Key player

In 2005 and 2006, Hafner was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. Last year, he took a step backward despite setting career highs in at-bats and games played. He still hit 24 homers and drove in 100 RBIs, but those numbers - as well as his batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and runs scored - were his lowest since he was a part-timer in 2003.

Still, the Indians won their division and were a win away from the World Series. But they did it without Hafner's run production. He batted a dismal .148 (4-for-27 with 12 strikeouts) in the seven-game championship series against the Boston Red Sox.


Imagine what the Indians could do if Pronk, as he is affectionately nicknamed, returns to form. He's only 30, so one would think 2007 was just a down season for him.




MANAGER: Mike Scioscia, ninth season

PAYROLL: $120 million

X-FACTOR: Kelvim Escobar, an 18-game winner last season, told reporters last week that he has a tear in his pitching shoulder and might need surgery.

BEST CASE: The addition of Torii Hunter makes an already strong defense even better up the middle. ... Prospects Erick Aybar and Brandon Wood take those long-awaited steps forward. ... The Angel Way keeps them in the hunt yet again as they chase a fifth playoff spot in the past seven years.

WORST CASE: Multiple spring pitching injuries leave them short-handed for much of the year. ... Hunter struggles to justify owner Arte Moreno's $90 million investment. ... The kids can't handle shortstop and they regret trading Orlando Cabrera to the White Sox.


MANAGER: John McLaren, second season


PAYROLL: $115 million

X-FACTOR: "King" Felix Hernandez had a great spring and could be ready for a breakout season now that he has some company at the top of the rotation.

BEST CASE: Young Wladimir Balentien seizes the right fielder's job early in the year and bids for top rookie honors. ... Their defense up the middle remains among the best in the game. ... The pitching additions of Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva make the difference as the Mariners return to the playoffs for the first time since Lou Piniella resigned after the 2002 season.

WORST CASE: Ichiro Suzuki's horrific spring can't be dismissed at age 34. ... Richie Sexson sees his homer total drop for the third year in a row since a 39-homer Seattle debut. ... Brad Wilkerson proves a poor replacement for Jose Guillen in right.


MANAGER: Bob Geren, second season


PAYROLL: $60 million

X-FACTOR: Justin Duchscherer made himself into an All-Star setup man, but he hasn't started a big league game since 2003.

BEST CASE: Kurt Suzuki proves to be a two-way weapon and gives them their most successful homegrown catcher since Terry Steinbach, or at least since Ramon Hernandez. ... Rich Harden finally stays healthy after giving them just 32 combined starts the past three years.

WORST CASE: Another slow start prompts general manager Billy Beane to keep unloading his arbitration-eligible pitchers in a sustained rebuilding process. ... Third baseman Eric Chavez has complications in his return from back surgery and can't reclaim his six-time Gold Glove form on defense. ... They miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years and post consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1997-1998.


MANAGER: Ron Washington, second season


PAYROLL: $70 million

X-FACTOR: Jarrod Saltalamacchia was the key to last year's trade of Mark Teixeira (Mount St. Joseph) to the Braves. The key is finding a spot for him to play.

BEST CASE: The ever-sensitive Milton Bradley has a healthy and productive year under a manager who seems to have his trust. ... The incredibly durable Michael Young plays in at least 156 games for the seventh year in a row while hitting .300 for the sixth straight. ... Josh Hamilton stays healthy and clean, making the Reds look silly for dealing him one year into his remarkable comeback from drug addiction.

WORST CASE: Pitching again proves their downfall. ... C.J. Wilson's 12-for-14 showing in save opportunities last year was a mirage. ... They fail to finish higher than third in a four-team division for the ninth consecutive year.




MANAGER: Eric Wedge, sixth season

PAYROLL: $80 million

X-FACTOR: Can Paul Byrd put last fall's hGH embarrassment behind him or will he struggle to match the 15 games he won?

BEST CASE: Grady Sizemore continues his progression toward becoming one of the game's top five all-around players. ... Travis Hafner returns to form after seeing his slugging percentage drop 208 points last year. ... Fausto Carmona's 19-win season was just a taste of bigger things to come.

WORST CASE: Asdrubal Cabrera comes back to reality after a stunning second half. ... Joe Borowski can't keep fooling them with his underwhelming arsenal. ... C.C. Sabathia's pending free agency proves a distraction.



MANAGER: Jim Leyland, third season

PAYROLL: $134 million

X-FACTOR: Right-handed pitcher Joel Zumaya isn't due back until midseason after shoulder surgery caused by a freak accident. Will he still hit triple digits with his fastball?

BEST CASE: Miguel Cabrera is energized by his new surroundings and justifies his eight-year, $152.3 million contract. ... An infield featuring four former shortstops gobbles up everything that comes its way. ... They bash their way to 900-plus runs and smash most opponents.

WORST CASE: Dontrelle Willis finds the move from National to American as overwhelming as so many other starters have ... Todd Jones' spring woes are an indication he's finally nearing the end. ... They prove to be paper Tigers. and sag beneath the burden of expectations.



MANAGER: Ron Gardenhire, seventh season

PAYROLL: $56 million

X-FACTOR: If Francisco Liriano is fully recovered from elbow reconstruction, he could be a worthy successor to Johan Santana.

BEST CASE: A highly motivated Delmon Young shows the Rays they were crazy to trade such a potent young bat. ... Joe Mauer stays healthy and makes another run at the batting title. ... The new middle infield proves to be more than just sure-handed.

