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The 10 players to watch

By: By Tony Massarotti Special to NBCSports.com
By: By Tony Massarotti Special to NBCSports.com

Posted: Mar.29, 2007, 2:14 pm EDT

Always and without exception, baseball is about the players.

So who will be the players to watch in 2007? That all depends on the criteria. But while the fantasy geeks do their last-minute cramming on rookies and sleepers, here are 10 players to watch during the summer of 2007, albeit for different reasons:

1. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, New York Yankees

Let’s be honest: A-Rod’s life is a reality show. Next week, Alex talks about going to therapy! Putting a guy like A-Rod in New York has created the perfect storm, and now Rodriguez is entering a potential free-agent year because he has the right to opt out of his current deal at the end of the season. Here’s betting that he walks.

Meanwhile, there is a season to be played.

Bob Jordan/APMets shortstop Jose Reyes is a blur of energy on the baseball diamond.

2. Jose Reyes, SS, New York Mets

Now here’s a guy who truly belongs on the big stage. Truth be told, watching Reyes leg out a triple is more exciting than the Kentucky Derby. Coming off a season during which he batted .300 with 194 hits, 122 runs scored, 30 doubles, 17 triples, 19 home runs, 81 RBI and 64 stolen bases, Reyes is now The Most Dynamic Player in Baseball.

And he’s got an arm as strong as Joel Zumaya’s.

3. Barry Bonds, OF, San Francisco Giants

Unlike A-Rod, he is beyond Reality Show status. (Quite literally, in fact.) As he approaches Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record, Bonds somehow has gone from one of the truly great, multi-talented players in baseball history to one of the sadder figures of our (pas)time. As a home run king, we all know he will be a fraud. But how will America react?

And will he ever actually go to The Big House?

4. Daisuke Matsuzaka, RHP, Boston Red Sox

Red Sox fans always have been an excitable lot, but now they’ve just added a country of roughly 130 million to their viewing audience. Sox officials spent a whopping $103.11 million to get Matsuzaka -- a $51.11 million posting fee and $52 million, six-year contract -- and Matsuzaka has never thrown a professional pitch in a meaningful game on American soil.

What if the guy is a bust?

5. Alfonso Soriano, OF, Chicago Cubs

During the off-season, Soriano signed the biggest contract of any player available on the free-agent market, $136 million over eight years, an average of $17 million. A rare 40-40 player who plays defense as if blindfolded, Soriano is now being asked to play center field at cold, windy and raw Wrigley Field for mercurial manager Lou Piniella. Expect to see this guy in the highlights.

A lot.

6. Gary Sheffield, OF, Detroit Tigers

If it seemed that the defending American League champions were relatively quiet during the off-season, it’s because they were. The Tigers acted swiftly in acquiring Sheffield from the Yankees, then sat back and brought back pretty much their entire team, especially the pitching staff. The one thing last year’s club lacked was a patient hitter with power who rarely strikes out.

Now they have him.

7. Carlos Zambrano, RHP, Chicago Cubs

Last season, for a positively dreadful Cubs team that had the worst record in the National League, Zambrano went 16-7 with a 3.41 ERA and 210 strikeouts. How good could he be now? Zambrano is mercurial by nature and went through some public posturing before avoiding arbitration and agreeing to a one-year, $12.4 million contract.

Unless he signs an extension, he’ll be a free agent in November.

8. Andruw Jones, OF, Atlanta Braves

Funny, isn’t it? Two years ago, Jones was the Hank Aaron Award winner in the National League and the runner-up in the NL Most Valuable Player Award balloting. Now, he might trade bait (again) come July 31. The Braves have reinforced their bullpen (and then some) in an effort to improve, but if they fail to contend in the NL East, You Know Who might be available because he is eligible for agency in November.

Not a bad midseason pickup, eh?

9. Rich Harden, RHP, Oakland A’s

Every year, there are a number of players who seem to reach the proverbial crossroads; this season, Harden is among those at the top of the list. In his first full season of 2004, Harden won 11 games and posted a 3.99 ERA while striking out 167 in 189.2 innings. Since that time, he’s pitched only 174.2 innings, including a mere 46.2 last year.

So is this guy going to be a stud?

10. Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Seattle Mariners

As strange as it seems, the former MVP and owner of six consecutive 200-hit seasons could be a free agent by the end of this season. Earlier this spring, Suzuki entertained onlookers by hitting a succession of home runs during bating practice, and many have theorized that there always has been more power in that bat than Suzuki might have let on.

Now that there could be money at stake, think Ichiro might hit a few more homers?

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