X-Factors for the 2013 AL, NL Wild-Card Playoff Games

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistOctober 1, 2013

X-Factors for the 2013 AL, NL Wild-Card Playoff Games

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    The addition of the second wild card last season has added an extra round to the MLB postseason, and an interesting element in an all-or-nothing elimination game to kick things off for the wild-card teams.

    Anything can happen in a one-game playoff, so pinpointing key players can be tough, but it's safe to say the starting pitchers who are called on to take the ball in that game are the most important guys on the roster.

    With that in mind, here is a look at two players from each team who could be the X-factor in their team's chances of advancing to the Division Series round.

SP Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

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    2013 (overall): 11 GS, 5-2, 2.82 ERA, 18 BB, 51 K, 60.2 IP
    2013 (vs. PIT): 2 GS, 1-0, 0.73 ERA, 2 BB, 9 K, 12.1 IP
    Career at PNC Park: 13 GS, 8-2, 1.90 ERA, 20 BB, 70 K, 85.1 IP

    Why He's An X-Factor

    You'll see each of the four starting pitchers who will take the mound during the Wild Card Round on this list, as it's fair to say they are the most important factors in their respective teams' success.

    A legitimate Cy Young candidate last season, Johnny Cueto missed nearly three months between June and September and has made just two starts since coming off the DL on September 16. 

    He was solid in those two starts, albeit against the Astros and Mets; that, combined with a sore elbow from Mat Latos, was enough for Dusty Baker to peg him for the start.

3B Todd Frazier, Cincinnati Reds

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    2013 (overall): 531 AB, .234/.314/.407, 29 2B, 19 HR, 73 RBI, 63 R
    2013 (vs. PIT): 59 AB, .288/.373/.542, 3 2B, 4 HR, 5 RBI, 6 R
    Career vs. Liriano: 3-for-9, 2 HR, 2 RBI

    Why He's An X-Factor

    With Scott Rolen battling injuries, Todd Frazier stepped into an unexpectedly large role in the Cincinnati offense last season and hit .273/.331/.498 with 19 home runs and 67 RBI to finish third in NL Rookie of the Year voting.

    Primed for a breakout season with an unquestioned starting job for the first time this year, he instead put together a somewhat disappointing season, as his OPS dropped over 100 points and he matched his 2012 home run total in 109 more at-bats.

    However, he is one of the few Reds hitters who has had success against Liriano with a pair of home runs against him, and he has had a solid all-around year against the Pirates over 59 at-bats.

SP Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    2013 (overall): 26 GS, 16-8, 3.02 ERA, 63 BB, 163 K, 161 IP
    2013 (vs. CIN): 4 GS, 0-3, 3.70 ERA, 10 BB, 28 K, 24.1 IP
    Career at PNC Park: 13 GS, 9-1, 1.55 ERA, 29 BB, 89 K, 87.1 IP

    Why He's An X-Factor

    Signed in the offseason to a one-year, $1 million deal that included incentives and a $6 million option for 2014, Liriano has been the surprise ace of the Pirates staff this season, and the team will put their season in his hands.

    His season didn't start until May 11, as he fractured his non-throwing arm in the offseason, but he get things going immediately and has been one of the best starters in the National League all season.

    He's 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA at home this season, compared to 8-7 with a 4.33 ERA on the road, so giving him the ball in PNC Park certainly seems to play to the Pirates' favor.

RF Marlon Byrd, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    2013 (overall): 532 AB, .291/.336/.511, 35 2B, 24, HR, 88 RBI, 75 R
    2013 (vs. CIN): 24 AB, .375/.429/.667, 1 2B, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 5 R
    Career vs. Cueto: 7-for-14, 1 2B, 1 HR, 3 RBI

    Why He's An X-Factor

    When the Mets signed Marlon Byrd to a minor league deal in the offseason, he was far from guaranteed a roster spot, and not expected to be anything more than a fourth outfielder if he did make the team. 

    However, with the Mets outfielders struggling, he quickly played his way into an everyday role and put up career-best numbers on his way to being one of the most sought-after bats at the trade deadline. The Pirates picked him up in August, and he's hit .318/.357/.486 in 30 games with the Pirates to shore up what was a major hole in right field.

