Say what you want about the second wild card, but it's certainly making things interesting. The trade deadline has passed and the dog days are upon us, and more than half the league can reasonably consider itself in the hunt.
Every team has a weakness, and in a race this tight one player will make the difference between playoff baseball and an early tee time. Here are 10 players that will go a long way to deciding postseason races all across baseball. This list won't focus on stars necessarily—we know Miguel Cabrera will have a huge say in the AL Central race. Rather these are players who have underachieved or flown under the radar up until this point, but who still have a chance to make the difference for their teams.
I know, a guy who spent the majority of the season in Triple-A makes for a captivating start to any list. But Lannan just might be the key to the Nats capturing their first division title since they moved back to the nation's capital.
The Nats have cruised at the top of the NL East all year, and it's no secret how they've done it—starting pitching, and a whole lot of it. Their staff leads the NL in ERA, and they've helped mask a lineup that's been inconsistent all year.
But a staff that looked so dominant for months is starting to wobble just a little bit. Gio Gonzalez has shown signs of cooling off after a ridiculous start, and GM Mike Rizzo shows no signs of backing off his plan to shut down Stephen Strasburg by early September. Atlanta is getting closer and closer in the rear-view mirror, and now is not the time for question marks in the starting rotation.
That's where Lannan comes in. By all accounts he'll be the guy called on to replace Strasburg, and the Nats will need him to provide quality innings to hold off the red-hot Braves down the stretch. Lannan was able to smoke-and-mirror his way to a quality 2011, posting a 3.70 ERA despite some iffy ratios, and was solid in two spot-starts earlier this year.
Washington will go as far as its arms can take it, and the replacement for its ace needs to step up. He doesn't have to be Strasburg, but he'll have to be effective to give the Nats a division crown.
It's taken them a while, but the Tigers have finally started playing like we thought they would when they signed Prince Fielder to a contract worth a small nation's GDP this offseason.
The guys around Fielder and Miguel Cabrera have started to pick up the slack, Justin Verlander has been, well, Justin Verlander, and Detroit has dug itself out of the doldrums and into the thick of the AL Central race.
But the White Sox show no signs of slowing down, and the Tigers will need some serious horses to keep up. That means Porcello, who's underachieved ever since being taken in the first round in 2007. He's always struggled to keep his sinker down in the zone, and sinkers that don't get down get hit a long way.
He's been his usual maddening self this year—great starts against the Rangers and White Sox in between clunkers against the Cubs and Twins. Verlander is transcendent, but he only has a chance to work his magic every five days, and four question marks behind him isn't going to cut it. For Detroit to keep winning and fend off the small army of teams in wild-card contention, the Tigers need someone else to step up and win games.
Max Scherzer hands out home runs like candy and Doug Fister has battled injuries for much of this season. An effective Porcello would turn the Tigers into one of the most dangerous teams in baseball.
We already talked about the Nationals, but there's another team in the mix in the NL East. The Atlanta Braves have played great baseball in the second half, but it's hid the fact that their starting rotation is flimsier than one of those red foam tomahawks.
Breakout star Brandon Beachy is on the shelf for the rest of the year, and past ageless wonder Tim Hudson there's a whole lot of nothing. They have the second lowest amount of quality starts, and that's only if you think it's fair to include the Rockies as a major league pitching staff.
Bottom line, if this team wants to avoid last year's historic collapse they'll have to slug their way there. Which is a bit of a problem, because although Atlanta has some nice hitters in their lineup, with Brian McCann struggling there isn't a lot of punch in the middle.
Which is what Uggla was brought in to do—bat cleanup, swing hard enough to throw his back out and hit balls a mile. But he's only got 12 home runs as of this article to go along with a dreadful .212 average, and that isn't going to get it done. There are a lot of talented teams that the Braves will have to fend off to earn a playoff spot, and that'll be hard to do without Uggla driving in runs.
The Cardinals are probably the biggest enigma out of all the contenders in baseball. They have easily the biggest run differential in baseball and the NL's most loaded offense, yet they find themselves on the outside looking in as August rolls around.
They have the ability out-slug anyone on any given night, but to overtake the Reds and Pirates (yes, the Pirates) in the NL Central they're going to need to find someone to take command of that pitching staff.
Take a look at the Cardinals starting rotation. There's a whole lot of okay, a lot of guys you can fill into the back end of a playoff team. But the problem is that there are five of those guys, and I don't think anyone in St. Louis is comfortable heading into the fall with Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook as a potential 1-2.
They need a bonafide ace, and Wainwright was that guy just a couple years ago—a perennial Cy Young contender with some of the nastiest stuff in the game. Pitchers are ticking time bombs though, and one Tommy John surgery later he's struggled to regain his dominating form. He hasn't been terrible this year, and he's even shown flashes of who he used to be. But he hasn't been the Adam Wainwright we got used to, and the Cards pitching staff has a hole with his name on it.
St. Louis has some ground to make up and some teams to leapfrog if it hopes to get a shot at repeating as World Series champs, and it's awful tough to get hot without a loss-stopper at the top of the rotation.
The Giants have a pretty familiar formula by now—shut teams down with pitching, and squeeze out just enough offense.
The pitching has been what it always is despite Tim Lincecum's implosion—if you don't have a man-crush on Madison Bumgarner, you really should—but Pablo Sandoval's injury has left their lineup thin.
