MLB Playoffs 2012: Players Key to Their Teams' World Series Hopes

Adam B. Weinberger@@Adam_WeinbergerCorrespondent IISeptember 29, 2012

MLB Playoffs 2012: Players Key to Their Teams' World Series Hopes

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    The MLB playoffs are only a few days away. Which players are key for their teams' pursuit of the World Series?

    Not every player to appear in the coming slides will be the best one on his respective franchise. There is a certain amount of expectation of the greats.

    On many occasions, a team's third- or fourth-best hitters are the ones most responsible for a World Series victory. The same could be said about pitchers.

    Let’s take a look at the most important player from each of the teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. 

CC Sabathia, New York Yankees

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    CC Sabathia was the most important player on the New York roster for their last World Series in 2009, finishing the postseason 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA. He will need to fulfill this role once again.

    After a shaky stretch that lasted for about a month beginning in the middle of August, Sabathia appears to be healthy and effective once again. He has pitched 16 innings and allowed just two earned runs over his last two starts.

    We will see how Joe Girardi chooses to run his rotation through the playoffs, but CC looks to be—and will need to be—capable of working on short rest. 

Prince Fielder, Detroit Tigers

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    Triple-Crown-eligible Miguel Cabrera will get it done in the postseason. However, more so in the playoffs than in the regular season, teams will pitch around players.

    Prince Fielder must allow Miguel Cabrera to get four legitimate plate opportunities in each game and/or make opposing pitchers and managers regret attempts to prevent this from happening.

    It is impossible to overlook the role Fielder has played in Cabrera’s pursuit of the Triple Crown. Fielder would need to average over four strikeouts per game from this point on to match his previous career single-season low. There is a reason Cabrera has been intentionally walked a mere 16 times (half as many as in 2010). 

Mike Napoli, Texas Rangers

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    Mike Napoli produced an all-time great season for a catcher in 2011. Largely because of health problems, he has failed to come even close to replicating this success in 2012.

    He has hit nearly .100 points lower this season in batting average and will approach an additional 40 strikeouts. Napoli’s 2012 totals for runs, hits, doubles, RBIs and stolen bases will all likely be his lowest since 2008.

    Josh Hamilton has the most offensive responsibility, but with the loaded lineups among AL division winners, an added bonus from the catcher position could separate Texas from the rest.

Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles

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    For the aforementioned American League teams, I have highlighted secondary offensive talent—Fielder instead of Cabrera, Napoli over Hamilton.

    Things are different for the Orioles.

    Nobody expected Baltimore to be in the postseason, barring a Bostonian collapse. If they wish to avoid this fate and advance beyond the wild-card/play-in game, they will need their best hitter to play as such.

    Adam Jones leads the everybody-do-everything Orioles in offensive WAR. 

Grant Balfour, Oakland Athletics

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    Oakland is not going to blow out anybody in the playoffs. In the more immediate future, their wild-card game with Baltimore will be tight through upwards of nine innings. They simply cannot afford to miss end-of-game opportunities to close out their opponents.

    Thankfully, Grant Balfour has recovered from a troubling early half of the season. Since regaining the closer position in August, Balfour has converted all 14 of his save opportunities. 

Ross Detwiler, Washington Nationals

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    I could have certainly gone with Bryce Harper, but I could not overlook the impact of the Strasburg Shutdown.

    Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez will be a more-than-adequate postseason ace. Jordan Zimmerman and his 2.90 ERA is a fine No. 2.

    As for the third spot, 26-year-old Ross Detwiler will be the one who ultimately decides whether Washington management will have a media-and-fan-induced headache in the offseason. With Strasburg in the lineup, Detwiler is a reliable fourth starter. As the third man in the postseason rotation, things are different.

    If Washington hopes to advance to the World Series, Detwiler, who has thrown over 50 percent of his career innings in 2012 alone, will need to grab multiple playoff wins.

Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Much as Adam Jones is my most important postseason player for Baltimore, the surprisingly dominant Reds will lean on arguably their best player.

    I am interested in seeing how Dusty Baker chooses to use his pitching staff during the playoffs. Whatever the decision, his primary concern will be to have Cueto on the mound for the most pivotal outings. 

    Cueto had a few rough starts in September, but has still managed to maintain a sub-3.00 ERA for the entirety of 2012.

    He has already pitched 20 more innings than his previous season-high and will tack on another five to seven in his final regular-season outing on Sunday. Cincinnati will struggle to advance beyond the divisional round if Cueto plays noticeably fatigued. 

Angel Pagan, San Francisco Giants

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    My first thought for San Francisco’s most important player was Tim Lincecum. If the Giants could get a Cy-Young-caliber stretch from The Freak, they would be my World Series favorite. There’s really no reason to believe this will happen, however, and an underwhelming postseason effort from Lincecum would not cripple their postseason chances, as they have a deep pitching staff.

    So, I went with Angel Pagan.

    Pagan is seventh in the NL in runs and 13th in steals. Will he continue to be aggressive on the base path?

    I always wonder how many steals and second-to-home scampers are based on situations vs. doing it because “you can.” I don’t mean this as a criticism or to suggest that Pagan and the Giants are somehow elevating individuals' statistics above wins. Regardless, a diminished rate in the playoffs could mean trouble, especially against teams like Washington and Cincinnati who make runners on base a rare commodity.

    The 2012 playoffs will be the first playoffs of Angel Pagan’s seven-year MLB career.

Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward and Michael Bourn, Atlanta Braves

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    I’ve included them all for the same reason: strikeouts. All three are in Top 10 among National League players in the unfortunate statistic.

    Assuming Atlanta does not catch Washington for the NL East title, their primary concern must be advancing past the one-game playoff. The most important players for their World Series hopes are the ones most critical to this objective.

    The three all have respectable on-base percentages, but beating St. Louis (or Los Angeles and their 3.1 percent chance of making the playoffs), will be almost impossible if they combine for more than five strikeouts.  

Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Like Atlanta, St. Louis’ World Series hopes will depend on their ability to avoid disaster.

    Jason Motte has 40 saves—fourth most in the MLB. Jason Motte also has seven blown saves—third most in the MLB.

    Two of those blown saves came in September and were separated by just one other appearance.

    Motte had five saves last postseason and has all the talent to repeat the success in 2012. One more blown save, though, could end it all.