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25 MLB Players Under the Most Pressure in 2014

Ely SussmanCorrespondent IJanuary 3, 2014

25 MLB Players Under the Most Pressure in 2014

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    The lifestyle of an MLB player seems like a blast, right?

    Yes, unless you're an impending free agent, highly touted young player, oft-injured veteran or something in between. Then there's pressure.

    That's what all professional athletes sign up for. Along with copious amounts of money and fame, you're burdened with responsibilities to your teammates, fans and front-office executives.

    The following 25 guys are either justifying an existing contract or proving themselves worthy of a new one while eyeing the 2014 World Series.

     

    *Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise specified.

25. Joba Chamberlain (Detroit Tigers)

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    Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

    Pitchers who've had success in the not-so-distant past and continue to throw mid-90s heat generally aren't near the end of their careers. That holds true for Joba Chamberlain, who could go through 2014 without retiring a single batter and still create some buzz next winter.

    But the right-hander's only chance at a multi-year contract hinges on his health, and Chamberlain hasn't come close to enduring a full season since 2010.

    The Detroit Tigers are relying on the 28-year-old to bolster their relief corps just like Drew Smyly did last season. Although Chamberlain won't be held to the same standard as closer Joe Nathan, he's easily the most experienced option that this club has prior to the ninth inning.

    The Cleveland Indians were breathing down the Tigers' necks late in 2013. Plus, the other three AL Central teams appear to have substantially improved this offseason.

    Chamberlain's performance could be the difference between another division title and an October spent on the couch. Rest assured, he'll be just as hated in Motown as he was in the Bronx if the latter scenario plays out.

24. Ernesto Frieri (Los Angeles Angels)

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Ernesto Frieri is on the John Axford career path, having risen from anonymity to become a "proven closer." He has racked up 60 saves since joining the Los Angeles Angels in 2012, and because of that, he'll wind up earning north of $3 million in arbitration this coming season, projects Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors.

    Axford was dumped by the Milwaukee Brewers last August when his Frieri-like saves totals bloated his salary and stopped correlating to his mediocre performance. The St. Louis Cardinals non-tendered him a few months later. The Canadian right-hander quickly found another decent job in free agency, but primarily because he excelled for St. Louis in the playoffs.

    Frieri probably won't be as fortunate if his performance wanes.

    If he stinks in 2014, the Angels could simply move newly signed Joe Smith into the ninth inning. And Frieri wouldn't have Axford's appeal once being non-tendered because he has consistently demonstrated below-average command.

    The pressure is on Frieri to make his mechanics more conducive to strike-throwing and save L.A. from yet another summer of underachievement.

23. Michael Morse (San Francisco Giants)

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    Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    Michael Morse has been taking steps in the wrong direction, and that's probably an understatement:

    Michael Morse's MLB Stats
    YearPABA/OBP/SLGHROPS+
    2011575.303/.360/.55031147
    2012430.291/.321/.47018111
    2013337.215/.270/.3811384

    Heading into his age-32 season, this is perhaps Morse's only opportunity to convert a bounce-back year into long-term security. General managers would wrestle one another for his elite raw power next winter if Morse proved himself capable of providing it for an entire season.

    He's joining the San Francisco Giants to solidify left field after last summer's Gregor Blanco/Andres Torres/Juan Perez/Jeff Francoeur/Roger Kieschnick embarrassment. The Giants are knowingly sacrificing defense—Morse is one of this millennium's worst outfielders—to deepen their lineup.

    Coming off two recent World Series titles, San Francisco's fans are more vocal than most others. Who do you think they'll blame if the offense sputters in 2014: beloved regulars like Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt, or the strikeout-prone newcomer?

22. David Robertson (New York Yankees)

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    David Robertson's 1.91 ERA, 2.31 FIP and 33.0 K percentage over the past three seasons are characteristic of a lights-out closer. Among qualified relievers, only Craig Kimbrel and Greg Holland have fared better in terms of fWAR during that period.

