Returning Stars Heat up Playoff Races

With the trade deadline long passed and the waiver process being complicated, and occasionally inaccessible, due to overzealous rivals, teams must look for alternative avenues of upgrading their roster for the stretch run. Sometimes those improvements come in the way of a farm system producing talent and other times an upgrade is as simple as getting an injured player back. This week in particular is full of the latter for four teams battling for playoff positioning. And in some cases, it’s remarkable that these clubs were able to survive without their stars.

Carlos Pena returned to the Tampa Bay Rays’ lineup Monday night and played a pivotal role in their comeback against Cliff Lee. Pena had missed 15 games thanks to a plantar fascia sprain in his foot. In his stead, the Rays used a combination of players at first base, but mostly relied on Dan Johnson. The former Oakland Athletics first baseman hit 30 home runs in 98 Triple-A games this season before earning a long-awaited promotion. Johnson didn’t record too many hits during Pena’s absence — as a .111 batting average reflects — but he got on base 39 percent of the time and showed some defensive skills, as well; the power he showed in Triple-A did not translate over, though, and that might be the biggest upgrade Pena offers.

The Rays don’t hit many home runs, but when they do, Pena is usually one of the few hitting them. ZiPS has him pegged for nine more over the stretch of the season, which would give him his fourth consecutive season with 30 or more homers and set him up well heading into free agency. Assuming that Pena and Johnson are about equal with the glove and on the basepaths, the man they call “Los” should be worth at least a half-win more to the Rays than Johnson would be over the remainder of the season. That does not mean Johnson will ride the bench with Pena’s return; he’s slated to become the Rays’ designated hitter against right-handed pitching.

Dustin Pedroia and Chase Utley returned Tuesday night. These two could pass as the best second basemen in the league in any given year, so you can only imagine how much their teams missed them.

Given Pedroia’s small stature, it’s pretty tough for human beings of normal height to stand in his shoes comfortably. Unfortunately for Boston, nobody the Red Sox ran out at second base could fill his metaphorical batting shoes, either. Boston’s fill-ins combined to hit .255/.328/.466, which isn’t half bad, but comes up short when compared to Pedroia’s career .305/.370/.461 mark, or even his 2010 season line of .292/.370/.502. Factor in Pedroia’s usually outstanding defense, and he’s likely worth a little more than a win upgrade over the final part of the season. That might keep Boston’s playoff hopes alive a week longer into the season, but make no mistake, they are heavy underdogs without the services of Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury.

As for Utley, who tore a thumb ligament in late June, his return came weeks earlier than previously expected. The word around the Phillies had been September all along, but few complained when Utley took the field ahead of schedule. The back-to-back National League champions made due with Wilson Valdez playing second. Valdez’s hitting left something to be desired, as his on-base percentage failed to top .300 and his slugging sat below .350. While not quite the infamous Mario Mendoza, Wilson was pretty close to replacement level, meaning Utley on a torrid streak could produce a two-win upgrade. That could easily swing the balance in the NL East and wild-card races.

Utley and Pedroia weren’t the only fantastic second basemen to make their return this week either, as Martin Prado reappeared for the Braves. Prado’s pinkie injury kept him out for more than two weeks and came days after Chipper Jones suffered a season-ending injury of his own. With All-Star Omar Infante playing second base, Prado could shift to third base for the remainder of the season, where he played during part of his rehab assignment. Brooks Conrad has probably the most memorable hit of the season for Atlanta, but Prado should be worth at least a win over him.

However, that is not the only equation that needs consideration. Jones hit .265/.381/.426 this season while Prado hit .315/.357/.484 before heading to the disabled list. That isn’t the real question, though, as it’s Infante, not Prado, who now becomes a regular. Infante is hitting .339/.368/.416 and his ZiPS projection calls for a .310/.353/.393 line. Even if he continues hitting at a career-best rate like he has to date, Infante is a downgrade from Jones offensively. That’s without attempting to analyze whether Prado will be a defensive downgrade. The Braves are losing about a half a win with the bats and maybe a little more with the gloves. Atlanta is obviously conscious of this, and the Braves traded for Derrek Lee yesterday to try and compensate. He’ll be an upgrade over the slumping Troy Glaus.

Saving the biggest for last, Utley’s teammate Ryan Howard will return this weekend. To say Philly has missed the big man is an understatement. Mike Sweeney might be the nicest man in baseball, but he hit .261/.320/.261 while his platoon partner Ross Gload carried the pair with an OPS over 1.000 and two home runs. The pair split playing time nearly 50-50, meaning the result was an average hitting first baseman. Much like Pena, Howard should represent about a one-win upgrade over what those two were producing heading forward. Maybe more if he goes on one of his patented second-half hot streaks.

The Braves entered Tuesday night with a 2½ game lead over the Phillies. These comings and goings shake out to the Phillies roughly making up two to three games on the Braves if all else holds equal, meaning they should be extremely close down to the wire. So close that the deciding factor very well could present itself as the victor of the remaining six head-to-head games, which includes a three-game series to end the season in Atlanta.

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