The 10 Most Important Players Who Will Make or Break MLB’s Playoff Races
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If anyone can save the Rangers from their funk, why not Max Scherzer?Sam Hodde/Getty Images
With rosters having recently expanded from 26 to 28, literally hundreds of players will have roles to play in setting the field for Major League Baseball’s 2023 postseason.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Some performances will matter more than others.
The spotlight here is on 10 players who have the power to make or break certain races. This is not just because the race in question is still close, but because they have it in them to elevate their teams. If not, said elevation may not happen.
There was no good way to rank these 10 guys, so they’re presented in alphabetical order instead.
SS Willy Adames, Milwaukee Brewers
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Willy AdamesStacy Revere/Getty Images
2023 Stats: 131 G, 563 PA, 24 HR, 4 SB, .215 AVG, .299 OBP, .413 SLG
Even if only three games separate the Chicago Cubs from the Brewers in the National League Central, there are no Cubs on this list. Though Cody Bellinger and Justin Steele have been at their best, no one guy has carried the team through its 25-14 run since Aug. 1.
As to how the Brewers can maintain a lead that got as small as 1.5 games just last Wednesday, more of what Willy Adames is doing can only help.
Adames has spent much of 2023 as part of the problem regarding the Brewers’ persistent offensive woes. His OPS is down 44 points from last season and they’re the only division leader scoring below the league average of 4.6 runs per game.
Milwaukee Brewers @Brewers
Off day did NOT cool @WillyA02 off#ThisIsMyCrew pic.twitter.com/ukcozhmUe4
Yet the switch seems to have flipped to “On” for both Adames and the Brewers offense. Since Aug. 18, he’s put up a .975 OPS with six home runs to help the Brewers post 6.0 runs per game. They’ve won 15 out of 21.
It’s about time that Adames, who hit 51 homers across 2021 and 2022, got hot. If he stays that way, so too might Milwaukee’s offense.
SS Bo Bichette, Toronto Blue Jays
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Bo BichetteMark Blinch/Getty Images
2023 Stats: 117 G, 519 PA, 18 HR, 3 SB, .310 AVG, .341 OBP, .482 SLG
The Blue Jays have never really taken off this season, but nor have they ever gone away. As of now, that’s a good enough recipe for the AL’s second wild-card spot.
Yet the Blue Jays aren’t exactly in for a soft landing. Still remaining are 12 contests against fellow contenders, including six against a Tampa Bay Rays team that’s among the hottest in the league right now.
The Jays’ remaining slate would pose a challenge even if they were a proven dragon slayer. But they’re not. They’re 38-43 against teams with winning records, compared to 42-21 against those with losing records.
This is where Bo Bichette comes in. He’s been Toronto’s best player in general in 2023 and, crucially, one of its best weapons against winning teams. He’s hit .299 with 12 of his 18 homers against them.
The Blue Jays might have to hope rather than trust that Bichette can live up to that track record. After spending much of the last six weeks on the injured list, he may have some rust to shake off.
RHP Zac Gallen, Arizona Diamondbacks
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Zac GallenMichael Reaves/Getty Images
2023 Stats: 30 GS, 187.2 IP, 164 H (20 HR), 195 K, 39 BB, 3.31 ERA
After enduring a 7-25 stretch in July and August, the Diamondbacks have gone 19-10 to put themselves in position to make the playoffs via the NL’s third wild card.
Yet the Snakes still have a clear weak spot. It’s in the latter half of their rotation after Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, where none of the starters they’ve used recently has been anything resembling reliable.
Arizona thus can’t afford a sudden slump on the part of either Gallen or Kelly, but there’s little question which one of them is the ace and therefore beholden to greater pressure.
Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja
Zac Gallen, Shutout. 🍾 pic.twitter.com/iJPpgOrvoO
That’s Gallen. He hasn’t quite been dud-proof since the All-Star break, coughing up five-plus runs in three of his 11 starts. But those obviously haven’t been the norm amid a season that should earn him Cy Young Award votes.
