Baseball’s stretch run is in full swing, and while a handful of clubs — the Yankees, Astros, Dodgers and Braves — are locks to be playing in October, the remaining playoff spots are very much up for grabs. Every team in the hunt has legitimate stars aiming to lead it to the game’s biggest stage, but here at Yardbarker we’re focusing on guys who are not quite household names but will still have a big impact on the season’s final six weeks.
1. Keston Hiura, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers
Hiura had long been the crown jewel in the Brewers system, and since arriving in the big league’s to stay in late June, he’s done nothing but impress. Since July 1, the former first-round pick has hit .307 with 14 home runs, and his emergence has allowed Milwaukee to shift veteran Mike Moustakas back to his natural position of third base and send struggling Travis Shaw to AAA. The Brewers were a trendy pick to dethrone the Dodgers in the National League this season, and while the year has not gone entirely to plan, they’re still right in the thick of not one but two heated races. Entering play tonight, Milwaukee sits just one game back of both the Cardinals and Cubs in the NL Central and one game out of an invitation to the NL wild-card game. If they do ultimately get to participate in the postseason, Hiura may well be the primary reason why, as while the rookie has thrived toward the top of the Brewers lineup, several veterans on this team have underperformed.
2. J.D. Davis, IF/OF, New York Mets
The January trade the Mets made with the Astros to bring utility man J.D. Davis to Queens drew few headlines. The right-handed hitter had always crushed minor league pitching during his tenure with Houston but had failed multiple times at the game’s highest level. New York, though, was undeterred, as it felt his struggles with the Astros were a direct result of sporadic at-bats because of a logjam of talented players at the positions he could play. Fast forward seven months, and that bet is paying huge dividends. In the early portion of 2019, Davis was mostly a power threat off the bench for the Mets. But after injuries opened up regular playing time for him, the 26-year-old has become impossible to take out of the lineup. Since the beginning of July, he’s hit an incredible .367 while reaching base at an absurd .428 clip. He’s begun to hit for a little more power in August, as he’s already blasted four homers this month and driven in 11 runs, and his somewhat surprising production is one of the biggest reasons the Mets have been able to climb back into the pennant race.
3. Paul DeJong, SS, St. Louis Cardinals
DeJong is now in his third big league season, but he’s yet to generate much fanfare outside of St. Louis. That’s probably a little bit of an oversight, as while he’s far from being the best shortstop in the league, he’s been a productive and consistent right-handed bat for the duration of his career. After a red-hot start to this season, DeJong went into a terrible slump, but he’s broken out of it big time since the All-Star break. A recent surge that included a three home run game in Pittsburgh has put him in position to set new career highs in homers and RBI, and the Cardinals are certainly hopeful he can continue producing at a high level. Similar to Milwaukee, St. Louis is locked in heated races for both the NL Central crown and a wild-card spot, and DeJong’s bat in the bottom half of the lineup is crucial, as opposing teams are unlikely to let fellow right-handed sluggers Paul Goldschmidt or Marcell Ozuna beat them in a big spot.
4. Zach Plesac, SP, Cleveland Indians
The nephew of longtime big leaguer Dan Plesac, the young right-hander was not considered much of a prospect entering this season. A dominant 10-start beginning to his minor league season opened eyes, however, and with the Indians in need of a starter at Fenway in late May, it was Plesac who got the call. Since then he has been an absolute godsend for a Cleveland rotation that has sustained injuries to Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar as well as a trade of outspoken Trevor Bauer. In 14 starts for the Tribe, Plesac has worked to a 3.27 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP in 77 innings, bringing a level of consistency to a pitching staff that desperately needed it. His performance has helped Cleveland erase an 11.5 game deficit in the AL Central, as earlier this week it caught Minnesota, and the club is counting on him for continued success as this race is likely headed for a photo finish.
5. Scott Kingery, IF/OF, Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies made headlines in spring training a year ago when they inked Kingery to a long-term pact before he’d ever played in a major league game. The organization obviously believed immensely in the University of Arizona product’s potential, and while it’s hard to call his rookie season much of a success (.226/.267/.338), Kingery has become a much more important Phillie in 2019. Playing all over the diamond, the 25-year-old has hit .275 with 14 homers and 27 doubles in 324 at-bats while serving as an offensive table setter for Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto for most of the season. Philadelphia has underwhelmed following a massive importation of star power last winter, but the Phils are still right in the thick of a chaotic NL wild-card race. Having Kingery on base and wreaking havoc down the stretch will drastically help their chances of reaching October.
6. Austin Meadows, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better-run major league baseball operation than the Tampa Bay Rays. Year after year Tampa Bay finds a way to not only compete but also to often triumph over behemoth division rivals in Boston and New York all while operating in one of the smallest markets in the game. The 2019 season has been no different, as despite the Yankees having the AL East all but sewn up, the Rays are positioned to make the postseason as a wild card. Their young right fielder is a huge reason why. Meadows was acquired in the ’18 deal that sent Chris Archer to Pittsburgh, and he has absolutely thrived in his first full season in the big leagues. In just short of 400 at-bats thus far, the left handed slugger has hit .283 with 20 home runs and 25 additional extra-base hits. He was even named an All-Star last month. Moving down the stretch, Tampa will continue riding the young 24-year-old, as he’s already become arguably the focal point of the offense.
7. Matt Olson, 1B, Oakland Athletics
Oakland is eerily similar to the aforementioned Rays, as it deals with a lot of the same market challenges but still finds a way to remain a force to be reckoned with. In fact, there’s a reasonable chance the two clubs square off head to head in the AL wild-card game in just a few weeks. The Athletics left-handed-swinging first baseman has flown by under the radar in recent seasons, but his production is soon going to render that impossible. After missing a month-and-a-half early in the season, Olson has rallied to crush 25 home runs since Mother’s Day, putting him just four short of his previous career high. With Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien, Stephen Piscotty, Mark Canha and most importantly a healthy Khris Davis, the A’s are exceedingly right-handed heavy, making Olson’s left-handed bat imperative to the middle of their lineup.
8. Victor Robles, CF, Washington Nationals
Robles was supposed to be the next big outfielder to come out of the Nationals system last season, but injuries prevented him from making an impact and ultimately contributed to Juan Soto coming up and making a bid for last year’s NL Rookie of the Year. While his young teammate has blossomed into a star, Robles breakout rookie season has not been discussed as much as it should. Yet he’s become a critical player on a team looking to return to October. Playing in almost all of Washington’s games, Robles has launched 15 long balls from the bottom part of the lineup while swiping 18 bases and playing tremendous defense at the premium position of center field. He does strike out too much, as his 110 punch outs in just 397 at-bats are unsightly, but he’s obviously immensely talented. If he can turn it up just a little, Washington should have the inside track on a playoff berth.
9. Josh Taylor, RP, Boston Red Sox
The underlying narrative surrounding the 2019 Red Sox nationally has been a horrific bullpen that consistently blows leads and lets winnable games get out of hand. That’s accurate, but it’s also why few fans outside of New England have been privy to what Taylor, a 26-year-old rookie, has been doing. In 33 contests the southpaw has worked to a strong 3.27 ERA in 33 innings while delivering a 1.18 WHIP and striking out well over a batter/inning. The Arizona native has delivered six scoreless outings in consecutive appearances while becoming the closest thing the Red Sox have had to a reliable relief pitcher. That will have to continue moving forward for Boston to have any chance to make a late surge, as barring a serious run, the defending champs will find themselves on the outside looking in come October.
By: Justin W Mears