All 30 MLB Teams' Biggest X-Factor as 2014 Season Gets Underway
Every MLB team has question marks heading into the 2014 MLB season—some more than others, of course—and there is at least one X-factor that can be pointed to on each team's roster as a result.
Whether it is a young player stepping into a key role, an injury-plagued player staying healthy or, in some instances, an entire group of players helping turn a weakness on the team into a strength, each team's key area is different.
So with the 2014 season officially in full swing, here is a look at all 30 MLB teams' biggest X-factor for success in the year ahead.
Baltimore Orioles: Prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman
The Baltimore Orioles rotation still lacks a true staff ace heading into 2014, but it does look to be a better group overall with the addition of Ubaldo Jimenez in free agency and a full season of deadline acquisition Bud Norris as well.
Those two will be joined by incumbents Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez to form a staff that I recently ranked No. 16 in an article breaking down all 30 rotations.
If the staff is going to go from middle of the pack to above average, it will take the emergence of top prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Those two have front-line stuff and are capable of making a huge impact if they can put it all together in Baltimore.
Boston Red Sox: SS Xander Bogaerts
The highest-scoring offense in baseball last season, the Boston Red Sox waved goodbye to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Stephen Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury in free agency this offseason. Veterans A.J. Pierzynski and Grady Sizemore will fill two of those holes, but the shortstop vacancy will go to top prospect Xander Bogaerts.
The 21-year-old enters the season ranked as the No. 2 prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America. He hit .297/.388/.477 in the minors last year, then turned in a big postseason, eventually overtaking Will Middlebrooks as the starting third baseman in the World Series.
The team still has a potent enough offense that there won't be a ton of pressure on him, but he has the tools to make an immediate impact. If he can turn in an All-Star-caliber season, an already dangerous team will be that much better.
New York Yankees: The Health of the Infield
There are a number of X-factors to choose from for the New York Yankees. The impact of rookie pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, the bounce-back chances of CC Sabathia, their trio of new offensive weapons and first-time closer David Robertson in a new-look bullpen immediately jump to mind.
We'll go with the health of their infield as the biggest X-factor, though, as three of their four Opening Day starters missed significant time last year and the fourth served as a utility player last season.
First baseman Mark Teixeira (15 games, wrist), shortstop Derek Jeter (17 games, ankle) and new second baseman Brian Roberts (77 games, hamstring) played a combined 109 games last season, while Kelly Johnson played 118 over four different defensive positions.
There's not much depth behind them, so keeping those four on the field will be important. The offense should be improved either way with the additions of Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Ellsbury, but if those four are productive, it could be one of the best around.
Tampa Bay Rays: RF Wil Myers
The Tampa Bay Rays pulled the trigger on a huge deal last offseason, shipping workhorse starter James Shields to a the Kansas City Royals for a package of prospects built around reigning Minor League Player of the Year Wil Myers.
He opened the season in the minors but made his major league debut June 18 and went on to win AL Rookie of the Year by hitting .293/.354/.478 with 23 doubles and 13 home runs over 335 at-bats.
The 23-year-old hit all over the lineup last year, but he will be slotted in the cleanup spot behind superstar Evan Longoria this season. He has the tools to give the team another 30-homer, 100-RBI threat and is the most dangerous bat it's had alongside Longoria since Carlos Pena. A big year from Myers could mean an AL East title for the Rays.
Toronto Blue Jays: Starting Pitchers Not Named R.A. Dickey or Mark Buehrle
The Toronto Blue Jays entered last season with sky-high expectations but wound up with another last-place finish in the AL East, and it was due in large part to a disappointing rotation.
R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle were both passable starters, going a combined 26-23 with a 4.18 ERA over 47 starts. However, the rest of the rotation was just 20-34 with a 5.39 ERA over the remaining 115 starts, and that was a big reason for their struggles.
Healthy seasons from Drew Hutchison and Brandon Morrow would go a long way in helping the staff turn things around, as both have the stuff to be plus starters. Dustin McGowan fills the No. 5 starter spot for now, but it wouldn't be surprising to see both Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez in the majors at some point this year.
