10 players who can determine playoff races

January 28th, 2018

Let's say we gave every Major League manager the power to designate one player for a monster season. You're on the clock, Mike Scioscia. Start collecting those thoughts.

Can one guy be the difference between making and missing the postseason? Is it ever just that simple? Well, sometimes it just might be.

No one will ever say it quite like that. When baseball teams look back on magical seasons, they point to a whole list of unexpected things.

Way back in Spring Training, the Astros didn't know if right-hander Brad Peacock would even make the team, much less be a huge contributor on a championship team.

Likewise, . Watching him transform from super utility player to everyday player who hit the biggest home run of the World Series -- top of the ninth inning, Game 2 -- was one of the coolest things about the Astros in 2017.

I digress. Just for fun, here are 10 players who might dictate playoff berths in 2018. At the very least, their performance is critically important to their team. Remember this exercise is strictly for fun. No wagering please.

Here goes (stats from 2017):

1. , RHP, Angels

0-2, 2.28 ERA, 0.90 WHIP in six starts

Aces set a tone in all sorts of ways, and while the Angels are keeping their fingers crossed that , and can stay healthy, Richards is the most important guy. In 58 starts in 2014-15, Richards had a 3.18 ERA. In the past two seasons, he has made just 12 starts. He was good as ever -- 2.31 ERA -- when healthy, and the Halos are hopeful that'll be the case for 30-plus starts in 2018. If Richards is, the Angels have a chance to play deep into October.

2. , OF, Twins

.728 OPS, 36 extra-base hits, 29 stolen bases

And then it all clicked. It happened on the Fourth of July. Suddenly, it was no longer about potential. There it all was, a reminder of when he'd been one of baseball's most highly rated prospects. Buxton hit .314 in 62 games -- Minnesota went 37-25 -- after that with eight doubles, five triples, 15 stolen bases and 45 runs. He didn't singlehandedly lead the Twins back to the postseason, but his emergence was the biggest reason. If Buxton's progress carries into 2018, this will be a fun baseball summer in the Twin Cities.

3. , RHP, Giants

8-8, 4.52 ERA, 1.45 WHIP

Cueto's 2017 season was a nightmare from the start, arriving late to Spring Training after helping tend to his ailing father. He never really got untracked, pitching just 147 1/3 innings with a recurring blister problem and a decline in stuff. Cueto's ERA was his highest since his rookie season of 2008. He'll be 32 on Opening Day and is approaching 2,000 career innings, but San Francisco needs him to bounce back and seems confident he can. If Cueto can take his place with and Jeff Samardzija, the Giants will have a front three as good as almost any.

4. Jimmy Nelson, RHP, Brewers

12-6, 3.49 ERA

Nelson's timetable for a return from shoulder surgery is uncertain, but he's important to a Milwaukee team with high hopes after adding outfielders and last week. The Brewers won 86 games in 2017, in part, because Nelson and took big steps forward. Even if they add a front-line starter, they will need Nelson back at some point if they hope to claim the National League Central over the Cubs and Cardinals.

5. Luke Gregerson, RP, Cardinals

65 games, 4.57 ERA, 1.34 WHIP for Astros

Gregerson saved 46 games for the Astros in 2015-16, so closing games is nothing new. He's back in that role in St. Louis with the Cardinals having resisted spending big on free agent Greg Holland. St. Louis has an assortment of potential young closers in the Minor League system, but Gregerson will almost certainly be the man on Opening Day. For a team optimistic about a return to the playoffs, no Cardinal is more important.

6. , OF, Rockies

.701 OPS, 7 HR, 15 SB, 95 games

With Colorado having upgraded its bullpen, it's the corner outfield spots that are an area of concern. Desmond is penciled into play left field, and if he stays healthy, his production could go a long way toward helping the Rockies to a second straight postseason appearance.

7. , OF, D-backs

.758 OPS, 8 HR, 47 games

To shine a light solely on Tomas isn't really fair since the Arizona Diamondbacks also need healthy and productive seasons from A.J. Pollock and . But a healthy Tomas, who hit 31 home runs in 2016, could go a long way toward picking up the offensive gap created by the potential loss of J.D. Martinez to free agency.

8. Matt Harvey, RHP, Mets

5-7, 6.70 ERA, 92 2/3 innings, 18 starts

What can Harvey still be? The Mets simply do not know. If he's even close to the Harvey of 2012-15 (2.53 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings), the Mets could have baseball's best rotation. But he's also arguably the largest unknown in the Majors. Harvey apparently has had a nice offseason, and at 28, this could be a tipping point kind of season after making 35 starts (5.78 ERA) the past two seasons.

9. , RHP, Blue Jays

1-3, 4.25 ERA, 8 starts, 36 innings

There are dozens of questions surrounding the Blue Jays in 2018, none bigger than the health of their once and future 25-year-old ace. After what appeared to be a breakthrough season in 2016 (30 starts, 3.00 ERA), Sanchez pitched just eight times last season because of blister issues and a sprained finger tendon. At the moment, he appears on track to be ready to go Opening Day.

10. , OF, Red Sox

.803 OPS, 46 doubles, 24 home runs

Bettts' numbers were solid for almost any other player, but down from 2016 and not what Boston hopes to get. He seemed to try to pull the ball more than he had in his first two seasons, and while the Red Sox are still hoping to add another home run bat, some of their offensive issues would be answered by having Betts return to his 2016 form (31 home runs, .897 OPS). Considering he's only 25 years old, he's probably experiencing the same learning curve every young player deals with.