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10 Degrees: Players who will most impact pennant races

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

From the stench emanating out of Arlington to the epic lead-blowing in Tampa Bay to the four-figure crowds in Cleveland to opponents still outscoring New York to the sub-.500 record of Baltimore since the break to Ned Yost redefining managerial blundering with Kansas City, the American League wild-card race is like six rats fighting over two pieces of cheese with the Benny Hill theme blasting in the background.

Certainly over the next two weeks at least a pair will distinguish itself and provide Boston with something more than cannon fodder in the division series. They've got the East wrapped up, as do the Tigers the Central and the A's the West, and across the way Atlanta will win the National League East running away as will Los Angeles the West. The lone intrigue left is how the NL Central jumble shakes out, along with the AL wild card.

Amid all of the chaos are the seminal figures of every pennant race, the ones whose Septembers make October worth watching. Almost all find themselves on those might-make-it, might-miss-it teams. You'll see the lead dog in the postseason. Which version of …

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Miguel Cabrera hasn't homered since Aug. 26. (USA Today)

1. Miguel Cabrera you get, on the other hand, is the mystery these next two weeks should solve. Whether it's the hip flexor, the ab or the groin, Cabrera has spent so much time beaten up that Detroit must ensure his health when games matter most.

Since Aug. 26, when he hit his last home run, Cabrera is batting .244 and, even worse, slugging just .268. In reality, the power drought might be the best thing that could have happened to Cabrera. The Tigers remain five games ahead of Cleveland and are the only team in baseball with an easier schedule than the Indians. And with Chris Davis taking a seven-homer lead over Cabrera, no longer is a second consecutive Triple Crown a goal worth chasing.

Priority No. 1 is resting Cabrera enough that he can be the Cabrera of the Tigers' first 131 games – the .359/.430/.688-hitting Godzilla who was doing a plenty ample job making up for the mediocre-by-his-standards season of the guy hitting behind him, Prince Fielder. Mind you, since Cabrera's last homer, Fielder is hitting .397 with four of his own, plus a slugging percentage of .662, so the Tigers have managed to get Miggy production, just not out of Miggy.

One could argue the best production from anybody in the second half belongs to …

2. Andrew McCutchen as he locks up the NL MVP award, which will belong to him with or without the Central division title. The hardware will simply be a nice lagniappe to something that is way-too-long overdue for a city that has suffered from far too many seasons of misery.

Though the Pirates have faded some off their first-half performance – their post-break record is only 31-25 – McCutchen has gone opposite. After hitting .302/.376/.471 before the All-Star Game, McCutchen has torn off a .365/.450/.599 line since. In a lineup that needed reinforcements like Marlon Byrd (who has been crushing for Pittsburgh similar to how he did the Mets), McCutchen was the constant, the one guaranteed slice of nine primed to produce nightly. In every way, from storyline to statistics, he embodies the sort of player who traditionally wins MVP.

Winning the division won't be as easy. The Pirates have six games left with Cincinnati, whereas the Cardinals have six against the two worst teams in the Central, Milwaukee and Chicago. You'd think, then, that …

3. Matt Holliday and his band of clutch-hitting mates will start, you know, hitting a little more. As ballyhooed as the Cardinals' offense has been for their hitting with runners in scoring position – and seeing as they're raking a major league record .326 for the season, it's warranted – they've relied almost entirely on that sort of approach considering their runs scored do not in any way match their peripherals. To wit, the Cardinals' offensive ranks since the break going into Sunday.

R: 241 (8th)
BA: .247 (23rd)
OBP: .312 (22nd)
SLG: .366 (26th)
OPS: .678 (24th)
HR: 32 (29th)
SB: 19 (23rd)

Now, St. Louis did put up a dozen runs on Sunday against the law firm of Ramirez, Capps, LaFramboise and Ruffin, i.e. the giant mess that Seattle threw at them. Not exactly the sort of thing at which one yelps yippity-doo-dah, but at this point, when the Cardinals entered the game one home run better than the Giants for dead last, it's not a good sign.

Especially when someone who until about two weeks ago was a backup, Matt Adams, leads the team with seven homers since the break. Before that, Adams and Holliday were tied for the lead with six, the lowest number for any team leader alongside Byrd's six with the Mets – and he was traded three weeks ago.

