10 MLB Stars Who'll Make or Break 2016 Pennant Race Outcomes

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistSeptember 9, 2016

10 MLB Stars Who'll Make or Break 2016 Pennant Race Outcomes

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    Flipping the calendar to September means a number of things: the end of summer, the start of a new school year and a seemingly uncontrollable outbreak of MLB pennant race fever.

    It's also the month in which the biggest stars on teams in the midst of those races have a chance to earn their paychecks. Some will do just that, rising to the occasion and leading their teams to not only regular-season pennants but also (hopefully) postseason success.

    Others will succumb to the pressure and fall flat, leading their clubs to disappointing regular-season finishes that find them watching the playoffs from the comfort of their living room couches.

    Of course, a player doesn't necessarily have to be on a contending club to have an impact on the outcomes of those races. Some will have the opportunity to rise to the occasion and play the role of spoiler down the stretch.

    Here's a look at 10 stars who will play crucial roles in deciding which teams wind up atop their respective divisions by season's end.

Jose Bautista, OF, Toronto Blue Jays

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    The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the Toronto Blue Jays is the team's prolific offense, a lineup that features big-time run producers like Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki.

    Except the Blue Jays haven't been doing much scoring since the All-Star break, ranking seventh in the American League in runs scored and ninth in OPS. Manager John Gibbons needs to shake things up in the lineup to try to light a spark under his floundering offense.

    "Joey Bats at one worked well when the pitching was strong and the RBI guys were driving in runs," the Toronto Star's Richard Griffin wrote on Thursday. "But now is the time to insert Devon Travis at the top for the remainder and move Bautista to a more traditional spot."

    The Blue Jays need Bautista to be one of those RBI guys, not a table-setter atop the lineup who's left standing on first base when the bats behind him fail to drive him in. His penchant for drawing walks would be just as valuable in the heart of the order, while his power would have a chance to do far more damage.

Brian Dozier, 2B, Minnesota Twins

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    Before you dismiss Brian Dozier as being able to have a major impact on Junior Circuit pennant races because he plays for a last-place team, consider this: Nineteen of the Minnesota Twins' final 22 games come against contending teams.

    And few players have been as hot as Dozier since the All-Star break, a 52-game stretch in which he has hit .323 with 25 home runs, 49 RBI and a 1.121 OPS.

    While he hasn't achieved quite that level of success against the contenders he's left to face—the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners—he's hit a solid .273 with 28 extra-base hits (20 home runs) and 35 RBI over 45 games.

    The Twins will likely lose more games than they win through the end of the season, but with the way Dozier is swinging the bat, he's more than capable of wrecking a team's playoff chances with a massive series. 

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, New York Yankees

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    Jacoby Ellsbury is never going to come close to meeting the expectations associated with the seven-year, $153 million deal he signed with the New York Yankees before the 2014 season.

    But that doesn't mean the 32-year-old, whom Yankees manager Joe Girardi sat last weekend in a huge game against Baltimore Orioles southpaw Wade Miley, can't have an impact on a pennant race that nobody thought the Yankees could play their way back into.

    The .318/.423/.545 slash line he's posted in 22 September at-bats is a good place to start.

    Whether he's hitting first or second in the lineup, Ellsbury needs to start using his biggest weapon—his speed. He may not be the burner he once was, but with 18 stolen bases in 26 attempts this season, he's still capable of causing problems when he gets on base.

    Problem is, he's attempted only three of those steals since the All-Star break.

    "You can give them the [green light to] steal," Girardi told ESPN.com's Andrew Marchand, "but if they don’t get a good jump, you don’t want them to go."

    But as Marchand notes, Ellsbury has essentially refused to try to steal in the second half, even with a green light from the dugout.

    Swiping bases alone won't be enough for Ellsbury to impact the pennant race—he needs to raise his overall game to a level he's struggled to reach all season long. While the odds might be stacked against him pulling it off, it's not impossible for him to perform at an All-Star level for the rest of the season.

Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Fans in Los Angeles and San Francisco have had the weekend of Sept. 30-Oct. 2 circled on their calendars for months, as its the last time the Dodgers and Giants will face off in the regular season, a series that could decide which team wins the National League West.

    The series opener could find Clayton Kershaw, who would be making his fifth start since a back injury sidelined him in late June, going up against a familiar foe in Giants ace Madison Bumgarner.

    That's assuming Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pushes his own ace back a day for what might be the most important game of the year rather than have him start the series finale against San Diego the day before—and that Kershaw makes it that far.

    With Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball citing a team source who said Kershaw is still "pretty banged up" and that the team expects him to try to "tough it out," it's hard to believe that the three-time Cy Young Award winner will still be physically able to pitch effectively.

    But we've seen Kershaw do otherworldly things on the mound before. Is now the time to start doubting his preternatural abilities? 

    "He's the equalizer for anyone," Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said last month about Kershaw's potential return, per the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan.

J.D. Martinez, OF, Detroit Tigers

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    As Bleacher Report's Jacob Shafer wrote Wednesday, J.D. Martinez is the most dangerous hitter in baseball nobody's talking about.

    It's Martineznot Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez or Justin Uptonwho leads Detroit in post-All-Star Game OPS. In fact, Martinez's 1.108 OPS ranks fourth in baseball among players who have made at least 130 second-half plate appearances.

    With Kinsler, Cameron Maybin, Cabrera and V-Mart ahead of him in the lineup, Martinez has a chance to step up to the plate with runners on base more often than not. That's huge for a Tigers team that is leaning heavily on young, relatively untested arms (Matt Boyd, Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris) down the stretch.

