The most essential player for every postseason team

October 2nd, 2023

Since Reggie Jackson coined the phrase “the straw that stirs the drink” -- at least in terms of baseball parlance -- back in 1977, it has described the player on each club who most inspires it and leads it to victory.

As we open the 2023 postseason, it’s a fitting time to look at which player on each postseason team has the biggest impact on driving it forward.

No player on Baltimore’s roster has had as much of an impact on the team as Rutschman. The 25-year-old catcher brings a consistently great approach at the dish, solid defense behind the plate and a strong rapport with the pitching staff. For the Orioles’ offense to reach their full potential, they need Rutschman setting the table from either the No. 1 or No. 2 spot in the order. His high on-base ability gives sluggers Anthony Santander and Ryan Mountcastle more opportunities to drive in runs. -- Jake Rill

Yandy Díaz is their best hitter, as well as the AL batting champ. Isaac Paredes has been their top power threat and best run producer. But nobody can take the Rays to another level quite like Arozarena. The All-Star outfielder was spectacular for the first three months, but he quietly entered the final weekend of the regular season slashing just .219/.317/.362 since July 1. Arozarena tends to find another gear on baseball’s biggest stages, though, from his record-setting 2020 postseason to his star turn in this year’s World Baseball Classic. With a handful of key Rays hitters sidelined by injuries, it is once again Arozarena’s time to shine. -- Adam Berry

This is Springer season. Even on a team with young stars like Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., it’s Springer whom the Blue Jays will look to in the biggest moments this postseason. This organization handed out the biggest contract in its history (six years, $150 million) because Springer is a playoff performer, posting an .889 OPS with 19 home runs over 65 career postseason games. The veteran will set the tone for the entire lineup as the leadoff man, including Bichette and Guerrero right behind him. -- Keegan Matheson

This is a real stat: Lewis is slashing .385/.452/.785 (1.237 OPS) in his career with runners in scoring position. He was seemingly built for the big moment. How else can you explain a rookie hitting four grand slams in 20 days, mere months after returning from consecutive ACL tears? He’s third on the team in RBIs (52) despite having played only 58 games. Instead of getting worse as the league has adjusted to him, he’s gotten better. The only thing that can stop him is health. Can he recover from a hamstring strain in time for October 3? -- Do-Hyoung Park

If the “Mr. October” nickname wasn’t already taken, Altuve might apply for a patent. He’s been one of the most clutch postseason performers in baseball history, with 23 career playoff homers, including a pennant-clinching walk-off in 2019, ranking him second in postseason homers in Major League history. Altuve sets the tone at the top of the Houston order. When the Astros bludgeoned the Rangers for three games in Texas earlier in September, Altuve led the way, going 7-for-15 with five homers. If he’s getting on base and sparking rallies in October, the Astros’ offense is going to be just fine. -- Brian McTaggart

Apologies to Corey Seager, who is having the best year of his career, but Semien, Texas' leadoff hitter, has shown that as he goes, the Rangers go. He has an American League-best 10 home runs leading off a game and has missed only one game over his two full seasons with the Rangers. He’s without a doubt the leader of this team, and the young players look to him on a daily basis. He may not have the flair of Adolis García or the consistency of Seager, but Semien keeps this offense -- and this team as a whole -- moving in the right direction. -- Kennedi Landry

Whether he was hitting 40-plus homers or stealing 70-plus bags, Acuña was creating excitement throughout the season. The Braves’ right fielder provides incredible power and speed from the leadoff spot. His ability to regularly create run-scoring opportunities helped Matt Olson set the Braves' Modern Era franchise record for RBIs. Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley also each tallied 95 or more RBIs. Acuña became the first MLB player to record a 40-70 season; nobody had previously tallied more than 46 steals during a 40-homer season. Acuña took his game to incredible heights in 2023, and now, he is ready to shine even brighter during the postseason. -- Mark Bowman

Teammates call Harper "The Showman" for a reason: He lives for the big moment, and he often delivers. Everybody remembers Harper’s game-winning home run in Game 5 of the 2022 NLCS, which propelled the Phillies to the World Series. Harper is primed for a repeat performance in 2023 after missing the first month-plus of the season because of Tommy John surgery. It took him a couple of months to hit his stride, but Harper is not only hitting for power again, he is getting on base and playing a solid first base, which is huge because it allows Kyle Schwarber to DH and upgrades the defense in left. -- Todd Zolecki

Look no further than the only player in AL/NL history to win the batting title in each league in consecutive seasons. Miami got what it had hoped for and more by acquiring professional hitter Arraez from Minnesota for right-hander Pablo López. Arraez has been the table-setter atop the lineup and a clubhouse leader. He batted .403 with a 1.028 OPS in wins and "just" .301 with a .676 OPS in losses. Arraez also came through in the clutch, hitting .434 with runners in scoring position this season. -- Christina De Nicola

The Brewers might have made the best trade of the last offseason when they acquired Contreras, a 25-year-old catcher with five years of control, along with setup man Joel Payamps in a three-team trade with the Braves and A’s. Contreras was Milwaukee’s offensive MVP in 2023 while becoming the latest Brewers catcher to take a giant step forward behind the plate, especially in the framing department. Most impressive has been Contreras’ durability; after setting a career high with 376 plate appearances last season with the Braves, he topped 600 this year. -- Adam McCalvy

You can make a case for Freddie Freeman or J.D. Martinez in this spot, but the Dodgers are at their best when Betts is playing at an MVP level. During the team’s World Series run in 2020, Corey Seager was the hottest hitter on the planet, yet the Dodgers were still quick to say they went as Betts went. For the Dodgers to win a second World Series title in four seasons, it’ll have to be Betts leading the charge. -- Juan Toribio

Carroll makes the Arizona offense go. He has the rare combination of power and elite speed, as evidenced by becoming the first rookie in MLB history to hit 25-plus homers and steal 50-plus bases. While he can hit the long ball, Carroll can also drop a bunt down for a single and steal second (and sometimes third) to put himself in scoring position. Opposing infielders rush their throws, as he is always a threat to beat out a routine grounder. If Carroll is clicking at the top of the lineup, the D-backs will score some runs. -- Steve Gilbert