The first half of the MLB season is in the books, and while it’s becoming clear who the contenders and pretenders are, no two teams have the same situation. All 30 face unique challenges and scenarios over the final two and a half months, which got me thinking. Which player is the most important one on each team down the stretch?
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The Yankees have been the best team in the American League thus far, and they’re a team with their sights firmly set on October. To make a deep postseason run, they’ll need their star right-hander to be at the top of his game. Gerrit Cole has been tremendous in his three years in the Bronx, but Yankees fans haven’t forgotten his dud in the AL Wild Card game that sent them home early last season. New York is counting on him to carry this staff down the stretch and into the playoffs, and in many ways, he’ll ultimately decide how far this team goes.
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Boston Red Sox: Trevor Story, 2B
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Trevor Story joined the Red Sox late in the offseason, and his introduction to the American League has come with some ups and downs. The veteran right-handed hitter has had some otherworldly hot streaks, but he’s also had periods where he just couldn’t buy a hit. After a slow start, Boston has worked their way back into the wild-card race, and in what promises to be a fiercely contested race for October, the Sox will be leaning on their veterans to carry them to the postseason–Story included.
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Baltimore Orioles: Adley Rutschman, C
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Baltimore brought the sport’s best prospect, Adley Rutschman, to the Major Leagues on May 21st, and while he’s still getting his feet wet at the game’s highest level, the young catcher has certainly shown why he was the number one pick in the draft a couple of years ago. The switch-hitter has played well behind the plate and displayed extra-base power. This is the guy who will be the face of the Orioles’ franchise for years to come, and while they’ve fought their way back into the wild card race, ultimately, Rutschman’s continued development is the most important thing to watch on this team down the stretch.
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Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Berrios, SP
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The Blue Jays were thrilled to land righty Jose Berrios from the Twins at the deadline last summer, and they later handed him a massive seven-year extension. His first full season north of the border has left much to be desired, though. Berrios’ first-half ERA is well over five, and for a Toronto team that is going to be in a dogfight to try to sneak into the postseason in the AL, they simply need him to be much better.
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Tampa Bay Rays: Shane McClanahan, SP
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The Rays are always at the forefront of baseball trends, and their initial implementation of the opener has been well documented. Tampa still gets creative with their starting pitching, but one guy they leave alone is young southpaw Shane McClanahan. The Baltimore native has blossomed into one of the AL’s best starters, and it will be his job to lead this staff in August, September, and beyond.
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Cleveland Guardians: Emmanuel Clase, RP
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The Twins have led the AL Central for most of the season, but the Guardians have played well in their own right and prevented Minnesota from pulling away. Cleveland was not necessarily expected to be a legitimate playoff contender in 2022, but now that they are, let’s point out a player that can help carry them to October. On a team that will need every win they can get, closer Emmanuel Clase will have to be front and center, and given the way he’s pitched the last year and a half, the Guardians have every reason to be confident when the ball’s in his hand.
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Detroit Tigers: Spencer Torkelson, 1B
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Arizona State product Spencer Torkelson was the number one overall pick in the 2020 draft, and after ripping through Detroit’s minor league system, the big right-handed slugger made the Tigers’ opening day roster. His rookie season, however, has not exactly gone to plan. Torkelson’s batting average has been stuck on the interstate all year, he’s struck out far too much, and the power that wowed scouts in college and the minor leagues has been mostly absent. Detroit is not going anywhere this season, and the best thing that can happen for them down the stretch is definitive progress from their big first baseman.
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Kansas City Royals: Bobby Witt Jr., SS
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Like Torkelson in Detroit, the Royals chose to bring their top prospect, shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. to the big leagues on opening day, and that decision has worked out much better for them than it has for the Tigers. Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez is probably the favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year, but Witt is undoubtedly part of the conversation. He’s brought excitement and energy to a Kansas City team without much else going for it, and he’ll be the point of emphasis on this team in the second half.
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Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton, CF
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Minnesota has led the AL Central for most of the 2022 season, something that most prognosticators did not expect. One of the biggest reasons for the Twins’ success is the difference-making power their center fielder Byron Buxton has provided. Buxton’s talent has never been questioned, but this is an all-star caliber player whose career has been dramatically hindered by the injury bug. For the Twins to stave off Cleveland and Chicago in the second half, they’ll need him healthy and on the field.
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Chicago White Sox: Lucas Giolito, SP
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The White Sox entered 2022 as the hands-down favorite to walk away with the AL Central crown, but they’ve dramatically underachieved thus far. Chicago is under .500, and part of the reason for their struggles is the disappointing first half their ace righty Lucas Giolito has endured. Giolito’s ERA is over five, and he’s been snake bitten by the home run ball. This division does not have a dynamo in it, and the White Sox are still one serious hot stretch away from getting right back into the race. Giolito regaining his all-star form would go a long way towards making that happen.
