MLB: 5 AL Players Who Will Decide the Wild Card Race

MLB: 5 AL Players Who Will Decide the Wild Card Race
Baltimore and Boston are in the thick of the wild card race at the start of September | Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The first five months of the 2016 MLB season are over and, as many predicted, the AL East and both wild cards are completely up for grabs. Not many knew how to project the Orioles, Red Sox, and Royals coming into the season, and many still don’t. What we do know is they are all in the hunt for the two available wild cards.

While Kansas City has been the hottest AL team since the trade deadline, those young New York Yankees haven’t been far off the pace. Neither has Detroit. As a result, the above five teams are stuck in a dogfight for the last month of the season, and one player frm each club could prove the difference between a playoff match and a fishing trip early in October. Here are five players who will decide the wild card race for their respective clubs.

1. Eric Hosmer, Royals

MLB: 5 AL Players Who Will Decide the Wild Card Race
Eric Hosmer of the Kansas City Royals celebrates a RBI single against the New York Yankees | Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Royals’ special brand of baseball vaulted the club into the wild card chase from way back in the standings on August 1. Since then, Kansas City has been the AL’s hottest team, and it won’t surprise anyone to see Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon right in the middle of the surge. However, it is surprising to find Eric Hosmer toward the bottom of the club offensively over that span. Then again, Hosmer has made his hits count, which is obvious as soon as you look at the RBI totals. If KC wants to continue this run, they will need Hosmer to have a strong September on both sides of the game.

2. Mookie Betts, Red Sox

MLB: 5 AL Players Who Will Decide the Wild Card Race
Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Baltimore Orioles | Rob Carr/Getty Images

Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski got the best free agent pitcher on the market and added two lockdown relievers in trades before the season started. Mid-year, Dombrowski kept adding on parts, bringing in Brad Ziegler and Fernando Abad in the middle of exceptional years. Somehow, the Boston pitching staff continues at be on the ropes most nights at the park. It’s clear this team is predicated on hitting, and at the start of the season’s final month the club’s best hitter is Mookie Betts. Boston’s best chance at the postseason goes like this: Betts wins the American League MVP award.

3. Starlin Castro, Yankees

MLB: 5 AL Players Who Will Decide the Wild Card Race
Starlin Castro of the New York Yankees hits a single in the bottom of the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles | Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images

In the rubber match of the Yankees-Royals series that closed out August, New York trailed by four runs in the sixth inning. Had this been before the trade deadline, the anemic Yankees offense would have gone gently and quietly into the night. However, this younger Yankees squad has shown a resilience and pop you didn’t see earlier in the season. On cue, Starlin Castro smashed a two-run home run to cut the deficit to one in the sixth. It was his eighth home run and 24th RBI of the month. The Yankees will need more spark of this kind from Castro if the club intends to nab a wild card.

4. Dylan Bundy, Orioles

MLB: 5 AL Players Who Will Decide the Wild Card Race
Dylan Bundy of the Baltimore Orioles delivers a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays | Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

It’s hard to see the Orioles heading into a prolonged slump with the amount of firepower in the lineup. However, it’s also tough seeing where this club will get the pitching to outlast AL East opponents in the final weeks of the season. Kevin Gausman has been Baltimore’s best starter after Chris Tillman and, with Tillman out until the second week of September, Bundy will have to hold the fort and lighten the load on the burdened bullpen. Beginning with his September 2 start versus the Yankees, Bundy has to be a force for the O’s to make the postseason.

5. Ian Kinsler, Tigers

MLB: 5 AL Players Who Will Decide the Wild Card Race
Ian Kinsler of the Detroit Tigers rounds third base after hitting a solo home run against the Kansas City Royals |  Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Tigers have a potent offense anchored by Miguel Cabrera, that steadiest of hitters. J.D. Martinez and Victor Martinez are two more threats that make opponents nervous. Yet Ian Kinsler is typically the difference between the Tigers overwhelming pitchers. Since early August, Detroit’s leadoff hitter hasn’t been that force with a .220 batting average and .710 OPS. This team made it to a tie for the second wild card on the back of an 8-2 run. For the Tigers to hold on through September, it needs a jolt at the top of the order from Kinsler.

Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference.