Now that it is the middle of August, we are approaching the most critical time of year for Major League Baseball. The non-contenders are preparing for the future, while contenders are trying their best to win as many games they can. Outside of three division races - AL East, AL West, and NL West - every other playoff race is close including the wild cards. With the new postseason format, one extra team in each league will be playing October baseball. Technically, every team is playing October baseball as the regular season ends on October 5. But real October baseball is played in the postseason.
Every team has their MVP, but that doesn't mean that is the most important player for them. Obviously, if that player keeps playing like an MVP, the team will have a great chance of going far in the postseason. But what really separates a team from the pack is if they get production from other guys. Staying healthy is extremely important for some guys and their extra boost could put a team over the edge. But even with injuries, teams can find players that turn out to be very important for them down the stretch. For example, the 2021 World Series champion Atlanta Braves had a lot of injuries, but found a way to push through. It is hard to name one guy that stood out for them, but their pitching staff as a whole, especially the bullpen was key. Tyler Matzek was one of the leaders, who gave up three runs in 13 postseason games. Let's get to each contender's most important player or players.
Houston Astros - Trey Mancini
The Astros fulfilled a big need at the trade deadline by trading for Mancini. They needed to see more production out of their first base and outfield positions, and the former Oriole can play both. Yuli Gurriel has been underwhelming this season. Now that Michael Brantley is out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery, Mancini is even more important. In 11 games since joining the Astros, he has a 136 weighted runs created plus (wRC+), .831 OPS+, .303 isolated power (ISO), and three homers. If he keeps up the strong pace, the Astros will have a strong shot at going far in the postseason.
New York Yankees - Giancarlo Stanton
The Yankees have massively struggled offensively of late and the giant Giancarlo Stanton-sized hole in their lineup has a lot to do with it. The big outfielder had been having a strong season before going down on July 24 with Achilles tendonitis. He went through a full workout on Monday and will be embarking on a rehab assignment very soon. His health is always a big factor to how the Yankees perform, and his return will provide a spark to the offense. During his absence, New York has gone 8-14 while averaging 4.1 runs per game and holding under a .650 OPS. The Yankees will be careful with Stanton when he returns and he might not get as much playing time in the field, especially now that they have Andrew Benintendi. If Stanton can come back and stay healthy, it will be huge for the Yankees as he has performed well in the postseason for them. They had their biggest win of the year on Thursday, with Josh Donaldson hitting a huge walk-off grand slam. That should turn them back in the right direction and Stanton returning will provide an even bigger jolt.
Cleveland Guardians - Young Hitters
The Guardians wound up staying pat at the deadline, not filling their biggest need at catcher or any other need. The offense could have used someone like Willson Contreras, but the Cubs wound up not trading him. Now, Cleveland looks to continue to rely on their youngsters, as they are the youngest team in baseball. Jose Ramirez has played like an MVP and the young hitters like Steven Kwan and Andres Gimenez have been great. They are still very young, though, and with young teams comes inexperience. There will be a point in time that they will run into struggles. It's just a matter of when and how will they bounce back?
Currently, the Guardians are sitting atop the AL Central. Gimenez has a 4.3 fWAR, 153 wRC+, .191 ISO, 14 homers, and 15 stolen bases on the season. Kwan has slowed down from his hot start, but still has a .371 on-base percentage, 121 wRC+, and 2.6 fWAR. The 24-year-old rookie also has a higher walk rate (9.7%) than strikeout rate (9.0%). If these numbers continue from these two, the Guardians could be in for a surprise run. They will still have to hold off the Twins and White Sox, however, as they are very close behind.
Toronto Blue Jays - George Springer
Springer just can't fight off the injury bug. Ever since signing with the Blue Jays in the 2021 offseason, the outfielder has landed on the injured list four separate times. He has played just 169 of Toronto's 277 games over the two seasons. The former Astro was activated from his recent I.L. trip on Monday after having right elbow inflammation. In the two games since, the 32-year-old has gone 4-for-9 with three runs, an RBI, a walk, and a double. For the Blue Jays to have a legitimate shot at not only making the playoffs but making it past the first round, Springer has to be on the field. Springer is first among outfielders and third overall on the team with 18 homers. Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel have also hit well, but the rest of the outfielders are pretty come and go. The offense needs his bat to be a full working machine.
