The month of June will bring us clearer skies and a clearer picture in the Major League standings. Teams will come out of the upcoming MLB Draft and start to decide whether to augment their rosters or perhaps pull the plug on lifeless efforts. This is a moving month, one in which the jockeying for positioning can undoubtedly be affected by the health and productivity of key contributors.
With that in mind, here, in no particular order, are 10 guys who stand out as particularly important as we enter the third month of the season and head toward the halfway point.
1. David Price, LHP, Red Sox
Price's absence for the vast majority of the first two months of the season exposed the depth issues that led to Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez and Kyle Kendrick all getting turns in the Red Sox's rotation. But Price's return to action Monday was, on the whole, an encouraging one, despite the loss. He showed no ill effects from the elbow strain, as his velocity (95 mph average on the four-seamer) and stuff was all intact.
With Price, Chris Sale and Rick Porcello up and running, the Red Sox have the potentially potent front-end trio they planned to ride in the post-David Ortiz era. That doesn't solve everything (namely, Dustin Pedroia's wrist woes and the big question on the hot corner), but it's an important element in this club finally finding its stride.
2. Kyle Schwarber, LF, Cubs
When is a slump no longer a slump but simply a sullied season? We'll find out soon enough with Schwarber, who, against the wishes of some Cubs fans who want to see him spend some more time at Triple-A Iowa, keeps getting opportunities (often in prominent lineup spots) to rebound from the .173/.294/.339 slash he posted in his first 197 plate appearances.
The Cubs have far more than just Schwarber to blame for their surprisingly sluggish start, but he's become the poster boy for their overall offensive decline, which at midweek included the second-worst average in the sport with runners in scoring position (.213).
3. Yoenis Cespedes, LF, Mets
I want to share with you this very important stat a very astute reader tweeted to me:
@castrovince WAR is not a real stat and here is a real stat mets are many games under 500 without cespedes you fool.- Cespedes M.V.P. (@AWalkin) May 25, 2017
You can't argue with logic or grammar like that. Going back to their acquisition of Cespedes in mid-2015, the Mets are 114-83 with him in the starting lineup and 33-41 without. The Mets hope to get him back from a strained hamstring soon, though his rehab hit a short snag last week with quadriceps discomfort. The National League East looks lost, but better health will help the Mets in their bid to remain relevant in the playoff picture. Steven Matz and Seth Lugo are also close to rejoining the rotation, but Cespedes is the big deal here, fool.
4. Albert Pujols, DH, Angels
He's one long shot away from becoming the ninth member of the 600 Home Run Club, which is interesting enough (and because of his contract and the consistency of his dinger production even amid overall offensive decline, who's to say he doesn't eventually get to 700?). But obviously, with Mike Trout out for the foreseeable future, Pujols' ability to post up and post numbers despite some hamstring issues will be vital.
Remove LeBron James from the Cavaliers, and it's going to make a difference. Maybe Trout's absence from a 25-man roster isn't quite so extreme, but it's not terribly far off, either. Even with Trout, the Angels ranked in MLB's lower-third in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. If they have any hope whatsoever of staying alive in the Wild Card hunt, Pujols is important.
5. Corey Kluber, RHP, Indians
The Indians have remained above .500 the last month and a half but have not dominated a weak division, as advertised. They're finally getting real traction from the Edwin Encarnacion signing, but their supposedly stalwart starting staff has not delivered consistent returns.
So Kluber's return from the disabled list Thursday against the A's -- and his overall performance from this point forward -- is an X-factor for this ballclub, which has already moved Danny Salazar to the bullpen to iron out his command woes. Kluber pitched through a lower back issue en route to an early 5.04 ERA before hitting the DL in the early days of May, but after his 250 innings of work in the regular and postseason last year (and three postseason starts on short rest), the Indians might look back at his May break as a blessing.
6. Mitch Haniger, RF, Mariners
This is a franchise that has been prone in recent years to the June swoon (their .445 winning percentage over the last five Junes is fifth-worst in MLB), and this is a 2017 team that simply can't afford such an outcome. You know aggressive general manager Jerry Dipoto is unlikely to sit idly by if this team is out of it at month's end. The Mariners are still alive in the Wild Card hunt, but they have yet to spend a single day this season over .500 -- the first time since 2004 that we can say that this deep into the year (and the '04 team finished with 93 losses).
The M's just returned James Paxton on Wednesday but still have three other starters on the DL, including Felix Hernandez. But the eventual return of an everyday player like Haniger, who has been out five weeks with an oblique issue and recently had a slight setback in his recovery, is vital. It might sound crazy to put so much stock in a rookie, but, well, is it? Haniger had a 1.054 OPS through 21 games and was worth a whopping 1.8 WAR in that short span.
7. Jon Gray, RHP, Rockies
Speaking of clubs that know the June swoon too well, the Rox have a .396 winning percentage in the month over the past five years (second-worst in MLB behind the Phillies) and haven't posted a winning record in the month since 2011. The Dodgers have sprung to life in recent weeks, so the Rockies are morphing from a cute early-season story to a team that will very much have its mettle tested in the coming weeks.
Not that Colorado, which fields the youngest rotation in the game, has been left bereft of quality pitching in Gray's seven-week absence with a broken foot, but talk about a nice reinforcement for a surprise contender. Gray, who struck out 185 in 168 innings as a rookie last year and has a lethal fastball/slider profile, has begun "turning it loose" (in manager Bud Black's words) in bullpens and should be back soon.
8. Greg Bird, 1B, Yankees
Some elements of the Yankees' ridiculous April were met with colder, crueler reality in May, but it hasn't cost them the top spot in the American League East. Bird, who has been out with an ankle bruise and was scheduled to begin a rehab assignment Thursday, is still a huge source of offensive upside for this club, and his performance in June could play a large role in deciding what they do at the Trade Deadline.
We know the Yankees will probably sniff around for starting help, but they've gotten next to nothing from first base in the first couple months of the year. Will a healthy Bird elevate that output?
9. Aledmys Diaz, SS, Cardinals
After a year-plus of ineptitude, I'm not even sure what more can be said about the Cardinals' defense. I think the great Mike Shannon said it all.
But you can certainly still hold out hope for better offense. The Cardinals' key concern is their inability to generate traffic, particularly from the No. 2 spot, which has turned in the lowest on-base percentage (.257) in the game. Last year, this was the spot Diaz secured with a rookie breakout (.300/.369/.510).
This year, the production has been far less consistent (.260/.292/.401) and it led to a recent demotion in Mike Matheny's batting order. If Diaz can get it going this month, you'd feel a lot better about the Cards' chances in what is a pretty wide open NL Central and NL playoff race.
10. (tie) Jose Quintana, LHP, White Sox, and Sonny Gray, RHP, A's
Where will the stock of these two would-be aces sit at month's end, when the trade market will be coming to a boil? It's an important question, because controllable starting pitching is the most valuable trade commodity in the game right now, particularly with teams like the Astros, Cubs and Yankees quite likely to be looking for it. The Sox and the A's are very clearly in a position to deal their best arms, but those arms have had inconsistent output so far this season.
Just when it appeared Quintana was righting himself after a rag-tag April, his past two starts (15 runs allowed on 18 hits in seven total innings against the D-backs and Red Sox) were brutal. Gray had looked pretty sharp since his return from a lat strain, right up until the Indians hung seven runs on him Tuesday. The trade market so often operates around recent results, and there will be evaluators aplenty taking note each time these two take the mound.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.