Which players will excel? Which will implode?

MLB Storylines
Young players?
Free-spending Cubs?
Japanese players?
Yankee philosophy?
Barry Bonds?
Cardinals repeat?
AL Central?
NL vs. AL?

Performance for many players isn't particularly variable. We all know that Manny Ramirez and Albert Pujols will put up stellar numbers, that Neifi Perez and Angel Berroa won't, and that Johan Santana will baffle opposing hitters. Many teams, however, are resting their championship hopes on players who may go either way.

Take, for example, the number of talented rookies that made an impact last year. While their numbers were impressive, they lack an established track record that we can use to predict their future success. For all we know, they've just had the best season of their careers; it could be all downhill from here.

It's not all doom and gloom, however. It's certainly possible for a player who's had a down year to break out of his malaise, or for an unheralded rookie to make the leap. We saw many examples of both in 2006. Whose destiny will change this year?

What They're Saying
Jerry Narron on Reds' OF Josh Hamilton: "What's impressed me most is his plate discipline. He uses all fields and he sure doesn't look like a guy who's been off three years. I kind of liken him to those players who went away to World War II and came back and were just as successful. The reason was they had outstanding ability. So does Josh. The difference is, he's never even been to the big leagues."
March 18, 2007
New York Daily News: Hamilton puts drugs in past, HRs in future

The Baseball Analysts: "The case on [Gary Sheffield] is pretty straightforward. He is 38 years old and two full seasons removed from being anything resembling a superstar contributor. He has endured shoulder problems to boot. Still, the defending American League champs saw fit to acquire Sheffield. Far be it from me to criticize the great Dave Dombroski, but Sheffield is going to disappoint badly in 2007."
March 7, 2007
More name than game

Joe Torre on Carl Pavano: "I've liked what I've seen from him. Not only stuff on the mound, but his whole demeanor. I think it would be a progression if he was the one. I don't think it would make any kind of statement other than we're comfortable where he is."
Mar. 14, 2007
Karsten's elbow could hand Pavano Opening Day start

Breakout Players to Watch

Carl Crawford could put himself on the map in 2007.

Carl Crawford
Why he'll break out: Crawford has improved his OPS, stolen-base percentage and power numbers each of the past three years. He's heading into the beginning of a player's traditional prime, with the added benefit of an improved and respectable Devil Rays lineup. Crawford is set to become a major star and increase his market value when he hits free agency.

Felix Hernandez
Why he'll break out: King Felix has tasted both success and failure on the major league level. He followed up a dazzling rookie season with a disappointing sophomore campaign. Now that he's the featured ace on a depleted staff, with a year to adjust to new catcher Kenji Johjima, a slimmed down Hernandez could finally master his impressive arsenal.

Jake Peavy
Why he'll break out: Peavy realized his promise in 2004 and 2005, posting back-to-back seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA. He took a step back in 2006, putting up a 4.03 mark which was only slightly above league average. However, his strikeout rate remained steady, and he experienced only a slight jump in walks and home runs allowed. Look to Peavy to put up a quietly impressive season as the ace of the Padres.

Breakdown Players to Watch

Freddy Sanchez could come back to earth this year.

Gary Matthews Jr.
Why he'll break down: Last season, Little Sarge posted career highs in pretty much anything you care to name: batting average, OBP, SLG, home runs, RBIs, runs, hits, doubles, even triples. You could attribute his success to a number of reasons. He was in the final season of his contract, which usually ups a player's performance. He was at the tail-end of a player's traditional prime, seemingly hitting his stride at 31 as opposed to 27. In the offseason, his name was included among professional athletes named in a performance-enhancing probe. He'll have none of these factors working for him in 2007, and could be a major disappointment.

Freddy Sanchez
Why he'll break down: Sanchez' 200-hit season resulted in him winning the NL batting title, with a stellar .344 batting average. Much of that was the result of an abnormally high BABIP (batting average per balls in play) -- Sanchez finished the season with a .370 mark in that stat, a 62-point jump from his previous year. It remains to be seen whether this is a skill he can maintain, but a return to normalcy could send Sanchez back to the realm of mortality.

Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek
Why they'll break down: Posada and Varitek have been offensive stalwarts on either side of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry for many years -- which is the basic problem. Posada had an excellent 2006, while Varitek's was injury-plagued, but both are 34-year old catchers. Catching isn't exactly a position that lends itself to longevity: Johnny Bench, for instance, was done as a full-time catcher by age 33 and was done as a player by age 35. While both Posada and Varitek started as full-time catchers fairly late in their careers, each game they spend behind the plate adds to the possibility of a breakdown.