Seattle Mariners - Julio Rodriguez
The likely AL Rookie of the Year, Rodriguez is a huge key to the Mariners breaking their 20-year playoff drought. Seattle hasn't made the postseason since 2001 which is the longest drought in all four major U.S. sports. Just like some of the other players on this list, Rodriguez has missed time due to injury. He was recently activated after missing about two weeks from a right wrist contusion. The Mariners are currently a game and a half up on the Rays for the first wild card spot. The 21-year-old has a 3.1 fWAR, 133 wRC+, .206 ISO, 19 homers, and 21 stolen bases on the season. The Mariners average just 4.04 runs per game, which is lowest among contenders. Rodriguez makes the offense go and they will go as far as he can continue to put up big numbers. He has had help with Ty France, Eugenio Suraez, J.P. Crawford, and Cal Raleigh also having solid seasons. But they need J-Rod to really be a full put together offense. He leads the team in fWAR and bWAR, and is a legitimate five tool player.
Tampa Bay Rays - Wander Franco
Another player that has been sidelined with injury, Franco could return to the Rays as early as the weekend. The young shortstop did leave Tuesday's rehab game for Triple-A Durham with general soreness and sat out on Wednesday. His rehab will now be on hold for at least a couple of days, it seems. The team as a whole has been rattled by injuries this year. Franco getting and staying healthy the rest of the season will be very important for the Rays postseason chances. They currently have a hold on the second Wild Card. However, the Blue Jays, Orioles, and Twins are very close behind them.
The Rays are getting reinforcements back at just the right time, as they are starting to heat up, with four wins in the last five games. Before he went down with the injury, Franco hadn't been hitting as well as 2021 with a 104 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR, and .704 OPS in 58 games. If he comes back and starts hitting more like his rookie year numbers, the Rays offense will benefit greatly. The last month, the Rays have just a .640 OPS which ranks 27th in baseball and 17 homers which is tied for last. Before an abysmal May and then going down with the injury, Franco had a hot start to the season. In the first 20 games, the 21-year-old had a .313/.333/.578 slash line with four homers and eight doubles.
Baltimore Orioles - Felix Bautista/Bullpen
The Orioles have been the biggest surprise team this season, as they are well within the playoff picture. They weren't supposed to contend for a little longer and the extended postseason format certainly helps. But in a tough AL East, they are playing well above expectations. Even after trading away fan favorite Trey Mancini at the deadline and other pieces, they are still playing well. One big piece they traded was their closer, Jorge Lopez, who had posted a 1.68 ERA, a 27.6 percent strikeout rate, an 8.7 percent walk rate in 48 innings for them. Bautista has since taken over the closer role and converted four saves in four opportunities. The right-hander holds a 1.62 ERA, 2.99 FIP, 0.90 WHIP, 34.9 percent strikeout rate, and 8.5 percent walk rate over 50 innings on the season overall. The Baltimore bullpen has been a big strength for them and they will need to see Bautista continue to be the top guy at the backend.
Minnesota Twins - Byron Buxton
Buxton can be a legitimate perennial MVP candidate if he were to stay on the field. The problem is, the former second overall pick hasn't stayed healthy throughout his career. He only played over 100 games once in seven seasons prior to this year, when he played 140 in 2017. This season, he was a first-time All-Star and is approaching the 100-game mark. The 28-year-old has posted a 3.7 fWAR, 138 wRC+, .314 ISO, and 28 homers in 89 games this season. The most important thing for him and the Twins is staying healthy. After that, if he can continue to rake and provide strong defense in center, they will have a great shot at making the playoffs and going on a run. Right now, they are battling it out with the Guardians and White Sox for the AL Central and four teams for the last wild card spot.
Chicago White Sox - Yoan Moncada
When the White Sox got Moncada in the package for Chris Sale back in 2016, they hoped he would turn into a superstar. Outside of a really strong season in 2019 and a solid season last year, he really hasn't been that. The Cuban-born infielder has been massively disappointing this year, with just a 65 OPS+, .279 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), and 0.2 fWAR. He did come up clutch with a game-winning single on Monday to carry Chicago over the Astros. The White Sox need him to get going down the stretch as their offense has really struggled as a whole. They have been a little better after the All-Star break, as they have a .717 OPS in the second half versus a .696 OPS in the first.
