Each team across the Major Leagues has one or two players who are critical to their success in the regular season, possessing the traits that make them an ‘X-factor’ for their respective squads.
Depending on the team, these players can come in a variety of forms: a veteran player that is the driving force on the squad, a prospect looking to cement themselves on the big league roster, a player looking to bounce back after a down season, the list goes on and on.
Let’s take a look at one X-factor player from each team in the AL East.
Baltimore Orioles – C Adley Rutschman
The first overall pick for the Orioles back in 2019, the talented switch-hitting catcher made his MLB Debut last season and did not disappoint, crafting a .254/.362/.445 slash line with an .806 OPS while throwing out 31% of base stealers. On top of amassing a 5.3 fWAR, Rutschman led the team in OPS+ (128) while adding 13 home runs and 42 RBIs and doing well behind the plate, posting a 1.93 second pop time to second base (11th best in the league)
The Oregon State product is quickly establishing himself as one of the top catchers in the game and on an Orioles squad that is projected to finish fourth or fifth in the AL East, it is Rutschman that will be one of the key catalysts for the Baltimore squad.
Considering other top prospects within the organization are also getting their feet wet or are knocking on the MLB door, it will be Rutschman leading the charge for a new wave of talent in Baltimore that is shaping up to be a deadly roster in a few years.
Boston Red Sox – LHP Chris Sale
Injuries limited Red Sox southpaw Chris Sale to just two appearances last season, with the Florida product starting the season on the IL before a freak comebacker against the Yankees in mid-July broke his pinky, sending him back to the sidelines. After breaking his wrist in a bike accident roughly a month later, the starting pitcher was officially shut down, with the Red Sox finishing with a 78-84 record and fourth in the division.
The Red Sox roster looks quite different heading into 2023, with longtime shortstop Xander Bogaerts signing with San Diego, while the rotation also lost Nathan Eovaldi, Rich Hill, and Michael Wacha to the free agent market.
Internally, James Paxton, Bryan Bello, and Garret Whitlock are all starting the season on the IL, meaning there is more pressure on Sale to return to form this season. He is joined by veteran Corey Kluber to help bring stability to the rotation, but Boston will need their top left-hander to stay healthy this year and log some innings if they want to compete for a playoff spot come October.
New York Yankees – SS Anthony Volpe
While the New York Yankees feature a ton of talented players in Aaron Judge, Gerrit Cole, and Nestor Cortes Jr. (amongst many others) it is Yankees’ top prospect Anthony Volpe is who getting most of the attention to begin the season.
The first-round pick for New York back in 2019 cracked the Opening Day roster after a solid spring training and looks to be the Bronx Bombers shortstop of the future, with many applauding his baseball IQ and plus speed on the base paths to compliment his plus contact ability at the plate.
Playing for the Yankees is no easy task but Volpe appears ready for the challenge. While he won’t be heavily relied on compared to the likes of Rutschman given the Yankees’ potent roster, if Volpe can have a solid rookie campaign, it will go a long way for the club as they try and take the top spot in the AL East for the second consecutive season.
Tampa Bay Rays – LHP Shane McClanahan
The Tampa Bay Rays are always a sneaky good team, finding different ways to compete and put themselves in playoff contention regularly. Emerging as one of the top arms in the big leagues, left-hander Shane McClanahan will be leading the Rays in the rotation, with the Maryland product looking to improve upon his 3.5 fWAR campaign last year, where he posted a 2.54 ERA through 28 starts.
McClanahan will be relied on more with fellow starter Tyler Glasnow beginning the season on the IL with an oblique strain and Shane Baz out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Considering the Rays feature some strong bats in Wander Franco and Randy Arozarena, as well as a bullpen that can hold their own, having McClanahan continue to pitch as he did in 2022 will be huge for the Rays, who will be missing a few key arms to begin the season.
Toronto Blue Jays – RF George Springer
The Toronto Blue Jays feature one of the deepest lineups in the league, adding Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier this offseason to compliment a roster that already features Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Matt Chapman, and one of the best catching tandems in Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk. With a rotation led by Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman, and newly signed Chris Bassitt, the Jays are currently in World Series or bust mode.
One of the X-factor players this season for the Jays will be George Springer, who will be moved to right field with the Varsho and Kiermaier acquisitions this offseason.
The Jays leadoff hitter had a solid campaign in 2022, posting a .814 OPS with 25 home runs through 133 games but an elbow injury saw him make 40 starts at the DH spot. Various injuries also limited him to just 78 games in 2021 so the biggest thing for Springer this year is to stay healthy, which should be an easier task now that he is in right field for the foreseeable future. While the Jays do have a deep lineup, the train starts with Springer and the roster benefits greatly with the Connecticut product in the lineup with regularity (on both sides of the diamond).