Every MLB Team's Biggest 2017 X-Factor
Every MLB team has a handful of X-factors on the roster.
For contenders, that player might be an up-and-coming prospect capable of filling a need, a young big leaguer still trying to realize his potential or a veteran being counted on to fill an important role.
For rebuilding clubs, it's more about the development of potential building blocks as the focus is on long-term outlook as opposed to immediate help.
We've taken a crack at naming the biggest X-factor for each MLB team during the upcoming season.
If these players can live up to their potential and deliver standout performances, their respective teams will be in considerably better spots as a result.
Arizona Diamondbacks: RP Fernando Rodney
My initial thought here was A.J. Pollock, the dynamic center fielder who was limited to just 12 games last season after suffering a fractured elbow during spring training.
However, offense wasn't the issue a year ago when Arizona finished 11th in the majors with 4.64 runs per game.
Instead, the bullpen and newcomer Fernando Rodney could be the deciding factor in whether the D-backs are able to turn things around.
Rodney signed a one-year, $2.75 million deal during the offseason and was named the team's closer despite struggling to a 5.89 ERA over 39 appearances down the stretch in 2016 following his trade to the Miami Marlins.
He's 5-of-5 on save chances so far this season, but it hasn't been pretty.
The 40-year-old has allowed a run in four of his seven appearances en route to an unsightly 8.53 ERA and 1.90 WHIP while tallying nearly as many walks (5) as strikeouts (8) in 6.1 innings.
With no proven fallback plan if Rodney falters, Arizona is counting on the arrow-shooting veteran to anchor the pen.
Atlanta Braves: SP Mike Foltynewicz
The 2017 season will once again be all about player development and building toward the future for the Atlanta Braves.
With that in mind, the continued progression of right-hander Mike Foltynewicz looks like their biggest X-factor.
The 25-year-old showed flashes of emerging as a second front-line option alongside Julio Teheran last season when he went 9-5 with a 4.31 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 111 strikeouts in 123.1 innings.
He's always had a big arm with a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s and a slider-changeup-curveball mix to keep hitters off balance.
Now he's starting to show the command and, more importantly, the poise needed to take that next step. He battled through some adversity to pitch seven strong innings his last time out.
"He kept himself composed during similar situations that previously disrupted his psyche and served as reminders that he possesses the physical talents and vast arsenal necessary to develop into a legitimate front-line starting pitcher," wrote Mark Bowman of MLB.com.
Baltimore Orioles: SP Dylan Bundy
The Baltimore Orioles left a shaky starting rotation unaddressed during the offseason, which makes the continued emergence of Dylan Bundy an easy choice as their biggest X-factor.
The former No. 4 overall pick was finally healthy last year, and he joined the starting rotation in July after beginning the season in the bullpen.
He wound up going 8-5 with a 4.52 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 72 strikeouts in 71.2 innings of work over 14 starts.
Now he's off to a brilliant start to 2017 with three consecutive quality starts to open the year on his way to a 1.86 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and a 17-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 19.1 innings.
With Kevin Gausman's early struggles and Chris Tillman's sore shoulder, Bundy has emerged as the de facto ace of an Orioles team that sits atop the AL East at 9-4.
Boston Red Sox: SP Eduardo Rodriguez
With a mid-90s fastball, plus changeup and biting slider that can be dominant when he has has a feel for it, Eduardo Rodriguez has as good of stuff as anyone on the Boston Red Sox staff—including ace Chris Sale.
He showed what he's capable of when everything is clicking in a trio of dominant starts last season:
- Aug. 11: 7.0 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 K
- Sept. 4: 8.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
- Sept. 25: 5.1 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 13 K
The ongoing issue is finding some level of consistency with his overall command. If he can take a step forward in that department, he has legitimate ace potential.
The 24-year-old could push the Red Sox rotation over the top and climb ahead of the likes of Rick Porcello, Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz if he turns in the breakout season that folks have been waiting on for a few years now.
