March 28, 2011 / 4:09 PM / in 7 years

Five players to watch in the 2011 MLB season

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Five players to watch in the 2011 Major League Baseball season, which begins March 31:

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Baseball’s best hitter over the last decade is playing for a new contract and has refused to discuss the issue until the season is over and he can become a free agent. The 31-year-old first baseman averaged 41 homers, 123 RBIs and a .331 batting average in his first 10 seasons.

MLB’s richest pact is the 10-year, $275 million deal for the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez. The Cards’ best offer to Pujols is believed to be about $200 million over eight years.

Born in Dominican Republic, Pujols is a three-time winner of the National League’s Most Valuable Player award.

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The sweet-swinging Canadian power hitter took a knee to the head when he slid in to break up a double play last July and suffered a concussion that ended a promising season. He was hitting .345 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs at the halfway point.

Morneau was one of the only Twins power sources capable of clearing the wall at their spacious new Target Field home.

The gritty Twins battled to the Central Division crown but were swept in the first playoff round by the Yankees and Morneau’s bat was sorely missed. Minnesota has a lot riding on a return to form by the 2006 American League MVP.

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The Texas Rangers were conflicted over whether to convert last year’s young closer into a starting pitcher who could top their rotation or leave him in the bullpen, where he registered 40 saves and was named American League Rookie of the Year as the team reached the World Series for the first time.

Where does the greater value lie? Top starters command the biggest salaries but there is nothing as demoralizing for a quality ball club than to squander leads in the late innings.

Texas decided to leave the 22-year-old Dominican in the bullpen for now, but circumstances could change.

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Reyes, one of baseball’s most electrifying players when at his best, says he is over the injuries and illness that plagued him the last two years, and the shortstop is motivated to excel as he would become a free agent after the season.

The 27-year-old shortstop, who led the league in triples three times and had successive seasons of 60, 64 and 78 stolen bases, is primed to put some life back into the Mets.

Should a return to greatness by Reyes not translate into Mets success on the field, the financially-strapped club might look to trade him for prospects to help with the rebuilding.

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The other shortstop in town has got his contract, $51 million for three years, but is motivated for another reasoreason, to silence the doubters who believe the 36-year-old is in decline.

Coming off his worst season in 15 years that saw him win five World Series titles, Jeter has worked overtime to adjust his hitting style. The proud Jeter, just 74 hits shy of becoming the first Yankee to reach the 3,000-hit mark, insists he is not losing the battle against Father Time and the Yankees’ success might depend on whether he is right.

Writing by Larry Fine, Editing by Frank Pingue

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