By Anthony Castrovince
May the New Year shine brightly upon you, may your troubles last only as long as your resolutions and may your mortgage payment not rest on that World Series bet you placed on the Cubbies during your holiday trip to Vegas.
Here, in no particular order, are my picks for the 16 most fascinating figures in baseball as we enter 2016.
Tony Clark, executive director, MLB Players' Association
The current collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the MLBPA expires Dec. 1. With Clark himself saying at the Winter Meetings that the player share of the revenue pie "is as close to 50-50 as it has been in a long time," we're not seeing much in the way of public dissatisfaction with the current arrangement at a time when the sport's value is apparently escalating.
That said, there are still a multitude of big issues the players might push for when negotiations begin this spring, not the least of which is the "momentum," as Clark put it, toward returning to a 154-game schedule. This is something that has long been assumed to be a non-starter among owners, who are understandably reluctant to yield 2.5 percent of their current home gates. But with the demands on players ever-growing -- schedules made more challenging by national television demands, international travel and the crackdown on banned substances that has affected aging curves and injury rates -- there are solid arguments for scaling back to improve the product. Especially if November baseball is to be avoided altogether.
Some other big issues on the table: The qualifying offer system, pace of play, instant replay, service time, the international draft, maybe even the hot-button issue that is the DH rule in NL cities.
Carlos Correa, SS, Astros
A magnetic talent and personality who is already being touted as a Hall of Famer in the making. He's only 21 years old, and he's yet to play a full Major League season, so the expectations placed upon him are inherently unfair. Yet his importance not just to the Astros but to MLB's marketing efforts both stateside and in Correa's native Puerto Rico is monumental.
Mike Trout, CF, Angels
Maybe Correa will one day bear the label of "best player in the game," but, until further notice (and with all due respect to reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper, who, yes, probably deserves a place on this list, too), that label still belongs to the 24-year-old Trout. If Trout follows his averages from the last four seasons, he'd finish this upcoming season with 173 career homers, 492 RBIs, 177 doubles and 40 triples. No player has ever reached totals that high in all those categories before his age-24 season. And if you're scoring at home, Trout needs 51 homers this year to tie Eddie Mathews for most homers by a player before his age-25 season.
The big question, of course, is if the Angels, in their pursuit of Andrelton Simmons and others, have done enough to give him a championship-caliber supporting cast, because it would be nice to see Trout spend his October in a jersey and not New Jersey. Through no fault of his own, his number of at-bats with runners in scoring position in 2015 plummeted and, also through no fault of his own, affected his MVP case.
Jorge Soler, RF, Cubs
For my money, the biggest X-factor on a team widely touted as a World Series favorite, the billy goat be damned.
The Cubs have an absurd assortment of position-player talent, all the more so now that Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist are aboard. The unexpected contributions from Kyle Schwarber and the expected ones from Kris Bryant accelerated the return-to-contention timetable for Joe Maddon's club in 2015. Now, 2016 has a "World Series or bust" feel to it, and Soler is going to have a major impact on this club matching its true potential. His postseason performance (1.705 OPS in 19 at-bats) was a window into his capability level that, to this point, has been sullied by injury.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had ample opportunity to improve their pitching staff this winter by dealing Soler, but they held tightly to him because of their belief in his ability to be one of the game's premier power hitters. A big key moving forward is his defensive improvement, because Heyward, good as he is, can't cover all three outfield spots, and there's reason to suspect Schwarber will have his challenges in left.
Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers
The Tigers are still gunning for that elusive, Mike Ilitch-financed title, upping the ante once again this winter with the acquisitions of Jordan Zimmermann and others. Obviously, so much of their fate is inextricably tied to Miguel Cabrera, who has finally had an offseason program unaffected by injury or surgical intervention and could be in line for a typically monstrous year, and Victor Martinez, who must rebound and recover from a truly miserable age-36 season. It says here that the Tigers are going to score, at the very least, an adequate number of runs. The question is whether their once-great rotation will rise to the occasion in a deep division, and Verlander is, of course, a linchpin guy in that effort.
Though his velocity, on measure, is not what it once was, he had an awfully encouraging second half, posting a 2.80 ERA and 95 strikeouts against 21 walks in 103 innings. There were moments when he reared back and brought back the flaming fastball of old late in games, and that gives the Tigers hope that their ace of old can still lead the way on a club still very much built and bankrolled to contend.
