Predicting the Biggest X-Factors of the 2013 MLB Postseason
With the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays winning their respective Wild Card Round games, the division series field is now officially set, and the postseason will be in full swing on Thursday.
Every team has a handful of players who fit the bill of an X-factor in October, whether it is a second-tier player stepping up and performing like a star, a young guy making the most of his first taste of October or an injured player proving healthy and producing beyond expectations.
With that in mind, here is a look at two potential X-factors from each team in the 2013 MLB postseason and a breakdown of what could make them difference-makers.
Atlanta Braves: RF Justin Upton
The Braves offense has been absolutely dominant at times this season, but it has also been incredibly streaky from top to bottom, with the lone exception seemingly being first baseman Freddie Freeman.
Freeman has had a fantastic season and is a legitimate NL MVP candidate, but he's not going to be able to do it alone in the postseason, and someone will have to step up alongside him.
While the Braves are no doubt hoping the lineup as a whole gets hot, if they could pick one guy to get things going in October, it would likely be Justin Upton. He's been a man among boys at times this season, and when he's seeing the ball well, he's as impactful a hitter as any in the game today.
Atlanta Braves: SP Kris Medlen
With Paul Maholm off the postseason roster at least for the NLDS, per ESPN.com, and Alex Wood headed for the bullpen, the Braves appear ready to roll with 36-year-old Freddy Garcia as their No. 4 starter.
However, the X-factor in the rotation will be Kris Medlen, who will fill the role of staff ace. Having the league's best bullpen certainly gives the Braves staff a boost, but it will need one of its young starters to step up, and Medlen looks like the most likely candidate.
Over his last 12 games (11 starts), he has gone 9-2 with a 2.08 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, allowing just 12 hits and one earned run in 22.2 innings over his past three starts, as he looks primed for a big postseason.
Los Angeles Dodgers: RF Andre Ethier
The Dodgers have had a logjam in the outfield at times this season, but with Matt Kemp done for the season and Andre Ethier battling an ankle injury, the duo of Skip Schumaker and Scott Van Slyke could see an expanded role in October.
The X-factor there is Ethier, as he will likely be on the NLDS roster but could be limited to pinch-hitting duties, at least early on. Running is his biggest issue now, and until he can get to a point where he's running comfortably, the team likely won't risk putting him in the outfield.
Ether hit .272/.360/.423 with 12 home runs and 52 RBI in 482 at-bats this season, and even at close to 100 percent, he'd be an offensive upgrade over the aforementioned duo. Last time the Dodgers were in the postseason, in 2009, Ethier went 11-for-31 with three home runs and six RBI.
Los Angeles Dodgers: RP Brian Wilson
The Dodgers' starting rotation may be L.A.'s biggest strength heading into the postseason, and while the performance of Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ricky Nolasco behind the team's two aces will be key, the bullpen could be the deciding factor.
Closer Kenley Jansen (75 G, 28 SV, 1.88 ERA) and Paco Rodriguez (76 G, 2.32 ERA) have been a fantastic one-two punch at the back end of the bullpen, but the rest of the team's relievers have a combined 4.05 ERA on the season.
Enter Brian Wilson, who was signed on July 30 and has posted a 0.66 ERA in 13.2 innings of work over 18 appearances. He served as closer for the Giants in the 2010 postseason, going 11.2 innings without allowing an earned run and locking down six saves.
Pittsburgh Pirates: SP Gerrit Cole
Francisco Liriano lived up to his status as staff ace in the Pirates' Wild Card Round victory, and veteran A.J. Burnett pitched well down the stretch and should be a reliable second arm in the postseason.
With that, the X-factor of the Pirates staff may well be 23-year-old rookie Gerrit Cole, who went 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA in 19 starts after debuting on June 11.
He was great down the stretch, going 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 32 innings of work in September, as opponents hit just .212 against him. If he can keep that up, he'd give the team a second legitimate ace for the postseason.
Pittsburgh Pirates: 1B Justin Morneau
With the platoon of Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez putting up subpar numbers, the Pirates acquired Twins slugger Justin Morneau on August 31.
The free agent-to-be was hitting .259/.315/.426 on the year with 17 home runs and 74 RBI in Minnesota, and while he has a .260/.370/.312 line since joining the Pirates, he has no home runs and just three RBI in 25 games.
Despite those less-than-stellar power numbers, Morneau hit cleanup 19 times in September, and he was slotted there once again during the team's Wild Card Round game when he went 1-for-4 with a single. Getting him going in the middle of the lineup would go a long way to improving the Pirates' offensive attack.
St. Louis Cardinals: RP Trevor Rosenthal
The Cardinals offense is deep with clutch veteran hitters, even with Allen Craig on the disabled list, so the pitching side of things will be where the X-factors lie.
Edward Mujica was fantastic in the closer's role for most of the season, but he struggled in September, going 2-of-4 on save chances with a 11.05 ERA in 7.1 innings of work.
That was enough for the Cardinals to pull him from the ninth-inning job in the season's final days, and while they will likely play the matchups and employ a closer-by-committee to a point, it's flame-throwing rookie Trevor Rosenthal who will likely do the bulk of the heavy lifting in the late innings in October.
The 23-year-old had a 2.63 ERA with 108 strikeouts in 75.1 innings of work this season.
St. Louis Cardinals: SP Michael Wacha
The Cardinals' first-round pick in 2012, Michael Wacha dazzled in spring training, throwing 11.2 scoreless innings and striking out 15, but he opened the season in the minors nonetheless.
Injuries forced the team's hand, though, and he made his debut on May 30, going seven innings and allowing just two hits and one run. He returned to the minors after three starts before being called up again in August to help out in the bullpen.
