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Thursday, July 18, 2013
AL players to watch

By Jason Collette

Over half of the teams in the American League are over .500 and five teams are within three games of the wild-card spots. For the other seven teams and their fans, the remainder of the season will be a grind as those teams are reduced to the role of playing spoiler -- which can be very entertaining to watch. After all, the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays have Robert Andino and the Baltimore Orioles to thank for reaching the postseason that year as the "Fighting Showalters" embraced the spoiler role and knocked the Boston Red Sox out of the playoffs on the season’s final day.

Miguel Gonzalez
Miguel Gonzalez has been a stabilizing force in the Orioles' rotation.

Regardless of its current position in the standings, each of the 15 teams in the junior circuit has a player to watch in the second half that will either help his team reach 2013 goals or build the foundations for 2014.

In Baltimore, offense has not been a problem as Chris Davis is leading the charge with his career season. The same cannot be said of the pitching as the Orioles have the third-worst team ERA in baseball. One bright spot has been Miguel Gonzalez, who has gone 5-1 with a 2.88 ERA in 10 starts while limiting batters to a .210 average and striking out 21 percent of the hitters he has faced. Boston’s team ERA is in the middle of the pack right now, but it will need Clay Buchholz back as they work to hold onto their 2½ game lead in the AL East. Buchholz's return remains unclear, but the fact that Boston’s team ERA has slipped down into the lower third of the league in his absence highlights his importance.

Mark Reynolds needs to recover his early-season form if Cleveland is to overtake Detroit in the Central. Reynolds hit .301 with a 1.019 OPS in April, but has hit just .187 with a .573 OPS since. Chicago is playing for 2014, and John Danks is returning nicely from a serious shoulder injury. He has made quality starts in seven of his 10 outings and has drastically reduced his walk rate while recovering his pre-injury strikeout rates. Detroit's lead in the Central is just 1½ games due mainly to struggles in the bullpen in late innings. Joaquin Benoit has inherited the closer role and will need to continue his success because the trade market is rather thin. Benoit may not have the name appeal, but he has struck out one-third of the hitters he has faced while allowing just two home runs.

Houston has had fleeting moments of success in 2013, but Jarred Cosart's debut last week was arguably the best moment of the season. The talented rookie took a no-hitter late into the game and is a key piece to the multiyear rebuilding plan the Astros are executing.

Kansas City has to be disappointed by how its season is playing out so far but encouraged by how Eric Hosmer has rebounded over the past month. They hope Mike Moustakas can do the same. Moustakas has just a .598 OPS on the season but has a .746 OPS over the past month heading into the break and is a key part of any success the Royals are to have in 2014.

There has been more disappointment in Los Angeles than in Kansas City, but that hasn't slowed C.J. Wilson. He has won five of his past eight starts with a 2.60 ERA and has allowed just three home runs in that time. Wilson's pitching could be a big factor down the stretch as he will have important matchups against division rivals Oakland and Texas.

Minnesota has a bright future with hitting prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano in the fold. What they need is pitching, and Kyle Gibson is a step in that direction. Gibson turned heads in the 2012 Arizona Fall League but is now going through another learning process with the Twins as he adjusts to major league hitters.

Curtis Granderson
Curtis Granderson (broken left pinkie) could return to the Yankees' lineup later this month.

The Yankees are in the midst of a bizarre season in that they are succeeding with pitching while struggling to score runs on a nightly basis. One reason for the struggles is the extended absence of Curtis Granderson, and New York cannot wait to get his bat back into their lineup as Yankees outfielders have the fourth-worst OPS in the American League.

Oakland's outfield has the second-worst OPS in the league, and Josh Reddick is a big reason why. After stroking 66 extra-base hits in 2012, he has just 18 this season with 12 of those coming since his return from the disabled list in late May.

Much of the talk regarding Seattle's future centers on pitching prospects, but in recent weeks, they have added middle-infield rookies Nick Franklin and Brad Miller. Franklin's promotion was expected but Miller was more of a surprise, and the young duo adds to a rapidly improving young infield.

Tampa Bay went into the break as the hottest team in baseball, and its resurgent bullpen has been a big part of that. The biggest part of that pen of late has been its smallest pitcher, as rookie Alex Torres had to go all the back to rookie ball last season to retool his craft.

The Rangers will welcome Alexi Ogando back after the break, but which pitcher are they getting? Ogando is more dominating as a reliever than as a starter and should Texas add a pitcher, such as Matt Garza, Ogando could resume his dominating ways out of the pen.

Lastly, all eyes are on Brett Lawrie as he returns from the disabled list. His exciting 2011 debut has given way to a player with a .704 OPS since the start of the 2012 season who has shown more temper than potential.

The likes of Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis and Max Scherzer dominate the news cycle in the American League, but these are just some of the others that will affect the 2013 postseason picture.

--Jason Collette, The Process Report