MLB

Make-or-break players for all 30 MLB teams

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Baltimore Orioles: John Means

The Orioles are rebuilding, which means they are crossing their fingers that a cohort of promising young pitchers can mature into reliable starters sooner than later. Over the past two seasons, Means has emerged as a top-of-the-rotation stalwart for Baltimore, and he could provide stability to a rotation that almost certainly will be scratching and clawing for every ounce of it.

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Boston Red Sox: J.D. Martinez

Widely regarded as one of the brainiest hitters in the majors, Martinez is coming off a down year in which he hit roughly 80 points below his career average and compiled his lowest on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.680) since 2013. If Martinez can recover his all-star form, he could be a key stabilizer in a Red Sox lineup that will be trying to reestablish its identity with plenty of versatile offensive talent. If not, Boston’s lineup will look much shorter and less formidable, an ominous combination in the potent American League East.

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Chicago White Sox: José Abreu

For all the hype around Chicago’s hitters and its impressive pitching staff, Abreu remains the veteran presence who grounds the young lineup with World Series hopes. The reigning AL MVP will be surrounded by potential, and he even spent spring training infield sessions sharing insight with Andrew Vaughn, who could be his eventual replacement. But Abreu’s time is far from over, and the White Sox’s time is just beginning.

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Cleveland Indians: José Ramírez

When Chris Antonetti, Cleveland’s president of baseball operations, was asked why he believes his team can remain competitive after it shipped out all-star shortstop Francisco Lindor this winter, he offered a simple answer: “Shane Bieber and José Ramírez.” And while the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner will be crucial, Ramírez is now the team’s everyday star. After finishing in the top three in AL MVP voting in three of the past four years, Ramírez now has a chance to step out of Lindor’s shadow and into a fresh spotlight.

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Detroit Tigers: Matthew Boyd

Perhaps no one is exactly “make or break” for the Tigers, who are firmly in the rebuilding phase until a group of elite pitching prospects makes its way to the rotation. But to avoid putting too much work and pressure on those prospects’ shoulders, Detroit will need something out of its rotation, led by the lefty Boyd. Boyd made an ace turn in 2019 before seeing his numbers dip somewhat in 2020. To stay in the AL Central mix into the summer, the Tigers need him to turn back.

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Houston Astros: Zack Greinke

With Justin Verlander out for the season after Tommy John surgery and Framber Valdez out indefinitely with a broken finger, the Astros’ rotation is weaker than usual this time of year. The loss of George Springer will hurt the lineup, though Houston is still loaded with run producers. What the Astros might lack is pitching, and they will need Greinke to be the innings-eating ace he has been throughout his career.

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Kansas City Royals: Salvador Perez

At the end of an under-the-radar offseason that saw Kansas City add outfielder Andrew Benintendi, slugger Carlos Santana and reliever Greg Holland, the Royals gave Perez the biggest deal in franchise history when they signed him to a four-year extension that was reportedly worth $82 million. Perez was due to become a free agent after this season and was considered a potential deadline target for numerous contenders. Instead, he will be at the center of the Royals’ push to contend in the weak AL Central.

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Los Angeles Angels: Shohei Ohtani

The Angels have never been short on star power, but they have never exactly put it all together, either. A full season of Ohtani on the mound and in the box would amount to the addition of an elite power starter to the rotation and hitter to the lineup, both units Manager Joe Maddon and the Angels think are close to turning a corner. With a healthy Ohtani, the Angels finally could have enough firepower to challenge Houston and always-competitive Oakland for AL West supremacy.

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Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton

When Buxton is healthy, he is a sparkplug — an elite outfield defender and a potentially dynamic bat who gives the slugging Twins’ offense another dimension. But health has been a problem for Buxton over the years, limiting his impact to shorter stretches than he and the Twins might like. Minnesota did minimal remodeling to its roster between last season and this one, but the emergence of Buxton could give the Twins the weapons they need to stay in the playoff hunt.

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New York Yankees: Gerrit Cole

Cole’s importance as New York’s ace is so glaring that early in spring training reporters were asking the right-hander how much pressure he feels not only to perform but to just stay healthy. Cole laughed the question off, but the reality is stark: Despite the addition of bounce-back candidates Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber, the Yankees will go where Cole takes them — particularly until Luis Severino returns from Tommy John surgery sometime this summer.

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Oakland Athletics: Matt Chapman

For a franchise known for squeezing the most success out of the fewest resources year after year, the loss of any key player can be devastating. But Chapman, an outstanding defender and steady hitter, missed last year’s stretch run with a hip injury. If he returns at full strength, the A’s could surprise everyone again this year, as usual.

