Spend an hour or so in a big league clubhouse and you?re sure to hear how baseball is a team sport and how all 25 players must contribute for success. Sounds reasonable. But there are some players on each roster who are a whole lotmore important than the rest. Don?t think so? Ask the Boston Red Sox howthey did last yearwhen David Ortiz was sidelined. Here are a dozen individuals in a team game who have the best chances of affecting their club?s legitimate postseason hopes in 2007.
1. J.D. Drew, OF, Boston Red Sox
Drew, 31, says not only that he is healthy, but that he has been so for the past few years - not including a freak wrist injury in July 2005. Yet he has had only one 500 at-bat season in his major league career, and that's when he hit 31 homers and batted .305 for the Atlanta Braves in 2004. When he's playing, he can be a difference maker. And putting him behind David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez makes Boston's middle as lethal as any in the game. Closer Jonathan Papelbon and starter Daisuke Matsuzaka are important, too. But Drew's presence lifts the Red Sox lineup from good to scary.
The Cardinals absorbed his hip injury last year and won the World Series. But that's when they had the luxury of putting Adam Wainwright into the closer's role. Free-agency defection this offseason forced Wainwright into the starting rotation. The Cardinals need to keep him there. That's why Isringhausen has to bounce back. When he's on, he's an above-average closer.
3. Roger Clemens, RHP, Texas retirement home
Have to love the Rocket being a key cog without having a team. If he re-signs with Houston, he drops on this list. But if he joins buddy Andy Pettitte in New York or the Dice-K-mania in Boston, he suddenly becomes No. 1 here. The Yankees desperately need another top-end starter, and they have been reluctant lately to trade top prospects to fill their needs. So Clemens is their best bet, and he can carry them from a fringe playoff team to a dangerous contender.
In a relatively wide-open National League, the Phillies could be the favorites. But their bullpen is a trouble spot - even with Gordon healthy and effective. If he isn't both, Phillies general manager Pat Gillick is going to have to work some trade-deadline magic to get this team into the playoffs. Gillick might have some extra starting pitching to deal. But it all starts with Gordon, and whether the club will need a reliable closer come July. 5. Rich Harden, RHP, Oakland Athletics
Barry Zito is gone, so the A's need the supremely talented Harden to be their ace if they expect to have a chance in the American League West. He showed how dominant he could be Wednesday, limiting the Seattle Mariners to five base runners and no runs in seven innings. It's all about health for Harden, who made just nine starts in 2006.
6. Luis Gonzalez, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Does he have another year of productivity left in his 39-year-old body? He was needed desperately when Drew darted for the Red Sox. He's no Drew, but he's been much healthier: 500 or more at-bats in every year but one since 1997. He must continue to be a doubles machine while helping the young Dodgers learn how to win.
7. Jeremy Bonderman, RHP, Detroit Tigers
Veteran ace Kenny Rogers is out for the first half of the season, so someone on this talented staff must fill that void. Reigning AL Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander has the best stuff, but he's only a sophomore. Bonderman is that guy. He's in his fifth major league season but, incredibly, is only 24. He's won 14 games each of the past two years, but has never posted an ERA under 4.00.
8. Lou Piniella, Manager, Chicago Cubs
The Tribune Co. spent $300 million this offseason to improve the perennially disappointing Cubs, but no acquisition is more important than Piniella, who was last seen spinning his wheels and blowing his top in Tampa Bay. Because of his time in baseball purgatory, it's easy to forget how good a leader this guy is. It could take him a year, but if his passion has returned, the Cubs could become winners.
Three years ago, he was a 12-game winner and future star with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now 25, he is trying to reestablish his career as a mid-rotation option for the pitching-needy Mets. If he posts double-digit wins and eats innings, the Mets should be able to stay in contention until Pedro Martinez returns in the second half. Another ERA of 6-plus for Perez, though, and both he and the Mets could be doomed.
10. Bill Stoneman, GM, Los Angeles Angels
The former pitcher has done a great job building a top-notch farm system. But someone needs to inform him that he works for a big-market club, and he can use some of those minor league pieces as trade bait to fill in the blanks on the big league level. The Angels don't have a lot of holes, but the psychological boost the club would get at the trade deadline if Stoneman finally lands a superstar reinforcement would be invaluable.
In 2005, at 23, he was the poster boy for the new-look Indians, hitting 24 homers with a .366 on-base percentage. Last season, he was Exhibit A in the club's free fall, with 13 homers and a .323 on-base percentage. If the Indians are to reach their vast potential in 2007, Peralta needs to be a consistent offensive and defensive force.
12. Gustavo Chacin, LHP, Toronto Blue Jays
A rough spring for the Venezuelan left-hander who was busted on a DUI charge in March and didn't exactly cruise through the Grapefruit League season (5.30 ERA). With Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett atop the Blue Jays' rotation, Chacin doesn't have to win 20 games. A repeat of his 2005 rookie numbers - 13-9, 3.72 ERA - would do. If he stumbles, Tomo Ohka and Josh Towers move up a spot, not an enticing solution in the AL East.