Boston Red Sox - Trevor Story
While he has had his share of good stretches, Story hasn't been great overall. Plus, he has been out since July 12 after getting hit in the hand by a pitch. The former Rockie is getting close to returning and the Red Sox need to see him get going when he does. While the season has looked grim for the most part, Boston returned to .500 on Wednesday are just four games back of the third wild card. The Red Sox didn't make any major trade deadline deals and really need their prized offseason acquisition to be a big factor in the offense. Getting other guys off the injured list like Nathan Eovaldi will be key for their chances to make the postseason again.
Los Angeles Dodgers - Dustin May
The Dodgers lost Walker Buehler for the season as he will undergo elbow surgery next week. That is a huge blow to their rotation while Clayton Kershaw is also currently out with lower back pain. It is something that the future Hall of Famer has dealt without throughout his career. May is approaching his own return from the injured list as he is set to come back over the weekend against the Marlins. The right-hander underwent Tommy John surgery last May, and made five rehab starts with Triple-A Oklahoma City. He was stretched out to five innings on 70 pitches in his final one on Sunday, and allowed three runs over 16 innings pitched while collecting 26 strikeouts in the outings. With the injuries, May can be a huge piece to the rotation although he won't be pushed too much right away. The Dodgers currently have a massive stranglehold over the NL West, with a 17-game lead over the Padres. May should be able to get back to his old self by the time the playoffs role around. He posted a 2.74 ERA and struck out 35 over 23 in 2021.
New York Mets - Jacob deGrom
As you've probably noticed, a big theme of this piece is health. deGrom is another player who has struggled to stay on the field but is one of the best players and the best pitcher in the game when healthy. The Mets rotation when fully healthy will be the scariest of all potential playoff teams, led by the duo of deGrom and Max Scherzer. They have a serious chance of winning it all with both of them on the hill. New York seriously needs them to stay on the mound, too, as they recently saw Taijuan Walker go down with back spasms and Carlos Carrasco go down with a left oblique strain. Their lead in the NL East sits at 4.5 games as of Wednesday. deGrom has pitched three dominant outings since returning, striking out six, 12, and 10 batters, respectively, while not allowing more than two runs. Their isn't a pitcher in baseball that is scarier than the two-time Cy Young when he's at his best, and the Mets will rely on him and Scherzer heavily to take them to the promised land.
St. Louis Cardinals - Tyler O'Neill
After having an outstanding season in 2021 with a 5.7 fWAR, O'Neill has fallen off the map in 2022. His wRC+ has dropped from 144 to 88, his ISO from .274 to .129, and his OPS from .912 to .655. HIs fWAR also sits at just 0.4. The Cardinals may be in first place in the NL Central, but their lead isn't too big. They have a plus-80 run differential on the season which is sixth in the big leagues and a .742 OPS which is fifth in the majors. Even with that offensive output, they could run into a wall in the playoffs against some of the top pitching staffs in the NL. If O'Neill can return some of his 2021 magic, that only lengthens the lineup and gives them a better shot.
Atlanta Braves - Ronald Acuna Jr.
The Braves won the World Series in 2021 despite losing Acuna to a torn ACL. But this year, they don't have the benefit of having four outfielders to replace him if he were to go down again. Michael Harris II is having a strong rookie season and Robbie Grossman has been solid since Atlanta acquired him from the Tigers. But other than that, the other outfielders haven't put up good numbers. Acuna has to stay on the field for the Braves to have a legitimate shot at repeating. Right now, they have a strong lead in the NL Wild Card race and not too far back from the Mets in the NL East. Before going down last year, the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year was slashing .283/.394/.596 with 24 home runs, 17 stolen bases, and a 4.3 fWAR over 82 games. So far this year, the power isn't fully back as he has just 10 homers in 83 games, but he does have a 123 wRC+, .375 xwOBA, .146 ISO, and 25 stolen bases.
San Diego Padres - Ha-Seong Kim
With Fernando Tatis Jr. being suspended and C.J. Abrams being included in the Juan Soto deal, the Padres need Kim more than ever. Now, he will move forward as San Diego's primary shortstop for the time being and his production has started to ramp up. The 26-year-old currently has a 3.2 bWAR, which ranks 10th among MLB shortstops and a 2.7 fWAR. He has provided strong defense, as he is first on the Padres with 8 outs above average, which is three more than Manny Machado, and he is sixth in the majors in ultimate zone rating (UZR). Kim has a .343 on-bae percentage since the beginning of July and has an .824 OPS against right-handers this season. The Korean-born infielder got off to a rough start to his major league career last year, but has definitely started to tap into something this season. Keeping that up will be vasty important for the Padres postseason chances.