The MLB season is winding down, and the six playoff spots in the American League are all but narrowed down to seven teams. It’s easy to hear the word “x-factor” in sports and immediately scoff at it. Yes, the term is overused and undefined. So let’s define it.
An x-factor can’t be one of the team’s best players. They also shouldn’t be someone who has greatly exceeded expectations. Additionally, I’ll be limiting myself to naming one player per team, not a whole bullpen or position group. In a sense, who is the one player on each American League team that could be the difference between a pennant and an early exit from MLB playoffs? Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the list.
Baltimore Orioles: Dean Kremer
We know the Orioles’ offense and bullpen will be good in the playoffs. It’s easy to believe in Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez, despite their youth. But beyond that, the rest of their starting rotation is a question mark at best. The Orioles will likely avoid the Wild Card round by winning the American League East, which means they’ll play a minimum of three playoff games this year.
Assuming that Bradish gets the ball in Game 1 and Rodriguez gets Game 2, Brandon Hyde will have to choose between Kremer and John Means for Game 3. Given Means has been out for over a year, Kremer may be the option. Even if Hyde picks Means, he’ll need a fourth guy if the Orioles have any hopes of knocking off the Astros to win the ALCS.
In his last 13 starts, Kremer is 4-1 with a 3.08 ERA and 4.12 FIP in 73 IP. He’s thrown at least six innings in seven of those starts, while giving up two earned runs or fewer in nine of them. Kremer has one of the best fastballs in baseball despite middling velocity (93.8 MPH). He’s a far cry from an analytics darling, but Kremer limits walks and pitches deep into games. The Orioles shouldn’t be expecting dominant starts from Kremer, but if he can keep them in games with five innings of two or three run ball, they have a real shot at winning the American League.
Tampa Bay Rays: Manuel Margot
The Rays feel like a team of x-factors. We know the pitching will be spectacular, led by a bullpen that seems to defy all the volatility that usually plagues bullpens. The Rays biggest question marks are on offense, where they’ve had to overcome absences from Wander Franco and Jose Siri.
Even without them, the Rays have a plethora of players with above-average offensive numbers. Since Siri went down with an injury, Manuel Margot has seen more regular playing time. It’s a given that Margot will be good defensively – he’s put up 61 OAA in his career. But the glimpses he showed offensively in 2022 haven’t carried over to 2023.
Last season, Margot slashed .274/.325/.375 and added 2.3 BsR (base runs) on offense. This season, however, he has just a .646 OPS, 81 wRC+, and -1.8 BsR, culminating in a -8.5 offensive value thus far. He was activated from the injured list this week after missing just over a month, and whether or not he can find it with the bat will define the Rays’ playoff run. If he can deepen the lineup by getting on base for the big hitters atop the lineup in Diaz and Arozarena, that changes the complexion of this offense heading into the MLB playoffs.
Minnesota Twins: Carlos Correa
Sounds crazy, right? Carlos Correa is supposed to be the best player on the Minnesota Twins, but he hasn’t contributed at nearly the level of expectation this year. Despite his shortcomings, Minnesota is still a virtual lock to make the MLB playoffs behind an incredibly balanced offense led by a youth movement including Edouard Julien, Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff, Matt Wallner, and Ryan Jeffers. Alongside those young guys, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler have also had solid seasons. Everyone on the Twins is hitting well, except for their superstar, 300 million dollar shortstop.
Correa, the team’s only qualified hitter, is in the midst of the worst season of his career. Through 2022, Correa had a .357 OBP, .479 SLG, and 130 wRC+. In 2023, however, those numbers are down to a .312 OBP, .399 SLG, and 96 wRC+. Normally when hitters have down years, it’s with the bat. But Correa, once a Platinum Glove winner, has also been a negative defender this year.
The 2015 AL Rookie of the Year and 2017 World Series champion has a track record of incredible postseason performances, so don’t be surprised if he turns this around. In 79 postseason games with the Astros, Correa has racked up 18 home runs while slashing .272/.344/.505. With a regular, productive Correa, the Twins could make some noise in the MLB playoffs.
Houston Astros: Christian Javier
There’s really no way to sugar coat this – Christian Javier has been terrible for the Astros in the second half. In his last 12 starts, he has a 5.10 ERA and even worse peripherals to back that up. Walks have been the primary issue, as his walk rate since the All-Star break is an alarming 12.1%.