Enter Hunter Pence, the man with the ridiculous swing and the goofy smile. He looks about as ugly as anyone in baseball, but he does everything the right way and he does it well. The Giants knew they needed pop in the middle of the lineup with the Panda out, and if Pence can come through there's no reason the Giants shouldn't win another NL West title.
Pence got off to something of a disappointing start with the Phillies, but he's still one of the best all-around outfielders in the NL. He and a white-hot Buster Posey form one heck of a duo with Melky Cabrera setting the table, and that's a dangerous proposition considering how few runs that pitching staff will need. If Pence can be what Carlos Beltran wasn't last year, look out for San Francisco.
The Yankees are in a bit of a tailspin, and we know how well that goes over in the Big Apple.
A starting rotation that looked like a strength in April is now back to CC Sabathia and the question marks. Michael Pineda and Andy Pettitte have been lost to injury and Phil Hughes is, well, Phil Hughes—he's been better this season, but you'd have a really hard time finding a Yankee fan who feels good about relying on him in a postseason series.
Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda are rock solid, but they're going to need some help, and that responsibility falls on Ivan Nova's shoulders. The 25-year-old has shown flashes of brilliance in his time in the Bronx, and he's certainly got the stuff to be a second or third starter in a contending rotation. But his command has been over all the place the past couple of months, and he's gotten hit hard.
That vaunted Yankees offense isn't as vaunted as we thought, and a rebound may not be forthcoming. Curtis Granderson looks absolutely lost at the plate, and there's a surprising lack of a threat in the middle of the lineup outside of Robinson Cano.
The Yanks now find themselves in an unfamiliar position—they're going to need consistently quality starting pitching. Emphasis on consistently. There's just not much there beyond Sabathia and Kuroda, and New York will need Nova to step up if it wants to hold on to the AL East and make some noise in October.
No one is quite sure how—seriously, have another look at some of the lineups Joe Maddon has run out there—but the Rays are in the thick of the playoff race in early August.
The Rays have starting pitching for days, even with an underperforming James Shields, and you get the feeling that all they need is just a little bit of offense to make some noise this fall.
Well, Tampa is about to get their little bit of offense. Three-time All-Star Evan Longoria made his long-awaited return to the Trop last night, and he has the potential to be the single-biggest difference maker down the stretch. Longo is a one-man, line-drive-hitting wrecking crew with the ability to put a team on his back for months at a time—and again, with David Price, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson in the fold, it's not like the Rays need to slug people to death every night.
They just need something, anything out of that lineup, and Longoria is good enough to provide that all by himself when he's healthy. If he is—and granted that's a big if—the Rays will be awfully dangerous.
It seems strange to put Hamilton on this list, but he's been pretty terrible since his ridiculously hot June. And that's a bigger problem than it used to be, because the Rangers are coming apart at the seams a little bit while the Angels (and, shockingly, the A's) just keep coming.
Texas' starting pitching is an absolute mess. Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz are done for the year and Yu Darvish has seemingly hit a wall, which means the Rangers have been relying on Matt Harrison and Scott Feldman to win a division title. They picked up Ryan Dempster, but it's questionable just how his stuff will hold up in the AL. So far, not so good.
The Rangers are going to make or miss the playoffs based on their lineup, and Hamilton is the engine that makes it go. We've gotten used to the idea that Texas just keeps throwing out hitters in waves, but it starts with Hamilton in the middle. Nelson Cruz and Michael Young aren't the hitters they used to be, which means that someone has to step up and knock in Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler.
The Rangers are vulnerable—their pitching seemingly running on fumes, Roy Oswalt throwing fits out in the bullpen and people yelling at third base coaches. Their season is at a crossroads, and they need their MVP candidate to get them back on track.
The Angels have made as much buzz as anyone over the past few months, and we're finally starting to see it translate into wins.
Albert Pujols is back to being Pujols-ian, Mike Trout is having one of the greatest seasons we've ever seen (by a rookie or otherwise) and all of a sudden the Halos are within shouting distance of the AL West lead.
What could take them from good to great, though, is Haren. Jered Weaver, Zack Greinke and C.J. Wilson are a scary trio, all capable of producing like a No. 1 starter. To win enough to catch the Rangers, though, Haren will have to start pitching like he has throughout his career.
He's battled back injuries all year en route to a somewhat disappointing season, but he's finally getting back healthy for the stretch run. If the Angels can add a fourth top-tier starter to go with an offense not lacking on firepower, there's no reason they can't be the favorite to win a World Series. If Haren struggles, though, they'll be in a dogfight well into September.
Okay, I know I said this list was going to avoid reliable stars, but that should say something about just how important McCutchen is.
He's arguably the best player in baseball (and certainly the best in the NL) and no player means more to his team's success than McCutchen does to the scrappy Pirates. They find themselves 16 games over .500 and in the driver's seat for a wild-card spot, and they've done it with just enough—just enough starting pitching, just enough of McCutchen, and just enough of Joel Hanrahan's beard.
Seriously, McCutchen is the Pirates offense. Neil Walker and Garrett Jones are having decent seasons, but certainly not seasons good enough to warrant anything near playoff contention. All the center fielder has done is post an absurd .370/.430/.625 slash line to carry his team into the thick of things. He's the only guy with an average above .292 and an OBP above .357, which shows he has absolutely no protection to give him something decent to swing at.
The Pirates are at best hovering just below .500 without him, and with him they have a legitimate chance to win their first division title in two decades. It may be a conventional pick, but McCutchen's talent has reached cliche status for a reason—he's that good, and he means that much.