MLB's five most important players for 2023: These overlooked stars could decide pennant race

Sometimes, the most valuable player isn’t always the most important one.

Belated congratulations to both Aaron Judge and Paul Goldschmidt, the former claiming American League MVP honors after a record-setting 62-homer season, the latter claiming NL honors. Yet for all Judge’s 2022 success, the New York Yankees were at least a couple pieces shy of reaching the World Series. Goldschmidt’s Cardinals couldn’t even escape the NL wild card series.

No, it’s often a third starter that turns a team from interesting to dominant, an emerging reliever that creates a true shutdown bullpen, an extra bat that lengthens a lineup into a pitcher’s nightmare.

As Major League Baseball’s 2023 season dawns, USA TODAY Sports examines five players who may not take home any individual hardware, but whose teams’ success may hinge on their health and production:

Nestor Cortes: From breakout to bulwark

Lefty Nestor Cortes was an All-Star for the Yankees in 2022.
Lefty Nestor Cortes was an All-Star for the Yankees in 2022.

The game moves quickly at the big league level, both between the lines and in a team’s pecking order. For Nestor Cortes, the 5-10 Yankees left-hander, he’s no longer the surprise All-Star, the nice little story of persevering through nearly eight years of minor league ball and organization hopping to stick in New York.

Suddenly, this $270 million machine will be heavily reliant on him.

Judge is back, flush with a captain’s title and a $360 million deal. Lefty Carlos Rodon was imported on a $162 million contract. Rookie Anthony Volpe will thrill fans with his defense and hustle and hopefully hit just enough out of the nine hole to justify earning the shortstop job at 21.

Yet it is Cortes, 28, who the Yankees will rely upon to weather an early and hopefully for them not an enduring wave of injuries. And to extend their rotation into a true machine three out of five days, the better to beat back an unforgiving AL East and, maybe, go toe-to-toe with the Guardians and Astros and whoever else come October.

“He’s still getting better and he still needs to get better, and he’ll tell you the same thing. He’s got high aspirations,” says Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, who starts Thursday's Yankee Stadium opener against the San Francisco Giants. “This is going to be a good season for him, to keep laying that foundation, to make 30-plus (starts), try to get to 200 innings .

“This is kind of going to be that year where if he can add more and improve on what he did last year – and I’m not talking about ERA, strikeout or walk percentage – but as a true professional and craftsman in terms of honing in his routine, going to the post, getting deep into games. It’s more, 'let’s take the next step.' He’s put a lot of focus into this and I think he’s poised to have a really good year.”

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Make no mistake, 2022 was pretty great. Cortes won 12 games, posted a 2.44 ERA, made the All-Star team, struck out 163 in 158 ⅓ innings and started three playoff games. It was a near-perfect double-down on his 2021 campaign, when he stuck for good as a Yankee.

Yet 2023 brings a more crucial ask.

Gone are dependable starters Jameson Taillon and Jordan Montgomery. Rodon, the dominant lefty mercenary, will be out into May, most likely, with a forearm injury. Luis Severino will be slowed by a lat injury. Frankie Montas, acquired last August in exchange for two of the Yankees’ most majors-ready minor league pitchers, may not pitch at all this year.

If the Yankees are to equal their 99 wins and defend a division title, Cortes’ excellence is integral to the equation.

Kyle Tucker: Shoot for the stars

Kyle Tucker won his first Gold Glove award in 2022.
Kyle Tucker won his first Gold Glove award in 2022.

There are fewer places better for a young player to flourish under the radar than Houston. Loaded with superstars for the past eight seasons, many of them forced to also shoulder the weight of this century’s biggest cheating scandal, there’s always a teammate able to take some of the heat.

Kyle Tucker eased into this atmosphere a few years ago, as a part-time rookie on a World Series runner-up in 2019. He’s faced the fire of playing in three World Series and five consecutive ALCS and watched as franchise pillars George Springer and Carlos Correa departed in free agency.

Now, they’re gone and 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuve will miss two months with a broken thumb. Slugger Yordan Alvarez may be slow to produce as he works back from a hand injury.

It is not Tucker’s team to inherit. But now would be time to take that next step toward MVP candidate.

All the tools are there: Tucker, at 25, slugged 30 home runs and produced a 128 adjusted OPS last season, and smacked two homers in Game 1 of the World Series. His 129 weighted runs created plus put him in a rent district with Springer and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

A cynic might say the last thing the Astros need is another superstar. But ace Justin Verlander is gone. Rookies Hunter Brown and David Hensley must pick up some of the cargo usually lifted by Verlander and Altuve. And the AL West, their conflict-free playground for seven years, is getting dicier. Seattle isn’t going anywhere. Texas will throw money at anything not bolted down. Anaheim will figure it out someday, maybe before Mike Trout hits social security age.

Tucker, now 26, can also force the Astros to decide if they want to offer him nine-figure security to stay, or let him stack millions in arbitration in coming years. A monster year would set him up for successively massive paydays, at his leisure.

And the Astros just might need it, too.

Starling Marte: Money player

Starling Marte hit .292 and was an All-Star in his first season with the Mets.
Starling Marte hit .292 and was an All-Star in his first season with the Mets.

For all the glitz and good times that come with being a New York Met these days, their margin for error remains remarkably thin.

Oh, owner Steve Cohen can wave a wand and make Justin Verlander appear, or have a couple pops and nearly bring Carlos Correa to town. But there’s only so much control the hedge fund kingpin can exert on his roster, on the National League, the universe itself. And this $350 million collection of talent simply has a few pieces of the machine it can ill afford to lose.

