The end of the baseball season means different things to each MLB team. For some teams, the final stretch of the regular season is a time to get primed for the playoffs. Others are just trying to get into the playoffs. But it means something for the non-contenders, too. Some of them may be able to play the role of spoiler, while others are just hoping to see how some young players develop as they move forward.
The reasons are different. But to every team, the end of the season carries some importance. Some guys are obvious. We don’t need to think to hard to figure out why Mike Trout is the most important person on the Angels. But, why isn’t Bryce Harper or Max Scherzer the most important man on the Nationals?
Neither the Giants or Marlins are going to the playoffs. But find out why Buster Posey is the most important player on his team, even if Giancarlo Stanton is not.
With a little more than two weeks to go before the 2017 regular season is in the bag, these are the most important players for each MLB team.
Andrew Benintendi, left fielder, Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox will finish with seven home games but prior to that, will have nine straight games away from Fenway Park. Boston has a good road record in 2017, but has been far more effective at home. Benintendi has been one of the team’s best players away from Fenway, slashing at .294/.379/.500 on the road. He’ll have to continue that and be the team’s catalyst in Tampa Bay, Baltimore, and Cincinnati.
The Red Sox are all but assured of making the playoffs. But to win the division and avoid the American League Wild Card Game, they have to finish strong. If Boston can return home for that last week with a two-game division lead or better, we like its chances to win the American League East again. One more strong road trip from Benintendi would go a long way towards making that happen.
Anthony Rizzo, first baseman, Chicago Cubs
It’s a given that most players are going to have better stats in team wins than in team losses. But Rizzo’s 2017 splits paint a pretty extreme picture.
In games that Cubs have won, Rizzo has hit .319/.425/.661 with 74 runs, 26 home runs, and 84 RBI. In Chicago’s losses, Rizzo has been far less effective, hitting .218/.352/.327 with 17 runs, five long balls, and 20 RBI. It’s a decent OBP, especially given the poor average. But when the Cubs have lost, Rizzo has clearly not done enough damage at the plate. For Chicago to have a chance at repeating (or to even make the playoffs), Rizzo must have a strong stroke at the plate. As the numbers show, as Rizzo goes, so go the Cubs.
Gary Sanchez, catcher, New York Yankees
While Aaron Judge has gotten most of the attention in New York this season, Sanchez has been picking up a lot of slack for Judge during the latter’s poor second half. Since the All-Star Game, Sanchez has hit 17 homers and slashed at .283/.335/.580. We’d like a slightly higher OBP but those power numbers make it hard to deny that Sanchez is making a big impact when he hits the ball.
He has to keep it going now. The Yankees should be safe for at least a spot in the Wild Card Game. But there’s just enough time left that a cold run could trip New York up, or at least move the game away from the Bronx. Plus, if the Bombers can go on a real hot streak, then they become viable American League East threats.
Yadier Molina, catcher, St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are in range of both the Cubs for the National League Central lead, and the Rockies for the second Wild Card spot. Chasing either team down is conceivable, but St. Louis just can’t falter for even a few games. That puts the spotlight on Molina.
The Cardinals’ backstop has been on fire of late, slashing .381/.391/.714 over the last week. Of course, Molina’s role to the pitchers is also important, as he remains one of baseball’s best defensive catchers. Make no mistake, St. Louis will need a good team effort to get to the playoffs. But at the plate and in the field, no one player is as important as Yadi.
Logan Morrison, first baseman, Tampa Bay Rays
We can still call Tampa Wild Card contenders, but a number of things will need to break the Rays’ way to get them into the playoffs. That, of course, starts with great play from Tampa, and that will not happen if the Rays can’t dominate the Orioles, who they play in seven of their last 15 games. If the rest of 2017 is any indicator, Morrison will have a lot to say in that.
Morrison has only a .270 batting average in 11 games against Baltimore this year. But he’s backed that up with a rather impressive .449 OBP, .595 slugging percentage, and three home runs. If he swings a good power bat in those seven games, Tampa can at least take care of its own business and post a good record down the stretch. If he struggles (as he’s been doing recently), then the Rays can start booking tee times for the first week of October.
