What do I mean by "most pivotal, huh?" It's kind of a vague term, I'll admit.
What I'm referring to, though, is the one player on each team with the potential to change the Fantasy Baseball landscape the most, whether because of his own performance or how his role might impact others.
These 30 are the players for whom I'm most anxious to see how things turns out, to put it another way -- the ones I'll be monitoring the closest throughout spring training and even into the regular season.
But the gimmick is I can only name one per team. (Don't worry -- I slip in a few more.)
ARI Arizona • #12 • Age: 24
Can the former prospect still claim a share of the outfield at-bats even with Ketel Marte expected to see more time out there? As a catcher-eligible player, Daulton Varsho wouldn't need to play every day to factor in Fantasy, especially since he brings an element of speed along with everything else.
Mike Soroka SP
ATL Atlanta • #40 • Age: 23
Whether Drew Smyly can sustain his newfound velocity and strikeout ability for more than just 26 1/3 innings is also a topic of great interest. But it's the severity of MIke Soroka's injury, a ruptured Achilles, that has us all waiting with bated breath to see if he can come back and reclaim his near-ace standing, perhaps as early as late April.
Trey Mancini RF
BAL Baltimore • #16 • Age: 28
Trey Mancini is considered full-go after last year's bout with colon cancer, and while such a fight has the potential to alter a person's physiology, reports so far are positive for the soon-to-be 29-year-old. Seeing as he put together a .291-35-97-106-1 line in 2019, his stock could rise quickly.
BOS Boston • #28 • Age: 33
J.D. Martinez was one of the first to voice his concerns over the forfeiture of in-game video access, doing so even before the coronavirus shutdown. For now, it's a reasonable enough explanation for his 2020 struggles, but with in-game video access restored this year via iPads in the dugout, he'll need to put up or shut up.
CHC Chi. Cubs • #46 • Age: 32
Craig Kimbrel hasn't been a trusted closer since 2018, putting together a 6.00 ERA in 41 appearances since, and he wasn't long for the role last year. But there's hope he got his still-electric stuff back under control last September, allowing just three baserunners while recording 13 strikeouts over his final eight appearances, and manager David Ross has already anointed him the ninth-inning guy for 2021.
CHW Chi. White Sox • Age: 22
Just about all the higher-ups in the White Sox organization have suggested their top prospect could open the year as their DH, and while the lost 2020 season doesn't give us much data to go on, you rarely see a prospect so limited defensively drafted as high as third overall, as Andrew Vaughn was in 2019. We should all take the leap if the White Sox do.
Jesse Winker RF
CIN Cincinnati • #33 • Age: 27
Looks like we're in for another year of wondering how the Reds outfield shakes out. On-base machine Jesse Winker looks like he's so close to a power breakthrough, having homered 10 times last August before slumping dreadfully in September, but with Nick Senzel also in the mix, the left-handed Winker still may not get the at-bats he needs to emerge fully.
CLE Cleveland • #60 • Age: 22
Andres Gimenez would make for a clutch stolen base source in the latter stages of a Rotisserie draft if we could trust him to play regularly enough, but with Amed Rosario also coming over from the Mets in the Francisco Lindor trade, there isn't room for everyone. The pressure will be on Gimenez's bat this spring since Rosario has the advantage of experience.
COL Colorado • #7 • Age: 24
We could go down the Garrett Hampson or Sam Hilliard path again, but enthusiasm is less for them even though their playing time is more assured than ever. The source of intrigue now is Brendan Rodgers, a former No. 3 pick in the draft who tore up the minors before shoulder problems the past two years and suddenly has a path with Nolan Arenado gone.
DET Detroit • #32 • Age: 27
Having to do some on-the-job rehab because of the pandemic last year, Michael Fulmer saw his velocity dip and his performance crater, but the former AL Rookie of the Year hopes to have remedied the situation by adding strength to his lower half. His success could restore his own Fantasy value, yes, but it could also impede the timeline of prospects like Casey Mize and Matt Manning.
HOU Houston • #44 • Age: 23
Alvarez looked like a natural at the plate as a rookie, but his knees were apparently hurting so badly that he needed surgery on both last year. That's inspiring in a way, but even with the discounted cost (about 80th overall), I'd like some assurances that the concern is behind him.
KC Kansas City • Age: 26
Andrew Benintendi is a former 20-20 man, was once the top prospect in baseball and remains only 26 years old, yet it sort of feels like the Royals are spinning their wheels with him. Maybe the change of scenery will help him recapture something, but beginning with the second half of 2018, every aspect of his game, from foot speed to strikeout rate, has trended wrong.
LAA L.A. Angels • #17 • Age: 26
The recovery from Tommy John surgery was a reasonable excuse for Shohei Ohtani's struggles last year. But if he's going to continue the two-way experiment, he'll need to show improvement on both sides of the ball this year. He put in the work this offseason, adding strength, altering his diet and shoring up his mechanics, but for Fantasy Baseballers, seeing is believing.
David Price SP
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #10 • Age: 35
Baked into the regret of Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May being pushed out of the rotation is the presumption David Price will be able to stick there, which is no sure thing given that he's 35, hasn't pitched since 2019 and showed some decline in skills that year. His contract and stature will earn him the first crack, but no guarantees he holds off those two.
