Each MLB Team's Player Under the Most Pressure in the Second Half

Rick WeinerFeatured ColumnistJuly 5, 2013

Each MLB Team's Player Under the Most Pressure in the Second Half

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    Pressure is something to which we can all relate.

    Whether it's pressure to succeed at work, pressure to get ourselves in better shape or peer pressure in school, it's a powerful force that, at times, can be overwhelming.

    When you are a professional ballplayer, that pressure comes from all directions: from the fans, the media, your team and, most of all, within.

    There isn't a player in baseball today who doesn't feel the pressure to succeed. That success can be achieved to varying degrees, from justifying a spot on a team's roster to living up to a high salary.

    As we prepare to head into the second half of the regular season, let's take a look at the 30 players who are feeling more pressure than anyone else.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Miguel Montero

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    2013 Stats: .227/.313/.322, 5 HR, 28 RBI

     

    Since taking over as Arizona's full-time catcher in 2008, Miguel Montero has been one of the more reliable and productive backstops in baseball, hitting .283 with an .817 OPS, 14 home runs and 69 RBI per year, numbers that likely would be more impressive had he not missed nearly half of the 2010 season due to injury.

    While Paul Goldschmidt and Gerardo Parra have stepped up their games and helped to carry Arizona's offense this season, Montero has been a non-factor, failing to swing the bat with any consistency and leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the team's lineup.

    He doesn't necessarily need to return to his old form, but a .227 batting average and .636 OPS simply aren't acceptable numbers for such a big part of a contender's offense.

    The pressure is on for Montero to get his bat back on track quickly, allowing Arizona to perhaps put some distance between itself and the rest of the National League West.

Atlanta Braves: B.J. Upton

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    2013 Stats: .175/.272/.310, 8 HR, 19 RBI

     

    Seven months after signing B.J. Upton to the largest contract in franchise history (five years, $75.25 million), the Atlanta Braves considered sending Upton down to Triple-A Gwinnett.

    To his credit, Upton has made adjustments at the plate and put together his best month of the season, hitting .238 with an .812 OPS, 10 extra-base hits and 11 RBI over 27 June games.

    That said, those numbers leave plenty to be desired and don't make up for the fact that Upton has produced fewer runs than some light-hitting infielders, per FanGraphs:

    Player BA OPS HR RBI wRC+
    Darwin Barney .224 .621 4 19 63
    Zack Cozart .243 .651 7 33 73
    Brian Dozier .233 .683 7 29 90
    Jayson Nix .236 .607 2 20 66
    Lyle Overbay .234 .695 9 35 85
    B.J. Upton .175 .582 8 19 61

    That's simply unacceptable, and the pressure is on for Upton to get himself going and begin to justify his contract—quickly.

Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters

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    2013 Stats: .225/.282/.393, 10 HR, 40 RBI


    Once again, Matt Wieters is failing to live up to the lofty expectations that people have had for him ever since he was drafted fifth overall by Baltimore in 2007.

    Don't be fooled by his 10 home runs or 40 RBI, which, admittedly, are decent numbers for the first half of the season—seven of those home runs and 32 of those RBI came in April and May. Since June 1, Wieters is hitting only .206 with three home runs, seven RBI and an OPS of .593.

    Hot starts by Manny Machado and Chris Davis have certainly helped to lessen the impact that Wieters' lack of production could have on the team, but if either of those two slow down, Wieters' inability to do anything at the plate could become a major issue for the Orioles.

Boston Red Sox: Jon Lester

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    2013 Stats: 8-4, 4.41 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 93/40 K/BB

     

    Jon Lester is coming off his best start in more than a month, throwing seven innings of six-hit, one-run ball against San Diego this past Wednesday, the first time that Lester has allowed no more than one earned run in a start since tossing a complete game shutout against Toronto on May 10.

    His numbers over the nine starts in between his quality outings? 

    Terrible.

    Lester pitched to a 6.42 ERA and 1.70 WHIP over 54.2 innings. Even when he won, as he did in his final two starts of that stretch, Lester was ineffective, allowing nine earned runs and 14 hits over 12.2 innings of work.