    But as a longtime teammate of Mariano Rivera, Robertson has never had the opportunity to settle into the ninth-inning role.

    Will he continue to excel under ultra-high leverage? And will fans embrace the Alabama native as he steps into the cleats of an all-time legend?

    As the New York Yankees push up against the luxury-tax threshold and prioritize starting pitching, it appears that their 2014 bullpen is nearly set. It's not as deep as those that the Yankees have assembled in recent years, which means there's extra pressure on Robertson to protect slim leads.

    Oh, and by the way, he's set to reach free agency at age 29. This summer presents him with the opportunity to break away from the pack and position himself for a huge contract but also the challenge of maintaining his past effectiveness under the brightest spotlight imaginable.

21. Brandon Morrow (Toronto Blue Jays)

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    The good news for Brandon Morrow is that ample evidence points toward him bouncing back in 2014.

    With that said, the consequences could be harsh if he doesn't.

    Although Morrow has flashed the potential of a front-line starter, there are plenty of holes in his resume. The right-hander owns just a 101 OPS+ through parts of seven seasons and has never reached 180 innings pitched in a single summer. If the Toronto Blue Jays declined his $10 million club option for 2015, teams would understandably be reluctant to insert the injury-prone strikeout artist into their own rotations.

    The Jays haven't yet acquired a veteran starting pitcher this offseason, which means that Morrow projects as their No. 3 option. This team can only meet its potential if the 29-year-old blossoms into an innings-eater.

20. Prince Fielder (Texas Rangers)

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Nobody in the Texas Rangers organization wanted to trade Ian Kinsler, Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas writes. Particularly not manager Ron Washington:

    I’ll miss the excitement that he brought every single night, ... I’ll miss his leadership in the clubhouse, leadership on the field. He was a gamer. He showed up every day and represented what the Texas Rangers were all about and what we were trying to do. 

    The club did it because Jurickson Profar's talent demanded an everyday opportunity, and because relinquishing Kinsler brings in Prince Fielder, whose power bat better suits Texas' needs.

    But Fielder is quietly coming off one of his least effective seasons. His defense was horrible as usual at age 29, plus he set a career low in slugging percentage (.457) and a career high by grounding into 20 double plays.

    This All-Star slugger isn't homegrown and certainly isn't cheap; the Rangers will be on the hook for $138 million through 2020.

    Fielder wants to remain at first base, and he wants Texas fans to appreciate him. The only way to achieve both is through elite production at the plate.

19. Rafael Soriano (Washington Nationals)

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Rafael Soriano is chasing a vesting option that would guarantee him $14 million for the 2015 season. He'll need 62 games finished this coming year to trigger it.

    The veteran right-hander actually boosted his saves total from 2012 to 2013—from 42 saves (54 GF) to 43 saves (58 GF)—but regressed in all other areas.

    For the first time in any of his semi-full seasons, Soriano struck out fewer than 20 percent of the batters he faced. His .251 batting average against and six blown saves also represented low points.

    Obtaining that vesting option will require spending the entire summer as the Washington Nationals' closer. Soriano must get off to a hot start, as the Nats surely learned last season how hesitating to make changes could put even an ultra-talented team into too deep of a hole to contend.

    Soriano's main competition on Washington's roster will come in the form of Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, both of whom have ninth-inning experience.

18. Jorge De La Rosa (Colorado Rockies)

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    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Jorge De La Rosa is the most accomplished member of a Colorado Rockies rotation that's devoid of experience.

    He's coming off a quietly superb season in which he started 30 games, and De La Rosa fared especially well during his 14 outings at hitter-friendly Coors Field (10-1, 2.76 ERA, 1.35 WHIP). Replicating that production at age 33 should land him a generous multi-year deal in free agency next winter.

    Homegrown right-hander Jhoulys Chacin is being held to a similarly high standard, but at least Chacin can pitch with the peace of mind that he'll be staying put for 2015.

