1 difference-maker for each contender down the stretch

August 16th, 2022

As games take on outsized meaning in the final seven-plus weeks of the Major League season, so, too, do innings and at-bats. We are entering that heightened, wonderful time of year when heroes and memories are made. 

So who could make a difference for clubs still vying for postseason contention and/or seeding? An established star? A newly promoted prospect? A regular returning from injury? 

Let’s pick out one player from each of the contending clubs -- defined here as teams that entered the week of Aug. 15 within five games of a playoff spot -- that could be a difference-maker down the stretch. These are ranked based on a combination of the quality of the player and the potential impact they could have on the race. (Which is why you’ll see players on teams whose playoff status is close to settled toward the bottom.)

1. Phillies: Bryce Harper, DH
It is frankly amazing how well this flawed-but-fun team has played since changing managers and, in particular, with the reigning NL MVP out of action with a broken thumb. Harper still won't be playing in the field when he returns on account of an ongoing elbow issue, but if his bat returns by the end of August, as is anticipated, he could be back just in time to do what he intended when he signed that mammoth contract -- power Philly into October for the first time since 2011.

2. Padres: Juan Soto, RF
Do we really need to explain why Soto can be a difference-maker for the Padres? Especially now that Fernando Tatis’ would-be injury comeback is canceled? Yeah, didn’t think so. Let’s talk about something else. How was your summer?

3. Mets: Jacob deGrom, RHP
Pretty straightforward here. deGrom didn’t pitch in the big leagues for more than a year but has looked like a force of nature in three starts since his return. If he can keep that up and avoid any injury setbacks, the Mets look like a force too.

4. Brewers: Devin Williams, RHP
Milwaukee trading Josh Hader was defensible on paper but could not have gone over more poorly inside the Brewers’ clubhouse. Williams was the one who appeared most miffed by Hader’s departure, and he is the one now thrust into the bullpen anchor role. The closer role is different because pitchers believe it to be different, and it was jarring to see Williams suffer his first two losses of the season in his first four appearances after the trade. But he obviously has the stuff to thrive and to help the Brew Crew retain its late-inning edge.

5. Rays: Wander Franco, SS
This team, which had as many as 17 players on the injured list at one point in July, needs to get healthy in a hurry, and Franco is a huge part of that. The Rays have basically treaded water since Franco fractured his right hamate bone on July 9, requiring surgery. They hope to have him back in late August or early September.

6. Braves: Vaughn Grissom, SS/2B
Atlanta’s top prospect was promoted this past week not just to get the lay of the land and an occasional at-bat. He’s here to play, with Ozzie Albies still recovering from a foot fracture. Though he was only 22 games into his Double-A career when he got the call, Grissom managed to swat a two-run homer for his first hit in the bigs, and then added another massive blast over the weekend in Miami. If the defending champs get from Grissom even a fraction of the impact they have gotten from Michael Harris II (another standout rookie who came up straight from Double-A), they are living a charmed existence.

7. Mariners: Julio Rodríguez, CF
He has very quickly become one of the most magnetic players in the sport, a 21-year-old who attracted awe from fellow All-Stars at the Midsummer Classic. Rodríguez dealt with wrist issues the past month and spent time on the IL in August. Any injury to that area can be precarious for a hitter. The M’s have a really good team that should be able to end the longest postseason drought in the sport, but you’d feel a lot better about their chances if J-Rod is right.

8. Twins: Tyler Mahle, RHP
Mahle’s mixed track record in his career – and this particular season – makes it unclear what his ultimate ceiling and impact level will be. And his first start in Minnesota (three homers allowed in six innings) did little to back up the narrative that his new home park will lead to better performance than his old one in homer-haven Cincinnati. But Mahle has good stuff that can elevate the Twins’ rotation. That’s why they went after him at the Deadline, after all.