    Those aren't the kinds of numbers that anyone expected out of the team's ace, not after the return of former pitching coach John Farrell as the new manager, under whom Lester enjoyed the most success of his career.

Chicago Cubs: Starlin Castro

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    2013 Stats: .236/.272/.329, 4 HR, 26 RBI

     

    It's never been a question of whether or not Starlin Castro has the talent to be one of the elite shortstops in baseball, but a lack of focus and a questionable approach make him one of the most maddening players in the game.

    According to FanGraphs, Castro is striking out at a career-high pace (18.1 percent) while walking at a career-low pace (3.6 percent). That's never an encouraging sign for a player who is in his fourth year of big-league action.

    Not only has Castro had major issues at the plate this year, but he has regressed with the glove, posting a UZR/150 of minus-21.5 and a minus-11 DRS, the lowest marks of any qualified shortstop in baseball, via FanGraphs.

    As a player who has had difficulty staying on the good side of management the past two years, Castro needs to reaffirm that he is not only one of the bright, young shortstops in the game over the season's second half, but that he is part of the solution in Chicago—and not part of the problem.

Chicago White Sox: Tyler Flowers

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    2013 Stats: .208/.260/.372, 8 HR, 22 RBI

     

    I thought Chicago's decision to allow longtime veteran backstop A.J. Pierzynski to walk this past winter, pushing longtime "catcher of the future" Tyler Flowers into everyday action was the wrong one to make—and the 27-year-old has done nothing to make me question my stance.

    Flowers has essentially been an automatic out at the plate, barely hitting above .200 while struggling to get on base with any consistency whatsoever. While his eight home runs on the season aren't terrible, five of those have been solo shots, making that number seem a bit empty.

    With Chicago poised to begin the rebuilding process, according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, Flowers has done nothing to prove to GM Rick Hahn that he should be one of the pieces that the team builds around, and with the trade deadline rapidly approaching, he's running out of time to make his case.

Cincinnati Reds: Tony Cingrani

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    2013 Stats: 3-0, 3.40 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 62/21 K/BB

     

    With Johnny Cueto expected to be sidelined for at least five weeks with a small tear in his right lat, an injury that has forced him to the disabled list twice before this season, Cincinnati's top pitching prospect, Tony Cingrani, figures to get an extended stay in the team's rotation.

    The 24-year-old southpaw has been very good as a starter thus far this season, pitching to a 3.15 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in eight starts, averaging more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings of work.

    While Cingrani made his major league debut last September, that was with a Reds team that had a commanding lead in the NL Central.

    Granted, the club currently has a solid six-game lead for the second wildcard spot in the National League, but there's plenty of work to be done if it hopes to claim the division—and the dog days of summer offer an entirely different set of challenges than he faced as a late-season call-up last year.

    Filling Cueto's shoes is no easy task, and while Cingrani has done well thus far, the pressure is on for him to keep that level of performance up for at least another month, if not longer.

Cleveland Indians: Ubaldo Jimenez

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    2013 Stats: 6-4, 4.67 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 88/49 K/BB

     

    It's hard to write that Ubaldo Jimenez is having a good season while keeping a straight face, but when compared to the disaster that was his first year-and-a-half in Cleveland, we can say that the 29-year-old is throwing the ball better now than he ever has for the Indians before.

    That said, only five of his 17 starts on the season have been quality outings and he still struggles mightily with his command and control, as his 49 walks are the second-highest total in the American League and third-highest in all of baseball.

    With the Indians in contention for a playoff spot, both in the division and as a wild-card team, better outings are needed from Jimenez on a more consistent basis.

    Coupled with the fact that he's pitching for a new contract next season, the pressure is on for Jimenez to look more like the guy who went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA for Colorado in 2010, not the guy who has gone 19-25 with a 5.14 ERA since joining the Indians at the trade deadline in 2011.

Colorado Rockies: Drew Pomeranz

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    2013 Stats: 0-1, 8.34 ERA, 2.65 WHIP, 5/4 K/BB

     

    The centerpiece of the trade that sent Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland at the trade deadline in 2011, Drew Pomeranz has been underwhelming in Colorado, pitching to a 5.13 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in 27 starts over the past three seasons.

