Five to Watch: Sluggers poised to bash or crash

Five to Watch: Sluggers poised to bash or crash

Five to Watch: Sluggers poised to bash or crash
It could have been a statistical explosion that seemed to descend from the clouds. Maybe it was a big-time breakout in the year preceding free agency. Perhaps a high-profile winter signing or trade sets the stage.

Whatever the reason, the 2011 season is shaping up to be a pivotal one for several big hitters in the Major Leagues. The spotlights will shine bright on these players as they try to thrive under unusually intense pressure to perform, and they say they're ready for it.

"If anything, I feel more relaxed because I don't have anything to worry about but coming to the park and hitting the ball hard," says Blue Jays third baseman Jose Bautista, who shocked the baseball world with his 54-homer, 124-RBI breakout last year after six unimpressive seasons.

Counting down to Thursday's Opening Day, MLB.com is identifying "Five to Watch" in various categories -- from big prospects looking to crack the roster to those with big question marks looking to get their acts together.

Here are five players set to bash -- or crash -- in the upcoming season.

Jose Bautista, 3B, Blue Jays

He's got confidence, he's got job security, and he's got headliner status in the tough American League East. But was Bautista's monster 2010 a fluke, after his previous high in homers in a single season was 16? Or is he simply that good and finally getting the at-bats to hit -- and absolutely hammer -- his prime?

So far this spring, it's looked like the latter. Through 16 Grapefruit League games, he'd hit three homers and driven in 11 runs while batting .364.

Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers

While playing five seasons with Seattle, Beltre became more known for his Gold Glove defense than his bat, but that changed when he switched from pitcher-friendly Safeco Field to hitter-happy Fenway Park. Working on a one-year deal, Beltre did exactly that, batting .321 with 28 homers, 102 RBIs, 49 doubles and a .919 OPS for the Red Sox.

Now, having signed a six-year, $96 million pact with the defending AL champs, Beltre once again faces the expectations of a huge contract -- but has another friendly home ballpark in which to do it.

Manny Ramirez, DH, Rays

Which Ramirez will show up in 2011? Will it be the banged-up singles hitter who left Los Angeles quietly last season, or will Manny be Manny again after humbly taking a one-year, $2 million contract to join Tampa Bay?

If the Rays get the old Ramirez, the one who was one of the best right-handed hitters in recent memory, it'll be a huge bargain and a potential game-changer in the AL East. If not, it might signal that the end of a long road is near for one of the sport's most memorable sluggers ... and characters.

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Vernon Wells, LF, Angels

Wells has had a solid career on both sides of the ball, but he'll have to sparkle this year for the skeptics to claim that the Angels made an astute trade by taking on most of the $86 million remaining on his Toronto contract.

One positive: The 32-year-old, three-time Gold Glove center fielder will play left field on grass for more than half his games after spending the majority of his career playing home games on the Rogers Centre artificial turf. Another positive: He hit 31 homers last year.

Jayson Werth, RF, Nationals

Speaking of big contracts, this one -- seven years, $122 million -- rocked the winter and altered the marketplace. There's no denying the late bloomer's talent. He hit 27 homers and drove in 85 runs to go along with 46 doubles, a .296 average and a career-high .921 OPS last year.

But instantly becoming an expected driving force behind helping turn a franchise into a contender is an arduous task to take on.

Other notable bash-or-crashers: Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman, Rockies left fielder Carlos Gonzalez, Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks, D-backs second baseman Kelly Johnson, Orioles left fielder Luke Scott, Tigers outfielder Brennan Boesch, Cubs first baseman Carlos Pena and Orioles third baseman Mark Reynolds.

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.