We've all got our own list of MVP favorites or breakout or Rookie of the Year candidates, and there are projections to point us to guys who might very well be the most irreplaceable of them all.
But of course, a 162-game schedule leaves room for plenty of guys to have their say in the final standings. So as the 2015 season dawns, the goal here is to identify 10 players who have never figured prominently into the MVP or Cy Young discussion, never been on an All-Star team and, nationally speaking, aren't getting a tremendous amount of publicity, but who nonetheless will have a big impact on clubs perceived to be contenders.
In other words, these are the 10 most important players nobody's talking about.
Yunel Escobar, Nationals
He arrived as a second-base solution, the final piece to what looked like a loaded Nats lineup. League-average output and a successful transition from shortstop were really all the Nats were asking of Escobar when they acquired him from the A's (the second team to trade him this offseason).
But the situation has evolved considerably. Denard Span is out for at least the first month of the season following core muscle surgery, robbing the Nats of their leadoff presence. Anthony Rendon -- who finished fifth in the NL MVP Award voting last year -- has a sprained MCL in his left knee and will start the season on the disabled list. This leaves Escobar suddenly taking on yet another position (he last played third in 2007) and possibly taking over the No. 1 spot in the batting order. Prospect Michael Taylor, who is replacing Span in center, might get first crack at the leadoff spot, but Taylor has battled strikeout issues in his professional career, so we'll see.
What's clear is that Escobar, at 32 and coming off three straight seasons in which his adjusted OPS+ was below league average, figures to have even more responsibility in Washington than we initially thought.
TJ House, Indians
The Tribe's young pitching is the key to this surprising upswell of national love they've been getting in the lead-up to 2015. But let's face it: There are major questions on the roster.
Not so much about Corey Kluber suffering a significant regression after his Cy Young season, and maybe not so much about Carlos Carrasco extrapolating his 10-start surge at season's end into a full-season sample. The worry is that the always tinkering but still-unproven Trevor Bauer, who needs to limit his walks as effectively as he did in the Cactus League, can go either way. Same thing goes for Danny Salazar, who has already been optioned to Triple-A for the second straight year after his 2013 breakout, and unexpected No. 5 Zach McAllister, who is out of options and getting one last chance to stick as a starter.
House doesn't have the raw stuff to match any of those guys. But the Indians could sure use the kind of consistency he displayed last season, when he turned in a 3.35 ERA in 102 innings, with a proclivity toward groundballs and a strong 3.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio. This came after a pretty pedestrian Minor League career, which means House has to prove he was no flash in the pan and that he can continue to get right-handed batters to beat the ball onto the ground. Losing veteran Gavin Floyd, who was a risky pickup given his injury past, to a spring injury was a big blow to the depth equation here, which makes consistency from a mid-rotation guy like House all the more important.
Francisco Cervelli, Pirates
With a deep and flexible lineup centered around what could be one of the great outfields in the game, the Buccos look like a good bet to reach the postseason for the third straight year. But we all know what a factor Russell Martin was in those first two October entries. While the upside possibly presented by Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Jung Ho Kang and a refocused Pedro Alvarez could very well account for the absence of Martin's bat, his skills behind the plate and his game-calling were a big part of the Pirates' reputation for outperforming their pitching projections.
Cervelli is the replacement, and the question here is not so much his defensive skillset (he's especially well-regarded for his pitch framing) as it is his ability to survive a full season. He's never been cemented as a No. 1 catcher, and part of that is due to the broken forearm, broken foot, hamstring injury, concussions and, yes, the Biogenesis suspension that have interrupted his career. Cervelli's injury history is especially pertinent with backup Chris Stewart battling a hamstring injury.
Chris Hatcher, Dodgers
I don't claim to know who will emerge in the Dodgers' temporary closer-by-committee approach, so I'm using Hatcher as the placeholder here primarily because, as a converted catcher whose first big-league experience came behind the plate in Miami, he's such an interesting story. His spring numbers leave a lot to be desired, but more importantly, in 56 innings for the Marlins last year, he struck out 9.6 batters per nine, walked only 1.9 per nine and was effective against batters on both sides of the plate. So he's as good an option as any to ascend.
But whether it's Hatcher or Juan Nicasio or Joel Peralta or somebody else, the bottom line is that the Dodgers, with Kenley Jansen and Brandon League both out, need somebody to assert himself late in games. The bullpen was L.A.'s biggest weakness last year, and after significant reshaping with low-profile options, it remains a mystery and this club's biggest X-factor.
Austin Jackson, Mariners
Yes, the Mariners have a deep pitching staff and a lineup with better balance, which is why so many people consider them an AL West favorite a year after they finished one win shy of an October spot. But getting to the playoffs with a sub-.300 on-base percentage from their leadoff man would be a struggle, to say the least.