Ryan Braun, left fielder, Milwaukee Brewers
Much like the Cardinals, the Brewers have a chance at both the NL Central and the second Wild Card spot. But like St. Louis, Milwaukee has little to no room for error. If the Brewers are going to get to the playoffs, it will be vital for Braun to turn it around.
Braun is one of many Milwaukee hitters to struggle in recent games. He’s hit .125/.300/.313 over the last seven. Braun should be a leader on his team. He’s one of the few players on it that has been through a pennant race and played in the postseason. He certainly can’t struggle. The Brewers have a lot of people who need to turn their recent performances around. But Braun is really where it starts.
Jonathan Schoop, second baseman, Baltimore Orioles
Baltimore and Tampa are in similar position. A lot will need to break right for the Orioles to have a shot at the playoffs. But if they can’t play well against the Rays, nothing else really matters.
Schoop is having a monster year for Baltimore and has put up good numbers against Tampa. He’s slashed at .279/.333/.605 against the Rays with four home runs. Overall, he’s been the Orioles’ best hitter against the Rays. That will have to continue for Baltimore to be considered a viable playoff threat. Like Tampa, if the Orioles can’t dominate these seven games, Schoop and his teammates will have wide open October schedules.
Andrew McCutchen, center fielder, Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates won’t win the National League Central. But they’ll have a lot of say in who does and could also have an impact on a few other races. To finish the season, the Pirates have three against the Brewers, three against the Cardinals, two against the Orioles, and four against the Nationals (although those games may not matter too much).
With that in mind, it’s hard to look past McCutchen, who’s been his team’s best player in 2017. Cutch is slashing at .274/.362/.477 with 25 home runs and 11 steals. If he finishes on a good note, then the Pirates can be at least, a real thorn in the sides of the contenders that they’re going up against. At most, they can have a lot to say about who will play in October.
Justin Smoak, first baseman, Toronto Blue Jays
After two consecutive postseason appearances, the Blue Jays will be watching the playoffs from home. But they’ll finish the year with series against the Twins, Royals, Yankees, Red Sox, and Yankees again. So, Toronto will be a big part of the playoff race. Much like McCutchen with the Pirates, that puts the Blue Jays’ best player in the spotlight. In 2017, Toronto’s best player has been Smoak, by a comfortable margin.
Smoak leads the Blue Jays in essentially every major category. He’s hit 37 home runs, driven in 86 runs, and has slashed at .278/.358/.548. He’s struggled over the last week, though. If those struggles continue over the final two weeks, then Toronto’s chances of playing spoiler go well down and all of the contenders on its schedule will breathe a sigh of relief. But if Smoak heats up again, then the Blue Jays will have their thumbprints all over October, even if they’re not a part of the dance.
Joey Votto, first baseman, Cincinnati Reds
It was awfully tempting to go with Jesse Winker, one of the team’s top-ranked prospects, in this spot. But ultimately, Votto gets the nod for a few reasons. One, Winker has played sparingly in recent days, so we’re not as inclined to roll with the logic of the bad team wanting to see what a top prospect has. Two, Cincinnati is yet another non-contender going up against a stream of contenders to finish the year. The Reds will finish the year with three game-series against the Cardinals, Red Sox, Brewers, and Cubs.
Votto has been hot all year, posting a staggering .315/.450/.575 line with 35 home runs. He may get MVP consideration yet but if he’s ignored, it will be because the team is bad, not because he’s done anything wrong. He’s also been red hot recently, hitting .381/.480/.381 over the last week. A hot Votto is not what any contender wants to see coming down the stretch.
Dallas Keuchel, starting pitcher, Houston Astros
While the potential top seed in the American League could be on the line, the Astros are playing for very little down the stretch. So, the remaining regular season games should be spent getting the team into shape, and that’s where our attention goes to Keuchel.
