12 under-the-radar players who could decide pennant races

Johan Camargo has been a pleasant surprise for the Braves, unexpectedly filling a hole at third base. Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Chris Sale is back from the disabled list and gearing up for October. Javier Baez, Matt Carpenter and Christian Yelich are making their final MVP pushes in the National League Central, and Nolan Arenado is fighting through a slump and a shoulder injury as the Colorado Rockies try to emerge from a mad NL West scramble and record back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in franchise history.

September is a time for big names to assert themselves and bring clarity to award races and divisional narratives. But a closer look at contending teams' rosters suggests that less-publicized players can have just as big an impact down the stretch.

In the National League, eight teams are competing for five postseason spots. In the AL, suspense is hard to find. The Indians are a lock to win the Central, the Red Sox are sitting on a big lead in the East, and FanGraphs gives the Astros 100 percent odds to make the playoffs as either the division champion or a wild card in the West. That leaves the Yankees and Athletics to duke it out for home-field advantage in the wild-card game.

Which complementary players could play pivotal roles for teams with something at stake over the next three weeks? Here are 12 names (including a 3-fer in Philadelphia) who could be influential through the end of September:

Jonathan Schoop, Brewers

Schoop has a .213/.262./.372 slash line since the Brewers acquired him from Baltimore at the July 31 non-waiver deadline. He's had to deal with a change in leagues and inconsistent playing time as Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell tries to find enough at-bats to go around for him and fellow infielders Travis Shaw, Mike Moustakas, Hernan Perez and Orlando Arcia.

Schoop tore it up in July amid a flurry of trade rumors in Baltimore, and his talent and résumé suggest he's capable of a power binge in Milwaukee. He generally has hit between fifth and seventh in the Milwaukee order, and he stands to benefit from pitchers who pause and exhale after they've navigated the Lorenzo Cain-Yelich-Jesus Aguilar-Ryan Braun portion of the order. Schoop's grand slam off Madison Bumgarner spurred the Brewers to a 6-3 win over the Giants on Sunday at Miller Park.

"He's a guy who has the ability to catch fire and go on a tear for a three- or four-week stretch," Brewers general manager David Stearns said. "If we hit that at the right time, he'll be a really impactful guy for us."

Harrison Bader, Cardinals

Bader has lived up to his billing with the glove, with 21 defensive runs saved between center field and right field. He is also generating some Rookie of the Year attention with a .768 OPS, 14 steals and 3.8 Baseball Reference wins above replacement.

With his speed and aggressive style of play, Bader embodies the spirit of the new-look Cardinals, who have gone 33-17 under new manager Mike Schildt since the All-Star break after muddling along at .500 under Mike Matheny.

"I've been all-in on the kid for three years," a National League scout said of Bader. "He's tooled-out as a player. He can throw, he can run, and he's powerful. But there's also an energy level there. He's like Alex Bregman -- a smaller stature guy with a chip on his shoulder because people have underestimated him. I've seen him since A-ball, and I always thought, 'This dude has something special to his game.'"

Kyle Schwarber, Cubs

A lot of potential candidates could fill this role for Chicago. Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Jesse Chavez, Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop will be important contributors out of the bullpen with closer Brandon Morrow's status in doubt because of a biceps injury. Jose Quintana could help stabilize the back of the rotation with a strong September. Rookie David Bote has made a big impression with several timely hits and game-altering moments, and Daniel Murphy has had a profound impact since his arrival on waivers from Washington.

So why Schwarber? While he ranks second to Baez on the team with 25 homers, Schwarber has struggled against lefty pitching, and his production has steadily declined since a big April. Schwarber has never had the luxury of being "under the radar," but he fits the profile this year as a complementary bat to Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and now Murphy.

When a guy is limited to four regular-season at-bats because of injury and returns to hit .412 in the World Series -- as Schwarber did two years ago -- it speaks to his flair for the dramatic.

"He was a beast during the 2016 run, and he makes their lineup really deep if he's going well," a National League personnel man said.

German Marquez, Rockies

Colorado's starting rotation enters Tuesday's game against Arizona with a collective 4.28 ERA. The last time Rockies starters fared that well, in 2010, Ubaldo Jimenez went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA and finished third in Cy Young voting.

Kyle Freeland has enjoyed a breakout year at age 25, and nominal staff ace Jon Gray has pitched well since his return from a demotion to Triple-A in late June. But no Rockies starter has been more dominant of late than Marquez, who's showing front-of-the-rotation potential two years after Colorado acquired him from Tampa Bay as part of a four-player trade that sent Corey Dickerson to the Rays.

Marquez throws a mid-90s fastball complemented by a power slider and curve, and he continues to develop a better feel for his changeup. He's only 23, but his demeanor suggests he's ready to embrace big-game pressure. He extended his streak of quality starts to nine with Monday night's outing against the Diamondbacks.

"It's power stuff," one scout said. "And the kid has no fear on the mound."

Chris Taylor, Dodgers

Last year, with Taylor having a breakout season, the Dodgers ranked fourth in the National League with an .811 OPS out of the leadoff spot. This year, Taylor hasn't been nearly as productive, and they're 10th at .735.

Taylor's biggest problem: too many swing-and-misses. He leads the NL with 163 strikeouts, and his playing time could suffer as a result. Taylor was on the bench while Brian Dozier and Joc Pederson led off in back-to-back 3-2 victories over Arizona last week.

But Taylor has shown signs of life recently while batting sixth in the order, and his versatility gives him a chance to contribute at multiple positions. He's second on the Dodgers with 74 runs, and his 2.9 WAR is third on the team behind those of Max Muncy and Justin Turner. Taylor won the 2017 NLCS MVP Award and logged an .889 OPS in October, so it's not outlandish to think something might click and he'll have a run.