    His 2013 debut was horrid, as the 24-year-old allowed four earned runs and seven hits against the San Francisco Giants, needing 92 pitches to get through 4.1 innings of work. 

    With the equally underwhelming Juan Nicasio out of the team's rotation, the pressure is on for Pomeranz to start harnessing the stuff that made him a top-30 prospect heading into the 2011 season and live up to the lofty expectations that came along with it.

Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander

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    2013 Stats: 9-5, 3.54 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 119/41 K/BB


    It's not that Justin Verlander is having a bad season—most pitchers would be quite content with the numbers that Verlander has posted this year—but those are mediocre numbers for a pitcher that many consider to be one of the two best on the planet.

    Verlander, who won his first game in nearly a month after throwing seven scoreless innings against Toronto on the July 4, has been wildly inconsistent this season, failing to reach the sixth inning in six of his 18 starts on the season and looking nothing like the pitcher regarded as a perennial contender for the American League Cy Young Award.

    With Detroit in a much closer race for the division than anyone expected, the Tigers need Verlander to build off of his last performance and get back to shutting down the opposition every fifth day as we know he's capable of doing.

    Continued mediocrity (with some solid outings mixed in) simply isn't going to get the job done.

Houston Astros: Nobody

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    In the midst of a lengthy rebuilding process, nobody had any expectations of wild success for Houston this season, especially with the team making the switch from the National League to the American League.

    With no expectations comes no pressure, and Houston will continue to sell off veteran pieces as the team stockpiles talent with an eye towards the future.

Kansas City Royals: Mike Moustakas

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    2013 Stats: .214/.274/.321, 5 HR, 15 RBI

     

    After hitting 20 home runs and driving in 73 runs last season, Mike Moustakas was expected to take the next step in his development this season, firmly establishing himself as one of the bright young players in the game.

    Instead he's regressed, at times looking completely lost at the plate and creating a gaping hole in Kansas City's lineup.

    While the results have been better since Kansas City named George Brett the team's hitting coach on May 30, with Moustakas posting a .276/.323/.356 stat line since the Hall of Famer's arrival, Kansas City's 24-year-old third baseman has been a shell of the player most expected him to be in 2013.

    If the Royals are going to seriously make a run at ending the team's playoff drought, Moustakas is going to need to not only continue swinging a hot stick, but start producing runs as he did a season ago.

Los Angeles Angels: Josh Hamilton

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    2013 Stats: .226/.288/.400, 11 HR, 31 RBI

     

    After signing a five-year, $125 million deal with the Angels this past winter, Josh Hamilton was supposed to be the final piece to assembling a modern-day "Murderer's Row," teaming with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo to give Los Angeles one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball.

    Instead, Hamilton has struggled badly with pitch recognition and failed to make contact with any consistency, though, to be fair, he has shown marked improvement over the past two weeks, hitting .298 with two home runs and nine RBI since June 17.

    That said, the pressure is on for Hamilton to put forth a monster second half, one that helps carry the Angels into the playoffs and takes him out of the conversation of who the most disappointing free-agent addition has been this season.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Yasiel Puig

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    2013 Stats: .430/.455/.719, 8 HR, 19 RBI

     

    No player in baseball has been hotter over the past month than Yasiel Puig, who is coming off of a record-setting debut month in the major leagues and staked claim to one of the three starting spots in what is, when healthy, a very crowded outfield in Los Angeles.

    Yet with great success comes great expectations, and the pressure is on for the 22-year-old Cuban phenom to continue playing at an incredibly high level, especially with the race for the National League West still wide open.

    Is it fair to expect Puig to continue performing at this historic pace? Not at all.

    But that doesn't mean that those expectations don't exist—and it will be interesting to see whether Puig thrives under the pressure or begins to show the cracks that you'd expect to see in a young player's armor.

Miami Marlins: Giancarlo Stanton

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    2013 Stats: .250/.344/.450, 8 HR, 22 RBI

     

    Much like Houston, Miami finds itself in the midst of a rebuilding process.

    But, unlike the Astros, Miami has a big-time talent on its roster in Giancarlo Stanton, the oft-injured 23-year-old slugger who is both the team's biggest building block and its most valuable trade asset.

