With an extra playoff team set to join the field in each league, fans everywhere are finding it easy to talk themselves into believing their team has a chance. The league as a whole is loaded with young stars, and several veteran stars have moved on to new teams. Let’s take a look at the most intriguing player on every team heading into the season.
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Aaron Judge has become the face of this generation of Bronx Bombers. This team has plenty of other big names, but Judge is the unquestioned top dog in their line-up, and the guy New York asks to carry their team. Injuries have been an issue for the veteran, but he stayed mostly healthy a year ago and hit .287 with 39 long balls. He’s set to hit free agency at the end of 2022, and while the Yankees have been open about their plan to offer him an extension prior to opening day, this situation bears watching.
Trevor Story spent the first six years of his career in Colorado, so after signing with the Red Sox as a free agent he’ll become the latest case study of how well the offensive numbers hitters put up in Denver translate elsewhere. A year ago Story’s slash line splits were stark:
.296/.365/.515 at Coors Field, .203/.292/.426 elsewhere.
Boston is hopeful they’ll be able to qualify for the playoffs again in 2022, and Story was their biggest offensive addition. He’ll play second base in Boston and let Xander Bogaerts hang on to his shortstop position–which is another potential future storyline with Bogaerts approaching free agency.
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Young Wander Franco was the unanimously top-ranked prospect in the minor leagues heading into last season, and after receiving his first big league promotion in June he did not disappoint. In 70 games Franco slashed .288/.347/.463 with 30 extra-base hits in only 281 at-bats. The Rays are counting on the 21-year-old to be a dynamic player for them for years to come and rewarded him with an unprecedented 11 year/$182 million extension this winter. The contract brings with it a level of pressure, and for Tampa Bay to continue to be a force in the American League they’re well aware Franco will have to be front and center.
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The Blue Jays are a very exciting team in general, as they’ve assembled a plethora of star power and appear poised to make a serious run at the AL East crown. But perhaps the most important player on their entire team is righty Jose Berrios, whom they acquired from Minnesota at the deadline last summer. As a whole Berrios’ ’21 campaign was excellent. Between his two stops, the 27-year-old pitched to a 3.52 ERA with a 1.06 WHIP, while punching out 204 hitters in 192 innings. Toronto rewarded him with a long-term extension, and along with Kevin Gausman, he’ll be asked to lead this rotation for the next several years.
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Baltimore center fielder Cedric Mullins had spent the first three seasons of his career failing to establish himself at the game’s highest level, but that changed in a big way in 2021. Mullins gave up switch-hitting in spring training, becoming a full-time left-handed hitter, and probably wishes he’d made that decision earlier. Appearing in all but three of the O’s games the University of Campbell product hit .291 and reached base at a .360 clip. He joined the 30/30 club with exactly 30 homers and steals, made the all-star team, and won a Silver Slugger award. Heading into 2022 he’s now an established star, and easily the most exciting player on Baltimore’s roster.
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Jose Ramirez is the most intriguing member of the Guardians, and it isn’t particularly close. The 29-year-old is one of the very best players in all of baseball, but ironically that isn’t even the biggest reason for his intrigue. The Guardians are not expected to be very good in ’22, and to be honest it’s somewhat surprising they haven’t traded him already–particularly if they were actually offered the package from Toronto that came out last week. It’s exceedingly unlikely Ramirez is going to finish this season in eastern Ohio, and as soon as Cleveland falls out of the race the rumors will start.
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Perhaps the best free agent available on the open market this winter was shortstop Carlos Correa, who shocked much of the baseball world by agreeing to a creative contract in Minnesota. Correa was a core member of the Astros’ teams that have enjoyed so much recent success, and seeing him in a different uniform is going to take some getting used to. In Houston a year ago the veteran hit .279 with 26 homers and 92 RBI, and he brings with him a lengthy resume of performing in the biggest moments. His presence on the Twins’ roster changes the way they’re viewed by the rest of the league and positions them to perhaps challenge the White Sox for the AL Central crown.
