Individual Importance in a Team Game

In light of St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright’s elbow injury that will require Tommy John surgery and force him to miss the entire 2011 season, I thought this would be a perfect week to write about something which I have found interesting for quite some time: The importance of an individual to his team. Obviously, every team has its captain/leader, fan favorite, superstar(s), and role players. On winning clubs, each player contributes something to the overall success of the team. In many cases, significant sacrifices are required by several individuals in order for the team to achieve greatness. In short, individual sacrifice for team benefit is the name of the game.

Now, baseball is generally acknowledged as a “team” sport, a statement that I can pretty much agree with. However, of the four major sports, I would argue that the word “team” is least relevant in Major League Baseball. Why? Well let’s first start by identifying what exactly a “team” is.

After a brief search, here’s what I came up with. A team is a group of people with a full set of complementary skills required to complete a task, job, or project. This definition goes on to say that a team is accountable for the collective performance and works toward a common goal. Sounds a lot like baseball, doesn’t it? But, it almost depends on how you look at it. It’s not too hard to watch a game and see a bunch of individuals out there rather than a team.

Unlike basketball and hockey, there are no offensive assists in baseball. Even in football, teammates must block to help advance the ball and ultimately put points on the board. In MLB, there is just one guy at the plate with nothing but a bat. If he makes something happen, it is not because he had help from a teammate. The same goes for base-running. No teammate is going to prevent the opponent from making a tag. Defense and pitching are a different story, because a catcher assists his pitcher just like fielders assist their pitcher and/or a teammate at one of the corners (Usually the 1B). Yes, baseball requires team chemistry. Yes, baseball requires a joint effort from all of the players, regardless of the fact that the effort isn’t always direct and noticeable. Believe me I’m not trying to say that baseball isn’t a team sport. It’s certainly not golf or tennis.

I guess what I’m getting at here is the fact that baseball, more so than the other three major sports, relies heavily on the performance of an individual. Anyway, what I plan to do is name one player on every MLB team who I feel is most important to that team (Somewhat of a swayed MVP Award, if you will). This could be for a variety of reasons, but this does not necessarily mean that the player I choose will have the best statistics on his team. Sometimes, I feel like it takes an unfortunate event (i.e. a season-ending injury) for teams to realize just how important one player is to the organization as a whole.

So without further ado, here we go!

Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks

Mark Reynolds is gone. Adam LaRoche is gone. That leaves outfielder Justin Upton, along with Kelly Johnson and Stephen Drew, as the go-to-guy in Arizona. Injuries were a problem for Upton last year, but the 23-year-old has speed, power, and lots of potential. He represents the future of this organization, and the team will only get better as he nears his peak.

Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves

What a rookie season this kid had. It didn’t take long for Heyward to become one of the faces of Braves baseball, hitting 18 homers and driving in 72 runs despite a mid-season injury. He led the team in OBP, and with his incredible skill, it may only be a matter of time until we mention his name in MVP discussion. Atlanta fans have great reason to be excited about the future.

Nick Markakis, Baltimore Orioles

Markakis has been one of the few bright spots over the last few years for the struggling Orioles, batting near .300 consistently. He is still relatively young, and if Baltimore truly wants to prove that they should get some attention as an improving team in the baseball world, they will need yet another solid year from their offensive leader.

Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox

Pedroia played just 75 games in 2010 due to a foot injury, but the second-baseman is just three years removed from an MVP season. His energy is contagious in this veteran clubhouse, and he does so many things for the Sox. Dustin strives to be the best and his leadership is admirable, so if Boston is playing in the World Series come October, I expect him to be a big reason why.

Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox

Konerko is quite a veteran presence for the White Sox. This will be his 13th season with the club, and he has certainly established himself as an offensive force. Konerko was very impressive last year, and he always seems to come up big when the Sox need him to. The success of this team always seems to be quiet for some reason, but if there’s one guy who should be the face of this success, it’s Konerko.