Enter Starling Marte.

It was easy to forget how good he was in his first year in Flushing: He accumulated 3.9 WAR in just 118 games, posted an .814 OPS, played his usual stellar right field defense. It was also easy to forget what happened when he was gone.

Marte played his last regular season game on Sept. 6, after which a non-displaced right middle finger fracture cost him the rest of the season. Oh, the Mets played the Braves to a draw from that point on, but that 16-10 stretch included a three-game sweep that clinched the season series and division for Atlanta when both clubs landed on 101 wins.

Relegated to a wild card coin flip against the Padres, and with a diminished Marte back in the lineup, the Mets’ season was over in one weekend. The offseason brought more mind-boggling spending and resulting expectations: Jacob deGrom was lost to the Texas Rangers, then replaced by Verlander, whose $43.3 million salary matches that of Max Scherzer. More than $500 million in all was spent, to retain Brandon Nimmo, to add Kodai Senga to the rotation, to buff out a championship-caliber roster.

And yet the margin stays thin.

On paper, the outfield of Mark Canha, Nimmo and Marte is fabulous. Yet with reserve outfielder Tommy Pham also expected to hold down partial DH duties, any outfield loss can’t be papered over with another fat check from Cohen.

When Marte is healthy, few are better, as he showed last year. Heck, he played through not just the finger but also quadricep and groin ailments, the latter requiring postseason surgery. On a team where six everyday players are at least 30 and three starting pitchers between 36 and 40, maintenance will be crucial.

Getting their All-Star right fielder to October – when he turns 35 – might be most important.

Dansby Swanson: A reason to believe

Dansby Swanson signed a $177 million free agent deal with the Cubs.
Dansby Swanson signed a $177 million free agent deal with the Cubs.

It took Chicago Cubs fans two years and two weeks for their outlook to shift from, “What are we even doing here?” to having some semblance of hope.

That’s the span between the December 2020 day the Chicago Cubs cut loose slugger Kyle Schwarber and the Saturday two years later they signed shortstop Dansby Swanson.

Now, for Swanson to show Cubs management it’s worth it to invest in top-flight players.

The Cubs’ dynasty disintegration between 2016 and 2022 was in some ways inevitable and in many others self-inflicted. No move was as injurious as non-tendering Schwarber after the 2020 season, a move that saved them around $8 million months after billionaire owner Tom Ricketts claimed “biblical” losses amid the pandemic.

Apparently, the losses were less catastrophic elsewhere; Schwarber played in the past two World Series and signed a $79 million deal with the Phillies as the Cubs’ attendance fell to an unrestricted 2.6 million last year, worst since 2014.

Enter Swanson. The Cubs signed him for $177 million, opting to shoot a class lower than the $280-300 million guaranteed Xander Bogaerts and Trea Turner, but a franchise shortstop sum nonetheless. Only Jason Heyward’s $184 million deal is larger in club history, and the Cubs won a World Series months later.

Nobody is expecting Swanson to deliver like that. But it’s imperative he show that the 26 homers he averaged his final two seasons in Atlanta is his new normal. That his only season as an above league-average hitter – that would be 2022 – is a harbinger of future production and not an apex.

And that quarterbacking a five-time division winner lends itself to reshaping the culture in Chicago, a place they once expected to win, too.

Blake Snell: The free-agent-to-be

Blake Snell's Padres reached the NLCS for the first time since 1998.
Blake Snell's Padres reached the NLCS for the first time since 1998.

The party never stops in San Diego, not in the giddy aisles of Petco Park, the cheery streets of the Gaslamp Quarter or at Padres owner Peter Seidler’s ATM.

This club spends big, parties hard – 2023 should welcome 3 million fans to the stadium for the first time since 2004 – and is always on alert for the next shiniest object.

They just need to win something, at some point.

Oh, that NLDS triumph over the hated Dodgers last autumn was sweet. Yet for all the Manny Machados and Juan Sotos that hair-on-fire GM A.J. Preller can accrue, the ultimate payoff has yet to occur.

Prosperity will have to be ensured, most likely, by the pitching staff. And in that vein, lefty Blake Snell and the Padres’ motivations will be highly aligned.

Snell will be the club’s Opening Day starter as ace Yu Darvish ramps up after failing to get enough work at the World Baseball Classic. Snell’s 2021 acquisition – coming weeks after he led the Tampa Bay Rays to a World Series appearance – heralded the next wave of Preller insanity that crested with the August 2022 trade for Soto and the $280 million signing of shortstop Xander Bogaerts in December.

Awesome! (Now what?)

That’s the sobering reality they face, not unlike a long night followed by the clanking bottles of Pacifico dumped in a recycling bin. Yet for all their success in 2022, one of the more encouraging signs was Snell reasserting himself, to the tune of a 111 adjusted ERA and 2.80 FIP, his best full-season marks since winning the 2018 AL Cy Young Award for the Rays.

A groin injury to start the season limited Snell to 24 starts, but he struck out 171 in 128 innings. With Darvish idled and Joe Musgrove nearing a return from a toe injury, it is Snell who will lead the charge to start this year. At the end, he will be a free agent, heading to the market for the first time and with agent Scott Boras in tow.

In the meantime, he can buttress his value by helping San Diego to its first division title since 2006. And perhaps its first World Series title, like, ever.

That would give everyone cause to party.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB's 5 most important players for 2023: Nestor Cortes key for Yankees