Spring training is currently in full swing, and believe it or not we are just five weeks from the start of the 2020 baseball season. As we begin to think about which clubs will be contenders this year — and which will be pretenders — let's take a peek at the player on each team who is most important to its chances.
The Yankees are absolutely loaded offensively and in their bullpen, and the addition of free-agent Gerrit Cole gives them probably the best starting pitcher in baseball not named Jacob deGrom. The rest of New York's starting staff is not a weakness, but the group could be a real strength if Severino can rebound from an injury-plagued 2019 campaign. In 63 starts between 2017-18 the 26-year-old pitched to a collective 3.18 ERA in 384.2 innings. After a lost season in which he made only three late-season cameos, the Yankees are anxious to see if he and Cole can become a dominant duo. This team has serious World Series aspirations, and there simply isn't another player on its roster capable of raising the ceiling more.
Diaz went to Tampa Bay in a three-way trade involving the Indians and Mariners in December of 2018 with barely 250 big league at-bats on his resume and only one home run. In a lot of ways he was the prototypical Ray. This team is the best in baseball at finding hidden value and felt confident the right-handed hitter could become a force in its lineup. And the team was right. Diaz got off to an incredibly hot start, but three separate trips to the IL ultimately derailed his season. When all was said and done, he finished with a .267/.340/.476 slash line to go along with 14 homers and 20 doubles in only 79 games. The Rays plan on hitting him third in the upcoming campaign, and if he can stay healthy they'll be salivating over what they believe he can accomplish in a full season.
Toronto has a chance to be sneaky good in 2020. The Blue Jays are armed with an enviable young core and a much improved starting rotation, headlined by the addition of Hyun-Jin Ryu. Anderson is a newcomer as well and one the Blue Jays are hoping will be helped by a change of scenery. In 2017 the former Oklahoma Sooner was brilliant for Milwaukee, turning in a 2.74 ERA with a 1.09 WHIP in 141.1 innings. The right-hander did not make the All-Star team that year, but he should have. Unfortunately for him, he's regressed each of the past two years to the point where the Brewers gave up on him over the winter. If Toronto can get even 80 percent of what he was just a few years back though, the AL wild-card race could have a surprise participant.
Eovaldi is unlikely to ever pay for a beer in New England again thanks to his dominance during the 2018 postseason. While he and the Red Sox will always have that World Series title, things have taken a swift 180 for both of them just a year-and-a-half later. Manager Alex Cora lost his job over the Astros' sign-stealing scandal, and Boston just traded superstar Mookie Betts to the Dodgers over luxury tax concerns. As for Eovaldi, his 2019 campaign was a disaster. In 23 appearances (only 12 of which were starts), the righty finished with an ugly 5.99 ERA in 67.2 innings. The Sox's pitching staff is in a state of disarray, with Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez the only two semi-sure things it has. Eovaldi has the talent to be a reliable middle-of-the-rotation hurler, but he wasn't last year, and if the Red Sox are going to have any chance to compete in 2020, they'll need him to step up.
It may seem ridiculous to suggest that someone who hasn't taken a single major league at-bat is the most critical piece to his team contending, but given the state of the Orioles it is, in fact, the truth. Mountcastle is big right-handed slugger who hit .312 with 25 homers and 83 RBI in only 127 minor league games last season. If Baltimore wasn't so anchored down by the contract of Chris Davis, Mountcastle would assuredly be starting in Charm City on opening day. The Orioles will give him an opportunity sooner rather than later no matter what though, and who knows? Maybe he's capable of having a Pete Alonso-like impact as a rookie.
The Twins are built to outbludgeon the opposition and are coming off a season in which they set a new MLB single-season team home run record. Unfortunately for them, their pitching staff is not nearly as strong as their offense. Minnesota has legitimate question marks in at least two rotation spots, and while the bullpen is deep, it all ends with Rogers. Last season the Twins' left-handed closer turned in a 2.61 ERA with a 1.00 WHIP while striking out 90 batters in 69 innings. But he did blow six saves and went through a noteworthy slump in August, during which he suffered a catastrophic meltdown in a key division game against the Indians. Minnesota is still the class of the AL Central on paper, but Cleveland remains a threat and the White Sox are arguably the most improved team in the American League. If Rogers isn't consistently converting late leads into Twins wins, a return to the postseason is not guaranteed.
No American League team was more aggressive over the winter than the White Sox, and they're hoping their efforts will be enough to snap a 12-year postseason drought. Chicago signed Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Encarnacion and Steve Cishek as free-agents, traded for Nomar Mazara and locked up top prospect Luis Robert with an extension before making his debut--eliminating service time concerns. But all of their additions will matter only so much if closer Alex Colome struggles at the back end of games. The hard-throwing righty was brilliant last season, pitching to a 2.80 ERA in 61 innings and converting 30 of his 33 save opportunities. But that wasn't in a playoff race. The Southsiders firmly believe they're good enough to pressure the Twins in the Central while at the very least competing for a wild-card spot. Not letting late leads get away will be critical, as generally the race for the last couple of playoff berths is extremely tight.
