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It’s now deep into summer and a time for fans to rejoice. At baseball parks across the country, it’s a favorite time of the year for tailgating, barbeques and good times with family and friends.
For the professional player, however, the positive vibes of spring are long gone and a marathon season is well into the second phase. Reality sets in for these guys. Your club is considered either a frontrunner, a contender, a dark horse or, well, it’s over before it’s over. Sorry, Yogi.
I’ve told everyone before that the Latino player holds a huge stake in his team’s success or failure. It’s worth repeating that Hispanics make up an average of 25 percent on MLB 40-man rosters. So, which players hold the golden key for their club’s chances to put the pedal to the metal in September? Here’s my list of the 10 likely candidates from each league, and you might be surprised at some of the selections:
Carlos Pena, Tampa Bay Rays — The Dominican-American gets his share of walks, but, otherwise, either hits a home run or strikes out at an alarming rate. Pena will have to do a lot more in between if the light-hitting Rays have any chance of making the postseason.
Adrian Gonzalez, Boston Red Sox — Gonzalez is making a lot of money in Boston, and he got off to a terrible start. I’ll blame that on Bobby Valentine, since Carlos is used to playing for low-key managers. But the guy’s a professional hitter, and he’s heating up at the same time that the Red Sox are getting some of their other stars back from the DL. With Big Papi out, Adrian is the straw that stirs the drink.
Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers — Beltre has the ability to win a batting title, plus he’s also a terrific defender. But at 33, can he stay healthy? Next to Josh Hamilton and Michael Young, the Dominican is the Rangers most consistent all-around player.
Alex Rios, Chicago White Sox — I’m not kidding. If this talented but moody outfielder continues to have an impressive season, the White Sox should at least be in the running for a wild card opportunity. But if the Puerto Rican tapers off or gets hurt, it’s all but over in Chicago.
Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland Indians — This guy is possibly the best shortstop in the major leagues, and he saves Indian pitchers a pile of runs with his glove. But if Cleveland has any chance to get into the postseason, Cabrera will have to hit a lot more and Ubaldo Jimenez will need to go on a roll.
Joaquin Benoit, Detroit Tigers — Both Benoit and Jose Valverde are 34 years old. Both men make a lot of money. But Papa Grande’s success as a fading closer will depend on how well Benoit bridges the gap as the setup guy. That’s what makes Detroit’s “Dominican duo” such an enigma. Even though the Tigers hit a ton, the back end of the bullpen is suspect.
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees — What a difference a year makes. Soriano’s signing was met with mixed reviews last season, especially when he pouted and seemed less than motivated. But Mariano Rivera‘s season-ending injury changed everything. Soriano has been spectacular for the most part, and although the Dominican beats to his own drum, he’s been just what the doctor ordered. But I hate it when he makes a ritual of pulling out his tucked-in jersey after a save. In my book, that’s disrespecting the Yankee uniform.
Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels — I would be an idiot not to have King Albert on this list. Everyone talks about Trout and Trumbo, but their success has a lot to do with Pujols in the lineup. And as we all know, Albert tends to have that second-half magic.
Wilson Betemit, Baltimore Orioles — This 30-year-old journeyman has been the glue that has held the Orioles together, along with veteran Endy Chavez. But with Baltimore’s pitching mediocre at best, Betemit will have to keep pulling his weight offensively and help Adam Jones and Nick Markakis score lots of runs.
Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland A’s — I don’t see any way the A’s are still in the hunt by mid-August. But if they are, it will be because of this 26-year-old “veteran” of Cuban baseball. Oakland has been an excellent backdrop for Cespedes to grow and become more acclimated to the American style of play, and his numbers have been impressive. This guy has hit at a .580 clip since the All-Star break, and his home runs are absolute bombs.
Martin Prado, Atlanta Braves — There isn’t a manager alive who wouldn’t want nine Martin Prado-type players on his team. He plays multiple positions with expertise and is a perennial .300 hitter. Clearly, the scrappy Venezuelan will be a key to Atlanta’s chances of overtaking Washington and sending Chipper Jones out in style.
Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh Pirates — It’s about time this Dominican-American from New York City got some love. Pedro’s teammates call him “El Toro” because he flat out mashes and is on pace for a 40-plus home run season. With Andrew McCutchen having an MVP year, Alvarez continues to fly under the radar. But if the surprising Bucs continue to contend, you can expect the former Vanderbilt star to be in the mix. A hard worker and born leader, Alvarez is part of a youth movement that has given the Pirates a new and exciting identity.
Melky Cabrera, San Francisco Giants — Giants GM Brian Sabean should be named “Executive of the Year” for “stealing” Cabrera from the Kansas City Royals in a straight swap for Jonathan Sanchez. One of the most underrated players in the game, Melky is having a career season with a legitimate shot at winning the batting crown. That said, the Dominican has preserved many Giant wins with his glove and cannon arm.Without question, Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval loom large in San Francisco’s quest to play again in October.
Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers — It’s been said that National League teams go as far as their pitching will take them, and Gallardo is the Brewers workhorse. Cincinnati and St. Louis are the clubs to beat, but Milwaukee can stay close if Yovani continues to pitch deep into games. With Prince Fielder a distant memory, Gallardo and Ryan Braun are the faces most familar with Brewer fans, and neither player is going anywhere. Gallardo, 26, has spent six years in Milwaukee and is signed through 2014. The Mexican is known as Mr. Clutch on the mound and is one of the best-hitting pitchers in baseball.
Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals — The Nats have the best pitching staff in the NL, maybe in all of baseball, and Gonzalez is their ace in the hole. If Stephen Strasburg is limited to only 160 innings this year, the Cuban-American southpaw becomes Washington’s lifeline to the postseason. This kid competes, loves it in the nation’s capital, and is my pick to win the Cy Young award this season.
Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals — The Cardinals learned their lesson after Albert left the nest and wasted little time extending Molina to a $96 million lifetime deal. And why not? The 30-year-old Puerto Rican is the best catcher in baseball. Carlos Beltran has been great, but Molina is the real key to St. Louis getting the opportunity to defend its title.
Ruben Tejada, New York Mets — No, I’m not delusional. Since Tejada came off the DL, the Mets have been playing great defense. Even super star David Wright is in awe of this 22-year-old from Panama, who has been a celebrity since his Little League days. With his superior range, soft hands and strong arm, Mets fans have forgotten all about Jose Reyes. New York has been in a slide, but if Ruben can pick it up at the plate, the Mets could hang around.
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds — The lanky Cuban is still the hardest thrower in the game, but he’s become a true pitcher, changing speeds and perfecting a deceptive slider that makes it almost unfair for hitters. Chapman oozes confidence, and if he can channel some occasional wildness and close games consistently, the Reds get at least a wild card berth.
Bobby Abreu, Los Angeles Dodgers — The veteran Venezuelan has never been a huge impact player, even in his prime, but good enough to earn a lot of money. Bobby had a monster contract with the Angels, but the outfield was crowded. So when the Dodgers needed some offense, Abreu was acquired for a song. Bobby can still swing it and play defense, and only had to move a few miles up the freeway. The Dodgers couldn’t be happier and the 38-year-old Venezuelan feels like a kid again.
Carlos Lee, Miami Marlins — How can a team that employs Ozzie Guillen, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano have any chemistry? You might as well throw Hugo Chavez in the mix. So what’s the solution? Carlos Lee. The veteran Panamanian slugger will pull things together in the clubhouse and on the field, and fill the void the Marlins have at first base. Laugh if you want, but my money is on El Caballo to save the Marlins season.
There are several Latino players in the super star category, such as Felix Hernandez and Carlos Gonzalez, who have never been to the postseason. In addition, there are veterans like Alfonso Soriano who would give up all his gold chains for another World Series ring.
But assuming the “spoiler” role and playing for pride as a professional athlete isn’t such a bad gig. There are thousands of talented kids who will never get to the front of the line and enjoy the experience.