Gallen’s most recent start, in which he logged a shutout against the Cubs in a 1-0 win on Friday, was just what the proverbial doctor ordered. And with their lead over the Miami Marlins and San Francisco Giants at just 1.5 games, the D-backs will need as much of that as Gallen can provide.
RHP Hunter Greene, Cincinnati Reds
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Hunter GreeneEzra Shaw/Getty Images
2023 Stats: 18 GS, 91.1 IP, 87 H (14 HR), 123 K, 44 BB, 4.43 ERA
Though the Reds have yet to completely fall out of the NL wild-card race, they’re on the ledge amid a 15-22 slump since the start of August.
The primary source isn’t hard to spot. Reds starters have been downright bad, posting a 5.79 ERA since Aug. 1 that’s tied with that of Rockies starters for the third-worst mark in the majors.
Even rookie left-hander Andrew Abbott has had his struggles of late, but he’s not supposed to have the rotation on his shoulders anyway. By all rights, that task belongs to Hunter Greene.
Injuries have limited the flame-throwing righty’s availability this year, but he was last seen looking like his best self. His start against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday saw him sit at 97.8 mph with his fastball while allowing one hit and one run over six innings.
With all but three of the club’s 17 remaining games against non-contenders, the coast is clear for Greene to build on that outing and help get the Reds to the playoffs for only the second time in the last decade.
RHP Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay Rays
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Tyler GlasnowMike Ehrmann/Getty Images
2023 Stats: 18 GS, 105.2 IP, 80 H (12 HR), 142 K, 30 BB, 3.15 ERA
With a 9.0-game lead for the AL’s top wild-card spot in hand, the Rays aren’t in danger of missing the playoffs. A better question is if they can catch the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East, where the two clubs are only separated by three games.
This is no bigger than the lead the Orioles had on the Rays back on Aug. 5. Which is surprising, given that was three days after Rays ace Shane McClanahan made his final start before undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Rays starters have improbably have a solid 3.93 ERA since then, for which nobody deserves more credit than Tyler Glasnow.
Tyler Glasnow was locked in tonight, tying a career high with 14 strikeouts!
(MLB x @HankookTireUSA) pic.twitter.com/g1YPaEEaws
Though the 6’8″, 225-pound righty has made only six starts since ending an IL stay of his own on Aug. 14, he’s been strong within them. He’s pitched to a 3.16 ERA and struck out 38 more batters than he’s walked over 37 innings.
As 14 of their 17 remaining games will be against fellow contenders, the Rays are probably only going to eliminate their deficit to Baltimore if Glasnow keeps shoving.
1B/DH Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies
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Bryce HarperAP Photo/Matt Slocum
2023 Stats: 110 G, 481 PA, 16 HR, 9 SB, .294 AVG, .395 OBP, .480 SLG
The Phillies have a 3.5-game lead for the NL’s top wild-card spot, which qualifies as a relatively safe position in the scheme of things.
They have lost seven out of 12, however. Though that’s hardly all on Bryce Harper, he had indeed been in a funk.
Nobody could get him out between July 23 and Aug. 30, a span in which he hit .341 with 11 home runs. But then the calendar flipped to September and Harper started the month with four hits in 32 at-bats, prompting him to go to the drastic measure of shaving his beard.
It nonetheless says “had been in a funk” up there, however, because the two-time MVP busted out in a big way in the opener of a double-header opposite Atlanta on Monday. Albeit in a losing effort, he went 2-for-3 with a game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth.
Though their remaining schedule mostly leans easy, the Phillies still have five games left against Atlanta. Those could pose a threat to their standing if Harper goes quiet again.
LHP Jesús Luzardo, Miami Marlins
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Jesús LuzardoMegan Briggs/Getty Images
2023 Stats: 29 GS, 160.1 IP, 152 H (22 HR), 186 K, 49 BB, 3.82 ERA
The Marlins didn’t do their playoff chances any favors when they dropped 10 out of 13 between Aug. 15 and 30, but wins in eight out of their last 11 have turned the tide.
Whether it stays turned will come down to how the Marlins weather two significant injuries. One is slugger Jorge Soler’s strained oblique and other, even bigger one is reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara’s forearm strain.
