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Monday, September 24, 2018

Each MLB contender’s most important player

JD Martinez

The MLB playoff race can conceivably be boiled down to about 12 teams, with one or two more on the fringes but looking less realistic by the day. Those 12 teams are in different spots. Some will feel better than others about their chances of making an impact in the playoffs, but each team has at least one player upon whom they can rely.

Here’s a look at each contender’s most important player.

Arizona Diamondbacks — Paul Goldschmidt, 1B

For a team that has often been known for having a powerhouse offense, the Diamondbacks have at times struggled to get men on base this season. That has not been a problem for Goldschmidt, who remains one of the game’s more overlooked stars. For the fifth time in seven seasons, he has surpassed 30 home runs and is the centerpiece of Arizona’s offense. When he does well, they do well.

Atlanta Braves — Ronald Acuña Jr., OF

Freddie Freeman may actually make more noise in the MVP race for the Braves, but Acuña will be viewed as the face of the team’s rapid turnaround. An incredibly gifted all-around player, he’s actually come on even more toward the latter half of the season. He’s tied for the team lead in home runs despite playing significantly fewer games than Freeman and teammates Ozzie Albies. Add in his quality defense, and you have a future MVP candidate.

Boston Red Sox — J.D. Martinez, OF/DH

Mookie Betts is a better all-around player, but if you think back to the 2017 Red Sox, they were a talented team that simply lacked power and punch in the lineup. Martinez has been something of a transformative figure in that sense. Well on his way to a 40 home run season, he’s a legitimate Triple Crown contender. Those concerns about Boston’s lack of power in the lineup are a thing of the past, and that’s mostly down to Martinez’s presence.

Chicago Cubs — Javier Baez, IF

Baez might be the MVP of the National League this season. A versatile infielder, the Cubs didn’t even need to sweat shortstop Addison Russell’s injury, as they could simply shift Baez to the shortstop position and not worry about a thing. He plays dazzling defense and has molded himself into an outstanding hitter, even if he’ll never be particularly patient. He has well and truly come into his own.

Cleveland Indians — Jose Ramirez, 3B

Ramirez is no longer a surprise. Sure, he was back in 2016 when he was a revelation out of nowhere, but this marks his third consecutive quality season, and he appears to be getting better and better. He’s already set a new career-high mark in home runs and looks well on his way to 40 of them, and he’s having the best all-around season of his career offensively. He’s versatile enough to move around the infield, even if the Indians won’t do it.

Colorado Rockies — Kyle Freeland, P

No disrespect to Nolan Arenado, but the Rockies never really lack for hitting, especially at Coors Field. What they can’t really get is pitching, a perpetual struggle for the organization since its inception. No wonder they’re back in contention, then, as Kyle Freeland puts up one of the best pitching seasons in franchise history. A 2.96 ERA in Colorado is no small feat, and he’s paced the Rockies as their ace. He’ll be big down the stretch for them, and it would be a fabulous luxury to be able to rely on him.

Houston Astros — Jose Altuve, 2B

Altuve missed about a month, including the bulk of August, because of a nagging knee problem. All that did was demonstrate just how valuable he really is to the Astros. They’re 72-36 when he starts and 8-14 when he doesn’t. It’s not a huge sample size, but it’s telling. He’s hitting well over .300 and playing his usual brand of fine defense. Altuve really is the heart and soul of the world champions.

Kenley Jansen

Los Angeles Dodgers — Kenley Jansen, P

The Dodgers have many talented players, but given the construction of their team, having Jansen healthy and effective is huge. The Dodgers simply do not have a deep bullpen, and as soon as Jansen went on the disabled list with a heart issue, they began losing numerous games late and in walk-off fashion. He hasn’t been sharp since returning and the struggles have continued. The Dodgers simply need to have Jansen locking things down in the back of their bullpen. It makes them a much better team and it’s their only real shot at turning around their divisional deficit.

Milwaukee Brewers — Jhoulys Chacin

The Brewers were criticized for failing to upgrade their rotation at the trade deadline, meaning they’ve had to rely upon their existing staff to get the job done. Chacin has been the ace of the rotation this season, going 13-5 with a 3.61 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. Since July, he’s given the team five starts where he’s allowed one or fewer earned runs. That’s the kind of effort they’ll continue to need from him in order to remain in the postseason chase.

New York Yankees — Luis Severino, P

The Yankees perpetually have enough bats in their lineup that over the long haul, they will not have significant trouble scoring runs, even if one or two key names are out of the lineup. What they can’t afford is to have any of their quality pitchers slip up. That’s what made Severino’s July slide so worrisome and his recent stabilization so encouraging. The Yankees need a postseason ace, and Severino can be that. He has the arm and he has the stuff, and he’s pitched well in big games before.

Oakland Athletics — Matt Chapman, 3B

It wouldn’t be an Oakland A’s playoff run without them seemingly conjuring up a quality third baseman out of nowhere. In 2012 and 2013, it was Josh Donaldson. Now it’s Chapman, who is probably the best defensive third baseman in all of baseball, and maybe the best overall defensive player. He can make highlight reel plays, and he can hit a bit, too — he’s at a comfortable .282 and has surpassed 20 home runs. He’s an incredibly valuable player and one with whom you should familiarize yourself if you haven’t already.

Philadelphia Phillies — Aaron Nola, P

The expectation was that Jake Arrieta would be the one to pace the Philadelphia rotation when he was signed late in the offseason. Arrieta has been good, but there’s no question who the ace of the Phillies’ staff is now. Nola has gone from good young starter to Cy Young contender, and he’s the only one fighting for the award who’s really in a playoff race and pitching pressure-filled innings. He’s overcome a poor defense behind him to post a 2.13 ERA and 15 wins, and is being widely — and rightly — recognized as one of the league’s best starters now.

St. Louis Cardinals — Matt Carpenter, 3B

Carpenter was hitting .140 in mid-May. Then teammate Adam Wainwright grew him a garden, he started pounding down salsa, and now he’s an MVP candidate. Sure, the story isn’t so simple, but it’s a fun one, and there’s no denying Carpenter’s exploits since then. He now leads the NL with 34 home runs and has lifted his batting average up over .270. It’s no coincidence that the Cardinals have really started to turn things around since he got really, truly scorching hot over the past month and a half or so.

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