Every MLB Playoff Contender's Biggest Difference-Making Strength
As we head into the final week of the MLB season, the postseason picture is beginning to gain some clarity, but that in no way means there won't be some fireworks down the stretch as the final slots are hashed out over the next five games.
Whether it's a pitching staff that's got top-line starting pitching or a pair of sluggers that can intimidate anyone facing them on the mound, every team has something that sets it apart from the rest.
We'll know more in a week, but when some of these teams do ultimately enter into the postseason, they'll need to rely on these strengths they've displayed throughout the first 150-plus games of the season.
Atlanta Braves: Pitching
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It may have been Freddie Freeman's walk-off blast that clinched a postseason berth for the Atlanta Braves, but their strong pitching staff throughout the season has certainly had a hand in the proceedings in 2012.
The Braves staff ranks fourth in MLB in batting average against, fifth in ERA and sixth in WHIP, and with a solid contingent of bullpen options, any opposing team better hope it can score its runs early.
Cincinnati Reds: Pitching
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For every bit as good as the Atlanta Braves pitching staff may be, it's almost hard to believe that the Cincinnati Reds staff is better in almost every facet.
Homer Bailey was the latest Red to make a big impact with his no-hitter Friday night, but it's been a team effort all season long that's gotten this team into postseason positioning once again in 2012.
The team ranks eighth in BAA but ranks third in the league in both team ERA (3.39) and WHIP (1.23) and, better yet, second in quality starts, which gives a team's offense a chance to do its job night in and night out.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Depth
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Heading into the summer months, the Los Angeles Dodgers had already acquired star infielder Hanley Ramirez from the Miami Marlins, showing that they were serious about contending immediately, but they were far from done.
With Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw toeing the rubber for the Dodgers, the addition of Josh Beckett gave the team a great one-two punch in the rotation, something that's always key in playoff series.
On offense, adding Adrian Gonzalez gave the team a new offensive weapon to go along with Ramirez and Matt Kemp.
San Francisco Giants: Balance
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Teams are rarely able to win championships with only an above-average offense or defense.
Should the San Francisco Giants fail to make it to the Fall Classic once again this October, it won't be because of a lack of balance.
With Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner pacing an impressive Giants rotation and the young phenom Buster Posey leading the team's offense, San Francisco can beat even the best teams in both parts of the game.
St. Louis Cardinals: Batter's Eye
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Heading into the 2012 season it was hard to predict exactly what the St. Louis Cardinals offense would look like, as the departure of slugger Albert Pujols would no doubt leave some holes in the lineup that can't easily be filled.
To the team's credit, it's done a very admirable job pacing the offense without one of the game's best hitters in the lineup and has MLB's best team on-base percentage (.339), fourth-best team batting average (.271) and fifth-most runs scored (745).
Washington Nationals: Starting Pitching
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After seeing just how good the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds pitching staffs are, it's becoming a recurring theme to see great arms associated with the National League.
The Washington Nationals are no different, as they're sitting second in the league in team ERA, WHIP and batting average against.
There will obviously be a huge hole in the rotation this October with Stephen Strasburg on the shelf, but with Jordan Zimmermann and acquisitions Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson holding down the top end of the rotation, the team is still in great hands.
Baltimore Orioles: Equal Opportunity
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There really hasn't been a story in baseball as good as the Baltimore Orioles in 2012.
After spending year after year towards the bottom of the tough AL East, the team is finally contending for a postseason position and with one final push may even be the division champ.
What has gotten the Orioles so far this season is that there hasn't been just one star leading the team to where it is.
Every night they win, the O's have a new hero emerge; whether it's a strong start from their rotation, an offensive burst or a late-inning shutdown, anyone can lift the O's on a given night.
Chicago White Sox: Sluggers
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After spending the past few months in control of the AL Central, the Chicago White Sox now find themselves looking up at the Detroit Tigers in the standings in the final week of the season.
Should they make it to the postseason, their offensive depth will be a torment to opposing pitchers, as they have a handful of threats in the lineup that can do some damage.
Whether it's Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Alex Rios or Kevin Youkilis, the White Sox have plenty of firepower to match even the best rotations.
Detroit Tigers: Bash Brothers
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In the midst of a push for the AL Central crown, fans of the Detroit Tigers have plenty of theatrics to witness as Miguel Cabrera makes a case for the elusive Triple Crown.
Not many pitchers have had success against Cabrera, and as he may very well not even be in the prime of his career, it's scary to think of what he's capable of.
He's not alone there, however, as offseason acquisition Prince Fielder has given the Tigers another element of intimidation in the lineup.
Oh, and don't forget about what reigning MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander adds to a contender.
Los Angeles Angels: Experience
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Whether we're talking about Zack Greinke, who has proven his mettle on the mound and pitched in the postseason just a year ago, or Albert Pujols, who hoisted the World Series trophy as a member of the Cardinals last season, there's no shortage of players that have experience in intense atmospheres.
Aside from the seasoned veterans, the Angels also have the luxury of seeing the best young star in the game—and maybe this year's MVP—in Mike Trout.
They'll have some work to do this weekend and early next week to get into position for October baseball, but with a season-ending series against the Mariners upcoming, they'll have a shot at winning enough games to squeak in.
New York Yankees: The Captain
The New York Yankees have been playing extremely good baseball in 2012, and though they're in a dog fight with the Baltimore Orioles over the AL East title, there's no doubting that the Bronx Bombers and their many stars have what it takes to make a run.
I don't necessarily want to single out Derek Jeter as the one difference-maker for the Yankees, as players like Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and CC Sabathia can change the game on their own.
But the fact is that Jeter has shown his ability to rise to the occasion in a postseason series, and as he sits in the midst of one of his best seasons as a professional, he'll key any success that the Yankees have down the stretch.
Oakland Athletics: Pitching
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Following the massive sell-off that GM Billy Beane engineered this past offseason, the Oakland Athletics' successes have to come as a surprise to many around baseball.
Seeing pitchers like Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey removed from a pitching staff can be an alarming thing, but the A's have done an admirable job of recovering and don't appear any worse for the wear.
The team currently ranks in the top 10 in the league in quality starts, batting average against, ERA and WHIP—and a season-ending series against the Rangers could make a huge statement as the postseason rolls around.
Tampa Bay Rays: Pitching
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Facing a tall task season in and season out as they face the massive payrolls that the AL East has to offer, the Tampa Bay Rays have always made competitive runs late in the season, including last season's theatrics during the season's final day.
Their offense is no doubt stellar, as B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist are solid producers, but it's the pitching staff that makes this team scary.
With the best team ERA in the league (3.23), the Rays boast two of the game's great young stars in David Price and last year's Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson.
Texas Rangers: Power and Experience
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After two consecutive World Series losses, the Texas Rangers have all the motivation they need to produce down the stretch and get over the hump so they can take the Fall Classic by storm.
Additions to the pitching staff since last fall have done enough to help out on that end, but it will ultimately be the team's offense that will make the difference down the stretch.
As a team, the Rangers rank in the top three in baseball in all basic statistics (runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage), and with sluggers like Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli stepping into the batter's box, opposing pitchers are always on their toes.