Aramis Ramirez, Chicago Cubs

Despite significant struggles last season, Ramirez finished extremely strong and showed us that he can still play. He is usually good for 25 home runs and 100 RBIs, and even as the Cubs are in somewhat of a transitory period, Aramis has continued to produce at the hot corner. Now he needs some help, especially given the loss of Derrek Lee.

Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

This one is simple. Votto surprised us all with an MVP season, and look what happened. The Reds made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. He led the team in almost every offensive category, and without him, I can’t picture Cincy at the top of the NL Central.

Grady Sizemore, Cleveland Indians

What a disappointing situation here. After being an all-star in ’06, ’07, and ’08, injuries have ruined the once promising career of Sizemore. A resurgent bounce-back year would do wonders for this team, which is quickly plummeting. Things are always better when Grady is patrolling center field.

Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies

I think the huge contract that he signed this offseason is proof that this guy is the most important player on Colorado’s roster. Even after a wrist fracture in 2010, Tulowitzki was simply sensational. He is undoubtedly one of the most clutch hitters in the game, and I think it is easy to make the case that he is the best shortstop in MLB. He should continue to lead this young and talented team on their quest to make the postseason (And win it all).

Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers

Why was such a big deal made of his recent alcohol-related arrest? Because he is the MVP of the Tigers. It’s really unbelievable that he hasn’t won an actual MVP Award in his career. Only in his rookie year did he fail to post 100 RBIs, and he has been as consistent as they come. The Tigers will already have a tough time making the playoffs as it is, so having Cabrera on the field is essential.

Hanley Ramirez, Florida Marlins

The Marlins are definitely not known for putting fans in the seats, but the fans that do come are probably there to see Hanley. El Nino is a do-it-all guy trapped on a poor team, and now that infield partner Dan Uggla is gone, he has an endless list of responsibilities on his shoulders.

Hunter Pence, Houston Astros

Obviously, if Roy Oswalt was still in town, he would be my choice here. Since that’s not the case, Pence is my guy. His balanced and consistent contributions are very valuable to the Astros, and although he may never be a superstar, he’s the closest thing to it that Houston has.

Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals

When it comes to closing games, Soria is money in the bank. The Royals have a bright future filled with talented prospects, but Soria is the man of the present. He is a top-three closer in baseball, and even through the ups and downs of this organization, he was always reliable at the end of games. Without him, Kansas City would pile up even more losses, which is a scary thought.

Torii Hunter, Los Angeles Angels

Is there anything this guy can’t do? A perennial Gold Glove winner and a solid hitter, Hunter simply gets the job done year in and year out. He is an experienced veteran who has been through just about everything, which is so important to a young team like the Angels.

Andre Ethier, Los Angeles Dodgers

Ethier is the heart of the Dodgers line-up. He was batting .392 before a finger injury last year, and he just wasn’t the same guy after his return. Consequently, the team fell off the map. If healthy, Ethier may enable the Dodgers to compete for the NL West title. If not, they are no better than a .500 team.

Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers

Once you get past the power of Prince Fielder, you realize that Ryan Braun is a better all-around player. Braun has won three straight Silver Slugger Awards, and he has compiled 420 RBIs in just four MLB seasons. As long as they have Braun, the Brewers offense is in good shape.

Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins

In five of his seven pro seasons, Mauer has hit well over .300. Don’t forget, this guy is a catcher. He was the AL MVP in 2009, and his numbers never cease to amaze me. The Twins will always be competitive with this guy behind the plate, and he’s only 27 years old.

David Wright, New York Mets

The Mets have generally been underachievers recently, but David Wright is not the reason why. Wright is an RBI machine, and even though New York will have a tough time surpassing Philadelphia, David is the MVP of the Mets.

