5 Sleepers Who Will Make a Difference in MLB’s Second Half

  • Zach Britton
    Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles

    The Orioles are right in the thick of the AL East race, having led the division since July 4. While several of their recent big producers haven’t been able to follow up with strong campaigns – looking at you, Chris Davis – the Os have managed to stay ahead of the pack in a division that is routinely one of the most competitive in baseball.

    One primary reason for their lead is Britton, a 26-year-old closer who was given his first opportunity as a closer at the major-league level in mid-May. Britton has taken his opportunity and run with it, registering a 1.71 ERA that is second among all pitchers who have appeared in at least 50 innings this season. For a pitching staff that has been simply solid, Britton’s strength on the back end has been crucial to their success.

    To return to the playoffs, Baltimore needs their unproven closer to continue getting results in the dying days of summer. If he can hold up, the Os will be playing fall baseball, and they have the talent to make some noise come playoff time.

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  • Henderson Alvarez
    Henderson Alvarez, Miami Marlins

    The Marlins are on the outside of the playoff picture as of this writing, but it’s not as if the Nationals or the Braves are running away with the NL East. Miami has one of the best young players in baseball in Giancarlo Stanton, and a mix of talent that could present problems for the division title contenders. They have all the makings of a spoiler.

    Henderson Alvarez, a 2014 All-Star, is a bit of a sleeping giant in the fight for the NL East based on how he can impact the other teams in the division. Alvarez has had a stellar campaign in Miami, helping to pick up some of the slack in the wake of Jose Fernandez’s injury, and he will be a formidable presence that Washington and Atlanta will have to deal with. The Marlins have 10 games left against these two foes before season’s end, and Alvarez figures to appear in at least one of those matchups.

    With real estate at the top of the NL East at a premium, one loss to this Marlins hurler could be the difference between the East title and a Wild Card spot.

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  • A.J. Pierzynski
    A.J. Pierzynski, St. Louis Cardinals

    St. Louis fans have been spoiled by Yadier Molina over the last half decade, having watched their backstop develop into one of the finest in baseball. His four straight All-Star appearances from 2009-13 are a testament to his consistency behind (and standing next to) the plate. Unfortunately, he was recently ruled out for 8-12 weeks with a thumb injury, leaving the Cardinals with large shoes to fill.

    Enter Pierzynski, a catcher with a personality that has often overshadowed his game. He’s not going to fool anyone into thinking he’s Molina, but he’s a serviceable veteran that is an upgrade over incumbent backup Tony Cruz. For a Cardinals team that gets by mainly on the strength of their top starters, that will be enough. If they can get more out of him than a short stretch as a fill-in, it’s a big bonus for the Cardinals.

    And for fans of the game in general, having Pierzynski at the heart of a division race is sure to lead to some fireworks. He’s a brash character who will surely get into it with some of his opponents, a welcome screwball that’ll keep people on their toes.

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  • Jeff Samardzija
    Jeff Samardzija, Oakland As

    Set free from a Chicago Cubs team that is flailing for what feels like the umpteenth-straight season, Samardzija has been given a chance to show what he can do for the AL West-leading Athletics. Oakland has ridden a potent lineup to the division lead – they’re currently first in runs scored – but to close out the Los Angeles Angels, they needed to add another capable arm behind Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir.

    Samardzija is far from a sure thing given his numbers in recent years – he had a 4.34 ERA just one season ago in Chicago – so he has a chance to prove that the first half of this season was more than a mirage. For the first time in his career, he has the chance to prove his chops on a team that really matters. It’s a sink-or-swim moment for the 29-year-old Samardzija, and if he can hold up his end of the bargain, the As just may be favorites when the playoffs begin.

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  • Josh Hamilton
    Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels

    When you play on the same team as Mike Trout, anyone can be considered a sleeper – even those with nine-figure contracts. The Angels do-it-all star is having another fantastic year in the two-hole of the lineup, adding on to an unbelievable legacy that is still in its early stages.

    Hamilton has spent chunks of this season on the DL, and when he’s been able to play for Los Angeles he has only shown flashes of the power that he is expected to bring to the lineup. While Hamilton’s average is up almost 40 points above last year’s closing figure – a good sign for a hitter who sometimes falls victim to free-swinging tendencies – the Angels need him to be more of a threat to clear the bases than he has been thus far in 2014. To have a shot at standing toe-to-toe with Oakland, the Angels need Hamilton at his very best.

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  • Zach Britton
  • Henderson Alvarez
  • A.J. Pierzynski
  • Jeff Samardzija
  • Josh Hamilton

Division and Wild Card races are beginning to heat up as Major League Baseball’s second half rages on. The finish line – at least the one that marks the end of the exhausting regular season – is fast approaching. Between now and the beginning of October, the difference makers won’t be top-of-the-line stars, but their teammates who turn it on down the stretch.

Unearthing the less-heralded players who will suddenly explode down the stretch is quite the challenge, even in an era scrutinized down to every last pitch. But we’ve got your back. Here are a few players whose names you might recognize that have the chance to swing their respective races.

Follow Kyle on Twitter at @NeubeckNBA