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Make or break players: American League

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Which player on each team is the biggest variable?

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

You already know how your favorite team is going to finish in 2019... more or less. As a fan who pays attention, you can predict with reasonable certainty how good or bad each team will perform. Last year, everyone knew the Astros would win the AL West, the Orioles would be awful, and the Yankees and Red Sox would battle for AL East dominance.

We also knew that the Nationals would easily win the NL East, and the Brewers were playoff long shots. Hmm...ok.

It seems we can still be surprised after all. For maybe 26-28 teams, the consensus predictions will be pretty close to reality. For a few others, they won’t.

Here is one player on each AL team who’s 2019 performance could swing the most wildly— for either positive or negative reasons. The NL list will follow tomorrow.

AL East

Baltimore Orioles— Cedric Mullins, CF: The Orioles lost 115 games last year. One hundred fifteen!!! They could improve by 30 games and still possibly finish in last place. The present is irrelevant, so it’s all about building for some undefined future in which they can compete again. Mullins is the closest thing on the roster to a building block. He compiled a .346 OBP in double-A and triple-A last year, going 21-22 on the basepaths. He played 45 games in the majors and didn’t hit much. In 2019, he’ll either prove he’s a piece worth building around or just filler until something better comes along.

Boston Red Sox— Rafael Devers, 3B: After his 110 wRC+ as a rookie in 2017, Devers slipped down to just 90 last year. For a player with his, um, unique (read: not good) defensive skill at third, he really can’t afford to be just an OK hitter. If he rights himself, he could be a slugging star in the making. If not, he won’t be long for the major leagues.

New York Yankees— James Paxton, LHP: It’s so tempting to choose Gary Sanchez or Luke Voit, but the Yankees are relying on Paxton to be the sequel to Andy Pettitte. That’s a tall ask, and Paxton is up to the challenge when he’s healthy. Unfortunately, he’s never stayed in the rotation for a full season before. Last year’s 160 13 innings were a career high.

Tampa Bay RaysTyler Glasnow, RHP: It doesn’t really matter if Glasnow is a starter or reliever; those lines are blurred, especially down in Tampa Bay. Glasnow is a post-hype sleeper if there ever was one. Formerly one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, he struggled with location early in his MLB career. Sometimes, tall guys like Glasnow, who stands 6’8, take a little longer to develop control and command. Randy Johnson didn’t break out until he was 26. If Glasnow can tap into his potential, the Rays will have a formidable front three with him, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton.

Toronto Blue JaysVladimir Guerrero, Jr., 3B: Honestly, could it be anyone else? The consensus top prospect in baseball should’ve been called up last year at age-19, when he slashed .381/.437/.636 in the high minors. After he “works on his defense” for a few weeks, we’ll finally see what he can really do. He might be more like Miguel Cabrera than his father, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

AL Central

Chicago White SoxEloy Jimenez, RF: Just about everything said above regarding Vlad Jr. rings true for Jimenez. He’s a top five prospect on every published list after hitting .337/.384/.577 in double-A and triple-A at age-21. His monster power will be on display in Chicago starting in late April. Funny how much players can learn about defense by spending a few weeks in triple-A in April.

Cleveland IndiansTyler Naquin, RF: Cleveland plays in the absolute worst division in MLB, in which at least three teams will finish nowhere near .500. They have a clearer path to the playoffs than any other team, yet they probably have the weakest outfield in baseball. Naquin rode a 133 wRC+ in 2016 to earn down-ballot Rookie of the Year consideration, then spent 2017 languishing in the minors, followed by an underwhelming 2018 in which injuries limited his playing time. If he can prove somewhat competent at the plate, it will go a long way towards lengthening the lineup and solidifying an abysmal outfield.

Detroit TigersMiguel Cabrera, 1B: Look, the Tigers aren’t going anywhere this year. It’s probably going to be at least a few years before they contend again. When that happens, Cabrera will probably still be under contract. Including 2019, he’s locked in for another five years and $152 million, with full 10/5 no-trade rights. The club needs him to stay good for as long as possible, if for no other reason than pride. Miggy looked resurgent at the plate last year, but only played 38 games. Imagine how bleak things will look if he goes full-on Adrian Gonzalez?

Kansas City RoyalsBrad Keller, RHP: While Adalberto Mondesi, Ryan O’Hearn, and Jorge Soler all have to prove last year was no fluke, the biggest surprise of all was Keller. The Rule-V selection threw 140 13 innings with a 3.08 ERA and 3.55 FIP, but didn’t strike anyone out. His 4.87 DRA and 108.9 DRA- portray a hurler who was more lucky than good. 2019 will reveal what kind of pitcher he really can be.

Minnesota TwinsByron Buxton, CF: As explained by Devan Fink, the Twins might not be that far behind Cleveland. However, they’ll need Buxton to resurrect his offense. With his elite speed and defense, it’s not like he has to mash like Mike Trout. In 2017, he was worth 3.5 fWAR with a 90 wRC+. Last year, the wRC+ slipped to -3. That’s not a misprint. At close to replacement level offense, the Twins would have a perfectly fine center fielder. Anything more than that, and he’s a star.

AL West

Houston Astros— Wade Miley, LHP: After winning the World Series in 2017 and reaching the ALCS in 2018, the Astros let Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton walk away in free agency. They signed Miley to fill one of the rotation spots left behind. The 32-year-old journeyman had a career year with the Brewers in 2018, but his 92.2 DRA- was substantially better than his career mark of 108.4. It’s a pretty big risk to name him the number three starter on a team that expects to make another deep playoff run.

Los Angeles AngelsMatt Harvey, RHP: Really, Angels? This is your “ace?” You have Mike Trout in his prime! Even the Mets couldn’t stand Harvey— the Mets!— but this is the pitcher you trust to lead your staff? You finished 80-82 last year. With a few decent pitchers, you could make a run at a Wild Card spot, as described by Bob Ellis. Instead, you roll with Matt Harvey. Good luck.

Oakland AthleticsJurickson Profar, 2B: Believe it or not, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Profar all debuted as teenagers in 2012. If not for some awful injuries, perhaps Profar could’ve been an unsigned mega free agent as well. Instead, his games played per season have been 9, 85, 0, 0, 90, 22, and 146. Last year, he finally played a full season, accumulating 2.9 fWAR. Turning 26 later this month, there’s still a world of potential here.

Seattle MarinersYusei Kikuchi, LHP: The Mariners have made precisely 7,342 trades since November, so it’s tough to tell who’s even on the roster anymore. Kikuchi is the latest Japanese hurler to head stateside. There’s always intrigue regarding how well these guys transition to MLB. Sometimes, it works out like Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka. Other times, we get Kei Igawa.

Texas RangersNomar Mazara, RF: Mazara is one of a handful of Rangers who just hasn’t hit as well as he was supposed to. That list includes Willie Calhoun, Ronald Guzman, Delino DeShields, Jr., and even Rougned Odor. Mazara profiles like a slugging corner outfielder, but he brings just a 92 wRC+ for his career into the coming season. Maybe this is the year he finally breaks out. If not, perhaps one of the others will.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983