The 1992 Toronto Blue Jays were stacked. They had two Hall of Famers (Roberto Alomar and Dave Winfield) on their World Series roster, plus six other players who finished with 40 or more career WAR, and yet the World Series MVP was catcher Pat Borders, who in 17 big league seasons recorded a 77 OPS+ and just 3.7 career WAR. Borders hit .242/.290/.385 in the 1992 regular season, but in the six most important games of the year, he went 9-for-20 with four extra-base hits.
In other words, postseason heroes are like Soviet spies—they can be found anywhere and can appear when you least expect them. Here are eight players, one from each remaining team, who won’t appear on the marquee, but whose performance one way or another could determine how long their respective teams stay in the playoffs.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Ketel Marté, SS
Marté wasn’t supposed to be the Diamondbacks’ starting shortstop, but Nick Ahmed took a pitch off his hand in June and missed two months, then took another pitch off his wrist in August during a rehab game and is out for the season. Then Chris Owings suffered a broken finger when he was hit while attempting a bunt on July 30, leaving Marté as Arizona’s primary shortstop.
So far, he’s been pretty decent: Marté started 52 of Arizona’s last 68 games this year, and in that time hit .268/.356/.402, despite being dogged on and off by a hamstring injury. And on Wednesday against Colorado in the NL wild-card game, he went 3-for-5 with two triples. In the second half, Marté got on base from the bottom of the lineup, which—for as good as Paul Goldschmidt and J.D. Martinez are—is going to be the whole proverbial ball game for Arizona. (Marté did bat second against Colorado and in some games in September.) If opposing pitchers can just cruise after they get through Goldschmidt and Martinez, the Diamondbacks aren’t going to last long.
Boston Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr., CF
The problem with the Red Sox isn’t the rotation, it’s the lineup, which is full of players who were league-average hitters this year but ought to have been better. Xander Bogaerts lost about 10 home runs this season compared with last year. Mookie Betts lost about 50 points of batting average. Vanished. All told, the Sox finished with a collective 92 wRC+, which was 22nd in MLB this year, behind the tanking White Sox and barely ahead of the Royals, who scored just 63 runs in the entire month of April.
Bradley seems like a weird “unheralded” choice since the former first-rounder was an All-Star last year and had a 118 OPS+ over 2015 and 2016, but a team as overexposed as Boston doesn’t exactly have “unheralded” players. This year, Bradley hit just .245/.323/.402, which is more than adequate considering he’s also a very good defensive center fielder, but the way he did it is concerning.
At the All-Star break, Bradley was hitting at about his 2015-16 level, .280/.363/.490. But after the break, he hit just .204/.277/.302, and on August 22, he suffered 2017’s hottest baseball injury when he—like Mike Trout and Carlos Correa before him—injured his thumb. Bradley wasn’t out as long as Trout and Correa were, but after his return, he hit just .172/.238/.280, which doesn’t play no matter how good of a defensive outfielder you are. Bradley started 22 September games in which the Red Sox used the DH, and he batted ninth in 20 of them.
He’s been a streaky hitter his entire career, but there could not be a worse time for him to be ice cold (or possibly still suffering the effects of that thumb injury). The Astros have just one left-handed starting pitcher, Dallas Keuchel, and no real trustworthy left-handed relievers, and after the retirement of David Ortiz, you could argue that Bradley entered this season as Boston’s best left-handed hitter. Andrew Benintendi was just average after coming into the season as the Rookie of the Year favorite, Mitch Moreland is a first baseman with a career 100 OPS+, and after hitting .364/.424/.727 in his first 20 career games, Rafael Devers is hitting just .241/.290/.352 since.
This is a different lineup with a healthy and productive Bradley hitting sixth than it is with a stricken Bradley sucking up outs in the nine-hole. If he can string together even a couple of good games, it could swing the Houston series and whatever comes next.
Chicago Cubs: Carl Edwards Jr., RHP
Wade Davis was awesome as the Cubs closer, but it takes more than one reliever to build a playoff bullpen. After Davis, the Cubs reliever with the highest gmLI (leverage index when entering the game) is the diminutive Carl Edwards Jr., who featured eight times last October: six scoreless appearances of three or fewer outs, one multi-inning stint in Game 3 of the World Series in which he allowed the game’s only run, and a squirrely two-out hold in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series that required Mike Montgomery to come in to get the season’s final out.
This year, Edwards has been effective, broadly speaking (2.98 ERA, 35.9 percent strikeout rate), but he also allowed the third-highest walk rate among qualified relievers (14.5 percent), which limits his utility as the guy you bring in with men on base and nobody out. He also allowed a 110 sOPS+ (OPS+ adjusted for league average in a particular split) to opponents in 92 high-leverage plate appearances, which isn’t exactly confidence-inspiring, even in a small sample. If Edwards keeps his walks under control, he could be the perfect middle-inning complement to Davis, but if he can’t, he could cost Chicago a game it can’t afford to lose.
