Dark-Horse Candidates to Be 2017 MLB Postseason Heroes

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2017

Dark-Horse Candidates to Be 2017 MLB Postseason Heroes

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The MLB postseason presents a golden opportunity for under-the-radar players to become household names if they can shine on the national stage.

    Look no further than last postseason, when Javier Baez stole the show for the Chicago Cubs with a handful of clutch hits and one defensive highlight after another.

    Every team has established stars that even the casual baseball fan is familiar with.

    Ahead, we've taken a look further down the rosters of each of the 10 teams currently positioned to make the playoffs and identified one player from each who could emerge as a postseason hero in 2017.

Arizona Diamondbacks: SP Robbie Ray

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    Orlando Ramirez/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 27 GS, 15-5, 2.86 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 217 K, 160.1 IP

    Postseason Role: No. 2 starter

    Postseason Stats: N/A

         

    Outlook

    On the surface, Robbie Ray was mediocre at best last season as he went 8-15 with a 4.90 ERA and 1.47 WHIP over 32 starts.

    However, his 218 strikeouts and 11.3 strikeout-per-nine-inning rate that ranked second in the NL made his outlook a bit more intriguing. He's parlayed his swing-and-miss stuff into a breakout season.

    As good as he's been, it looked briefly like he'd be a non-factor down the stretch after he took a line drive off the head July 28. However, he missed just 26 games, and he's picked up right where he left off since returning.

    "It's almost a blessing in disguise, to be able to take that time off and get my mind right, get my body right," Ray told reporters. "I feel like it's helped out, honestly. I feel stronger now with everything; I feel in sync, ready to keep it going."

    He's 6-0 with a 2.16 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 66 strikeouts in 41.2 innings in seven starts since returning.

    He'll likely be the No. 2 starter behind Zack Greinke in the playoff rotation, and he's seen plenty of the Los Angeles Dodgers—the team's likely NLDS opponent if they advance beyond the Wild Card Game—this season.

    In five starts, he's gone 3-0 with a 2.27 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 53 strikeouts in 31.2 innings against the NL West champs.

Chicago Cubs: C Willson Contreras

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: .273/.353/.499, 102 H, 42 XBH (21 HR), 74 RBI, 49 R

    Postseason Role: Starting catcher

    Postseason Stats: 10-for-39, 2 2B, 1 HR

         

    Outlook

    Willson Contreras might be the most important player on a Chicago Cubs roster that is loaded with exciting young talent.

    The 25-year-old emerged as a potential NL MVP candidate when he exploded out of the All-Star break, posting a 1.017 OPS with eight home runs and 22 RBI in 18 games before a hamstring injury cost him 29 games.

    That led to the addition of Alex Avila at the trade deadline, but expect to see Contreras prominently featured behind the dish this October.

    His ability to handle the staff has been just as valuable as his bat:

    Contreras: 810.1 INN, 3.92 ERA, 3.5 BB/9, 8.8 K/9, .234 BAA

    Other C: 590.1 INN, 4.18 ERA, 3.5 BB/9, 9.1 K/9, .246 BAA

    Javier Baez turned himself into a household name last postseason; don't be surprised if Contreras enjoys a similar coming-out party.

Colorado Rockies: SP Tyler Anderson

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 17 G, 15 GS, 6-6, 4.81 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 81 K, 86.0 IP

    Postseason Role: No. 2/3 starter

    Postseason Stats: N/A

         

    Outlook

    There's little doubt Jon Gray would take the ball in the Wild Card Game for the Colorado Rockies.

    He's gone 6-3 with a 2.49 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 9.3 K/9 in his last 12 starts and is the clear ace of the staff.

    But if the team moves on to the NLDS, the rest of the rotation is up in the air, as Nick Groke of the Denver Post wrote:

    "If the Rockies reach the postseason, their pitching hierarchy will probably look like it does now.

    "Gray holds the top spot, followed by a mix of [Tyler] Anderson, [Tyler] Chatwood and [Chad] Bettis. [German] Marquez, with relief experience and a style that suits short stints, may move to the bullpen with [Kyle] Freeland, a valuable lefty, according to [manager Bud] Black.

    "[Jeff] Hoffman and [Antonio] Senzatela would be on the bullpen bubble. And there is wiggle room for more adjustments, in case Chatwood or Bettis falter in the final days."

    Anderson is an interesting case and the potential X-factor.

    After posting a 3.54 ERA (137 ERA+) and a 3.5 WAR as a rookie last season, he struggled mightily to a 6.11 ERA over 63.1 innings before a knee injury landed him on the 60-day DL. 

