The long, arduous baseball season has ended – the brutal summer heat has given way to crisper autumn weather, leading us into another postseason. The new, nerve-racking “one-and-done” wild card round was used for the first time on Friday night, with the Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals surviving and advancing to the more familiar best-of-five Division Series round. It’s always difficult to predict which players will make the difference in the MLB playoffs – no one player is going to dominate like Michael Jordan. Also, the players that come through in the biggest situations are often lesser known, non-superstar players, such as the last two World Series MVP’s – David Freese and Edgar Renteria.That sheer unpredictability might be the best part about the MLB playoffs, and it’s a great reason to tune in. Any team can take the title and any guy that makes one of the rosters has a shot at being the hero. Still, as a guide, we made a brief list of players to watch this postseason. These guys have been instrumental in getting their teams to the playoffs, and could provide the edge their team needs to take the title.
American League Playoffs New York Yankees – 2B Robinson CanoThis season may have marked an official changing of the guard in New York. Yes, there was the resurgence of Derek Jeter, who led the league in hits after two straight sub-.300 seasons, as well as the return of Andy Pettitte to the starting rotation, but it was Robbie Cano who led the way with his bat and smooth glove. He finished up another dominant year and proved himself as the best overall hitter in the most expensive lineup in baseball. Cano led the Yanks in on-base percentage (.379) and slugging (.550), smashing 33 homers and producing a huge number of runs (105 runs scored and 94 RBI). On a team with huge power hitters like Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and ARod, Cano is the one Yanks fans will want up there with the game on the line.The Yankees have been inconsistent all year, grabbing the top spot in the AL despite a midsummer collapse that threatened their season. However, they righted the ship in the final month and will have a decent shot if they play up to their potential. Cano will try to lead the lineup in the right direction, as will CC Sabathia with the pitching staff.
Oakland Athletics – LF Yoenis CespedesThat’s right, household name Yoenis Cespedes. Wait, you’ve never heard of him? Here’s some explanation then: Cespedes led a painfully light-hitting A’s team into the playoffs as the AL West champions. Well, he didn’t do it single-handedly, but his contributions were integral and necessary for such an anemic offense. Cespedes had a .356 OBP with a team-leading .505 slugging percentage, along with 23 home runs, 70 runs and 82 RBI. Cespedes was a huge contributor to one of the most unlikely success stories this season. The word “scrappy” gets tossed around a lot in sports these days, but it applies perfectly to these Oakland A’s. It’s a team full of widely unknown players like Josh Reddick (RF) and Jonny Gomes (DH), as well as aging castoffs like Brandon Inge (3B) and Bartolo Colon (SP).Yet here they are, with home field advantage against the Tigers in the Division Series. Watch for Cespedes to be a big factor at the plate – he already came through big for them in Oakland’s final six regular season games, in which he hit .381 with a .500 OBP. The A’s won all six of those games to snatch the division from the Rangers on the last day of the season.
Detroit Tigers – 3B Miguel CabreraThe Tigers have a couple other superstars in Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder, but you really can’t argue with a triple crown. Miguel Cabrera had a historic season, hitting .330 with 44 home runs and 139 RBI, leading all those categories to win the first triple crown since 1967. Cabrera anchored an inconsistent lineup with a number of memorable performances this season, leading Detroit to an AL Central title by a narrow margin over the White Sox. After such an amazing year, the main question is whether he can ride all that momentum straight into the playoffs.The Tigers may have had the least impressive season among AL playoff teams (88-74), but they’re a very dangerous team. They have Verlander, who just finished another Cy Young-caliber season, along with formidable starters Max Scherzer and Doug Fister. With Cabrera leading the way on offense, the Tigers have the potential to do some damage in this year’s postseason.
Baltimore Orioles – CF Adam JonesAdam Jones was the workhorse for the Orioles this season, playing in all 162 games, plus the wild card playoff against the Rangers (in which he had the game-winning RBI). Jones hit .287 with 32 home runs, leading the team in slugging (.505) and runs scored (103). As a team, the O’s have defied all logic to reach the Division Series against the Yankees, going 29-9 in 1-run games and finishing the season on an incredible 16-game winning streak in extra-inning contests. Baltimore has thrived in the clutch, and Jones has been a much-needed contributor, hitting three game-winning home runs in the 12th inning or later. That’s a flair for the dramatic that could come in handy this postseason, so watch closely when he comes up late in close games.DH Chris Davis will flank Jones in the middle of Baltimore’s lineup. No other Baltimore hitters have put up impressive numbers (aside from the injured Nick Markakis), but they’ve found ways to get the job done all year. If it’s close late in the game, that’s where they thrive – the Orioles have a slew of amazing, shutdown relievers to give hitters like Jones the chance to be the hero.