Chicago White Sox: SP Felipe Paulino
The rebuilding Chicago White Sox had a busy offseason, and newcomers like leadoff hitter Adam Eaton and slugging first baseman Jose Abreu could certainly be pointed to as potential X-factors. We'll go with free-agent right-hander Felipe Paulino as the choice here, though.
Chris Sale is back atop the rotation, and the lefty duo of Jose Quintana and John Danks should be solid, with Danks coming off of a nice spring. Rookie Erik Johnson rounds out the staff, and he could be viewed as a potential X-factor as well. But it's Paulino who has a chance to make the rotation a plus.
The 30-year-old was 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA through seven starts in 2012 before Tommy John surgery ended his season, and he missed all of last year recovering. The White Sox took a chance on him with a one-year, $1.5 million deal that includes a $4 million option for next year, and if he can regain his pre-injury form, their rotation could surprise a lot of people.
Cleveland Indians: SP Danny Salazar
On the surface, losing Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir looks like a major blow to the Cleveland Indians' hopes of returning to the postseason. However, the team has a chance to be just as good, if not better, if Danny Salazar can build off of his strong showing down the stretch last year.
Justin Masterson will be the ace of the staff once again, Corey Kluber was perhaps the most underrated pitcher in baseball last season and Zach McAllister has quietly emerged as a solid middle-of-the-rotation arm. Carlos Carrasco opens the season in the No. 5 spot, and there could be some turnover there, but it looks like a solid group if Salazar lives up to expectations.
The 24-year-old had a 3.12 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 65 strikeouts in 52 innings of work last season, before taking the ball in the team's Wild Card Round game. If he can put up similar numbers over a full season, the Indians could have a surprisingly good Nos. 1-3 alongside Masterson and Kluber.
Detroit Tigers: Protecting Miguel Cabrera
The Detroit Tigers made the big decision to trade slugger Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers this offseason. While that landed them an impact leadoff hitter in Ian Kinsler and saved them a ton of money, it did raise one big question: Does the team have enough protection for superstar Miguel Cabrera?
Victor Martinez opens the season hitting in the cleanup spot, and he is coming off of a second half last year in which he led all of baseball with a .361 average. He's not nearly the power threat Fielder was, though, tallying just 14 home runs in 605 at-bats last year.
Behind him will be the trio of Austin Jackson, Alex Avila and Nick Castellanos, and the performance of those three will be paramount in the team staying among the most productive lineups in the MLB. If the team is not producing behind Cabrera, he's not going to see anything to hit.
Kansas City Royals: SP Yordano Ventura
Swapping departed free agent Ervin Santana with workhorse left-hander Jason Vargas was undoubtedly a downgrade for the Kansas City Royals, but their rotation still has a chance to be better as a whole thanks to rookie right-hander Yordano Ventura.
The 22-year-old was 8-6 with a 3.14 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 134.1 innings of work in the minors last season, and he beat out Danny Duffy for the final rotation spot this spring. With a fastball that he routinely dials up to triple digits and a developing curveball/changeup combination, the stuff is there for him to be a star.
James Shields should be in for a big season in a contract year, and the veteran trio of Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen are reliable middle-of-the-rotation arms. That leaves Ventura as the difference-maker here, and with the Royals eyeing a trip to the postseason, he is undoubtedly their biggest X-factor.
Minnesota Twins: Starting Rotation
The Minnesota Twins got an MLB-worst 5.26 ERA from their starting pitchers last season, and they worked to rectify that this winter with the signings of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes.
Chances are they are headed for another last-place finish in the AL Central, but if they have any hopes of putting together a competitive season, it will hinge on the performance of their retooled staff.
Veterans Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia are back as well, while former top prospect Kyle Gibson claimed the No. 5 starter job. There is some depth should someone go down with an injury, but at the end of the day, it is a group of middle-of-the-road arms. This is clearly a team looking to the future, but a solid performance by the rotation could at least make the Twins easier to watch in 2014.
