MLB's 25 Most Important Players in 2014

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistMay 6, 2014

MLB's 25 Most Important Players in 2014

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    john bazemore/Associated Press

    What follows is my take on the 25 most important players for the 2014 MLB season. Each of these guys made my list for a different reason, and there's no doubt that your list of 25 likely differs greatly from mine, but I've attempted to explain my reason for each choice as best I can.

    A player could earn the distinction of being one of the 25 most important players in 2014 for one of the following reasons:

    • He has dealt with some injuries in the past and absolutely must stay healthy for his team to contend.
    • He would make a huge difference if he could pick up his production, but he is off to a slow start.
    • He represents a cornerstone piece of a rebuilding team and must continue improving.
    • He is likely to be on the trade block come July and could be a second-half X-factor for a contender.

    So it is important to realize that this is by no means a list of the top 25 players in baseball. In fact, you won't see the likes of Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera or Clayton Kershaw on the list that follows.

    Instead, it's a collection of guys who are capable of being a significant X-factor for their team in one way or another, whether it's in terms of helping it get to the playoffs, helping it take the next step in their rebuilding effort or netting it a big return on the trade market.

    So here is my take on the 25 most important players in MLB for the 2014 season and my reasoning behind each selection.

     

    All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference, unless otherwise noted.

SS Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    After saying goodbye to Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia in free agency, the Boston Red Sox have seen their runs-per-game total drop from an MLB-best 5.27 last season to 4.16 so far this year.

    A number of guys can be pointed to as needing to pick up their productioncenter field in particular has been a major issue to this pointbut the one guy that can truly be a difference maker for the offense is rookie Xander Bogaerts.

    The 21-year-old is hitting .280/.394/.374 with seven doubles and one home run so far this season, and if he can turn into more of a run-producer alongside David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, it could make a huge impact. The potential is certainly there for him to be a star; it's just a question of whether or not he will be one this year.

LF Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    In 2012, the Milwaukee Brewers boasted the highest-scoring offense in the National League. They dropped off to eighth in the league last year and won nine less games than the previous season in the process.

    Injuries to Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart certainly played a role in the drop-off, but the the biggest factor was superstar Ryan Braun playing just 61 games due to a right thumb issue and a 65-game PED suspension.

    With a plus rotation and one of the best bullpens around, offense looks like the biggest X-factor for the Brewers at this point, and Braun has already hit the DL with an oblique strain. The team is going to need him to stay healthy and consistently productive in the middle of the lineup if they hope to remain legitimate contenders in 2014.

DH Billy Butler, Kansas City Royals

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    Paul Battaglia/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    Were it not for their first-half offensive struggles last season, the Kansas City Royals may very well have made their way into the postseason for the first time since 1985. Instead, they settled for their first winning season since 2003.

    They looked poised to improve upon last year's finish after upgrading at second base (Omar Infante) and in right field (Nori Aoki), but they have struggled to consistently score runs once again. They are currently averaging just 3.90 runs per game and have a minus-14 run differential despite some solid pitching.

    A number of guys are off to slow starts, but Billy Butler (.241/.302/.313, 5 2B, 1 HR, 12 RBI) is the key. He had an .882 OPS with 29 home runs and 107 RBI back in 2012, and if he can return to that elite form in the middle of the Royals lineup, it would be huge.

    He also has a $12.5 million option with a $1 million buyout next season before becoming a free agent in 2016, so if the Royals wind up falling out of the race over the next two months, he could potentially wind up as the most attractive bat on the trade market.

SP Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    Offense is not going to be an issue for the Colorado Rockies this season, as they are currently hitting .300 as a team and averaging 5.71 runs per game. They have the pieces to continue that pace and lead all of baseball in scoring this year.

    As always, pitching will be the deciding factor in whether or not they contend. They currently have a 4.25 ERA as a team (21st in MLB) and a 4.25 ERA from their starters (20th in MLB), which is an improvement over last season but still an issue.

    They have some solid arms, but Jhoulys Chacin is the one guy on the staff with the potential to be a bona fide ace. He missed the first 32 games of the season dealing with a shoulder strain before making his debut May 4.

    The 26-year-old was 14-10 with a 3.47 ERA (127 ERA+) last season, and the team needs him to return to that level and anchor the staff if they hope to remain in contention beyond the early months.