    The Tigers need as many runs on the board as they can get.

    While Detroit trails Cleveland in the AL Central by six games entering play Friday, it's far from an insurmountable number to make up—especially since the two teams play each other seven times before the regular season ends.

    With the way Martinez is swinging the bat, Detroit could find itself back atop the division before its season-ending series against the lowly Atlanta Braves.

Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Boston Red Sox

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    Lost somewhere between Mookie Betts' all-around awesomeness and David Ortiz's feel-good farewell tour lies this little fact: Dustin Pedroia has become one of the game's pre-eminent leadoff hitters at the age of 33.

    Since moving to the top of the Boston Red Sox lineup on Aug. 10, Pedroia has hit .443 with a .974 OPS. He had a three-game stint at the end of the month in which he went 11-for-11, falling one hit shy of tying the MLB record for most consecutive at-bats with a hit, last accomplished by Walt Dropo in 1952.

    "Whenever your name is up there with guys in black-and-white photos, that's pretty special," Red Sox ace David Price said of Pedroia's streak, per ESPN.com's Scott Lauber. "He's a gamer. He's a very special teammate and everybody in here definitely cherishes what he brings to this team every single day. We're all happy for him."

    His success isn't some sort of fluke. Healthy for the first time in years, he's merely doing what he's always done.

    "[Pedroia] hasn’t changed his approach," manager John Farrell told the Boston Globe's Alex Speier. "He’s getting a number of base hits the other way. He’s taking what the pitcher is giving him. He’s getting on base. He’s not thinking anything other than the at-bats, not as they’re attached to the spot in the lineup."

    While the Red Sox sit atop the AL East, Pedroia's continued excellence at the top of the lineup could be the deciding factor in what has become a four-team race for divisional dominance.

Hunter Pence, OF, San Francisco Giants

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    There's no shortage of blame to go around for San Francisco's fall from grace atop the NL West, but most fingers should be pointed at the lineup, which has scored the National League's second-fewest runs since the All-Star break.

    History tells us that over the course of Hunter Pence's 10-year career, September has been his second-most productive month, bested only by a .916 OPS he carries in May. But for that to matter, he has to fix himself first.

    For now, Pence is broken at the plate.

    Take a look at the pitches Pence has swung at since the start of August, per Brooks Baseball. He's attacking anything that's remotely close to the strike zone—and a lot of pitches that are in a different area code as well.

    That's what you call pressing at the plate—and it helps explain why the slugger has a .248/.295/.364 slash line with only eight extra-base hits (three home runs) and 10 RBI since the start of August. Adjustments must be made.

    If Pence can make those adjustments and get back to the patient approach he showed before going on the disabled list in early June with a torn hamstring, he could be the catalyst for a Giants surge into the playoffs.

David Price, SP, Boston Red Sox

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    David Price might deliver on his $30 million salary after all.

    After a sluggish start to his Boston career, Price has been dealing for more than a month. Over his last six starts, dating back to Aug. 12, Price has pitched to a 2.14 ERA and 0.93 WHIP while holding opponents to a .583 OPS. 

    Farrell couldn't help but gush about his ace after Price tossed seven innings of two-run ball against Oakland—a start that began with three no-hit innings—last Friday. "All in all," Farrell told Speier, "David has been in a really strong run here of late."

    With three of his last four starts of the season projected to come against division rivals New York and Tampa Bayteams he's pitched to a combined 5.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP against over seven startsdoing so isn't going to be easy.

    But if he can pull it off and lead Boston to its third AL East title in the past 21 seasons, nobody is going to care much about the mediocrity that preceded it.

Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    We know what kind of a positive difference-maker Yasiel Puig can be when he's locked in—and how much of a distraction he can be when he's not. 

    "The conversations we had with him at the beginning of August really resonated with him," Andrew Friedman, the team's president of baseball operations, told the Los Angeles Times' Andy McCullough last week. "I think there’s been a very conscious effort to listen to what was said and apply it to his daily work."

    It seems like Puig has taken whatever the Dodgers told him to heart, as the 25-year-old has been nothing but productive in his return to Los Angeles after being banished to Triple-A. He's made the most of limited playing time, going 4-for-9 with two home runs, five RBI, four runs scored and three walks.

    While limited playing time isn't conducive to Puig having a major impact on the pennant race, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts didn't rule out giving the talented youngster more regular at-bats.

    "I think that in the sense, that yes, Yasiel will play against the left-handed pitchers [and Josh Reddick against the right-handed ones], but I think there will be some opportunities for Yasiel to get in there against some right-handers too," Roberts said earlier this month, per ESPN.com's Doug Padilla.

    On raw talent alone, Puig is right up there with Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager and the other top young stars in baseball. If he stays locked in and focused, he could have a big impact. 

Chris Tillman, SP, Baltimore Orioles

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    While Ubaldo Jimenez has pitched admirably of late, posting a 2.91 ERA over three starts in place of Baltimore's injured ace Chris Tillman, odds are the veteran righty is heading back to long relief once Tillman makes his return from a shoulder issue Sunday against Detroit.

    As the Baltimore Sun's Eduardo A. Encina noted, Orioles manager Buck Showalter is no fan of six-man rotations.

    Assuming Showalter does roll with a five-man rotation the rest of the way, Tillman would have four starts remaining after his tilt with the Tigers—three of them against Baltimore's stiffest competition for AL East dominance: Boston, New York and Toronto.

    In seven starts against those three teams, Tillman has gone 4-0 with a 3.24 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, striking out 42 batters over 44.1 innings of work.

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs and current through games of Sept. 8.