In the big picture of 162 ballgames, no one player can dictate the course of a team's season. But as will be celebrated in the upcoming Players Weekend -- an event that will allow players to express themselves with nicknames on their uniforms, patches celebrating people who helped their development and colorful garb -- individuality does matter in this sport. And in the smaller window that is these final seven and a half weeks of the regular season, a key injury situation or a single guy running particularly hot or cold can affect a lot.
With that in mind, here, in no particular order, are 12 guys who could have a big say and big sway in baseball's remaining races.
David Price, LHP, Red Sox
The Red Sox played some of their best baseball of the season in the aftermath of Price's latest trip to the disabled list, which just goes to show how unpredictable this stuff can be. But lengthening their rotation with a healthy and effective Price, who had a seven-start stretch in which he posted a 2.66 ERA just before getting hurt again, would still rate as pretty important for the home stretch of the season. Continued elbow soreness late last week delayed Price's return-to-throw program, but the guy whose Players Weekend jersey will bear the name "Astro's Dad" as a reference to his precious pup is back to throwing from 90 feet.
Even though Price avoided surgery when his elbow problem first cropped up this spring, we all knew there is nothing more predictive of future elbow issues than past elbow issues, and sure enough that's what happened 11 starts into his season. Now, it's an open question when and in what role Price returns, and that might be the most important question facing the Sox down the stretch.
Aaron Judge, RF, Yankees
No reasonable person could have expected the rookie Judge to equal or approximate his first-half production (.329/.448/.691), which gave rise to the "All Rise" branding he'll have on his back for Players Weekend. The adjustment from the league (significantly more sliders and high fastballs) and the regression in batting average on balls in play has been both unflattering and unsurprising. But Judge's Minor League career was built on his ability to adjust, and, if he can get hot again, we've already seen the impact his bat can have on this Yankee lineup -- one currently operating sans Matt Holliday and generally trying to get back to its early season production pace.
It's worth pointing out that as amazing as Judge's season has been, his specific performance against the Red Sox has been lackluster (.194/.341/.306), and playing well in the looming head-to-heads (they'll face each other 10 times total, with series in three of the next four weekends) is vital to the Yankees' hopes of winning the AL East. Mr. "All Rise" needs to rise to the occasion.
Willson Contreras, Cubs
The original draft of this piece had Carl Edwards Jr. here because of the Cubs' need to shore up their setup situation, but then Willson Contreras grabbed at his right hammy Wednesday night and suddenly all other issues associated with the Cubs pale in comparison. Contreras has been, as Joe Maddon said Wednesday night, the centerpiece of the Cubs' offensive resurgence, with a 1.067 OPS dating back to July 1. Though his exact status wasn't clear at the time of this writing, the injury looked bad enough to suspect that he'll miss far more than a couple days.
Contreras' nickname might be "Willy," but the question here is "Will he?" As in, will he get back in time to help the Cubs steer clear of the lingering Brewers and hard-charging Cardinals and Pirates?
Wilson Ramos, C, Rays
I was tempted to include screwball-tossing prospect Brent Honeywell here. But when the Rays recalled the struggling Blake Snell when Alex Cobb hit the DL this week, it hammered home the point that they'll continue to give Honeywell ample developmental opportunity before promoting him, as is the traditional organizational stance (but seriously, Honeywell has struck out 149 guys in 113 1/3 innings in the Minors this year, so it would be fun to see him down the stretch).
Anyway, the offense that carried the Rays in the first half has had markedly more trouble producing runs in the second. Ramos still represents upside for their order if he can put together a few weeks reminiscent of his 2016 pace with the Nats (.307/.354/.496). The Rays took a chance on Ramos after knee surgery, but his .182/.212/.309 slash in his first 28 games since coming off the DL speaks to the difficulty this "Buffalo" has had getting his legs back under him.
Robbie Ray, D-backs
Even if you believed firmly in the D-backs' ability to vault into contention this year with a healthier roster and new management, it would have been hard to project just how good Robbie -- or, as his teammates call him, "Bob" -- was for their rotation. After posting a 4.65 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in his first 330 big-league innings, Ray was one of the NL's best starting pitchers in the first half, and he had an adjusted ERA+ of 150 on July 28, when that screaming line drive struck him in the side of the head.
Thankfully, Ray's injuries from that blow weren't serious, and he is making progress in his recovery. How quickly he can get back to form could have a big impact on the D-backs' finish as they vie for the home-field edge in the NL Wild Card race with the Rockies.
Andrew Miller, Indians
The Indians, who brought some needed health and potential productivity to their outfield with the acquisition of Jay Bruce, aren't expecting Miller's stay on the disabled list with tendinitis in his knee to go far past the minimum 10 days. So, reasonably soon, it will be "Miller Time" again. But others who have had similar issues with their plant leg say it's a tricky issue that can mess with a pitcher's mind even after his return.
"Every time you land," said CC Sabathia, who actually injured his own surgically repaired right knee shortly after this interview, "you don't know if there's going to be pain. You start shortening up, and that's when you can have arm problems."
