Key X-Factors That Will Determine Who Clinches MLB's Final 2016 Playoff Spots

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2016

Key X-Factors That Will Determine Who Clinches MLB's Final 2016 Playoff Spots

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    Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    Baseball doesn't get much better than this. With just over a week left in the MLB regular season, we have 12 teams within five games of a playoff berth—and a three-way tie in the National League wild-card race.

    Tell us again how baseball is boring, haters.

    For most of those teams, their destinies are in their own hands. Or rather, in the hands of their biggest X-factors, players who can change the course of a game—and the way the playoff race shakes out—with a single swing or pitch.

    The New York Yankees' Gary Sanchez is one of those X-factors. Not only has he helped propel the Yankees back into contention, but he's also making a strong case that, like Willie McCovey in 1959, he's deserving of the Rookie of the Year Award despite not arriving on the scene until well after the All-Star break had passed.

    Is Sanchez the only rookie to make the cut? Is he the only catcher? Are there more well-established X-factors to focus on? Let's take a look.

Derek Law and Hunter Strickland, RPs, San Francisco Giants

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    Hunter Strickland
    Hunter StricklandKelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    There's no way to sugarcoat things for the San Francisco Giants bullpen, which has blown an MLB-high 29 saves. It's a group that's been mediocre at best and the kind of nightmare-inducing thing that you shield a child's eyes from at worst.

    Of course, San Francisco's issues go well beyond the bullpen.

    Late-season swoons from the likes of Brandon Crawford, Angel Pagan and Buster Posey haven't helped. But it's an even year, so we shouldn't be surprised that the Giants remain in the thick of the playoff race despite having such a sketchy group of late-inning options to choose from.

    As manager Bruce Bochy recently told the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser, those options now include rookie hurler Derek Law and flamethrower Hunter Strickland. "I’m not saying Law is the closer but with him and Strick, they’re going to be more in the mix in the eighth and ninth."

    Bochy admitted to the San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Schulman that some of the bullpen's issues are his fault—that he's perhaps "overthinked" things at times and that trying to play the matchups rather than let his relievers get settled in a consistent role hasn't gone well.

    Ultimately, it's on the pitchers to make quality pitches and get the job done. If Law and Strickland are able to bring some sense of stability to the late innings, the Giants could finally put some distance between themselves and the rest of the wild-card field in the National League.

    But that's a big if.

Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Dodgers enter play Thursday with a five-game lead over San Francisco in the National League West, fresh off a three-game series that saw the Dodgers take two of three contests from the Giants and reduce their magic number to five.

    But if baseball has taught us anything, it's that anything is possible. It's too early to think that the season-ending, three-game series between the division rivals in San Francisco won't be for the division crown.

    Yasiel Puig figures to play a big part in whether that winds up being the case.

    We know what kind of a positive difference-maker Puig can be when he's locked in—and how much of a distraction he can be when he's not. 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 change the playoff picture with one swing—or one throw from the outfield. If he's a distraction, the Dodgers could find themselves on shaky ground during the season's final playoff push.

T.J. Rivera, IF, New York Mets

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    It's not often that fringe 27-year-old prospects getting their first tastes of the big leagues become factors in a playoff race, but T.J. Rivera isn't your normal fringe prospect.

    Undrafted out of Troy University in 2011, the Bronx-born Rivera hit .353 to win the Pacific Coast League's batting crown this season and has done nothing but produce for the New York Mets in the big leagues, hitting .347 with an .856 OPS over 24 games.

    "I don’t think there’s any question he can play here. His swing plays here, he’s got bat speed, he’s got some power. I truly believe in overachievers—he’s one of those guys," manager Terry Collins told the New York Post's Brian Lewis. "There are those guys that come in, play the game the right way, and come through when you need them. [Rivera] is one of them."

    With injuries to Wilmer Flores, Neil Walker and David Wright, Rivera has spent most of his time at second base and third base. He's come through on defense for the Mets as well, delivering some highlight-reel plays along the way.

    The Mets are going to need Rivera to continue raking at the plate if they're going to emerge victorious in the three-way tie they're in with San Francisco and the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card chase.

Gary Sanchez, C, New York Yankees

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Gary Sanchez has put the New York Yankees on his back, doing more than his part to slug the Bronx Bombers back into contention after it looked like the team had turned its focus to 2017 and beyond.

    Since taking over behind the plate on a full-time basis, Sanchez has hit .346 with 30 extra-base hits (19 home runs), 38 RBI and a 1.184 OPS over 43 games—in which the Yankees have gone 23-19. He's been especially ridiculous over his last four games, hitting .500 with five home runs, 11 RBI and a 1.438 OPS.

