Ten players who can directly affect team's fortunes
At least 22 of baseball's 30 teams think they're good enough to make the postseason. As for the other eight, virtually every one of them believes it could be playing meaningful games in September, and if that happens, anything is possible.
Last season, 15 of the 30 were within 4 1/2 games of a playoff berth on Sept. 17. This offseason has blurred the picture even more.
So with the talent difference among the top 10, 15 or 20 teams paper thin, some players seem to be critical to a team's hopes. Dozens of players, from Archie Bradley to Dylan Bundy to Gregory Polanco, could decide playoff berths.
This being the beginning of Spring Training and all, every club has a couple of guys it believes might mean the difference between making and missing the postseason.
Here are my 10 ...
1. CC Sabathia, Yankees
No team has more significant question marks than the Bronx Bombers. For instance, how is Derek Jeter going to play? Mark Teixeira? Michael Pineda?
General manager Brian Cashman plugged holes here, there and everywhere with the signings of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka. The Yankees still might not be better than the Red Sox and Rays in the American League East, but they're certainly back in the conversation.
Enter the big fella.
Sabathia appears to have had a tremendous winter in preparing for his 14th big league season, focusing solely on conditioning and fine-tuning his game. He may never get the velocity of past seasons back, but he has enough to succeed. If Sabathia puts up a 200-inning, 200-strikeout season with an ERA of, say, 3.22, the Yanks might cruise back to the playoffs.
2-3. Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong, Giants
No team has a simpler road map back to the postseason. If these two starters can again be what they were in their best seasons, the Giants will be good enough to win the World Series for the third time in five seasons.
The Giants seem fairly confident that Vogelsong will bounce back nicely with a full offseason of rest, which he didn't get in 2012-13 because his team went all the way to the World Series and then he pitched in the World Baseball Classic in March. Meanwhile, San Francisco saw enough good things from Lincecum last season, despite overall shaky numbers, to believe he has some productive baseball in him.
Can you imagine how good the Giants would be with Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Hudson, Lincecum and Vogelsong all at their best? Even if they get consistently productive work from four of the five, that may be enough.
4. Matt Kemp, Dodgers
Kemp missed 185 games the past two seasons, and somewhere along the way, some people have forgotten how good he once was. Forget those trade rumors. The Dodgers know.
As insanely good as Hanley Ramirez was for much of last summer, Kemp is still just 29 years old. When he was last healthy for a full season, in 2011, he produced a 39-homer, 126-RBI season and finished second in National League Most Valuable Player Award balloting.
If Kemp can get back on the field in April and if he can stay healthy, he could be good enough to elevate a team that's already plenty good in almost every area.
5. Josh Johnson, Padres
San Diego has become a popular NL West pick because GM Josh Byrnes deserves to be rewarded for all his good work. For that to happen, the Padres may just need a season in which they're able to keep their best players on the field.
That said, Byrnes took a flyer on Johnson, who has made just 30 starts three times in his eight-year career and was limited to 16 last season with the Blue Jays. Opposing hitters raved about his stuff when he was healthy last year in Spring Training.
Johnson is three seasons removed from being the NL ERA champ and recently celebrated his 30th birthday. So far, he has passed every test in preparing for his first season with San Diego. If Johnson can keep taking the ball, the Padres could be in the middle of things all summer.
6. Ryan Howard, Phillies
Who isn't rooting for this guy? After two seasons of pain and disappointment, it would be wonderful to see Howard get back to being dominant. He's 34 now and has played just 151 games over the past two seasons, so there's no way of knowing what he still can be.
It's harder to remember, but Howard was once right there with Albert Pujols when the best offensive players in the game were discussed. Between 2006-11, he averaged 28 doubles, 44 homers and 133 RBIs. Not coincidentally, the Phillies finished first five straight times from 2007-11.
Here's to another Philly summer.
7. Garrett Richards, Angels
The Angels appear to be close, really close. Josh Hamilton has gained weight. Pujols is healthy. GM Jerry Dipoto has strengthened the bullpen and the rotation.
And with Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson at the front of the staff, the Halos may be one front-line starter from being good enough to compete with the Rangers and Athletics in the AL West.
That means it's time for Richards to establish himself once and for all as a quality Major League starter. He'll begin the season as the No. 3 man after a season in which he made 16 starts and was solid -- 6-6 with a 4.18 ERA. Richards had 32 walks and 71 strikeouts in 103 1/3 innings, so he seems to be gaining confidence in his stuff.
After two hugely disappointing seasons, the Angels would enjoy a run to the playoffs perhaps more than any other club. Richards could be a big part of the puzzle.
8. Ryan Braun, Brewers
No player has more to prove than Braun. In this case, he might just be the difference between the Brewers making and missing the postseason. When we last saw Braun for a full season, in 2012, he was hitting 41 home runs and finishing second in the NL MVP Award voting.
Because Braun is only 30, he has plenty of time to write his own ending to his career. GM Doug Melvin has nicely upgraded the pitching staff this offseason, and Braun could be that impact bat in the middle of the lineup that could take the Brew Crew back to October.
9. Bud Norris, Orioles
Norris was a solid Major Leaguer stuck on some bad teams with the Astros. This is his chance to emerge as an impact pitcher, which the Orioles desperately need. Their everyday lineup remains as good as any. Their manager, Buck Showalter, gets as much out of his clubs as anyone.
But what the O's need most of all is quality starting pitching. They appear to have three reliable starters in Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez, and two highly touted kids on the way in Bundy and Kevin Gausman.
Norris occasionally seemed on the brink of a breakthrough during his five seasons with the Astros. If he does become that guy, the Orioles are plenty good enough to hang with the Red Sox and Rays in the AL East.
10. Mike Moustakas, Royals
Bet you didn't know this guy is only 25 years old. Or that he still has fewer than 1,500 at-bats in the big leagues. Kansas City's third baseman has proven these past couple of years that even the best young prospects sometimes have a tougher learning curve than others. Will this be Moustakas' year? The Royals again seem on the verge of a breakthrough season. They've got quality pitching stacked up and gifted kids up and down the roster.
If Moustakas is what the Royals once projected him to be -- and there's no reason to think he can't be -- he has the kind of talent that can carry a club right into October. After three years of starts and stops in Kansas City, it would be the sweetest of rides.