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Speaking of the White Sox. Chicago enters the upcoming campaign as one of the favorites to win the AL pennant, and someone with the ability to potentially push them over the top is right-hander, Dylan Cease. The White Sox have a powerful offensive line-up and a rotation led by Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn. Slotting in 3rd on their starting staff is Cease, who showed serious promise in his first full big-league season a year ago. In 32 starts the Milton, GA native worked to a 3.91 ERA in 165.2 innings, while finishing 2nd to only Corbin Burnes in K/9 ratio.
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The Tigers selected Spencer Torkelson 1st overall in the 2020 draft, and the Arizona State product appears poised to crack the Major Leagues on opening day. Torkelson crushed 30 homers in the minor leagues last season, and after a decorated collegiate career there really is not much left he needs to prove. Detroit is confident their young first baseman will be an immediate star, and he’s certainly one of the early favorites to be this year’s AL Rookie of the Year.
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Speaking of potential AL Rookie of the Year candidates. Kansas City made 2nd generation pro Bobby Witt Jr. the 2nd overall pick in ’19, and like Torkelson, he annihilated the minor leagues a season ago. In 123 games across three different Royals’ affiliates, the 21-year-old slashed .290/.361/.575 with 33 homers and 97 RBI. He added 35 doubles, 29 steals, and four triples, and this kid has superstar written all over him. Witt Jr. is a natural shortstop but the Royals are planning on starting him at third base to get him to the big leagues quicker.
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Even with all the young talent in the game today, the best player on the planet remains Angels outfielder Mike Trout, whose balky right calf prevented fans from seeing him for most of last season. In just under 1300 career games, though, Trout owns an incredible .305/.419/.583 slash line with 310 home runs. He’s been an all-star nine times, and the MVP of the American League on three separate occasions. The Angels–and baseball in general–need Trout healthy and dominating all year long in 2022.
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Former Florida Gator ace A.J. Puk is flirting dangerously with the bust label, and the 6th pick from the 2016 draft is entering a make-or-break season here in ’22. The lefty has just not been the same since missing the ’18 season recovering from Tommy John Surgery, and the A’s moved him from the rotation to the bullpen shortly afterward. To date, he’s made 22 big league relief appearances but owns an ugly 4.74 ERA. This kid had dominant stuff coming out of college, and in the bullpen, he would have potentially profiled as a Josh Hader-like force. Oakland hasn’t given up on that potential, but they’re going to need to see some immediate improvement moving forward.
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The Rangers sense that their division could soon become more wide open than it’s been for a long time. The Astros have owned the West in recent memory, winning four of the past five division crowns and qualifying for the postseason in six of the last seven years. They’d survived the loss of stars like Gerrit Cole and George Springer, but will Carlos Correa departing be the straw that broke the camel’s back? Texas thinks so, which played a huge part in their decision to blow star shortstop Corey Seager away in free agency, and they’ll be leaning on him to help bring this franchise back to relevancy.
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Tasked with replacing Correa in Houston is 24-year-old Jeremy Pena, who was the Astros’ 3rd round pick back in ’18. Pena does a lot of things well on a baseball field and has impressed Houston’s veterans in camp. In 182 minor league games, he’s slashed .291/.371/.443 with 18 homers, 85 RBI, 31 doubles, 10 triples, and 29 steals. Filling the shoes of a perennial all-star is not a realistic ambition, especially as a rookie, but provided Pena plays his game and doesn’t put too much pressure on himself, he should be a solid contributor to this team.
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Jarred Kelenic was one of the most talked-about prospects in baseball this time last year, but unfortunately, his introduction to the Major League level was filled with growing pains. In 93 games for Seattle Kelenic did crush 14 homers and drive in 43 runs. But his .181 batting average and .265 OBP were just not good enough, and not remotely in line with the .294 and ..370 marks he’d put up across over 200 minor league games. Seattle full expects to contend in 2022 and end a long postseason drought, and it would certainly help if Kelenic could blossom into the superstar most scouts have predicted he would for many years.