9. Blue Jays: José Berríos, RHP
Toronto has the capability to overpower other teams offensively down the stretch even on days when the Jays are outpitched. But the rotation has big question marks after studs Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah. The hugely talented Berríos has had a puzzling, vexing season, but a 2.90 ERA in five starts from July 6 to July 31 was another example of the quality he can provide to this club, and the Blue Jays will need more of that the rest of the way.

10. Cardinals: Yadi Molina, C
That Molina is and long has been so important to how the Cardinals operate is obvious. And now he’s in the final weeks of a Hall of Fame-worthy career. He was absent with injury for a month and a half, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the Cards kind of plodded along without him, going 17-19 in that span. Since his return, they have had an awesome August. And on a new-look pitching staff post-Deadline (with the possibility of Jack Flaherty returning for a handful of starts), Yadi’s game-calling is as important as ever.

11. Guardians: Aaron Civale, RHP
The youngest team in MLB has thrust itself into contention against all reasonable expectation, and what’s especially shocking about that is the area of the team traditionally viewed as a strength – the rotation – has, on measure, just been sort of average, with recent depth issues and a spate of doubleheaders leading 34-year-old reliever Bryan Shaw, of all people, to make a couple of recent starts. Civale was having a miserable season before hitting the IL with a wrist issue, but he has shown himself in the past to be capable of quality length, and his return against the Tigers on Wednesday was encouraging, as was another start against Detroit on Monday. If he can give the Guardians some added stability in the starting set, that might be all they need to complete a surprise run to October.

12. Orioles: Félix Bautista, RHP
Bautista is really a stand-in here for the bullpen, in general. It has been the O’s greatest strength all season and the biggest reason why they are in the astounding spot they are. But with the ‘pen having taken on an above-average workload this season (fifth in MLB in innings-pitched, as of this writing) and All-Star closer Jorge López dealt at the Deadline, the biggest challenge for Bautista and the boys awaits. If they can hang tough, the O’s just might complete this unexpected story.

13. White Sox: Lenyn Sosa, 2B/SS
This is a total wild card, because the White Sox have more established players, more important players and more impactful players than Sosa, who only has a handful of big league games to his name. But what the Sox really need right now is somebody to adequately replace the injured Tim Anderson, who will miss up to six weeks after undergoing finger surgery. We have a pretty large sample of stats to tell us Leury Garcia is not that guy. Perhaps the freshly promoted Sosa can give this club a spark.

14. Red Sox: Tommy Pham, LF
This underperforming, injury-ridden team needs a major boost, and Pham has the talent to go on a prolonged hot stretch. Alex Cora has given him leadoff opportunities since his arrival in a midseason trade, and Pham has taken early advantage. If he can catch the ball, that’ll also help a Boston club that has had an inordinate amount of trouble in that department.

15. Yankees: Clay Holmes, RHP
The Yankees’ pitching staff, as a whole, has taken a decisive downturn in the second half, and it should go without saying that they need a boost from trade acquisition Frankie Montas, they need ace-like performance from Gerrit Cole, they need Nestor Cortes to power through new workload territory, etc. But even if all that happens, it would be undermined if the bullpen can’t put itself back together in the wake of Michael King’s season-ending elbow injury. The Yankees brought in new bodies at the Deadline (Scott Effross and Lou Trivino), but they need Holmes, who has had trouble in the second half with walks and hard-hit sinkers, to return to his All-Star form.

16. Astros: Yordan Alvarez, DH/LF
This guy played like an MVP in the first half, but a hand injury seems to have sapped some of his strength. He went 38 at-bats between his 30th and 31st homers. The Astros improved their lineup depth at the Deadline with the addition of Trey Mancini, but Alvarez remains capable of taking the offensive production to another level at a time when Houston is battling for the No. 1 overall seed in the AL.

17. Dodgers: Dustin May, RHP
The Dodgers are set in the division and have a big advantage in the battle for the NL’s No. 1 seed. But there are still elements of their club that need to be rounded out for October. May’s pending return from Tommy John surgery will determine whether he can take the stingiest staff in baseball to another level. It’s not hard to remember how dominant May had become just before his elbow let him down last May.