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AL players to watch this season

Chris Ruddick,
MLB Editor


Rounding Third Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Is there a better phase to hear if you are a baseball fan than "pitchers and catchers report"? News outlets across the country will be blaring those words this weekend, as equipment trucks start to roll into their respective destinations in Florida and Arizona.

In kicking off our 2011 Major League Baseball coverage, we take a look at 14 players in the American League who could be critical to their team's success this season:

BALTIMORE - MATT WIETERS: The Baltimore Orioles were a trendy pick heading into 2010 mostly because of the expected growth of catcher Matt Wieters. Well two things happened. One, the Orioles stumbled hard out of the gates and, two, Wieters never got his season rolling, hitting a mere .249 with 11 home runs. Buck Showalter's crew once again has a little buzz around it as spring training commences, but those hopes could dissipate quickly if Wieters continues to fizzle out.

BOSTON - JACOBY ELLSBURY: With the additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, the Boston Red Sox could have as potent a lineup as there is in baseball. That is, of course, if their sparkplug Jacoby Ellsbury can stay on the field for more than the 18 games he participated in last season. When healthy, Ellsbury is as dynamic a player as there is in the league. He should be poised for a big bounce-back campaign in 2011.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX - GORDON BECKHAM: Big things are expected on the South Side of Chicago this season. A hopefully healthy Jake Peavy plus the addition of one the premier sluggers in the game in Adam Dunn have the Pale Hose thinking about the playoffs. However, the most important player could be second baseman Gordon Beckham, who struggled mightily in 2010 after a sensational first-year campaign that almost nabbed him Rookie of the Year honors. Beckham was hitting just .216 at the All-Star break last season, but hit .354 in July and .309 in August and managed to end the year at .252. Not as impressive as the .270 clip he hit at as a rookie, but not bad considering where he came from.

CLEVELAND - GRADY SIZEMORE: Like Ellsbury, Sizemore was MIA for the majority of 2010, appearing in just 33 games before shutting it down to get surgery on his left knee. There are few players who possess the combination of speed and power like Sizemore, who was a 30-30 player in 2008 and had gone 20-20 in the previous three seasons. Not much is expected from a young Indians team this year, but the season could be bearable in Cleveland if Sizemore returns to form.

DETROIT - RICK PORCELLO: Detroit nearly won an AL Central title in 2009 because of the play of 20-year-old rookie Rick Porcello. Last season, the Tigers finished 13 games out of first place, largely because of the pitching of Porcello, who like Beckham, struggled in year No. 2. If the Tigers are going to compete with the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox this season, they will need more from the right-hander who won 14 games as a rookie and was 3-0 in his four September starts last season.


Jeff Francis is the perfect low-risk, high-reward kind of guy.
KANSAS CITY - JEFF FRANCIS: Raise your hand if you even knew Jeff Francis pitched for the Kansas City Royals. Well, he does and the Royals got him at the bargain-basement price of $2 million this winter following a dreadful 2010 that saw him go 4-10 with a 5.00 ERA. Two years removed from missing an entire season with a shoulder injury, Francis is the perfect low-risk, high-reward kind of guy. As crazy as it sounds, with Zack Greinke traded to Milwaukee and Gil Meche retired, Francis is probably the ace of a staff that also features the likes of Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies and Bruce Chen.

L.A. ANGELS - VERNON WELLS: The Angels endured their worst offseason in recent memory, but owner Arte Moreno hoped to salvage that by acquiring outfielder Vernon Wells. There are two problems, though. One, Wells is a shell of the player he once was, and, two, he is owed $86 million over the next four seasons. Wells did belt 31 home runs last year, but wore down in the second half. If anything, he along with Torii Hunter and rookie Peter Bourjos should provide the best defensive outfield in the game.

MINNESOTA - JUSTIN MORNEAU: Stop me if you have heard this before. Justin Morneau gets off to a blazing start, but is nowhere to be found in the Twins lineup when the games start to really matter. If it sounds familiar, it's because that exact scenario has played out over the last two seasons. Last year, it was a concussion that cost Morneau most of his second half after an MVP-type first half. The Twins still reached the playoffs without his services down the stretch the last two years, but a healthy Morneau sure would make winning easier on Ron Gardenhire's crew in 2011.

N.Y. YANKEES - A.J. BURNETT: There may not be a player in the major leagues with more pressure on him this season than New York Yankees right-hander A.J. Burnett. There was already going to be a lot put on his shoulders considering the Yankees missed out on Cliff Lee. But now the Yankees really need him to start earning some of the $16.5 million he will pocket this year thanks to Andy Pettitte's retirement last week. Burnett won 13 games for the Yanks in 2009, but was awful last year, losing 15 and pitching to a 5.26 ERA. If that is the Burnett who shows up in 2011, it could be a long year in the Bronx.

OAKLAND - BRETT ANDERSON: Last year, Trevor Cahill emerged as one of the best young pitchers in baseball. Brett Anderson has a chance to do just that this season. Most people felt that it would be Anderson, not Cahill, who would emerge last season, but injuries limited the 23-year-old lefty to just 19 starts. Oakland's young pitching is making them a trendy pick in the AL West. If Anderson blossoms the way Cahill has done, the A's may not be that much of a sleeper after all.

SEATTLE - JUSTIN SMOAK: The Mariners gave up the best available pitcher on the market last July in Lee for the slugging Smoak, who was the 11th overall pick of the Texas Rangers in the 2008 draft. He belted 13 home runs in 70 combined games for the Texas Rangers and Mariners last season and will be given every opportunity to win the first base job for Seattle this spring. Seattle managed a league-worst 101 home runs last season. A full season from Smoak could change that.

TAMPA BAY - DAVID PRICE: When David Price enters the locker room this spring, he may feel as if he's been the one who was traded because there won't be many familiar faces around. The inevitable roster purge happened this winter for the Rays, as Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, Carlos Pena and just about everyone in the bullpen found new homes. Still, though, the pundits are not counting the Rays out because of young talent on the pitching staff, most notably Price, the 25-year-old left-hander who won 19 games last season and pitched to a 2.72 ERA.

TEXAS - C.J. WILSON: Last year, Wilson familiarized himself with the Rangers rotation after spending most of his career in the bullpen. This year, he may have to take an even bigger burden on, as he assumes the role of staff ace. With Lee pitching in Philadelphia, the Rangers' rotation is a bit thin. They will need Wilson to post at least the same if not better numbers (15-8, 3.35 ERA) than he did in his maiden voyage as a full-time starter if they are to repeat as AL West champions.

TORONTO - BRANDON MORROW: Dubbed the Joba Chamberlain of the Northwest, Brandon Morrow never found a home in Seattle despite a fastball that at times reached triple digits. Seattle finally gave up on him and dealt him before the start of last season to the Blue Jays, who stuck with him as a starter. The move has paid off. Morrow made 26 starts last season and went 10-7. Not all that impressive, but he did strike out a whopping 178 batters in 146 1/3 innings, including 17 in a scintillating one-hit shutout over Tampa Bay in early August. If you are looking for a breakout star in 2011, look no further than Brandon Morrow.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.

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