With Alcantara out, Jesús Luzardo is Miami’s default ace. He’ll need to pitch like it.
Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja
Jesús Luzardo’s 5th and 6th Ks. ✝️🦎 pic.twitter.com/tiXo9g6ouM
The lefty got bit when the dog days of August began, giving up 17 runs over 12.1 innings in his first three starts of the month. He rallied with three strong starts after that, but promptly hit another wall in giving up 10 hits and six runs to Milwaukee on Monday.
What Luzardo has left to give is anyone’s guess. As good as he’s been on the whole this season, he’s also in uncharted territory with his workload. Prior to this year, he had topped out at 109.1 innings in 2018.
CF Julio Rodríguez, Seattle Mariners
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Julio RodríguezDylan Buell/Getty Images
2023 Stats: 137 G, 634 PA, 30 HR, 36 SB, .287 AVG, .342 OBP, .504 SLG
Not that it was a one-man show or anything, but Julio Rodríguez was pretty danged amazing while the Mariners were on that 20-4 run in August.
It started on Aug. 2 and ended on Aug. 28, during which J-Rod hit .440 with seven long balls and 11 stolen bases. Especially after news of Shohei Ohtani’s elbow injury broke, there was MVP buzz in the air for the reigning AL Rookie of the Year.
Well, then he had to sit for a couple of games with a foot injury. And while he has hit .300 with six long balls since returning to the lineup, he’s been a little all or nothing. He has zero walks against 10 strikeouts.
Meanwhile, the Mariners are suddenly out of the wild-card picture after dropping eight out of 11. They woke up Tuesday with a 0.5-game deficit to the Texas Rangers for the AL’s third spot.
This is not to suggest the Mariners are doomed if Rodríguez doesn’t go supernova again. But if he does, it’ll be hard to imagine their doom arriving under any circumstances.
RHP Max Scherzer, Texas Rangers
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Max ScherzerAP Photo/Craig Lassig
2023 Stats: 26 GS, 147.1 IP, 123 H (28 HR), 172 K, 44 BB, 3.91 ERA
Everything is big in Texas, including the trouble the Rangers have put themselves in.
With losses in 16 out of their last 23 games, the Rangers find themselves still in the AL playoff picture but only barely with that 0.5-game lead on Seattle for the AL’s third wild card. The primary culprit is a rotation that’s hit the skids with a 5.60 ERA in this span.
If anyone can start the process of fixing the problem, why not Max Scherzer?
Career strikeout No. 3,343 moves Max Scherzer past Phil Niekro and into 11th place on the all-time list! pic.twitter.com/nSNT0IaXD6
The three-time Cy Young Award winner did just fine in his first six starts as a Ranger after coming over from the New York Mets, posting a 2.21 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 36.2 innings. But then he had the rotten luck of running into the Astros, who crushed him for seven runs over three innings last Wednesday.
There were no warning signs that Scherzer was bound to hit such a wall, so it should be a one-off. But especially knowing that 13 of their remaining 19 games are against contenders, the Rangers certainly can’t have him committing any further bombs.
RHP Logan Webb, San Francisco Giants
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Logan WebbEzra Shaw/Getty Images
2023 Stats: 111 G, 426 PA, 15 HR, 4 SB, .251 AVG, .343 OBP, .405 SLG
The Giants seemed to be ducking out of the NL wild-card race when they dropped six straight to open September, but a three-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies put them right back on track. Their deficit is just 1.5 games.
Things are even looking up after the Giants had tons of trouble with their offense for a while there. They’ve topped six runs in four of their last six contests and they’re about to get Michael Conforto back off the injured list.
Rather, what the Giants need now more than ever is for Logan Webb to keep carrying their rotation.
After a slow start, he’s posted a 3.19 ERA over his last 26 outings. But whereas he had gotten support from Alex Cobb for the most part, he’s been dealing with a hip impingement and also has a 5.30 ERA over his last seven outings.
This is the last thing the Giants needed in a rotation that’s thin enough as is, as Cobb is still technically one of just four functional starters. It’s an unfair burden, but it’s on Webb to help the Giants succeed despite this.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.
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