Fifteen make-or-break seasons in the NL
Sandoval, Headley, Castro among group of talented players entering pivotal year
Every professional ballplayer is under some sort of pressure, whether he's trying to win a ring or earn a pension, fighting Father Time or enduring the inconsistencies of youth, trying to win a job or retain one. And surely, the fate of a 25-man roster is tied to much more than the performance of a single player.
But it is also true that some seasons are more pressure-packed than others for certain individuals, and some teams' fates are more inextricably tied to a single player than others.
So with all that in mind, here are 30 "make-or-break" seasons that are on the horizon. One for every team, because every team has at least one player with a lot on the line, either because of what 2014 will mean for his future or what his performance will mean for his team's bottom line.
We'll start with the National League and continue with the American League on Friday.
B.J. Upton, Braves: The majority of Atlanta's noise this offseason came via its bold signing of in-house talent, extending a talented core ahead of a 2017 move to a new ballpark. Any improvement this year will have to come from within, and Upton -- in the second year of a five-year, $75 million contract -- is the first place you naturally look. His .557 OPS last season was the fourth-lowest mark in franchise history, and it prompted him to seek out more efficient swing-path mechanics this winter.
"I can't hit the panic button like I did last year," Upton said.
Ryan Braun, Brewers: It's an oft-cited, tired storyline, but it's unmistakably true: How Braun handles things -- the scrutiny, the unrelenting downpour of opposing fan dissent that has already started at Cactus League games, and even a position switch mixed in for good measure -- is going to have a direct effect not only on his own fate and future but that of the Brewers. Braun can silence the skeptics and the cynics with a strong and presumably clean season, and he can help the Brew Crew post a big bounceback year. But if he struggles, he will never hear the end of it.
Jaime Garcia, Cardinals: One reason the Cards are in such good shape is they have the depth to address just about any question you can reasonably concoct, especially in the rotation. But a left-handed look in an otherwise all-right-handed rotation wouldn't hurt. Garcia is -- or at least was -- their best option in that regard. He's being treated for shoulder inflammation. That no structural damage was found is huge news, because a major injury to that area could kill a once-promising career beset by injuries. But there's no telling what, if anything, the Cardinals can expect out of Garcia at this point or where his career goes from here. Any further setbacks with his shoulder would make another lefty, Tyler Lyons, a more meaningful member of the roster.
Starlin Castro, Cubs: That the Cubs selected their new manager, Rick Renteria, in large part because of his ability to relate to Castro tells you all you need to know. They have so much invested in this kid -- quite literally, given his $60.6 million contract that runs through 2019. And Castro's regression at the plate last season to an adjusted OPS 28 points below league average, combined with his defensive inconsistencies, was both staggering and intolerable.
Miguel Montero, D-backs: Arizona added Mark Trumbo to provide pivotal protection for Paul Goldschmidt, but to contend with the Dodgers and others in a loaded NL West, the D-backs need Montero, whose salary is the fourth highest among all catchers, to lengthen the lineup and perform as he did in 2011 and '12. Last year, Montero's adjusted OPS was 17 percent below league average, and his defensive metrics took a tumble, too.
"Players have off years," manager Kirk Gibson said. "If you play long enough, it's going to happen to you. You do have to put that behind you. I've got a good feel about where he's at."
Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers: The Dodgers have an absurd amount of talent, with the payroll to prove it, but they have very little in the way of bankable commodities in their lineup because of the various injuries that have kept their lineup from playing together on a consistent basis. Also, one of their marquee players -- Yasiel Puig -- is kind of a wild card entering his first full season. We saw how important a healthy Hanley Ramirez is to this lineup last summer and last October. And though there have been discussions about an extension, at the moment he's a projected free agent at year's end (and it's hard not to notice that the Yankees will have a vacancy at shortstop). Ramirez has all the incentive in the world to stay on the field and produce, and the Dodgers, given the uncertainty in their outfield and at second base, in particular, need him to do both.
Pablo Sandoval, Giants: The rotation will go a long way toward dictating San Francisco's direction, as it always does. But if Panda doesn't produce, the Giants will have the same sort of lackluster lineup that hindered them in 2013. Sandoval's weight and degree of discipline have been an annual Spring Training storyline. This year, the story is of pivotal importance to him personally, because he's a year away from free agency. But what's important to the Giants is that Sandoval be physically capable of being a lineup lock. Last year, he was removed from 40 of his 138 starts for late-inning defensive reasons. Improved conditioning could change that trend.
