6 players who will decide the AL Wild Card race
With just one month left in the regular season, some division races appear all but wrapped up, and even the National League Wild Card spots look likely to go to the Pirates and Cubs -- barring a Cardinals collapse and a torrid streak from the Giants in an odd-numbered year. But there is at least one race that will go to the wire: The American League Wild Card.
While the top AL Wild Card spot will likely go to the team that finishes second in the AL East, the second Wild Card has five teams in the mix who are all within four games of each other. And with many of those clubs set to play against each other during the season's last month, it could come down to what amounts to a round-robin tournament, where only the strong will survive -- and earn a spot in the playoffs.
While the contending teams will require their star players to perform as expected -- the Angels won't be going anywhere without Mike Trout and the Rays will be leaning heavily on their pitching staff -- here are the other key players who could make the difference in the final weeks.
Current AL Wild Card standing: leading for second Wild Card
Postseason probability: 48.8 percent
Key player: Adrian Beltre
When the Rangers acquired Mike Napoli and Cole Hamels at the Trade Deadline, it was a little like Christmas shopping in July. While Hamels was viewed as a jump-start on an unpredictable free-agent market, Napoli's contract was up at the end of the season, and on July 29, Texas' postseason chances stood at a measly 5 percent.
At that time, Beltre's OPS was .677, his lowest mark since he was a 19-year-old rookie in 1998. It seemed age had caught up with him.
Since then, Beltre is hitting .322/.369/.542 with six homers to front a resurgent offense, leading the Rangers on a 22-10 tear and pushing the team into the AL Wild Card mix. As Beltre goes, so go the Rangers.
Current AL Wild Card standing: one game out
Postseason probability: 20.7 percent
Key player: Byron Buxton
Coming off a 92-loss season, the Twins entered the year with only an eight percent chance of making the playoffs -- the lowest in the AL. That the team has hung in it despite ranking 10th in runs scored and 20th in runs allowed is a testament to the unpredictability of baseball.
While they've had some help since calling up the unstoppable Miguel Sano in July, if the Twins want to overtake the Rangers, they'll need help from their other super rookie, Buxton.
Buxton is so highly regarded that he was MLB.com's top prospect before both the 2014 and '15 seasons, but this year has not been the celebration many had hoped for. Through 81 at-bats, split by an injury and demotion, the center fielder is hitting just .210/.247/.284. If the Twins want to be playing in October, they'll need Buxton to play more like the prospect who had an .867 OPS in Double-A and Triple-A this year.
Current AL Wild Card standing: 3 1/2 games out
Postseason probability: 10.4 percent
Key player: Andrew Heaney
While Trout and a resurgent Albert Pujols have carried the team for much of the season, the pitching has been a different story. Among Angels starters with at least 100 innings, only Hector Santiago has an ERA+ over 100 -- and he may be seeing a bit of late-season regression, as he's lasted only 10 2/3 innings over his past three starts, surrendering 12 earned runs.
Meanwhile, C.J. Wilson is out for the rest of the season, Matt Shoemaker required a tuneup at Triple-A, Jered Weaver and his magical 85-mph fastball recently came off the disabled list, and Garrett Richards has struggled in the follow-up to his breakout 2014 campaign.
Which means the Angels' season may rest on Heaney's left arm. Heaney has posted a strong 3.11 ERA thanks to impressive command, walking only 1.7 batters per nine. Heaney alone won't be enough, though. With Trout in arguably the worst slump of his career, the offense has sputtered, scoring only 86 runs in August -- the fewest in the Majors.
Current AL Wild Card standing: 3 1/2 games back
Postseason probability: 12.9 percent
Key players: Daniel Nava and Grady Sizemore
Other than a breakout season from Logan Forsythe, the Rays' offense has been filled with disappointment this year, and they rank last in the AL in runs. No longer able to count solely on Evan Longoria, the Majors' fourth-lowest-scoring offense has been reliant on Forsythe -- and perhaps a switch to a golf-like system, where the lowest score wins.
And with Longoria not hitting like the superstar he has been, the club will need Nava and Sizemore to step up following the trade of David DeJesus and injuries to Steven Souza Jr. and Desmond Jennings.
While Nava and Sizemore have inspiring "Rudy"-like stories -- Nava being cut from his college team and Sizemore missing all of 2012-13 -- Tampa Bay will need more sports-movie-like magic from the duo. While Nava has a .365 OBP with the Rays and Sizemore has hit six home runs since joining the team, it's a lot to ask of these two.
Current AL Wild Card standing: five games behind
Postseason probability: 13.1 percent
Key player: Francisco Lindor
A trendy pick to win the World Series before the season started, the starting trio of Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and the currently injured Carlos Carrasco was let down by a porous defense, and underwhelming seasons from Yan Gomes and the no-longer-on-the-team Brandon Moss and Michael Bourn certainly didn't help.
With a slim chance of making the postseason, there is no one more important to the team's chances than Lindor.
While the rookie's defense was already a soothing balm for the pitching staff, Lindor's (admittedly small sample size) UZR of 5.6 far outpaced the combined minus-6.8 from Jose Ramirez, Mike Aviles and Zach Walters, and Lindor's bat has also provided a welcome boost.
Since the All-Star break, Lindor has hit .360/.400/.517, and he is looking an awful lot like that other rookie shortstop in Houston who has stormed to the front of the AL Rookie of the Year Award consideration.