SP Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    When they're clicking, the Baltimore Orioles have one of the best offenses in all of baseball and are also one of the top defensive teams in the game. Like the aforementioned Colorado Rockies, it's their pitching staff that will determine if they will contend this year.

    Their rotation of Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez has been inconsistent in the early going, to say the least, though Jimenez looks like he may have finally turned a corner with a terrific last start.

    If anyone is going to push their rotation over the top, though, the best candidate is top prospect Kevin Gausman. The No. 4 pick in the 2012 draft and the No. 20 prospect in baseball entering the season, per Baseball America, the right-hander has the stuff to be a future ace, and he could make a huge impact in the second half with another step forward in his development.

RF Curtis Granderson, New York Mets

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Why He's So Important

    In serious need of an impact bat in the outfield, the New York Mets shelled out a four-year, $60 million deal to add free agent Curtis Granderson to the mix this offseason.

    Though he dealt with injuries and was limited to just 61 games last year, he had topped the 40-home-run and 100-RBI mark for the New York Yankees in both 2011 and 2012, and he looked like a good fit slotted behind David Wright in the order.

    He's hit just .185/.288/.306 with 32 strikeouts in 108 at-bats so far this season, though, and for a Mets team with solid starting pitching, they need him to step up and give their subpar offense a boost.

    Looking beyond this season, the Mets are a rebuilding team with their eye on legitimate contention in 2015 and beyond, and they can't afford to have so much money tied up in a guy who is not producing up to his salary.

SP Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    So far this season, the Oakland Athletics bullpen has been their biggest issue, and they certainly need to sort out the ninth-inning role sometime in the very near future. However, as far as their most important player is concerned, it has to be ace Sonny Gray.

    Scott Kazmir has done a nice job replacing the departed Bartolo Colon as the veteran arm on the staff, but with Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin both out for the year due to Tommy John surgery, the rotation has been stretched thin. They've done a fantastic job to this point, with Jesse Chavez (6 GS, 2-0, 1.89 ERA) in particular exceeding expectations.

    Looking ahead to the stretch run and the postseason, Gray is the unquestioned ace of the staff at this point, and he will be leaned upon heavily in this his first full season in the league. He's 4-1 with a 1.91 ERA and has a quality start in each of his seven outings so far this year.

LF Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

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    Why He's So Important

    Call him overrated all you want, but there's no ignoring the impact Bryce Harper has on the Washington Nationals' offense and the success of the team as a whole.

    Last season, the team was 65-53 when he was in the lineup, compared to just 21-23 when he was out of the lineup with various injuries.

    He's already landed on the DL again this season, undergoing surgery on his thumb that could keep him out of the lineup until July. Nate McLouth was signed in the offseason as an insurance policy to Harper, but he is just 4-for-47 (.085 BA) on the year, and the team looks like they will be counting the days until Harper returns.

    Once he does, it is absolutely crucial that he stays healthy if the team hopes to make a serious run at the NL East title and a postseason spot, especially on the heels of a disappointing 2013 season.

3B Chase Headley, San Diego Padres

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    Don Boomer/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    For the San Diego Padres, third baseman Chase Headley is important for a few reasons. In the short term, he's expected to be one of their top run-producers, and the fact that he's hitting .186/.250/.314 is a big reason why they're the lowest-scoring team in baseball.

    Over the long term, he represents perhaps the best offensive trade chip on the market come Julyprovided he can get things going offensively, that is. The team will still likely be settling for pennies on the dollar compared to what they could have gotten had they dealt him following his monster second half in 2012, but he could still net a sizable return.

    For others around the league, he may represent the best chance for a team to upgrade their offensive attack, and he will no doubt continue to be monitored closely as the season goes on.

RF Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    Calling the Atlanta Braves' offense streaky is a huge understatement. When they are firing on all cylinders, they can pile up runs with the best of them, but they are also capable of going ice cold at the plate for extended periods of time.

    Look no further than their current seven-game losing streak for evidence; they have scored just 13 runs over that span and are hitting just .197 with 56 strikeouts in 223 at-bats.

    Freddie Freeman is one hitter who has produced on a consistent basis, and the team needs someone to step up alongside him in order to bring some stability to the lineup. Jason Heyward has all the tools to be that guy—and to be a bona fide superstar in this league—but he needs to put it all together, which would make a huge difference atop the Braves' lineup.