Chicago Cubs: C Willson Contreras
David Ross was a leader in the clubhouse and a steadying presence for a Chicago Cubs pitching staff that led the majors with a 3.15 ERA a year ago.
Now it's up to 24-year-old Willson Contreras to step into that role.
We already know what he can do with the bat. In his first season as the primary backstop, he's capable of emerging as one of the most productive offensive catchers in the game.
However, he's still learning the nuances of the position, like how to call a game and pitch-framing.
He'll also now be the regular catcher for ace Jon Lester, a role filled by Ross the past several seasons dating back to their time in Boston together.
The defending champions have a ton of talent, but the development of their young catcher's defensive game might be the biggest X-factor in their push to repeat.
Chicago White Sox: SP Jose Quintana
Jose Quintana is the biggest X-factor for the Chicago White Sox this season based solely on his standing as the most attractive trade chip on the roster.
The 28-year-old has been a model of consistency in recent years, rattling off four straight seasons with at least 200 innings while pitching to a 3.35 ERA and 1.22 WHIP.
He finished 10th in AL Cy Young voting a year ago, and now that Chris Sale is with the Boston Red Sox he's the ace of the White Sox staff and the most valuable asset on the roster.
With a $7 million salary this season and a team-friendly three years and $30.85 million left after that, he has one of the best contracts in baseball.
He'll need to snap out of this early funk if the White Sox are going to get the highest possible return, though, as he's posted a 6.75 ERA and 1.62 WHIP over his first three starts.
Cincinnati Reds: SP Anthony DeSclafani
The Cincinnati Reds have been one of the biggest surprises of the season so far, and they're doing it with a patchwork starting rotation amid a bevy of injuries.
Amir Garrett looks like the real deal, and veteran Scott Feldman is off to a nice start, but the team is without Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, Homer Bailey and Rookie Davis, who are all on the disabled list.
Of that group, it's DeSclafani who could be a real difference-maker once he returns.
The 27-year-old was slowed by injuries last season as well but impressed in the 20 starts he did make, going 9-5 with a 3.28 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 105 strikeouts in 123.1 innings.
He's still not throwing after having a platelet-rich plasma injection in his sore elbow at the end of March, and he was placed on the 60-day disabled list to begin the year.
If the Reds are still in contention when June rolls around, DeSclafani could solidify their standing as a surprise contender.
Cleveland Indians: CF Bradley Zimmer
Regression hit hard for rookie standout Tyler Naquin, as a .411 BABIP last year caught up to him this season. He was optioned to the minors after hitting .235 with a .572 OPS in his first 18 plate appearances.
That leaves the Cleveland Indians with some combination of Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Abraham Almonte, Brandon Guyer and Austin Jackson in the outfield.
Meanwhile, top prospect Bradley Zimmer has a .736 OPS with six extra-base hits and nine runs scored in 13 games with Triple-A Columbus. He could soon be knocking on the door for a promotion.
The 24-year-old still needs to cut down on his strikeouts—he's whiffed 16 times in 50 plate appearances—but he has all the tools to be a dynamic table-setter with legitimate 20/20 potential.
He figures to debut at some point in 2017. If he can make an immediate impact, he could be a real X-factor for the offense.
Colorado Rockies: SP Jeff Hoffman
The Colorado Rockies currently have a pair of rookies in the starting rotation in Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela and another waiting in the wings in German Marquez.
It's hard-throwing Jeff Hoffman who could be the real difference-maker on the staff, though.
The team's top pitching prospect struggled in his first taste of big league action last season, posting a 4.88 ERA and 1.72 WHIP over 31.1 innings of work, and he returned to Triple-A to begin 2017.
"His time in Colorado taught him that he'll have to locate his pitches better to succeed against big leaguers, particularly at Coors Field," wrote MLB.com.
He's not off to the best start with a 4.80 ERA and 1.33 WHIP over his first three starts, but once everything clicks, he could join Jon Gray atop the MLB rotation.
