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Five to Watch: A crucial year to rake or break

Five to Watch: A crucial year to rake or break

Five to Watch: A crucial year to rake or break

Perhaps the hype was unfair. Or maybe it was undeserved.

Either way, it was there all the same. And with great hype comes great expectations to perform. Expectations that, if unmet, could lead to a short shelf life in the big leagues.

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As MLB.com wraps up its Five To Watch series in anticipation of Opening Day, we're taking a look at five players who, fairly or not, have dealt with grand expectations from the very beginnings of their careers, and enter 2011 at a pivotal juncture to capitalize on their God-given skills.

Alex Gordon, OF, Royals

Before his first at-bat on Opening Day 2007, Gordon received a standing ovation. This might not have been all that big a deal, except it was Gordon's first-ever at-bat in the big leagues. So, yes, the expectations for Gordon, the second overall pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft after a stellar college career at Nebraska, were pretty high.

Gordon has not met those expectations. He's had two average seasons and two injury-plagued ones. Last year, he was demoted to Triple-A and switched positions, moving from third base to left field. This could be his last chance to succeed with the Royals, as they have a number of promising prospects rising in their farm system.

Matt LaPorta, 1B, Indians

Highly touted Draft picks endure one type of pressure, as they must live up to the potential that encouraged their teams to invest so heavily in them. High-profile trade acquisitions know another, because they must live up to the legacy of the players their teams gave up to get them.

LaPorta knows both pressures quite well, having been a top prospect for the Brewers and then the key acquisition by the Indians in the 2008 CC Sabathia trade. Obviously, he won't be the ace Sabathia was, but the hope was that he'd deliver potent right-handed power from the middle of the Tribe lineup.

That hasn't happened. LaPorta, fresh off hip and toe surgery, got his first legitimate opportunity in the bigs last year and was inconsistent. He hit .221 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs in 110 games. Cleveland fans are getting impatient, waiting for some tangible return from the Sabathia trade, and it's up to a healthy LaPorta to provide it in 2011.

"He continues to work hard," manager Manny Acta said. "Hopefully that will translate into being the kind of guy that everybody is expecting him to be."

Cameron Maybin, CF, Padres

Maybin's size, speed and strength made him seem like a can't-miss, five-tool prospect when the Tigers drafted him 10th overall in 2005. But perhaps as a result of being shuttled between the Majors and Minors virtually ever since, Maybin has run the risk of being pegged as a has-been who never was.

But remember this about Maybin: He's only 23 (he'll turn 24 on Monday). The Tigers did him no favors by calling him up to the bigs when he was an unprepared 20-year-old. And the Marlins, who acquired him in the Miguel Cabrera blockbuster, did him no favors by demoting him before he got an extended opportunity to play through his struggles in the bigs.

Now, it's the Padres' turn. With Adrian Gonzalez gone, they need this to be the year Maybin turns those tools into tangible results.

B.J. Upton, CF, Rays

Wondering if this will be the year Upton lives up to the promise that made him the No. 2 overall pick in 2002 has become an annual rite of spring for the Rays. In 2007, Upton turned in an impressive season that only further fueled the fire of expectations. But hampered by shoulder woes and sometimes criticized for a lack of hustle, he's been a bit of a bust.

The Rays have seen encouraging, tantalizing signs from Upton this spring. After batting .239 over the past two years, he has plenty of room to improve.

"B.J. is that classic example," said manager Joe Maddon, "when all of a sudden everything is just going to make sense to him -- and you're just going to see this guy take off."

Brett Wallace, 1B, Astros

A bit of a stigma has been attached to Wallace because of the number of organizations that have been willing to pack him up and ship him off. The Cardinals made him their top Draft pick in 2008, then dealt him to the A's a year later in the Matt Holliday deal. Five months after that, he was shipped to the Blue Jays as part of the four-team Roy Halladay blockbuster. Finally, he joined the Astros as part of a three-team bartering session in which Roy Oswalt went to Philly.

All this has served to make Wallace look like a hot potato, but the Astros are giving him a legit chance to settle in. He's had a strong spring, and could lock down the everyday first-base job and prove he's not a player you want to part ways with.

Others who need to rake: Rangers center fielder Julio Borbon, Royals center fielder Melky Cabrera, Twins shortstop Alexi Casilla, Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler, Royals right fielder Jeff Francoeur, Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez, Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker, Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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