X-factors: These non-stars will be key in MLB division races

You can call them X-factors, wild cards or catalysts. The name doesn’t matter. What does is their performance. Whether filling in for the injured or stepping into new situations, such players can figure into a team’s success as much as the superstars.

A look at six such players, one per division:

The Red Sox signed Mike Cameron to a two-year contract.
The Red Sox signed Mike Cameron to a two-year contract.

AL East

Mike Cameron, Red Sox

Instead of bringing back Jason Bay on a long-term deal, the Red Sox signed Cameron for two years. The change is expected to mean a drop in home runs — Bay led Boston with 36 last year — and an upgrade on defense. The Red Sox like Cameron’s glove work so much they are moving the younger and faster Jacoby Ellsbury to left field to allow Cameron to man center. With one of baseball’s best pitching staffs, the move should work as long as Cameron doesn’t begin to show his age. At 37, he’s the oldest center fielder in the majors.

AL Central

Jon Rauch, Twins

This was shaping up to be a splendid summer in Minnesota until Joe Nathan blew out his elbow and was lost for the season. Instead of turning to leads over to one of the game’s best closers, Ron Gardenhire now says he will use a closer-by-committee approach — another way of saying he doesn’t really have a bonafide closer. Rauch is the committee member with the most closing experience. He will share opportunities with Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and lefty Jose Mijares.

The M's hope Milton Bradley will help improve their offense.
The M’s hope Milton Bradley will help improve their offense.

AL West

Milton Bradley, Mariners
Who’s bothered that Bradley flamed out in Chicago and already has stirred his share of controversy in Seattle? Not Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu.

After all the strides the Mariners have made in the past year behind pitching and defense, they must improve their offense to truly challenge the Angels. Wakamatsu could have reduced the spotlight on Bradley by putting him in the lower half of the order. Instead, Wakamatsu seriously is considering Bradley as the cleanup hitter in a lineup that will rely on the middle of the order to drive in All-Star table-setters Ichiro Suzuki and Chone Figgins.

Bradley seems ready for the challenge. He says his legs are stronger than they have been in years and though he has popped off about his failed season in Chicago, he is fitting in with his new teammates. Bradley even has pulled one over on the Mariners’ No. 1 jokester, Ken Griffey Jr., by placing a bottle of hair coloring in the greybeard’s locker. "I bought it for myself," Bradley said in an interview. "I noticed he had a little gray in the chin so I figured it would be a good little joke so I put this Just For Men in his locker and he took it and used it."

NL East

Troy Glaus, Braves
The team with the best chance to stop the Phillies from winning their fourth consecutive division title is Atlanta, which would like nothing more than to send Bobby Cox into retirement with a trip to the playoffs.

The Braves have a deep rotation and a retooled bullpen but the offense needs a lift in the power department. While 20-year-old Jason Heyward has hogged the attention this spring, he is a rookie who never has played in a big-league game. The Braves are counting on Glaus to produce in the five-hole behind Chipper Jones and Brian McCann. Glaus missed most of last season because of shoulder surgery and signed a bargain one-year deal to play first.

"No limitations on what I can do, or what I did in the offseason," Glaus said. "I really was healthy at the end of last season."

The Brewers plan to use Randy Wolf as their No. 2 starter.
The Brewers plan to use Randy Wolf as their No. 2 starter.

NL Central

Randy Wolf, Brewers
Milwaukee led this division in runs, homers and OBP last season but finished 11 games out mainly because of the NL’s worst rotation. Enter Wolf, who was signed a three-year deal after posting a 3.32 ERA in 34 starts with the Dodgers. He assumes the No. 2 spot behind Yovani Gallardo, who at 24 could be headed for a breakout year under new pitching coach Rick Peterson.

NL West

Franklin Morales, Rockies
A healthy Huston Street at closer would make picking the Rockies ahead of the Dodgers an easy decision. But a shoulder problem is jeopardizing Street’s season and, perhaps, the Rockies’ best chance of winning their first division title. Street reported stiffness after playing catch over the weekend and is expected to start the season on the disabled list.

Without Street, the Rockies figure to turn to the lefty Morales, who went 7-for-7 in save chances last September when Street was unavailable. Morales, however, spent 2 1-2 months on the disabled list last season with his own shoulder injury. The Rockies’ top setup man, Rafael Betancourt, also has suffered arm woes this spring.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

You can call them X-factors, wild cards or catalysts. The name doesn’t matter. What does is their performance. Whether filling in for the injured or stepping into new situations, such players can figure into a team’s success as much as the superstars.

