10 Most Crucial Linchpins to the Upcoming 2014 MLB Season

Alex Espinoza@AlexEspinozaIVCorrespondent IIIFebruary 15, 2014

10 Most Crucial Linchpins to the Upcoming 2014 MLB Season

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    Brian Kersey/Getty Images

    At long last, MLB spring training has taken hold in Arizona and Florida.

    As position players trickle in early to join the pitchers and catchers, full-squad workouts are just around the corner. Looking ahead to 2014, we have a good idea of who will be contending for playoff spots come September.

    In no particular order, here's a look at 10 key players who will play roles in shaping the postseason picture. Some are veterans, some are young up-and-comers and others are bona fide superstars trying to carry their teams, but all will be worth following throughout the year.

RHP Yu Darvish, Rangers

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    For all of the offense that the Texas Rangers have acquired this offseason, it won't mean much if their pitching staff can't hold things together.

    Once Derek Holland suffered a knee injury this offseason, the depth in Texas' rotation took a big hit. Behind ace Yu Darvish, the team's other top arms are Matt Harrison, who essentiallly missed all of 2013 due to injury, and second-year southpaw Martin Perez, who is trying to follow up his solid rookie year.

    Even more responsibility falls on Darvish now that Holland is gone until midseason. If he can't win games with a revamped lineup that features Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus setting the table for Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre and Alexis Rios, the Rangers are in trouble. 

OF Billy Hamilton, Reds

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    The 2014 Cincinnati Reds won't have the same look as their 2013 counterparts.

    Much of that has to do with the situation at the leadoff spot and in center field, where speedster Billy Hamilton is set to take over for Shin-Soo Choo, who signed a seven-year, $130 million contract with the Texas Rangers this offseason.

    Choo was able to secure such a huge payday after establishing himself as an elite table-setter for the Reds, batting .285/.423/.462 with 21 homers, 54 RBI, 20 stolen bases and 112 walks. He was the big catalyst for this imposing lineup that features sluggers like Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce, and now Hamilton will have to do the same if Cincinnati wants to stay competitive in the National League Central.

    Hamilton is known for stealing bases—he stole 155 in 132 minor league games in 2012—but with a .280 lifetime average and no power, his skills with the bat have been questioned. He'll be an upgrade on the basepaths and in the field, but his impact on the lineup will also be closely watched this year.

OF Oscar Taveras, Cardinals

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    After he signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals this offseason, shortstop Jhonny Peralta is expected to step right in and make major contributions to the team.

    Top prospect outfielder Oscar Taveras is more of a wild card after being limited to just 46 games in 2013 due to injury. But in his last full season of action in 2012, Taveras hit .321/.380/.572 with 23 homers, 94 RBI, 42 walks and 52 strikeouts in 124 Double-A contests.

    Speedy veteran Peter Bourjos, acquired from the Los Angeles Angels for David Freese this offseason, is currently slated to be in center field, but Taveras could earn the job with a big spring training. The 21-year-old was recently declared "100 percent" by Cards general manager John Mozeliak, per Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com, and his camp will be closely watched by St. Louis' brass and fans alike.

    If the talented left-handed hitter can provide anything close to the production that Carlos Beltran put up for the Cardinals in 2013, watch out.

IF Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox

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    Shortstop Stephen Drew is still a free agent as spring training gets started up, meaning top prospect Xander Bogaerts is penciled in as the team's starting shortstop for now.

    Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe described the scene in Florida earlier this week.

    Xander Bogaerts took a few ground balls at third base last Friday. That ended when Red Sox manager John Farrell arrived at JetBlue Park over the weekend.

    “He told me to go to shortstop and not to worry about third base,” Bogaerts said Wednesday after a lengthy workout. “I hope that means something good for me.”

    Bogaerts made a late cameo with the Red Sox last year and helped the team win a World Series, after batting .297.388/.477 with 15 homers, 67 RBI, 63 walks and 95 strikeouts in Triple-A. He's also known to be slick with the glove and the way things stand now, he'll be counted on to play a huge role for the defending champs.


1B Albert Pujols, Angels

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    With an influx of new talent like Robinson Cano, Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, the American League West is expected to be very competitive again in 2014.

