MLB Players On the Hot Seat When the Baseball Season Starts
Some players face nearly impossible expectations
Baseball fans are sitting on the edge of their seats and speculate daily about when the 2020 MLB season will finally be able to launch. Whenever that moment happens, it will bring a great deal of happiness to many. However, for some players who are on the hot seat, it will signify an immediate increase in pressure and position them squarely in the spotlight.
Through no fault of their own, the players who will face the greatest scrutiny come from a variety of circumstances. Large contracts, replacing iconic players and attempting to overcome health issues are all factors in drawing unwanted attention. Some will persevere and others will not be able to prove their doubters wrong. The following players have the biggest targets on them for the upcoming season.
Alex Verdugo, Outfielder- Boston Red Sox: Just last year, the soon to be 24-year-old was in a relatively low-key situation. He was a rookie with the star-studded Los Angeles Dodgers, playing part-time, but playing well when he was on the field. He finished at .294 with 12 home runs and 44 RBIs in 106 games. He had the luxury of easing into his playing time while his many veteran teammates did much of the heavy lifting.
An offseason trade for star outfielder Mookie Betts sent Verdugo to Boston. To say that replacing the former MVP and face of one of baseball’s most popular franchises will be an uphill battle would be an understatement.
The current shutdown has actually been a blessing disguise for Verdugo. Originally, a lingering back injury was going to hold him out for the start of the season, but he was recently reported to be fully healthy and ready to go full bore whenever play does resume. He is a completely different player than Betts but is talented in his own right. As long as people remember that and give him a little time to settle in, he will stand a fighting chance.
Giancarlo Stanton, Outfielder- New York Yankees: After winning the 2017 National League MVP with the Miami Marlins, Stanton and the massive 13-year, $325 million contract he signed in 2015 was traded to the Yankees. The 38 home runs he hit in his first season in pinstripes were fine but somehow underwhelming. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to just three home runs in 18 games last year.
Players who are expensive and have a hard time staying on the field are rapidly targeted by the media and fans. Stanton, who is now 30, needs to bounce back in a big way to get out from underneath the growing spotlight of negativity. He probably won’t hit 59 home runs like he did during his MVP campaign, but entering his third season in New York means that many are rapidly running out of patience to see exactly what the big fuss is about.
Corey Kluber, Pitcher- Texas Rangers: The two-time American League Cy Young winner (he finished third on two other occasions) had a lost season in 2019. A broken forearm on his throwing side and an oblique muscle issue limited him to just seven starts with the Cleveland Indians. This past offseason, after nine years with the Tribe, he was sent to the Rangers for a relative song in a trade.
Kluber is now 34. If healthy, he will still need to prove that his game hasn’t slipped appreciably. Can he show he is a reasonable facsimile of the hurler who won 85 games between 2014–2018, or has he lost his touch? If he is anywhere close to his old self, the Rangers could be a major contender. Perhaps no other player on Texas will bear more of the perceived burden of the team’s potential success, which is a heavy load to carry.
Bryce Harper, Outfielder- Philadelphia Phillies: Prior to last season, Harper signed a mammoth 13-year, $330 million deal to essentially play the remainder of his career in Philadelphia. The Phillies finished a perfectly pedestrian 81–81 in 2019 and while their new outfielder had a very good season, hitting .260 with 35 home runs and 114 RBIs, the production was not enough as far as many fans were concerned.
Harper has been in the public eye of baseball since he was a heralded prospect in high school. He won the National League MVP in 2015 when he was 22 and has seemingly been chasing bettering those efforts to offset increasing expectations ever since then. He is now 27 and locked into a what can’t help but be a polarizing long-term financial arrangement with the Phillies. Fair or not, if he doesn’t take strides in leading the team towards a title and throw in some monster stats along the way.
Gerrit Cole, Pitcher- New York Yankees: The right-hander came in second in American League Cy Young voting last season and was particularly lethal down the stretch, going 11–0 with a 1.79 ERA during the second half. Coming off 35 combined wins and 602 strikeouts over the previous two seasons, he inked a nine-year, $324 million free-agent deal with the Yankees.
In recent years, New York has typically boasted a strong offense, but pitching that has been marred by injuries and lack of depth. Signing Cole was a significant statement that the team wants to win now and for the foreseeable future. They decided to bring a howitzer to a gun fight. He is still just 29 and coming off the best season of his career. With his contract and the fact that the Yankees last won a World Series in 2009, he is in the unenviable position of likely facing high levels of scrutiny if he is not in the Cy Young hunt every season for some time to come.