Ramirez's importance to the Indians has more to do with his health than his performance. In 129 games a year ago, the veteran switch-hitter turned in a .255/.327/.479 slash line with 23 home runs, 83 RBI, 33 doubles and 24 stolen bases. The only hiccup in his campaign came in late August when he broke the hamate bone in his right hand, forcing him out of action for a month. The injury came at the worst possible time, with the Indians fighting for their playoff lives in the American League wild-card race. They ultimately missed the final playoff spot by only three games, and it's frustrating to wonder if things would've played out differently had the 27-year-old been available all year.
The Royals offense is paced by their two best hitters, Jorge Soler and Whit Merrifield, and longtime Kansas City veterans Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez remain productive complementary parts. But their lineup can only be so dangerous without a serious rebound campaign from first baseman Ryan O'Hearn. The big left-handed slugger was supposed to take the reins at position No. 3 last season and never give them back, but that didn't exactly come to fruition. In 328 at-bats O'Hearn hit a paltry .195, and while he did blast 14 homers, inconsistency prevented him from getting a full season's worth of playing time. Kansas City demoted the Sam Houston State product for about a month-and-a-half shortly after Father's Day, and he'll enter camp this spring with plenty to prove.
Detroit hoped Stewart's big breakout season would come last year, but maybe it's just a year behind schedule. After crushing 83 minor league home runs between 2016-18, the Tigers had high hopes for their first-round pick from the 2015 draft when they gave him a legitimate opportunity to establish himself a year ago. Unfortunately he didn't entirely take advantage of the situation. In 369 at-bats the left-handed slugger hit just .233 with 10 long balls, and injuries and minor league demotions really gave his campaign a stop-and-start feel. The Tigers were the worst team in baseball in 2019, so they understandably have the time and patience to give Stewart more chances to break through, but they would assuredly like to see some progress fairly quickly.
Altuve and the Astros are going to be public enemy No. 1 for the foreseeable future thanks to their inexcusable cheating scandal that rocked the sport to its core. Altuve in particular has come under intense fire following a video that potentially showed him wearing a buzzer when he hit an American League pennant-winning, walk-off homer against the Yankees last October. The drama has taken dramatic twist after ridiculous turn, and the current state of public opinion has to do with underwhelming body art. Houston's only chance to remotely quiet its critics is to deliver a dominant season while playing the game clean, and Altuve in particular will have to prove he can still be an MVP-caliber hitter.
The Angels made a big splash this winter when they lured superstar third baseman Anthony Rendon west with a massive free-agent contract, and they now fancy themselves legitimate contenders in the AL. Whether that comes to fruition will be determined by a starting pitching staff that unfortunately is not overly impressive. Julio Teheran fizzled out in Atlanta and ended his Braves tenure as their fifth starter, yet he's currently slotted as the Angels top starter after coming over as a free agent. To that effect, the return of Shohei Ohtani could make all the difference. The two-way Japanese sensation didn't pitch at all last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but he is slated to return to the mound in 2020. In 10 big league starts as a rookie, he proved he can be a successful pitcher at the sport's highest level, and Los Angeles' playoff chances will dramatically improve if he can be a dynamic member of the team's starting five in addition to his maintaining his regular role as the club's DH.
Oakland earned an entry into the American League wild-card game last season but did so without having its ace available for the majority of the campaign. A shoulder injury kept Manaea out until September, and while he gave the Athletics five terrific starts down the stretch, he unfortunately got hammered in the one-game playoff vs. Tampa Bay. Entering 2020 the junior circuit figures to be more competitive as a whole than it was a year ago, and for Oakland to wiggle into the playoffs again, it will need Manaea to be productive and available for six months.
Kluber is one of the most decorated starting pitchers of his generation — a true ace in every sense — who for a half-dozen years gave Cleveland arguably the best pitcher in the American League. The veteran right-hander won two Cy Young Awards in a four-season span, won an ERA title, finished in the top five in strikeouts in five consecutive years and hurled almost 1,100 innings in a five-season duration. But the wheels quickly fell off the wagon a season ago. An ulna fracture limited Kluber to only seven starts in 2019, in which he struggled mightily, pitching to an ERA of almost 6.00. After the season the Indians traded him to Texas, and now the question is did the Rangers just acquire a dominant ace or damaged goods? If the Rangers are going to make any noise in a challenging American League West, they'd better hope it's the former.