"I don't care about my contract," Sandoval said. "I care about my team."
Jacob Turner, Marlins: The Fish need Giancarlo Stanton to stay healthy, no doubt, as the tantalizing slugger has missed roughly 20 percent of the past two seasons. But Miami's bid for respectability truly begins with a young and burgeoning rotation, and Turner's development will be pivotal. The highly touted prospect has made 30 Major League starts and had a respectable 3.74 ERA in his first extended look last season. But Turner's strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.43 was among the worst among pitchers who worked at least 100 innings.
Ruben Tejada, Mets: That the Mets sought out other shortstop possibilities is no secret, and Stephen Drew remains just a phone call away for a Mets club that, realistically or not, expects to contend. So Tejada is certainly on notice. He came to camp in better shape, so that's encouraging, though he was scratched from a game earlier this week with a minor hamstring issue. All that matters in the end is how the 24-year-old's improved focus, with his job and career on the line, applies on the field.
Bryce Harper, Nationals: It's not that this is a "make-or-break" year in Harper's career, by any means, because we suspect that career will be a long and bountiful one, no matter the results of 2014. It's just this would seem to be a natural point in time in which his maturation as a player and his team's maturation as a World Series-caliber club could align in wonderful synchronicity. Harper had a .344 average and 1.150 OPS at the end of last April, before the outfield walls intervened. His newfound understanding of how to preserve his body should go a long way toward ensuring numbers such as those (well, OK, not quite as good as those) are extrapolated over six months. The Nats sure hope so.
Chase Headley, Padres: What is this guy? A superstar or just a nice piece? Someone a team can build around or one whose injury issues offset his skill set? Headley has a calf strain that will limit his spring workload, if not hurt his Opening Day status. Still, the Padres know that if he stays healthy, he can help their underrated club surge in the standings. Or, at worst, he'd build up his trade value in advance of his pending free-agent eligibility. But if Headley can't stay on the field, then the whole conversation is moot.
Ryan Howard, Phillies: Ryne Sandberg will be filling out the lineups without any of the loyalty to past success that Charlie Manuel might have had, which means Howard's role is being re-investigated. Howard reportedly is unhappy with the constant conversation about his potential to fall into a first-base platoon with Darin Ruf, but the only way to drown it out is to hit lefties -- immediately and consistently and convincingly. He'll get paid handsomely either way, but pride and wins are on the line for Howard and a Phils team that needs the most it can muster out of its aging infield.
Wandy Rodriguez, Pirates: Getting career years out of multiple members of their pitching staff, as the Bucs did last year, is going to be tough to repeat, and their relatively inactive offseason, which included losing A.J. Burnett to free agency and buying an Edinson Volquez lottery ticket, was not exactly inspiring. They need the most out of what they've got, and improved health from Rodriguez -- who is in a contract year and was once a durable, reliable innings-eater before forearm frustrations hit in 2013 -- would be a big help. He had a 3.47 ERA in his first 11 starts last season before getting hurt.
Devin Mesoraco, Reds: Much pressure will be heaped upon Billy Hamilton as he takes over the center field and leadoff spots in his rookie year. And unfairly so, given his lack of experience. What's not unfair is to say that this is a pivotal season in the development of Mesoraco, who has been handed the starting role behind the plate after Cincinnati dealt a valuable veteran in Ryan Hanigan. The Reds need the 25-year-old Mesoraco to augment the bottom half of a lineup that has many question marks outside the Nos. 2-4 spots, and that means improving a sub-.300 on-base percentage overall and an alarming .212 average against right-handers.
Brett Anderson, Rockies: Having given up on a young project in Drew Pomeranz, Colorado brought aboard a low-risk, high-reward reclamation project in Anderson, who has the talent to front a rotation if he's healthy. He is only 26, and his ground-ball tendencies figure to be an asset at Coors Field. But he's made a grand total of just 24 starts over the past three seasons, so Anderson, on whom the Rockies will have a $12 million club option for 2015, has to prove he has the durability to match his talent. And stop me if you've heard this before, but the Rockies could really use both durability and talent in their rotation as they look to climb out of the NL West cellar.