Mike Trout is the game's premier player, Clayton Kershaw its most prominent pitcher. Andrew Miller's slider, Zach Britton's sinker and Aroldis Chapman's fastball are works of wonder in a game increasingly appreciative of high-leverage relief work. Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant and Noah Syndergaard are just a few representatives of what has been an overwhelming wave of young talent in this sport. Commissioner Rob Manfred is an important forward-thinker with an eye on improving pace of play and youth participation.

And when Bartolo Colon has a bat in his hand, you stop and watch, plain and simple. 

All of the above is assumed, but you won't find those names -- or the names of several other signature stars -- on this list of Major League Baseball's most compelling people for the New Year.

The goal here, rather, is to point out those for whom this specific calendar year is of particular importance or intrigue. 

Here are 17 for '17. 

17. Mark Melancon, RHP, Giants

With a four-year, $62 million deal in hand, can Melancon maintain his miniscule walk rate and gargantuan ground-ball rate for a Giants team utterly desperate for a better bullpen?

16. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners

The King has been a mere commoner the last two seasons, logging an adjusted ERA+ (107) just a bit north of league average. This past season featured continued diminishment of his fastball velocity and a rare disabled-list stint (for a calf strain, not an arm injury). He's logged a ton of innings over the years, which make his two-start Venezuelan winter league stint and his upcoming appearance in the World Baseball Classic so interesting. Jerry Dipoto continues his frenetic trade pace in an effort to put an October-worthy roster around Felix, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz.

15. Kendrys Morales, DH, Blue Jays

Consecutive advancements to the ALCS have created an all-in mentality among Jays fans, but the Mark Shapiro/Ross Atkins regime has been intent on making budget-friendly moves, protecting the farm and making this a unit that revolves more around its elite starting pitching. They quickly pivoted to Morales when Edwin Encarnacion turned down their $80 million offer, and now a front office that already wasn't getting much of a fair shake from the fan base is under added scrutiny with regard to how the 33-year-old Morales, coming off two solid seasons in Kansas City, fares up north.

14. Don Mattingly, manager, Marlins

I've had conversations with Mike Hargrove about what happened in the spring of '93, when Indians pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews died in a boating accident and rattled a predominantly young clubhouse for the remainder of that year. There's no standard-operating procedure for that sort of situation. It is a unique managerial test.

The situation in Miami is different in that Jose Fernandez's tragic death came at the end of a season, not the beginning. But it has just as much potential to stall the obvious organizational momentum this club had accrued in '16. There will be daily reminders of Fernandez's absence, and the Fish -- with an improved bullpen and a strong lineup -- will do all they can to honor his memory with a season of contention. But this team and its leader will definitely be tested, emotionally and otherwise. 

13. Jon Gray, RHP, Rockies

Could Gray, finally, be the ace the Rockies have been looking for? He struck out 185 batters in 168 innings last season, so that's a good way to overcome Coors Field, but his 4.61 ERA was the product of inconsistency. Colorado obviously felt frisky enough about this club to throw $70 million at Ian Desmond (and give up the 11th pick in the June draft, to boot), and much of their faith revolves around a young and improving rotation in which the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Gray could/should be a prominent figure.

 12. Gary Sanchez, C, Yankees

He's a 24-year-old catcher with just 55 games under his belt, and yet it feels fair to call him the face of the New York Yankees. Sanchez hit 20 bombs in only 201 at-bats, a pace that would put him in position to become just the third Yankee ever to log 60 in a single season (hopefully you know the names of the other two). Don't hold your breath there, but do expect Sanchez's sophomore adjustment to go a long way toward determining whether the Yanks can rebuild and contend consecutively. 

11. Jake Arrieta, RHP, Cubs

Extension negotiations with the Cubs one year ago went nowhere. Arrieta, in the afterglow of an NL Cy Young Award season, wanted a seven-year commitment that would have taken him deep into his 30s. The Cubs, understandably, opted to see how '16 played out. And it did not play out particularly well for Arrieta, who posted a 4.44 ERA in his last 16 starts.

But Arrieta was nails on the World Series stage, perhaps an indicator that he can recapture that second-half magic from '15. If he does, he'll be in prime position to cash in big as a free agent next winter -- assuming the Cubs don't extend him or, um, trade him back to the Orioles before then.

10. Yu Darvish, RHP, Rangers

Another pending free agent. If you add the posting fee into the equation, the Rangers have paid just shy of $1 million per big-league start for Darvish, to date.

Obviously, not an ideal ratio.

What is ideal is the thought of a fully loaded Darvish putting in 200 innings of impact alongside Cole Hamels at the top of the rotation. Perhaps Texas will have that after Darvish endured the expected ups and downs in his first season back from Tommy John. But if so, they'll get it just before Darvish reaches the open market, potentially fronting a much-improved free-agent class. 

