Predicting 5 Unexpected Heroes of the 2013 MLB Playoff Races
September's playoff push has officially begun. And with two divisions still up for grabs and six teams in the mix for the two wild-card berths in the American League, the race to see which teams will still be standing come October is sure to be as entertaining a race as we've come to expect playoff races to be.
While superstars will remain the focus of attention, by both fans and opposing players alike, it's the role players and youngsters looking to make their mark who often deliver the most memorable moments down the stretch.
Let's take a look at five players who could be their team's unexpected heroes of this season's playoff race.
CF Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston Red Sox
With Jacoby Ellsbury out indefinitely with a foot injury, per Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston, one of Boston's other seven outfielders will have to step up and try to replace his production in the lineup.
Enter Jackie Bradley Jr., one of Boston's top prospects and the man widely regarded as the likely replacement for Ellsbury should MLB's stolen base leader depart after the season as a free agent.
He was solid in 80 games with Triple-A Pawtucket, hitting .275/.374/.469 with 26 doubles, three triples, 10 home runs and 35 RBI. In the first three games of Pawtucket's playoff series against Rochester before being promoted, Bradley Jr. hit .385 (5-for-13) with a double, RBI and two runs scored.
This is a different player than the one who posted a .155/.258/.310 slash line with three doubles, two home runs and seven RBI in 23 games over three different stints with the Red Sox earlier this season.
With the exception of Shane Victorino, Bradley Jr. is Boston's best defensive outfielder. And he has more upside with the bat than anyone else that the Red Sox could play in center field while Ellsbury is out of action.
IF/OF Ryan Raburn, Cleveland Indians
Nobody expected much of anything from Ryan Raburn in Cleveland this season, but the 32-year-old has had an unexpected career revival under Terry Francona's watchful eye.
Fourth on the Indians with 15 home runs and sixth on the team with 46 RBI, Raburn is back in action after missing a few weeks with a strained left Achilles tendon. He will primarily start against left-handed pitching for the Tribe, as he has a .317/.417/.671 slash line against southpaws this season.
Whether he's starting or coming off of the bench, Raburn's ability to serve as a spark plug for Cleveland's offense—and his versatility in the field—will play a major role in Cleveland's quest to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
OF Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds
Four games into his major league career, Billy Hamilton has gone 4-of-4 on stolen base attempts and scored three runs...yet he's still awaiting his first major league at-bat.
We talked about how Hamilton's speed was going to be a game-changer right before rosters expanded on September 1, and so far, things have played out just as we thought they would.
Twice, Hamilton has stolen second base and scored the game-winning run on a single. And his stolen base and subsequent run against St. Louis in the bottom of the 14th inning last Wednesday tied the game at four, though the Reds would eventually lose 5-4 in 16 frames.
There isn't another team in the thick of the playoff race in either league that has as lethal a weapon coming off the bench as the Reds do with Hamilton—and that makes them a very dangerous team down the stretch.
OF Delmon Young, Tampa Bay Rays
Tampa Bay has been sliding since late August, losing 11 of its last 15 games. Not only have the Rays fallen out of contention for the AL East crown, but the team finds itself in real danger of missing out on the playoffs altogether, with Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City and New York all within 3.5 games of the Rays in the wild-card race.
Back with the Rays six years after the team tired of his antics and traded him to the Minnesota Twins, Delmon Young has a chance to redeem himself and play a large role in Tampa Bay's attempts to hold off its charging competition.
Young's right-handed power not only gives skipper Joe Maddon another option to use at the designated hitter spot, but he can spell the left-handed David DeJesus and Matt Joyce in the corner outfield spots.
Hitting .294 with a home run in the five games that he's appeared with the club since being promoted from the minor leagues, Young's ability to produce in the clutch—lest we forget the show that he put on against the Yankees in last year's ALCS while with Detroit—will play a major role in Tampa Bay making the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
SS Ryan Jackson, St. Louis Cardinals
Ryan Jackson can't hit major league pitching, which might make him seem like an odd choice as a hero in the playoff race for the St. Louis Cardinals.
But neither Pete Kozma (.215/.272/.270) nor Daniel Descalso (.239/.293/.366) can either, leaving the Cardinals with a gaping void in the lineup from the shortstop position.
What Jackson can do, however, is field the position better than either of his more established teammates. And with the Cardinals' already stacked lineup, getting much in the way of offensive production from their shortstop is far less important than shoring up the team's defense up the middle.
While Jackson isn't going to wind up starting many, if any, games for St. Louis down the stretch, he can certainly see plenty of action as a late-inning defensive replacement. That alone has significant value. And if he's able to keep a few runs off of the board for the opposition, he could be the difference between the Cardinals winning their eighth NL Central crown or winding up as one of the two NL wild-card teams.