When the Mariners acquired Crawford from the Phillies in the five-player swap that sent Jean Segura to the City of Brotherly Love, they were thinking they'd just brought in a talented 24-year-old who would be their shortstop of the future. Maybe that will still transpire, but the early returns are not trending in that direction. In 93 games for the Mariners in 2019, Crawford hit only .226 with seven home runs, while defensively he committed 12 errors and finished with a .970 fielding percentage. Seattle is not expected to compete seriously in the upcoming season, but it would like to get some positive developments from young players. Crawford simply has to show the organization he deserves to be part of its future plans.
Foltynewicz enjoyed a breakout season in 2018 when he turned in a 2.85 ERA and struck out over 200 hitters while earning a trip to his first Midsummer Classic. Last season did not go nearly as well for the righty. Injuries limited the veteran to only 21 starts, in which he posted a 4.54 ERA and averaged only 5.57 innings/start. The defending division champion Braves are still stacked on paper, but their rotation is the most suspect area of their team. If Foltynewicz can rediscover his form from two years ago, it would go a long way toward removing that question mark.
Washington's 21-year-old wonder boy is arguably the brightest young star in the game. Last season the outfielder enjoyed a marvelous campaign, hitting .282 with 34 home runs and 110 RBI while reaching base at a .401 clip. In October he introduced himself to the national audience, crushing five huge home runs and playing a major part in the Nationals' first World Series championship. But entering 2020, he's going to face a whole new kind of pressure. The face of the Nationals team, third baseman Anthony Rendon, jumped ship and joined the Angels in December in free agency, making Soto the clear top bat in this lineup. If Washington is going to threaten to win back-to-back titles, it will need Soto to produce an MVP-type season.
When the Mets acquired Diaz as part of a blockbuster trade with Seattle last offseason, the righty was coming off an absolutely historic season with the Mariners. In 73 appearances he'd notched 57 saves while posting an ERA under 2.00 with a WHIP of 0.79. Unfortunately his first season in New York was an absolute disaster. With the Mets, Diaz blew seven saves while finishing with a 5.59 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP. Opponents hit nearly 100 points higher against him than they had in Seattle. And most troubling were the 15 home runs he gave up in only 58 innings. New York had no choice but to remove him from the closer role while it was pushing for a playoff spot, and his confidence was clearly shaken. On a team that missed the postseason by only three games, Diaz quickly became the scapegoat among fans who blamed him for the Mets' absence in October. Entering camp he'll have to fight to win back the top spot in the bullpen depth chart. But if he can even come close to duplicating his Seattle success, New York will be a force in the National League.
Hoskins has the unenviable task of protecting Bryce Harper in the middle of the Philadelphia batting order, and while he didn't have a terrible year in 2019, the Phillies needed more. Playing in all but two of Philly's games, the big first baseman hit 29 homers and drove in 85 runs, but he hit only .226 and struck out in over 30 percent of his at-bats. With the Phillies hanging on to postseason hopes by a thread down the stretch, Hoskins came up particularly small, hitting .161 in August and .170 in September. The Phillies' pitching is still a little suspect, so they remain built to outscore the opposition to win. With that in mind, their three best hitters, J.T. Realmuto, Harper and of course Hoskins, need to rise to the occasion.
The Marlins are a long shot to seriously compete in a division with four teams well ahead of them on paper, but if they're going to surprise anyone Aguilar will have to be front and center. After crushing 35 homers, driving in 108 runs and making the All-Star team in 2018, the Venezuela native's career spun a quick 180 last season. After a terrible first four months, Milwaukee gave up on the slugger and sent him to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline, and while he was a little better as a Ray, his season was still a disappointment. The Marlins have made a point of bringing in high-upside veterans this offseason like Jonathan Villar, Corey Dickerson and Aguilar in an effort to be more competitive, and maybe the trio can help them shock the world.
Cincinnati was the most active team in the National League over the winter, and the Reds have assembled a team they confidently feel can win its first division title since 2012. A lot of those ambitions, however, hinge on the rebound capability of their franchise player. First baseman Joey Votto is a former MVP and a six time All-Star, but he hasn't been overly productive in a few years now. Last season the veteran hit 46 points lower than his career average while hitting only 15 homers and driving in only 47 runs — his lowest total in a season in which he played more than 63 games. At 36 years old, it's fair to wonder how much Votto has left. But if he can rediscover his elite form Cincinnati will be in great shape.
The Brewers have been trying to add an impact starting pitcher to their rotation for several years now, and while they did drastically reshape their starting five by bringing in three newcomers this winter, they still struck out on an ace. As a result, right-hander Brandon Woodruff remains their top starter and someone they desperately need to step up. In his first full season as a starter, the Mississippi product pitched well, turning in a 3.62 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP, and striking out 10.58 hitters/nine innings. An oblique injury limited him to only 22 starts and 121.2 innings last season — both of which were career highs — but Milwaukee simply needs more. The Brew Crew intend on returning to the postseason for a third straight October. And with other NL competitors employing the likes of Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola, Madison Bumgarner and Luis Castillo atop their rotations, the pressure will be on Woodruff to keep up.
The Cardinals have an exciting young duo, Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson, atop their rotation, but in the third spot right-hander Miles Mikolas will play a large part in determining how good their starting staff can be. Last season the 31-year-old worked to a 4.16 ERA in 32 starts while surrendering a career-high 27 homers in 184 frames. He was much better for St. Louis in 2018, and the Redbirds will hope he can shake off last season and refind that form in 2020.
The 2016 NL MVP heard all winter how the Cubs were listening to trade offers for him and then ended up losing a grievance against the team over his service time. Now that a tumultuous winter is finally over, all that's left for Kris Bryant to do is to go out and prove why he should be the face of this organization. Last year the 28-year-old slashed .282/.382/.521 while blasting 31 home runs and doubling 35 times. His 77 RBI were fewer than you'd expect from a middle-of-the-lineup slugger over the course of a full season, but that is not necessarily all on him. The Cubs figure to be locked in a four-team race for the NL Central crown all season, and an MVP-caliber campaign from Bryant will go a long way toward them coming out on top.
The trade that sent Archer to Pittsburgh unfortunately has a chance to go down as one of the worst swaps in Pirates history. While at the time the Pirates thought they were trading two unproven prospects for a legitimate top-of-the-rotation ace, that's not exactly how it worked out. Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows have become stars with the Rays, and while Archer owns a lifetime 3.86 ERA, he has not pitched well for the Bucs. In 33 starts in the black and gold, the righty has gone just 6-12 with an ERA barely under 5.00. Pittsburgh desperately needs him to figure it out, both for itself and for his trade value.
Jansen is a three time All-Star who has been an absolute force at the back end of the Dodgers bullpen for a long time, although his 2019 campaign was a bit uneven to say the least. In 62 appearances the big righty pitched to a career worst 3.71 ERA while blowing a career-high eight saves and allowing nine homers in 63 innings. Los Angeles still has a world of trust in its closer but is cognizant of the fact he'll have to be better in 2020, especially if the Dodgers are going to capture the championship they've been desperately chasing for several years now.
San Diego broke the bank to get Manny Machado to Southern California prior to last year, and while the veteran was pretty good in his first season with the Padres, he wasn't great. Playing in all but six of the Friars' contests, Machado hit .256 with 32 homers and 85 RBI while doubling only 21 times — his lowest total since 2014. The Padres think they have enough to stay competitive deep into the summer, and if that's ultimately going to ring true, they'll need their $300 million man to lead the charge.
Arizona lured longtime San Francisco ace Madison Bumgarner to the desert with a lucrative free agent contract this winter, and the D-Backs are counting on the left-hander to provide them with a dynamic ace atop their rotation. In 34 outings for the Giants a year ago, the four- time All-Star struggled some, turning in the worst ERA of his career at 3.90. He did surpass the 200 inning plateau for the seventh time and struck out 200 hitters for the fourth time, but it was easy to see he wasn't as dominant as he'd been. Bumgarner is probably the most accomplished postseason pitcher of all time, and while the Snakes would love to see him add to his resume in their uniform, they'll face an uphill climb trying to qualify for the postseason.
The Rockies are unlikely to seriously compete for a playoff spot in 2020, but they simply have no chance of doing so without a happy and motivated Nolan Arenado. Last season the veteran turned in yet another tremendous season, hitting .315 with 41 homers and 118 RBI. He was selected to his fifth straight All-Star team, won his fourth Silver Slugger, his seventh Gold Glove and his third Platinum Glove. But his production is only part of why he's so critical to the Rockies' 2020 campaign. Recently Arenado participated in a public spat with Colorado's general manager after feeling disrespected by his name's presence in trade rumors. The riff did not ultimately end in a divorce, but that doesn't mean the marriage isn't still "Rockie."
Buster Posey is one of the most accomplished players in Giants history, but the sad reality of the situation is he hasn't been all that productive in several seasons. Injuries have really taken a toll on the veteran in recent years, and while he's still a capable hitter, that only matters so much if he's always on the IL. San Francisco is very much in a rebuild, and its top prospect, Joey Bart, plays the same position as Posey. If the Giants are going to make a surprise run at a postseason berth in 2020, they simply need their catcher to turn back the clock. Otherwise a drastic reshuffle could soon be coming with Posey moving to first base full time or with fans in the Bay Area having to say goodbye to another franchise icon.
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