Houston Astros: CF George Springer
The Houston Astros have three straight 100-loss seasons under their belt as they continue to rebuild and appear ticketed for another last-place finish in 2014.
The future is bright, though, as they have assembled one of the better farm systems in baseball, and a number of top prospects should make their way to Houston at some point in the year ahead.
Chief among those prospects is outfielder George Springer, who hit .303/.411/.600 with 37 home runs, 108 RBI and 45 stolen bases last season. He was 9-for-36 with a double and a home run this spring before being reassigned to minor league camp and could be in Houston by midseason.
The Astros are banking on a number of prospects panning out and living up to their potential, and a solid rookie season from Springer would be a big step forward in the rebuilding process.
Los Angeles Angels: SP Tyler Skaggs
A case can be made for getting production out of the high-priced duo of Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols as the biggest X-factor for the Los Angeles Angels, but we'll go with the pitching side of things instead.
Last season, the duo of Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson was strong again and Garrett Richards showed some potential after moving to the rotation, but the back of the rotation was a disaster. That led to the blockbuster trade of slugger Mark Trumbo, with the team picking up left-handers Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs in a three-team trade.
Santiago was terrific for the White Sox the last two seasons while splitting time between the rotation and bullpen, but Skaggs remains a question mark. His minor league numbers have been strong, but he's gone just 3-6 with a 5.43 ERA in 13 big league starts the past two years. If he can step up and provide a plus arm out of the No. 5 starter spot, the Angels could make a run at the AL West title.
Oakland Athletics: SP Sonny Gray
With Bartolo Colon gone in free agency and Jarrod Parker lost for the season to Tommy John surgery, the Oakland Athletics turned to 24-year-old Sonny Gray to take the ball on Opening Day, and he will be paramount to the team's success this year.
With A.J. Griffin also on the shelf to start the season, the A's starting pitching depth is being tested early, and it will fall to Gray and free-agent signing Scott Kazmir to carry the staff.
After going 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA and 9.4 K/9 in 12 games (10 starts) during the regular season last year, Gray threw eight shutout innings in Game 2 of the ALDS and pitched fairly well again in Game 5 despite taking the loss. His future is bright, and the A's need that future to be now with him slotted atop the rotation.
Seattle Mariners: The Health of Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker
The Seattle Mariners were as active as anyone this offseason, signing a trio of hitters in Robinson Cano, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison as well as a new closer in Fernando Rodney, among eight newcomers on the Opening Day roster.
Those additions were at the very least expected to make the team competitive in the AL West, but the Mariners start the season with a patchwork starting rotation after Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker dealt with injuries this spring.
Iwakuma finished third in AL Cy Young voting last season, while Walker checked in at No. 11 on the Baseball America Top 100 and third among all pitching prospects, and they were expected to form a dynamic Nos. 1-3 with Felix Hernandez. Getting them back healthy will be key to any hopes the Mariners have of competing.
Texas Rangers: Relievers-Turned-Starters Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross
The Texas Rangers looked to be gearing up for a run at the AL West title with the offseason additions of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, and they are still a dangerous team thanks to their offense, but the pitching staff has been hit hard.
With Derek Holland out until midseason following knee surgery and the long-term health of Matt Harrison still up in the air, the team was already scrambling to fill out its rotation, and then ace Yu Darvish landed on the DL at the end of camp with a sore neck.
Martin Perez is still there, and Darvish is not expected to miss time beyond those 15 games, but the staff remains a question mark. A pair of key setup relievers from last season, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross, ended up with starting jobs out of camp, and both have the talent to make an impact.
Atlanta Braves: SP Ervin Santana
No team was hit harder by injuries this spring than the Atlanta Braves, as Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy are both set to undergo the second Tommy John surgery of their careers and a third projected starter in Mike Minor opened the season on the DL with shoulder tendinitis.