Jackson had a miserable two months with the Mariners after joining them at the Trade Deadline last summer. His average fell from .273 with the Tigers to .229. His OBP went from .332 to .267. Always lean toward the larger sample, of course, but Jackson's career has featured a fair share of inconsistency, so it's hard to know what to expect from him in his first full season in Seattle.
Jackson doesn't get nearly as much attention as Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz, but his leadoff responsibilities make him just as important in the M's bid for better performance from their bats.
Matt Adams, Cardinals
St. Louis' lack of power was a glaring weakness on an otherwise well-rounded ballclub last season, and it's a big question mark going into 2015, too. Matt Holliday is in his mid-30s, and Jhonny Peralta turns 33 this season. Jason Heyward's power potential has been the predominant talking point surrounding this club in the winter and spring, but his slugging percentage decline was not limited to last season. It also dipped significantly between '12 and '13.
Adams is not exactly under the radar. When you become the first lefty to hit a Clayton Kershaw curveball out of the park -- and do it on the October stage, no less -- you get some attention. But especially given the tragic death of Oscar Taveras, Adams is a major piece for a Cards club that was looking to build an elite middle-of-the-order from within. That one Kershaw curve aside, Adams has struggled against lefties in his career, and he knows improvement in that area will be the key to him becoming the 30-homer first baseman people deem him to be. He went deep 15 times last year, and with a couple aging issues elsewhere in the order, the Cards might need him to dip deeper into the well in '15.
Yonder Alonso, Padres
The additions of Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers and the potential for a bounceback season from Jedd Gyorko could give the new-look Padres an embarrassment of right-handed power riches in the middle of their order. But you might have noticed that the majority of human beings (and pitchers) are right-handed, which might make balance an essential element in the Friars' bid to take over the NL West.
They need it from Alonso, the one-time top prospect who has logged just a .719 OPS in three seasons in San Diego and had injuries limit him to less than 100 games each of the last two years. The Padres' infield does not project particularly well offensively, but perhaps Alonso, if healthy at age 27, can alter that equation. He had good power numbers in the Minors, so his big-league career, even when healthy, has been a disappointment. It's not a Petco Park effect, either, because his career OPS is worse on the road.
Alonso needs to prove he can stay on the field, hit lefties and give this club the balance and infield production it needs.
Travis Snider, Orioles
With injuries robbing the O's of Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy for Opening Day (and who knows what kind of power they each can provide when they return?), an offense that already had major question marks after a quiet offseason has even more riding not just on Adam Jones, Manny Machado and Chris Davis, but also on its low-profile addition to right field.
Snider finally cut down on his K's and hit 13 home runs in 359 plate appearances in Pittsburgh last year, with the bulk of his output (a .288/.356/.524 slash line) coming in the second half. Clearly, the O's would love to see those second-half numbers stabilize over a full 162, and Snider should have ample opportunity from an at-bats standpoint. Be it because of injuries or role, Snider has never logged more than those 359 plate appearances in a single season, but he was healthy last year, he's healthy right now, and the door is wide open for him to stake his claim to a prominent role in this club's production.
Alexi Ogando, Red Sox
All right, I cheated. Ogando actually was an All-Star. But that was back in 2011, which, for this guy, might as well have been in another lifetime.
Much ink and bandwidth has been utilized to scrutinize and analyze the Red Sox's ace-less rotation and their ample outfield depth, but the bullpen might be their biggest issue of all, especially with Koji Uehara opening the season on the disabled list with a hamstring issue. Boston is hoping Ogando, signed for $1.5 million after injuries robbed him of a promising career with the Rangers, proves to be one of the offseason's bigger steals. And the truth is, they might need him to be.
A big trend in today's game is the ample availability of high-velocity hurlers out of deep bullpens, but the Red Sox didn't have a single reliever who averaged as high as 94 mph with his fastball last year. Ogando has hit the high 90s in spring camp and was averaging out at 94 before elbow issues sidelined him in '14. Velocity isn't everything, but it can sure help, and perhaps Ogando can help a Red Sox relief corps that needs the assistance.
Kyle Hendricks, Cubs
All winter, the talk about the Cubs emanated around Joe Maddon and Jon Lester. All spring, it's been the Kris Bryant Service Time Manipulation Extravaganza. But don't forget about what an important factor Hendricks, operating out of the back of the rotation, is going to be to the Cubs' chances of becoming a legitimate playoff club.
The Cubs' rotation is fronted by Lester, Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel, and there's a lot to like about that group. But the back end is significantly less established, and the Cubbies need Hendricks to prove his output last year, when he arrived in the middle of a typically rough summer and delivered a 7-2 record, 2.46 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 80 1/3 innings, was no fluke. Hendricks doesn't have overpowering, strikeout stuff, but he can work the zone, avoid walks and get ground balls. His spring performance was obviously overshadowed by Bryant, but it was solid, all the same.