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Over the past five years, one thing has been more certain in Major League Baseball than anything else. Jacob deGrom is the best pitcher in the sport, and it’s not even close. The Mets’ ace won back-to-back Cy Young awards in ’18 and ’19 and very well should have beat out Trevor Bauer for it in the COVID shortened 2020 season. What deGrom was doing in the first half last season was completely unprecedented, pitching to a 1.08 ERA in 92 innings. He didn’t make a start after the all-star break which was devastating to not only New York but the sport as a whole. This winter the Mets went out and added Max Scherzer and Chris Bassitt to their rotation, but make no mistake this is still deGrom’s staff. And if he’s healthy, the Amazins’ are going to be a handful for the rest of the National League.
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Never before can I remember a team acquiring a superstar franchise player, and the fan base is upset about it, but what’s gone on in Atlanta in the preseason has been a special circumstance, to say the least. Braves’ icon Freddie Freeman helped this team win the World Series last October, and when he hit free agency this winter nobody in their right mind thought he would ever leave. Until the decision was made for him. In early March Atlanta swung a trade with Oakland to land first baseman Matt Olson–who just crushed 39 homers a year ago. Freeman responded by singing in Los Angeles with the Dodgers, and it will be up to Olson to make the Braves look smart.
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You have to give the Phillies credit for the approach they’ve taken this winter. Trying to keep up with Atlanta and New York in the NL East, the Phillies were well aware they lack the rotation to go toe to toe with their rivals. Behind Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola Philadelphia’s starting staff leaves something to be desired. But that won’t matter as much if they just score a ton of runs. First Philly signed Kyle Schwarber to bring left-handed thump to their line-up and later brought in all-star Nick Castellanos to do the same from the right side. The pair will join Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Rhys Hoskins to give Philadelphia one of the most dangerous offenses in the game.
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Juan Soto will be extremely intriguing to watch in D.C. this season because his patience is going to be severely tested–something that could be challenging for a 23-year-old superstar. Washington traded away a lot of their team last July, leaving Soto as the last real star standing in their everyday lineup. Opposing teams will make a point of not letting him be the one to beat them, and while he’s already arguably the most disciplined hitter in the NL, it bears watching if he will get frustrated by consistently not having a chance to swing the bat.
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Don’t look now but the Marlins might be coming in a hurry. Miami has put together an enviable collection of young pitchers, as Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez, Trevor Rogers, and Elieser Hernandez have all already enjoyed success. Miami also has highly considered prospects Sixto Sanchez and Max Meyer waiting in the wings. But another pitcher they possess, Jesus Luzardo, whom they acquired from Oakland last summer, could be the one that really puts them over the top if he can regain his minor league form. Luzardo dominated for most of his professional career in Oakland but has been unable to translate that to the big league level. In 43 Major League contests, he’s pitched to an unsightly 5.36 ERA, but Miami still believes the 24-year-old can breakout, and they’re anxious to see if they’re right.
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Seiya Suzuki is the latest Japanese star to take his talents across the Pacific. While it remains to see what kind of player he’ll be in the Major Leagues, if his numbers in Japan are any indication, NL pitchers are in trouble. For Hiroshima in 2021 Suzuki hit .317 with 38 homers and 88 RBI, and the Cubs are counting on him being a huge hit at Wrigley Field this summer.
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For the Cardinals, it was difficult to pick just one player here, because they’ve got a pair of future Hall-of-Famers that are planning to retire at the end of 2022. Both starter Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina will have all eyes on them this season. The duo have been battery mates since 2005 and incredibly continue to produce at a high level. They’ll try to give Cardinals fans one more reason to love them and go out with another deep postseason run later this October.
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Nobody capitalized on the aforementioned Jacob deGrom missing the season’s second half last year more than Corbin Burnes, who dominated down the stretch en route to being named the NL Cy Young winner. In 28 starts the righty delivered a 2.43 ERA with a 0.94 WHIP while striking out 234 hitters in only 167 innings and holding the opposition to a .201 batting average. The Brewers won the NL Central last season and fully plan on doing it again in ’22, and they’ll need Burnes to be every bit as good in the upcoming campaign.