    He finally returned to action Sept. 11, and he's gone 3-1 with a 1.19 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in four starts since rejoining the staff.

    With a fresh arm and a strong finish, the 27-year-old could be ready to make a real impact in October.

Los Angeles Dodgers: CF Chris Taylor

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    Ryan Kang/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: .287/.354/.499, 145 H, 60 XBH (21 HR), 70 RBI, 85 R, 17 SB

    Postseason Role: Starting center fielder

    Postseason Stats: N/A

         

    Outlook

    When the season began, Andrew Toles was penciled into the leadoff spot in the Los Angeles Dodgers lineup, and Joc Pederson was set to man center field on an everyday basis. Chris Taylor was in Triple-A.

    Funny how seven months of baseball can change things.

    Taylor turned some heads in spring training with a .354 average and .983 OPS, and it didn't take him long to push his way into regular playing time once he was recalled from the minors.

    The 27-year-old has now been hitting leadoff since the All-Star break, and he's settled in as the everyday center fielder this month after spending time at second base, shortstop and in left field earlier in the year.

    "He's always had the makeup of a baseball player, the unselfishness and the athleticism," manager Dave Roberts told reporters. "Now the mechanics are where they need to be, and you get the good pulse. He's not scared of the big moment. That's all translated into production."

    Plenty of those big moments await in October, and he has the mix of power and speed to make an impact out of that leadoff spot.

Washington Nationals: SS Trea Turner

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: .277/.327/.448, 110 H, 40 XBH (11 HR), 45 RBI, 72 R, 42 SB

    Postseason Role: Starting shortstop

    Postseason Stats: 7-for-22, 2 SB

         

    Outlook

    Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker has seen plenty of baseball in his day, so when he compares one of his current players to an all-time great, it shouldn't be taken lightly.

    "That is Rickey Henderson-type stuff," Baker told reporters when talking about Trea Turner's mix of power and speed after his fourth leadoff home run of the season.

    He added: "Rick was the best at that. You walk him or he gets a hit, it is like a double or a triple. If you throw it right there, he would leave the ballpark on you. That is quite a feat for him so young in his career. You have to have discipline to do that and get a good pitch to hit."

    In the postseason when every game is paramount, things like speed and defense often take center stage and can be the difference between winning and losing.

    Outside of Billy Hamilton, there's no one in baseball who can wreak havoc on the bases like Turner.

    Despite playing just 94 games this season while dealing with a fractured wrist, he stole 42 bases in 49 attempts and scored 72 runs.

    In four games against the Chicago Cubs this season—the team's likely NLDS opponent—he had six hits, seven stolen bases and four runs scored.

    Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg might be the faces of the team on a national level, but Turner can be every bit as impactful this October.

Boston Red Sox: SP Drew Pomeranz

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 31 GS, 16-6, 3.38 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 171 K, 167.2 IP

    Postseason Role: No. 2 starter

    Postseason Stats: 2 G, 3.2 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 7 K

         

    Outlook

    With David Price missing significant time and never rounding into form as a second ace alongside Chris Sale, the Boston Red Sox needed someone else in the rotation.

    That someone has been Drew Pomeranz.

    The 28-year-old was disappointing last season after being acquired in a deadline deal with the San Diego Padres, going 3-5 with a 4.59 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 13 regular-season starts before working out of the bullpen in the postseason.

    He'll likely be penciled into the No. 2 spot in the rotation this time around. And while his overall numbers are terrific, they could be even better if not for a shaky start.

    Since posting a 5.29 ERA over his first seven starts, he's gone 13-3 with a 2.90 ERA and a .252 opponents' batting average in 133.2 innings.

    Manager John Farrell sang his praises while talking with reporters earlier this month:

    "You start to look at the numbers as they are and the things we have to go by, and maybe sometimes people don't put a lot of weight into wins and losses and ERA, but you know what, they're meaningful. So he starts to put himself in a very small group around the American League just by, you look at the hits allowed, you look at the runs given up, the quality starts, the run of games he's been on for the better part of three months or more. He's been maybe our most consistent starter in our rotation for the better part of these three or four months."

    If the Red Sox are going to make a deep run, he'll be just as important as Sale.

Cleveland Indians: SP Carlos Carrasco

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: 31 GS, 17-6, 3.43 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 212 K, 191.2 IP

    Postseason Role: No. 2 starter

    Postseason Stats: N/A

         

    Outlook

    The 2016 postseason might have gone differently if the Cleveland Indians had a healthy Carlos Carrasco backing Corey Kluber in the starting rotation.