SP Derek Holland, Texas Rangers

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    There may be no bigger addition to a team's roster at midseason this year than the anticipated return of left-hander Derek Holland to the Texas Rangers starting rotation.

    A freak accident this offseason involving his dog ended in surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee, and the injury has him sidelined until some point around the midseason mark.

    The 27-year-old had the best season of his career last year, going 10-9 with a 3.42 ERA over a career-high 213 innings of work, as he quietly emerged as one of the best southpaw starters in the game.

    While Yu Darvish and Martin Perez look solid atop the rotation, and with the veteran duo of Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis continuing to work toward where they once were, getting Holland back as a third front-line arm could be the difference between first and second place in the AL West.

SP Mat Latos, Cincinnati Reds

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    Last season, Mat Latos stepped up big when Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto spent the bulk of the season on the disabled list. This time around, it's the rest of the Reds' staff that has had to pick up the slack while Latos has dealt with an injury.

    After going 14-7 with a 3.16 ERA over 210.2 innings of work last season, the 26-year-old was sidelined in camp while recovering from offseason knee surgery. He then hit the DL to start the season with a flexor strain in his right elbow.

    Alfredo Simon has done a phenomenal job stepping into his rotation spot, but with Tony Cingrani dealing with his own injury problems and Homer Bailey off to a rough start, the team needs Latos to get healthy and return to elite form if they hope to have a chance at an NL playoff spot.

SP Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians

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    Why He's So Important

    Cleveland Indians right-hander Justin Masterson cracks this list for a number of reasons. First and foremost, he's the ace of a team that lost a pair of key arms in the offseason, and the Indians are counting on Masterson to shoulder the load this season.

    He's not off to a terrible start, sitting at 1-1 with a 4.01 ERA (3.51 FIP), and he just picked up his first win of the season his last time out. More is expected of him at this point, though, especially after he went 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA and threw three shutouts last season.

    On a more long-term time frame, Masterson is a free agent at the end of the season and will no doubt test the open market after failing to come to terms on an extension with the Indians. If the team continues to struggle, he could even be shopped come July. His impact this season may well stretch beyond Cleveland, and his future will be heavily influenced by how he performs this year.

C Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    There may be no single player in the game today that means more to his team than St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

    He's the best defensive catcher in the game, the leader of the team's young pitching staff, and over the past few years he has also turned himself into an elite offensive player at the position.

    The Cardinals offense has struggled in the early going this season, but Molina is off to a great start, hitting .331/.355/.500. Were it not for a knee injury last season and the fact that he split some votes with teammate Matt Carpenter, he may well have captured NL MVP honors in 2013.

    As far as irreplaceable players whose teams would be devastated if they were lost to injury go, Molina has a strong case for the No. 1 spot on that list.

RP Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers

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    Why He's So Important

    It took some time for the Detroit Tigers bullpen to fall into place last season, as Joaquin Benoit eventually settled into the closer's role, Drew Smyly stepped forward as a top setup man and Jose Veras was acquired at the deadline.

    With Benoit and Veras gone in free agency and Smyly moving to the rotation, it was back to square one for the reigning AL Central champs this offseason. 

    When Joe Nathan opted out of his deal with the Texas Rangers, the team jumped at the chance to add the active saves leader, giving him a two-year, $20 million deal. He's just 6-of-8 on save chances with a 4.63 ERA so far this year, though.

    Granted, the Tigers' bullpen as a whole has been poor this season, sitting 29th in the MLB with a 5.24 ERA as a unit, so Nathan is not solely to blame for their struggles. However, his turnaround will be crucial in the team's hopes of not only repeating as division champs but also making a legitimate run at a title.

CF Angel Pagan, San Francisco Giants

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    Why He's So Important

    A step backward by their starting pitching has largely been pointed to as the reason why the San Francisco Giants wound up battling to avoid a last-place finish in the NL West last season. It certainly played a significant role, but a hamstring injury to Angel Pagan was also a factor.

    The team was 39-32 (.549) with Pagan in the lineup last year, compared to just 37-54 (.407) with him on the sidelines. That is a significant split, no matter how much stock you want to put into it.