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Seattle Mariners: Marco Gonzales

After a tumultuous offseason in which Kevin Mather, the team’s president and chief executive, made comments offending multiple key Mariners, including Gonzales, Seattle is trying to rebrand itself as a fresh-faced bunch ready to end the longest playoff drought in the majors. But as emerging stars such as Kyle Lewis continue to find their footing, the Mariners will need Gonzales — whom Mather described as “very boring” — to continue being a reliable force at the top of the rotation.

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Tampa Bay Rays: Brandon Lowe

Stars don’t linger with Tampa Bay long, which means consistency from up-and-comers such as Lowe is key to the Rays’ continued contention. While Randy Arozarena grabbed attention with his impressive playoff showing, it was Lowe who anchored the Tampa Bay lineup for much of 2019 and 2020. Since the start of the 2019 season, Lowe has compiled the same OPS (.876) as Justin Turner and Anthony Rizzo.

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Texas Rangers: Mike Foltynewicz

The Rangers, with a fresh-faced general manager in Chris Young, are supposed to be a few years away from contention. But with a corps of talented young offensive prospects likely to get plenty of big league at-bats this year, a healthy dose of starting pitching could be enough to allow Texas to surprise some people. The Rangers bought low on former Atlanta Braves pitcher Foltynewicz, who at one point a few years ago looked as if he was evolving into a bona fide ace. If he can regain his 2018 form, the Rangers may have found themselves a top-tier starter still young enough to build around.

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Toronto Blue Jays: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Ryu is the unquestioned ace of Toronto’s staff and has pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA in each of the past three seasons. His Blue Jays went into this offseason looking to fill in around their young position-playing core, and they were able to do that by signing George Springer and Marcus Semien to fill out their lineup. But despite trading for left-hander Steven Matz and bringing back Robbie Ray, the Jays probably need Ryu to be reliably dominant again to make a push in the AL East.

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Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg

For years, the Nationals have sustained success with starting pitching. For years, Max Scherzer and Strasburg made one of the most consistent and effective one-two punches in baseball, at least when Strasburg was healthy. But this year, their rotation is built on four starters over 30, and the loss of one could increase the workload and pressure on the others. If Strasburg is Strasburg, the Nationals should be able to match up with anyone. If Strasburg is unable to stay healthy, Scherzer will probably feel more pressure to try to eat innings — and while he hates to admit it, Scherzer is not as immune to big workloads as he used to be.

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St. Louis Cardinals: Jack Flaherty

The Cardinals reinforced their rotation by holding on to veteran Adam Wainwright this winter, but for all the pitching depth available in their system, the exact makeup of their rotation remained uncertain late in spring training after injuries to Miles Mikolas and others. In 2018 and 2019, Flaherty proved capable of emerging as an ace on a team dripping with pitching potential. In 2020, he never found his footing. If Flaherty can regain elite form, the Cardinals could have the most formidable rotation in the National League Central to go with what will probably be an improved offense, too.

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San Francisco Giants: Kevin Gausman

With one of the older rosters in the majors, the Giants are the rare organization that hopes to surprise people with a team filled with familiar faces. To do so, they will have to find a way to match up with the deep lineups and improved rotations of the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres. Gausman probably will be the man entrusted with ace responsibilities after he posted a 3.62 ERA in 2020 and accepted a qualifying offer after the season. Surrounded by comeback candidates such as Johnny Cueto and Aaron Sanchez, Gausman figures to be the linchpin in a rotation filled with question marks.

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San Diego Padres: Yu Darvish

When the Padres acquired Darvish and left-hander Blake Snell on back-to-back days this winter, they vaulted into World Series contention, even if they are not the favorites to win their own division. The rival Los Angeles Dodgers have had success against everyone during the past few seasons, but they have been particularly menacing to right-handed pitching. If Darvish proves capable of subduing them and others regularly, he could be the difference between the Padres mounting a credible challenge to the reigning champs or relying on the wild card to get them to October.

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Pittsburgh Pirates: Ke’Bryan Hayes

As the Pirates remain mired in a never-ending rebuild, glimmers of hope are likely to be few and far between in 2021. But Hayes gleamed in a brief big league stint in 2020, hitting .376 with a 1.124 OPS in 24 games. If those numbers are indicative of what Hayes can bring for a full season, the Pirates finally may catch a glimpse of better things to come.

