MLB has lots of characters, and with 30 teams playing, often simultaneously, it’s difficult to keep track of the comings and goings of all the interesting ones. But come October, the playoffs narrow the cast and the focus.
Over the next month or so, a handful of relative unknowns will become very, very well-known. A rookie will likely cement his name as part of the 2023 story. And maybe, just maybe, a regional cult favorite will turn into a national folk hero.
Sure, the main goal of the postseason is to turn up the heat and bask in the chaos of crowning a champion. But a secondary joy is watching most of the country meet Randy Arozarena, learn Tyler Matzek’s incredible comeback story or discover Cristian Javier’s strikeout stuff.
So welcome to our fourth annual attempt to pick the scene-stealers out of the pack ahead of time. Who’s that guy, you ask? Start here to discover some worthwhile names to learn — or learn to love.
Johan Rojas, Philadelphia Phillies center fielder
A nonfactor in the Phillies’ plans early in the season, Rojas leaped from Double-A to the big leagues in July as an injury replacement and won’t be going back. An elite defender in center field, Rojas has held his own at the plate (batting .298) and ran wild on the bases, stealing 14 in 57 games. Asserting himself as an every-day player, Rojas (in conjunction with Bryce Harper’s move to first base) gives Phillies manager Rob Thomson the option to play Brandon Marsh, a solid center-field defender himself, in left field and bump Kyle Schwarber to DH.
Rojas has been a useful and fitting addition to the rollicking Phillies roster. The Phillies are prime producers of Guys, with a capital G, because their clubhouse is particularly keen on letting personalities shine — or perhaps it’s just particularly well-stocked with quirks that pop on camera. Taken under the wing of the bro sage Nick Castellanos, Rojas leaves his top uniform buttons undone and plays with the looseness that implies.
As if his fast rise and flashy skill set weren’t enough, Rojas clinched the Phillies’ postseason berth with a walk-off knock Tuesday.
Rodriguez, the top pitching prospect in baseball coming into 2023, was very much part of the plan for the Orioles. Yet at first, he didn’t look up to it. The 23-year-old posted a 7.35 ERA in 10 starts before being sent down to figure things out.
As a result, his full-season stats don’t look shiny, but since returning to the majors in mid-July, Rodriguez has a 2.58 ERA, pairing 98 mph heat with an 84 mph Bugs Bunny changeup. As the Orioles’ young core enters its first postseason, Rodriguez will form a one-two punch with Kyle Bradish that has emerged from total uncertainty looking pretty, pretty potent.
Josh Lowe, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder
From a hot start to a summer slump to a wave of injuries to the troubling Wander Franco situation, the Rays’ season easily could’ve come off the rails. Yet this team could finish with 100 wins. You know about Arozarena, Yandy Diaz, Tyler Glasnow and the still-standing pieces of Rays teams past. You might not know Paredes and Lowe, even though Paredes leads the team with 31 home runs, and Lowe has 20 homers and 32 steals.
Secondary or peripheral contributors on last year’s Tampa Bay squad, both have unlocked major improvements this season. Lowe missed the 2022 postseason roster entirely after entering the season as a hyped prospect but has lopped almost 10 percentage points off his strikeout rate in 2023 and now looks like the power-speed star evaluators imagined.
If Arozarena doesn’t hog the spotlight for himself (always a possibility), expect Paredes and Lowe to have moments during the Rays’ run.
Evan Carter, Texas Rangers outfielder
What, you thought the Rays’ guy was going to be Junior Caminero? Sure, Caminero — a consensus top-five prospect who rocketed from High-A to the majors this year and debuted last week — might burst onto the scene in October. But it’s simply too soon, with too many adjustments left to make, to know what to expect from the 20-year-old.
No, the surprise 2023 call-up with the most potential to blow up the postseason is Carter, the 21-year-old outfielder who has vindicated the Rangers’ faith in him at every stop. Still visibly skinny, Carter came up as an emergency injury replacement for Adolis Garcia and immediately started mashing at the big-league level. Through 19 games, he’s batting .320 with five homers, three steals and an approach so patient it boggles the mind. Garcia came back; Carter stayed up and moved to left field.
Behind their usual winning ways and the award-worthy sheen of Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, the Dodgers are rolling out a pitching staff that could really make fans ask, “Who’s that guy?”
Decimated by injuries and now without Julio Urías following his arrest on suspicion of domestic violence, the Dodgers’ postseason rotation is shaping up as Clayton Kershaw and a band of rookies, if you even want to call it a rotation. (This arrangement has, naturally, led the Dodgers to MLB’s second-best park-adjusted team ERA since the All-Star break.)
The big names among that group of new arms are Bobby Miller and Emmet Sheehan, with the hard-throwing Miller appearing to be the only pitcher other than Kershaw who will consistently start. In Dave Roberts’ more flexible toolbox, however, will be Pepiot, a 26-year-old who started throughout the minors, impressed in spring training this season after an uneven debut last year and has notched a 1.85 ERA in 39 innings. Wielding a dive-bombing changeup and a firm slider that borders on a cutter, he will be one of the bulk-guy options to carry L.A. through the middle innings.