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Houston Astros: Alex Bregman, 3B
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The Astros have a legitimate MVP candidate in Yordan Alvarez, who was a one-man wrecking ball for most of the month of June. This is why the man protecting him in the line-up is actually going to be the most important Houston player down the stretch. Third baseman Alex Bregman very nearly won the AL MVP award in 2019, but he has not been the same player in the last couple of years. This season the veteran has struggled to hit for average, and his power numbers are significantly down from his all-star seasons in ’18 and ’19. Bregman is still an incredibly heady player though who has been through plenty of high-pressure playoff games, and if teams choose to pitch around Alvarez he remains a threat to make them pay.
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Los Angeles Angels: Shohei Ohtani, SP/DH
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For yet another year, the Angels are baseball’s biggest enigma. It’s baffling how this team can employ two of the best players on the planet yet consistently underachieve. But in terms of the most important player on their squad, Ohtani, to me, takes the cake. Right now, the incredible two-way player is pitching better than he has at any point since coming over from Japan and is on pace to hit just under 40 homers and drive in over 100 runs.
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Oakland Athletics: Shea Langeliers, C
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The A’s have essentially been eliminated from postseason contention since spring training camps opened in March, and their already gutted roster will undoubtedly take another massive hit ahead of the trade deadline. One of the players who could and probably should go is their starting catcher Sean Murphy, which would open the door for one of their top prospects, Shea Langeliers. The Braves took the Baylor product ninth overall in the 2019 draft and sent him to Oakland as part of the Matt Olson trade. Spending the first half of the season in Triple-A Las Vegas, Langeliers has excelled, and he’ll probably be in the big leagues in just a few weeks.
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Seattle Mariners: Logan Gilbert, SP
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The Mariners came within an eyelash of ending their decades-long postseason drought last season and entered 2022 with high hopes. An extended sluggish start threw cold water on their spring training enthusiasm, but Seattle used a furious winning streak just before the all-star break to get right back into the thick of the wild card race. Big right-hander Logan Gilbert is a big reason why. The Stetson product has become the leader of this staff, and perhaps the only thing that can slow him down later in the year is a potential innings limit.
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Texas Rangers: Jonah Heim, C
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The Rangers spent huge money this winter to try to instantly jump back into contention in an American League West they saw as potentially up for grabs. Houston’s potential demise in ’22 was drastically overhyped, and the Mariners have once again proven to be a contender. But Texas is quietly hanging on the peripheral of the wild card race. Young switch-hitting catcher Jonah Heim is a big reason why, as he’s having easily the best season of his career offensively while also bringing stability behind the plate.
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New York Mets: Jacob deGrom, SP
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The Mets have led the NL East from day one in 2022, and they’ve done it without the best pitcher in baseball throwing a single pitch in the first half. That will change coming out of the all-star break–a scary proposition for New York’s National League rivals. Righty Jacob deGrom made his third and expected final rehab start this week, and the Mets tentatively plan to pencil him in during their second series of the second half against the Yankees.
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Atlanta Braves: Ronald Acuna Jr., OF
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The Atlanta Braves are the defending World Series champions, and what was undoubtedly the most impressive part of their run last fall was that they did it without their best player. Outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. tore his ACL in Miami last summer, prompting Atlanta to trade for Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, and Jorge Soler. That quartet helped carry the Braves offense to the promised land down the stretch, but the story of 2022 is Acuna. The dynamic 24-year-old is back to being himself after being slowly brought along during the early part of the year, and Atlanta will lean on him in the second half.
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Philadelphia Phillies: Kyle Gibson, SP
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The Phillies’ season could have easily sunk when they lost their best player, Bryce Harper, to a broken thumb a couple of weeks ago. Instead, though, Philadelphia’s veterans have all stepped up and led this team on their most impressive stretch of the year. They’ve fought their way right back into wild-card contention, but if they want to stay in the race for the long haul, they’ll need right-hander Kyle Gibson to be front and center. Philly has fellow righties Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola in their rotation, but they’ve been looking for a legitimate number three for years. To this point in 2022, Gibson has not shown himself to be a reliable number three, but if he were to recapture some of the form that made him an all-star last summer, Philadelphia would instantly be a whole lot scarier.
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Miami Marlins: Trevor Rogers, SP
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Miami southpaw Trevor Rogers was quietly one of the better starters in the NL last season, but 2022 has not been as kind to him. His current ERA is nearly three full runs higher than it was in ’21, and after serving up only 11 homers in 161 innings coming into this season, he’s already watched 10 balls leave the yard this season. The Marlins’ future is hung on their tremendous young pitching staff led by Sandy Alcantara, and it wasn’t that long ago they saw Rogers as part of their pitching core. A rejuvenation in the second half would be a welcome sight for this franchise.
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Washington Nationals: Keibert Ruiz, C
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Switch-hitting catcher Keibert Ruiz was the headliner in Washington’s big deadline trade last summer, and in 2022 he’s shown why he was such a highly touted prospect. Ruiz has gunned down 16 potential base stealers already, and he hasn’t hit many homers offensively but he’s on pace for around 40 doubles. The Venezuela native is only 23 years old and will undoubtedly continue to get better, and on a Nationals’ team going nowhere this summer, his development is probably the most compelling storyline.
