Despite a record number of clubs advancing to this year's MLB postseason, there will still be 14 teams that won't be playing in October. Players on those clubs, especially young ones, could very well be playing themselves onto or off their teams' 2021 rosters. It's certainly not audition time, because many players have done enough to warrant their big league call-up, but it is a time of scrutinized observation.
Less than a week remains in the season, and players are being evaluated for more than just their numbers. It's also about what's under the hood for some of these players. How do they react to losing? What's their behavior and work ethic like when they're not playing for a postseason berth?
"That's exactly where my sights are targeted," said Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, whose club is mired in the NL West cellar. "Obviously, wanting great results, but it's mostly the focus and the effort and the preparedness. We have certain things here that we don't settle for being OK with. That's where I'm going to target, send a lot of my attention on a daily basis."
The Colorado Rockies' playoff hopes are hanging by a thread, but manager Bud Black is looking for the same traits from his players. And that's for the entire time they're at the ballpark.
"It starts from the time they walk through the door," Black said. "It doesn't just happen when the game starts. You know players from all the time you've spent with them over the years, from spring training until the very last day of the season. So, what you look for is the consistency of their day. That nothing changes from those days when you're in a pennant race and charging to the playoffs, which we did a couple of years ago, and what they do now when it's getting late and we're going through a rough stretch. You want to make sure that the behavior doesn't change, that they're working, they're focused, that they're playing the game the right way."
In 2004, the Diamondbacks were on their way to a disastrous 111-loss season when then-interim manager Al Pedrique posted a postgame note on the grease board in the visiting clubhouse in San Francisco that there would be optional hitting at 1 p.m. the next day. It was early September, and by that time, the club had brought up a slew of minor leaguers, wanting to gauge what they had in their system. The younger players were affectionately referred to as "Baby Backs."
But not every one of those Baby Backs decided they needed the extra hitting. One of the few who did was rookie Chad Tracy, who wound up having a nine-year big league career. Quite a few of the other young players decided to skip the optional workout. Several of those never made it back to the big leagues.
"It was a test," said 19-year veteran Luis Gonzalez, who was on that D-backs roster. "A lot of managers and coaches do that. They'll throw that out there and want to see who is really committed into getting better. You should always want to get better; after all, this is your job. Some guys walk out and think they own the club and think because they're wearing a big league uniform they've arrived and can let up on working. Organizations want to know who's really in it. You want to see who's willing to put in the commitment and time."
Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon has guided the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs to the World Series, having won it with the Cubs in 2016. He also has the perspective of having been in the minor leagues as a coach, a manager and an evaluator for nearly three decades. The Angels haven't had a winning record all season, and it's been a trying time for Maddon. But he affirmed that this, the end of a poor season, is the time to put on your scout's eye and evaluate what you have.
"It's like the minor leagues when you walk in with your team in April and here comes August," Maddon said. "You definitely want to see improvement in certain areas. Meaning the things you've worked on, the things that you think needed to be improved on. You're looking for progress. You're looking for that cultural difference where there's a method at play, there's a low tolerance for mental mistakes, there's an expectation set very high that we're all looking to meet. It's all cultural, all built. It doesn't get handed to you, it has to be earned."
Likewise, the Miami Marlins are in the midst of their first winning season since 2009, and manager Don Mattingly has his club on the verge of its first postseason appearance in 17 years. He knows firsthand what noncontenders are going through at this time.
Mattingly watched several of his club's current contributors put out impressive efforts the past few seasons when things weren't going well. He singled out examples such as shortstop Miguel Rojas, third baseman Brian Anderson and pitchers Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Elieser Hernandez as players who opened eyes and separated themselves when his club had no chance of reaching the postseason.
"How do they compete?" Mattingly said. "Are they going to give in or keep fighting and keep playing? Keep doing things right. Not being totally selfish during that period, and that's hard to do because when you're not playing for anything, guys want to put up numbers. But you see the guys who fight and do it right and continue to work to get better.
"That was our whole thing over the last couple of years. We have got to keep improving. Keep showing that we're going to get better. It didn't show up in our record last year. It showed up in certain areas. I think that's what September shows you, and it actually probably showed it in August and September for us because we were out of it fairly quickly. But you do learn a lot about their character and how they go about things."
The payoff is now evident for the Marlins.