CC Sabathia, New York Yankees

You’re picking Sabathia over Jeter, A-Rod, and Cano? Absolutely. Sabathia was the main reason why the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, and with the retirement of Andy Pettitte, the pitching staff is depleted. Sabathia will need to be a workhorse in 2011 and beyond for the Yanks to get back to the WS.

Trevor Cahill, Oakland Athletics

Not too much to choose from here. Pitching dominates in Oakland, and this 22-year-old kid is the center of attention. His 18-8 record and 2.97 ERA last season were impressive, and moving forward, Cahill can be the ace of the staff as the A’s continue to get better.

Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia Phillies

Call me crazy, but J-Roll is my pick. He spent three stints on the DL last year, and the Phils struggled during his absences. He makes such a difference when he can produce at the top of the order, and the Phils need him to get back to his old ways, because when he’s playing like he is capable of, a World Series is a strong possibility.

Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

If the Pirates will ever experience a winning season in the next ten years, it will probably be, in large part, because McCutchen achieves his full potential. There isn’t much to be thrilled about in Pittsburgh, but McCutchen is a rising superstar.

Chase Headley, San Diego Padres

Chase who? He certainly isn’t a household name, but he may be the best offensive player on his team. Adrian Gonzalez is now a Red Sock, so offense will be hard to come by for the Padres in 2011. They have a solid pitching staff, so that’s why Headley, who drove in just 58 runs last year, is crucial to his team’s success.

Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants

The two-time Cy Young winner finally got his shot at the postseason, and he made the most of it. Lincecum is one of the game’s best starting pitchers, and since the Giants are certainly not known for their offense, keeping Timmy around for the rest of his career is important. Without him, the Giants would probably need to sign a big-name offensive free agent.

Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

Everyone knows about the severe offensive struggles of the Mariners. So how do they even manage to be noteworthy? The answer is simple: Felix Hernandez. He won the Cy Young last year, and if the Mariners want to get any better in the future, they better keep him on the team.

Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals

No surprises here. At least I hope not. Albert Pujols is Albert Pujols. He is the best player in baseball, and without him, the St. Louis Cardinals are not even nationally relevant.

Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays certainly lost a lot this offseason, but they didn’t lose Evan Longoria. That’s a very good thing. He is a consistent AL all-star, and now that Tampa Bay has some rebuilding to do, he is a great franchise player to build a team around.

Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers

Hamilton’s rise to prominence culminated in an AL MVP Award last year as he batted an astonishing .359. However, he struggled mightily in the playoffs, which may have cost the Rangers a World Series. He is the greatest player to come through this organization in quite some time, but injuries have been an issue. If the Rangers plan on making the playoffs again, he better be on the field as much as possible.

Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

Obviously, Bautista was the home run king last year as he hit a major-league-high 54 long balls in the year of the pitcher. He really shocked everyone and made the all-star team. Can he do it again in the future? That remains to be seen, but if Toronto wants to compete in the AL East, they need him to.

Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals

I refuse to get consumed by the hype of Stephen Strasburg. Zimmerman is an elite player on a horrible team, which is one of the reasons he is underrated. He is one of MLB’s best all-around players, and I think the last two years have shown that he belongs as a superstar in baseball. Not to mention, his clutch hitting won the Nats a few games down the stretch. With this guy, would the Nationals get shutout every game?

Tags: Adam Wainwright Albert Pujols Andre Ethier Andrew McCutchen Aramis Ramirez C.C. Sabathia Chase Headley Cy Young David Wright Dustin Pedroia Evan Longoria Felix Hernandez Football Gold Glove Grady Sizemore Hanley Ramirez Hockey Hunter Pence Jason Heyward Jimmy Rollins Joakim Soria Joe Mauer Joey Votto Jose Bautista Josh Hamilton Justin Upton Miguel Cabrera MVP Nick Markakis Paul Konerko Ryan Braun Ryan Zimmerman Silver Slugger Team Tim Lincecum Tommy John Surgery Torii Hunter Trevor Cahill Troy Tulowitzki

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