    After missing significant chunks of the season, both this year and last year with injury, Stanton is one more significant injury away from being slapped with the "injury-prone" label, something that has a way of destroying a player's trade value.

    Stanton needs to stay healthy and productive over the second half of the season, not only for Miami to have a chance to win some games in the second half of the season, but for the Marlins to have Stanton's value at its highest heading into the winter, when you can bet that trade rumors over his long-term future in South Florida will begin to swirl once again.

Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun

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    2013 Stats: .304/.380/.509, 9 HR, 36 RBI

     

    Love him or hate him, Ryan Braun is a perennial MVP candidate and the key to success in Milwaukee.

    Out of action since early June with an inflamed nerve in his right hand and not expected to be back in action until after the All-Star Break, Braun is on pace to finish the season well below his career average 34 home runs and 107 RBI per season.

    With a cloud of PED suspicion hanging low over his head, the only thing Braun can do to combat the naysayers is produce on the field—which also happens to be the only way that Milwaukee has a chance of improving its putrid 34-50 record and its place in the standings.

    When he does finally get back on the field, the pressure will be on for Braun to produce immediately—and consistently—for the rest of the season.

Minnesota Twins: Kyle Gibson

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    2013 Stats: 1-1, 7.94 ERA, 1.76 WHIP, 7/1 K/BB

     

    When you are the top pitching prospect for an organization that desperately needs young, impact arms in the rotation, there's pressure.

    When you finally make your major league debut, the pressure increases tenfold, and that's the situation that 25-year-old Kyle Gibson finds himself in, and so far, the results have been mixed.

    Gibson was great in his debut against Kansas City, allowing only two earned runs and eight hits over six innings of work. That wasn't the case against the Yankees in his second start, as he allowed eight earned runs and 11 hits in only 5.1 innings, resulting in his bloated numbers on the season.

    Nobody expects Gibson to step in and pitch like Matt Harvey or Shelby Miller, but he needs to deliver solid outings every fifth day, giving the fans and the team hope for the future.

New York Mets: Ike Davis

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    2013 Stats: .161/.242/.258

     

    Ike Davis was so lost at the plate that the Mets had no choice but to send him down to Triple-A Las Vegas in the hopes that the 26-year-old first baseman would find both his confidence and his swing.

    After a 21-game stint that saw him hit .293 with seven home runs and 13 RBI, walking nearly as many times (17) as he struck out (18), Davis is on his way back to the big show, recalled after the team's game on July 4.

    The pressure is on for Davis to prove that he belongs in the big leagues and that he can not only hit for power, as he showed last season with 30 home runs, but that he can hit for average and get on base consistently as well.

New York Yankees: Alex Rodriguez

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    2013 Stats: Yet to make his 2013 debut

     

    The Yankees have used five different players at third base this season while Alex Rodriguez has been recovering from his second hip surgery in as many years, getting little-to-no production from the group.

    No team in baseball has seen its third basemen post a lower OPS than the Yankees (.607), which goes along with an equally unimpressive .230 batting average, .291 on-base percentage, four home runs and 23 RBI.

    While there is nothing that A-Rod can do to repair his sullied name and tarnished image or change the fact that he is the most disliked player around, but there is one thing he can do to lessen the venom being spewed in his direction.

    Produce at the plate.

    Nobody can reasonably expect him to produce like he did from 1996 through 2010, when an average season saw Rodriguez hit .301 with 41 home runs, 121 RBI and a .966 OPS. That player no longer exists.

Oakland A's: Yoenis Cespedes

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    2013 Stats: .221/.283/.438, 15 HR, 42 RBI

     

    After an incredibly successful rookie campaign in 2012, one that saw him finish second in the American League Rookie of the Year race and 10th in MVP voting, Yoenis Cespedes has taken a step backwards in 2013.

    Sure, the power numbers remain solid, but the 27-year-old has struggled to hit for average and get on base consistently, two things he did quite well a season ago, posting a .292/.356/.505 stat line.