17. Chase Headley (San Diego Padres)

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    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Chase Headley raised the bar ridiculously high for himself with a breakout 2012 season: .286/.376/.498, 31 home runs and a fifth-place finish in National League MVP voting.

    Yet the winter came and went without a meaty contract extension nor any trade to a surefire contender. Headley wasn't nearly as dominant the following year, as the San Diego Padres once again struggled on the injury front and epitomized irrelevance.

    He's finally an impending free agent.

    The scarcity of available third basemen will ensure that Headley gets paid in free agency. He's in line for Jhonny Peralta money (four years, $52 million).

    However, a rebound to 2012 form could lead to a contract that has substantially more length and average annual value. Headley's production will also go a long way toward determining whether the Padres qualify for the postseason for the first time in his career.

16. Colby Rasmus (Toronto Blue Jays)

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    The Toronto Blue Jays finished eighth in the American League in runs scored last year. A similar effort in 2014 will yield an equally disappointing finish in the standings, considering all the question marks about their starting rotation and the stout competition that perennially spawns from the AL East.

    Colby Rasmus quietly finished second on the club with a .501 slugging percentage in 2013, totaling 49 extra-base hits despite a couple stints on the disabled list. He'll need to produce like that once again to give the Blue Jays a chance at ending their two-decadelong playoff drought.

    Toronto can trust Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion to propel the offense, but what about everybody else?

    Jose Bautista has missed more than 100 games due to injury over the past two seasons, and durability is even less of guarantee for him at age 33. Brett Lawrie has regressed since a standout rookie campaign, while Adam Lind's recent effectiveness looks like an outlier (.724 OPS from 2010-2012, .854 OPS in 2013). A shaky debut with the Jays strongly suggests that Melky Cabrera cannot revert back to All-Star form without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs.

    Unlike Reyes and Encarnacion, Rasmus is playing for his next contract. He roams center field gracefully (courtesy of MLB.com) and only turns 28 in August, so B.J. Upton money—five years, $75.25 million—isn't out of the question.

15. Pablo Sandoval (San Francisco Giants)

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    Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    Also an impending free agent, Pablo Sandoval was born on the same day as Colby Rasmus. Therefore, the youth factor will work in his favor next offseason.

    But he's dealing with the additional pressure of rebounding from a disappointing individual performance and dispelling a perception that he's lazy.

    Sandoval's .278/.341/.417 batting line in 2013 fell far short of his .303/.353/.490 line from five previous MLB seasons. He underachieved in terms of power, defense and baserunning, as evidenced by a career-worst .139 ISO, minus-6.3 UZR/150 and 23 XBT% (a measure of extra bases taken on his teammates' singles and doubles).

    Obesity isn't necessarily to blame for Kung Fu Panda's slump, and it hasn't been responsible for his injuries the past few years, either.

    CSNBayArea.com's Andrew Baggarly points out, however, that it's causing a distraction. Unwanted weight continues to distinguish Sandoval from his peers...in a bad way. Failing to shed those pounds in 2014 will make him less desirable in free agency, as teams will dub him a prime candidate for rapid decline.

14. Yasiel Puig (Los Angeles Dodgers)

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Less than one year after signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Yasiel Puig made his much-anticipated debut.

    From the very first game, he exceeded all expectations. It's not often we can say that about somebody who's signed to a $42 million contract.

    Puig slashed .319/.391/.534 during the final two-thirds of the MLB regular season. That was enough to elevate him into National League Rookie of the Year consideration and get his name on a few NL MVP ballots.

    But his lack of plate discipline was occasionally exploited. Inconveniently, the NLCS was one such occasion, as the 22-year-old struck out 10 times in 23 plate appearances and the Dodgers were eliminated one round short of the World Series.

    The club is so confident in Puig that it has put all three of its veteran outfielders on the trade block (only a few nibbles so far). He's now the face of a franchise that's eternally in win-now mode.