Detroit Tigers: SP Matt Boyd
Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris are one of the best young starting pitching duos in baseball, and veteran Justin Verlander is going to be just fine despite a shaky start.
It's left-hander Matt Boyd who checks in as the biggest X-factor in a Detroit Tigers starting rotation that will determine whether they're legitimate contenders.
Boyd was rightfully given the final spot in the starting rotation ahead of high-priced veterans Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey, and he's gone 2-1 with a 3.77 ERA over his first three starts.
The 26-year-old was 6-5 with a 4.53 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 97.1 innings in his first extended MLB action last season, and he rattled off a stretch late in the year with five quality starts in a seven-game span.
He might not be a future ace, but Boyd has a chance to solidify the staff.
Houston Astros: SP Francis Martes
Despite a brilliant start from ace Dallas Keuchel, the Houston Astros starting rotation still looks like the biggest weakness on the roster.
Rumors will continue to swirl around Chicago White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana after the two sides discussed a potential deal this offseason.
However, top prospect Francis Martes could wind up giving the team an in-house solution.
The 21-year-old is one of the game's elite starting pitching prospects, and he figures to arrive at some point during the 2017 season after opening the year in Triple-A.
MLB.com wrote: "Whether he reaches his ceiling as a frontline starter will hinge on his control and command, which regressed a bit in 2016."
That makes his nine walks in 9.1 innings so far this season a bit troubling, but he hasn't allowed an earned run yet and has tallied 10 strikeouts, so there have been plenty of positives as well.
If the command improves, he'll make an immediate impact in Houston.
Kansas City Royals: CF Lorenzo Cain
Lorenzo Cain was one of the best players in baseball during the 2015 season when he finished third in AL MVP voting and posted a 7.2 WAR.
A nagging wrist injury slowed him last season, as his OPS dropped from .838 to .745 and he played just 103 games on his way to a 2.9 WAR.
Now the 31-year-old is playing in a contract year and looking to prove he belongs among the game's elite outfielders and is deserving of a hefty payday next winter.
If the Kansas City Royals hope to contend in 2017, they'll need Cain to play at an All-Star level.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if they fall out of the playoff race early, he'll represent a valuable trade chip if he's performing at a high level.
So far this season, he's hitting .347/.467/.408 with three doubles and five stolen bases.
Los Angeles Angels: SP Garrett Richards
Garrett Richards successfully rehabbed a partially torn elbow ligament last season with stem cell and PRP injections, avoiding Tommy John surgery in the process.
Now he's nursing a biceps strain and is expected to miss significant time as a result.
The 28-year-old was eligible to come off the 10-day DL last Sunday but wasn't activated as he'd yet to begin throwing since being shut down with the injury.
The longer he goes without throwing, the longer it will take to build his arm strength back up, and that's bad news for an Angels team that was counting on him to lead the staff.
Last time he was healthy for a full season in 2015, Richards went 15-12 with a 3.65 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 176 strikeouts in 207.1 innings.
Los Angeles Dodgers: SP Julio Urias
Julio Urias won't turn 21 until August.
It's no surprise that the Los Angeles Dodgers continue to treat the left-hander with extreme caution, as he was left behind at extended spring training when the team broke camp in an effort to limit his innings.
He's now pitching for Triple-A Oklahoma City and waiting for a spot in the rotation to open up.
Reliever Alex Wood was chosen to step into the starting rotation in place of the injured Rich Hill, so Urias will continue waiting for the time being.
However, the Dodgers rotation has tallied just five quality starts in 16 games and ranks 13th in the majors with a 3.86 ERA.
Being careful with Urias makes sense—he's a big part of the team's future—but at some point the Dodgers have to trot out their best possible rotation, and he's undoubtedly a part of that group.
Miami Marlins: SP Dillon Peters
The Miami Marlins are one of just two teams whose starting pitching is not averaging five innings per game so far this season.
They're also tied for last in the majors with four quality starts through 15 games.