Keuchel is an ace. He started 2017 incredibly well and is only two years removed from winning the American League Cy Young award. But he’s struggled in the second half, posting a 5.02 ERA and 1.48 WHIP since the break. Keuchel has to be the guy that Houston can throw out against the other team’s best arm (ie: Chris Sale, Corey Kluber) and feel confident that he can pull out the win. He needs to spend the rest of the year finding that form and re-emerging into that real ace.
Stephen Strasburg, starting pitcher, Washington Nationals
Washington really isn’t playing for much in the rest of the regular season. So with the Nats, we shift our focus to the playoffs, and that’s where Strasburg will be vital. Max Scherzer will likely be Washington’s No. 1 starter, matched up against the opponent’s ace. If the Nats win in Scherzer’s starts, it will be on Strasburg to keep things going to further cement the series momentum. If the opponents get the better of Scherzer, Strasburg will have to be the stopper.
The Nationals have a supremely talented team, but it’s a road they’ve been down before. Now it’s time to get it done in the playoffs. Strasburg will be the most important player on the team, one way or the other.
Mike Trout, center fielder, Los Angeles Angels
There’s no need to over complicate this one. The Angels are two back of the Twins for the second Wild Card spot in the American League. Los Angeles is going to have its hands full not only making up that ground, but also holding off the teams knocking on its door. The performance of Trout — the best player in baseball — will go a long way in determining whether that happens.
Brian Anderson, third baseman, Miami Marlins
While Giancarlo Stanton’s home run pace may make him one of baseball’s most important players down the stretch, the same is not really true with his team. The Marlins are out of contention and really, Stanton’s value to the team isn’t going to change much, regardless of whether he tops 60 home runs. But Anderson is a different story.
Anderson, one of the organization’s top prospects, is getting decent playing time down the stretch. Now, a poor performance as a September call-up wouldn’t make Anderson a bust. Far from it. But a strong performance could give the Marlins reason to believe that they have another key cog figured out. Imagine adding a good hitter to a 2018 lineup that already includes Stanton, Justin Bour, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna. Good luck with that, pitchers.
Elvis Andrus, shortstop, Texas Rangers
It hasn’t been a great year for Texas. Still, the Rangers are within range of a Wild Card spot. But much like the Rays and Orioles, a lot needs to go their way for a spot in the postseason to be possible. If Texas can’t dominate the A’s (the two play seven more times), everything else will be irrelevant. Because of that, all eyes go to Andrus.
Andrus has hit .327/.340/.388 against Oakland this year. While the numbers are good, we’d like to see a bit more power. But if Andrus can’t hit for that pop, he needs to get on and make things happen on the bases. The Texas lineup has a bunch of inconsistent, but talented hitters. If Andrus is on base with zero or one out, it’s not a bad guess to think that one of those guys will bring him in. If he’s not and they’re swinging for the fences (and probably striking out), the Rangers will have a problem scoring runs. In turn, winning games will be a challenge.
Dansby Swanson, shortstop, Atlanta Braves
It’s been a tough year for the kid. Swanson entered 2017 as one of the National League Rookie of the Year favorites, but has really struggled since Day 1. With little time to go in the season, it’s important for Swanson to finish 2017 on a good note. If nothing else, that will give him positive vibes as we head towards 2018.
Atlanta isn’t playing a lot of meaningful baseball down the stretch. Aside from three games against the Nationals, the Braves are playing nothing but fellow non-contenders in the season’s final two weeks. With that in mind, the play of Swanson is really the most important thing that will come out of Atlanta’s final regular season games of 2017.
Jean Segura, shortstop, Seattle Mariners
The Mariners are another team that’s contending, but only barely. If Seattle is going to be playing meaningful baseball in the season’s final weekend (and beyond), we have to take a few things for granted. One, Robinson Cano will hit. Two, Nelson Cruz will hit. How productive their hits are depends on who’s on base. That’s where Segura comes in.
Segura has had a great season. He’s hit .297/.349/.425, stolen 20 bases, and hit 10 home runs. But he’s struggled over the last week. The power has been there (.462 slugging and two home runs over the last seven days). But as a .192 average and .276 OBP will indicate, he hasn’t been getting on base. That has to change. If Segura can get on base for Cano and Cruz, Seattle has a chance of at least winning the games it needs to win to become a viable contender. If not, then we can safely say that MLB’s longest postseason drought will extend another year.