A look at six such players, one per division:

The Red Sox signed Mike Cameron to a two-year contract.
The Red Sox signed Mike Cameron to a two-year contract.

AL East

Mike Cameron, Red Sox

Instead of bringing back Jason Bay on a long-term deal, the Red Sox signed Cameron for two years. The change is expected to mean a drop in home runs — Bay led Boston with 36 last year — and an upgrade on defense. The Red Sox like Cameron’s glove work so much they are moving the younger and faster Jacoby Ellsbury to left field to allow Cameron to man center. With one of baseball’s best pitching staffs, the move should work as long as Cameron doesn’t begin to show his age. At 37, he’s the oldest center fielder in the majors.

AL Central

Jon Rauch, Twins

This was shaping up to be a splendid summer in Minnesota until Joe Nathan blew out his elbow and was lost for the season. Instead of turning to leads over to one of the game’s best closers, Ron Gardenhire now says he will use a closer-by-committee approach — another way of saying he doesn’t really have a bonafide closer. Rauch is the committee member with the most closing experience. He will share opportunities with Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and lefty Jose Mijares.

The M's hope Milton Bradley will help improve their offense.
The M’s hope Milton Bradley will help improve their offense.

AL West

Milton Bradley, Mariners
Who’s bothered that Bradley flamed out in Chicago and already has stirred his share of controversy in Seattle? Not Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu.

After all the strides the Mariners have made in the past year behind pitching and defense, they must improve their offense to truly challenge the Angels. Wakamatsu could have reduced the spotlight on Bradley by putting him in the lower half of the order. Instead, Wakamatsu seriously is considering Bradley as the cleanup hitter in a lineup that will rely on the middle of the order to drive in All-Star table-setters Ichiro Suzuki and Chone Figgins.

Bradley seems ready for the challenge. He says his legs are stronger than they have been in years and though he has popped off about his failed season in Chicago, he is fitting in with his new teammates. Bradley even has pulled one over on the Mariners’ No. 1 jokester, Ken Griffey Jr., by placing a bottle of hair coloring in the greybeard’s locker. "I bought it for myself," Bradley said in an interview. "I noticed he had a little gray in the chin so I figured it would be a good little joke so I put this Just For Men in his locker and he took it and used it."

NL East

Troy Glaus, Braves
The team with the best chance to stop the Phillies from winning their fourth consecutive division title is Atlanta, which would like nothing more than to send Bobby Cox into retirement with a trip to the playoffs.

The Braves have a deep rotation and a retooled bullpen but the offense needs a lift in the power department. While 20-year-old Jason Heyward has hogged the attention this spring, he is a rookie who never has played in a big-league game. The Braves are counting on Glaus to produce in the five-hole behind Chipper Jones and Brian McCann. Glaus missed most of last season because of shoulder surgery and signed a bargain one-year deal to play first.

"No limitations on what I can do, or what I did in the offseason," Glaus said. "I really was healthy at the end of last season."

The Brewers plan to use Randy Wolf as their No. 2 starter.
The Brewers plan to use Randy Wolf as their No. 2 starter.

NL Central

Randy Wolf, Brewers
Milwaukee led this division in runs, homers and OBP last season but finished 11 games out mainly because of the NL’s worst rotation. Enter Wolf, who was signed a three-year deal after posting a 3.32 ERA in 34 starts with the Dodgers. He assumes the No. 2 spot behind Yovani Gallardo, who at 24 could be headed for a breakout year under new pitching coach Rick Peterson.

NL West

Franklin Morales, Rockies
A healthy Huston Street at closer would make picking the Rockies ahead of the Dodgers an easy decision. But a shoulder problem is jeopardizing Street’s season and, perhaps, the Rockies’ best chance of winning their first division title. Street reported stiffness after playing catch over the weekend and is expected to start the season on the disabled list.

Without Street, the Rockies figure to turn to the lefty Morales, who went 7-for-7 in save chances last September when Street was unavailable. Morales, however, spent 2 1-2 months on the disabled list last season with his own shoulder injury. The Rockies’ top setup man, Rafael Betancourt, also has suffered arm woes this spring.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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