13. Rickie Weeks (Milwaukee Brewers)

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    It was easier to overlook Rickie Weeks' strikeout-prone tendencies when he reached base at an above-average rate and showed some semblance of range at second base.

    But coming off the worst year of his career, a torn hamstring and his 31st birthday, Weeks is earning eight figures from the Milwaukee Brewers in an uncertain role. Scooter Gennett was one of MLB's hottest hitters in Weeks' absence down the stretch, and he'll work for less than one-20th of Weeks' salary in 2014.

    Weeks needs to take his time to fully recover from August surgery then make the most of limited opportunities to restore his reputation. Otherwise, he may never reclaim an everyday job in the big leagues.

12. Josh Beckett (Los Angeles Dodgers)

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Absorbing the remaining two-plus years of Josh Beckett's contract was instantly recognized as a risk for the Los Angeles Dodgers when they acquired the veteran right-hander in August 2012.

    But even given the low expectations that surrounded Beckett's arrival, his impact on the club has been extremely disappointing.

    The former All-Star had a rib removed last July in an attempt to recover from thoracic outlet syndrome, but he posted a shaky 4.07 earned run average in 15 starts for the 2012-2013 Dodgers prior to that surgery. He was struggling to prevent home runs and last into the later innings.

    While the Dodgers are reportedly taking steps toward extending Clayton Kershaw and Hanley Ramirez—per ESPN's Buster Olney and Mark Saxon, respectively—there's no indication that they'll try to do the same for Beckett. It's unclear if he'll even claim a rotation spot; L.A.'s pitching staff is among baseball's deepest, and acquiring either Masahiro Tanaka or David Price would bury Beckett further.

    The stakes are slightly higher for this 33-year-old than for Rickie Weeks because he's accustomed to a higher salary and more accolades. Moreover, Beckett's less-than-amicable personality is difficult to excuse when he's not excelling on the mound.

11. Aroldis Chapman (Cincinnati Reds)

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Former Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker used to closely monitor Aroldis Chapman's workload.

    The overpowering right-hander totaled just 63.2 innings last season, and there were only two appearances in which he pitched more than one inning.

    Expect that to change under Bryan Price's watch. Although a transition into the starting rotation is unlikely for the Cuban-born All-Star, Price indicated to MLB.com's Mark Sheldon that Chapman will pushed to be more than a "single-inning guy."

    Settling into an expanded role could pay huge dividends for Chapman if he can sustain his otherworldly velocity and strikeout rate. But it could also backfire if the strain on his body results in a significant injury, as he's on the verge of free agency.

    Charlie Wilmoth of MLB Trade Rumors illustrates how there's been "a pronounced change" in how teams value closers. Such pitchers are now perceived as very volatile and undeserving of high-paying, long-term deals.

    To establish himself as an exception, Chapman must improve upon the 88.3 percent conversation rate that he's posted in save opportunities since taking the closer's gig in 2012.

10. Josh Johnson (San Diego Padres)

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    Josh Johnson's new $8 million contract with the San Diego Padres will boost his career earnings to nearly $50 million.

    He has an opportunity to triple that lifetime total next winter by reverting back to the ace who posted a 2.14 earned run average (191 ERA+) from 2010 to 2011. Of course, that hinges on his health and how he utilizes Petco Park, the Padres' smooth defense and his own elite swing-and-miss ability.

    Meanwhile, Johnson's worst-case scenario is pretty ugly.

    If the right-hander overexerts himself early in the season and fails to make at least seven starts, San Diego gets a $4 million club option for 2015. That would represent yet another pay cut for Johnson and keep him away from free agency for an extra year.

9. Matt Kemp (Los Angeles Dodgers)

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    Ralph Freso/Getty Images

    Earlier this decade, Matt Kemp might've been the most popular response to the question, "Who is MLB's most talented and durable outfielder?" He epitomized both in 2011 en route to finishing as the runner-up in the NL MVP balloting.