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St. Louis Cardinals: Tyler O’Neill, OF
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Cardinals’ outfielder Tyler O’Neill slashed .286/.352/.560 with 34 homers in 2021 while also winning his second straight Gold Glove award. Needless to say, ’22 has not gone the same way for him. Multiple trips to the IL have prevented him from finding any sort of rhythm, and when he has been healthy, he just hasn’t hit. St. Louis will be locked in a division race with Milwaukee and a highly contested wild card race. Getting O’Neill back to anywhere close to the level he swung the bat last summer would be a boon to their chances.
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Chicago Cubs: Caleb Kilian, P
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The 2022 Chicago Cubs are going nowhere–and getting there in a hurry. Their entire second-half focus should be on getting a good look at some of their young prospects, one of which being starting pitcher Caleb Kilian. The big right-hander was sensational in ’21, but this year has not gone quite as successfully. His minor league ERA in the first half was just under four, and three big league starts have been a disaster. That said, on a team without any playoff aspirations, letting a kid like Kilian learn at the big league level should trump everything.
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Pittsburgh Pirates: Oneil Cruz, SS
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The Pirates are in third place in the NL Central, but that’s more an indictment of how bad the Reds and Cubs have been than a compliment to the Bucs. Pittsburgh is not in contention for anything in the second half of the season, but they do employ one of the more exciting budding talents in baseball, Oneil Cruz. Since being promoted about a month ago, Cruz has opened eyes with his tremendous power and his incredible arm from shortstop. This is a kid that will be an integral part of the Pirates’ rebuild, and it will be exciting to watch him grow moving forward.
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Cincinnati Reds: Jonathan India, 2B
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Jonathan India was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2021, but to say this year has not gone nearly as well would be the understatement of the season. The former Florida Gator’s batting average is nearly 50 points lower than it was a year ago, his OBP is nearly 100 points off his rookie pace, and his power has been nonexistent. India has struggled through multiple trips to the IL, and Cincinnati will need to see some flashes of the player he was a year ago as we wind down the 2022 campaign.
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Milwaukee Brewers: Christian Yelich, OF
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Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich blasted 44 homers with a 1.100 OPS en route to winning the NL MVP award in ’19, but he has not come close to duplicating that success in the years that followed. Yelich has hit only 29 home runs since, and after hitting over .320 in both ’18 and ’19 he’s struggled to eclipse .250. That said. Yelich’s skill set is as deep as any player in baseball, and if he can recapture the groove he was in for so long after first coming to Wisconsin, it would go a long way towards helping the Brewers win a lot of games in the second half and beyond.
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Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw, SP
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The Dodgers are yet again the best team in the National League at the all-star break, and their thoughts have already pivoted towards making another deep October run. And the man, perhaps most important to their chances of being the last one standing around Halloween, is a familiar postseason face. Lefty Clayton Kershaw. The future Hall-of-Famer has missed time due to injury this season, but the Dodgers don’t need him healthy in June. They need him firing on all cylinders in September and October. How well Kershaw pitches and stays, healthy may ultimately decide LA’s fate.
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San Diego Padres: Fernando Tatis Jr., SS
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The Padres are going to have their work cut out for them to catch the Dodgers in the NL West, but they are firmly in the mix in the NL wild-card race and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Getting one of the most dynamic players in the game back at some point in the second half would help, right? Fernando Tatis Jr. has not played at all yet in 2022, but he is expected to return sometime in August. Adding him to a team that’s played well in his absence could catapult San Diego into a team nobody is going to want to play in October.
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San Francisco Giants: Alex Wood, SP
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Speaking of the NL wild-card race. The Giants are also right in the mix for a postseason berth, and they figure to be part of a several-team battle until the end of September. This team could probably use another starting pitcher, but the way they’re currently constructed makes Alex Wood easily their most important player moving forward. In Logan Webb and Carlos Rodon, San Francisco has a nice 1-2 punch in their rotation, but they lack an imposing starter afterward. They need Wood to turn it up a notch and give them the solid number three they’ve been looking for.
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Colorado Rockies: Kris Bryant, OF
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The Rockies gave right-handed slugger Kris Bryant an enormous free-agent contract last winter, but thus far, the investment has not paid any dividends. A back injury has kept Bryant out for much of the first half, and when he has been healthy, he just has not hit for any of the power that saw him blast 167 homers before coming to Denver. Colorado is not ready to hit the panic button on this signing quite yet, but they’d like to see some sort of production out of their high-dollar acquisition in the second half.
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Arizona Diamondbacks: Ketel Marte, 2B
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Similar to the Rockies, the Diamondbacks committed big money, in their case by way of a long-term extension with their best player–Ketel Marte–and have waited all season to really be rewarded for it. The switch-hitting Marte’s numbers are well below his career averages, and he’s just not hitting with anything close to the level of power production Arizona had grown accustomed to. This team would desperately like to see the veteran show flashes of being the dynamic player he’s been in the past over the final two and a half months.
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