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Philadelphia Phillies: Aaron Nola

In the loaded NL East, pitching is king, and the Phillies will need everyone in their rotation in top form if they are to keep up with the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals. The Phillies return key offensive cogs Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Rhys Hoskins and have bolstered their decrepit bullpen, but they will need their ace, Nola, on his game to keep them in the hunt.

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New York Mets: Jacob deGrom

The NL East is loaded from top to bottom, but when it comes to starting pitching, no one can match the potential firepower of the Mets’ rotation at full capacity — particularly when it comes to Opening Day starter deGrom, one of the best pitchers on the planet. But should deGrom falter or fall to injury, the depth of that rotation could plummet quickly. Noah Syndergaard is not expected to return from injury until midway through the season. Taijuan Walker is unproven. Marcus Stroman did not pitch in 2020. Carlos Carrasco tore his hamstring in spring training. With a full season of deGrom, the Mets can absorb some blows. Without him, other NL East rotations may have enough talent to catch them.

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Milwaukee Brewers: Josh Hader

The Brewers stocked up on defenders and bring back a promising rotation in 2021. But their fortunes may pivot around fireballer Hader, who was only somewhat dominant in a small sample last season but was nearly untouchable in 2018 and 2019. If he returns to form, he and emerging star Devin Williams could give the Brewers an unhittable one-two punch in the back end of the bullpen. If the Brewers struggle, he could deliver a strong prospect haul at the trade deadline.

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Miami Marlins: Sandy Alcantara

As the Marlins made a surprise run to the postseason in 2020, their rotation emerged as a sneaky strength. Alcantara was at the center of that, and the 25-year-old right-hander will be crucial to their success again. Surrounded by young prospects such as Sixto Sánchez and Pablo López, Alcantara might as well be a grizzled veteran with a 3.71 ERA in 53 big league appearances, 45 of them starts.

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Los Angeles Dodgers: Trevor Bauer

It may seem counterintuitive that the lone addition to the defending World Series champions’ already loaded rotation could somehow make or break their hopes of repeating. But exactly how Bauer and his knack for controversy fit into the no-nonsense Dodgers’ clubhouse culture could be determinative for better or worse: If he clashes with his circumstances, Bauer could create distraction. If he thrives, the Dodgers may be well on their way to becoming the first team to repeat as champions in two decades.

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Colorado Rockies: Trevor Story

The Rockies had a tough offseason, punctuated by the trade of star third baseman Nolan Arenado in a seeming signal of surrender before the 2021 season even started. Publicly, Rockies leadership has maintained that it believes it has a roster that can be competitive, and, indeed, Colorado’s corps of young pitchers may be more Coors Field-ready than many who came before. But the offense probably will follow the lead of the stalwart shortstop Story, who could be flipped for valuable prospects if the team is out of contention at the deadline.

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Cincinnati Reds: Luis Castillo

If the Reds are able to keep pace in the wide open NL Central, Castillo is the franchise’s best immediate hope to emerge as the next ace to help carry them through. If they fall out of contention, Castillo could become a high-priced trade chip who helps stock the Reds’ system.

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Chicago Cubs: Willson Contreras

As the Cubs’ core approaches free agency and the loss of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javy Báez looms over the franchise’s future, Contreras may be the most crucial to its immediate fortunes. He will be handling a starting rotation built around finesse, meaning his defensive play and framing behind the plate will be more important than ever. And as his teammates try to fend off the mental weight of free agency, Contreras will be crucial to the Cubs’ success offensively.

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Atlanta Braves: Mike Soroka

Last year, the Braves won the hearty NL East even though their starters compiled the worst ERA in the NL: 5.51. While young pitchers such as Ian Anderson and Max Fried put things together down the stretch, the man the Braves had been counting on to emerge as their ace, Soroka, was sidelined with an Achilles’ injury. The right-hander is on pace to return sometime in April or May. If he looks like the guy who posted a 2.68 ERA over 29 starts in 2019, the Braves’ rotation could be much better than it was in 2020, when their offense was so good the rotation hardly held them back.

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Arizona Diamondbacks: Ketel Marte

The Diamondbacks made little noise this winter after a dismal 2020, betting largely on the same roster that propelled them to a second-place finish in the NL West and kept them in wild-card contention until late in the season in 2019. At the heart of that team was Marte, who spent 2019 filling his résumé with MVP-worthy credentials: 32 homers, a .329 batting average and a .981 OPS. Marte’s numbers dipped in 2020, but if he reemerges, the 27-year-old could help keep the Diamondbacks relevant in a bruising division.

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