Cleveland Indians: Trevor Bauer, RHP
Cleveland manager Terry Francona has the best pitcher in the American League, Corey Kluber, at his disposal, but he’s going to use him in Game 2 of the ALDS rather than Game 1. Holding Kluber until Game 2 still allows Francona to bring his ace back for a potential Game 5, but eliminates the temptation to start him on short rest in Game 4 and wear him down. Kluber got torched in Game 7 of last year’s World Series, his third start of the postseason on three days’ rest, after allowing just three runs in 30.1 innings in his previous five starts. Moreover, Carlos Carrasco (139 ERA+, 10.2 K/9 in 200 IP) is better than anyone the Yankees can throw in Game 1 and would make a fine replacement for Kluber. Except, Carrasco won’t lead off the rotation; Bauer will.
Bauer’s got a reputation for willfulness and eccentricity that dates back to his days as an amateur, a reputation that’s tended to manifest itself in-game with periodic bouts of wildness, along with the occasional bloody drone injury.
But he had the best year of his career in 2017—particularly in August and September, when he went 8-1 with a 2.57 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 70 innings. The Indians need Kluber and Carrasco to be that good if they’re going to win the World Series, but if Bauer gives them a reliable no. 3 starter, they’ll be hard to beat.
Houston Astros: Josh Reddick, RF
Reddick, who’d never hit better than .281 in a full season, hit .314 in his first season with Houston, and he batted in one of the first four spots in the order in 106 of his 121 starts this year. Reddick signed a four-year deal this past offseason to be a complementary piece, but he ended up as the best lefty in a lineup whose best and highest-profile hitters—George Springer, José Altuve, and Carlos Correa—are right-handed.
Reddick had about the same average and OBP this year against lefties and righties, but he slugged .504 against righties and .402 against lefties, which led to Jake Marisnick (.266/.349/.468 against LHP in 2017) being used as a situational offensive replacement for Reddick. Marisnick figured to play a big role against the Red Sox, who will probably start a lefty in every ALDS game but one, but a broken thumb suffered—wouldn’t you know it—sliding into a base ruled him out for the postseason. That means Reddick is probably going to get the lion’s share of playing time in right field no matter the situation, and no matter who’s on the mound.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Yasiel Puig, RF
Once the Dodgers’ brightest offensive star, Puig quietly hit .263/.346/.487 in 570 plate appearances this year with excellent defense in right field. Puig is not only a good defender, but as is important for the purposes of highlight-driven postseason stardom, he’s a charismatic defender who likes to uncork long throws and runs like he wants to punish the earth.
Puig was also one of the few steady offensive performers during the Dodgers’ alarming three-week slide last month. That’s particularly important in a Dodgers outfield where Chris Taylor’s starting to regress, Joc Pederson’s running hot and cold, and Curtis Granderson left his bats in New York when the Mets traded him. After five years of hand-wringing about the Undisciplined Puig, the Temperamental Puig, and the Untrustworthy Puig, the world is ready for Clutch Puig to appear this October.
New York Yankees: Brett Gardner, LF
Reading the headlines, it seems like the Yankees offense is just Aaron Judge batting nine times in a row, but in reality, he needs someone to drive in. Gardner’s been One Of The Other Yankees for 10 years, so long ago he won a ring with Jorge Posada. Only two other current Yankees—CC Sabathia and David Robertson—were on that 2009 title team.
Nowadays, the 34-year-old Gardner is the guy Judge drives in, and for evidence of his impact, look no further than Tuesday’s wild-card game. While Judge’s home run wound up on all the highlight reels, the Yankees don’t recover from Luis Severino’s first-inning disaster if Gardner doesn’t reach base his first three times up—including a homer of his own—and score three runs in the first four innings. Judge and Gary Sánchez are a lot less effective if nobody gets on base in front of them.
Washington Nationals: Tanner Roark, RHP
A playoff rotation that starts off as impressively as Washington’s—Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio González—ought to present enough of an advantage to allow the Nats to just punt Game 4, but they probably won’t be so lucky this year. (Scherzer, who’s fighting a hamstring injury, claims he’ll pitch against the Cubs, but his status is still up in the air.) If the NLDS gets to Game 4, Roark will have to beat Jake Arrieta to either keep the Nationals alive or send them through to the LCS for the first time. That’s a tall order for anyone, and Roark hasn’t been as good this year as he was in either 2014 or 2016, when he posted ERAs below 3.00.
Roark’s performance will be of the utmost importance in a postseason where almost every other team can throw out two or three outstanding starters every series—particularly in the later rounds, where there won’t be much of a difference between Scherzer and Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Kluber, Chris Sale, or Justin Verlander in a one-game scenario. The difference between winning and losing in the playoffs isn’t just about star performance, anyway—it’s about whose no. 4 starter steps up with the season on the line. Whether the Nationals go home early and empty-handed or late and with a trophy is just as likely to depend on Roark’s performance as Scherzer’s.