MLB Playoffs: The Most Crucial Player for Each Fringe Team

Nick Selbe@@nickselbeFeatured ColumnistAugust 11, 2015

MLB Playoffs: The Most Crucial Player for Each Fringe Team

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    The 2015 MLB postseason is just eight weeks away, and as of this writing, 15 teams have a record of .500 or better and are within five games of a playoff spot. That kind of congestion at the top and middle of the standings sets things up for an exciting finish to the regular season as we head down the stretch.

    For the five teams that are within striking distance of a playoff spot yet are currently out of the picture, it’s going to take a spark for them to punch their ticket. With that in mind, here is a look at one player from each team on the bubble—the Giants, Nationals, Orioles, Rays and Rangerswho will have a huge impact on his team’s playoff aspirations.

    While acknowledging the obvious importance of star players to a team’s success, this will focus more on role players rather than headliners. So yes, Bryce Harper will play a crucial role in trying to lead the Nationals to the postseason, but players of his stature are not the primary focus of this article. 

    With that caveat out of the way, here are five players who will be critical to leading their teams into the playoff field.

San Francisco Giants: SP Chris Heston

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    Current Record: 59-52, 3 GB NL West, 3.5 GB NL Wild Card

    The San Francisco Giants are trying to avoid a fate that’s befallen them in each of their post-World Series seasons since 2011—missing the playoffs. 

    In both of their non-postseason years this decade, their absences were understandable. Buster Posey played in just 45 games in 2011, and the team was last in the National League in runs scored. In 2013, San Francisco was 21st in runs scored and 22nd in team ERA and finished with a 76-86 record—it simply was not a very good team.

    This year, however, has been a different story. The Giants rank in the middle of the pack in ERA (12th in MLB) and near the top in runs scored (second in NL), so on paper they appear to be a playoff-caliber team. Their run differential is plus-52, fourth in the NL. So why do they find themselves outside the playoff picture?

    One reason could be a lack of consistency. To date, the Giants have had four separate streaks of five losses or more, including an eight-game losing streak in April and a seven-game skid in late June/early July.

    For comparison’s sake, four of the five teams that are currently holding NL playoff positions—the Dodgers, Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs—have season-worst losing streaks of three, four, five and five games, respectively. The NL East-leading Mets have endured separate seven- and five-game losing streaks, but they have a worse record than the Giants, despite leading their own division.

    It’s not difficult to guess why the Giants have struggled with inconsistency. Their starting pitchers rank 26th in the league in wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs, and the Giants are dealing with injuries to key contributors.

    Tim Lincecum went on the disabled list in late June and was diagnosed with degenerative hips in late July, according to Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News. Tim Hudson has struggled this season and is on the DL with a shoulder injury. The Giants acquired Mike Leake from the Reds at the trade deadline to help their rotation, and he subsequently landed on the DL with a strained hamstring after just one start.

    Three-fifths of the Giants’ current starting rotation—Ryan Vogelsong, Jake Peavy and Matt Cain—have combined to post a minus-0.1 WAR, which (finally) leads me to the key player who will have a huge impact San Francisco’s playoff hopes: rookie Chris Heston.

    With staff ace Madison Bumgarner pitching at his usual peak form, Heston has been a savior for the Giants this season. He ranks 20th among qualified pitchers in the NL in FIP, per FanGraphs, ahead of names like Matt Harvey, Carlos Martinez and John Lackey. He trails only Noah Syndergaard for the NL lead in WAR among rookie pitchers, according to FanGraphs, and he’ll need to avoid fading down the stretch for the Giants to catch the Dodgers in the NL West. 

    Heston pitched well in July but has struggled in his first two August starts. In road starts against the Cubs and Rangers, he threw a combined 8.2 innings and allowed eight runs with just three strikeouts. If his struggles continue, it will be difficult for the Giants to overcome their deficit in the standings.

Washington Nationals: 2B Anthony Rendon

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    Current Record: 57-53, 1.5 GB in NL East, 5 GB in NL Wild Card

    Once thought to be the favorites to not only win the World Series but do so in dominant fashion, as Grantland’s Rany Jazayerli wrote in March, the Nationals are officially in danger of missing out on the postseason entirely.

    Washington owes a large portion of its struggles this season to injuries. Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, Denard Span and Ryan Zimmerman have all missed significant time in 2015 with various ailments, but perhaps no injured player has been missed more than second baseman Anthony Rendon.

    2014 was a breakout year for the former first-round pick. In his first full season, Rendon finished fourth in the majors with 6.5 WAR, trailing only Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Alex Gordon, according to FanGraphs. He led the NL in runs scored and ranked third on the team in home runs, RBI and stolen bases.

    Rendon has missed 78 games this season, and so far he has not resembled his 2014 form. He has just nine extra-base hits in 140 plate appearances and has been caught stealing twice in two attempts.