Amed Rosario, shortstop, New York Mets
Much like the Braves, the Mets have one of the more stress free schedules down the finish. Like Atlanta, New York is a non-contender that aside from three games against the Nationals, isn’t playing any contenders, either. So for New York, the rest of this year is really all about getting the young guys ready for 2018. And for the Mets, no young guy is more important than Rosario.
Rosario has performed fairly well with the big club. Still, his numbers are not overwhelming (.273/.302/.438 and four home runs in 35 games). It will be important to see how well Rosario, one of baseball’s best prospects, finishes the year. If nothing else, the play of the organization’s top prospect will provide some insight as to what kind of hope and expectation New York and its fans should have when spring training rolls around in 2018.
Matt Chapman, third baseman, Oakland Athletics
The A’s will close the year with three-game sets against the Rangers and Mariners, and a four-gamer in Texas. As we’ve detailed, Texas and Seattle may not be viable contenders by the time those games roll around. But one way or the other, Chapman is our focus.
Chapman has really turned it on during the second half, posting a .260/.332/.546 line with 12 home runs. It’s certainly not bad for a rookie. If those games against the Rangers and Mariners are meaningful, Chapman’s performance will be integral in determining whether Oakland can spoil things. Even if they’re not, Chapman showing continued development in the final days of the season is wildly important for the A’s as they look towards next year.
Rhys Hoskins, first baseman, Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies get four against the Dodgers and three against the Nationals. Those seven games may not mean anything and if they do, will only be for seeding. But one way or another, Hoskins is Philadelphia’s most important guy.
In his first 34 MLB games, Hoskins has hit .310/.434/.784 with 17 home runs. If he’s playing in meaningful games, he can make contending managers pull their hair out. If he’s not, then we have to remember that Hoskins is a rookie. He’s already made a huge splash. But with 2017’s season all but over and 2018 right around the corner, Phillies fans would certainly like to see a strong finish from this second half phenom.
Yoan Moncada, second baseman, Chicago White Sox
The South Siders will finish 2017 with three games against the Astros, three against the Royals, four against the Angels, and three against the Indians. The games against Cleveland in the season’s final weekend may not mean much, but the others are almost sure to make an impact. And make no mistake, if the White Sox are going to be spoilers, Moncada will almost certainly be a factor.
More importantly, a strong finish will be good for Moncada, as well as Chicago’s fans. He’s had his moments but generally speaking, the highly touted prospect has struggled when he’s been in the majors. A strong few weeks would certainly be good for Moncada and his team as everyone looks towards 2018.
Buster Posey, catcher/first baseman, San Francisco Giants
In truth, the Giants are a lot like the White Sox. They’re long out of playoff contention and have six games against the Diamondbacks, three against the Dodgers, and two against the Rockies. The difference is that unlike Chicago, San Francisco doesn’t have highly-ranked prospects like Moncada. Because of that, our focus goes onto Posey, the best player on the Giants.
With a hot finish, Posey can have a lot of say in where the National League Wild Card Game is played, who plays in that game, or at least, what the National League playoff seeds are. Additionally, San Francisco is using Posey primarily at first base with Brandon Belt injured. With that in mind, a particularly strong finish could go a long way in determining if the franchise decides to play Posey more at first base in the future, and what happens with Belt in 2018 and beyond.
Jeimer Candelario, third baseman, Detroit Tigers
For the first time in a while, the Tigers are playing out the regular season with a clear look towards their younger guys. As one of the organization’s top prospects and the highest regarded position player, Candelario is No. 1 on that list.
Really, Candelario’s development is more important to Detroit than anything else moving forward. If he continues a relatively hot start (.269/.337/.436, two home runs in 24 games), then he can make a serious impact in seven games against Minnesota, and three against Kansas City. So, he can make a massive impact not only on the Tigers’ hopes for the future, but also on 2017’s playoff picture, as well.
Manuel Margot, center fielder, San Diego Padres
Margot has had a nice rookie season for the Padres, slashing at .268/.317/.421 with 13 home runs and 14 steals. As is the case with so many other young players on non-contenders, his value is two-fold.
One, given San Diego plays seven games against the Rockies, three against the Diamondbacks, and three against the Dodgers, a strong finish from Margot could make a big impact on the playoff picture. Two, for the sake of the Padres and their fans, a strong finish from one of the organization’s top young players is certainly something they want to see as they look ahead.
Eric Hosmer, first baseman, Kansas City Royals
As we’ve said a lot, a number of things will have to go right for Kansas City to slide into the playoffs. That will include a good winning streak from the Royals. The most important person in making that happen is Hosmer.
Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez have more home runs. But at .325/.392/.512 with 34 home runs, Hosmer is Kansas City’s catalyst. If he’s going well, then the rest of the team is in position to inflict as much damage as they possibly can.
Charlie Blackmon, center fielder, Colorado Rockies
This was close between Blackmon and Arenado. Both are having stellar seasons. Both have good numbers against the team they’ll see the most (San Diego). Ultimately, it comes down to Arenado for a few reasons. One, he plays a more important defensive position. As good as Arenado is at third (and he is otherworldly), center is more important. Two, as Colorado’s primary lead off man, Blackmon sets the table for the rest of the lineup, including Arenado.
If the Rockies can dominate the Padres (5-2 or better) and just tread water in the rest of their games, a spot in the Wild Card Game is essentially assured. If not, then teams like the Cardinals, Brewers, or even Cubs (if they’re passed) become in play for that spot.
Max Kepler, right fielder, Minnesota Twins
The Twins are contenders. They should beat up on teams like the Tigers. If they do that over the next two weeks, chances are that we’ll see the Twinkies in the playoffs The Twins have seven games against Detroit. For Minnesota to dominate the Tigers, it would be awfully helpful for Kepler to continue his torrid pace against them.
Kepler has hit .293/.383/.537 against Detroit in 2017, well ahead of his .246/.316/.427 line. If he can do that and compliment the likes of the red hot Eddie Rosario and Joe Mauer, as well as Brian Dozier and Byron Buxton (who also both have good numbers against the Tigers), then Minnesota should dominate those games and be well on its way to spot in the postseason.
Zack Greinke, starting pitcher, Arizona Diamondbacks
Here’s something that we can say with a great deal of confidence. The Diamondbacks will be in the National League Wild Card Game. If Arizona gets through that game, it’s second and third starters will be important in the NLDS. But without a good outing from Greinke (likely against a potent Colorado offense), then the NLDS won’t be an issue, anyway.
The most important thing for the rest of Arizona’s regular season is for Greinke to get dialed in and ready to pitch in an elimination game.
Carlos Carraso, starting pitcher, Cleveland Indians
The same logic that applied to the Nationals (and to a lesser extent, the Astros) applies here. We don’t doubt that Corey Kluber is a legitimate No. 1 starter. But the last thing that anyone with the Indians wants is a short playoff stay after such a magical September. If Carrasco, one of baseball’s most underrated players, can be a solid stopper or momentum builder as the No. 2 pitcher, then Cleveland is the World Series favorite. The most important priority for the rest of the year is being sure that he’s locked into that role.
Corey Seager, shortstop, Los Angeles Dodgers
On August 25, the Dodgers defeated the Milwaukee Brewers to move to 91-36. Since that day, Los Angeles has gone 3-16. It would be wrong to put all of that on Seager (either the great record, or the losing streak), still, it’s hard to look beyond his numbers.
At the conclusion of that August 25 game, Seager was slashing at .313/.395/.507 with 74 runs, 19 home runs, and 65 RBI. In the subsequent games, he’s hit .216/.268/.270 with three runs, no homers, and four RBI. Seager is very much a catalyst of this team. If he’s going well, chances are, the Dodgers are, as well. If he’s struggling, Los Angeles probably isn’t winning many games. Seager will be vital to the Dodgers getting their mojo back in the regular season and in to the playoffs. He’ll also be vital if that doesn’t happen.