That left the Opening Day rotation as Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Aaron Harang and David Hale, with the No. 5 starter job to be passed over until the team needs one April 12.
The hope is that late-spring signing Ervin Santana will be ready by then, with Minor and Tommy John returnee Gavin Floyd also expected back soon after. The Braves are still in a position to make a run at a playoff spot, provided they can keep things close early, and Santana will be the key to the rotation with Medlen and Beachy both gone for the season.
Miami Marlins: The Health of Giancarlo Stanton
The Miami Marlins may have lost 100 games last season, but it was through no fault of their starting rotation. They combined to post a 3.87 ERA as a group, which was good for eighth in the National League and 13th in MLB.
On the other hand, the offense struggled mightily, hitting just .231 as a team and scoring an MLB-low 513 runs on the season. That led to a bevy of additions this offseason, as Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, Casey McGehee, Rafael Furcal and Jeff Baker were all signed as free agents.
Giancarlo Stanton is still at the center of it all offensively, though, as the big slugger piled up 117 home runs in his first four seasons in the league. He has as much raw power as anyone in baseball but was limited to just 116 games last year due to a hamstring injury. Keeping him healthy will be the key to turning the offense around.
New York Mets: The Bullpen
As a unit, the New York Mets bullpen was not great last season, posting a 3.98 ERA to rank 22nd in the MLB. Closer Bobby Parnell and left-handed setup man Scott Rice were decent homegrown arms, but the rest of the pen was pieced together with low-cost veterans.
In fact, LaTroy Hawkins, Brandon Lyon, Scott Atchison, Pedro Feliciano and David Aardsma were all non-roster invites last spring that wound up playing a significant role. Hawkins in particular was leaned on heavily, and he was one of the few bright spots.
All five of those guys have since moved on, and the team took a similar approach to filling things out this spring with the additions of Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth. Parnell has already landed on the DL with a partially torn elbow ligament, though he will opt for rehab over surgery, according to Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News. That leaves Valverde as the closer, and it could be a long season trying to protect leads with the group the Mets have.
Philadelphia Phillies: 1B Ryan Howard
With an aging core of superstars and little in the way of young reinforcements, it appears that the Philadelphia Phillies' window to contend for a title has slammed shut at this point. Rebuilding is the obvious next step, but that is easier said than done given the money they have tied up in a handful of big names.
One of those names is Ryan Howard, who has three years and $75 million remaining on his current deal, with an option year after that for $23 million that will cost $10 million to buy out.
Once one of the most dangerous sluggers in the game, the 34-year-old has not been the same since suffering a ruptured Achilles during the 2011 postseason. He's been limited to just 151 games combined over the past two years, hitting .244/.307/.445 with 25 home runs in 546 at-bats.
The power is still there, and if he can stay on the field and contribute 30-plus home runs in the middle of the Phillies lineup, it would go a long way in making their offense more productive.
Washington Nationals: The Health of Bryce Harper
Last season, Bryce Harper looked like a bona fide NL MVP candidate through the end of May, with a .973 OPS, 12 home runs and 23 RBI over his first 150 at-bats.
Knee bursitis landed him on the DL on May 27, though, and he wound up missing 31 games, returning July 1. Various other bumps and bruises cost him time throughout the year as well, thanks in large part to his all-out style of play, and when all was said and done, he had played just 118 games.
In those 118 games when he was in the lineup, the Washington Nationals were 65-53 and looked like a playoff-caliber team. On the other hand, when he was not in the lineup, the team went just 21-23.
Aside from his obvious skill and improving offensive game, it's clear Harper is a spark plug for the rest of his team. His health will be of the utmost importance if the Nationals home to make a run to the playoffs.
Chicago Cubs: Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo
One of the biggest things the Chicago Cubs front office pointed to when it fired manager Dale Sveum at the end of last season was the disappointing performance of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, two budding stars that were expected to be integral pieces of the rebuilding efforts.