St. Louis has shown it can win without the long ball, and that's the sort of quality that can help during October. Hitting home runs helps more, and until the Cardinals prove they're more apt at doing so, it's the sort of flaw that could torpedo their chances this season. Earlier this week, in fact, when asked who he liked best in the NL Central, one general manager said that if …

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Johnny Cueto hasn't pitched since June 28. (USA Today)

4. Johnny Cueto returns and can stay healthy, he likes Cincinnati – to win the World Series. It's not a bad call, actually. Cueto hasn't pitched once this half, and the Reds still have a team ERA of 3.34, behind only the Dodgers and Braves in the NL. A rotation of Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo or Mike Leake can match up with every team in the NL – maybe every team in baseball short of Detroit.

With a lineup that includes Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo getting on base more than 40 percent of the time, a weapon in Billy Hamilton ready to commit 90-foot larceny and team that, minus Choo in center field, is spectacular defensively, and it's the recipe for October success.

All of these advantages could be rendered moot by Dusty Baker's ongoing lover's quarrel with game theory leading to his extramarital affair with the sacrifice bunt. Perhaps it will take October to make him realize the bunt just won't love him back. Unlikely, but odder things have happened, like …

5. Ubaldo Jimenez being the best American League pitcher in the second half.

One more time: Ubaldo Jimenez, he of the league-leading 17 losses last season, of the every-bit-as-ugly 5.40 ERA, of the plummeting strikeout rate and swelling walk rate, has been the … best … pitcher … in … the … AL.

Seriously. For real. Jimenez's post-break ERA: 1.83, behind only Marlins phenom Jose Fernandez's 1.32. His peripherals hold up, too: Only Felix Hernandez has better fielding-independent pitching numbers than the 29-year-old Jimenez. His ERA on the season is 3.49, he's striking out more than a batter an inning and the velocity on his fastball that went missing because of mechanical flaws is back.

The biggest question at this point is if Cleveland does win one of the wild cards, who starts: him or Justin Masterson? It's a nice dilemma to have, considering the Indians' lack of starting pitching seemed early in the season their biggest flaw. But with Jimenez and Masterson and Corey Kluber and Scott Kazmir and Zach McAllister, Cleveland's pitching is actually its strength. Between that and a schedule that ends Houston, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota, the Indians' strengths grow by the day, and it would not be a stretch to consider them the favorite for a wild-card berth even though they're presently a half-game back of Tampa Bay and Texas.

First, the Indians need to get past …

5a. James Shields on Monday in what amounts to the biggest home game in Kansas City since, oh, 1989. Yeah, that's a quarter century. And that's why Dayton Moore traded for Shields. Nearly 25 years is too long to wait for anything, and especially a meaningful baseball game.

And you know what? Shields has been brilliant. He eats innings. He can dominate. Teammates love him. This whole idea of him teaching the rest of the team how to win: it's not the reason you trade for a guy, but it's not an entirely empty or hollow thought, either. There is value in having someone who has been there to guide those who haven't.

Of course, it would be nice to have a manager who can do the same. Twice over the last week, and a handful of other times this season, Ned Yost has made moves that completely defy reason. Sunday's was a gem. Jeremy Guthrie had escaped out of jam after jam. Tigers hitters were peppering him all day. Yost had the best bullpen in baseball at his disposal. Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis hadn't pitched all series. He sent Guthrie back out for the eighth inning with the game tied at two anyway. Alex Avila stepped up. The Tigers' two runs were from his homer earlier. Yost still didn't go to, say, Collins, against whom lefties have a .567 OPS this year. You can imagine what happened. Home run. Ballgame. Deficit now 3½.

"In hindsight," Yost told reporters, "I pushed him too far, but I thought he could get us through the bottom of the order and maybe get the win or turn it over to the pen with a tie game."

Maybe get the win. Is that the imperative? Is that the objective? To get Jeremy Guthrie a relatively meaningless statistical notch? Pinch hitting Carlos Pena earlier this week was bad. Very bad. This was the sort of crap that gets a manager fired in the middle of a pennant race. Which, you'll recall, happened to Yost once before.

Sometimes meltdowns become too much for a manager to handle. It's why for the sake of everyone involved …

6. Matt Garza needs to pitch his best game of the year Monday against his former team in Tampa Bay. The Texas Rangers have lost a half-dozen in a row, and they desperately need good pitching, because it doesn't seem like they've got much of a chance to score runs, not with the lineups they're throwing out these days.

