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These 9 players could change everything

One of them may be the key to a championship
@RichardJustice
January 29, 2020

Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole are easy. Go ahead and write down their 2020 numbers. You'll be close. As for dozens of others, this is where it gets interesting. This is also where postseason berths can be decided. And championships. Every World Series winner gets contributions it could not have

Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole are easy. Go ahead and write down their 2020 numbers. You'll be close. As for dozens of others, this is where it gets interesting. This is also where postseason berths can be decided. And championships.

Every World Series winner gets contributions it could not have predicted. Did the Washington Nationals see Daniel Hudson as the stabilizing force for a bullpen that might have been torched for an entire season?

Hudson had been released twice and traded twice. The Nationals were his fourth team in two seasons. Yet there he was nailing down the final out in six of Washington's 12 postseason victories, including Game 7 of the World Series.

Every contender has a handful of players capable of swinging an entire season. Here are nine who stand out.

1) Manny Machado, 3B, Padres
He'll be helped by a full season of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Tommy Pham in an improved lineup. In the end, though, the Padres aren't going to turn a corner unless Machado achieves the greatness forecast for him when the Padres signed him to a 10-year deal last offseason. If he does, this team has enough pitching depth to surprise in the National League West.

2) Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH, Angels
He may just be the most interesting player in the game. After not pitching in 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery (while still posting an .848 OPS), he'll begin Spring Training preparing to be a member of the Angels' rotation as well as a designated hitter contributing in the middle of the order. With Anthony Rendon now in the fold along with Mike Trout, if we get the 2018 American League Rookie of the Year Award-winning version of Ohtani, this is a contender.

3) David Price, LHP, Red Sox
Injuries derailed his 2019 season (as they did in '17), and that's an obvious concern. Actually, the only concern. Price was excellent last season before an August wrist injury (3.24 ERA in 16 first-half starts), and his '18 postseason showed he's still capable of pitching like an ace. The wild card here is that he might end up being the X factor for a team other than the Red Sox if any of these trade rumors come to fruition. And whether Price is doing it for the Padres, Dodgers or Red Sox in '20, he can be a difference maker.

4) Jake Arrieta, RHP, Phillies
Since winning the NL Cy Young Award in 2015 with a 1.77 ERA, he's seen his ERA rise every year since 2015, ballooning to 4.64 in an injury-riddled to 2019 campaign. Arrieta is healthy for the first time in a while, and the Phillies believe that in his age-34 season he can slide into the No. 3 spot in the rotation behind Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler to give Philadelphia a competitive front three. That might be the difference between making and missing the postseason this year.

5) Austin Riley, Braves 3B
Long projected as Atlanta's long-term answer at third base, he could be the key to the Braves winning a third straight NL East championship in the wake of Josh Donaldson signing with the Twins. Riley had an .849 OPS in five Minor League seasons and has shown flashes of potential in 297 Major League plate appearances, mashing 18 homers. He did, however, register 108 strikeouts and manage just 16 walks. Before Riley gets a chance to show his potential, he has to win the job from Johan Camargo in Spring Training.

6) Carter Kieboom, 3B, Nationals
MLB Pipeline ranks him as the No. 21 prospect in baseball, and if he's even close to being the talent the Nationals think he is, he'll go a long way toward helping them overcome the departure of Rendon and return to the postseason. No pressure, kid!

7) Frankie Montas, RHP, A's
He was in the American League Cy Young Award conversation (9-2, 2.63 ERA) before being hit with an 80-game PED suspension in June. Montas figures to be right behind lefty Sean Manaea in an Oakland rotation that could feature two other promising southpaws -- Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk -- and be among MLB's best.

8) Matt Carpenter, 3B, Cardinals
The three-time All-Star had a tough 2019 (.726 OPS), and as he enters his age-34 season, there are concerns his All-Star form is behind him. The Cardinals had hoped to acquire another impact bat for the middle of the lineup. Unable (so far) to do that, it's on Carpenter to prove he can still be a productive everyday player. Carpenter posted an .897 OPS in '18, so there is some reason for hope.

9) Yandy Díaz, 3B, Rays
He showed flashes of being able to transform an entire offense by hitting 14 home runs in 347 plate appearances (after hitting one in 299 in two seasons with the Indians). Unfortunately, Díaz played in just 79 games thanks to three stints on the injured list. The Rays are eager to see what a full season of him looks like.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.