Albert Pujols and the 15 Other Players Who Will Decide the MLB Playoff Races

Eric Brach@EBrachWritesCorrespondent ISeptember 25, 2012

Albert Pujols and the 15 Other Players Who Will Decide the MLB Playoff Races

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    As the season enters its final stretch, three ultimate playoff races are still playing out: the race between the Yankees and Orioles for the AL East title, the race between the White Sox and Tigers for the AL Central title and the fight between the A’s and the Angels for the second AL wild card slot.

    While all the other battles have more or less been decided, these final three tests remain, and who will win them is going to be decided by the following 16 players.

The Yankees’ Rafael Soriano

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    In C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova, the Yankees boast a fearsome starting rotation. But it’s not the starters who will be the key to the Yankees’ potential AL East division title. It’s their closer.

    Think about how often Mariano Rivera stepped in to clinch an important win for the Bronx Bombers over the past fifteen years. Now, with Rivera out, it’s Soriano’s turn. Whether or not the Yanks can repeat will largely depend on him.

The Yankees’ Washouts

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    Quick: What do Ichiro Suzuki and Raul Ibanez have in common?

    Answer: They’re both new to the Yankees, and they were both born when Nixon was still President.

    Suzuki (38) and Ibanez (40) have been stellar additions to this Yankees squad. In the recent Toronto series, Suzuki went 9-for-12 with four steals and four runs scored. Against Oakland, he went 6-for-13.

    Since joining the Yankees, he’s hitting .328—that’s even better than his career average. Suzuki’s won seven hits titles and two batting crowns.

    Ibanez, for his part, is 7-for-12 in his last three games. Snapping up old and otherwise unwanted players seems to be a strategy for the club; second-year Yankees Eric Chavez (34) and Andruw Jones (35) have also contributed in spots as well.

The Orioles’ Adam Jones

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    Adam Jones is the only Orioles every day player hitting over .270. How is this team still in contention?

    Well, Adam Jones is how.

    There lies plenty of power in the O’s offense, but little consistency, and it shows. Despite their excellent record, the Orioles are being outscored by their opponents. They’re the only team in the bigs with a winning record who is being outscored, and yet, they’re not just winning: they’re contending to dethrone the Yankees from atop the AL East! Adam Jones is a big part of that.

The Orioles’ Pedro Strop and Darren O’Day

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    Pedro Strop and Darren O’Day are the Orioles’ right-handed middle relievers. This season’s Orioles squad was projected to finish the season in the cellar largely due to the collection of no-names who made up their roster.

    (Ricky Vaughn? Pedro Cerrano? Willie Mays Hays? Who are these guys?)

    Heck, even the folks who are familiar with the Orioles’ pen tend to only know All-Star Jim Johnson and his 50 saves. But Strop and O’Day have been outstanding this season. Together, these two have teamed up to spot-pitch in 135-plus games, posting a combined ERA below 2.40 between them.

    And it’s that kind of mound work that has kept the Orioles in contention throughout.

The White Sox’ Addison Reed

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    The pitching staff for the Chicago White Sox has, as a whole, been solid throughout the season.

    The biggest question mark? The man on whom the ends of games hang: the closer, Addison Reed.

    Reed is 3-2 with 28 saves. Those numbers aren’t bad. But he also has an ERA of 4.73 and a WHIP of 1.39, both of which are much higher than any lights-out closer should have.

    As the season winds down, more and more will depend on whether or not Reed can finish out a few close games. The White Sox’s season may hang in the balance.

The White Sox’ Paul Konerko

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    Yes, a lot was made of Adam Dunn’s performance at the plate earlier this year. He led the majors in both homers and strikeouts for almost the whole season.

    But while Dunn was fun to watch, .300-hitting Konerko is the real clubhouse leader around whom the offense of this team rallies.

    Konerko is in his 14th year with the squad; he was with the Sox when they won, and it will be he who pulls together other hot hitters like A.J. Pierzynski, Alex Rios and Alejandro De Aza. For the last few games of the season, much will rest on first baseman Konerko’s shoulders.

The Tigers’ Prince Fielder

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    Some commentators might think that the Tigers’ fortunes this season rely on the success of Miguel Cabrera. But here’s the thing: Cabrera will contribute either way. He will likely win the AL MVP, and he may be the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski. The real key to the Tigers’ hopes will be Prince Fielder.

    Fielder has flourished in his first season in Detroit. His batting average is above .300, his on-base percentage is above .400, his slugging percentage is above .500 and he’s on pace to break 30 homers. Those are great numbers for a cleanup man.

    If Fielder can keep pushing through the end of the season, the Tigers may be able to close the gap and overtake the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central.

The A’s Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick

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    The A’s corner outfielders have been the thumping heart of this A’s offense—just not necessarily in a good way.

    Yoenis Cespedes? Billed as a slugger, Cespedes has hit only 21 homers this year, and he’s batting .238 for September. He needs to step it up if the A’s are going to hold onto their wild-card berth.

    And Josh Reddick? The A’s homer leader has knocked just one throughout the whole month of September. What’s more, he’s hitting just .133 since August 31.

    Someone ought to tell these guys that this is the wrong time to slump. It the A’s intend to hold onto their tenuous lead for the second wild-card slot, they’re going to have to right the ship. And fast.

The Angels’ Albert Pujols

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    The Angels are surging. At last, they are playing like the team they were always supposed to be.

    The Halos are on a 22-9 run stretching back to August 21, a date that marked the start of the first of two three-game sweeps of Boston near the end of this summer.

    The whole Angel offense is playing well. Trumbo is crushing the ball, Trout will win Rookie of the Year and even the middle infield is delivering on offense. But with the team’s playoff hopes on the line, you’ve got to expect that Albert Pujols—the man who knows how to win and can carry a team on his back—will be the deciding factor for this Angels squad in the season’s final days.

    Pujols is long over his season-starting slump. Look for Southern California to put all their chips for the roulette wheel on Red Number Five.

The Angels’ Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren and Zack Greinke

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    The Angels’ ace, Jered Weaver (19-4, 2.74 ERA), is having a Cy Young-caliber season. Unfortunately, the rest of the rotation is struggling.

    Former studs C.J. Wilson and Dan Haren are 24-21 between them—that’s none too exciting. Zack Greinke has been a great midseason pickup, but he’s not been on the team long enough to have full impact.

    With just a handful of games left, these four starters will all have to pull together and deliver outstanding performances to help carry the Angels over the top.

    Will they be able to pull it off? By this time next week, we’ll know.