    Contrary to popular opinion, the hamstring injury that forced him to serve as the team's primary designated hitter for a stretch in the middle of June didn't provide much different results than what he'd been producing when playing the field:

    Pos AB BA OBP SLG OPS HR RBI
    LF 176 .239 .297 .477 .774 11 28
    CF 53 .189 .237 .415 .652 3 9
    DH 47 .191 .283 .319 .602 1 5

    While Oakland has gotten enough production from the rest of its lineup to remain atop the AL West, there's no question that the team needs a productive Cespedes in the middle of its lineup if the A's are going to be able to fend off Texas and a surging Los Angeles club to claim its second consecutive division crown.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Pedro Alvarez

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    2013 Stats: .243/.308/.513, 21 HR, 56 RBI

     

    That Pittsburgh's remarkable run to having the best record in baseball (52-32) coincides with Pedro Alvarez's most productive two months as a major league ballplayer is no coincidence—it's a direct result of the 26-year-old's tremendous play over the past two months.

    Since May 1, Alvarez has hit .275 with 17 home runs, 45 RBI and a .952 OPS, a stretch that has seen Pittsburgh go 37-20.

    From April 1 to April 30, Alvarez hit .180 with four home runs, 11 RBI and a .560 OPS—and Pittsburgh went 15-12.

    Now, the challenge for both the Pirates and Alvarez is to avoid fading—as the team has done in each of the past two seasons—and continue to play at this exceptionally high level, further distancing themselves from the rest of the division and guaranteeing that Pittsburgh's 20-year playoff drought will come to an end this October.

Philadelphia Phillies: Domonic Brown

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    2013 Stats: .279/.326/.549, 22 HR, 60 RBI

     

    After years of failing to live up to expectations, something finally clicked for Domonic Brown and the 25-year-old has been one of baseball's biggest breakout stars over the first half of the season, ranking among the league leaders in home runs, RBI and slugging percentage.

    More importantly, Brown has emerged as a legitimate building block on a team that has a rapidly aging core and few prospects who are near-ready to make an impact at the major league level.

    Now, the pressure is on for Brown to continue swinging the bat as well as he has, continuing to make adjustments at the plate and leaving little doubt that he is part of the future in Philadelphia, not regressing and looking like someone that the Phillies should have sold high on at the trade deadline.

San Diego Padres: Chase Headley

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    2013 Stats: .218/.316/.336, 6 HR, 26 RBI

     

    After breaking out with a monster 2012 campaign that saw him lead the National League in RBI (115), Chase Headley has struggled to get going after missing the first two weeks of the 2013 season with a fractured thumb.

    Per ESPN, the most problematic element of Headley's struggles this season may be how infrequently he's going deep, hitting one home run every 39.3 at-bats, after going yard once every 19.5 at-bats in 2012. 

    San Diego finds itself sitting in the thick of a wide-open race for the National League West, and the pressure is on for Headley to start producing at the plate, allowing the Padres to remain in contention and potentially shock the baseball world by winning the division.

San Francisco Giants: Pablo Sandoval

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    2013 Stats: .264/.303/.384, 8 HR, 37 RBI

     

    One of the heroes of San Francisco's remarkable postseason run last year and the MVP of the 2012 World Series, Pablo Sandoval has struggled to produce on the field in 2013, while health issues have persisted.

    During his most recent stint on the disabled list with a foot injury, the Giants asked him to focus on dropping some weight, according to CSNBayArea.com's Andrew Baggarly, something that has been an ongoing struggle for the "Kung Fu Panda" since his major league debut in 2008.

    With the defending World Series champions sitting in last place in the NL West, the pressure is on for Sandoval to not only pick up his level of play, but to do what needs to be done to ensure that he stays on the field for the rest of the second half.

    Otherwise, the team may be best served by moving him elsewhere, something that B/R's Jason Martinez suggested earlier this week.

Seattle Mariners: Dustin Ackley

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    2013 Stats: .197/.257/.243, 1 HR, 10 RBI

     

    The second overall pick in the 2009 draft, Dustin Ackley has been a massive disappointment since putting together a solid rookie campaign in 2011, when he hit .273 with a .733 OPS and looked like a future star in the middle of Seattle's lineup.

