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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Hornstra: 13 postseason breakout stars to watch in October

Baseball gives us a new hero or two every October, praising or condemning someone despite never hearing their name until the playoffs arrive.

David Freese played 184 regular-season games, barely a full season, before being named Most Valuable Player of the NLCS and World Series in 2011.

Last year’s ALCS MVP, Randy Arozarena, won all 42 regular-season games before taking the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series.

By the end of the 2002 season, Angels pitcher Francisco Rodriguez had appeared in 16 major league games. All five came during the team’s only postseason championship run.

All these players had talent. None of them had the post-season experience that was authentically considered a prerequisite for October’s success. The beauty of their emergence lies in their mystery. If we had known they were destined for stardom when the playoffs started, it wouldn’t have been that funny.

I don’t know who this year’s Randy Arozrena will be, but every title contender has a strong candidate to emerge on the national radar. Here are 12 names (actually 13) from the World Series to watch between now and the final, whose teams are listed in order of their records as of Tuesday.

1. Giants: Darin Roof

Roof, 35, is enjoying one of the more notable second career acts in recent memory. The first act saw him debut with Philadelphia in 2012, then a little role with some memorable Phillies teams in the wake of his Chase Utley/Jimmy Rollins/Ryan Howard peak.

After three seasons in Korea’s top league, Roof made his debut with San Francisco last season at the age of 34. He has posted .896 Ops (on-base plus slugging percentage) in only 154 games. Lately, Roof has been building an edge against a left-hand start, a trend that could maximize his impact in a right October position.

2. Dodgers: Gavin Lux

Lux began learning new positions at Triple-A in the month of September, but he would finish it above Cody Bellinger on the Dodgers’ outfield depth chart. The 23-year-old earned it the old fashioned way after his latest recall from Triple-A, batting .383 in 15 matches (as of Tuesday).

Having never played the outfield until recently, Lux still has room to improve on defence. But there is reason to believe that their simplified, patient approach to the plate will continue to result in high-pressure October conditions. On days when Lux doesn’t start, his speed can play a pinch in the late game.

3. Rays: Shane Baz / Wander Franco

In the cases of Baz and Franco, the parallels to Arozrena last year are obvious. The Rays called up both prospects in midseason and made them an integral part of their roster on their way to the American League East title.

Franco was the youngest player in MLB at the time of his debut in June. Despite slowing down from a hamstring injury in September, the 20-year-old shortstop had .819 OPS in 65 games as of Tuesday.

The Pittsburgh Pirates traded the 22-year-old to Ray in 2018, who also sent Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows to Tampa Bay for Chris Archer. He won each of his first two in September after being recalled from Triple-A and could play a big part in the Rays’ October rotation.

4. Brewer: Willie Adams

Adams is the National League MVP candidate no one is talking about. After starting the season with an average of .197 at Tampa Bay, the 26-year-old was traded to Milwaukee on May 21. Since then he has been hitting .290 with 19 home runs and 57 RBIs in 94 games he entered on Tuesday. The Brewers hold the NL’s third-best record (73–40), with Adams being their everyday shortstop.

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Adams is no postseason newcomer, but he had minimal impact on the plate (.638 ops) in the 2019–20 with Tampa Bay in the October 26 games. Possible reasons? Adams told reporters last year that he found it difficult to watch baseball at Tropicana Field, which caused him to make worse hits at home, even after experimenting with the glasses.

5. Astro: Jose Siri

Hey Siri, define “journeyman”: Over the past two years, the 26-year-old outfielder has spent time with the Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, Giants and Astros organizations. Seeing the opportunity to stay in Houston, Siri has .951 OPS in his first 19 major league games as of Tuesday.

On 13 September, Serie became the first player since the official stat of the RBI in 1920 to record four hits, two home runs and five RBIs in his debut career. He will be squeezed for at-bat on the Astros roster tested after the season, but can surprise in the right position.

6. Yankees: Nestor Cortes Jr.

Cortés is a throwback, a soft-tossing lefty with a mustache that would look right at home on the set of “Miami Vice.” He may also be the Yankees’ best starting pitcher not named Gerrit Cole.

Cortes, 26, has started a 3.26 ERA in 11 since joining the New York rotation permanently at the end of July; The Yankees have won eight out of 11 matches. Not bad for a pitcher who started the year with a 6.72 career ERA with three outfits.

7. White Sox: Billy Hamilton

Perhaps you have heard of Hamilton, the longtime Reds outfielder whose bat never reached his unparalleled speed. With the AL Central Champion White Sox, Hamilton has settled into his ideal role as a backup outfielder/pinch-running specialist. Considering the plethora of Chicago heavy hitters with low speeds, it would be no surprise to see Hamilton taking the spotlight in a crucial October position on the basepath.

8. Red Sox: Garrett Whitlock

The 25-year-old right-handed batsman made his debut in April and gradually emerged as Boston’s set-up man. He had a 1.99 ERA in 45 games during a pectoral muscle strain in September, but could return from the 10-day IL this weekend. The slender Alabman has a 96-mph fastball that stunned right-handed hitters.

9. Cardinals: Lars Nutbar

Nootbaar, an El Segundo High/USC product, has emerged as a reliable bench bat for the NL’s second wild card team, the stunning St. Louis. In a small sample size, the 24-year-old rookie has consistently risen to scoring position with runners (8 for 23, .907 ops from Tuesday).

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