MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Every contender has key player it needs to step up

Every contender has key player it needs to step up

Here's looking at you, kid.

Your club is in contention, and it's about to get real. You might not even be considered the most prominent player on your club, but an argument can be made that your performance down the stretch will be vital to its chances of going the distance.

Here in 2014, you're a linchpin, which is why you find your name within this list of clubs within five games of a playoff spot.

Orioles: Ubaldo Jimenez. The O's have a deep and potent lineup, but they don't have a single starter performing better than six percent above league average (per Baseball Reference's adjusted ERA+ calculation). Jimenez was huge for the Indians last September, and now that he's newly activated from the disabled list, Baltimore could really use a similar boost this fall. This club has a stranglehold on the American League East, but advancing in October will require more consistency from the rotation's front end. Jimenez was solid in his return on Saturday.

Nationals: Denard Span. Remember when Bryce Harper came off the DL and suggested that the Nats' best lineup would be one without Span in it? Well, Ryan Zimmerman's injury made that impossible and Span has been on a tear since the beginning of July (.396 average, .908 OPS). And that's key atop a lineup that might never reach full strength, as Harper's hand injury will likely continue to have some impact on his power and it will be a while before Zimmerman is back.

Tigers: Rajai Davis. Obviously, the Tigers are built around an all-world rotation and a potent middle of the lineup. But Davis' move to being the primary center fielder and leadoff hitter in the wake of Austin Jackson's departure in the David Price trade makes him a focal point of an offense that manager Brad Ausmus has made more aggressive on the basepaths. Sunday's 0-for-8 in the 19-inning loss to Toronto didn't help the cause.

Brewers: Jimmy Nelson. The Matt Garza oblique issue was the first big injury to hit the Brew Crew's rotation, and it will test them for the foreseeable future. This might be asking a lot out of the rookie Nelson, who is still improving his control and consistency at the Major League level, but it would help the Brewers considerably to have him step to the forefront.

A's: Josh Reddick: His bat caught fire after his July 22 return from the DL, and that's been huge for an A's team that sacrificed power in sending Yoenis Cespedes to Boston in the Jon Lester trade. Reddick has been streaky and injury-prone over the past three years, but Oakland will need him to streak in the right direction come October, when they'll no doubt need some big hits.

Dodgers: Kenley Jansen. The Dodgers' incredibly expensive bullpen has been battered by injuries of late, which makes Jansen's steadiness in the ninth all the more essential. After a shaky start, he's been very effective in the second half, and the Dodgers need to keep him pointed in that direction.

Angels: C.J. Wilson. You'd feel a lot better about the Angels' chances of overtaking the A's (let alone their chances of advancing in October) if they had a little more reliability behind Garrett Richards and Jered Weaver. Wilson has been anything but reliable the past month-plus, spending time on the DL with an ankle injury and carrying an 11.03 ERA over his past six starts. With a dearth of waiver options, the Halos need a quick recovery from the lefty.

Pirates: Gerrit Cole. Andrew McCutchen is the Pirates, and his recovery from a rib fracture and avoidance of the DL (thus far) is the Buccos' biggest storyline. But Cole can impact this club's rotation as well as any Deadline acquisition could have, and they desperately need him back. His DL stay has not been all that smooth, but he did toss six scoreless innings Sunday in Indianapolis to inspire optimism.

Royals: Nori Aoki. With Eric Hosmer out, Billy Butler revived his bat in the nick of time. And getting a productive Hosmer back in a reasonable amount of time would be huge. But because the Royals weren't able to land a right-field reinforcement before the Trade Deadline, Aoki's performance atop the order is all the more important. He's gotten on base at a much better clip in the second half.

Cardinals: Oscar Taveras. The offshoot of the John Lackey trade was that it opened up an everyday opportunity for Taveras in right field, and the Cards sorely need him to make the most of it because their run production has been erratic.

Yankees: Masahiro Tanaka. There's no telling if he avoids Tommy John surgery, but Tanaka is making baby steps in his recovery, and the Yanks aren't ruling out a September return. If he returned at anything resembling the level he reached in the first half, he could reshape the AL Wild Card race down the stretch.

Giants: Tim Lincecum. Matt Cain's absence has the Giants in a real bind, but Lincecum could alleviate it if he could put together a stretch like the one he enjoyed over nine starts from June 8 through July 22. He posted a 2.09 ERA with a .162 average against in that span. He has since reversed course in a big way, getting hammered in Kansas City on Sunday. But he's shown that the old Timmy is lurking in there somewhere.

Mariners: Kendrys Morales. The cold, hard truth is that the Mariners, even with Robinson Cano aboard, have had one of the least productive offenses this season, particularly in the second half. Morales was far from a low-profile depth addition. He's returned to bat cleanup, and he's got a .196 slugging percentage since the trade. That's not gonna cut it.

Braves: Freddie Freeman. Freeman in his first 17 games this season: .413/.493/.746. Freeman in the 99 games since (entering Sunday): .268/.355/.439. He can fundamentally alter the look of Atlanta's lineup if he catches fire in a timely manner. He's shown flashes of that this month.

Blue Jays: Marcus Stroman. Averages don't tell the whole story, of course, but the Blue Jays have surprisingly maintained the same run-production average without Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind, who went on the DL July 7 and 8, respectively, as they did with them. Ultimately, this is a team that needs improvement in run prevention, and Stroman is the biggest supplier. In nine of his 13 starts, he has held opponents to two earned runs or fewer over six innings or more.

Reds: Jay Bruce. He's the only true veteran still standing in a Reds lineup trying to get by without Brandon Phillips until later this month and without Joey Votto for, well, who knows? Bruce has played through his own aches and pains, but his veteran presence is especially important right now -- particularly since he bats in the two-hole.

Indians: Danny Salazar. If the Indians are going to make a surge in the Wild Card standings, the importance of somebody stepping up behind Corey Kluber in the rotation cannot be overstated. Thus far, nobody's done it with consistency, but Salazar's pure stuff was vital down the stretch last season and could be again.

Marlins: Brad Penny. He picked up his first win in nearly three years over the weekend. Is it really that crazy to envision Penny's veteran savvy pointing the young Marlins rotation toward a surge up the Wild Card standings in the season's final seven weeks? Well, maybe it is crazy, but crazy things have happened before.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.