    Pagan was a key catalyst for the 2012 title-winning team, hitting .288/.338/.440 with 61 extra-base hits and 29 steals, and he's been great in the early going this season.

    He's currently hitting .333/.367/.467 with 10 extra-base hits and six steals, and his health atop the team's vastly improved lineup will be paramount.

SP Michael Pineda, New York Yankees

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    Entering the season, the health of their veteran lineup looked like the biggest concern for the New York Yankees, but instead it is their starting rotation that has been a problem.

    CC Sabathia is a shell of the pitcher he once was, and after throwing back-to-back quality starts, he has allowed 19 hits and nine runs in 8.2 innings of work over his last two outings. Ivan Nova has also been lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery.

    Masahiro Tanaka looks like he can be counted on for front-line production, and Hiroki Kuroda remains a viable middle-of-the-rotation arm, but it's Michael Pineda who is the true X-factor here.

    After missing the past two seasons while recovering from shoulder surgery, he has a 1.83 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in four starts this season. However, he was suspended for 10 games on April 24 after using pine tar in his last start, and per Bryan Hoch of MLB.com, he was placed on the DL on Tuesday with a back strain that he suffered during a simulated game.

    At this point, the team is relying on him to not only stay healthy but to provide a No. 2-starter-type impact in the process.

RF Gregory Polanco, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    You can certainly point to a step backward from both the rotation and the bullpen as the reason for the Pittsburgh Pirates early-season struggles, and you would not be wrongbut taking some pressure off the staff with more consistent offensive production wouldn't hurt either.

    Reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen (.317 BA, .963 OPS) is off to a solid start, while Neil Walker (.797 OPS, 6 HR, 18 RBI) and Pedro Alvarez (.746 OPS, 8 HR, 22 RBI) have provided some pop, but there are still a number of holes in the team's lineup.

    One man that can make a significant difference is top prospect Gregory Polanco, as he is currently banging down the door with a .397/.449/.621 line and 15 extra-base hits in 115 at-bats for Triple-A Indianapolis. If his inevitable call-up can spark the offense, it could help the Pirates get their season on track.

    "Our evaluation of a player's readiness mentally, physically, fundamentally and personally to compete and thrive is what drives the decision to call that player up or not," GM Neil Huntington told Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com. "We will look to bring Gregory Polanco to the major league level when we believe he meets those criteria, not because we have a need."

SP David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    Heading into this past offseason, it looked like Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price was all but a sure thing to be moved before the regular season kicked off.

    Instead, the team opted to hold onto him, and as a result the Rays again looked like one of the better teams in the American League entering the season. However, they are just 15-17 entering play on Tuesday, and their starting pitching has been a big reason why.

    Price is off to a slow start, going 3-2 with a 4.44 ERA in his first seven starts. And with Matt Moore lost for the season and Alex Cobb also sidelined, the Rays need Price to pick it up now more than ever.

    Should the team continue to struggle, it would not be out of the question to think that Price could find himself on the block come July, so he's a key player this season in more ways than one.

SS Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    Many point to the call-up of Yasiel Puig as the reason for the Los Angeles Dodgers' drastic turnaround last season, and while it certainly helped, it's no coincidence that shortstop Hanley Ramirez also got healthy right around that same time.

    Ramirez went on to hit .345/.402/.638 with 25 doubles and 20 home runs in 304 at-bats, finishing eighth in NL MVP voting despite playing just 86 games.

    That impressive performance carried over to the NLDS, where he went 8-for-16 with six extra-base hits and six RBI. However, a Joe Kelly fastball to the ribs in the NLCS slowed his production significantly, and he went just 2-for-15 in a series the Dodgers would lose in six games.

    Would the Dodgers have come out on top in that series with a healthy Hanley? Nobody knows for sure, but they certainly need him to stay healthy this season if they hope to have their best chance of reaching the World Series.

SP Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    Last year at the deadline, the Chicago Cubs fleeced the Texas Rangers in a deal that sent Matt Garza to Texas for prospects Mike Olt, C.J. Edwards, Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm. It was a steep price to pay, and it didn't work out for Texas, but there was no question that Garza was the best available arm and that the deal was pretty standard for landing the prize of the deadline.