While this isn't a big surprise after the team focused its attention on building up the relief corps as opposed to overpaying for mid-level starting pitching on the free-agent market, it's still a significant hurdle to its hopes of contending.
Top prospects Braxton Garrett and Tyler Kolek are years from making an impact, while Jarlin Garcia looks better suited as a reliever, but keep an eye on left-hander Dillon Peters.
The 24-year-old put himself on the prospect map last season when he went 14-6 with a 2.38 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 105 strikeouts in 128.2 innings between High-A and Double-A.
He's 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and a 13-1 K/BB ratio in 12 innings with Double-A Jacksonville this year, and a bump up to Triple-A could come in short order.
A midseason promotion to the big leagues could make him a huge X-factor.
Milwaukee Brewers: CF Lewis Brinson
Keon Broxton and Kirk Nieuwenhuis have hit a combined .105/.190/.228 with three extra-base hits for the Milwaukee Brewers this season while manning center field.
That's not great.
And it just so happens the team's top prospect, Lewis Brinson, is a center fielder.
The 22-year-old has legitimate five-tool upside and could emerge as a Carlos Gomez-type player on the offensive side of things for a Brewers team that has gotten off to a nice start.
He's currently hitting .355/.412/.645 with two home runs in seven games for Triple-A Colorado Springs and could be ready to make the jump once the Super Two deadline passes.
Minnesota Twins: SP Jose Berrios
The Minnesota Twins starting rotation is off to a great start with a 3.18 ERA that ranks fifth in the majors and second in the American League.
That's a huge step forward for a group that finished dead last in the majors with a 5.39 ERA a year ago.
However, this Twins team is looking to the future, and the veteran group of Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Hector Santiago and Kyle Gibson isn't overflowing with future building blocks.
Rookie Adalberto Mejia earned the No. 5 starter job this spring, but the team needs to give right-hander Jose Berrios another long look.
The 22-year-old has the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the organization. After going 10-5 with a 2.51 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 125 strikeouts in 111.1 innings in Triple-A last season, he doesn't have much left to prove in the minors.
Berrios is perhaps the biggest X-factor as far as the team's long-term outlook is concerned.
New York Mets: OF Michael Conforto
Michael Conforto needs to play every day. It's as simple as that.
The 24-year-old has a .989 OPS with two home runs and six RBI in 27 plate appearances so far this season, and he has the tools to make a real difference alongside Yoenis Cespedes in the middle of the lineup.
However, with Jay Bruce off to a fantastic start at the plate and Curtis Granderson tasked with manning center field despite his brutal .157/.214/.235 line, there continues to be a logjam in the outfield.
It's a tricky situation, but one that needs a resolution that involves more playing time for Conforto.
For now, he's a major X-factor in a part-time role with the potential to provide significantly more if given the chance.
New York Yankees: SP Luis Severino
Will this be the year Luis Severino finally begins realizing his front-line potential?
The New York Yankees hope so as they trot out a starting rotation loaded with question marks from ace Masahiro Tanaka on down.
The 23-year-old Severino struggled to find consistency in his first two seasons in the majors, displaying spotty command of his fastball and bouncing between the rotation, bullpen and minors as a result.
The right-hander claimed one of the final spots in the rotation this spring and turned in one of the best starts of his career his last time out, allowing three hits and three earned runs while striking out a career-high 11 over eight innings of work.
If he can emerge as a quality option every fifth day, it would go a long way toward making the Yankees a legitimate contender.
Oakland Athletics: 2B/SS Franklin Barreto
The fractured wrist suffered by Marcus Semien earlier this week could open the door for top prospect Franklin Barreto to arrive on the scene for the Oakland Athletics.
For the time being, veteran utility man Adam Rosales and rookie Chad Pinder will man the position, but Barreto is off to a hot start in Triple-A and could force the team's hand.
The 21-year-old is hitting .286/.362/.469 with two home runs and nine RBI in 13 games.
Keep in mind, he was part of the ill-advised Josh Donaldson trade, and he still has a chance to partially salvage that deal from the Oakland side of things.