MIA Miami • #57 • Age: 25
With Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez settled in for the long haul, Elieser Hernandez is on the hot seat with the next wave coming. In the little bit we saw of him last year, he looked like he had turned a corner with his slider, resulting in 11.9 K/9, and word is he's working on a changeup to allow him to work deeper into games.
Keston Hiura 2B
MIL Milwaukee • #18 • Age: 24
Like most players, Keston Hiura gets a pass for a disappointing 2020, especially given how much he impressed as a rookie two years ago, but the mood could turn if he comes in striking out like Joey Gallo again. Now at first base, the pressure on his bat is greater than ever, and while his job may be secure, his Dynasty value isn't.
MIN Minnesota • #76 • Age: 23
Whether catcher Mitch Garver can get back to being the monster who homered 31 times with a .995 OPS in 2019 is top of mind as well, but incoming rookie Alex Kirilloff's claim to the left field job is most deserving of intrigue given the high marks he has earned a hitter. There's a reason the Twins non-tendered Eddie Rosario.
NYM N.Y. Mets • #2 • Age: 25
After being overtaken by Pete Alonso on the organizational depth chart just a year earlier, Dominic Smith got to live out his own breakthrough with the arrival of the DH to the NL in 2020. But it's gone again, which means Smith's playing time hinges on his ability to handle left field. The Mets brought in some competition for him just prior to spring training.
NYY N.Y. Yankees • Age: 29
Why so much enthusiasm for Jameson Taillon coming off a second Tommy John surgery? He's the latest underachieving homegrown Pirates pitcher to escape Pittsburgh for greener pastures, and as with Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow, he's planning to de-emphasize the two-seamer in favor of more four-seamers and breaking balls, which should help maximize his latent strikeout potential.
A.J. Puk RP
OAK Oakland • #31 • Age: 25
A.J. Puk has had to sit out two of the past three years due to arm surgeries, but the shoulder procedure he had last year was a fairly minor one. If he shows up this spring with his typical velocity and the usual break on his slider, he could reclaim the hype in short order, still profiling as a big-bodied strikeout artist.
Zach Eflin SP
PHI Philadelphia • #56 • Age: 26
The reward for most surprising strikeout bump last year goes to Zach Eflin, who had 10.7 K/9. It didn't come with a corresponding jump in swinging-strike rate or a change in pitch selection that would normally lead to more strikeouts, so nobody seems to be taking it to heart. A couple big strikeout efforts right out of the gate could change that, though.
PIT Pittsburgh • #13 • Age: 24
It's a question of legitimacy for a top prospect who made good on his promise and then some in a late-season look last year, showing more over-the-fence power than he ever did in the minors while stinging the ball to all fields. Ke'Bryan Hayes has good contact skills and the requisite athleticism that would make such a breakout possible, but 85 at-bats aren't many to go on.
Tommy Edman 3B
STL St. Louis • #19 • Age: 25
Whether the Cardinals just up and hand the closer gig to Jordan Hicks is of course something to monitor, but the way all doors opened up for Tommy Edman this offseason hasn't gotten enough attention. In line to be the everyday second baseman and leadoff man, he could be major contributor if he gets back to stealing bases like he did as a rookie in 2019.
SD San Diego • #29 • Age: 28
It takes a lot to overshadow the impending arrival of top pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore, not to mention the hoopla surrounding Korean star Ha-seong Kim, but mostly, we're holding our breath over whether Dinelson Lamet's elbow -- which he himself says he was on the verge of blowing out last year -- will hold up to the rigors of his slider-heavy arsenal.
SF San Francisco • #34 • Age: 30
Sure, there's an opening at closer and possible changing of the guard at catcher, but the biggest question by the Bay is how Kevin Gausman follows up the best two-month stretch of his career. HIs 11.9 K/9 rate was by far his highest and could make an ace of a pitcher accustomed to his innings allotment.
Dylan Moore LF
SEA Seattle • #25 • Age: 28
Talk of top prospect Jarred Kelenic's possible timeline is dominating the news right now, but the way Dylan Moore came out of nowhere to meet so many scarcities last year is too interesting not to mention. Someone in your league will pay up for the chance at a big steals total and elite second base outcome, but the 28-year-old minor-league journeyman may have a short leash.
TB Tampa Bay • #56 • Age: 26
The Wander Franco watch will be in effect as early as opening day. But if Randy Arozarena, a fringe prospect going into last year, can come anywhere close to the .333 batting average, 17 homers and 1.158 OPS he put together between the regular season and playoffs, that'll be the bigger development. If not, would the Rays play their usual playing-time games with him?
Nate Lowe 1B
TEX Texas • #35 • Age: 25
The Rays' playing-time games prevented Nate Lowe from ever gaining a foothold in Tampa Bay despite some impressive minor-league numbers, but he's looking like Plan A at first base for the Rangers. Now may be the 25-year-old's best and last chance to stick.
TOR Toronto • #37 • Age: 28
My most confident bust pick for 2021 will try to sustain last year's outlier exit velocity and hard-hit rate, but if his poor plate discipline puts him in a hole early, he may be the path to more at-bats for Randal Grichuk, Rowdy Tellez or Alejandro Kirk.
Josh Bell 1B
WAS Washington • #55 • Age: 28
While a lot is also riding on Patrick Corbin's return to form, we should have a pretty good idea for him just based on the velocity readings. The rehabilitation of Josh Bell's swing may require more patience, but between the renewal of in-game video and the watchful eye of hitting coach Kevin Long, a return to MVP-caliber production is possible.