David Peralta, Diamondbacks

Paul Goldschmidt leads the Diamondbacks in homers, RBIs, batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, doubles, total bases and wins above replacement. He overcame a dreadful start to make his sixth straight All-Star team, and he's in the conversation to win his first MVP after three top-three finishes since 2013. But Peralta probably has been Arizona's most consistent hitter since Opening Day. He ranks fourth among NL outfielders with a .371 weighted on-base percentage, and he has yet to go more than three games without a hit. Peralta is still looking for his first career All-Star appearance at age 31, even though his numbers warranted strong consideration this season.

"I think the league needs to take notice of the success that he's having," Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo told reporters in August. "He's in the middle of a lot of the things that are happening here, and he definitely deserves the credit. He wants to be right in the middle of all the traffic."

The Diamondbacks have a brutal schedule in September, and Peralta and veteran Daniel Descalso will be challenged to produce from the left side against some high-level righty pitching. Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Gray are among the starters on Arizona's docket over the coming weeks. Peralta, who has some pronounced platoon splits (a .963 OPS vs. righties compared to .673 against lefties), also will be tested by Jon Lester, Cole Hamels and Dallas Keuchel from the left side.

"He's one of their catalysts," a National League talent evaluator said. "He plays really hard, and a lot of times they feed on his energy."

Johan Camargo, Braves

The Braves were linked to free agents Todd Frazier and Eduardo Nunez during the hot stove season. They began the year with Ryan Flaherty at third base, and they kicked the tires on Moustakas at the July 31 deadline. After all that, they decided to stick with Camargo, and he has justified their faith with his two-way performance and poise in big moments.

Although Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis have overshadowed him nationally, Camargo has posted some impressive numbers. He has logged a .317/.376/.541 slash line in the second half and leads the Braves with 55 RBIs since the start of June. His 16 homers since May 20 are second on the team to Acuna's 20 in that span.

Camargo also ranks fifth among MLB third basemen with plus-6 defensive runs saved, according to Baseball Info Solutions. The Braves still see 21-year-old Austin Riley as their long-term answer at third. But Camargo's athleticism and versatility ensure that he'll be in the picture somewhere beyond this season.

Nick Pivetta/Vince Velasquez/Zach Eflin, Phillies

The offense has been an ongoing issue in Philadelphia. Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams and Odubel Herrera are a combined 13-for-71 in September, and the Phils rank 11th in the NL this season in runs and OPS. Trades for Asdrubal Cabrera, Wilson Ramos and Jose Bautista haven't done much to remedy the problem, and the Phillies have floundered since hitting their peak at 63-48 in early August.

The Phils have seven head-to-head matchups left with Atlanta, and it would help if their starters not named Aaron Nola could step up and assert themselves. Nola, Philadelphia's staff ace and Cy Young candidate, has 23 quality starts in 29 appearances. Jake Arrieta, Pivetta, Velasquez and Eflin -- Philadelphia's Nos. 2-5 starters -- have 42 quality starts in 103 appearances. They need to do better to take some pressure off both the offense and the bullpen.

Pivetta has the 13th-best strikeout rate in the majors, and Velasquez has shown flashes of dominance in increments of five or six innings, so they're capable stuff-wise. But they'll be asked to perform in high-leverage situations while pushing beyond their single-season highs for innings, and that's going to be a challenge.

Ramon Laureano, Athletics

Laureano has made quite an impression for a kid who was 29th on Baseball America's ranking of Oakland prospects entering this season. He racked up a team-leading five outfield assists in his first month with the big club and elicited two "Oh my gods!" from Athletics color commentator Dallas Braden with a spectacular catch-and-throw combination against the Angels in August.

In a recent win over Texas, Laureano set an organizational standard with two multi-homer games in his first 30 appearances. Even Reggie Jackson and the Bash Brothers -- Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire -- didn't do that. Laureano showed lots of promise in the Houston organization in 2016 before a wrist injury hindered his production the following season. The Astros traded him because they didn't have room on the 40-man roster, and the A's acquired him for minor league pitcher Brandon Bailey in November.

Assistant GM Billy Owens, a big believer in Laureano, compared him to Kevin Pillar for his energy and ability to cover ground in center field. Ten months later, Laureano is hitting leadoff and playing a catalyst role for one of MLB's "pleasant surprise" teams. "He's played great pretty much since his arrival," A's general manager David Forst said, "and without any fear or nerves about being in the big leagues."

Austin Romine, Yankees

Luke Voit was low-profile before hitting seven homers in 13 games to seize the Yankees' first-base job from Greg Bird. It's hard to remain anonymous when you're slugging .622 and eliciting a bunch of Shane Spencer references in baseball's biggest market.

Romine, New York's backup catcher, is intriguing because of the defensive travails of the man in front of him. Gary Sanchez is tied for the AL lead with 13 passed balls, and his recent communication breakdown with Luis Severino prompted manager Aaron Boone to confront a host of questions about whether a change might be in order behind the plate.

In a one-game wild-card matchup against Oakland, would Boone be confident asking Sanchez to handle Severino -- or catch Masahiro Tanaka and his splitter? Romine has developed a nice rapport with New York's pitchers and contributed enough at the plate (10 homers and a .436 slugging percentage) to merit some playing time down the stretch and in October.

"He's done a helluva job," an AL talent evaluator said. "He's hitting 40 or 50 points higher than most people would have thought. He's gotten a lot of clutch hits. He runs the game well behind the plate, and the pitchers like throwing to him. They would have been in big trouble without him."