The Astros strengthened their rotation at the deadline by bringing back Justin Verlander, but he and Framber Valdez can’t make every start. J.P. France has been solid in his back-end innings-eating role, but it’s tough to expect much from him in the playoffs against top-tier competition given his lack of strikeout stuff.
Javier has shown an ability to work through elite lineups, as he was an integral piece of the Astros’ championship in 2022. In the 2022 postseason, Javier gave up just one earned run in 12.2 innings of work, including the first six innings of the Astros’ combined no-hitter in Game 4 of the World Series to tie the series at two. He has a career postseason ERA of 2.20 in 32.2 IP, while striking out 37.5% of the hitters he’s faced. But his strikeout rate has plummeted to 23.1% in 2023, as opposed to the 33.2% clip he posted in 2022. We know Javier has the ability to turn in elite playoff performances, but will he in 2023?
Texas Rangers: Will Smith
There are no questions when it comes to Texas’ starting nine and the rotation is solid despite having two Hall of Fame talents on the shelf with season-ending injuries. The biggest concern for Bruce Bochy’s club is in the bullpen. Playoff baseball has become more bullpen-reliant over the past couple of seasons, and only Jose LeClerc and Aroldis Chapman have been reliable late-inning options for the Rangers in the 2nd half. Since the All-Star break, Smith has a 6.65 ERA and has been demoted from his role as the team’s primary closer.
Smith served as the closer for the 2021 World Series champion Atlanta Braves, when he had a spotless postseason record. In his 11 appearances, he threw 11 innings and gave up zero runs, while saving six games and picking up an additional two wins. With that version of Smith in the 7th or 8th inning, the Rangers will have a serious shot to go deep in the MLB playoffs.
Seattle Mariners: Ty France
The Mariners have been the best team in baseball in the 2nd half behind incredible performances from their starting pitching, Julio Rodriguez and J.P. Crawford. There’s no reason not to trust them to keep that up in the postseason, but they need more offensive production out of Ty France, who has been one of their best bats over the past couple of seasons. In 292 games across the 2021 and 2022 seasons, France slugged .440 and had a 127 wRC+. In 2023, though, he has just a .360 SLG and 102 wRC+. The big first baseman has only slugged 10 home runs this season, and he has been valued at just 0.3 WAR by FanGraphs and 0.4 by Baseball Reference.
France has been average with the bat, and he provides close to nothing with the glove or his legs. His offensive regression doesn’t make much sense, though. He’s barreling the ball at a higher rate than last season and walking more. He has an expected wOBA of .339 in 2023 as opposed to .321 in 2022, but his output in wOBA has dropped by 24 points. On the bright side, France has been better since August 1st. He’s changed his game a little, as he has just a .104 ISO but he’s getting on base at a .376 clip. If he can continue to get on-base but raise that ISO, watch out for the Mariners.
Toronto Blue Jays: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Of the four teams vying for the final three AL playoff spots in the MLB playoffs, the Blue Jays have the second best chance according to FanGraphs, as the Mariners and Rangers have seven more head-to-head matchups while the Jays have a schedule full of teams without much left to play for as the Rays are all but locked into the four seed.
The Blue Jays are right around where we all expected them to be entering the season, but they’ve taken a different route than expected. They have a great rotation spearheaded by Kevin Gausman and Jose Berrios, but they also have the depth to make a deep playoff run especially since replacing Alek Manoah with Hyun-Jin Ryu. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been just average, while Brandon Belt leads their everyday players in wRC+.
Guerrero Jr. could easily be seen as one of the team’s best players and ineligible for the x-factor role, but he has been their 12th best position player according to fWAR in 2023. While Guerrero Jr’s struggles in 2019 and 2020 were pretty easy to pinpoint as his ground-ball rate was above 50%, he is hitting the ball on the ground at a relatively lower 46.7% clip in 2023 and his average launch angle of 10.2° is a career high.
It might be time to question whether the 2021 season that saw Guerrero Jr. in MVP talks is an outlier, but we know what he’s capable of and if he can unlock some of that untapped potential in the playoffs, the Blue Jays can go from likely ALDS exits to World Series hopefuls.
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