As the 2016 MLB season gets closer and closer, now’s the time to take a look at the players who have the most riding on the upcoming campaign.
Which good players need to become great? Which young players need to live up to their hype? Which old players need to prove that they can still be productive, MLB stars? Which headcases need to prove that they’re worth the drama?
All 10 of these players fall into at least one of those categories, and as such are facing a make or break season in 2016.
10. Stephen Strasburg, starting pitcher, Washington Nationals
Okay, we know that Stephen Strasburg is a good pitcher. But as the 2016 season approaches, the lingering question with Strasburg is, can he be a great one?
Strasburg has only gone over 200 innings once before in his career. Even in the pitch count era, an ace needs to consistently be over 200. Strasburg has never had an ERA under 3.00 in a full season, which is certainly another requirement for an ace.
Remember, this is a guy who was under a strict innings count in 2012, even as the Nationals were one of baseball’s best teams. He was shut down at the end of the year, including the playoffs, with the thought that it was a move for the future. Washington blew a winnable division series in 2012 and has only made the playoffs once since, again not getting beyond that round. This is the year for Strasburg to show that he was worth it.
Additionally, Strasburg is also in the final year of his contract. While he’ll no doubt make big money in the offseason, the money gets bigger if he shows that he can throw more than 200 innings at a high level.
9. Troy Tulowitzki, shortstop, Toronto Blue Jays
Two questions linger over Troy Tulowitzki in 2016, and they’ll have a lot to do with how successful his season ends up being perceived.
One, can he stay healthy? Tulo played in only 128 games in 2015, but that was the most action he’d seen since 2011. That 2011 campaign was the last time Tulowitzki played 140 or more games in a season. He hasn’t hit 150 or more since 2009. Tulo will be 32 in October so if it’s not happening this year, it’s not happening.
Question two, can he consistently hit away from Coors Field? Thus far, his former home park has either greatly aided his career numbers, or his splits are one heck of a coincidence.
Even if we make the big assumption that he’ll be healthy, Tulo will play just three games in Denver this season, when the Rockies host the Blue Jays from June 27-29.
The 2016 season is incredibly important if he’s going to show that he’s truly a great hitter, as opposed to a good hitter who played in a great park.
8. Justin Verlander, starting pitcher, Detroit Tigers
Once one of the game’s best pitchers, Justin Verlander hit a wall in 2013 and 2014. Verlander was good in 2015, putting up his best numbers since 2012. The problem was that he missed substantial time, starting only 20 games and tossing 133.1 innings.
In 2016, it will not only be important for Verlander to pitch at that level, but to do so for around 200 innings. In addition to what the 2016 season means personally, the Tigers’ pitching staff is nowhere near as deep as it has been in year’s past. If Detroit is going to contend, Verlander needs to be a big part of it.
If all of that doesn’t work, it may be time to think about moving Verlander to the bullpen to cut down on his load.
And if he can’t be consistently effective as a starter or reliever, it may be time for Verlander to think about spending more time with Kate Upton, as rough as that would certainly be.
7. Wil Myers, first baseman/outfielder, San Diego Padres
In 2013, Wil Myers won the American League Rookie of the Year Award. During that season, he played in 88 games, notching 373 plate appearances and 335 at bats. All three of those totals remain career highs.
In fact, most of Myers’ 2013 numbers remain career highs. He’s never had more than 13 home runs, 53 RBI, 160 total bases, a .293 batting average, a .354 OBP, or a .478 slugging percentage.
With all of that said, it’s still too early to call Myers a one-year wonder. He’s only 25, and at times he has certainly shown a great deal of talent.
Myers needs to take the next step, though. The Padres are in a rebuilding project, and in many ways Myers is the centerpiece of that. Myers not only has to stay on the field in 2016, but it’s important that he shows he’s capable of producing solid numbers when he’s there.
The talent to be 20 home run, a .300/.350/.500 slash line (or something close) type of player is certainly there. But if it does not happen in 2016, it gets harder to believe that we’ll see that kind of production in 2017 or 2018.
6. Jonathan Papelbon, closer, Washington Nationals
One simple question lingers with Jonathan Papelbon in 2016. Is he worth it?
Is he worth the fights with umpires? Is he worth the fights that come when he throws at the other team’s star player? Is he worth the drama that comes when he challenges his own team’s best player to a fight in the dugout for nefarious reasons?
The Nationals have been one of baseball’s most talented squads since 2012. We’ve already gone over Washington’s struggles and frustrations since then. If things are going to change in this regard, Papelbon is vital.
For Papelbon to be worth the drama, he needs to be a guy that the Nationals and their fans have 100 percent confidence in. When he comes into a big road game in September against the New York Mets and is facing the heart of the order with a one-run lead, the team and the fans need to have no doubt that Papelbon will shut the door.
If that happens, especially if it translates to playoff success, then he’s worth it. If not, then Papelbon will just become another failed experiment for the Nationals.
