Fifteen make-or-break seasons in the AL
A's Cespedes, Yanks' Sabathia among players being counted on to step up
Continuing where we left off on Thursday with the National League, let's take a look at one "make or break" player from each American League team.
These are players who have a lot riding on their performances in 2014, either because of what it will mean for themselves, what it will mean for their teams or, in many cases, both.
Garrett Richards, Angels: Clearly, the Angels need somebody -- anybody -- to step up behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson and give them a playoff-caliber rotation to go with what should be an elite offense. Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs were the key offseason acquisitions in that regard, but don't forget about Richards, whose pure arm strength is an intriguing asset, even if his big league results have been spotty. After posting a 3.72 ERA and 6.71 strikeouts per nine innings in 12 starts down the stretch in 2013, he has a great chance to prove he can solidify himself as a big league starter. The Halos, playing in the unforgiving AL West, need that.
Dexter Fowler, Astros: The Astros aren't expected to contend on the heels of an 111-loss season, but the organization made significant strides this winter in shifting the conversation toward a better future, and Fowler's arrival could be key. Most label the acquisition of Fowler a steal, and it's up to him to prove it by realizing the star potential he flashed at various times in Colorado. His primary objective? Besides simply staying healthy, it's hitting righties -- he batted .237 hitting left-handed last year.
Yoenis Cespedes, A's: Aside from a strong showing in the Home Run Derby and the Division Series, Cespedes had a forgettable second season in the bigs, and that's an unsettling development for an A's team that needs to maximize all of its talent. The A's saw improved focus from Cespedes in September and October that they hope carries over.
"If he's focused, he can drive in 120-plus runs," hitting coach Chili Davis said. "I see him as a guy that has the ability to be one of the top five players in the game if he wants to be."
Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays: Toronto had one of the worst starting rotations in baseball last season and did nothing to address it, despite fielding a roster purportedly built to win now. It is incumbent upon Morrow, then, to provide major internal improvement simply by staying on the field and building upon the 2.96 ERA and 1.115 WHIP he had in 21 starts in 2012. The Blue Jays will be careful with Morrow after injuries limited him to just 54 innings last season, and he's never worked more than 179 1/3 innings in a season at the big league level. But he's a prototypical power pitcher who could be a huge asset, and he has every incentive to stay healthy, lead the staff and encourage the Blue Jays to pick up his $10 million option for next season.
Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians: Entering his free-agent walk year, Cabrera needs to build up his value if he wants to strike paydirt next winter. And an Indians lineup that was strong but streaky last season could really reach another level if Cabrera's production can resemble what it was in 2012-13, when he hit .272 with a .778 OPS, 41 homers, 67 doubles and 160 RBIs. Cabrera was haunted all winter by the double play he hit into at a pivotal point in the Wild Card loss to the Rays, and he enters 2014 motivated to do more.
"Even though he's been in the league [several] years," said manager Terry Francona, "this is a big year for him, personally and for our team."
Dustin Ackley, Mariners: All that money the Mariners invested in Robinson Cano means nothing if he doesn't have adequate talent surrounding him. Ackley, who is shifting from second base to left field, could be the one leading things off, and his career has left quite a bit to be desired, given all the hype about his pure hitting skills when Seattle chose the one-time University of North Carolina star second overall in the 2009 Draft. Safeco Field probably hasn't done Ackley any favors, but he's shown very little power in the big leagues, and his .315 on-base percentage isn't up to snuff, either. The Mariners have to hope his second-half performance (.285/.354/.404) in 2013, after a brief demotion to Triple-A Tacoma, was a sign of things to come.
Mike Moustakas, Royals: Take your pick between Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, but at least Hosmer has shown some stretches in which he can truly carry a Major League lineup. We're still waiting on Moose to put it all together, and his .222/.275/.332 slash line against lefties has opened the door to whispers that he might be best positioned as a platoon player -- something no 25-year-old former first-round pick wants to hear. The good news is that he arrived to camp looking lean and mean, and there have been encouraging signs thus far in Cactus League play.
"He feels really good about all the work that he did this winter," Kansas City manager Ned Yost said. "And to get some early results helps. It just kind of validates the work that he did."