He joined the rotation full-time in September and in five starts went 2-1 with a 1.72 ERA, throwing 8.2 innings of no-hit ball against the Nationals before a Ryan Zimmerman infield single spoiled things. The Cardinals have a young staff behind Adam Wainwright and will need at least one of their rookie arms to step up. Wacha could very well be that guy.
Boston Red Sox: SP Clay Buchholz
Clay Buchholz entered the season looking for a bounce-back campaign, as he was 11-8 with a 4.56 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 2012, and he looked like a potential Cy Young candidate before injury struck.
He was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA in his first 12 starts of the season, but shoulder and back issues landed him on the DL on June 9, and he did not return until September 10.
In four starts since returning, he's 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA and opponents are hitting just .217 against him, and while Jon Lester will likely fill the role of staff ace during the postseason, it's Buchholz who looks to be the X-factor of the staff.
Boston Red Sox: 1B Mike Napoli
Originally signed to a three-year, $39 million deal in the offseason, Mike Napoli failed a physical and ended up agreeing to a one-year, $5 million deal that could earn him another $8 million in incentives.
He's been well worth the money, hitting .259/.360/.482 with 23 home runs and 92 RBI mostly out of the No. 5 spot in the lineup behind David Ortiz.
Throughout his career, Napoli has been an incredibly streaky hitter, and when he's at his best, he is capable of carrying an offense. He has an .829 OPS with five home runs and 19 RBI in 32 career postseason games, and he was on fire in the 2011 World Series when he went 7-for-20 with two home runs and 10 RBI.
Detroit Tigers: 3B Miguel Cabrera
Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera remains the best hitter on the planet, as he put up a line of .348/.442/.636 with 44 home runs and 137 RBI this season to capture his third straight batting title.
However, he hit an uninspired .278/.395/.333 with one home run and seven RBI in the month of September while battling a groin injury, and he likely won't be at 100 percent the rest of the way.
He was 13-for-49 with two home runs and eight RBI during the Tigers' run to the playoffs last season, and if he can battle through the injury and get back to hitting how he was pre-injury, that could push the Tigers over the top in the race for the AL pennant.
Detroit Tigers: SP Justin Verlander
Fresh off of a seven-year, $180 million deal in the offseason, 30-year-old Justin Verlander was far from his usually dominant self for most of the 2013 season.
He had his worst season since 2008, going 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA and 217 strikeouts in 218.1 innings, but he finished strong. In six September starts, he had a 2.27 ERA, and in his final two starts, he struck out 22 in 12 innings of work.
That was enough for the team to peg him as its No. 2 starter for the postseason behind Max Scherzer despite the fact that Anibal Sanchez (2.57 ERA) claimed the AL ERA title, and if he can continue his recent hot streak, he'll make a deep Tigers rotation that much more dangerous.
Oakland Athletics: 1B Brandon Moss
In five seasons heading into last season, Brandon Moss hit .236/.300/.382 over 678 at-bats while playing for the Red Sox, Pirates and Phillies. He signed with Oakland as a free agent prior to last season and emerged as a key member of the team's offense.
He hit .291/.358/.596 with 21 home runs and 52 RBI over just 265 at-bats last year, and he saw his role expand this season, as he hit .256/.337/.522 with 30 home runs and 87 RBI in 446 at-bats.
He's been fantastic since the All-Star break, hitting .296/.374/.615 with 14 home runs and 43 RBI, and while the team relies on its entire roster top to bottom to put up runs, Moss could be the one who leads the way in October if he can keep it up.
Oakland Athletics: SP Jarrod Parker
The A's got a fantastic season from 40-year-old Bartolo Colon, as he was 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA, and while the rest of the staff is talented, it is also young and inexperienced.
Jarrod Parker will fill the role of No. 3 starter in the postseason, and while he turned in a solid sophomore campaign overall by going 12-8 with a 3.97 ERA and 1.22 WHIP, he struggled down the stretch and is something of question mark heading into the postseason.
In five September starts, he was 2-2 with a 6.41 ERA. Those numbers were bloated by a pair of starts in which he allowed 14 runs in 8.2 innings of work, and the team will be looking for him to pitch like he did in the other five starts that month when he was 2-0 with a 2.50 ERA.
Tampa Bay Rays: SP Alex Cobb
The Rays pitching is clearly the team's strength heading into a big ALDS matchup with the division-rival Red Sox, and the left-handed duo of Matt Moore and David Price gives the Rays two ace-caliber starters to front their staff.
However, Alex Cobb showed in Wednesday night's Wild Card Round game that he too is capable of turning in a dominant performance, as he went 6.2 shutout innings and scattered eight hits with five strikeouts.
Cobb missed two months in the middle of summer after taking a liner off the head, but since returning on August 15, he has gone 5-1 with a 2.41 ERA. He's been particularly great over his last four starts, including the Wild Card Game, going 4-0 with a 0.90 ERA. If he can keep that up, he'll give the team a huge boost.
Tampa Bay Rays: RF Wil Myers
When the Rays made the decision to deal workhorse starter James Shields to the Royals for top prospect Wil Myers, the hope was that Myers would make an immediate impact in the middle of the lineup once he was called up, and he's done just that this season.
He made his debut on June 18, and in 335 at-bats on the year, he hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 home runs and 53 RBI. After hitting just .209/.317/.314 in August, he turned things around down the stretch with a .308/.362/.542 month of September.
Slotted primarily in the No. 2 spot in the lineup, he's being counted on to be both a table-setter and a run-producer, and he's already shown that he is capable of going on monster hot streaks.