As we head into the final stretch of the season, each MLB team knows whether or not it has what it takes to be a real contender.
Teams like the Pirates and Mets, both feel-good stories of the 2011 season, have started to fizzle. Once the division leader, Pittsburgh now trails both the Brewers and Cardinals in the NL Central and is 10 games back. Tampa Bay, despite its ever-producing talent system, cannot match the power and depth of the Yankees or Red Sox, and won’t be able to make up the difference in the standings either.
With about eight weeks of baseball left before the postseason, the list of viable contenders has been cut to 14 teams. Here is a look at each team’s most crucial player down the stretch, as they hope to enter the world of October baseball.
The Red Sox signed Crawford to a big contract and expected him to perform as well as he had in Tampa Bay, perhaps better offensively, playing half his games in Fenway Park.
However, Crawford got off to a horrendous start and has not completely recovered. Boston might have the pitching and offense to reach its goals without Crawford being a star, but having Crawford hit and play like he always has could do nothing but help.
Honorable Mention: Josh Beckett
The Yankees failed to upgrade their starting rotation at the trading deadline—perhaps because there just wasn’t enough on the market to "upgrade" to.
However, that has left the New York juggernaut in a precarious situation with only CC Sabathia as a dominant, battle-proven starter. Behind Sabathia, the Yankees are employing two youngsters in Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes, as well as two journeymen whose careers appeared to be over more than once.
Then there’s A.J. Burnett, who, at times, shows flashes of absolute brilliance.
However, Burnett has never been able to put it all together and has driven many a manager crazy. If Burnett was to find "it" during the next several weeks, it could go a long way toward that 28th championship flag.
Honorable Mention: Alex Rodriguez
Verlander might be the best pitcher in baseball this side of Roy Halladay. He is dominant, brilliant and has been so all year long; every time out he can throw a no-hitter. He should be a runaway Cy Young Award winner (Jered Weaver may have something to say about that, though).
However, if there is any letup by Verlander, the Tigers will be in serious trouble. He’s the glue that holds the rotation together.
Honorable Mention: Miguel Cabrera
The Indians made a bold move at the trading deadline, dealing significant prospects for perhaps the riskiest big name on the market. The fact that Colorado was willing to move the pitcher who seemingly finally put it all together in 2010 says something.
What do the Rockies know about Jimenez the rest of the baseball world does not?
His first start in a Cleveland uniform was not terrific, but if he can regain the form that propelled him to a 15-1 start and a no-hitter in 2010, the Indians will seriously challenge the Tigers for the AL Central crown.
Honorable Mention: Grady Sizemore
Feliz is having a good year, but not great compared to the dominating performance he put together in 2010. Perhaps it was the half-hearted attempt to convert him back to a starter in spring training that has harmed his performance this season, or maybe it’s just the legendary sophomore blues.
Either way, the Rangers were in the market for a closer—rumored to be in on Heath Bell until the very end—at the trading deadline and ended up picking up two quality late-inning relievers. If Feliz is able to recapture the magic that led to his 2010 Rookie of the Year award, Rangers opponents trailing late in games will be in serious trouble.
Honorable Mention: Michael Young
After striking out on the free-agent market, the Angels traded for controversial (due to his contract) outfielder Vernon Wells, hoping he’d be able to fill a void in the middle of their lineup.
Unfortunately, Wells has been absolutely horrible for Anaheim. If the Angels are seriously going to challenge the Rangers for the AL West title, they are going to need some more vintage Wells, the production that helped to earn him—deservedly or not—his $126 million contract.
If not, the Angels offense might be back to the drawing board this winter with significantly fewer dollars to spend.
Honorable Mention: Jered Weaver
Brad Lidge may not be the Philadelphia Phillies closer anymore—and he might not ever regain that role with any team—but it does not diminish his importance to the Phillies down the stretch.
With a significantly untested postseason bullpen, and with the major league innings for Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes quickly adding up, the Phillies may need Lidge’s veteran arm and experience as the season comes to an end. If Lidge is anything like he was in 2008—or even 2010—the Phillies might employ one of the best lockdown bullpens in the National League.
Honorable Mention: Ryan Howard
Dan Uggla was supposed to be the offensive piece that put the Braves over the top. His power production was acquired to help chase down the defending NL East champion Phillies and propel Atlanta to the World Series.
Under the pressure of huge expectations, Uggla struggled to find his stroke, miserably batting under .200 for most of the season.
Lately, though, Uggla has been as hot as he was cold, scorching the ball all over the ballpark and being the player Atlanta envisioned when it dealt for him—and then gave him a huge contract.
If the Braves are going to hold off wild-card foes, they’ll need Uggla to continue his brilliant performance.
Honorable Mention: Derek Lowe
The Brewers dealt for both Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke during the offseason, hoping the pair would lead a dynamic rotation to take them to the postseason in perhaps Prince Fielder’s last year in Milwaukee.
So far, so good.
Greinke, though, has never been in a pennant race before, and there is no way to tell how a player/pitcher will respond to the pressures of it. The bet here is that Greinke, one of the game’s best young pitchers, is phenomenal down the stretch and guides the Brewers to the NL Central crown.
Honorable Mention: Prince Fielder
In St. Louis, it begins and ends with Albert Pujols.
Despite having a down year (for his standards), Pujols is still the game’s best hitter, and he’s picked it up recently since his return from the disabled list.
If St. Louis stands any chance of taking down the Brewers, they’ll need Pujols to continue being Pujols.
Honorable Mention: Chris Carpenter
The defending champions got the best hitter on the market to put in the middle of their lineup in a quest to repeat.
Arizona is a young, hungry team, but the Giants—with their tremendous pitching staff—are still the favorites. Beltran’s only experience in postseason play has been tremendous—and that’s scary for opposing National League teams.
Honorable Mention: Brian Wilson
Jason Marquis is one of those pitchers who rarely get the attention they deserve; languishing in the nation’s capital for the previous 18 months, it’s understandable.
Now that he’s been thrown into the heat of a pennant race in the desert, we should get a chance to see if Marquis can be an elite pitcher. With a rotation already featuring Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, the Diamondbacks will be a force to be reckoned with. If Marquis pitches well, they could very well overtake the defending world champions and make it to October baseball.
Honorable Mention: J.J. Putz