National League Playoffs Washington Nationals – SP Gio GonzalezThe Nationals might be the most exciting newcomers to the playoffs, sporting an incredibly young roster led by phenoms like Stephen Strasburg (age 23) and Bryce Harper (19). Strasburg has been shut down for postseason play, but Harper will be out there making headlines as a teenager starting in the MLB playoffs, coming off a brilliant season that will win him Rookie of the Year and make us wonder what he’ll accomplish throughout his career. However, for this year’s playoffs, we’ll go with the veteran 26-year-old, Gio Gonzalez, as the guy to watch. Gonzalez was the ace of the Nats’ pitching staff, going 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA. He’s slated to start the Division Series opener, and you’ll see him again in the deciding Game 5 if it gets that far (and if weather is normal).If a starting pitcher like Gonzalez gets hot during the playoffs, it bodes very well for the team’s prospects. This team can also hit, with players like Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman and Mike Morse (not to mention Harper) all turning in great seasons at the dish. This team wasn’t expected to do this well this early, but it seems they’ve already turned into a robust World Series contender.
Cincinnati Reds – 1B Joey VottoVotto caught a rough break over the summer, injuring himself and needing knee surgery, causing him to miss over a month and a half of the season. The time missed cost him a legitimate shot at his second MVP award, but he rejoined the Reds for the final month of the year and finished with great numbers over the 111 games he was able to play. His batting average, OBP and slugging percentage have all been shockingly high (.337/.474/.567), and he’s back to lead Cincinnati on the offensive side of things against the Giants. No one else on the Reds hits for average like Votto, and only Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick come close in the power department.Votto will try to erase the memory of his and the Reds’ 2010 playoff appearance, in which he went 1-for-10 as the Reds suffered a three-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies. On the defensive side, starter Johnny Cueto (19-9, 2.78 ERA) will lead the attack along with the 24-year-old Mat Latos (14-4, 3.48).
San Francisco Giants – C Buster PoseyThis is only Buster Posey’s third season as a Major Leaguer, but his career has already seen some major ups and downs. In 2010, he was named Rookie of the Year and helped the Giants to a championship, but last year he was on the wrong end of a catastrophic collision at home plate, ending his season after only 45 games. To say he came back this year would be an understatement. Posey hit .336/.408/.549 with 24 home runs and 103 RBI this year – MVP-caliber numbers that helped the Giants coast to an NL West title.With Melky Cabrera (.346 BA) serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for testosterone, it makes it all the more necessary for Posey to step it up and set the tone in the lineup, which has also relied on contributions from Pablo Sandoval, Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro. Matt Cain (16-5, 2.79 ERA) has led the team on the pitching end, and surprise success Madison Bumgarner (16-11, 3.37) will follow. The last two spots in the rotation are up in the air, with another unforeseen success in Ryan Vogelsong (14-9, 3.37) having a hard time getting a start over two big names – Barry Zito (who had a great comeback season) and Tim Lincecum (coming off a strangely bad year).
St. Louis Cardinals – RF Carlos BeltranWith much of the Cardinals’ lineup from their 2011 championship run returning, Carlos Beltran has essentially replaced Albert Pujols as their new big name player this season. For the most part, Beltran has fared pretty well in his first year with St. Louis, leading the team with 32 homers, knocking home 97 runs and posting OBP/slugging numbers of .346/.495. To be clear, the Cardinals have a very formidable and well-balanced offense, with players like Matt Holliday, David Freese, Yadier Molina and Allen Craig all posting seasons with comparable effectiveness. However, all those players are World Series champs from last year, so the question is, what’s something new that Beltran can bring to the table?Beltran is 35 years old now and has a muddled legacy, many thinking of him as a solid regular season player who will put up numbers, but not a guy you’d want in a high-pressure playoff situation. True, he’s only been to the playoffs twice, with his last run ending in 2006 with him watching a called strike three for the last out in a Game 7 (NLCS vs. the Cards while he was with the Mets). Even though his playoff performances have actually been amazing (.366/.485/.817 with 11 homers in 22 games), he may be running out of time to be an integral part of another team’s World Series run. This is a great chance for him to make his mark, and it will be interesting to see how things go for him now that he’s a Cardinal.