Baseball may be the best example of “team sport,” but many times a season is dependent on the performance of a single player. As spring training commences, each of the 32 teams has someone most likely to tip the scales of success.
Red Sox: Hanley Ramirez
Pablo Sandoval’s disastrous debut season in Boston overshadowed Hanley’s troubles handling left field at Fenway. Now at first base, he has a new position to adjust to – all while trying to improve his production at the plate.
Yankees: Masahiro Tanaka
The question surrounding New York’s pitching staff is one that the Yanks are all too familiar with recently: can Tanaka get healthy? When able, he’s among the AL’s best. But his availability – even to start this coming season – is constantly up in the air.
Blue Jays: Drew Storen
A late-season meltdown on top of two playoff failures, and Storen had fallen out of favor in Washington. Toronto should prove to be a more welcoming site, as a shaky bullpen was the glaring weakness for the AL East champs. We’ll know soon enough if Drew’s better able to cope with pressure for his new club.
Orioles: Hyun-soo Kim
After Dexter Fowler slipped from their grasp, the O’s now place more reliance on the current outfielders in place. Kim arrives in Baltimore after hitting 28 home runs and posting a .326 batting average last year in Korea. But sometimes those numbers don’t translate to the states.
Rays: Corey Dickerson
The former Rockie might have a tough transition from Coors Field to Tropicana Field. His statistics prove it out: a career .355 batting average and .675 slugging percentage in Denver, while just .249 and .410, respectively, everywhere else. The Rays hope he simply likes playing home games.
Twins: Byron Buxton
The favorite for AL Rookie of the Year hit just .209 in his 138 plate appearances for Minnesota in ’15. Reason to worry? Perhaps not. There have been many cases in which eventual stars struggle to get on track.
White Sox: Mat Latos
Chicago got the injury-prone Latos on the cheap: a one-year, $3 million deal. It’s a low-risk move that could prove most valuable if he stays off the disabled list and becomes a solid No. 2 behind lefty ace Chris Sale.
Royals: Yordano Ventura
Already nine postseason starts (including three in the World Series) – all before turning 25. For all the experience he gained from those Octobers, there’s still plenty of maturity to be gained. With Johnny Cueto off to San Francisco, added responsibility will be on his arm.
Indians: Francisco Lindor
Called up to the big leagues last June, Lindor’s bat and glove vaulted the Tribe into playoff contention. He was predicted to be the eventual face of the franchise. That’s become true much sooner than expected.
Tigers: Justin Verlander
He was once the dependable ace of Detroit’s staff. Yet, even with Jordan Zimermann joining the fray, Verlander’s presence is even greater now. It took until August and September for the 33-year-old to return to form. Will that carry over to April?
Mariners: Taijuan Walker
A 7.33 ERA is a scary sight for any pitcher. That’s what Walker saw after his first nine starts this past season. Fortunately for him and the M’s, it was 3.62 over the final 20 outings – along with a 118 strikeouts and a 10-3 record. Keep it up, and he’ll solidify as the clear No. 2 in the Seattle rotation.
Rangers: Yu Darvish
Remember him? His absence for the entirety of 2015 was supposed to sink a team that wasn’t going anywhere. Instead, Texas won the West – and Yu’s presence on the starting staff can only improve them more when he returns in May.
A’s: Coco Crisp
Oakland doesn’t have much in the way of veteran leadership. The 35-year-old outfielder is coming off a season in which he was reduced to a mere 44 games and less than 150 plate appearances. His skills with the glove have yet to diminish.
Angels: Kole Calhoun
Even with the best hitter in the American League, the Halos were still 20th in runs and 27th in batting average for 2015. Mike Trout (along with Albert Pujols) can’t do it alone. Calhoun needs to maintain his performance of the past year while hoping the surrounding cast improves.
Astros: Carlos Gomez
Many things are going right in Houston, but the addition of Gomez hasn’t. Battling injuries, the trade deadline acquisition from Milwaukee hit just .242 and had only 13 RBI as an Astro. Being well-healed and in a contract year should equate to better numbers.
Marlins: Jose Fernandez
Nothing – not even Giancarlo Stanton – is more important to the fate of the Fish than the right arm of their 23-year-old ace. Before, it was Tommy John surgery keeping him off the Marlins Park mound. Now, it may be team management.
Mets: Michael Conforto
In the limited amount of time he spent in the big leagues last season, Conforto steadily improved – culminating in a pair of Game 4 World Series homers. Should he continue to trend upward, he would perfectly complement Yoenis Cespedes in the batting order.
Nationals: Jonathan Papelbon
Somehow, someway, he returns as Washington’s closer while Drew Storen gets shown the door. Another season of 30-35 saves, and the September chokehold of Bryce Harper will become a distant memory.
Phillies: Maikel Franco
The Phils have a chance to get better quickly, and Franco is a main reason why. In the field, he has Gold Glove ability. With the bat, he has the makings of a run-producing No. 3 hitter. The third baseman of the future has arrived.
Braves: Dansby Swanson
Philadelphia isn’t the only NL East club rebuilding. Atlanta’s overhaul has been sweeping. But the rewards could come in the form of the prospects it picked up. Swanson, a former Vanderbilt star, will get the chance to learn at the big league level very soon.
Cardinals: Matt Adams
The injury to St. Louis’ power-hitting first baseman was most evident when the Cards didn’t have the firepower to match the Cubs in the NLDS. Good health for Adams is crucial if they want to keep up with Chicago during the regular season.
Cubs: John Lackey
His age indicates the best days are behind him. But at 36, he finished 2015 with a career-low 2.77 ERA. Lackey’s playoff experience will greatly benefit a club primed for a deep October run.
Pirates: Gregory Polanco
He has tremendous upside – at bat, on the bases and in the field. Occasionally, he’s shown it. For the most part, he’s not. The Bucs’ biggest unknown is the player with the greatest potential.
Brewers: Jonathan Lucroy
Following a breakout effort in 2014, Lucroy’s 2015 was derailed by a broken toe and a late-season concussion. A rebound in ’16 would greatly help Milwaukee’s fortunes, but it could also be his ticket out of town.
Reds: Billy Hamilton
Cincinnati is in a hopeless situation. A young rotation, a mediocre lineup, and a top-heavy NL Central have the Reds rebuilding. A more disciplined season by Hamilton at the plate can provide some optimism for the future.
Dodgers: Kenta Maeda
Last year, Clayton Kershaw had an equally potent starting pitching teammate. This year, the onus will be on several new faces. The 27-year-old Japanese import is most unknown, but he has the experience necessary to do the job.
Giants: Buster Posey
If San Francisco wants to make good on this “even-year championship” thing, the star catcher will have a lot to do with it. In the 76 wins for which he was a part of the lineup last year, Posey hit .357 with a .964 OPS and 67 RBIs. In losses, he drove in just 28.
Rockies: Jon Gray
Rarely is sympathy placed upon major leaguers, but being a pitcher in Colorado isn’t exactly an envious task. The Rockies can hit, but struggle to keep opponents down. Gray (the No. 3 overall pick in ’13) could change that – depending on his development.
Diamondbacks: Shelby Miller
With Zack Greinke getting all the buzz (and the bucks), little was made about another key addition to the rotation. Out of the doldrums of Atlanta and into the promise of Arizona, Miller should be closer to the 15-game winner he was with St. Louis two years ago.
Padres: Melvin Upton Jr.
The method by which the D-Backs are loading their roster pales in comparison by the moves San Diego made prior to 2015. One of those high-profile pick-ups was Upton, who contributed just five homers and 17 RBI in 87 games – as the Padres woefully underachieved.