We’re less than a week away from the start of the 2022 MLB season. After the abrupt end of the lockout and the free agency frenzy, the balance of power has changed. Many of the outlooks of the divisions are completely different- the ceilings and floors of franchises can be decided by the success or failure of a single player. These are six individuals who could have the biggest impact on their team depending on their ceiling or floor. They can change the entire landscape of the league.

Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF Los Angeles Dodgers

Just 3 years ago, Cody Bellinger hit .305 with 47 home runs and won the NL MVP. Then, in 2020 he had an off year in the weird, COVID-shortened season, injured his shoulder celebrating in the World Series, and has been a complete nonfactor ever since. He hit .165 last year! While he began to put it together towards the Dodgers’ postseason run, he’s back to his struggling self again with 14 of 19 of his at-bats resulting in strikeouts.

The Dodgers have an embarrassment of riches in their lineup. They have Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts, two other MVP-winners of years’ past. They don’t need MVP Bellinger to be the NL World Series favorite and can survive without him. But can you imagine if Bellinger gets his swing back? Bellinger is slotted in the 8 hole currently and was one of the best hitters in baseball when he was right. If he were to get back to his ceiling, the Dodgers would separate themselves, and it would be LA vs. the field.

Jack Flaherty, SP St. Louis Cardinals

There’s something about organizational consistency and stability that gives you faith in the success of its young players, and the St. Louis Cardinals are the epitome of just that. Jack Flaherty is a starting pitcher that we haven’t seen his full-potential just yet, but a franchise like St. Louis is one that is capable of unlocking a future Cy Young Award Winner. Flaherty is only 26, he had an incredible 2019 where he posted a 2.75 ERA in 33 games started, and ever since then it’s been a battle to keep him on the field. He only started 9 outings in 2020, 15 in 2021, and he’ll miss the start of this upcoming season for at least two weeks with a slight shoulder tear. While it may have been brief, we’ve seen him at his peak, and the Cardinals are in desperate need of pitching depth. They snuck into the Wild Card game last season using their lineup depth and gritty hitting when it came to close games, and with Arenado and Goldschmidt in their primes in a winnable NL Central, this is winning time. Banking on a 40 year-old Adam Wainwright as your ace might not be something you can rely upon no matter how great he’s been this late in his career. The Cardinals have a lineup built for October, but the thin pitching is going to need a healthy Flaherty.

Noah Syndergaard, SP Los Angeles Angels

A season doesn’t ever lie on the shoulders of one man in baseball, but the Angels making the postseason might as well depend upon what they’re getting out of Noah Syndergaard. He’s pitched once since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2020 and signed a one-year “prove-it” deal coming over from the Mets, where he had a great 2016 and 2018. The Angels have done so little to provide Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, and now Shohei Ohtani with pitching support to make the postseason that it’s now a running internet joke. They’ve finally caught up to it a bit, spending every draft pick they had in last year’s draft on pitching support and signing Alex Cobb, Raisel Iglesias, and Syndergaard, but for Syndergaard to be their “big fish” this free agency as a bit of an unknown commodity coming off of his injury is a massive risk, and we don’t know if it will be enough. Shohei will still be Shohei, and Patrick Sandoval is also a proven and steady starter, but the success of the Syndergaard signing is massive in terms of having pitching depth to be able to get postseason games in Anaheim for only the second time ever in Mike Trout’s career.

Christian Yelich, RF Milwaukee Brewers

Similarly to Bellinger, Christian Yelich won an MVP in 2018 only to suffer from some bad injury luck to struggle in 2020 and 2021. He went from putting up 80 total homers from 2018-2019 to only 21 in the next two seasons. After the Brewers gave him his massive contract extension, he is the heart and soul of the team’s lineup. The reason the Brewers fell flat on their face in the postseason last year was that they couldn’t create any offense whatsoever, only putting up 6 total runs in their 4-game loss in the NLDS. They have all the firepower from their arms in the world with arguably one of the best pitching staffs in Burnes, Woodruff, Houser, Peralta, and Lauer, but they did not go pursue a big offensive bat this free agency to give them some run support. They need Yelich to be that guy again. If he can get there, they can go from good to great in the NL in a very winnable division.

Wander Franco, SS Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays did something that the Rays certainly have never been known to do before: pay a superstar player superstar money. The largest contract the Rays have ever given out in their franchise’s history was the 6-year, $100 million extension they gave to Evan Longoria. Well, Wander Franco, the #1 overall prospect that we got to see just briefly last year, was only 21 years old when they shelled out an 11-year, $182 million extension after playing just

Photo: Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

70 total games. The Rays front office, while wildly successful given their little payroll that they use, normally operates in a way that is bad for fans and bad for baseball. No Ray fan in Tampa has any idea what jersey to get because their franchise players that they normally produce in a factory get traded for cheaper contracts that get sent to their MVP factory, and it’s cyclical. There’s no attachment and they win cheap. This was pretty monumental- they normally win with analytically-driven data that can only take you so far, so the Rays having a guy that they can lean on and be THE GUY in the clubhouse, especially given how young he is, shows that they really believe in him. In those 70 games, he had a .288 batting average and a .347 OBP, and he showed that he’s everything he’s been touted to be since the farm system. The Rays having a superstar can make them a powerhouse going forward if they weren’t already considered just that.

Byron Buxton, CF Minnesota Twins

When he is on the field, Byron Buxton may be the most electrifying fielding position player in baseball. The problem? He hasn’t been on the field consistently. Buxton has had a career marred by injuries, oftentimes due to his bold style of play, other times from flukey circumstances like getting hit by a pitch last season, and it’s given him the stink of someone who is never healthy. Last season was supposed to be his breakout year- he put on 25 pounds of muscle preseason to bulk up, and it all paid off for the first several weeks of the season as he looked like an MVP-winner. The muscle gave him the power, and he still managed to keep his unbelievable speed that gives him the capability of making diving catches and base-running magic happen. The Twins are locked in on his ceiling and what he can become. There were Buxton trade rumors last year when they went through a small tear-down, but instead, they gave him a 7-year $100 million extension, they made several trades this offseason, and they signed Carlos Correa, the big fish of free agency. If Correa can have Buxton as a reliable #2, or even if Buxton takes the mantle from Correa as the #1, that combo in Minnesota will make a worthy adversary of the White Sox in the AL Central, which has been a one-horse race for about 7 years now. What the Twins are capable of is dependent upon if they can keep Buxton on the field and making plays.

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