10 compelling baseball figures to watch

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A little more than a month from the day baseball restarts (and presumably Mike Napoli will be fully clothed by then), we offer 10 of the more compelling figures of 2014. Some were among the compelling stories of 2013. That's just the way things go sometimes.

Masahiro Tanaka
The next Nomo? Irabu? Darvish? Igawa?

On a chilled and damp night in Denver, Hideo Nomo, then pitching for the Dodgers, no-hit the Rockies. In the postgame news conference, one in which Nomo seemed wholly unimpressed by what he'd done – the wet ground meant he'd pitched the entire game from the stretch, in the greatest hitters' park ever constructed, against the best offensive team in the league – he practically had to be goaded into a smile. And yet from the back of the room, first as soft sniffles, then unmistakable sobs, a Japanese reporter had briefly lost his professionalism to the joy of the triumph.

[Also: Bryce Harper looking to add weight before 2014 season ]

This is what intrigues us about the high-end Japanese player; the responsibility he carries from home across the sea, the transition to a game that will require of him change, and the expectation that he make it today, right now, with this pitch.

Whether he spends the year in New York, L.A., Texas, Seattle or elsewhere, Tanaka – of the 24-0 record, 1.27 ERA and contract in the range of $100 million – will have our attention.

Alex Rodriguez
While we're young, Fredric Horowitz.

We await the decision from the independent arbitrator on whether Rodriguez will be suspended well into the 2015 season, or not at all, or somewhere in between. Bud Selig waits. The Yankees wait. Eduardo Nunez waits. A-Rod and his team of legal demolition experts, injunctions at the ready, wait.

Rodriguez's lawyers claim their client should not serve an inning as a consequence of allegations brought by MLB and its star witness, Tony Bosch. Selig counters with 1,899 of them.

So Rodriguez, at 38 years old, sits on 654 home runs, on $86 million, and at the hair-trigger of a legal flamethrower. He will not go quietly. He might not go at all. And wouldn't it be interesting, come February, if Rodriguez – through some means – finds himself in a familiar clubhouse in Tampa, at his usual locker by the back door, slathering his bat with pine tar, talking about getting ready for the 2014 season.

Then what?

Albert Pujols
In Anaheim, there've been no playoff games. Attendance has fallen. There's been nothing like relevance.

The Albert Pujols era has not come off as owner Arte Moreno might have expected. Not yet.

As an Angel, Pujols has spent one season playing out of the worst slump of his life (finishing with 50 doubles, 30 homers, 105 RBI) and another barely able to take a step. He had knee surgery after the 2012 season and foot surgery during the 2013 season. He's also spent a lot of games watching his pitching staff get shellacked, and mornings – was he so inclined – reading about the rift between general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Mike Scioscia. He's about to play for his third hitting coach – Don Baylor follows Jim Eppard and Mickey Hatcher – in three seasons.

Eight years and $222 million remain on Pujols' contract, this much is true. He'll turn 34 in two weeks. Yet, he is resolute. He is prideful. He is the best hitter of his generation. Assuming full health, Pujols becomes Pujols again. Assuming pitching (and Mike Trout, and Josh Hamilton), the Angels become the Angels again. Assuming the Texas Rangers and Oakland A's, it may not be enough.

Yasiel Puig
We've known Yasiel Puig for seven months or, according to the Internet, about the time it takes the average man to say, "I love you." Also, for him to do the dishes without being asked. Or, for that matter, to go to Mars.

It just seems longer.

The guy's a handful. He hits, he runs, he throws. He bat-flips, he dances, he glares. He lives life at 100 mph, and that's after he brakes for the state trooper. He shows up to Little League games, invites them all to Dodger Stadium, throws batting practice and laughs the whole time.

So, for the encore … what?

He'll decide, a single decision at a time, all of them under a very bright light.

Derek Jeter
He'll be 40 in June, coming off a season in which his body allowed him 63 at-bats. He enters his 20th season with 3,316 hits and five rings, the kind of résumé folks may have been thinking of when they started laying down bricks in Cooperstown.

Maybe he heals, and stays healed, and maybe he doesn't. Maybe he's still a big-league shortstop. Maybe he's not. Maybe he hits – and as recently as 2012 he did, batting .316 before his ankle shattered in the postseason.

More than a year later, he is what the Yankees are. They are iconic. They could be good again. They're going to need some help. And maybe they're running out of time.

