There will always be a you-never-know factor that can’t be legislated out of baseball, which is why the gift of hindsight can be so humbling.
For all its hopes of placing superstars on a platform, there’s still no predicting that come the end of 2021, Tyler Matzek would matter more than Mike Trout, Framber Valdez a more important piece than Bryce Harper.
So call us crazy, then, for aiming to identify six players who will prove most pivotal to the fates of their divisions and, ultimately, World Series chances. At the risk of looking foolish come October, here’s a half-dozen stars whose performance and health may determine how the bigger picture shakes out:
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Christian Yelich, Brewers
There’s nothing not to like about the Brewers, from their organically grown rotation, to their shutdown bullpen to a sense of abandon that doesn’t hesitate to add a valued veteran like Andrew McCutchen to patch a one-year hole.
They should bulldoze to another NL Central title, but they can also go from good to great pretty quickly with one quick fix: Yelich.
It’s easy to forget he was arguably baseball’s best player before the pandemic, winning consecutive batting titles and leading the majors in OPS before a foul ball off his knee ended a 44-homer campaign three weeks early. A back injury and COVID-19 positive test created a virtually lost 2021 for Yelich; his OPS fell to a career-low .736 even as Milwaukee won 95 games.
Now, still just 30, Yelich has lineup protection around him, a stellar pitching staff to take on the heat and an eminently winnable division. Even a modest return to form would put the Brewers in an enviable position to reach their first World Series since 1982.
Anthony Rendon, Angels
There’s one thing for which Rendon shouldn’t have to apologize: He’s definitely not Gerrit Cole.
The Angels’ failed pursuit of that rotation ace and their $245 million investment in Rendon as a consolation prize of sorts did nothing to bring a long-awaited ace to Anaheim, and Rendon’s uneven play since then did not help matters.
Yet pieces are starting to fall into place. Reid Detmers may yet be a reliable, homegrown pitcher. Noah Syndergaard is extra salty on a one-year deal, ready to prove his worth. Shohei Ohtani is the greatest player on the planet, scarcely pausing to heist that title from teammate Mike Trout.
So, what of Rendon?
Injuries kept him out of 104 games last season, as hip surgery, a groin, a knee, a hamstring – they all conspired to sideline him. The supergroup trio of Trout, Ohtani and Rendon played just 17 games together last season.
Now, Trout finally appears to be over a nagging calf injury. If Ohtani is merely 75% of his 2021 self for the next decade, the organization will be thrilled. That leaves Rendon with plenty to prove – and perhaps holding the keys to the Angels’ long-awaited turn toward contention.
Joey Gallo, Yankees
The Yankees’ No. 3 hitter has averaged 41 home runs over 162 games in his career. He’s played in 95% of his teams’ games the past two seasons. Shaved his beard for the part.
So why does it seem like so much uncertainty in this very uncertain Yankee season ride on Gallo’s shoulders?
Well, his 58-game post-deadline debut in pinstripes scarcely inspired hope – he batted .160/.303/.404, but did hit 13 homers. This time around, though, it feels like the Yankees’ fate is rather closely tied to Gallo finding his level of All-Star production if the Yankees are to avoid being a $250 million, stuck-in-the-middle flop.
An easy thing to forget about the uneven, 92-win, wild-card losing Yankees is that their strange season came about despite great health and production from Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, who played in 148 and 139 games, respectively, and combined to hit 83 homers.
Now, you’re asking them to repeat that good fortune, and for 36-year-old Josh Donaldson to post every day and for Gleyber Torres to figure out his offensive woes away from shortstop. (All while accepting virtually nil offensively from the catcher’s spot).
Sure, that all could happen, but it’s also a lot of ifs. Those questions would seem far less daunting if Gallo raked like he usually does.
Ranger Suarez, Phillies
Oh, you haven’t heard of Suarez? Let’s take care of that quickly by noting the lefty was simply the greatest pitcher in baseball last season.
OK, OK, bit of an overstatement, but: Suarez in 2021 became the first pitcher since Bob Gibson in 1968 — and just the fourth in the last 102 years — to make at least 10 starts, throw 100 or more innings, and post an ERA of less than 1.50.
Sound a little arbitrary? Not when you consider what the Phillies asked him to do last year – and what they’re aiming for in 2022.
Suarez gradually worked his way into higher-leverage and more extended roles in the Philly bullpen before they finally decided, well heck, let’s just hand him the ball and let him start.
And in that role, he just kept going: A 1.51 ERA in a dozen starts, with 65 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings. Suarez was a Pitcher in the most modern sense, an elite out-getter asked to do whatever, whenever, and it was he, Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler who kept the flawed Phillies alive into the season’s final weekend.
Now, the Phillies have tripled down on hammering the ball, adding Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos. Yet with Wheeler, Aaron Nola and potentially Suarez, they have a 1-2-3 capable of going at it with Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Chris Bassitt in New York – or virtually anyone else in the NL, even if the run prevention looks a little different than usual.
Of course, that’s largely based on Suarez being up to the task. Seeing whether he’s up for doing what’s asked in 2022 will be fascinating.
Dylan Cease, White Sox
The Chicago White Sox’s 93 wubs were due in no small part to lefty Carlos Rodon’s “throw ‘til you blow” mentality that produced 127 elite innings pitched, and reliever Michael Kopech’s ability to produce zeroes at the most crucial points in the game.
Now, the White Sox must replace both elements without disrupting what was a tenuous but occasionally dominant formula in 2021.
Rodon is gone, signing a two-year $44 million deal with the Giants. Kopech’s 100-mph stuff has been summoned from the bullpen to hold down one of the five rotation spots.
And that’s where the White Sox need to stop the slippage.
No starter may be more pivotal than Cease, who dominated at times, striking out 226 in 165 ⅔ innings and winning 13 games. He also powered through a lot of traffic: 68 walks and a 1.25 WHIP and nine starts in which he failed to last at least five innings. Cease’s 32 starts and innings pitched were significant breakthroughs. Taking an additional step forward will go a long way toward the White Sox turning into a true division power unconcerned by suddenly improved upstarts in the Central.
Brandon Belt, Giants
Nobody could have seen this coming as late as 2022, but here we are: The Belt Wars are back, baby.
Perhaps the most polarizing player in San Francisco Giants history, Belt saved the best for last, producing a .988 OPS over his final two seasons as a lineup linchpin for the Giants’ stunning 107-win machine in 2021. Long loved or loathed for his exacting plate discipline, it looked like gold watch time for the Captain.
But the Giants did not hesitate to extend him the qualifying offer and Belt accepted, the only major leaguer to return on a one-year, $18.4 million deal.
It’s what happened next – and didn’t happen – that became so crucial.
Buster Posey retired. Kris Bryant departed for the Colorado Rockies. Trevor Story flirted with the Giants but landed with Boston. Evan Longoria needs surgery on a finger.
And suddenly, a magical Giants lineup – with six regulars 30 or older – is banking on repeats, not regression, from a gaggle of veterans.
Belt can only do so much with what’s before him, which on many nights will be hoping that Mike Yastrzemski finds himself and Brandon Crawford is once again an MVP-caliber player. Belt will Belt – he won’t try to do too much, will stay in his comfort zone and hopefully replicate something close to his .274/.378/.597, 29-homer campaign.
The only questions are if that will be enough for this Giants squad – and if finicky fans will find a way to blame him, anyway.