways of late, the Marlins could “catch” them for the fourth pick. It’ll take some work, though.

Monday, Sept. 20 – Thursday, Sept. 23
* Mariners at A’s (M-T)
*…

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