MLB Playoffs 2020: Every Team's Biggest X-Factor in Divisional Round
In the small-sample crucible that is the MLB postseason, stars don't always have the biggest impact. Oh, sure, great players often play well (no newsflash there). But sometimes, other contributors step forward to tip the scales.
Here, then, is one X-factor for each of the eight remaining playoff teams as we enter the division series round. For our purposes, we defined X-factor as:
- A player whose status is uncertain because of injury and whose health (or lack thereof) could have major ramifications.
- A player coming off a less-than-stellar year with the skill and pedigree to suddenly get hot.
- A young player with a short track record but the talent to shine under the October lights.
Atlanta: RHP Kyle Wright
Atlanta got superlative pitching in its two-game wild-card round sweep of the Cincinnati Reds. In 22 innings of work, the club's arms yielded zero runs with 28 strikeouts.
That included strong starts from Max Fried (7 IP, 0 ER, 6 H, 0 BB, 5 K) and Ian Anderson (6 IP, 0 ER, 2 H, 2 BB, 9 K).
Atlanta will need at least one more starting pitcher in its best-of-five NLDS matchup with the Miami Marlins. That's your cue, Kyle Wright.
In eight starts this season, the rookie right-hander posted a 5.21 ERA. But he finished with three consecutive quality starts and rising confidence.
"He's been tremendous," catcher Travis d'Arnaud told reporters on Sept. 20. "His demeanor on the mound and his demeanor in between innings, he's been carrying himself really well. He's just been attacking guys."
If he can carry that over to the postseason, he'll be a valuable weapon for Atlanta.
Houston Astros: RHP Jose Urquidy
The loss of Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery left the Houston Astros with only one postseason-tested ace. And Zack Greinke alone won't be able to carry them past the division series, especially with no off days and an inexperienced bullpen that's missing injured closer Roberto Osuna.
Keep an eye on rookie Jose Urquidy. After posting a 2.73 ERA in five starts this season, Urquidy got the start in Game 2 of the wild-card round against the Minnesota Twins.
The 25-year-old right-hander lasted 4.1 innings and allowed two hits and one run. He wasn't flat-out dominant, but it was a positive sign for the 'Stros.
Urquidy threw 10 innings for Houston in the 2019 postseason and surrendered one run with 12 strikeouts. He's been here before and acquitted himself admirably.
A repeat performance would go a long way toward shoring up a potential weakness for the 'Stros.
Los Angeles Dodgers: CF Cody Bellinger
The Los Angeles Dodgers are the deepest, most complete team in the postseason. With NL MVP candidate Mookie Betts leading a stacked lineup, they don't need Cody Bellinger to hit like the 2019 MVP version of himself.
Bellinger swatted 12 home runs for the Dodgers in 2020, but he hit just .239 with a .789 OPS after posting marks of .305 and 1.035 in '19.
The 25-year-old heated up down the stretch for L.A. and hit .375 in 10 games after Sept. 15 with two home runs and five doubles.
He's fully capable of going on a tear, which would make the Dodgers' already-dangerous offensive attack downright unfair.
"You kind of throw out the stat sheet once you get to the postseason and understand he's still a superstar player," manager Dave Roberts told reporters.
He was speaking about 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich, who also had a down year in 2020, ahead of the Dodgers' wild-card series against the Milwaukee Brewers. But the words apply equally to Bellinger.
Miami Marlins: CF Starling Marte
After sweeping the Chicago Cubs in the wild-card round, the Miami Marlins have still never lost a postseason series in franchise history. If they want to keep that streak alive, the Fish will need big performances from an array of young players who have never tasted the postseason.
But experience counts this time of year, and the Marlins have it in the form of outfielder Starling Marte, whom they acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks at the trade deadline.
Marte made three previous trips to the playoffs with the Pittsburgh Pirates and started out on a high note with Miami by going 2-for-4 in Game 1 against Chicago with a double and a run scored.
Marte's status for the reminder of October was put in doubt when he suffered a fractured left hand on a hit-by-pitch.
"We're looking at it as something that there is the possibility of him getting back in fairly quickly," manager Don Mattingly told reporters. "We'll just kind of play that by ear and they'll keep treating him."