    The rebuilding Cubs could find themselves in a similar position this July, as right-hander Jeff Samardzija may very well be the best available player on the market, and he could a legitimate impact arm for a contender looking to upgrade their rotation.

    He's 0-3 on the season in seven starts, but he has a 1.62 ERA and .228 BAA, demonstrating how the team has simply done nothing to help him out.

    “You do your job,” he told Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago. “I’m just doing my part to win a ballgame. I can’t control things on the outside. It’s not my job. Every fifth day is my job and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.” 

    Samardzija has the added value of being under team control for 2015, and if the team does decide to deal him in July, he could net an even bigger return than what the free-agent-to-be Garza landed them a year ago.

SP Tyler Skaggs, Los Angeles Angels

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    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

    Why He's So Important

    After making splash signings on the offensive side of things the previous two offseasons, the Los Angeles Angels finally addressed the back end of their starting rotation this past winter, acquiring Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs in a three-team deal for Mark Trumbo at the winter meetings.

    The 22-year-old Skaggs had seen some time in the Arizona rotation in each of the past two seasons, going 3-6 with a 5.43 ERA, and the Angels entered spring training counting on him to lock down the No. 5 starter spot.

    The left-hander went 2-0 with a 3.34 ERA and three quality starts in his first five outings before getting touched up for eight hits and six runs in 2.2 innings against the Texas Rangers his last time out. The stuff is there though for him to be far more than a passable No. 5 starter.

    With C.J. Wilson, Jered Weaver and Garrett Richards looking like a solid trio, a breakout season from Skaggs would give the team a plus rotation alongside one of the highest-scoring offenses in baseball, as the Angels look to make up for the past two season's disappointments.

CF George Springer, Houston Astros

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    Why He's So Important

    The Houston Astros rebuild has been a slow, meticulous process that has resulted in 100-plus losses each of the past three seasons. However, they have also built up one of the best farm systems in all of baseball, and they are beginning to see the fruits of their labor this season.

    The team's No. 2 prospect George Springer, who checked in at No. 18 on the Baseball America Top 100, was the first big-name prospect to get the call when he made his debut on April 16, and he is expected to be a key piece of the team's future.

    He's hitting just .191/.257/.221 with two doubles in his first 68 at-bats, but he is coming off of a .303/.411/.660 season in the minors last year that included 37 home runs, 108 RBI and 45 stolen bases.

    The tools are all there for him to be a star, and a strong rookie season would go a long way toward showing the fan base that their patience will all be worth it soon. He's not off to a very good start, though, and he was out of the lineup on Saturday for the first time since being called up.

    "I’m an everyday player. I like playing every day," Springer told Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle. "Every once in a while a break on your mind and on your body isn't a bad thing. Like I said, I like to play every day, so I don’t mind it.”

RF Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Why He's So Important

    Giancarlo Stanton piled up 117 career home runs prior to his 24th birthday and has more raw power than anyone in the game today, but he has yet to turn in the monster season everyone knows he's capable of, which has been mostly due to injury.

    He was limited to just 116 games last season while dealing with a hamstring injury, but he's healthy this season and off to a monster start. Over his first 32 games, he has 10 home runs and an MLB-high 37 RBI, and he's a big reason why the Miami Marlins are off to a nice start.

    His future with the team remains in question, as long-term extensions are not exactly the Marlins bread and butter, but for the time being he's under team control through 2016. He earned $6.5 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility this year, so expect an extension or a trade to come before the start of next season.

SP Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Why He's So Important

    Despite watching their starting pitchers post an AL-worst 4.81 ERA last season and struggling to find three viable arms to fill out the rotation behind veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, the Toronto Blue Jays opted against signing one of the market's top starters this offseason.

    Things have been better this season, as they have a 4.13 ERA as a staff to this point, but they have still struggled to find consistency outside of Buehrle. Making matters worse, the bullpen has taken a huge step backward and currently sits 28th in the MLB with a 5.13 ERA.

    All of that was enough for the team to call-up 23-year-old top prospect Marcus Stroman this past week, after the right-hander posted a 1.69 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 26.2 innings of work for Triple-A Buffalo.

    Whether he eventually makes his way to the rotation or sticks in the bullpen and establishes himself as a late-inning reliever, Stroman has a chance to make a real difference for the Blue Jays the rest of the way.

     

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