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Watch list: Names to look out for in 2017

March 31, 2017

As Opening Day rapidly approaches, making predictions for the upcoming season is a favorite hobby for fans and baseball writers alike. But how many times can we get excited as somebody forecasts another World Series title for the Cubs? (Yawn. That's so 2016.)Michael Trout will repeat as the American League

As Opening Day rapidly approaches, making predictions for the upcoming season is a favorite hobby for fans and baseball writers alike. But how many times can we get excited as somebody forecasts another World Series title for the Cubs? (Yawn. That's so 2016.)
Michael Trout will repeat as the American League MVP Award! So cliché. Clayton Kershaw will take home his fourth career National League Cy Young Award! Very creative.
Rather than listing the best players in the game and pairing them up with the appropriate award or rattling off the five best teams in an attempt to forecast the postseason picture, here's a look at a dozen figures around the Majors who will make their share of news during the 2017 campaign.
Edwin Encarnacion
The defending AL champion Indians will benefit from the return of Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar from injury, but the biggest addition is the thunderous swing of Encarnacion, who averaged 39 homers, 110 RBIs and a .912 OPS over the past five seasons in Toronto. Encarnacion's Blue Jays fell to the Indians in last year's AL Championship Series, so his move certainly shifts the power -- namely, his bat -- to Cleveland as the Tribe looks to get back to the World Series.

Paul Goldschmidt / Nolan Arenado
In case you haven't noticed -- and judging by last year's list of most popular jerseys, you haven't -- neither Goldschmidt nor Arenado are receiving their due as two of the top 10 players in the game. Both were chosen by their peers to the NL All-Star team, but if they continue to rake at the pace they have in recent years -- Goldschmidt has a .949 OPS and two NL Gold Glove Awards in the past four seasons, while Arenado has led the NL in both homers and RBIs in each of the past two years and won four straight NL Gold Gloves -- the two NL West superstars should begin catching the eyes of fans everywhere.

Masahiro Tanaka
The Yankees' ace showed last year that his elbow should no longer be much of a concern, but Tanaka still didn't get to that vaunted 200-inning mark in 2016, falling short by a single out. Tanaka would certainly like to blow past that milestone this season, especially since he can opt out of his contract next offseason and become a free agent at the age of 29. With three years and $67 million remaining on his original seven-year, $155 million contract, a big season by Tanaka would likely thrust him onto the free-agent market, joining fellow Japanese hurler Yu Darvish as the top available pitchers.

Giancarlo Stanton / Christian Yelich
All eyes will be on Marlins Park this summer when the All-Star Game presented by MasterCard comes to Miami, and after dominating the Home Run Derby at last year's event in San Diego, Stanton will try to defend his title in front of the home crowd. But it's his 25-year-old teammate Yelich drawing raves this spring, leading many scouts and talent evaluators to tab him as a top candidate as 2017's breakout star. If these two can anchor a talented, deep lineup, the Marlins could find themselves playing meaningful games long past the All-Star break.

Rick Hahn
The White Sox general manager began the rebuilding process over the offseason with the trades of Chris Sale to the Red Sox and Adam Eaton to the Nationals, but he's just getting started. With a clear plan unfolding on the South Side, Hahn has several more deals up his sleeve, with Jose Quintana, Player Page for David Robertson, Todd Frazier and Melky Cabrera all potentially on the move between now and the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Dayton Moore
Hahn won't be the only GM making news this season, though Moore isn't necessarily going to be in fire sale mode like his AL Central counterpart. The Royals are facing a mass exodus after the season -- Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar are all set to become free agents next fall -- leaving Moore with an important decision to make this summer.
Does Moore try to bolster the roster and take a run at a second World Series title in three years? Or will the Royals be too far behind to consider such a scenario, leaving Moore with several attractive pieces to sell at the Deadline? Time -- and the standings -- will tell.

Felix Hernandez
King Felix hasn't been his typically regal self during the past two years, averaging 178 innings with a 3.65 ERA and a 1.232 WHIP after pitching an average of 232 frames with a 2.73 ERA and a 1.099 WHIP in the preceding six seasons. Hernandez will be 31 on April 8, though with more than 2,400 career big league innings, it's possible that his best years are behind him. Given the Mariners' solid lineup, they need their ace to step up and lead a staff that will determine whether Seattle ends its 15-year postseason drought -- the longest in the Majors.

Bryce Harper
Harper continues to find his name mentioned on lists of the best players in baseball, though his 2016 season has at least raised questions as to whether he still belongs there. An NL MVP Award winner at 22, Harper's age-23 season saw a major drop-off in virtually every category, including a nearly 300-point plummet in OPS (1.109 to .814). Yet at 24, the Nationals' four-time All-Star is still at an age where most players are just finding their way to the Majors.
Many have projected Harper's next contract -- he's set to be a free agent after the 2018 season -- as the biggest in the game's history, but he'll have to look more like the '15 version over the next two years for that to happen. Oh yeah, and he's also one of the keys to Washington getting back to the postseason for the fourth time in six years and trying to advance beyond the Division Series for the first time.

Chris Sale
David Ortiz is gone, taking his Big Papi-ness into retirement after a brilliant career. The Red Sox have plenty of players to pick up the pieces, but it's newcomer Sale who will be expected to step in as the ace of the rotation, especially while David Price waits for his tender elbow to heal. Sale was brought to Boston to be the type of game changer on the mound that Ortiz was at the plate, and Red Sox fans are known to be tough on those that don't immediately live up to expectations. As long as Sale doesn't have any problems with the exalted Boston jerseys, they should be off to a good start.

Mike Trout
This isn't about whether Trout will win a third AL MVP Award -- history tells us he's destined to finish no worse than second in the vote -- but rather whether Trout's Angels can get back to the postseason. GM Billy Eppler bolstered the team's defense with the additions of Cameron Maybin, Ben Revere and Danny Espinosa, while the return of Garrett Richards should help the rotation. Whether that's enough to put Trout back on the big October stage remains to be seen. His name is sure to come up in Herschel Walker-like trade scenarios, though there's no reason to think Eppler will move the best player in the game any time soon.

Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com.