    During the past two seasons, however, Kemp has suffered injuries to his shoulder, hamstring and ankle, altogether spending nearly as much time on the disabled list as he has on the Los Angeles Dodgers' active roster.

    And now Yasiel Puig has sprinted into the picture. Kemp is expendable but not marketable to other teams until he returns to the playing field and demonstrates that he's still dynamic.

8. Francisco Liriano (Pittsburgh Pirates)

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Francisco Liriano botched his previous free-agent experience by posting yucky numbers in his walk year (5.34 ERA, 12.6 BB% in 156.2 IP), then fracturing his nonthrowing arm during the holidays. As a result, he reluctantly settled for an incentive-laden deal.

    The silver lining, though, was that it will allow him to test the open market again at age 31. Another campaign like the one Liriano just enjoyed (3.02 ERA, 9.5 BB% in 161.0 IP) could put him in line for an enormous payday.

    But let's not look that far ahead—the reigning National League Comeback Player of the Year has a lot of responsibility as part of the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates.

    The Bucs have made little progress toward a new deal with A.J. Burnett. It looks increasingly likely that Edinson Volquez will occupy his spot in the rotation, and going from Burnett to last season's NL leader in earned runs is an obvious downgrade.

    Liriano will be pressured to provide more innings than he ever has so that the bullpen can be spared for days when Volquez takes the mound. Otherwise, Pittsburgh's key relievers could suffer from overuse and fail to replicate their 2013 brilliance.

7. Jacoby Ellsbury (New York Yankees)

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Jacoby Ellsbury has crossed over to the dark side, allowing himself to be wooed away from the world champion Boston Red Sox by the New York Yankees' seven-year, $153 million guarantee.

    His primary objective will be to distance himself from Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth with a productive debut. Both of those outfielders inked similarly enormous deals in free agency, but they haven't come close to justifying them. In six total seasons of clogging their teams' payrolls, Crawford and Werth remain pennantless, and injuries have limited their individual impacts.

    Ellsbury left the Red Sox, an organization poised for both immediate and long-term contention, for the stubborn Yankees, who missed the playoffs entirely in 2013 and refuse to go through any sort of rebuild. Burdened by bad contracts, New York fans would direct much of their outrage toward Ellsbury if his signing goes sour early.

6. Robinson Cano (Seattle Mariners)

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Robinson Cano finally has his money—$240 million guaranteed over the next decade.

    The problem is, he doesn't have much of a supporting cast.

    If Dustin Ackley is the projected leadoff man, per MLBDepthCharts, and Corey Hart—coming off two knee surgeries—is Cano's primary source of lineup protection, then the Seattle Mariners won't win many games.

    Thankfully, there are plenty of impactful free agents still on the market. The expectation is that Cano will "recruit" them with his Hall of Fame-caliber talent and wide smile, which isn't really a fair expectation, especially now that The Seattle Times' Geoff Baker has aired the front office's dirty laundry.

    Then, of course, Cano has to perform on the field and validate his paychecks by posting huge power numbers at Safeco Field, a notoriously pitcher-friendly ballpark.

    Good luck!

5. Max Scherzer (Detroit Tigers)

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    Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

    As was mentioned earlier, Drew Smyly is set to join the Detroit Tigers rotation in their quest for a fourth consecutive AL Central title. He'll be hard-pressed to mimic the production of Doug Fister, the lanky right-hander whose 208.2 innings pitched went criminally underappreciated last season.

    The baseball world was more fixated on Justin Verlander. His solid-yet-un-Verlander-like campaign raised concerns as to whether he'll ever revert back to his near-invincible 2011-2012 state.

    Those developments push reigning AL Cy Young Award-winner Max Scherzer into an integral role.

    He's under additional pressure from the baseball traditionalists, who were mesmerized by his 21-3 record. Old-school media members won't make his life any easier by pestering him when—due to factors obviously beyond his control—he fails to match that .875 winning percentage.

    Moreover, Scherzer will enter free agency about three months after his 30th birthday. Confirming that he's a true superstar (not just a strikeout machine) will dramatically influence the terms of his next contract.