    The Los Angeles Angels served as spectators to the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers throughout much of 2013 despite assembling a super lineup with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Pujols was essentially playing on one leg all year before eventually suffering a season-ending heel injury on July 26 trying to run to first base.

    But Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times reported that Pujols is feeling healthy, lean and optimistic going into this season. His production, and Hamilton's, could be huge in determining this division, especially now that Texas lefty Derek Holland (knee) is out until midseason and Seattle righty Hisashi Iwakuma (finger) will start the season on the disabled list.

OF Yasiel Puig, Dodgers

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    The Los Angeles Dodgers were a completely different team once Yasiel Puig reached the majors in 2013, as they went 23-32 before his promotion and 59-38 after it.

    But the word from Dodgers spring training on Friday is that Puig is dealing with a shoulder injury and the team has already scaled back his throwing program, per Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com.

    "With Yasiel, it usually goes full speed and we'd like to try to build it up instead of seeing if he can throw it from the wall to the plate the first day. Maybe the second," manager Don Mattingly joked, via Saxon. "Just trying to hold it up and build it up like everybody else."

    Puig is known for being aggressive, but he plans to dial it back a little bit this year, according to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. The young Cuban star isn't off to a good start, but with Matt Kemp not even running the basepaths yet, per Saxon, and limited depth on the infield, Puig's health and production will be a big storyline to follow all year.

OF Andrew McCutchen, Pirates

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    The Pittsburgh Pirates were a surprise playoff team in 2013, ending a 21-year playoff drought in style behind National League MVP Andrew McCutchen.

    If the club wants to make back-to-back postseason appearances, it'll need another monster year from their man in the middle. McCutchen batted .317/.404/.508 with 21 homers, 84 RBI, 27 stolen bases and stellar defense in center field last year.

    The Pirates have other threats in the lineup like slugging third baseman Pedro Alvarez, but McCutchen is the heart and soul of this team.

C Evan Gattis, Braves

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    Longtime catcher and offensive mainstay Brian McCann has left the Atlanta Braves for the big bucks in the Bronx after signing a five-year, $85 million contract with the New York Yankees this winter. That leaves the door open for journeyman and surprise 2013 contributor Evan Gattis, who started 38 games behind the plate last year and 47 in the outfield.

    "It's a game of adjustments, and I've made adjustments my whole life, so we'll see what happens," Gattis told Michael Burns of USA Today. "I'll just compete."

    Gattis' unique journey has been well-documented, as he was out of baseball for four years while he dealt with personal issues before taking up a host of odd jobs and then eventually getting back into the sport.

    The 27-year-old batted .243/.291/.480 with 21 homers and 65 RBI in 105 contests last year and will be counted on to help fill the big void left by McCann for the defending National League East champs.

RHP Sonny Gray, Athletics

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    Young right-hander Sonny Gray is expected to make a big leap in 2014 and the Oakland Athletics will need it if they want to win a third straight division title in the American League West.

    Gray showed his massive potential last year in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Detroit Tigers, when he tossed eight shutout innings while squaring off against Justin Verlander, helping the A's claim a walkoff 1-0 win. He made 12 appearances (10 starts) in the regular season, going 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA, 2.70 FIP, 1.11 WHIP and 9.4 K/9 rate.

    The 24-year-old's repertoire is highlighted by a nasty breaking ball that can fool hitters. With 2013 ace Bartolo Colon gone to the New York Mets and stars like Robinson Cano, Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo joining the AL West, the A's will need Gray to pick up the slack. 

OF Bryce Harper, Nationals

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    The Washington Nationals missed out on the playoffs in 2013 with an 86-76 record despite having one of the most talented rosters in baseball.

    Bryce Harper has been a household name since he was in high school and he's got two MLB seasons under his belt now, but the 21-year-old is still scratching the surface. From 2012-13, Harper batted .272/.353/.481 with yearly averages of 21 homers, 58 RBI and 14 stolen bases.

    But much bigger things are expected from a franchise player like Harper, who is feeling cautiously optimistic as he recovers from offseason knee surgery, per Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post.

    With Doug Fister joining an already stacked pitching staff, all the pieces are there for the Nationals to do big things in 2014. A next-level season from Harper would do wonders in the middle of the lineup.