Philadelphia Phillies: SP Aaron Nola
- 10 QS, 5-4, 2.65 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 15 BB, 85 K, 78.0 IP, .212 BAA
- 1 QS, 1-5, 9.82 ERA, 2.06 WHIP, 14 BB, 36 K, 33.0 IP, .367 BAA
Here's what I wrote during the offseason while selecting Aaron Nola as the "next big thing" for the Philadelphia Phillies:
For 12 starts last season, Aaron Nola was really, really good.
Then over his final eight starts, he was really, really bad.
So what happened?
Nola missed time down the stretch with an elbow strain, and the health of that elbow could be a major question mark going forward.
The 23-year-old has a chance to be the future ace of the rebuilding Phillies staff, and there have been no lingering effects of those arm issues in 2017.
Over his first two starts, he's pitched to a 3.27 ERA with a 13-2 K/BB ratio over 11 innings of work. His development stands as a huge X-factor for the present and future of the team's rotation.
Pittsburgh Pirates: SP Tyler Glasnow
The Pittsburgh Pirates need a steady performer behind Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova in the starting rotation if they're going to overcome the loss of Starling Marte and make a run at returning to the postseason.
Tyler Glasnow can be that guy.
The towering 6'8" right-hander has some of the best pure stuff of any young pitcher in the game, but he continues to battle command problems and inconsistent mechanics.
The 23-year-old has a 2.03 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 645 strikeouts in 500 innings in the minors, so there's not much left for him to prove against minor league hitters.
However, he has an unsightly 12.15 ERA, 2.55 WHIP and 8-7 K/BB ratio in 6.2 innings over two starts so far this season. He'll need to right the ship or risk a demotion to Triple-A.
San Diego Padres: RF Hunter Renfroe
The San Diego Padres have a pair of exciting rookies in the outfield in Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe. Their continued development will be among the biggest focuses of 2017 for the rebuilding club.
Even if his offensive game is a bit inconsistent in the early going, Margot can be a 3-4 WAR player on the strength of his elite-level defense in center field and base-running ability.
We'll go with the power-hitting Renfroe as the team's biggest X-factor.
The 25-year-old posted an .893 OPS with 34 doubles, 30 home runs and 105 RBI in a full season with Triple-A El Paso last season and in the process trimmed his strikeout rate from 23.7 to 20.4 percent.
While he has two doubles and three home runs already this season, he's posted a less-than-stellar .661 OPS and is still searching for his first walk against 13 strikeouts.
Clearly, there's work to be done before he emerges as a steady run producer alongside Wil Myers.
San Francisco Giants: 3B Christian Arroyo
The left field position has turned into a disaster for the San Francisco Giants.
Jarrett Parker, Chris Marrero, Gorkys Hernandez and Aaron Hill have combined for an abysmal .125/.194/.214 line, and now Parker is set to miss significant time with a broken clavicle.
With no clear in-house solution to solve the problem, the team might need to get creative.
One potential option would be to move Eduardo Nunez from third base to left field, opening up the hot corner for top prospect Christian Arroyo.
The 21-year-old has a ridiculous .479/.510/.750 line with four doubles, three home runs and 10 RBI in 12 games with Triple-A Sacramento so far this year.
He could make a Matt Duffy-type impact as a rookie.
Seattle Mariners: SP Drew Smyly
Drew Smyly turned heads during the World Baseball Classic when he struck out eight over 4.2 innings against a loaded Team Venezuela lineup.
His fastball-curveball combination looked dominant, and the Seattle Mariners had to be excited about the season to come for the latest addition to their starting rotation.
Unfortunately, elbow issues surfaced near the end of spring training, and he landed on the 60-day DL after receiving a PRP injection.
"It'll be six weeks till he begins throwing and eight until we can make a better judgment on when he will rejoin the club. We'll react conservatively to this. We want to make sure when we get Drew back, we'll get Drew back. We don't want to rush him back," general manager Jerry Dipoto told Greg Johns of MLB.com at the start of April.