    Since returning from his second DL stint on July 25, Rendon has appeared in 14 of the Nationals’ 15 games, so it appears that manager Matt Williams is intent on keeping him in the lineup. If the Nationals hope to fulfill their lofty preseason expectations, they’ll need him to start looking like his former self sooner rather than later.

Baltimore Orioles: 2B Jonathan Schoop

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    Current Record: 56-54, 5 GB AL East, 3 GB AL Wild Card

    Jonathan Schoop was already a household name when he signed with the Orioles in 2008. He represented Curacao in the Little League World Series in 2003 and 2004, and he quickly made a name for himself as a professional.

    In his age-19 season, he was chosen as a member of the 2011 All-Star Futures Game along with Manny Machado, and later that season he was named the Orioles’ minor league player of the year. Baseball Prospectus rated Schoop as the No. 85 prospect prior to the 2012 season and then moved him up to No. 82 by the time the pre-2014 rankings came out.

    Schoop struggled in his first full major league season in 2014, posting a .209/.244/.354 slash line in 137 games. He’s bumped that up to a stellar .314/.341/.576 line this season, but knee injuries have limited him to just 37 games played.

    In his absence, manager Buck Showalter has given most of the second base starts to Ryan Flaherty, and the results have been underwhelming. Flaherty has hit .212/.284/.337 this season with just 13 extra-base hits in 217 plate appearances. For comparison’s sake, Schoop has 15 extra-base hits in 126 plate appearances this season. On the season, Orioles second basemen rank 17th in the league in WAR, according to FanGraphs.

    Despite his limited playing time, Schoop has been the Orioles’ sixth-most valuable hitter this season, per FanGraphs. Since returning from the DL on July 5, he’s played in 28 of the team’s 29 games. He’ll need to stay healthy and keep hitting for the Orioles to remain in contention over the final two months of the season.

Tampa Bay Rays: RF Steven Souza Jr.

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    Current Record: 56-56, 6 GB AL East, 4 GB AL Wild Card

    The Rays rank 27th in the league in runs scored and have the league’s fifth-highest strikeout rate, according to FanGraphs. The chief offender has been rookie right fielder Steven Souza Jr., whose 35.1 percent strikeout rate is the highest among all qualified hitters

    Tampa Bay acquired Souza from the Nationals in a three-team trade that sent Wil Myers to San Diego and Joe Ross to Washington. Souza was ranked as baseball’s No. 37 prospect by Baseball America prior to this season, and he’s delivered some decidedly mixed results.

    His gargantuan strikeout totals have kept him from being a bigger impact hitter, but he is one of three rookies—along with Kris Bryant and Michael Taylor—with at least 10 home runs and 10 stolen bases. His 15 home runs are second-most by a rookie, behind only Joc Pederson.

    Despite his meager .214/.303/.403 slash line, Souza is still sixth on the Rays in WAR, per FanGraphs. With a pitching staff that has posted the third-best ERA in the AL, the offense needs to just show marginal improvement to make a big difference and get the Rays back in the hunt for a playoff spot.

    It will take a team effort, but Souza can single-handedly make a significant impact by getting hot down the stretch.

Texas Rangers: SP Martin Perez

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    Current Record: 55-55, 4.5 GB AL West, 4 GB AL Wild Card

    When the Rangers acquired starting pitcher Cole Hamels from the Phillies, the move was largely made with the 2016 season (and beyond) in mind, according to Grantland’s Jonah Keri. Hamels is signed through the 2018 season, and the Rangers have plenty of young talent to be contenders at some point during Hamels’ deal.

    Hamels will obviously help the Rangers be better this season, as will another starting pitcher who arrived in July: 24-year-old lefty Martin Perez.

    In 2013, Perez, then 22, made 20 starts and pitched 124.1 innings for the Rangers, going 10-6 with a 3.62 ERA. Texas signed him to a four-year, $12.5 million deal after the season, with three team-option years tacked on at the end.

    Perez made eight starts in 2014 before undergoing Tommy John surgery in May. He returned to the mound on July 17, and though his 5.81 ERA suggests he’s not been the same, his 2.80 FIP, per FanGraphs, indicates he’s run into some bad luck since his return.

    In 2013, Perez averaged over six innings per start. He’s pitched more than six innings just once in five starts this year, but if the Rangers are to get back into the playoff race, they’ll need Perez to pitch deep into games and keep the ball out of their radioactive bullpen’s hands.

    Texas’ bullpen ranks dead last in the majors in the following categories, all according to FanGraphs: WAR, ERA, FIP and walk rate. Perez can help avoid more bullpen blowups, and if he can regain his 2013 form quickly, the Rangers can sneak their way into serious playoff contention sooner than most would have expected.

    Note: All team records and stats reflect games played through Aug. 9 and are provided by ESPN, unless otherwise noted.

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