5 Secret Weapons for 2013 MLB Playoff Contenders
MLB teams can't earn postseason berths without huge contributions from their veteran mainstays, but in October, managers also rely on their secret weapons to do some damage.
They tend to be younger players who have reached the majors within the past few years. Perhaps these under-the-radar individuals were dominant as prospects (or at least held in high regard), but they certainly aren't perceived as stars at the highest level.
All my fellow Lil' Kim fans may be under the impression that "what they don't know won't hurt 'em."
Well in this scenario, that couldn't be further from the truth. Like Francisco Rodriguez in 2002 and David Freese in 2011, the following five have the talent and the opportunities to blindside unsuspecting opponents and establish themselves as difference-makers in the 2013 playoffs.
Tony Watson (Pittsburgh Pirates)
The first two names to come to mind when you think about the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen are most likely Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon.
Of course, Tony Watson didn't earn an All-Star selection like they did. That's because his best performances have come in the season's second half (0.81 ERA, 17/2 K/BB in 22.1 IP).
Watson spent all of 2012 with the Bucs as a lefty specialist, but manager Clint Hurdle has since expanded his role. Of his 62 appearances this summer, 17 of them have lasted longer than one inning.
Should the Pirates settle for a wild-card berth, he'll be the safety blanket in case their starting pitcher falters early in the one-game playoff. Watson will also see action in high-leverage situations if the club makes a deep postseason run.
Eduardo Nunez (New York Yankees)
Upon learning that captain Derek Jeter was done for the season, the New York Yankees acquired slick-fielding shortstop Brendan Ryan from the Seattle Mariners.
Too bad they made the move after Sept. 1. As a result, Ryan isn't eligible to help them in October.
Unlike the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York faces an uphill battle just to qualify for October baseball. Overwhelmed with injuries, it's been months since the Bombers spent any time in first place, and now they're grinding for a wild-card spot.
However, should they sneak in, Eduardo Nunez ought to be a major influence.
The 26-year-old is clumsy with the glove, but he possesses the speed and contact ability to ignite the offense. He's batting .296/.344/.417 with five stolen bases since the beginning of August, eerily similar to Brett Gardner's .273/.344/.416 line this season. Unfortunately, skipper Joe Girardi told reporters on Friday that the club's usual leadoff man might not return from an oblique strain.
Now is your chance, Nunie!
Danny Salazar (Cleveland Indians)
This should sound familiar—right-hander Justin Masterson has been out lately with an oblique injury, and now rookie Danny Salazar is emulating him in terms of strikeout rate and earned run average.
Following Tommy John surgery in 2010, Salazar has not pitched a full season at any professional level. That's why the Cleveland Indians removed him from the game after only three-and-two-thirds excellent innings on Friday afternoon.
In all but one of his starts for the Tribe this season, he's been sent to the showers with fewer than 90 pitches thrown. Obviously, his fit on the playoff roster would be as a reliever.
Per FanGraphs, the southpaw has averaged 96.0 miles per hour with his fastball in 2013, and moving to the bullpen should enable him to bring even more heat. The disparity between that and his changeup has contributed to a 12.0 K/9 in his eight MLB outings.
With Indians closer Chris Perez struggling down the stretch, Salazar could skyrocket up the pecking order.
Billy Hamilton (Cincinnati Reds)
Not all secret weapons have the luxury of anonymity.
Billy Hamilton, for example, became famous across the baseball world for amassing 155 stolen bases in 2012 to shatter the minor league single-season record. He sprinted his way to another 75 thefts at Triple-A Louisville prior to being called up by the Cincinnati Reds earlier this month.
He's included here because we don't traditionally consider pinch-runners/defensive replacements capable of determining the outcome of a game.
Hamilton exposes the foolishness of that mindset in these MLB.com highlights.
Opposing managers who fail to prepare for him will have difficulty defeating the Reds in a postseason series.
Xander Bogaerts (Boston Red Sox)
The 20-year-old shortstop is arguably the most talented player developed by the Boston Red Sox so far this millennium.
However, due to their current roster composition, he only starts about twice a week.
The rival New York Yankees treated Jesus Montero very similarly back in 2011. He immediately produced at the plate when given the opportunity in September, much like Bogaerts is now (.296 BA, .766 OPS). Then October arrived and Montero seldom left the bench, earning only two plate appearances as the AL East champs were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
That unfortunate example may convince the Sox to use him more often on the left side of the infield. It's also possible that the streaky Will Middlebrooks will play himself out of an everyday job by slumping over the next few weeks, or that the fragile Stephen Drew suffers another injury.
Regardless, Bogaerts could make a huge impact for Boston as the pennant race heats up.