    While the Yankees are only 2.5 games out of a wild-card spot, they have to jump over four teams to get there—five to play host to the American League's play-in contest. With seven games left against the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles, two of the teams they're chasing, it's not an impossible task to achieve.

    That's especially true if Sanchez can avoid a significant drop in his production. If not, the Yankees will have missed the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years.

Mark Trumbo, OF/DH, Baltimore Orioles

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    It's not a stretch to say that Baltimore wouldn't find itself in the thick of a pennant race without Mark Trumbo's superlative first half, which saw the slugger hit .288 with 28 home runs, 68 RBI and a .923 OPS.

    While he's hitting just .186 with 15 home runs, 34 RBI and a .681 OPS in the second half, Trumbo has had his moments for the Orioles, including game-winning home runs against the Boston Red Sox last Wednesday and the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday. 

    "I mean obviously [it feels] really good," Trumbo told the Baltimore Sun's Peter Schmuck on Monday. "This time of year, someone's got to step up at some point in the game. We did a real nice job. It was a well-played game, but we just needed to get that hit there at the end. So it was nice."

    But those big moments have been few and far between down the stretch for MLB's home run leader. With Baltimore's postseason fate potentially resting on a three-game series in Toronto that starts next Tuesday, the Orioles need Trumbo to rediscover his first-half swagger.

    The problem is that he's posted just a .175/.235/.238 slash line over nearly 70 plate appearances against the Blue Jays this season, and his OPS on the road is nearly 100 points lower than it is at home. He's going to have to turn that around for the Orioles to still be flying around Baltimore in October.

Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    For a little while, it looked as if Troy Tulowitzki had finally gotten comfortable in Toronto. From mid-June through the end of August, he hit .285 with 14 home runs, 43 RBI and an .855 OPS, striking out only 38 times in 55 games.

    That hasn't carried over into September, though, with the former perennial National League MVP candidate during his time with the Colorado Rockies hitting just .257 with a .683 OPS and 10 whiffs in 18 games. That doesn't bode well for a remaining schedule that features only division foes and playoff competition in Baltimore, Boston and New York.

    While he's had success against the Yankees this season, Tulo has struggled against the Orioles and Red Sox, hitting a combined .200 (16-for-80) with four home runs, 14 RBI and 18 strikeouts in 22 games. If he's able to raise the level of his play, even to his season averages, against those clubs, the Blue Jays could find themselves winning their second consecutive AL East crown.

    If not, watching the playoffs from home as they head into an uncertain offseason that could see the departures of both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion as free agents is a distinct possibility.

Justin Upton, OF, Detroit Tigers

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Which Justin Upton will show up for the stretch run in Detroit? The one who hit .235 with nine home runs and a .670 OPS before the All-Star break or the one who has hit .232 with seven home runs and a .942 OPS thus far in September?

    The 29-year-old has struggled to stay consistent in his first year with the Tigers, riding extreme hot and cold streaks throughout the season. While he's not happy about his inconsistent performance, it's something he's made peace with.

    "There are hot streaks and the cold streaks, and then there's the vanilla that people don't really get excited about," Upton told ESPN.com's Katie Strang. That vanilla could be a late-inning walk, a sacrifice fly in the middle of the game or a clutch RBI that cuts into the opposition's lead or pads Detroit's advantage on the scoreboard.

    If he continues to "embrace the vanilla," as Strang wrote, he will continue to be a productive force in Detroit's lineup down the stretch. If he reverts back to past habits that found him pressing at the plate to go deep and live up to his massive contract, the Tigers could quickly fade from contention.

Mike Zunino, C, Seattle Mariners

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much difference between the Seattle Mariners' 41-39 record before Mike Zunino joined the team in early July and their 39-33 record since he arrived. But it's a significant enough improvement for the Mariners to sit only two games out of the team's first playoff spot since 2001.

    To put that in proper perspective, consider this: Felix Hernandez hadn't yet signed with the team as an amateur free agent when the Ichiro-led M's last played meaningful October baseball.

    There's no secret to Zunino's game. At this point in his career, it's all about power. Seattle is 9-1 in the 10 games in which Zunino has gone deep and 10-3 in games he's recorded an extra-base hit. When Zunino is held to base hits, the Mariners are a sub-.500 team at 29-30.

    He hasn't fared well down the stretch, hitting just .105 with no extra-base hits and a .333 OPS over his last seven games, a stretch that's seen the Mariners go 4-3. But if he can rediscover his swagger at the plate and start depositing some balls in the stands, the playoff dream might finally become a reality.

             

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and are current through Wednesday's games. 

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