With the season about to start, here’s who we feel are the 50 most important players in baseball:
1. Mike Trout, OF, Angels — When you ask baseball people, “Trout or Harper?” you get mixed responses, but Trout comes out on top here. The positives you hear are quiet, effective, classy, graceful, best all around.
2. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals — Harper’s breakout season in 2015 was a release of pent-up talent. It will be fun to watch him from here. He’s a face of MLB for years to come with his fierce, competitive nature and cockiness.
3. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers — Nobody can match him. He’s the best pitcher in baseball, and when he solves the postseason bugaboo, there will be no doubt.
4. Zack Greinke, RHP, Diamondbacks — A dominant craftsman who is described by one baseball official as “Greg Maddux with velocity.”
5. Buster Posey, C, Giants — The new Derek Jeter? If he isn’t perceived that way, he should be. One of the most humble, well-spoken, low-key, great talents of this generation.
6. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks — He’s been the best-kept secret in baseball, but with the Diamondbacks now relevant, Goldschmidt will finally get his audience.
7. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers — Consistently the best offensive force in baseball, and there’s no reason to think that will change.
8. David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox — Attention will be on his retirement, but the focus will be on his production. As we pointed out in past columns, he’s the only major leaguer with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in each of the last three seasons.
9. David Price, LHP, Red Sox — New team, new challenges for the ace of the American League. Like Kershaw, he needs to solve his postseason woes.
10. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays — No better player in terms of production, hustle, and love of the game. Hard to duplicate his 2015 numbers, but this guy has Dustin Pedroia’s personality and Mike Schmidt’s talent.
A conversation with David Price, Brian Bannister, Alex Speier, and Peter Abraham:
11. Matt Harvey, RHP, Mets — The Mets’ All-Star rotation lacks a true leader, and it needs to be him.
12. Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays — A pure home run hitter in his walk year. Could be epic.
13. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays — If Encarnacion could only get through a year healthy, it would be scary to think how many homers he’d hit and how many runs he’d drive in.
14. Jake Arrieta, RHP, Cubs — The reigning National League Cy Young winner must keep up the ace mantra and prove his 2015 season was not a fluke.
15. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Marlins — He could be baseball’s most dynamic player, but injuries have held him back.
16. Carlos Correa, SS, Astros — As Correa gets stronger, his ceiling could bring him to heights that only Alex Rodriguez and Cal Ripken Jr. have reached.
17. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants — He can carry a team on his back and he’ll need to do so again as the Giants seek their fourth championship since 2010.
18. Chris Archer, RHP, Rays — An entertainer on the mound, but a perfectionist as well. Fun to watch him emerge as one of the best righthanders in the game.
19. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox — After his Adam LaRoche outburst against executive vice president Kenny Williams, Sale needs to settle down and take his aggressions out on batters. He has dominating stuff and the White Sox are ready to win now.
20. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox — He’s reached 30 homers and 100 RBIs in each of his first two years in the big leagues. He may be the best hitter among Cuban players, but he’s also one of the top hitters in the game.
21. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners — It never gets old watching him dissect batters.
22. Sonny Gray, RHP, A’s — A guy who really knows how to pitch to hitters’ weaknesses, and the latest in a long line of great pitching talent Billy Beane’s organization has produced. If the A’s are bad, Gray could be on the move at the trading deadline.
23. Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles — The only player to appear in 162 games last season, Machado wants to be great. And now that he’s entering his prime, we’re about to see not only the great glove, but the power and all-around hitting ability that make him exciting.
24. Jose Fernandez, RHP, Marlins — There are no issues other than his injury history. When healthy, he’s one of the filthiest pitchers in the game. Virtually unhittable.
25. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers — The future Hall of Famer shows little sign of slowing down in the field or at the plate. A threat every time he comes up.
26. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Astros — The reigning AL Cy Young winner is a real pro who can dominate every time out. Keuchel is a late bloomer who has figured it all out (oh, that slider), and batters haven’t a clue against him.
27. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox — Last season’s runner-up to the batting title will be Boston’s No. 3 hitter, a true sign of his arrival as an offensive force. A few more homers this year?
28. Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians — A terrific defender who hit .313 as a rookie last year. The Indians have a gem.
29. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Blue Jays — Tulowitzki single-handedly improved the Jays’ overall defense. The Jays want more consistent offense from a guy closing in on 200 homers and with a .297 career average.
30. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies — Forty-two homers, 130 RBIs, great defense at third base. He turns 25 on April 16. Yep, I’d say he’s worth watching.
31. Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Yankees — When you throw 103 miles per hour and leave batters shaking their heads, well, that’s pretty special.
32. Alex Rodriguez, DH, Yankees — Just 75 home runs shy of Barry Bonds’s record, A-Rod remains a force in the Yankee lineup.
33. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates — A graceful all-around player who has a great feel for the moment. Appropriate that he plays for the Pirates, who had a player, Roberto Clemente, with similar traits.
34. Mookie Betts, OF, Red Sox — A McCutchen clone, according to many baseball people who cite his fast hands and great feel for the game.
35. Marcus Stroman, RHP, Blue Jays — Stroman is short in stature but he has a personality like Archer’s in many ways. He’s expected to replace Price as the ace of the Jays’ rotation after missing most of last season with a knee injury.
36. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs – Rizzo is now the veteran leader of what may be the best team in baseball. A superb role model for the Cubs’ younger players and an effective offensive producer.
37. Luis Severino, RHP, Yankees — We suspect that Severino is going to thrust himself into that Archer/Stroman/Sale/Gray class. Being in New York, he’ll always be compared to those on the Mets’ All-Star staff, but Severino won’t be dwarfed by anyone.
38. Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Red Sox — Like Chapman, a dominant closer who has proven himself in the NL. He led the league in saves four straight years. Can he replicate that in the AL?
39. Yasiel Puig, OF, Dodgers — It’s important for the Dodgers’ offensive outlook that Puig matures and becomes the superstar he can be.
40. Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Mets — Cespedes signed a three-year, $75 million deal with an opt-out after one year, so he has motivation. He was the Mets’ lifesaver last season; now he’s in center field and needs to be the centerpiece again.
41. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs — Needs to cut down his strikeouts — 199 last season — and put the ball in play more, but 40-plus homers may become routine.
42. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals — Could be his breakout season, in his walk year. Strasburg’s superstardom has been predicted for a while. Good chance we may see it in 2016.
43. Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals — One of the more consistent aces out there, Scherzer is fun to watch and every outing could result in a no-hitter or something extraordinary.
44. Corey Kluber, RHP, Indians — The top guy on a very talented staff. Kluber, who won the AL Cy Young Award two years ago, pitched better last season than his 9-16 record would indicate. He had a 1.054 WHIP.
45. Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners — Cano has settled in after a tough transition from New York. He can still be one of the game’s elite players.
46. Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles — Davis is one of the few guys in the game capable of hitting 50-plus homers.
47. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros – A dynamic player with still explosive numbers. Maybe he’ll wear down eventually being a little guy, but for now he remains one of the game’s most exciting players.
48. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves — One of the more underrated performers, Freeman’s stardom will continue to get lost with the rebuilding Braves.
49. Wade Davis, RHP, Royals — He makes the Royals’ three-headed monster bullpen tick. Davis can be downright nasty and unhittable.
50. Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pirates – A 19-game winner a year ago, Cole has become one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Here are 20 ready to emerge
1. Maikel Franco, 3B, Phillies — A lot of excitement around Franco after his superb spring training and 80-game sample last season. Could really bust out, especially in Citizens Bank Park, where the ball flies.
2. Byron Buxton, OF, Twins — He’s been among the top prospects in baseball for a couple of years now. It’s time for the talent to match the hype.
3. Blake Swihart, C, Red Sox — Swihart now knows what it takes to be a successful big leaguer. The switch-hitting backstop has the athleticism to become a plus-defender.
4. Rougned Odor, 2B, Rangers — Hit .261 with 16 homers and 61 RBIs as a 21-year-old last season. Big-time ceiling here.
5. Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Orioles — Scouts think Schoop can be one of baseball’s next great second basemen, and they feel he’s ready to show it.
6. Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Blue Jays — Amazing stuff with a fastball that moves and has late life.