If the M's can stay afloat until he returns, he could be a huge midseason addition to the rotation.
St. Louis Cardinals: RP Trevor Rosenthal
The St. Louis Cardinals bullpen has been an unmitigated disaster this season, but they're starting to show signs of righting the ship.
A big part of that has been a return to health and form for Trevor Rosenthal.
After a 48-save season in 2015, Rosenthal struggled early last season and lost the closer's job to Seung Hwan Oh.
The Cardinals toyed with the idea of stretching him out as a starter this spring, but a lat injury put a halt to that and landed him on the disabled list to begin the year.
In four appearances since returning, he's allowed four hits and one earned run with zero walks and seven strikeouts in 3.1 innings.
His fastball velocity is back to 98.4 mph after dipping to 97.7 mph a year ago, per Brooks Baseball, and he's again looking like a viable late-inning option for a team that desperately needed help.
Tampa Bay Rays: SP Blake Snell
The Tampa Bay Rays have improved their offensive attack the past few seasons, but they'll once again go as far as their starting rotation can carry them.
A return to ace form for Chris Archer and a healthy season from Alex Cobb could be pointed to as potential X-factors for the staff.
However, the biggest X-factor might be the continued development of Blake Snell.
The 2015 Minor League Player of the Year arrived in the big leagues last season and held his own, going 6-8 with a 3.54 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 89 innings.
He walked batters at a 5.2 BB/9 clip, though, and improved command will be the key for him to take that next step.
It's also worth keeping an eye on top prospect Brent Honeywell, who could make the leap to the majors this season.
Texas Rangers: SP Tyson Ross
What are the Texas Rangers going to get from Tyson Ross this season?
The former All-Star signed a one-year, $6 million deal with Texas after being non-tendered by the San Diego Padres while he continues to recover from thoracic outlet surgery.
The Rangers rotation sits 12th in the majors with a 3.67 ERA, but the back of the staff remains a significant question mark behind Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels and Martin Perez.
Over the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Ross went 23-26 with a 3.03 ERA and 1.26 WHIP while averaging 204 strikeouts and 196 innings per season.
He's currently dealing with back discomfort, and that's left his timetable to return up in the air.
"Before this [injury], the first week in May was looking very realistic," GM Jon Daniels told Stefan Stevenson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I don't know how far back it's going to push him, but it's clearly going to be a week or two beyond that at this point."
Toronto Blue Jays: SP Marcus Stroman
Marcus Stroman showed what he's capable of with a dominant performance in the championship game of the World Baseball Classic.
Can he finally emerge as a true front-line starter?
The 25-year-old pitched a career-high 204 innings last season but was somewhat disappointing in the process as he went 9-10 with a 4.37 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 166 strikeouts.
It's been more of the same through three starts this season, as he has a 4.05 ERA and 1.40 WHIP.
Stroman has electric stuff and the bulldog mentality to be an ace. That's what the struggling Blue Jays need from him right now, especially as J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada both potentially take a step back.
Washington Nationals: RP Koda Glover
The Washington Nationals have already made a change in the ninth inning, yanking the struggling Blake Treinen in favor of a committee approach with Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover.
Don't be surprised if the job is all Glover's before the All-Star break rolls around.
The hard-throwing rookie has the stuff to succeed in that role. MLB.com offered up the following analysis:
A physically imposing right-hander with a power arm, Glover has all the ingredients needed to become a late-inning force. He sits in the mid-to-upper 90s with his fastball and can dial it up to triple digits, while his plus slider, thrown with power at 88-90 mph, is an out pitch capable of missing bats.
Glover is a fierce competitor with excellent mound presence, and the Nationals love how he pounds the zone and fearlessly attacks opposing hitters. That mentality, along with the high-octane stuff, could help Glover develop into a big league closer.
Trusting a rookie to close on a contender is risky, but he sounds like the man for the job.