    Things got so bad for Ackley that he was demoted to Triple-A on May 29, and after a successful stint with Triple-A Tacoma that saw him hit .365 with two home runs, 141 RBI and more walks (19) than strikeouts (14), he returned to Seattle at the end of June.

    Unfortunately, that success has not carried over, and the now part-time player has struggled mightily, hitting only .118 (2-for-17) since returning to Seattle.

    While he's still only 25 years old, the pressure is on for Ackley to prove that he's part of the future in Seattle, not just another quadruple-A player—too good for the minors but not good enough for big league action.

St. Louis Cardinals: Jon Jay

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    2013 Stats: .244/.323/.338, 5 HR, 36 RBI

     

    After establishing himself as one of baseball's most underrated players over the past three years, hitting .300 with a .773 OPS in relative anonymity, Jon Jay has struggled mightily in 2013 and finds himself part of a center field platoon with the equally underwhelming Shane Robinson.

    Jay's biggest issues have been hitting against left-handed pitching, something that he had never had problems with before this season.

    With top prospect Oscar Tavares expected to arrive in St. Louis next year, Jay has half of a season to prove that he's still part of the team's long-term plans, not as a fourth outfielder but as an everyday starter in center field.

Tampa Bay Rays: David Price

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    2013 Stats: 2-4, 4.65 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 59/14 K/BB

     

    Last year's American League Cy Young Award winner, David Price was largely ineffective through his first nine starts of the season, going 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA before missing more than a month of action due to a hamstring injury.

    He looked sharp in his first start back, throwing seven innings of three-hit, shutout ball against Houston on July 2, and the pressure is on for Price to continue to throw like the elite starter he's shown that he's capable of being, especially with Tampa Bay sitting in fourth place in an American League East race that is anyone's for the taking.

    More importantly, the cash-strapped Rays are unlikely to be able to keep Price for much longer as his salary continues to rise in arbitration, and a healthy, productive Price could be a huge trade chip for the Rays this coming winter, when he'll still be under team control for another two seasons.

Texas Rangers: Elvis Andrus

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    2013 Stats: .243/.298/.285, 0 HR, 30 RBI

     

    Over the first four seasons of his career, Elvis Andrus was a two-time All-Star who posted a solid .275/.342/.353 slash line. His ability to get on base consistently allowed him to take advantage of his biggest weapon, his speed, causing issues for opposing pitchers whenever he got on base.

    That hasn't been the case this season, as Andrus has struggled to get on base with any consistency and has dropped to the bottom-third of the team's lineup, as the Rangers simply cannot afford to have such an unproductive player sitting ahead of the team's biggest run producers.

    The pressure is on for Andrus to return to form, once again becoming a reliable, dangerous weapon at the top of the team's lineup.

Toronto Blue Jays: R.A. Dickey

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    2013 Stats: 8-8, 4.59 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 82/42 K/BB

     

    While you could certainly make a case for Toronto's other two struggling veteran starters, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey has to be the one feeling the most pressure heading into the second half of the season.

    Dickey has looked nothing like the pitcher who went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA for the Mets in 2012, allowing at least six earned runs in six starts this season, including in two of his last five.

    While he has shown signs of life, allowing only two earned runs and eight hits over his last 16 innings of work, Dickey has been far too inconsistent in 2013, especially when you consider the high price that the Blue Jays paid to acquire him from the Mets this past winter.

    If Toronto is going to make a serious run at a playoff berth this season, Dickey needs to build off of his last two starts and continue to throw the ball effectively and confidently. The Blue Jays have no chance of reaching the postseason without him performing at the top of his game.

Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper

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    2013 Stats: .267/.371/.558, 13 HR, 24 RBI

     

    With Bryce Harper in the lineup this season, Washington has posted a winning record, going 28-26. Without him, the Nationals are below .500, with a record of 16-21.

    After missing more than a month with a knee injury, Harper returned to action in a big way on July 1, taking Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo deep in his first at-bat.

    Unfortunately for Harper, that's been his only hit since returning from the disabled list, and the pressure is on for the reigning National League Rookie of the Year to get going, as Washington has no chance of catching Atlanta for the National League East lead without a productive Harper in the middle of the lineup.