4. James Shields (Kansas City Royals)

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    The Kansas City Royals enter 2014 with their highest expectations of the past quarter-century. Anything less than a playoff berth will be met with moans and groans from both fans and club executives.

    But ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick seriously doubts that right-hander Ervin Santana, a surprise star on the 2013 roster, will return to bolster the starting rotation:

    The $$ designated for Santana has already gone to free agents Jason Vargas and Omar Infante. #royals

    — Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) December 19, 2013

    That places even more pressure on James Shields' shoulders. 

    With Santana out of the picture, there's now a steep drop-off from Shields to the other starters. The only other durable arms belong to Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas, neither of whom consistently induces swings and misses or prevents home runs. 

    Although Francisco Liriano and Max Scherzer have a lot on their minds, at least they don't have Father Time as an opponent. Shields will turn 33 next December, and with his contract expiring at season's end, this is probably his final opportunity to get the kind of salary that his skills merit.

3. Masahiro Tanaka (Free Agent)

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    Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

    Those who have closely evaluated Masahiro Tanaka concur—he's no Yu Darvish.

    His 2013 stats may have been eye-popping, but more accurate major league comparisons for Tanaka include Hiroki Kuroda and Dan Haren. He's likely to settle in as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter, rather than dominate his era as a perennial Cy Young Award contender.

    Nonetheless, Ben Badler of Baseball America and other industry insiders suspect that winning the bidding for his services will require a Zack Greinke-like commitment (six years, $147 million). Such a deal would be unprecedented for an international free agent and put Tanaka at risk of being the biggest foreign-born flop of all time.

    The right-handed splitter specialist was abused in Nippon Professional Baseball, writes Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. He'll just have to rub some dirt on it and make a strong first impression against the world's highest level of competition.

2. Ryan Braun (Milwaukee Brewers)

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    Ryan Braun betrayed all of the diehard Milwaukee Brewers fans as well as the organization itself, which had made him the highest-paid player in its history.

    But that will be water under the bridge once the 2014 season gets underway. Braun's suspension for Biogenesis involvement has been served, and the Brewers get the opportunity to begin anew after finishing a distant fourth in the NL Central last year.

    If the former league MVP expects to be the figure that it builds around for the next half-decade, he needs to remind the city why he's deserving of being the centerpiece.

    And that begins by regaining his power stroke. For the first time in his career, Braun posted a sub-.500 slugging percentage in 2013, and he headed into hiding while riding a 20-game homerless streak.

1. Alex Rodriguez (New York Yankees)

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    The Record's Bob Klapisch tweets that Alex Rodriguez could learn the fate of his drawn-out arbitration case at any moment:

    Told MLB is expecting decision on ARod appeal very early in January, possibly right after New Year’s.

    — Bob Klapisch (@BobKlap) December 23, 2013

    It's really a lose-lose-lose predicament for him.

    If the 211-game PED suspension stands, then A-Rod will sit out for the entire 2014 season, as well as the first couple months of 2015. And he won't get paid for any of that missed time.

    Perhaps arbitrator Fredric Horowitz will overturn Bud Selig's ban, allowing the 38-year-old third baseman to return to the New York Yankees immediately. With his contract nudging it dramatically above the luxury-tax threshold, he'd be the scapegoat if the club decided to abandon its pursuit of Masahiro Tanaka.

    Horowitz could also choose to reduce the suspension to, say, 50 or 100 games. Again, that would severely limit the Yankees' payroll flexibility while making it very doable for A-Rod to surpass Willie Mays on the all-time home run list—Mays had 660, he has 654—and collect a $6 million milestone bonus.

    Winning cures (almost) everything, but Rodriguez slashed just .244/.348/.423 last year on his surgically repaired hip. Contributing to a championship team in the twilight of his career without causing a clubhouse disruption could prove a lot of experts wrong and salvage his otherwise tarnished legacy.

     

    Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.

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