With the 2011 baseball season reaching its mid-point this week (the Dodgers and Reds will become the first teams to play 81 games Tuesday night), and the calendar flipping to July on Friday, the pennant races will gain increasing attention. Entering Tuesday's action, no team has a larger lead for a playoff spot than the Phillies' five-game advantage over the Braves in the National League East, and just nine teams were more than six games out in both their division and their league's wild card chases. That leaves 21 teams that could call themselves contenders. By now, most of the best players on those teams have made themselves known, but here's a look at some players whose impact on the pennant races those races has yet to be felt, but could well be a major factor in how this season plays out.
Dan Uggla, 2B, Braves and Adam Dunn, DH, White Sox
Over the past five seasons (more in Dunn's case), Uggla and Dunn have been two of the most reliable sluggers in the game. Uggla hit between 27 and 33 home runs in each of the last five seasons and rarely strayed far from his aggregate .263/.349/.488 line. Dunn hit between 38 and 46 home runs in each of the last seven seasons, including exactly 40 four years in a row and exactly 38 each of the last two seasons while putting up an aggregate .253/.381/.533 line as a leftfielder and first baseman for the Reds, Diamondbacks, and Nationals. This winter, Uggla was traded to the Braves (who then signed him to a five-year, $62 million extension) and Dunn joined the White Sox as a free-agent with a four-year, $56 million contract. Neither has hit since.
Dunn has batted just .173/.308/.316 with seven home runs, while Uggla is at .175/.241/.330 with 11 homers. Neither has shown any significant signs of breaking out of his season-long slump. In fact, Dunn has only two hits and 16 strikeouts in his last 26 plate appearances. Still, but both are just 31, and even after three abysmal months, it's difficult to envision either finishing the season without a significant hot streak. With the White Sox a manageable five games out in the AL Central, the Braves holding a slim 1 ½ game lead in the NL wild card race and both teams well below league average in run scoring, such an outburst could have a big impact.
Edinson Volquez, RHP, Reds
Volquez may never be the ace he was projected to become after his break-out age-24 season in 2008, but on Sunday, his 28th birthday, he'll be one month shy of two years removed from his August 2009 Tommy John surgery, so there's reason to start expecting an upswing in his performance. Volquez has thrown 136 innings across 26 starts since returning from his rehab work, but he has posted a 5.10 ERA over that stretch, in part due to 5.6 walks per nine innings.
Volquez has always been wild, but lack of command is also a common symptom of pitchers working their way back from Tommy John surgery. The Reds sent Volquez down to Triple-A for a couple of starts at the end of May, and in his first three outings after returning, he posted a 3.50 ERA with just 3.5 walks per nine innings, only to revert and walk five men in 4 1/3 innings his last time on the bump. The Reds are again leading the NL in runs scored, but they're still 3.5 games out in the NL Central and four games out in the wild card race, largely because they have the fourth-worst rotation ERA in the majors. If Volquez can round into form, the odds of a Reds repeat in the division will skyrocket.
Darren O'Day, RHP, Rangers
Last year, on their way to their first division title in a decade and first-ever pennant, the Rangers had the second-best bullpen ERA in the American League. Then they traded primary set-up man Frank Francisco to the Blue Jays over the winter, moved promising sophomore Alexi Ogando into the rotation to fill in for the injured Tommy Hunter as spring training drew to a close, and lost dominant righty sidearmer O'Day to a torn left hip labrum and the subsequent surgery at the end of April. Largely as a result, the Rangers have had the second-worst bullpen ERA in the AL this season and trail only the Angels in blown saves in the junior circuit.
Fortunately for the Rangers, O'Day is ready to return. He made consecutive rehab appearances for Triple-A Round Rock over the weekend and should be activated during the Rangers' current interleague series against the Astros. O'Day posted a 1.94 ERA in 140 relief appearances over the last two seasons, and while some of that was luck on balls in play (.236 BABIP), he also posted a 3.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in those two seasons, evidence that there was more than luck at play. By helping to stabilize the Texas bullpen, O'Day could help the Rangers build on their 1 ½ game lead in the AL West and repeat as division champs.
J.J. Hardy, SS, Orioles
With barely more than a month to go before the non-waiver trading deadline, Jose Reyes is the biggest impact player believed to be available, but Hardy could be one heck of a consolation prize for teams in need of shortstop help. Hardy is a better fielder than Reyes and, like his Mets counterpart, is having a career year at age 28, hitting .304/.369/.538 with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs. Hardy is notoriously streaky, but he's red-hot right now (most of that production has come this month as he has hit .370/.422/.707 with 8 HRs and 17 RBIs in June), and would represent a significant upgrade for teams such as the Giants, Reds, Brewers and Rays among others. Any of those teams could easily afford the remainder of Hardy's $5.85 million salary, barely more than half what Reyes is making this year. What's more, there is likely to be a low asking price from the Orioles, who are reportedly trying to extend Hardy, but will surely move him if they are unable to come to terms.
Brandon Belt, 1B/OF, Giants and Desmond Jennings, OF, Rays
In Belt and Jennings, respectively, both the Giants and Rays have a major-league-ready player on the farm who could provide the offensive boost they desperately need. Belt broke camp as San Francisco's first baseman, but Aubrey Huff's abysmal play in rightfield and Belt's own struggles at the plate led to the latter's demotion when Cody Ross returned from the disabled list in late April. The 23-year-old Belt then went right back to crushing Triple-A pitching, earning a recall in late May only to find himself on the bench and then the DL after a pitch caused a hairline fracture in his left wrist. Belt is scheduled to take batting practice on Monday for the first time since suffering the injury and could return to action in the coming weeks.
The Rays, meanwhile, have made a cult hero out of small, scrappy, 29-year-old leftfielder Sam Fuld, to their detriment. Fuld has hit just .203/.246/.309 since May 1 and is blocking the toolsy, 24-year-old Jennings, who has hit .280/.373/.459 for Triple-A Durham this year with 10 home runs (one shy of his career best), and fourteen stolen bases in fifteen attempts.
Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pirates
Entering Tuesday's action, the Pirates are just four games behind in the NL Central (a half-game behind the defending division champion Reds), and ½ games behind in the NL wild card race. Popular pre-season picks who are further out of a playoff spot include the A's, Rockies, White Sox, and, of course, the Twins. Pittsburgh's unexpected success thus far this season has been largely dependent on their strong fielding, which has resulted in some unexpectedly stingy -- though likely unsustainable -- pitching performances.
Still, the Pirates have some legitimate young talent, led by centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, and have yet to get anything positive out of the 24-year-old Alvarez this season. Rated the eighth-best prospect in baseball coming into the 2010 season by Baseball America, Alvarez hit a solid .280/.348/.493 with nine home runs and 43 RBIs over the final two months of last season, but stumbled at the start of this year and has been shelved with a quadriceps strain since mid-May. Alvarez began a minor league rehab assignment on Monday and could be back with the Bucs in a week or two. If he can hit up to his ability upon his return, well, the Pirates likely still won't make the playoffs, but they could post their first winning record since 1992.