You could never actually poke and prod the MLB season enough to come out with only 30 important figures, what with the thousands of games being played and all. But it's often both fun and easy to point at singular individuals when discussing a team's fortunes, and I'm seeking to do that here. These aren't necessarily going to be the best players on each respective team, but for the 2011 season they're likely to be integral to defining what exactly the meaning of the season was for each club. So here they are- one player to define every team's season.
Angels: Vernon Wells
At the beginning of the offseason, the Angels said they were going to come away from it with a marquee player. It made sense, with Cliff Lee, Adrian Beltre, Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford on the market. The Angels ended up with Vernon Wells and his monster contract, though. They're banking on Wells to be a star player, and how well he follows through on those expectations will be key to LA's success.
Astros: Brett Wallace
He's arguably Houston's best player under the age of 27. That's what scares me about the Astros.
Athletics: Brett Anderson
His health could be a difference-maker for Oakland this year. He's shown that he can be a front-line pitcher when he's healthy, but he's only pitched 287 innings over the past two years. 200-plus innings from Anderson could lead Oakland to contention.
Blue Jays: Travis Snider
The Blue Jays are going to need stars to keep up in the AL East, and Snider may be on his way to becoming that kind of player. He's only 23, but after getting 319 PA's with Toronto last year, he should play full-time with the Jays this season.
Braves: Jason Heyward
He's probably already Atlanta's best player, and he's potentially the kind of guy that could carry the offense for extended stretches. We all love Brian McCann, but Heyward has the ability to take this club's offense to an entirely different level.
Brewers: Rickie Weeks
The rotation is going to be good. The middle of the order is going to be good. Multiple spots in the everyday lineup are going to be bad. Another big year from Weeks could mean the playoffs; an injury-marred year could mean third or fourth place.
Cardinals: Albert Pujols
Ahem. My apologies to all the Daniel Descalso fans out there.
Cubs: Carlos Zambrano
For two reasons, frankly. One, he's capable of being the kind of high-quality starter that can lead a fringe team like Chicago to contention. Two, bloated contracts like his are the primary reason that Chicago's a fringe team in the first place.
Diamondbacks: Justin Upton
This is a big year for Arizona's franchise player. We should be a good deal closer to knowing whether there might be MVP's in this kid's future after the season.
Dodgers: Matt Kemp
They pretty much need a Matt Kemp bounce-back to contend in 2011. The pitching is good, but the lineup is lacking and Kemp's one of the few players that could give it a substantial boost.
Giants: Buster Posey
You get the feeling that things could go both ways this year. Posey could stumble a bit and the Giants could have some trouble contenders, or Posey could win NL MVP while San Francisco runs away with the division.
Indians: Carlos Santana
It's going to be an ugly year in Cleveland. Just enjoy watching this incredibly good young catcher.
Mariners: Erik Bedard
If he's healthy, he could be pretty useful for Seattle. No, the Mariners aren't likely to contend even if Bedard comes through with a nice season. But a lefty starter like Bedard would get tons of attention on the trade market, and he could bring Seattle some quality talent this summer with enough good starts over the next few months.
Marlins: Javier Vazquez
You could go with Stanton here, but I feel like the Marlins can only go as far as their pitching takes them. A good year from Vazquez (among other things) could turn them into a contender, but right now it seems like Florida banked on the wrong aging veteran starter.
Mets: Jose Reyes
If New York has any chance of contending, Reyes is going to need to return to his previous status as an elite shortstop. A contending Mets team isn't a lock even with an All-Star Reyes, though, in which case he would be the club's biggest trade target near the deadline.
Nationals: Bryce Harper
This is the reality in D.C. right now. They're not contending in 2011, and pretty much all eyes are towards the future. Harper's full-season debut with Single-A Hagerstown is going to be arguably the most fascinating thing to occur in the Nationals organization this year.
Orioles: Matt Wieters
Sure, Baltimore's young pitching is coming together early this season, but the Orioles are going to need some quality bats to step forward long-term. The current middle-of-the-order, Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero and Luke Scott, isn't going to be around for long, and players like Wieters are expected to fill those gaps. Another disappointing, albeit near league average, season from the catcher would likely indicate that bigger things may not be in his future.
Padres: Ryan Ludwick
The Padres need someone to step up and hit for some power in Adrian Gonzalez's absence. Ludwick, plus Gonzalez's replacement Brad Hawpe, should be the first players that the Padres turn to. Even with good run prevention they're going to need to score some runs.
Phillies: Chase Utley
They really need him to stay healthy. Rollins, Howard, Ibanez and Polanco are all getting old, and they can't afford to be using Wilson Valdez and Michael Martinez for hundreds of PA's. There are reasons for why I chose Atlanta over Philly in the NL East (they win the Wild Card, though, don't worry).
Pirates: Pedro Alvarez
It's all about the future in Pittsburgh. We already know that they have a star in McCutchen, and now we're waiting to see if Alvarez is ready to join him. This is more talent in Pittsburgh than we've seen in a while.
Rangers: Nelson Cruz
He's been remarkably good so far this year, and when healthy he gives Texas one of the best all-around players in the game. If he can get through a full season, we might be looking at consecutive MVP's in Texas.
Rays: B.J. Upton
This team needs some players to step up as the club tries to replace Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza and Rafael Soriano. None of those players is going to be as difficult to replace as Crawford, and realistically Upton is one of the few guys on this roster that could potentially replace a good deal of Crawford's value. A big season from the elder Upton could be huge for Tampa's playoffs chances.
Red Sox: Josh Beckett
Boston's offense should end up okay- you just don't struggle to score runs when you write Pedroia-Crawford-Gonzalez-Youkilis-Ortiz-Drew into the scorecard most days. Not only do the Red Sox appear to need someone on the pitching staff like Beckett to step up this year, but Boston could use a good season given how much money they owe the right-hander.
Reds: Jay Bruce
His breakout during the later part of 2010 was huge for Cincinnati's run to the playoffs. They may not be able to repeat it unless he can prove that breakout is sustainable.
Rockies: Carlos Gonzalez
Can he do it again? If he can do something similar, Colorado should be a serious contender in the NL West. And for all of the talk about how he benefits from Coors, it's not like he's leaving there for 2011.
Royals: Mike Moustakas
Things won't get interesting in Kansas City until the club's vaunted farm system begins to trickle onto the MLB roster. Moustakas should be among the first to arrive, hopefully sometime in June or July.
Tigers: Miguel Cabrera
He's their best player, he's paid like it and they'll only go as far as he'll take them. You have to hope that the drinking issues won't slow him down, but it's hard not to ignore it at this point.
Twins: Kevin Slowey
Are the Twins making a mistake by not putting him in the rotation? Is it going to cost them games? Are they just going to leave Slowey in the bullpen until someone gets hurt? Are they legitimately interested in trading him, even though he's still young and controllable? There are a lot of questions surrounding this guy. Oh, and their outfield defense sucks, which is going to cost them big-time.
White Sox: Adam Dunn
He's the club's big offseason addition, and he should wow people with some big home run numbers. It remains to be seen whether the White Sox can put everything together, but if they do, a lot of people are going to view Dunn as the previously missing piece of the puzzle.
Yankees: A.J. Burnett
It's been said again and again, but things just haven't changed. The Yankees need their starting pitching to come through, and most of that pressure lies on the very expensive Burnett to earn his salary. Otherwise, you may see a lot of Jesus Montero-for-pitching rumors this summer.