Granted, this was a Sunday lineup, and baseball, unlike church, does not require its best on Sundays. Even so, the bottom 44 percent of the Rangers' lineup consisted of Jeff Baker, Jim Adduci, Joey Butler and Craig Gentry. Or, as they're known, Meh, Who, Huh and Why.

The Rangers rank 25th in runs scored in September, tied with … the team they're tied with. The Rays' offense has grown rank, too, and they need …

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Evan Longoria has one home run and four RBIs this month. (USA Today)

7. Evan Longoria to be a little more like his usual September self. While Longoria's splits are pretty consistent month over month, Septembers have always been his jam. His .289/.389/.550 line are all bests outside of April. Longo starts hot and finishes hot, or at least he's supposed to.

In 14 September games, he has one home run and four RBIs. Considering the Rays' inability to score when they do get on base – in the second half, their .332 OBP is seventh in baseball and their 180 runs 29th – they need someone, anyone to play the role of run producer. RBIs may be overrated, but when held up next to runners left on base, it's a number that pulses with importance. Someone has to drive in runs when they're not being driven in. The Yankees remain in the race because they're scoring enough to make up for their ugly pitching, and …

8. Robinson Cano is doing his best to earn every cent of that $200 million-plus coming to him. Amid Alfonso Soriano's weird tear (crazy productive despite a sub-.300 on-base percentage) and Alex Rodriguez's continued excellence (.279/.426/.535 in September), Cano has been Cano, which is to say the bank-breaking sort. Over the last month, nobody has a higher batting average than Cano's .397. Only Brandon Moss has a higher OPS, only Soriano and Hunter Pence more RBIs.

The Yankees have weathered the awful part of their schedule. Cleveland and Detroit are the lone teams with easier opponent winning percentages than the Yankees' .451. Considering how Boston manhandled New York over the weekend, it's difficult to imagine them being any sort of viable contender. That, and the fact that they've been outscored this season by 15 runs, and, man, that pitching is gross.

Still: at Toronto, San Francisco and Tampa Bay at home, at Houston. Sure beats Baltimore. Considering the pitching …

9. Chris Davis is about to face, it would be no shame to end up stuck on 50 home runs. First the Orioles go to Boston. Then Tampa Bay. Then they host Toronto and Boston again.

The only break in there is if Boston clinches home-field advantage by that final series and wants to rest its regulars. That huge disadvantage could turn into great fortune. Otherwise, the Orioles have half of their remaining games against the best and hottest team in baseball, and already they've got Cleveland to leap, not to mention New York and Kansas City gnawing at their heels.

Because Davis' first half was so otherworldly, his time since pales. That is unfair. His 13 home runs are tied with Cabrera and Jayson Werth for second behind Soriano's 16. Davis is still slugging .536, still getting on base more than 35 percent of the time. He has turned into a slightly better version of himself last season, which is more than OK, because last season he was quite good, too.

Barring anything short of a World Series run, Davis' season won't be remembered for what the Orioles did or didn't do. It will be viewed through the prism of the history of a superior. He will be the one who kept …

10. Miguel Cabrera from that second Triple Crown, and even if the Triple Crown has lost meaning because two of its three statistics don't do a whole lot in telling us the greatness of a player, enough cachet exists in the achievement for it to matter.

Without it, and without much production for going on a couple weeks now, Cabrera is also ceding significant room in what was once his vice grip on the MVP award. Yes, it is almost a certainty Cabrera will win his second in a row, even as Mike Trout proves his superiority as a player – and, since the All-Star break, as a hitter. Cabrera: .309/.405/.611. Trout: .354/.509/.554.

That one ain't even close. Better hitter. Better fielder. Better runner. Better player.

This isn't a Trout-vs.-Cabrera debate, though. (That comes with the awards next week.) This is what Cabrera means to the Tigers. And that's a lot. A lineup with a hobbled Miguel Cabrera is good. A lineup with a healthy Miguel Cabrera is great. Surely his manager, Jim Leyland, understands that and will proceed accordingly.

Because pushing Cabrera now would be like Ned Yost pushing Jeremy Guthrie to get him a win. The Tigers are in a cushy position, and with Cabrera at 100 percent, they can stay there. As much as the rest of the AL may be a mess, Detroit doesn't need to play rat and scrap for its nibble of cheese. With a familiar face swinging a familiar stick in the three-hole, the Tigers can be the exterminator.

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