Castro, fresh off of back-to-back All-Star appearances, had piled up 529 hits over his first three seasons and had a .297 career average heading in 2013. That average fell to .245 last season, though, and his .631 OPS was a full 122 points lower than it was in 2012.
Rizzo had posted an .805 OPS with 15 home runs in 337 at-bats in his first years with the Cubs in 2012, and over a full season of at-bats, the team envisioned him quickly blossoming into a 30-homer, 100-RBI bat in the middle of the lineup. Instead, his OPS dropped to .742 and he managed just 23 home runs and 80 RBI while hitting just .233.
With both players entering their age-24 seasons, there is still plenty of time to put the pieces together. Above all else, a return to form for those two would make the 2014 season a successful one on the North Side.
Cincinnati Reds: CF Billy Hamilton
Billy Hamilton made himself a household name before he ever reached the major leagues, stealing a minor league record 155 bases in 2012 and hitting .311/.410/.420 while he did it.
After one year of on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo manning center field and hitting leadoff, the Reds opted not to spend big to re-sign him and turned things over to Hamilton before spring training even started.
That was a risky move, to say the least, as Hamilton did not exactly flourish in a full season at the Triple-A level last year, hitting just .256/.308/.343. He was impressive down the stretch in Cincinnati, though, and he had a big spring to solidify himself as the everyday option to open the year. The biggest question now is whether he will get on base enough to make full use of his blazing speed.
Milwaukee Brewers: RF Ryan Braun
A consensus choice as one of the 10 best players in all of baseball entering last season, Ryan Braun saw his 2013 campaign cut short by a 65-game PED suspension stemming from his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal.
Having vehemently denied using after a previous positive test that wound up thrown out due to a technicality, Braun immediately came under fire from fans across the league, including the hometown Milwaukee Brewers fans who felt betrayed by their star.
The fact of the matter, however, is that the Brewers need Braun. After leading the NL in runs scored in 2012, they fell to eighth last season with 136 less runs.
Back in the lineup on Opening Day this season, Braun received a huge ovation from the crowd in Milwaukee. He's not likely to get as warm a welcome on the road this year, but the home fans know what he means to the team's chance of success this season.
Pittsburgh Pirates: SP Jameson Taillon
The Pittsburgh Pirates still look like a strong team heading into the 2014 season, but there is no denying that the loss of veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett in free agency hurts.
Many times I've pointed to the fact that Gerrit Cole, Wandy Rodriguez and Charlie Morton made a combined 51 starts last season as reason for optimism, as full seasons from those three behind ace Francisco Liriano could again make the staff one of the best. That said, that final rotation spot could be an adventure.
Edinson Volquez was signed to a one-year, $5 million deal in hopes that he could find similar magic to what Liriano did last year, but a spring in which he allowed 19 hits and 15 earned runs in 14 innings of work inspired little confidence.
That leaves top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon as the biggest potential X-factor on this team. He has the stuff to make an impact similar to what Cole did when he was called up last year, and if he can be the answer in that No. 5 starter spot, it would be huge for the team's chances of returning to the postseason.
St. Louis Cardinals: Young Starters Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha
The St. Louis Cardinals have been pegged by many, myself included, as the best all-around team in baseball entering the 2014 season. They have no clear weakness on their roster and an enviable amount of depth should injury strike, making them the favorites to win the NL Central once again.
It's hard to point to any one guy or group of guys as the key to success here, only because the Cardinals are such a complete team. But given their title aspirations, the biggest X-factor looks to be the team's two aces in the making, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha.
You know what you're getting from Adam Wainwright atop the staff, as he's one of the best pitchers in the game, and the duo of Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly are what they are at this point. Miller and Wacha are a different story, though, as they have the stuff to be future aces themselves and showed it on several occasions last season. They are also still very young, though, and could suffer through some growing pains.
If they pitch up to their potential, an already great team is that much better. But if either of them struggles, the team does not look nearly as strong come playoff time when starting pitching is the deciding factor.
