Justin Verlander has not been as excellent in his postseason career as his Cy Young- and MVP-winning regular-season credentials might suggest. (Paul Sancya/AP)
No matter how good they are, every team enters the postseason with some question marks, whether it's with regards to injuries, slumping players or relatively unproven commodities. As the postseason dawns, here's a quick look at the player (or players) on each team — including Monday's tiebreaker participants, the Rays and Rangers — whose presence and potential performances are worth keeping an eye upon, as they could have an outsized impact on their teams' fates.
The teams are listed in reverse order of seeding within their leagues, with the American League first.
Tampa Bay Rays: David Price
The 2012 AL Cy Young winner finally began pitching up to his reputation after returning from a triceps strain in early July. Over his final 17 starts, he put up a 2.57 ERA and 98 strikeouts against just 12 walks in 122 2/3 innings, numbers that justify his starting in the team's do-or-die play-in game.
Though it's a small sample size, his spotty track record against Texas — a 5.67 ERA in 11 career starts, including three in the 2010 and 2011 postseasons — is some cause for concern, as is the combined .329/.387/.514 the current Rangers have hit against him in 187 plate appearances. He hasn't faced them since Aug. 27 of last year, a start in which he was shellacked for six runs in 4 1/3 innings and served up homers to Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre; obviously, he'll need to do better than that if the Rays are to extend their season.
Texas Rangers: Nelson Cruz
Cruz is eligible to return for the tiebreaker because he has served his 50-game suspension for his involvement with Biogenesis, and he's been activated. While 23 plate appearances is the definition of a small sample, his career 429/.478/.905 line with three homers against Price is no small part of that reason.
If the Rangers can advance, they'll need Cruz for more than just one game given their recent offensive malaise (4.18 runs per game in September) and their failure to get adequate production from leftfielder David Murphy (.220/.282/.374), first baseman Mitch Moreland (.231/.299/.438) and their designated hitters (.247/.315/.388). Cruz will have to find his stroke in a hurry while having faced nothing more imposing than instructional league pitching since his suspension.
Salazar joined the Indians' rotation in early August and provided a nice late-season boost, putting up a 3.12 ERA and an eye-popping 11.5 strikeouts per nine in 52 innings. He'll start the Wild Card Game, which is a lot to put on the shoulders of any 23-year-old rookie but particularly one who's in uncharted territory; his combined 145 innings between the minors and majors are already 57 1/3 more than he threw last year and 37 2/3 more than he's thrown in any other professional season. He's also topped 100 pitches just once in his major league starts, and averaged just 79 pitches over his final eight. While both potential wild-card opponents were within .01 pitches per plate appearance of league average, they're more disciplined than the bulk of teams Salazar has faced, and could wait him out via deep counts, forcing Cleveland manager Terry Francona to use his bullpen even earlier than anticipated.
Tigers: Justin Verlander
The former Cy Young and MVP winner finished the year with his highest ERA (3.46), lowest strikeout rate (23.5 percent) and lowest innings total (218 1/3) since 2008 while battling reduced velocity, and was handily outpitched by staffmates Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. Whether or not manager Jim Leyland tabs Verlander to start Game 1 of the Division Series against the A's out of habit, it's worth noting that he's been pretty ordinary in the postseason, with a 4.22 ERA in 12 starts, only five of which were quality.
Perhaps this year's diminished workload and the fact that he closed the season with 13 consecutive scoreless innings means that he'll reverse that trend. On the other hand, that scoreless streak came against the Mariners, Twins and Marlins.
A's: Yoenis Cespedes
After hitting a potent .292/.356/.505 last year, Cespedes slumped to .240/.294/.442 this year and missed time due to thumb, hamstring and shoulder issues. While he did hit .314/.337/.570 in 89 September plate appearances, he took just 35 PAs, mostly at designated hitter, over his team's final 14 games due to tendonitis in his right shoulder. He's potentially Oakland's most dangerous hitter, so having him at or close to full strength would be a big boon; the A's have to hope that his rest — a week between his last regular season game and the opening of the Division Series — won't mean rust.