Ryan Braun
Well, then. At any other time, Braun changing positions – from left field to right – would be interesting enough. And his return from a thumb injury might merit a question or two. Plus, you know, the fact he's a former MVP and still one of the better hitters in the game.

Instead, Braun returns from two drug suspensions, the first he successfully appealed (and pimped), and the second he took somewhat willingly.

This winter we've witnessed the beginnings of his re-entry into public life. He handed out food in the parking lot at Miller Park. He dined with the urine collector he'd once disparaged. He said he was "deeply remorseful."

Now he has a season to play. He's under contract for seven more years – and $127 million – with the Brewers. He'll restart his career branded as a Biogenesis casualty, a certified cheater, and a serial liar. That's a lot to lug around. Though perhaps not for Braun, who has a gift for convincing himself otherwise.

Don Mattingly
After three years, Mattingly seemed to tire of convincing people he can manage, to which those people responded, "Then you ought to do it better," which, at the moment, leaves Mattingly with a single year remaining on his contract and apparently little in the way of job security. Perhaps there is an extension coming, but neither Dodgers president Stan Kasten nor general manager Ned Colletti will say so, and that leaves Mattingly in the very same situation he complained about back in October. The organization did replace Mattingly's bench coach – Trey Hillman – with Tim Wallach, leaving the impression that the next time Mattingly pitches to Jason Heyward instead of Reed Johnson it will be his last.

Generally, we overthink the top step and under-think the clubhouse. Mattingly did his best work with the likes of Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Juan Uribe and even Puig. Yet too many tactical errors tend to erode a manager's leadership bearing and by the end of the postseason – the Dodgers fell out in the NLCS – the second-guessing of Mattingly's decisions wasn't limited to the media.

Mattingly is a good manager. The Dodgers expect him to be great. They need him to be great. They're about to find out if he can be.

Bud Selig
He's retiring. For real, he says, this time. For entertainment in the meantime, we get A-Rod and home plate collisions and instant replay and the Oakland A's and probably a lot of other stuff that will find its way to Selig, deserved or not.

Selig has done a pretty reasonable job of running the sport in some very difficult times, an opinion that isn't popular because nobody can seem to get over a tie in a game that didn't count, like Bud himself was leading the parade of pitchers. He also did not wrestle Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa to the ground in 1998 like he should have, because that's exactly what everyone else would have done if they were commissioner.

Anyway, what makes Selig particularly compelling is who succeeds him, and how that plays down the line with the union and its new leader, Tony Clark. The names we hear a lot are MLB COO Rob Manfred, MLB CEO of MLB Advanced Media Robert Bowman, MLB EVP Tim Brosnan, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall and Mets GM Sandy Alderson. They're all reasonable candidates, and none will have the slightest idea what's in the plumbing in Oakland.

Robinson Cano
Hey, he did what anybody would have, and it's not like he can't come visit once in a while. Maybe he loves Seattle, and he won't disappear like Adrian Beltre did, and the Mariners trade for David Price or sign Tanaka, and they hit just enough to make it work, and it all saves the job of the general manager.

Cano struck the $240 million deal with the Mariners and in the aftermath said he "didn't get any respect" from the Yankees, and Yankees president Randy Levine responded, "I feel bad for him, because I think he was disappointed he's not a Yankee," then went on to say he most definitely would have given Mike Trout a 10-year contract, and next thing you knew Cano jerseys were hanging in the window of the Mariners' team store.

Regardless, the Mariners travel to the Bronx for a three-game series in late April, the first of many long journeys ahead for Cano.

Carlos Rodon
Rodon is the North Carolina State left-hander and the consensus first overall pick in the June draft. The projected 1-1, in baseball parlance, is a big-bodied kid with a big fastball, a disappearing slider and a developing changeup, the kind of pitcher who comes fast.

The Houston Astros have the first pick. Again.

The reason this is interesting is because Rodon's adviser is Scott Boras, and Rodon has leverage (he's a junior), and the Astros are in no position to turn away talent, and we're probably looking at the largest signing bonus since the bonus-pool system went into effect, a system Boras has a low opinion of.

With the 1-1 last June, the Astros selected Stanford senior (and Boras client) Mark Appel and paid him $6.35 million, a relative bargain.

One of the byproducts of an organizational rebuild that includes 111-loss seasons and early draft picks? Often enough, Boras comes with the plan and, for the moment, so does Rodon.

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