    After going 11-8 with a 3.32 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 150 strikeouts in 146.1 innings, Carrasco saw his season end abruptly Sept. 17 when he suffered a broken hand.

    That left the Indians to rely on Kluber on short rest three different times, while Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin both stepped into bigger roles than anticipated.

    This time around, the Indians will have a second frontline starter to help shoulder the load. While Kluber is the AL Cy Young favorite and was a standout performer last October, Carrasco is no slouch.

    The 30-year-old ranks among the AL leaders in wins (17, second), ERA (3.43, 10th), WHIP (1.11, fourth), strikeouts (212, fifth), batting average against (.237, eighth) and WAR (4.9, sixth).

    Interestingly, he's been far better on the road (17 GS, 11-2, 2.65 ERA) than at home (14 GS, 6-4, 4.38 ERA) this season, so the team could take that into account when lining up the playoff rotation.

Houston Astros: UT Marwin Gonzalez

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: .302/.372/.529, 134 H, 55 XBH (23 HR), 86 RBI, 66 R

    Postseason Role: Super-utility starter

    Postseason Stats: 0-for-3, 2 K

          

    Outlook

    In a recent article titled "MLB's Hidden MVPs: 12 Standouts Who Deserve More Love" that highlighted some overlooked MLB stars, Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today shined some light on Houston Astros jack-of-all-trades Marwin Gonzalez.

    "Whenever I have a question on what I should do," manager A.J. Hinch told Ortiz, "the answer is usually, 'Marwin can do it.'"

    Indeed, the 28-year-old has played at least 19 games at each infield position, while also spending significant time at the corner outfield spots.

    Along the way, he's seen his OPS climb from .694 to .902 while racking up 32 doubles, 23 home runs and 86 RBI en route to a 4.2 WAR.

    There are plenty of candidates on the Houston roster who could be ready to make a name for themselves on the national stage this October—Alex Bregman, Brad Peacock, Lance McCullers Jr., Yuli Gurriel and Joe Musgrove immediately come to mind.

    The future is bright for this group, and Gonzalez is ready to emerge from the shadows as one of the most underrated players in the game.

Minnesota Twins: CF Byron Buxton

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: .255/.317/.419, 115 H, 36 XBH (16 HR), 51 RBI, 68 R, 28 SB

    Postseason Role: Starting center fielder

    Postseason Stats: N/A

         

    Outlook

    Remember the 2014 postseason when Kansas City Royals star Lorenzo Cain made a name for himself by turning in one highlight-reel play after another in center field?

    Byron Buxton could enjoy a similar coming-out party this October.

    The 23-year-old has not yet developed into the five-tool superstar many expected him to become when he was viewed as the No. 1 prospect in baseball. However, he's still been a 5.2 WAR player this season on the strength of his stellar glove work.

    His 24 DRS trail only Andrelton Simmons (32) and Mookie Betts (31) among position players and is well ahead of Kevin Pillar (15) for the lead among center fielders.

    Meanwhile, his plus speed also gives him terrific range (13.9 UZR/150) and makes him a threat on the bases as he's swiped 28 bases in 29 attempts.

    Buxton will always be chasing the expectations that came with his vaunted prospect status, and that's enough for some to call him a bust or overrated. Seeing him in action should give a national audience a better appreciation for his dynamic skill set.

New York Yankees: SS Didi Gregorius

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    2017 Stats: .290/.322/.486, 150 H, 52 XBH (25 HR), 87 RBI, 71 R

    Postseason Role: Starting shortstop

    Postseason Stats: 1-for-3

          

    Outlook

    Didi Gregorius has quietly put up some big numbers while playing in the shadow of celebrated young sluggers Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez.

    The 27-year-old took a big step forward offensively last season as he slugged 20 home runs and raised his OPS from .688 to .751 while adding 32 doubles and 70 RBI hitting toward the bottom of the lineup.

    He doesn't walk much (4.5 percent), but he doesn't strikeout much either (12.3 percent).

    That ability to consistently put the bat on the ball has served him well this season. Since the All-Star break, he's batted primarily in the cleanup spot in the lineup.

    Not only has he been one of the most consistent hitters in the New York Yankees lineup, but he's also one of the most productive players at his position.

    Gregorius ranks eighth among shortstops with an .808 OPS, and his 25 home runs and 87 RBI rank second to Francisco Lindor (33 HR, 88 RBI) in both categories.

    All eyes will be on Judge, but Gregorius will be asked to continue serving as one of the team's primary run producers, and he could steal the show.

          

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs and accurate through Tuesday's games.