    He's hit well against the Reds throughout his career and has fantastic numbers against Cueto from his time with the Cubs, as he looks to continue to make a major impact on the Pirates offense.

SP Danny Salazar, Cleveland Indians

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    2013 (overall): 10 GS, 2-3, 3.12 ERA, 15 BB, 65 K, 52 IP
    2013 (vs. TB): N/A
    Career at Progressive Field: 4 GS, 2-0, 3.13 ERA, 5 BB, 33 K, 23 IP

    Why He's An X-Factor

    After throwing Ubaldo Jimenez in the final game of the season, the Indians will give the ball to 23-year-old rookie Danny Salazar in the Wild Card Round, as he'll make by far the biggest start of his young career.

    The Dominican native opened the season as the Indians' No. 6 prospect, according to Baseball America. After going 6-5 with a 2.71 ERA and 12.5 K/9 between Double-A and Triple-A, he got the call to Cleveland.

    He's got swing-and-miss stuff, striking out at least seven in six of his 10 starts, and he'll have the advantage of facing the Rays' lineup for the first time when he takes the mound on Wednesday.

C/DH Carlos Santana

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    2013 (overall): 541 AB, .268/.377/.455, 39 2B, 20 HR, 74 RBI, 75 R
    2013 (vs. TB): 22 AB, .409/.435/.636, 2 2B, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 4 R
    Career vs. Cobb: 3-for-7, 1 2B

    Why He's An X-Factor

    Carlos Santana has always had the potential to be a star since taking over as an everyday player in 2011, and he's put together his best all-around season this year as a 27-year-old in the prime of his career.

    He's one of just a few Indians players with a solid track record against Alex Cobb, and he was 1-for-3 with a walk against him in Cobb's lone start against the team this year back in April.

    Whether he starts at catcher, first base or DH, he'll be counted on to come through in the middle of the lineup. He's been hitting well of late, with a .271/.393/.438  line with 10 extra-base hits and 14 RBI. He's continued to be a fantastic on-base threat and solid run producer.

SP Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays

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    2013 (overall): 22 GS, 11-3, 2.76 ERA, 45 BB, 134 K, 143.1 IP
    2013 (vs. CLE): 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 3 BB, 6 K, 7.1 IP
    Career at Progressive Field: 1 GS, 1-0, 4.50 ERA, 2 BB, 4 K, 6 IP

    Why He's An X-Factor

    After using their top two starters in Matt Moore and David Price to get themselves into the Wild Card Round, the Rays will now turn to 25-year-old Alex Cobb in yet another win or go home situation on Wednesday.

    The right-hander got off to a great start this season, but missed two months from the middle of June to the middle of August after taking a liner off the head June 15 in what was a scary scene. He came back strong from the injury and has been particularly great of late, going 3-0 with a 1.16 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 23.1 innings over his last three starts.

    He's faced the Indians just three times in his career, throwing a gem against them in Tampa in his first start this season and picking up a win and a loss against them in 2012.

1B James Loney, Tampa Bay Rays

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    2013 (overall): 549 AB, .299/.348/.430, 33 2B, 12 HR, 75 RBI, 54 R
    2013 (vs. CLE): 21 AB, .238/.385/.619, 2 2B, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 2 R
    Career vs. Salazar: N/A

    Why He's An X-Factor

    The Rays took a flier on James Loney in the offseason, signing him to a one-year, $2 million deal in hopes he could provide a similar value to what Casey Kotchman did a few years back, and he's exceeded expectations.

    While he batted seventh in Game 163 with a left-hander on the mound, he's counted on as a run producer against right-handers and will likely be slotted in the No. 3 or 5 spot in the lineup for the Wild Card Round game.

    He's never faced Salazar, but he went 3-for-11 with a double and a pair of home runs during his first trip to Progressive Field this season. He's been among the hottest hitters in the Rays' lineup of late, too, hitting .364/.417/.606 with five doubles and a home run over the final 10 games of the season.