MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

Difference makers: Ten players who can impact races

Leach: Ten players who can impact races

Difference makers: Ten players who can impact races
With just about 50 games left in the regular season and a slew of tight races, some teams' needs are obvious. The Angels need to sort out their bullpen. The Dodgers' retooled lineup needs to hit.

Some may be a little less obvious, so we decided to take a look at some of the X-factors in the various races. Here are 10 players whose performances from now until early October could make or break their teams' chances to reach the postseason.

Jaime Garcia, Cardinals: Garcia is working his way back on a Minor League rehabilitation assignment after missing two months due to a shoulder injury. St. Louis has been coming on lately, but questions about its bullpen remain -- as do questions about how long its rotation can sustain its success.

Garcia's healthy, effective return could address both of those issues. He'd provide a boost to a starting five that has gotten some excellent and unexpected contributions. He would also allow the Cards to move a starter -- perhaps rookie Joe Kelly -- to the 'pen and bolster the relief corps.

Josh Hamilton, Rangers: If the early-August returns are to be believed, Hamilton is back. And if Hamilton is back, the Rangers are suddenly a lot tougher.

The slugger scuffled through midseason after looking in April and May like he might chase some records. Texas has a surprising number of question marks for a presumptive World Series favorite, but getting Hamilton back to his best self would answer one of the biggest ones.

Craig Kimbrel, Braves: If you didn't remember last year, you'd think there was no reason to include Kimbrel on this list. He's once again giving the Braves a dominant weapon at the end of games.

However, you likely do remember the end of last year, when the Atlanta let an enormous Wild Card lead slip away. A big part of that fade was a bullpen brownout. Kimbrel blew three saves in the season's final three weeks after being untouchable before that. If he can stay strong -- and he's carried a lighter innings load this year -- he can help the Braves get into October. If he fades again, it will be a big problem.

John Lannan, Nationals: No pressure, buddy. Just step in for Stephen Strasburg. That shouldn't be a problem, right?

Washington says it is going to shut down Strasburg when he reaches a certain innings threshold, and it's expected to be Lannan who will step in for the National League Cy Young Award candidate. Lannan has been an effective pitcher in the past, but those are huge shoes to fill. For a team driven by its starting pitching, Lannan will need to be more than adequate to keep the Nats driving toward a playoff spot.

Evan Longoria, Rays: From May 1 (the first day Longoria was unavailable) through Aug. 5 (his last day on the shelf), the Rays averaged 3.86 runs per game. When Longoria's been available, they've averaged 4.51 runs per game.

Maybe that's not all attributable to Longoria, but it's not entirely a coincidence, either. For a team that subsists on 3-2 wins, even a small downturn in offense is a big deal. Playing without Longoria torpedoed the Rays' offense, and now that they have him back, we could see the team that so many people thought would win the American League East.

Manny Machado, Orioles: Third base had become a disaster area for the Orioes. With eight weeks left in the season and their position in the Wild Card race slipping, they decided that would not do.

So Machado, the organization's top non-pitching prospect, the No. 3 prospect in all of baseball and a shortstop by trade, has arrived. He'll be getting on-the-job training at third base while he learns to hit Major League pitching. It's a huge task, and yet the hot corner had been so problematic for Baltimore that Machado will probably provide some upgrade no matter what.

Derek Norris, A's: For Norris, like Machado, it will be hard for him not to be an upgrade. The question is how big of an upgrade he 'll be.

Veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki simply fell off a cliff as a hitter this year, so the 23-year-old Norris was brought up and Suzuki was dealt to Washington. The early returns have been mixed, at best, with a low on-base percentage somewhat balanced by some nice power.

The A's resemble the Rays in their formula for winning, so, like Tampa Bay, even a modest boost to the offense could pay dividends. Norris at least has the chance to offer that.

Ivan Nova, Yankees: What had been a cakewalk has turned into slightly nervous times in the Bronx. The Yankees still hold a healthy lead and are highly likely to win the AL East, but some of New York's flaws have been exposed in recent weeks. One worry is the back of the rotation.

Nova has mostly struggled since the All-Star break, and that's a problem. The right-hander has the capability of being much better, as he showed in a 7 1/3-inning, 10-strikeout performance in Toronto on Saturday, but for now he's a concern.

Chris Sale, White Sox: This year's White Sox team, like many recent White Sox teams, relies on two main strengths: starting pitching and power. When its best starting pitcher sputters, that's a problem.

Sale sputtered recently, so the Sox gave him a bit of a breather. He's come back strong in his two starts since, providing optimism that he'll be just fine in the long run. Chicago is a team with some holes and some great assets and not a lot of room for error. Sale needs to provide quality innings for the Sox to hang with Detroit.

Gaby Sanchez, Pirates: This is another case of "can't get much worse." Pittsburgh first basemen have been among the least effective in the NL, so along comes Sanchez to try to help.

He's not a big basher, but he has shown one skill in his career that might be especially valuable to the Buccos. Save for this year, which has been a difficult one, Sanchez has just about always been good at getting on base. And if there's one thing the Pirates offense desperately needs, it's an infusion of OBP.

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.