The Tribe's bullpen, buoyed by the Miller acquisition a year ago, was the difference-maker in their run to the World Series, and it was a saving grace amid some early season struggles for the rest of the ballclub in 2017. But right now, with the Indians trying to fend off the Royals for their second consecutive division crown, it's becoming a question mark, with Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw responsible for a combined six blown leads or losses since the start of July. A healthy and typically dominant Miller would ease the pressure off that pair, but his command was compromised by the knee issue before he landed on the DL and it will be interesting to see how quickly he can get back to his elite level once activated.
Salvador Perez, Royals
The latest word from the Royals is that Perez could miss two to three weeks total with his intercostal strain, so perhaps he'll be back in time to wear his "El Niño" jersey for Players Weekend. Whatever the length, the drop-off from Perez's production to backup Drew Butera is pretty steep, though Butera is no slouch on the defensive end. At a time when literally every game has great bearing on the Royals' chances in the AL Central and in the AL Wild Card race, Perez's return to action, which could be aided by the anti-inflammatory injections he's received, is going to have a big say in the bottom line.
With 21 homers, 20 doubles and an .817 OPS, Perez was having his finest offensive season when he got hurt, and his presence behind the plate is immeasurable.
Domingo Santana, Brewers
Quietly, this guy has been one of the most productive outfielders in the NL this year. In the first half, he ranked in the top 10 at that position in OBP, OPS, RBI, wOBA and wRC+. There were many reasons why the Brewers surprised even themselves in leading the NL Central at the turn, but Santana was a big one.
Unfortunately, "Showmingo" has slowed in the second half. He was batting .218 with a .691 OPS after the break before a three-hit night Tuesday, and maybe that's the start of an upswing. Santana has a lot of swing-and-miss in his game, but his already-not-good 26.9 percent K rate from the first half had jumped to 31.8 in the second. He often bats in the upper third of the order, so you'd have to imagine that if the Brewers offense is to catch fire and help this club steal an October spot, he'd have to be a big part of that.
Felix Hernandez, Mariners
We got word Tuesday that the injury to King Felix (whose nickname was already well-established), is shoulder bursitis -- the same injury that forced him to miss two months of action earlier this season. The playoff race has a funny way of accelerating timetables in situations such as these, and Felix is currently expected back in early September.
To say Hernandez's absence is inopportune is an understatement. This club has used an MLB-high 15 starting pitchers this season, and James Paxton is the only one of them whose performance rates as better than league average. Hernandez was actually exactly league average, in terms of ERA+, but his .198/.292/.396 opponents' slash in his last 29 innings was a source of optimism for this rag-tag rotation. Now, Felix's status looms large over this bunch. The M's have endured a ton of rotation turnover to remain in the Wild Card conversation, but they might not be able to survive any setbacks in the King's recovery.
Mark Reynolds, Rockies
I recognize that Rox fans grow tired of hearing about the whole home/road splits dynamic, but there's no denying that the difference-maker for this club in leaping into contention from the start of '17 was the performance on the road in the first couple months of the season -- a performance that flew in the face of organizational precedent.
As recently as June 10, Colorado had the best road record in the NL, at 24-10. Since then? They have the worst road record in baseball, at 6-18. The "Sheriff," who is 7-for-his-last-47 on the road, is listed here as a representative of the need for better at-bats in general on the road. Worth noting that the Rockies' final four regular season games against the D-backs -- games that could play a huge role in determining home field in the NL Wild Card Game -- are at Chase Field.
Ubaldo Jimenez, Orioles
The 2013 Indians had to go 21-6 to get into October via the AL Wild Card, and the "Big U" was the guy who put them on his back that month. They won all six of his starts, and he pitched to the tune of a sparkling 1.09 ERA. It's hard to imagine that kind of run from Jimenez again, but, well, he's allowed just four runs on 17 hits in his past 18 2/3 innings. This from a guy who had a 7.19 ERA going into his July 26 start.
If Ubaldo has another unexpectedly inspired finish in him, maybe the Orioles, who have had historically bad stretches from their staff this year (including that amazing run in which they allowed five or more runs in a record 20 straight games), really can reach October again. I wouldn't exactly bet my mortgage on either scenario, but "U" never know!
Paul DeJong, Cardinals
Though the front office opted not to add on at the Trade Deadline, the Cardinals have proven to have something resembling a pulse in this month of August. In fact, go back to June 25, and they have one of the best records in baseball. This is still a club with a lot of flaws, and you'd feel better about their October chances if they had more consistent, veteran thump in the middle of the order.
But the rookie DeJong's surprising ascent to the No. 3 spot of Mike Matheny's batting order has really changed the complexion of the offense. You could say the same about Tommy Pham's surprise emergence as a viable No. 2, but I'm focused on DeJong here because of his extremely high strikeout rate (30.8 percent) and low walk rate (3.4). He could be due for a prolonged funk before long. But if DeJong can avoid it, perhaps we were far too quick to count out the Cards. DeJong, incidentally, is the only person on this list who didn't opt to include a nickname for his Players Weekend jersey. If he carries his club to October, we'll forgive him.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB Network contributor and MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.