Each playoff contender's most crucial player

August 27th, 2023

You can make a difference!

A sentence suited for a motivational poster is one that applies to many a Major Leaguer right now. Be it a recent addition, an important piece coming back from injury, a bat or arm that has not yet heated up or a guy who is just beginning to find his footing, every contender has at least one player who can be identified as a potential difference-maker in the home stretch.

So let’s identify those guys. And just for fun, let’s rank them in order of importance, taking into account the team’s realistic odds of reaching October and how heated the race they are involved in looks.

(In a couple of instances, we might be stretching the limits of mathematical feasibility, but all of these teams entered the weekend within six games of a postseason spot.)

1. Blue Jays: , 1B
It’s not complicated. The Blue Jays are in desperate need of a meteoric stretch from the offense, and they’ve been waiting all year for Guerrero to point them on that path. His struggles to live up to his pedigree and his 2021 MVP runner-up precedent are well-documented. But at least he still checks a lot of boxes in terms of limiting strikeouts and hitting the ball hard this season.

2. Rangers: , RHP
There’s no overstating the importance of the Eovaldi signing to a Rangers team that wound up getting just 30 1/3 innings out of Jacob deGrom. Eovaldi responded with an All-Star first half. But the veteran right-hander hasn’t pitched since July 18 because of a forearm strain. He’s throwing to live hitters and will be back not a moment too soon for Texas, as the AL West race gets tighter and more crowded with the Mariners’ surge.

3. Astros: , RHP
Justin Verlander is back in the fold, but the Astros still find themselves trying to right their rotation for the home stretch. Priority No. 1 is getting Javier back on track, after the right-hander appeared to be on the verge of superstardom with his role in a combined World Series no-hitter last year. He has a 6.55 ERA and an .853 OPS against in his last 12 starts.

4. Rays: , RHP
The Rays’ rotation, which tends to fall apart, has fallen apart. Because you can only do so many bullpen games, it’s on Zach Eflin and Civale -- neither of whom has traditionally been known as a durable workhorse -- to be durable workhorses. A recent trade acquisition in the midst of compiling a career-best 160 ERA+ in 97 1/3 innings this season, Civale is especially interesting.

5. Mariners: , RF
The Mariners were pretty widely expected to move Hernández at the Trade Deadline, and that would have put an end to his brief, disappointing tenure with Seattle. But a funny thing happened after they decided to keep him: Hernández started hitting (.363/.395/.575 slash line in his first 20 games of August), and the team started winning. Because Julio Rodríguez can’t reasonably crank out 17 hits in every four-game stretch, it’s imperative that Hernández keep contributing ahead of his free agency.

6. Orioles: , RHP
The iffiness associated with Jack Flaherty after he was scratched from his last start only further augments the importance of Rodriguez on an O’s team that is going to need its rotation at the absolute top of its game to nail down the AL East and advance in October. Rodriguez’s 5.38 ERA is ugly, but it hides the in-season development of his offspeed pitches. He has a 2.42 ERA and a .532 OPS against in his last six starts, all of which came against clubs considered contenders as of that day.

7. Reds: , RHP
At the time of the Trade Deadline, the Reds had the third-highest rotation ERA in MLB. They responded by … doing absolutely nothing of consequence. Their rationale (beyond the high prospect capital price) was that Greene and Nick Lodolo would be returning in August. Greene’s first start back from a right hip injury was a disaster (and his second was only a slight improvement). He’s struggled with walks and long balls, but his stuff is electric, and we saw him piece together a really nice finishing flourish in 2022 (0.78 ERA in the final month). Perhaps he can do it again.

8. D-backs: , CF
Though he’s been overshadowed by teammate and Rookie of the Year favorite Corbin Carroll, Thomas was also a highly regarded prospect who is capable of making a big impact for the reawakened D-backs down the stretch. Thomas made possibly the Catch of the Year the other night, and, after an early-season slump that led to a demotion, he’s returned to put up a respectable .287/.321/.480 slash over the last two months.

9. Giants: , SS
The longtime Cardinal, short-time Blue Jay and infinitesimal-time free agent DeJong has somehow found himself in San Francisco after Brandon Crawford hit the injured list with a left forearm strain. DeJong immediately asserted himself with a clutch 3-for-5 debut for the Giants. Maybe DeJong’s tenure will be brief and he’ll be ousted as soon as Crawford gets back. But if he can contribute offensively for this depth-deprived club, he could find himself on the right-handed side of a platoon at the position.