9. Garrett Richards, RHP, Angels

The Angels, projected by FanGraphs to win 85 games in '17, have the goods to be competitive if everybody stays healthy. That didn't happen in '16, and Richards was part of that. He is, as Mike Scioscia recently put it, the "lead dog" in this Halos rotation, but he's trying to pitch through a damaged torn ulnar collateral ligament after stem-cell therapy. If he avoids Tommy John and has a 2014-like impact (2.61 ERA in 168 2/3 innings), maybe Mike Trout can get back to October. But if Richards grabs his elbow at any point, there's a good chance you can kiss the Angels goodbye again.

8. Dansby Swanson, SS, Braves 

The Braves are moving into a new ballpark, have a new-look rotation and have a lineup that was surprisingly among the most productive in the game in the second half last season. They are certainly pointed north, but how far north they rise in '17 will largely be determined by Swanson's impact in what is, by the slimmest of margins (he fell just two 2016 at-bats shy of the cutoff), his rookie season. 

The former No. 1 pick and Shelby Miller trade acquisition's "true" rookie season saw him contribute a .302/.361/.442 slash and good defensive work in 38 games, albeit with 34 strikeouts against just 13 walks. He could quickly join the likes of Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Addison Russell in what has been a renaissance at the shortstop position.

7. Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations, Dodgers

If building one of the game's great farm systems was the goal, mission accomplished. Corey Seager is the reigning Rookie of the Year, Julio Urias is an obvious breakout candidate, and, with Cody Bellinger and others, there's plenty more coming.

But something tells us the more than $1 billion invested in player payroll by the Stan Kasten/Magic Johnson group over the past four seasons was aimed -- and the roughly $250 million payroll for '17 is aimed -- at advancing to and winning on the World Series stage for the first time since 1988. As it stands, the Dodgers have plenty of long-term viability, but do they have enough to go the distance right now? Merely retaining their prominent free agents (Rich Hill, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner) cost the Dodgers nearly $200 million. Getting this roster over the hump might take a trade that forces Friedman to dip into that precious prospect pool. 

6. Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Red Sox

Assuming his winter conditioning holds up, Pablo Sandoval won't be breaking any belts this year. But because luxury tax restraints have, barring a late surprise, prevented Dave Dombrowski from delving deeply into the market for bats, the Red Sox do appear to have a lot riding on Sandoval, Andrew Benintendi and the newly signed Mitch Moreland offsetting the loss of David Ortiz's left-handed production. 

5. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates

Gee, do you think he caught wind of all those December trade rumors? If so (and assuming a deal doesn't still somehow come together), how will Cutch respond when he reports to camp in Bradenton, Fla.? And, more importantly, how will his bat and body respond to the subpar '16 season that made his trade value so difficult to ascertain? 

4. Jeff Luhnow, general manager, Astros

The terms of Luhnow's contract extension, which he signed after the 2013 season, are undisclosed, so it's hard to say how much urgency is upon him in 2017. But with the way this club crumbled early in a 2016 season of high hopes and given the magnitude of investments in Yulieski Gurriel, Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, there's certainly pressure here to live up to the demands of what is, indisputably, a championship-caliber core with Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and now Alex Bregman.

Luhnow made efforts to land Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Chris Archer this winter, and his efforts to acquire a stabilizing starting presence could continue in-season.

3. Quintana, LHP, White Sox

Come Opening Day, he'll either be the starting pitcher on the South Side or a huge new rotation feature for a contending team, perhaps in Pittsburgh or Colorado or Houston or elsewhere. Even if the Sox take him into the season, you'll hear Quintana's name bandied about in the lead-up to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

2. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals

Harper's statistical decline -- from a 198 OPS+ in his MVP year in '15 to a 116 mark in '16 -- is one of the steepest in history, which is what makes his '17 rebound effort so fascinating. This year will go a long way toward determining not only the Nats' fate but his own eventual price tag (remember, we've heard rumblings about $400 million or more) in the open market after the 2018 season.

1. Encarnacion, 1B/DH, Indians

Think the Indians liked that taste of the World Series? Their Opening Day payroll is going be roughly 45 percent higher than it was in 2016. Some of that is tied up in mid-2016 acquisition Andrew Miller ($9 million), and a lot of it is tied up in Encarnacion, whose $20 million average annual value in the three guaranteed years of his new deal simply makes him the most expensive player in club history.

For a team that finished with the third-lowest attendance total in the game last season, this is a big bet that the 34-year-old's big bat will keep booming. This is the Indians, with a weak division and a loaded roster that will hopefully include a healthy Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Michael Brantley, maximizing their window and upping the ante on '17.

Because Terry Francona's club got so close last year, its efforts to end what is now the game's longest championship drought are arguably the game's most pressing team-specific storyline going into the season. The Encarnacion contract best represents the extent of those efforts.


Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.