5. Pablo Sandoval, third baseman, Boston Red Sox
After Pablo Sandoval’s disappointing first season with the Red Sox, the fans are already prepared to give the third baseman a hard time in 2016.
If the reaction to his defensive misplay and strikeout today are any indication, Pablo Sandoval is in for it this year, barring improvement.
— Brian MacPherson (@brianmacp) February 29, 2016
Sandoval wasn’t always consistent with the San Francisco Giants, but that was a fan base that loved him. When he was on his game in San Francisco, he was helping the Giants win World Series championships, so the fans were a little more tolerant of the Panda when he was struggling.
In Boston, he has no such equity. Sandoval’s one season with the Red Sox was in nearly every way, the worst of his career.
Now, a bad season can happen. It will be on Sandoval to show that 2015 was just a bad season, as opposed to what the Boston fans can expect for the remainder of his time with the team.
He’s under contract through 2019 and his trade value can’t be terribly high right now. So if Sandoval can’t put it together in 2016, he’s likely in for more than just one long season.
4. Hanley Ramirez, first baseman, Boston Red Sox
We stick in Boston for another Red Sox player who under-performed in his first year with the team, Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez is likely to play a lot of first base in 2016, a position he’s never played before. Per Christopher Smith of MassLive.com, manager John Farrell has expectations for both Sandoval and Ramirez. More importantly, he’s got a backup plan.
“Just return to the levels of performance before. But if they falter, we feel like we’ve got guys to step in because our driving force is to win the division.”
Much like Sandoval, Ramirez needs to prove that 2015 was just a bad season and not what the team should come to expect.
Ramirez is 32 and if he does have two bad seasons in a row, it will be hard to believe that he’ll return to All Star form at 33 or 34. Like Sandoval, Ramirez has no equity with the Red Sox fans and if he continues to struggle, the Boston faithful will certainly make their displeasure known.
3. Robinson Cano, second baseman, Seattle Mariners
Knowing nothing else about the situation, it would seem as though Robinson Cano’s two seasons in Seattle have been pretty successful. After all, second base isn’t exactly a deep offensive position, and Cano’s numbers certainly top most players at the keystone.
The problem is that Cano wasn’t simply brought in to be a good hitting second baseman. He was given a 10-year, $240 million contract with the expectation he’d continue to be one of the game’s best players.
So far, Cano has not done anywhere near well enough to justify that contract. The Mariners’ offense is not exactly a feared lineup and the team still hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001.
Cano is now 33 and realistically won’t be a good performer into his late-30’s and beyond, which is where he’ll be when his contract expires. He should have about a 3-5 year window to be a star player. If that happens and the Mariners become a playoff team, then the back end of that contract won’t seem as bad. If, however, the next few years are filled with more good but not great play (or worse) and Seattle continues to miss out on the playoffs, then this contract becomes a disaster for both sides.
Now, can Cano be a star for a few more years? It’s certainly possible, but a big year in 2016 is imperative.
2. Ryan Braun, outfielder, Milwaukee Brewers
Unlike the other players on this list, Ryan Braun is coming off of his best season in a few years. The Brewers’ star played in 140 games in 2015, hit 25 homers, stole 24 bases, and slashed at a respectable .285/.356/.498 clip. He entered spring training dealing with injuries, but told Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal that he feels great about his physical shape entering 2016.
“I’ve never been more athletic than I am right now,” said Braun. “I can say that objectively because I do a lot of the same things as far as running, jumping, speed-wise, all that stuff. I’m easily as athletic as I’ve ever been.”
Now he has to prove it. Braun has to show that the 2015 season is the norm, as opposed to the injury- and suspension-riddled 2013, or the ineffective play that he produced in 2014. As we said with Sandoval and Ramirez, anyone can have a bad season. The same concept is true with Braun. Anyone can have a good season, as well.
When a player of Braun’s age (32), particularly with Braun’s past, has a good year, it’s important that he follow it up to show that it wasn’t just some brief moment of late-career glory.
In 2016, it’s important that Braun not only stay on the field, but that he’s productive. If that happens, it’s easy to dismiss 2013 and 2014 as flukes. It it doesn’t, it’s similarly easy to dismiss 2015 as a fluke.
1. Yasiel Puig, outfielder, Los Angeles Dodgers
Scenario A for Yasiel Puig in 2016: He puts all of his talent together, wins the MVP, and is the Dodgers best offensive player as they win a World Series.
Scenario B for Yasiel Puig in 2016: He continues to alienate his Dodgers teammates, is generally inconsistent or downright ineffective, causing Los Angeles to releases or trade him halfway through the season.
Neither of those scenarios would be even remotely surprising. There is no more Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde player in all of baseball and perhaps all of sports than Puig.
The number of players in baseball who have the talent to match Puig is not a long list. The problem is that his production has not matched his talent so far. None of that is to say that it can’t happen. Puig is only 25 and if he does mature has virtually limitless potential. If he doesn’t mature, then his will be all the harder because of it.
All of these players face make or break seasons in 2016, but none have Puig’s variance of scenarios that could realistically play out.