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The Reds thought they were drafting a future star when they took versatile Nick Senzel with the 2nd overall pick in 2016. Unfortunately, that vision has not yet come to fruition. In 163 big league games over three years–so essentially one full season– Senzel has slashed .246/.308/.396 with only 49 extra-base hits. Most of that production came in what was a solid rookie year in ’19, but he’s regressed since, and on a Reds team without much else to be excited about, they simply need Senzel to breakthrough.
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The Pirates are in all likelihood headed for a disappointing 2022 campaign, but one bright spot for them is undeniably presiding over the hot corner at PNC Park. Young Ke’Bryan Hayes burst on the scene down the stretch in 2020 to hit .376 in 85 at-bats, and while he wasn’t swinging the bat quite like that a year ago, he was still exciting. In 96 games Hayes hit .257 with 28 extra-base hits despite spending an unfortunate amount of time on the injured list. Pittsburgh is anxious to see what he can accomplish in a full healthy season, and hopefully, they’ll get to watch him thrive in the upcoming weeks and months.
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We touched a bit on Freddie Freeman’s situation earlier, but it bears mentioning again that is it incomprehensible how he is now suiting up for a team other than the Braves. After Atlanta traded for his replacement in Matt Olson, Freeman quickly pivoted and signed with his hometown Dodgers, helping LA construct an absolute murderers’ row of an offensive attack. It’s really going to be something if the Dodgers and Braves end up meeting in the postseason for the 3rd straight year.
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Future Hall-of-Fame catcher Buster Posey took the Giants and baseball by surprise when he announced his retirement shortly after the 2021 season concluded. At 35-years-old San Francisco surely thought their backstop would suit up for at least another year, but his departure opens the door for Joey Bart who has been waiting in the wings. The Giants took Bart #2 overall in the 2018 draft, and while he mashed in the minor leagues he’s failed to bring that level of production to the bigs–albeit in only 109 at-bats at the highest level. His time is now though, and San Fran is hopeful he can hold down position number two on your scorecard for the next decade, similarly to what Posey did for them prior.
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Mike Clevinger has not taken a big league mound since September 23, 2020, as he, unfortunately, missed all of the ’21 campaign recovering from Tommy John surgery. His absence certainly hurt the Padres’ playoff chances late last season, as the man nicknamed “Sunshine” owns a lifetime 3.19 ERA in 105 big league outings and would have been incredibly useful down the stretch. He’s recovered now and is ready to rejoin a San Diego team that still has high expectations. How he performs in the middle of their rotation could go a long way in determining if this team is playing or watching in October.
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When healthy Ketel Marte is one of the very best players in all of baseball, but unfortunately staying on the field has been an issue at times. Hamstring problems limited the switch-hitter to only 90 games a year ago, but in those 90 games, he was simply magical. Marte slashed .318/.377/.532, blasted 14 home runs, drove in 50 runs, doubled 29 times, and finished with a .909 OPS. He’s adept defensively at both second base and center field, and on a Diamondbacks team without much else to be excited about, this is their star.
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The circumstances surrounding the Rockies’ free-agent signing of veteran slugger Kris Bryant are a little perplexing–considering they traded away superstar Nolan Arenado just over a year ago only to replace his presence on the payroll with another huge contract. But make no mistake, Bryant should absolute rake at Coors Field. It’s hard to believe the Vegas native is already 30 years of age, but he’s accomplished a lot in his career. Bryant has won NL Rookie of the Year, won an MVP award, been selected to four all-star teams, and most importantly helped lead the Cubs to a World Series championship in 2016. And now he’ll get to play his home games in the most hitter friendly park in the big leagues. Bombs away.
Justin Mears is a freelance sports writer from Long Beach Island, NJ. Enjoys being frustrated by the Mets and Cowboys, reading Linwood Barclay novels, and being yelled at by his toddler son. Follow him on twitter @justinwmears.