10. Cubs: , RHP
A late-season injury to Marcus Stroman and the struggles of Drew Smyly have the Cubs scrambling a bit in the rotation. Assad has emerged as a surprisingly reliable presence in both relief and rotation roles. He has a 2.86 ERA across 22 innings in four starts in August. With a deep mix and some craftiness in how he uses it, Assad will continue to get stretched out.

11. Marlins: , RHP
How do you keep a pitcher healthy? No one seems to know. The Marlins got some criticism for sending Pérez down midseason to manage his innings, but it’s not like any other tactic has an impressive track record of health success. In any case, the electric Pérez is back now. He’s already exceeded his previous innings high, so it will be interesting to see how the Marlins manage him, but on a team that has acquired instant offense in the form of Josh Bell and Jake Burger at the Trade Deadline, maxing out the upside of the pitching staff to come out with an NL Wild Card spot is a must.

12. Phillies: , SS
Apparently all it took was a single standing ovation from the Philly faithful to unlock the Turner we know and love. Ever since he was serenaded at Citizens Bank Park after taking ownership for a brutal loss in Miami, Turner’s been on a tear. That night ignited a 10-game hitting streak and an 18-game stretch in which Turner slashed .343/.385/.630. He’s an igniter when he’s right, and, combined with Bryce Harper finally finding the boom in his bat (.707 slugging percentage in August), the Phillies suddenly look a lot like the way they were drawn up.

13. Brewers: , RF
Though Taylor has struggled this year to live up to his preseason placement on the All-Underrated Team, he has seized more playing time of late by heating up in August with a .356/.408/.711 slash through his first 49 plate appearances of the month. On a Brewers team trying to nail down the NL Central with yet another squad built around run prevention rather than run scoring, the hot hand is appreciated and necessary.

14. Red Sox: , RHP
Whitlock, Chris Sale, Tanner Houck and Trevor Story have all been activated recently, and any of them could be singled out in this space. We’ll put the spotlight on Whitlock because of Boston’s decision to bring him back as a multi-inning relief option rather than a starter. He shined in that role in 2021 and was therefore instrumental in the club going on a deep run. So while he’s had a couple rough outings since his return from an elbow injury, Whitlock is capable of giving this club vital bridge work.

15. Padres: The Big Four
There’s no sense getting deep in the woods here with a role player or recent acquisition. The Padres haven’t won four games in a row all year because their stars haven’t performed like stars, and that’s especially true in a month of August in which the Big Four of Xander Bogaerts, Manny Machado, Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. have not delivered when needed most. Pick any of those four for this spot. The Padres need them all to get hot if they’re going to leapfrog four teams in the NL Wild Card race.

16. Guardians: , 1B/OF
The Guardians’ only path to the postseason is an AL Central title, and their only path to an AL Central title is to take care of business in six remaining games against the Twins. Thus far, every game they’ve played against the Twins has been decided by one or two runs. Cleveland needs all the runs it can muster, and Calhoun has been such a surprising source of run production since he was brought aboard in a pinch in early August (when Josh Naylor got hurt) that he’s begun slotting in the No. 3 spot in the lineup.

17. Twins: , DH
The perpetually injured Buxton is injured again, on the shelf all month with a hamstring strain. But he should be back for the September stretch run, and manager Rocco Baldelli has indicated Buxton could see time in the outfield for the first time all season. Whether or not that happens, it is vital that Buxton’s sporadic bat heats up.

18. Dodgers: , RHP
Will Buehler, recovering from his second Tommy John, make it back in September, as hoped? What role will he pitch in? Will he be available for October? Will he be rostered in October? We know the answers to precisely zero of those questions. But as far as X-factors in the home stretch are concerned, a pitcher as talented as Buehler on a team that can and will get creative with how it doles out its innings is pretty hard to top.

19. Braves: , RHP
Seeding is all that’s at stake for the Braves in September, but an especially important element of the home stretch will be getting an effective Wright back in the fold in time for October. That would be quite an added layer of protection for this already-championship-caliber club. Wright won 21 games with a 3.19 ERA last season but has been limited to just five starts this year because of a shoulder issue.