Marte might be limited to pinch-running or defensive duties. But if his bat can somehow return to the lineup, it'd be a big boost for the underdog Marlins in their NLDS tussle with Atlanta.
New York Yankees: LHP J.A. Happ
The New York Yankees offense erupted in their two-game wild-card round sweep of Cleveland, as they scored 22 runs on 23 hits, including seven home runs.
The bats could help carry them in a tough ALDS test against the Tampa Bay Rays, but New York will need to get some length from its starting rotation.
Ace Gerrit Cole was masterful in his Game 1 start against Cleveland with 13 strikeouts in seven innings of two-run ball. But Game 2 starter Masahiro Tanaka wobbled through four rain-interrupted frames and allowed six runs.
Tanaka has the talent and track record to rebound, and New York's bullpen is playoff-tested. But it'll need at least one more capable starter to outlast the Rays.
That job will likely fall to J.A. Happ. The 37-year-old lefty had an up-and-down season and finished with a 4.57 FIP. Yet he's seen extensive postseason action in five previous October forays with the Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays and Yankees.
The Yanks don't need him to be an ace. But a quality outing that makes their rotation at least three-deep could be essential to getting past Tampa Bay.
Oakland Athletics: LHP Jesus Luzardo
The Oakland Athletics showed faith in rookie left-hander Jesus Luzardo by handing him the ball in Game 1 of their wild-card round series against the Chicago White Sox.
Luzardo took the loss as he allowed three runs on six hits, including two home runs. Oakland came back to win the next two games and the series, however, and Luzardo will get another chance.
He's got the stuff and poise to seize that opportunity, as he showed with three scoreless innings in the 2019 playoffs.
With his high-90s fastball and devastating changeup, the 23-year-old is a burgeoning ace. He can prove it in what should be a heated, high-stakes ALDS matchup against the Astros.
The A's can hope for solid outings from former Astro Mike Fiers and Chris Bassitt, with Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas also in the mix. But Luzardo has the highest ceiling of the bunch.
"We brought him in the Wild Card Game [in 2019] and he looked like a veteran on the mound," manager Bob Melvin told reporters. "He pitched really well. He's composed and has great stuff. I think he's one of those guys that relishes these type of game."
San Diego Padres: RHP Mike Clevinger
When the San Diego Padres acquired right-hander Mike Clevinger from Cleveland at the trade deadline, they hoped they were adding an ace-level arm ahead of the playoffs.
In four starts with the Padres, Clevinger looked the part with a 2.84 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 19 innings. Then, an arm injury put him on the shelf and caused him to miss the wild-card round.
The Pads slipped past the St. Louis Cardinals in three games without Clevinger and their other top starter, Dinelson Lamet (biceps).
Now, San Diego faces a more formidable opponent in the division-rival Dodgers. Right-handers Zach Davies and Chris Paddack give the Friars decent starting options, but they'll need more than that against L.A.'s potent lineup.
The potential good news? Clevinger could return for the division series, per ESPN's Pedro Gomez.
If he does—and more importantly if he's healthy and effective—it would greatly increase the Padres' chances of upsetting Los Angeles.
Tampa Bay Rays: OF/DH Randy Arozarena
The Rays won the AL East and tied for the best run differential (plus-60) in the Junior Circuit thanks to an excellent pitching staff and a solid, balanced lineup.
They aren't loaded with stars, but they may have a star in the making: outfielder Randy Arozarena.
Prior to the 2020 campaign, the 25-year-old Cuban had just 23 big league plate appearances with St. Louis to his name. This year, in 23 games with Tampa Bay, he hit seven home runs, stole four bases and posted a 1.022 OPS.
That was enough to earn a starting role in the wild-card round against Toronto and the No. 3 spot in manager Kevin Cash's lineup.
Arozarena responded by going 4-for-9 with two doubles, a triple and three runs scored. He'll look to keep that going against the rival Yankees.
"I think there's going to get a point in his career where people are not going to say, 'Who is that guy?'" Cash told reporters. "He's going to show that he's consistently really good. He's a special player and has already shown the ability to do special things."
All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.