7. Kevin Gausman, RHP, Orioles — Baseball executives feel the Orioles can hang with the AL East big boys if Gausman grows into an ace.
8. Joe Ross, LHP, Nationals — Nice rookie year (5-5, 3.64), but there’s much more in the tank. As in top-of-the-rotation stuff.
9. Wily Peralta, RHP, Brewers — The Brewers are waiting for him to take the next step. Being the No. 1 starter and with no pressure in Milwaukee, Peralta could let loose.
10. Joe Kelly, RHP, Red Sox — Kelly’s prediction of winning the Cy Young a year ago? He may be right one of these years.
11. Marcell Ozuna, OF, Marlins — A good player, but we’re waiting for his star turn. The Marlins think he might be ready to get there.
12. Juan Nicasio, RHP, Pirates — The 29-year-old righty had an eye-popping spring training with 24 strikeouts in 15 innings.
13. Steven Matz, LHP, Mets — There are plenty of baseball people who feel Matz may wind up being the best of the Mets’ talented starters.
14. George Springer, OF, Astros — After two incomplete seasons in the majors, the feeling is Springer will come closer to his minor league numbers. A 30-30 candidate, for sure.
15. Jackie Bradley Jr., OF, Red Sox — Bradley improved his offense last season and that continued in spring training. He thinks he can hit for power, and he hits lefties.
16. Michael Taylor, OF, Nationals – Nationals special assistant Bob Schaefer has been saying for a couple of years that Taylor is going to be an excellent major league player. Taylor is on his way to being an impact player.
17. Addison Russell, SS, Cubs — Russell is making a conscious effort to reduce his strikeouts, so he should put more balls in play. Expect his home run total to rise from last season’s 13.
18. Miguel Sano, OF, Twins — Jury is still out on whether Sano can play right field full time, but eventually he’ll become one of the top sluggers in baseball.
19. Drew Smyly, LHP, Rays — Smyly is a good major league pitcher, but the sense is if he can remain healthy, the lefty has the stuff to be a Cy Young candidate.
20. Raisel Iglesias, RHP, Reds — The Reds’ Opening Day starter is just 26 and has a chance to be one of the top young pitchers in the game.
Ten players who must bounce back
1. Josh Hamilton, OF, Rangers — “The amazing, God-given talent is still there,” said one AL general manager. “He just has to stay healthy.”
2. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles — Buck Showalter said Wieters was ready to have a great year. His elbow issues have lingered, however.
3. Matt Moore, LHP, Rays — The lefty looked fabulous in spring training after returning from Tommy John surgery.
4. Alex Cobb, RHP, Rays — Cobb may not return from his Tommy John rehab until late July, but if the Rays are in the hunt, Cobb could make a big difference in the AL East race, much in the way Marcus Stroman did for the Jays last September.
5. Derek Holland, LHP, Rangers — Holland remains a huge cog for the Rangers. They missed him last season, when he missed four months because of a shoulder injury.
6. Pedro Alvarez, DH, Orioles — Alvarez is looking to get back to the power numbers he enjoyed in Pittsburgh. Camden Yards is a great place to get it done (see, Nelson Cruz).
7. Homer Bailey, RHP, Reds — A year away after Tommy John surgery has made Bailey hungry to be at the top again. If he returns by early May, the rebuilding Reds have another big chip they can trade at the deadline.
8. Yu Darvish, RHP, Rangers — Texas has a chance to go far, but so much depends on Darvish being dominant again after having Tommy John surgery. Best guess is he’ll be back in the rotation by late May.
9. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals — The Cardinals were the only team to win 100 games last season and they did it with Wainwright missing five months. He’s healthy now.
10. Matt Cain, RHP, Giants — Formerly one of the best pitchers in the game, injuries have curtailed his last two seasons. Pitching coach Dave Righetti is very encouraged that Cain can be that guy again.
It’s not how you start
The world champion Royals replaced their closer with 145 career saves with a guy who has 20. But with the way Wade Davis performed last postseason (10scoreless innings, 18 strikeouts), Kansas City isn’t too concerned. The Royals saw enough in Davis, 30, as a struggling starter to convert him into a reliever, and the results have been dynamite. Here are four contemporaries who have succeeded after making similar transitions: