Deep list of contenders and these X-factors could determine races
Half of the teams in the major leagues still have a realistic shot at the playoffs
Outfielders Andy Dirks and Andruw Jones among those who will help in the AL
Pitchers like Jason Grilli and Jaime Garcia could determine berths in the NL
Half the teams in MLB are still in contention for the postseason, while some of those are already looking toward October. Which players deep on the rosters could make the difference in winning a championship? Here are 15 X-factors to watch down the stretch.
Position: Second in AL East, 3½ games out of first; lead second wild card by ½ game over the Rays
X-factor: Jason Hammel
Why not? The Orioles' 71-58 record still screams "fluke" -- they've been outscored by 46 runs and have the best record in one-run games (24-6) in baseball history -- but it doesn't matter now. They're five weeks from the promised land. To get there, they'll need Hammel to come back from the disabled list and stabilize a shaky starting rotation. Hammel was a surprise in April and May, his sinker/slider mix suddenly missing bats in the move from Colorado to the AL East and helping him to a career-best 3.54 ERA and 23 percent strikeout rate.
In July, Hammel was forced to the DL with cartilage problems in his right knee, underwent surgery, and is making a rehab start this weekend. For a team reliant on getting games to its bullpen, Hammel's return will be a significant help, but there remains some question as to whether he'll sustain his best-ever performance.
Chicago White Sox
Position: First in AL Central by 3 games over Tigers
X-factor: Alejandro de Aza
When everyone is healthy, a third of the White Sox lineup consists of players with sub-.300 OBPs. They've been able to survive that in part because minor league veteran De Aza has come out of nowhere to be their centerfielder and leadoff hitter, giving the top of the lineup some desperately-needed OBP. De Aza has been on the DL of late with bruised ribs, and while the Sox have survived -- 7-4 and 4.8 runs/game -- replacement DeWayne Wise's .306 OBP hasn't been a big part of that. The Sox need a healthy De Aza kicking things off to make their lineup function.
Position: Second in AL Central, 3 games behind White Sox; 2 games behind Orioles for second wild card
X-factor: Andy Dirks
Who? Dirks is a second-year player who has hit better at Triple-A and in the majors than he did at lower levels. He has been a godsend for a Tigers team crippled by Brennan Boesch and Delmon Young struggling mightily at prime hitting positions (rightfield and DH, respectively). Since returning from the DL (Achilles) August 3, Dirks has hit .338/.402/.481 and the Tigers are 12-7 when he starts. He is also a better defensive player than Boesch and Young are, helping a team whose defense is the worst in the game. The Tigers need Dirks to keep playing at a high level to fill out a lineup that is middle-heavy in more ways than one.
Los Angeles Angels
Position: Third in AL West, 9 games behind Rangers; 3 games behind for second wild card
X-factor: Garrett Richards
The Angels' bullpen has been a problem all season, one patched over briefly by Ernesto Frieri at the back end. Getting effective work from the aging plug-ins (LaTroy Hawkins, Jason Isringhausen, Scott Downs, Hisanori Takahashi) has been a struggle. Enter Richards, who was a starter until Zack Greinke arrived and a minor leaguer as recently as last week. Richards, recalled on August 23, has been used as a high-leverage reliever since his return, pitching the eighth inning of a tied game in Boston and closing a one-run game in Detroit, among other tough spots. He is a fastball/slider pitcher who works in the mid-90s and may be best suited as a reliever right now, even though the results -- five runs in 3 2/3 innings -- haven't been there. The Angels need someone to join Frieri and the occasionally-healthy Scott Downs in getting late-game outs. Maybe Richards can be the solution.
New York Yankees
Position: First in AL East by 3½ games over Orioles
X-factor: Andruw Jones
Injuries have hampered both the Yankees rotation and lineup, with superstars CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez spending lots of time on the DL, and first baseman Mark Teixeira now missing time as well. The latter two injuries have created a bit of a weakness against left-handed pitching, one exacerbated by the lack of production from the team's platoon leftfielder. With Rodriguez and Teixeira out, Jones has failed to bring the power and OBP from the right side, batting just .210/.281/.434 against southpaws after hitting .286/.384/.540 against them a year ago. With lefty starters prevalent on potential postseason opponents the Orioles, Rays and Rangers, Jones has to pull it together to give the Yankees much-needed offense from the right side.
Position: Second in AL West, 4½ games behind Rangers; lead AL wild card race by 1½ games over Orioles and 2 games over Rays
X-factor: George Kottaras
The A's offense is as Moneyball as it gets, relying on walks and homers to put runs on the board. The team thought they had a catcher in that vein in Derek Norris -- part of the haul in dealing away Gio Gonzalez to Washington -- but after a big start, Norris is down to .197/.272/.347. With incumbent Kurt Suzuki having also been shipped to D.C. in a separate deal to make room for Norris, it may be up to former Brewer Kottaras to provide some offense. Kottaras had a .409 OBP for the Brewers before coming over, but has hit just .154/.241/.269 with the A's, while allowing all nine basestealers to succeed. One of these two players will have to come around to fill what has been a black hole for Oakland all year long; Kottaras, a veteran lefty batter with a good approach at the plate, is the better option to do so.
Tampa Bay Rays
Position: Third in AL East, 4 games out of first; ½ game out of second wild card
X-factor: Ryan Roberts
After years of putting his best defensive lineups on the field, Joe Maddon gave up in August, shifting Ben Zobrist to shortstop and Ryan Roberts to second base. It's not a bad tradeoff for a team that has struck out a league-leading 1,076 men, more than 22 percent of the batters who have come to the plate. While Zobrist has been a good defender at second base and a good hitter everywhere, this plan rises and falls on Roberts, who is less nimble at the keystone and who hasn't hit at all -- .212/.300/.317 -- since coming over from the Diamondbacks in July. The Rays, 10-6 with a Zobrist/Roberts double-play combination, need Roberts to get back to his lefty-smashing, power-hitting ways for this plan to work.
Position: First in AL West, 4½ games ahead of Athletics
X-factor: Mitch Moreland
The Rangers are the best team in the AL and about a 98 percent favorite to make the postseason, so this is about the playoffs. Last season, Moreland's struggles at the plate exacerbated the Rangers' left/right imbalance, making the team susceptible to both good righthanded starters and, more critically in the World Series, nasty power righties out of the bullpen. Moreland, having the best season of his career (.296/.342/.530), will be a great solution to that problem, as if he's hitting well he can be positioned higher in the lineup to break up the Rangers' righty bats. Caveat: Moreland has a poor 43/14 K/UIBB against right-handers, so there's no guarantee he can keep hitting at this level. He, David Murphy and Josh Hamilton are the entire Rangers' team from the left side, so he's critical to their World Series chances.