Shelby Miller, RHP, D-backs
Rotation mate Zack Greinke might be pulling in the largest average annual value ever afforded a Major League player, but Miller probably has more work cut out for him, in terms of justifying the price tag associated with his acquisition. All across the industry, there are people who believe Arizona overpaid for Miller, but we saw glimpses of his potential with the Cardinals in 2013 and his 2015 season with the Braves was a success everywhere but the win column.
To their credit, the D-backs went all-in to back a superstar in his prime with Paul Goldschmidt and a lineup loaded with depth and defensive dependability. Greinke has proven himself multiple times as a reliable workhorse for a playoff-caliber club. Miller needs to do the same.
Dave Righetti, pitching coach, Giants
The constant jokes and chatter about the Giants being in position for a title two years ago simply because it was an even year (and yes, I'm as guilty of such chatter as anyone) was silly and overdone… until it became reality.
Now, we'd be foolish to dismiss the pressing possibility that the Giants might be on the verge of their fourth win in seven tries (talk about a Series win), especially after they've invested so deeply in their rotation beyond Madison Bumgarner. Problem is, both of those investments rate as risky ones, because we all saw the rollercoaster that was Johnny Cueto's Royals tenure and Jeff Samardzija's 2015 was a real South Side stinker.
By year's end, Kansas City's Dave Eiland and Chicago's Don Cooper were both fairly flummoxed when it came to Cueto and the Shark, respectively, and now Righetti has the tall task of getting both back on an ace-type track. Righetti, the Majors' longest-tenured pitching coach, has done great work in piecing together consistently effective starting units in championship runs past, and his work with Cueto and Samardzija will be essential in the Giants' bid to keep up their even-year inclinations.
Jose Fernandez, RHP, Marlins
Will Fernandez, along with a healthy Giancarlo Stanton, be the maestro of the Marlins' march back to relevance or just another in a long line of a Fish trade chips? Either way, Fernandez, in his first full season following Tommy John surgery, is a captivating figure. With an adjusted ERA 60 points better than league average, the 23-year-old Fernandez has been abnormally effective in the early stage of his career in those precious few trips to the mound. The Marlins rushed Fernandez to their Opening Day roster in 2013, and now he's three seasons away from free agency with just 289 big league innings to his name and likely limitations on his output for '16.
Because Fernandez is a Scott Boras client, we of course have the potential for a Matt Harvey-like, innings-related soap opera toward season's end, though of course the Marlins have to prove they can be viable enough in September for such a thing to matter. The limitations on Fernandez for 2016 affect his trade value, but they haven't limited the Marlins' asking price, to date.
Fernandez, by the way, turns 24 on the day of the Trade Deadline.
Matt Harvey, RHP, Mets
Harvey, meanwhile, survived the PR kerfuffle that was the "Will he or won't he?" postseason pitching drama, but he famously did not survive the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series. When all was said and done, he gave the Mets 216 innings and confirmation that his heart and head are, indeed, in the right place. But what does the drastic leap from 0 to 216 mean for his 2016 workload? And more to the point, how will his arm respond to the October wear and tear that has been known to cause a lagging effect even for those without a Tommy John layoff in their recent past?
It will be interesting to see what Harvey can deliver for a Mets team facing the same lineup scrutiny it faced a year ago at this time, and what ideas he has in store for The Players' Tribune in 2016 in his role as New York Bureau Chief.
Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals
Might as well wrap up the Boras-represented Tommy John triumvirate with Strasburg, who is a captivating figure in '16 for the simple fact that he's the most captivating member of a decidedly weak post-2016 free-agent class. Strasburg will be 28 at season's end and in line to potentially become baseball's next $200 million-plus arm, if and only if that arm can deliver a complete, dominant season. As it stands, Strasburg's potential still outweighs his overall performance, as his 2015 was memorable mostly for the neck, side and back issues that limited him to 23 starts.
Yu Darvish, RHP, Rangers
And one last Tommy John report in a sport increasingly full of them. Homer Bailey, Alex Cobb, Brandon McCarthy and Zack Wheeler are all working their way back from the procedure this year, but Darvish is the "ace" of this post-surgical staff.
