by Joe Giglio
As the Major League Baseball season races down the stretch, the battle for postseason positioning is on full display. Although two extra Wild Card spots allow for an easier entrance to October baseball, a variety of factors -- parity, revenue sharing, smarter front offices -- have led to more teams fighting for the ten spots.
While the entire 25-man roster -- or up to 40-man in the month of September -- can be vital to the success or failure of a team in a pennant race, some players must stand out.
The following is a list of the X-Factor member of each team within striking distance of a postseason berth. Don’t mistake the list for best player on a team. This is about which player needs to perform well in the coming weeks to add to what the respective teams are already getting out of their superstars.
Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters - When the Orioles young catcher hits, the Baltimore lineup is noticeably deeper. While Adam Jones has been consistent, Nick Markakis on fire since coming back from injury, and everyone else streaky, it’s Wieters that still possess the greatest shot at upside -- both immediate and in the long-term future. After posting a .726 OPS through August, the 26-year-old has showed signs of life in September, including a huge three-run home run in the first inning on Thursday against the Yankees.
New York Yankees: Alex Rodriguez - Superstar in name, but no longer in game. That being said, Rodriguez can still have a major impact on the Yankees lineup. As we’ve seen over the past two months, the highest payroll in baseball can still be susceptible to injuries and a poor lineup card from time to time. In addition to lengthening the lineup, Rodriguez balances out the middle of the order, allowing Joe Girardi to break up his power lefties. He’s not an MVP anymore, but he just might be the most important bat in the Yankees lineup.
Tampa Bay Rays: James Shields - The news of David Price’s sore shoulder has put a dark cloud over the Rays postseason chances. If Price misses just one start, Tampa can overcome it on the way back to October. If he misses multiple starts, the rest of the rotation will have to pick up the slack. Enter Big Game James. While his 2012 has been puzzling, including an ERA over 4.00 most of the season, his peripheral stats -- K%, BB%, GB%, xFIP -- have all been in line with a top of the rotation arm. He’ll have to be that for Tampa the next few weeks.
Detroit Tigers: Jhonny Peralta - Despite a stable of stars with a WAR above 4.0 -- Jackson, Cabrera, Fielder -- Detroit is just 10th in runs scored this season. Why? The other six names Jim Leyland writes into his lineup card make outs like they’re going out of style. Of all the culprits, Peralta stands the best chance to breakout at some point. After all, he has the fifth most PA appearances on the team, which means Leyland isn’t giving up on him anytime soon. He’s also just a year removed from a 5.2 WAR season.
|Liriano's inconsistency has carried over to Chicago|
Picture courtesy of US Presswire
Chicago White Sox: Francisco Liriano - His ERA is a half run lower with Chicago than with Minnesota. While he’ll likely never reach the potential that so many fans had for him, his ability to miss bats (9.8 K/9) is crucial to the White Sox holding off the Tigers in the AL Central. Jake Peavy and Chris Sale have carried this rotation all year, but they need help to cross the finish line. This is why Kenny Williams pulled the trigger on the deal with Minnesota.
Texas Rangers: Derek Holland - With the Texas pitching in a flux due to Neftali Feliz and Colby Lewis injuries, Roy Oswalt flopping, and Yu Darvish growing pains, Ron Washington desperately needs someone to step up behind Matt Harrison in the rotation. While Scott Feldman has been solid, he doesn’t inspire confidence in October. Instead, the guy with October experience must find the form that alludes him too often. Perhaps his Friday night dominance over Tampa Bay -- 8 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 11 K -- is a precursor of things to come in Arlington.
Oakland Athletics: Coco Crisp - A sub .320 OBP doesn’t scream “table setter” or “leadoff hitter” under most circumstances, but it’s Crisp’s recent play that can help set the stage for a deep run for these upstart Athletics. His .346 second half OBP has helped ignite an offense that went from dormant to dangerous in a matter of weeks.
Los Angeles Angels: Ervin Santana - With Jered Weaver’s shoulder on the mend and his immediate future in question, the Angels need a starter to step up and pick up the slack. While Greinke, Haren, and Wilson are all more than capable of acting the part of ace, it’s imperative for Santana to throw quality starts in the likelihood that one of that trio falters each time through the rotation. The inconsistent right-hander has all the tools to dominate, but the Angels never know when that stretch is coming.
Washington Nationals: Drew Storen - There aren’t many holes in this Nationals team, even with the soon-to-be departure of Stephen Strasburg. If there is a worry, look to the back end of the bullpen. While Tyler Clippard has been solid, he blew a game on Friday night to Miami and has never been tested as a closer over a full season, let alone October. Keep an eye on their former closer, Storen. Back from injury and slowly gaining innings on his right arm, he could be asked to finish games down the stretch and clinch a division title.
Atlanta Braves: Freddie Freeman - The second year first baseman has had a nice year -- .264/.348/.457 -- but will be relied on to produce runs down the stretch for a Braves offense that has a tendency to go cold. Chipper, Heyward, and McCann all might inspire more confidence, but it’s Freeman that often finds himself in the cleanup spot. The big spot will find him as Atlanta tries to avoid a second straight October without baseball.
Cincinnati Reds: Todd Frazier - As if the probability of beating out the phenom Bryce Harper for the NL ROY wasn’t enough, this distinction will be placed on Frazier. While the return of Joey Votto seemingly lessens his impact -- mostly due to Dusty Baker refusing to acknowledge that Frazier is a better option than Scott Rolen -- the peripheral gains could be felt in October. Giving Baker the option to rest Votto or Rolen at his discretion will make the whole team better for a deep October run. As Cincinatti decreases Frazier’s playing time, his importance rises.
St. Louis Cardinals: Jon Jay - One of the most underrated players in the game -- his .398 OBP would be Top 10 in MLB if he had the PA to qualify -- starts the engine to an excellent offense in St. Louis. If he continues to get on-base at nearly a 40% clip, Holliday and Beltran will have plenty of opportunities to put runs on the board.
Pittsburgh Pirates: James McDonald - It’s no surprise that the Pirates are springing leaks on their quest to finish over .500 and grab a postseason spot. One of the main reasons? The regression of McDonald in the second half of the season. His 2.37 ERA through July 12th spoke to his improvement and dominance. Since? 7.17 ERA and .901 OPS.
San Francisco Giants: Angel Pagan - As Dave Cameron of FanGraphs recently pointed out, Pagan might be the most underrated player in all of baseball. His 3.7 WAR per 600 plate appearances over the last four years underscores this point. It also proves that Brian Sabean stole him in an offseason trade with the Mets in exchange for Andres Torres. As long as Pagan is healthy, he can ignite an offense that may have finally figured out a middle of the order -- Sandoval, Posey, Pence -- even without Melky Cabrera.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Josh Beckett - The once dominant big game pitcher needs a big month to lead his new team to the promise land. While he won’t ever be confused with an ace again, the move back to the NL and residual effect of leaving Boston might be able to boost Beckett for a month. Considering the battered state of the Dodgers rotation, Los Angeles needs the former star to live up to old expectations and join Clayton Kershaw atop the rotation. His Friday evening start in San Francisco will go a long way to determining the NL West.
Joe Giglio is a sports talk host at WFAN in New York, former intramural coordinator at DeSales University, husband, and baseball fanatic willing to argue Jeff Bagwell's Hall of Fame candidacy at a moment's notice. Follow him on Twitter @JoeGiglioSports and check out his blog at joegiglio.blogspot.com.