WORST CASE: They miss Torii Hunter's leadership and energy as much as they must privately suspect they will. ... Last year's drop back under .500 was no aberration in an increasingly competitive division. ... The concentration issues Carlos Gomez showed with the Mets return and explain why he was made available.



MANAGER: Ozzie Guillen, fifth season

PAYROLL: $118 million

X-FACTOR: Will Guillen's vow to be more vocal blow up his clubhouse or spur his players to new heights?

BEST CASE: Jim Thome, having crossed the 500-homer barrier late last year, keeps on rolling toward 600. ... Bobby Jenks again shows he's one of the game's best young closers. ... They sneak up on the competition in a rugged AL Central.

WORST CASE: Trusting Gavin Floyd (Mount St. Joseph) to be a middle-of-the-rotation arm proves a mistake. ... Jose Contreras sees his ERA rise and his win total drop for the third year in a row after a workhorse showing in the 2005 postseason. ... They can't move Joe Crede in a deal and he blocks young Josh Fields.



MANAGER: Trey Hillman, first season

PAYROLL: $60 million

X-FACTOR: Right-handed pitcher Luke Hochevar, given a major league deal after the 2006 draft, could blow into the rotation by late May.

BEST CASE: Hillman's motivational skills and attention to detail prove a perfect fit. ... Alex Gordon builds on a strong second half and moves closer to becoming one of the game's top young third basemen. ... Everything clicks and they climb out of the Central basement for the first time in five years.

WORST CASE: The combustible Jose Guillen starts acting up by Mother's Day. ... Too much talent (and payroll) ahead of them makes for nightly frustration within the division. ... They start wondering why they gave $4 million a year to a situational lefty (Ron Mahay) who has been waived or released three times.




MANAGER: Terry Francona, fifth season

PAYROLL: $150 million

X-FACTOR: Pitcher Bartolo Colon is getting his velocity back up and could be a big boost to a rotation that might lack Curt Schilling all year.

BEST CASE: A dangerous offense finishes with about the 901 runs the club has averaged in Theo Epstein's five seasons as GM. ... J.D. Drew is more comfortable with his surroundings in Year 2 and puts up even bigger numbers. ... Retaining the group that won it all a year ago allows them to finish first in consecutive years for the first time since 1915-1916.

WORST CASE: Josh Beckett's back problems nag him throughout the summer. ... Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia aren't able to build on their strong rookie years. ... Manny Ramirez starts being Manny again in a contract year.



MANAGER: Joe Girardi, first season

PAYROLL: $205 million

X-FACTOR: Flame-throwing Joba Chamberlain will begin in the bullpen but could move into the rotation.

BEST CASE: Girardi's preparation and deft touch with players provide a seamless transition from hallowed predecessor Joe Torre. ... Alex Rodriguez makes a strong run at his fourth Most Valuable Player award in six seasons. ... Kid pitchers Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy breathe life into the rotation.

WORST CASE: Bobby Abreu presses in the last year of his contract. ... Jason Giambi's knees break down as he tries to play first base in more than 92 games for the first time since signing with the Yankees before the 2002 season. ... A combination of age and inexperience keeps them out of the playoffs for the first time since 1993.



MANAGER: John Gibbons, fifth season

PAYROLL: $100 million

X-FACTOR: A.J. Burnett still hasn't crossed the 12-win barrier, but the raw stuff is still there to win and win big.

BEST CASE: Scott Rolen's surgically repaired shoulder cooperates and he sticks it to the Cardinals after they dealt him for Troy Glaus. ... Frank Thomas, who turns 40 in May, continues his career resurgence as he closes in on 2,500 hits and 500 doubles. ... They sneak into second place and contend for their first playoff trip in 15 years.

WORST CASE: B.J. Ryan has complications in his return from elbow reconstruction and can't reclaim the closer's role. ... David Eckstein's body keeps breaking down, limiting the impact of his daily energy. ... Too many lineup holes keep them at 775 runs or fewer for the fourth time in five years.



MANAGER: Dave Trembley, second season

PAYROLL: $70 million

X-FACTOR: Adam Loewen's poor spring performance has raised questions about whether he has truly recovered from June elbow surgery.

BEST CASE: The enigmatic Daniel Cabrera figures it all out and several young pitchers follow his lead, creating the start of a potentially formidable pitching staff. ... Adam Jones shows growth and consistency and pairs with Nick Markakis to form one of the best young outfield duos in the majors.

WORST CASE: The pitching staff is dogged by injuries and inconsistency and again puts too great a strain on the bullpen, which is in tatters by the All-Star break. ... Trembley is unable to hold the clubhouse together as his club is overwhelmed in the American League East.




MANAGER: Joe Maddon, third season

PAYROLL: $42 million

X-FACTOR: Matt Garza was a disappointment in Minnesota, but he could make the Twins regret dealing him.

BEST CASE: Carlos Pena has another monster power season. ... Star prospect Evan Longoria is called up early in the season, ready to hit and stop that confusion over whether he's related to actress Eva Longoria (he's not). ... A resurgent Troy Percival solidifies the bullpen, and they avoid the AL East basement for just the second time.


WORST CASE: Scott Kazmir's arm scare extends into the season, breaking up a strong 1-2 punch with James Shields. ... Cliff Floyd's body betrays him yet again and leaves his latest team a bat short. ... The appearance of momentum proves a mirage.