Even with his innings inherently limited by his April absence, Darvish, in rejoining a rotation that now features Cole Hamels, has the ability to reshape the race in a deep and dynamic AL West.
Vin Scully, broadcaster, Dodgers
Despite operating with the richest payroll in the game, a Dodgers team that will start a 21-year-old shortstop (Corey Seager) is trending younger on the field and, unfortunately, will soon get younger in the broadcast booth, too. Scully is 88 and entering what is expected to be his final year in the press box that now bears his name, where his instantly recognizable voice and cadence, poetry and precision have provided the soundtrack to summer for 67 seasons.
Scully first worked the World Series in 1953, at the age of 25, filling in for Red Barber during Barber's contract dispute with the Dodgers. If there is any reason to root for L.A. to go all the way in '16, Scully qualifies, if only to hear that voice one last time on the Series stage.
Any Kansas City Royal, really
This team is vying to become the first in more than a decade to reach three straight World Series, a feat last accomplished by the 1998-2001 Yankees. In fact, a non-Yankee team has done it just three times since World War II -- the 1969-71 Orioles, the 1972-74 A's and the 1988-90 A's (no NL team has done it in the last 70 years).
At a time when we talk so much about the game's competitive parity, the once-woebegone Royals have the ability to establish themselves as something of an AL dynasty. Ned Yost, for crying out loud, has the chance to go down as one of the great modern managers. The Royals have their challenges -- namely, piecing together an effective rotation and avoiding the volatility that plagues so many bullpens -- but it's clear their formula as a defensively sound squad built perfectly for its home park works.
If it works again in '16, we're talking about one of the more special squads in history.
Mark Shapiro, president, Blue Jays
The Blue Jays approached Shapiro, then president of the Indians, about this position in July, when the fate of the '15 Jays, who would be buoyed by major trade acquisitions in the last week of the month, was very much undecided. The conversation escalated, and so did Toronto's place in the standings. By the time Shapiro was named the eventual successor to Paul Beeston, Alex Anthopoulos' club was officially in the midst of an epic surge in relevance across Canada, and the loss to the Royals in the ALCS did nothing to diminish Anthopoulos' newfound standing as the country's favorite son. So when A.A. left, unwilling and/or unable to cede any decision-making influence to the new prez, public sentiment toward Shapiro was sealed. His decision to import another member of the Indians brass, Ross Atkins, as a first-time GM only added more fuel to the fire, and you had people like Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno writing things like this:
"Did you hear that Cleveland's baseball team doesn't have a website? They couldn't string three Ws together."
Yep, they already hate Shapiro up north, and the Blue Jays haven't even lost a game yet. It's hard to imagine a newly formed front-office group entering a season with more pressure than Shapiro and Co. will face in '16. Nothing short of a postseason berth will be tolerated by the populace, and the Blue Jays will have to get there with a roster reliant on some players well north of 30 (two of whom, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, are pending free agents) and a pitching staff now sans David Price.
Byron Buxton, CF, Twins
With his rookie status still intact (he fell one at-bat shy of exhausting that status), Buxton enters this calendar year, as he did last calendar year, atop MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 prospects list. But to date, his tools and talents have been compromised by the many ailments that have sidelined him much of the last two seasons. The Twins, having moved Aaron Hicks to the Yankees to free up space in their crowded outfield, are counting on this being not just a status-securing season for Miguel Sano but a breakout one for Buxton, because their return to AL elite status after an encouraging rise up the AL Central standings in '15 might very well depend on it.
Though he's just 22 years young, we've long known Buxton has the bat speed, leg speed, arm, glove and power stroke give him serious star potential, but this year would be a fine time for him to stay out of the trainer's room and live up to all the laudatory things said about him.
David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox
A three-time champion who helped kill a curse, who summed up the anger of a wronged city in unforgettable fashion, who owned October, who set records and who did all of the above in his own, unmistakable style, Ortiz deserves a proper send-off in '16. He is an important figure in this sport and, if the voters get it right, a future Hall of Famer.
The Red Sox are, as usual, an intriguing team for '16, and so much of their fate will be tied to $217 million man Price's transition to Boston, which is, quite simply, an entirely different animal. But Big Papi will again be a central figure in the Red Sox storyline. For one last year, they can proudly proclaim, "This is our $@^#ing DH!"
* * *
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.