Arizona Diamondbacks: SP Archie Bradley
A case can be made for catcher Miguel Montero being the X-factor on the Arizona Diamondbacks, as he went from back-to-back seasons with a 4.1 rWAR to just a 0.5 rWAR last year. Right-handed hitter Martin Prado opens the season hitting cleanup between Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo, and getting Montero's left-handed bat going and back in that spot would be huge for the offense.
For my money, though, the starting rotation will be the biggest factor in whether or not the Diamondbacks are contenders in 2014. Already without a bona fide staff ace, the team lost projected Opening Day starter Patrick Corbin to Tommy John surgery in the spring. That leaves it with a solid collection of No. 3 starter types but a subpar rotation overall.
Top prospect Archie Bradley has a chance to be that dominant arm the Diamondbacks are lacking, and while he opens the season in the minors, he will almost certainly be up by midseason. He could step into the role of staff ace by the end of the season, and that would be a huge boost for the team's chances of contending.
Colorado Rockies: SP Brett Anderson
Starting pitching remains the great mystery for the Colorado Rockies. While they improved their staff greatly from 2012 to 2013, it was still the difference between contending and pretending for them.
The duo of Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin (once he's healthy) is solid, and Tyler Chatwood showed some potential last year as well, but someone else will need to step up if the Rockies have any chance in the NL West. That someone could be left-hander Brett Anderson, who was acquired from the Oakland A's in the offseason.
After going 11-11 with a 4.06 ERA as a 21-year-old rookie in 2009, Anderson has made a grand total of 54 appearances (43 starts) over the past four years. The stuff is still there, and he even took the ball on Opening Day for the A's last year. He needs only to stay on the field, and he could make a huge impact in the Colorado rotation.
Los Angeles Dodgers: CF Matt Kemp
Going back to the 2011 season, which is P.T. (pre-Trout), Matt Kemp was arguably the best all-around player in the game. He was fresh off of a season in which he hit .324/.399/.586 with 39 home runs, 126 RBI and 40 steals to finish second in the NL MVP voting.
He followed that up by hitting a ridiculous .417/.490/.893 with 12 home runs over the first month of the 2012 season, but injuries have slowed him since. It was a hamstring in 2012 and shoulder issues last season before ankle surgery eventually ended his year.
The 29-year-old is still recovering from ankle surgery at this point, and he did not see any action this spring. The Los Angeles Dodgers appear to have gone into the season with the attitude that whatever they get from Kemp this year is gravy, and if he can return and be an impact bat, a dangerous Dodgers team is that much better.
San Diego Padres: 3B Chase Headley
Continued development from the young duo of Yonder Alonso and Jedd Gyorko was my original choice for the San Diego Padres here, but it's hard not to call free-agent-to-be Chase Headley the franchise's biggest X-factor.
Whether it cements his place as a piece of the puzzle long term or makes him a highly sought-after trade chip at the deadline, a return to his 2012 second-half form would make Headley an incredibly value asset for the franchise.
Even a slight up-tick from his 2013 numbers would have teams lining up for a chance to acquire Headley, and for a team still in the process of rebuilding like the Padres, a big return could be just one more step in the right direction. There is always the chance he struggles or is injured, though, and then winds up leaving for nothing in the offseason, so his performance will be huge for the team one way or another.
San Francisco Giants: Starting Rotation
Terrific starting pitching was the calling card of the San Francisco Giants' 2010 and 2012 World Series-winning teams. It was also a big reason why they fell to fourth in the NL West last season. After posting the 3.73 ERA to rank sixth in 2012, their starters fell to 4.37 and 24th in the MLB last year.
Swapping Barry Zito for Tim Hudson can only be looked at as a positive move, and Hudson has shown no ill effects of the ankle surgery that ended his season last year.
Madison Bumgarner was one of the best pitchers in baseball last year and is still only 24 years old, while Matt Cain looked like himself again in the second half of 2013 and should be in for a big year. If Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong can hold their own at the back of the rotation, pitching could carry the Giants once again. If those two struggle and Cain fails to return to form, though, the team could be in for another long season.
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