As for the Braves, finding an under-the-radar player on the locked up and fully loaded Atlanta roster is like bargain shopping on the Oscars red carpet. That said, injuries have turned the team’s starting rotation into a mirror image of the Dodgers’, though with a less defined plan.
Spencer Strider is the anchor who appears ready to go. Max Fried is dealing with a blister but expected back for the division series (the first Atlanta will play, having secured the NL’s top seed). Then things get murky. Charlie Morton is out until at least the NLCS. Bryce Elder, a first-half success story, has struggled mightily, and the Braves seem to be worried he’s wearing down under a career-high workload. The rotation recently has involved AJ Smith-Shawver, Darius Vines and Winans.
Winans, then, is as good a guess as any for “pitcher the Braves will squeeze a winning performance out of in a big game.” The 28-year-old, plucked off the Mets’ scrap heap in 2021, doesn’t throw hard, but he pounds the zone and has avoided home runs admirably across 126 1/3 sterling innings in Triple-A, plus 27 solid innings in the majors.
But really, we could choose any swingman or Triple-A arm in the Braves organization. It could even be Jesse Chavez, the 40-year-old veteran who recently returned from injury to continue his magical run in Atlanta. Since 2021, he has a 2.19 ERA in 119 1/3 innings while playing for the Braves — and a 7.16 ERA in the 16 games he pitched for two other teams. Stick with the Braves and prosper, Jesse.
If Royce Lewis hits a grand slam in the postseason, we’re going to have to investigate some forces of the universe. The 24-year-old third baseman has a team-record four grand slams this season and five in his career. Here’s the kicker: He has played only 58 games this season and 70 in his career.
Often beset by injuries, like many of his most notable Twins teammates, the former No. 1 overall pick has absolutely mashed in his healthy intervals. Overall, Lewis is batting .309 with 15 homers and six stolen bases in 239 plate appearances, good for a 154 wRC+.
He’s currently working his way back from a hamstring issue and seems likely to feature in the Twins’ postseason lineup.
The latest star out of Brewers bullpen central casting, Uribe is a sturdy reliever with a whippy arm action that flings a devastating sinker-slider combo. The sinker goes 99 mph. The slider goes 89 and takes a Tilt-A-Whirl ride juuuust as it reaches the plate.
Michael Baumann already forecasted this phenomenon at FanGraphs, but Uribe is the No. 1 draft pick in these playoffs if you’re looking for a reliever who is going to show up in a seventh inning on national television and melt faces with pure, unvarnished pitching pyrotechnics.
At 32 years old, Walker has been a shockingly good big-leaguer for years now. The first baseman thrust into the Paul Goldschmidt-shaped void in Arizona has stepped into his own, with steady power and the best first-base defense in the game; by Statcast’s Outs Above Average, he has three of the four best cold-corner seasons since 2016. The past two years, he has found a new, more consistent gear at the plate, too, launching 69 homers since the start of 2022 (top 10 in MLB) and logging a 123 wRC+.
This will be Walker’s first real crack at the postseason — and the national stage that comes with it. He got only two plate appearances back in 2017. One of the game’s less recognizable, excellent players might finally get to cast his own shadow this October.
You might’ve heard about Kikuchi recently when he said he suffered a neck cramp during a start because he got “only” 11 hours of sleep the night before. And whatever you think of his sleep routine, it has been working. After a rocky start to his MLB career in Seattle, Kikuchi has harnessed his stuff and cut way down on walks with the Blue Jays.
Part of the answer to how Toronto has fielded a terrific rotation despite the implosion of Alek Manoah, Kikuchi has a career-best 3.82 ERA in a career-high 162 2/3 innings this year. Depending on how far Toronto goes, he could be a weapon as a starter or in relief.
Yainer Diaz, Houston Astros catcher
When the Astros need thump to go with stalwart Martín Maldonado’s leadership and pitch-calling wisdom, they call on Diaz. A 25-year-old who crushed minor-league pitchers at every level, Diaz has just kept swinging and hitting bombs in the majors. He has 23 homers in 376 plate appearances, and it’s not just power. There’s real feel for contact here, with a .282 batting average and better-than-average 19.4% strikeout rate.
Jake Burger, Miami Marlins third baseman
A deadline acquisition to add power to the Marlins’ lineup, Burger has gone on a tear. Below his usual levels with a .214 batting average with the White Sox prior to the trade, the beefy third baseman (pun obviously intended) has sparked the Marlins’ offense with a .302/.356/.508 line and nine homers since the deal.
Burger memorably praised the historic hire of Marlins GM Kim Ng as an inspiration to his sister, who wants to work in a baseball front office. Now he can say that he helped Ng add “first woman GM to pilot a team to the playoffs” to her list of accomplishments.