With the grand opportunity to participate in the MLB playoffs, star players often rise to the occasion and come up big in the clutch. But less likely heroes also emerge. Aside from the notable headliners among the ten teams left to chase for the World Series title, let’s look at a player on each club who are prime candidates to be key contributors.
Texas Rangers: Shin-Soo Choo
For just about every team preparing for the postseason, most of the players you’ve seen in recent weeks are those you’ll see when the playoffs begin. That’s not exactly the case for Texas. Choo, who’s missed most of 2016, returned to the everyday lineup (replacing rookie Nomar Mazara) on Saturday versus Tampa Bay and went 1-for-4. The Rangers — holding the AL’s best record — don’t need any additional reinforcements, and the jury’s still out on whether or not Choo’s insertion will be a plus.
Boston Red Sox: David Price
Things often don’t go as planned. For Price, he’s no longer the No. 1 starter in the Boston rotation — an honor automatically bestowed upon him when he signed with the Red Sox this past off-season. Rick Porcello holds that title now, but the onus remains squarely on the 31-year-old southpaw. Despite a Cy Young Award, a career 3.22 ERA and a regular season winning percentage of .651 over his nine-year big league career, Price must now shake the specter of an 2-7 playoff record.
Cleveland Indians: Tyler Naquin
By this time, first-year players have shed their rookie status. That doesn’t mean a bit of nervousness engulfs the relative newcomers that are about to embark on postseason play. And in Naquin’s case, he won’t be doing so in obscurity. In 320 at-bats, his batting average hovered around .300 to go along with 14 homers and 52 runs scored — which should be enough for him to acquire some Rookie of the Year votes. Naquin, who normally sits against lefties, likely won’t be facing David Price. Instead, his role will be to do damage against Rick Porcello and Steven Wright.
Toronto Blue Jays: Bullpen
The bridge to get from the starter to closer usually only encompasses a few innings at most. For the Blue Jays lately, it seems to be an arduous task. Toronto’s set-up men have been unstable, to put it lightly. Jason Grilli, Jesse Chavez and Aaron Loup have experienced periods of trouble. Even Roberto Osuna, he of 36 saves over the year, can’t totally be trusted. Since Sept. 25, he’s blown three saves (giving him six for the season). Despite having the best rotation ERA in the AL, the Blue Jays still possess a pitching problem.
Baltimore Orioles: Trey Mancini
There’s so much power in the O’s lineup that even novices are prone to newly-found pop. Mancini is the greatest example of this, bursting onto the scene in Baltimore with three home runs over his first four games and a .357 in 14 at-bats. The postseason rosters haven’t been determined as of Monday morning and Mancini hasn’t seen action since Sept. 28. Still, it’s hard to imagine taking away his potentially hot bat.
Chicago Cubs: Hector Rondon
This sentimental and logical World Series favorite is lacking in flaws. The Cubs rank third in runs scored, second in on-base percentage, first in ERA, first in batting average against, and first in victories. The lineup has two MVP candidates and the rotation has four Cy Young contenders. But if there’s one crack in the seemingly unbreakable armor, it’s the set-up man. Rondon has made four appearances since September 24, allowing nine hits and seven runs. Should he continue to be shaky, the Cubs’ chances to win it all become weaker.
Washington Nationals: Gio Gonzalez
Gio would probably like to forget what transpired in 2016, despite all the successes for his NL East-winning team. Gonzalez scuffled through the season with an 11-11 record and a 4.57 ERA over 177.1 innings. So, as the Los Angeles Dodgers come calling in the NLDS, why is he such a valuable commodity? Simple: L.A.’s team batting average against left-handed pitching is an MLB-worst .215. Gonzalez, the likely starter in Game 2, can go a long way towards salvaging this mediocre season with one (or two) quality outings against Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Rich Hill
Despite not having the pitching prowess of 2015, the Dodgers appear poised for a longer October stay in 2016 thanks to the the help of key contributors on offense. Clayton Kershaw’s injury — which kept him on the disabled list for the majority of the second half — turned Dave Roberts’ rotation upside down. But the trade deadline acquisition of the well-traveled Hill helped stabilize it with a 1.83 ERA over six starts. Kershaw may not have the stamina to make critical starts on three days rest if needed, so a second southpaw on the L.A. staff with postseason experience is vital.
New York Mets: Jay Bruce
It’s been an up-and-down trip for him over these past two-plus months. An eleventh-hour acquisition from the Reds, Bruce compiled a measly two home runs, six RBIs, and a .183 batting average for in August. Questions of his desire to be in New York finally dissipated — while thoughts of a revival surfaced — at the end of September. During a key seven-game stretch, Bruce hit .478 with four homers and eight runs batted in as the Mets locked up the top Wild Card spot and a playoff berth for the second consecutive season.
San Francisco Giants: Hunter Pence
Like many on the Giants roster, he’s been down this road before. But if San Francisco wants to avoid a quick exit in October, a number of the veterans need to perform like they did during a stellar first half. For Pence, it would be ideal if he could build on the numbers tallied over the past month. Absent for nearly all of June and July, his season totals include a .289 average, but just 57 RBIs. However, 15 of them have occurred since the start of September. For a team lacking in offense, Pence is the best hope.