Lackey had an unsightly 6.41 ERA in 2011 and missed all of last year due to Tommy John surgery but this year he was the glue that held the Red Sox rotation together between Clay Buchholz's injury and Jon Lester's second-half surge. Lackey finished with a 3.52 ERA and 7.7 strikeouts per nine in 189 1/3 innings, but his splits by half (2.78 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 75 percent quality start rate in the first, 4.35 ERA, 6.9 K/9, 58 percent quality start rate) tell the story of a pitcher who could be running out of gas.
With alternatives Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront struggling even more mightily after the All-Star break, the Sox need Lackey to reverse his trend and return to form. By skipping his final turn, he'll have at least 10 days of rest if he starts Game 2 of the Division Series, and perhaps even more if he's pushed back any further.
Getting the draw for Cincinnati in the Wild Card Game is Cueto, 27-year-old righty who put up a 2.78 ERA this year, albeit in just 11 starts and 60 2/3 innings due to a strained latissimus dorsi that necessitated three separate trips to the disabled list. Just two of those starts, his first since late June, came in September, and both were against weak teams (the Astros and Mets). Furthermore, he lasted only one-third of an inning in his lone postseason start last year due to an oblique strain. Obviously, it's all hands on deck for a one-game playoff, but with potential Division Series Game 1 starter Mat Latos — Dusty Baker's original choice to start on Tuesday— nursing a sore arm, another early exit from Cueto could plunge Cincinnati's pitching staff into disarray even if it does advance.
The mercurial 29-year-old southpaw put together his best major league season since his 2006 rookie year, with a 3.02 ERA, 9.1 strikeouts per nine and a 2.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Furthermore, he held lefty batters to an historically low .321 OPS via .131/.175/.146 "hitting" in 138 plate appearances; opposing lefties had just two extra-base hits, both doubles. Liriano will start in the NL wild-card game, the Pirates' first postseason appearance in 21 years, and he'll face a lineup whose three best hitters — Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce — are lefties. If he can keep them at bay, the odds of Pittsburgh advancing are very good.
When he was available, Ramirez hit .345/.402/.638 with 20 homers in 336 plate appearances, while the Dodgers scored 4.22 runs per game and went 51-26 in his starts. When he was not, the team averaged 3.81 runs per game and went 41-44. Late in the year, Ramirez was bothered by an irritated nerve in his back that affected his left hamstring, limiting him to just 15 September starts, though he did hit .370/.462/.704 when available and is said to be 100 percent.
With Matt Kemp out of commission due to an ankle injury, Andre Ethier questionable as well and Yasiel Puig likely to be keyed upon given his undisciplined approach at the plate, Ramirez's continued presence and robust production are all the more important to Los Angeles' hopes of reaching its first World Series in 25 years.
Braves: Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton
The Braves stormed to the NL East title despite having two regulars who spent virtually the entire season below the Mendoza Line in Uggla (.179/.309/.362) and Upton (.184/.268/.289), the latter of whom finished with the league's lowest OPS+ (53) among any hitter with at least 400 plate appearances. Both players saw considerably less playing time down the stretch and hit even worse in September, raising questions about whether they'll even be in the lineup at all.
Once Uggla underwent his LASIK surgery, manager Fredi Gonzalez turned to late-season pickup Elliot Johnson (.261/.317/.359 in 102 PA) at the keystone, and when Jason Heyward returned from his broken jaw, Gonzalez used him in center — where he has all of 22 games of major league experience — flanked by Evan Gattis and Justin Upton. It remains to be seen whether Gonzalez will put his best lineup on the field at the risk of marginalizing players in whom the team has so much invested, particularly given that both Johnson (offense) and Gattis (outfield defense) aren't exactly complete players.
The hero of St. Louis' 2011 postseason run via his NLCS and World Series MVP awards, Freese struggled at times this year after battling early season back issues, hitting just .262/.340/.381 with nine homers, down from .293/.372/.467 with 20 homers last year. Over the last quarter of the season, he sank to .241/.315/.366 with three home runs. If he's on his game, the Cardinals have an offensive threat at every position except shortstop and their lineup runs seven deep. If not, they'll turn the lineup over less often, giving opposing pitchers that much more breathing room.
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