Tommy Hunter, Orioles: If it's fair to boil the Orioles' last two seasons down to a single stat (and, admittedly, it probably isn't), then their record in one-run games is the most obvious choice. They went 29-9 in one-run games in 2012 and made the playoffs, but then went 20-31 in such games last year and finished six games back of a Wild Card spot. So the ramifications of their decisions to trade closer Jim Johnson to the A's and back off in their pursuit of free-agent closer Grant Balfour will be closely monitored. Hunter's assimilation to the ninth inning, therefore, is essential for the O's. He has a 2.99 ERA in 91 career relief appearances, vs. a 4.88 mark as a starter, so a more limited look by batters could offset some of the lefty-righty problems that have cropped up in his career. As he enters his final two arbitration years, this is a great chance to prove himself in a different capacity.
Alexi Ogando, Rangers: The Rangers took some daring steps toward improving their run production, but they left their pitching staff largely untouched, betting on bouncebacks from the likes of Matt Harrison , Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz. But Derek Holland's unexpected knee surgery and Harrison's early-spring back issues justified some of the anxiety over the ability of the starting staff, in particular, to stay healthy, and Ogando's durability might be the biggest question of all. The Rangers have seen what an asset he can be in the rotation when he's right, but he has not proven he can handle a 200-inning workload. With uncertainty elsewhere in the rotation, the Rangers might need him to do that.
Matt Moore, Rays: Nobody's going to reasonably complain about Moore's 17-win season, which netted him an All-Star selection. But given the uncertainty surrounding David Price's future with the Rays and the club's inherent need to eke out every ounce out of its roster, this will be a really important year in Moore's development. Is he the ace in training that he's shown flashes of being, or is he simply a solid mid-rotation starter? The answer will likely rest in his walk rate, which, at 4.5 free passes per nine innings last season, was not ace-like at all and limited his ability to work deep into games. And for the Rays to finish what could be Price's last season in St. Petersburg on a World Series-winning note, they might need more out of Moore.
Grady Sizemore, Red Sox: It seems reasonably safe to assume that this is Sizemore's last shot to resurrect a career that was, arguably, on a Hall of Fame track before a multitude of injuries interrupted. The list of guys to come back from microfracture in both knees is, well, non-existent, so Sizemore has the opportunity to double as medical marvel and major source of upside to a Red Sox lineup that lost Jacoby Ellsbury. Not that the Red Sox can't succeed without Sizemore. That couldn't be further from the truth. But there's no knowing what they're going to get from Jackie Bradley Jr. in what could be his first full season in the Majors, so Sizemore's ability to survive Spring Training is worthy of close inspection.
Victor Martinez, Tigers: It's not just the upcoming free-agent eligibility, because Martinez's motivations go well beyond dollars at this point (though it is worth noting that the market hasn't been too kind to designated-hitter types in their mid- to late-30s). The Tigers' World Series chances and Martinez's ability to remain healthy and adequately support Miguel Cabrera in the wake of the Prince Fielder trade are inextricably, undeniably tied.
Phil Hughes, Twins: You know it's a wild winter when someone routinely labeled a bust gets a three-year, $24 million guarantee. But Hughes is just 27, and many people around the league think the move out of the AL East and Yankee Stadium and into Target Field will be good for him, given his past tendency to surrender the long ball. If Hughes is going to assert himself as a starter, this could be his last shot, and the Twins, who were horrendous in the rotation last season, obviously have a lot invested in the outcome.
Gordon Beckham, White Sox: In what figures to be an important transitional year for the Sox, who have added MLB-ready young talent in the likes of Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Matt Davidson and Avisail Garcia, Beckham has possibly his last chance to prove he's part of the emerging core and not just lineup filler with untapped potential. His 2009 breakout feels like forever ago, and the Sox have middle-infield depth in the likes of Carlos Sanchez, Leury Garcia and Micah Johnson. So Beckham must produce, and a bounceback season from him would certainly help the South Siders' efforts to field a fundamentally more dynamic lineup in 2014.
CC Sabathia, Yankees: His fastball clocked out around 88 mph in his spring debut, so the assumption that Sabathia will have to learn how to do more with less remains a valid one. He already slimmed down his body, but now he needs to slim down his career-worst 5.20 ERA of last season. To put it plainly, it's really, really difficult to see the Yankees, even with Masahiro Tanaka on board, as the World Series contender they claim to be if their established ace is not a productive pitcher.