Manny Machado, Bryce Harper and MLB Stars Under Most Pressure in 2018
The Major League Baseball season is 162 games packed into 180-odd days. Nobody escapes the grind.
On top of that, some players also have extra pressure on their shoulders.
Today in this space, we're going to look at 10 MLB stars (emphasis on stars, as you'll find only big names here) who will play the 2018 season under especially powerful microscopes.
Maybe the pressure comes from having to get back on track following a down season or two, from having big parts to play on teams with high hopes, or from having to establish their value before setting sail on the free-agent market. Maybe some combination of all of the above.
Let's get to it.
10. Giancarlo Stanton, New York Yankees
Ever since he signed up for 13 years and $325 million in November of 2014, Giancarlo Stanton has had the task of living up to the biggest contract in the history of professional sports.
Now he has to do it for arguably the world's most famous franchise.
So far, so very good. Stanton's two-homer Opening Day was an early taste of what he can bring to the New York Yankees. Led by Aaron Judge's 52 and Gary Sanchez's 33, they paced the majors with 241 home runs in 2017. They would've demolished the single-season record of 264 if they'd also had the 59 homers that helped win Stanton the National League MVP award. One game in, that already seems doable for this season.
What the Yankees must hope, however, is that Stanton doesn't stumble into any pitfalls.
His undeniable talent hasn't always translated into consistent production, due to injuries and occasional slumps. If those don't get him in 2018, the juggling act of having to be a designated hitter, a right fielder and a left fielder might. Another challenge will await him if the Yankees make it to October, which is uncharted territory for the 28-year-old slugger.
If Stanton struggles, so will the Yankees to live up to massive expectations. Eventually, some Yankees fans might start wondering if the team would have been better off waiting for Bryce Harper.
But, hey, at least Stanton doesn't have to worry about losing his job, unlike our next guy.
9. Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs
Jason Heyward is heading into the third of an eight-year, $184 million contract. Ordinarily, a guy like that would have ironclad job security.
But in this case, not so much.
The Chicago Cubs have gotten the defense that they wanted out of Heyward. The 28-year-old has won his fourth and fifth Gold Gloves in his two seasons with the team. Alas, his bat has been an endless source of frustration. He entered 2018 with just a .669 OPS as a Cub.
For now, Heyward is safe as Chicago's everyday right fielder—collecting a double and a walk on Opening Day only helped his cause. But when manager Joe Maddon was asked if money matters could cede priority to performance, he opened the door for Heyward to be demoted.
"I'm not going to say it's impossible," Maddon said, according to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Between Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr., the Cubs have enough outfielders to push Heyward to get his bat working consistently. If he can't, he could find himself as a platoon player.
In theory, Heyward also has a looming opt-out clause to help motivate him. However, the ship carrying the idea of him re-entering the open market has probably sailed. That makes him unlike this next fella.
8. David Price, Boston Red Sox
As much as the Cubs would love it if Heyward got back on track, their offense and defense can function fine without him.
By contrast, the Boston Red Sox truly need David Price to help their starting rotation function.
The 32-year-old was still an elite pitcher as recently as 2015. But ever since signing a seven-year, $217 million contract with Boston in December 2015, his career has been sidetracked by injuries and ineffectiveness, as well as behind-the-scenes drama in 2017 that sullied his charismatic aura.
The last thing the Red Sox need in 2018 is more of Price's problems. Behind him in their rotation is Rick Porcello (who's a question mark in his own right) and then a supporting cast that's been wrecked by injuries. Price's pitching could therefore be the difference between an AL East title and a mere wild card berth.
Beyond helping his team, Price can also help himself with a renaissance year. If he reverts back to the form that won him a Cy Young Award and two ERA titles between 2012 and 2015, he might exercise his opt-out and go seek another monster contract on the open market.
Of course, Price will still have $127 million coming his way if he doesn't opt out. And because the Red Sox have Chris Sale, they really only need Price to be a solid No. 2 rather than an impenetrable No. 1.
That's not the case with this next guy.
7. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Clayton Kershaw also has an opt-out that he can exercise after the 2018 season. Since he has "only" $70 million to gain by opting back in, chances are he'll use it if his season lives up to expectations.
But therein lies the tricky part: those expectations are huge.
Kershaw is always expected to be at the front of the Los Angeles Dodgers' World Series charge. With last year's near miss in the past and Kershaw's possible exit in the future, the pressure on him to live up to that role will be higher than ever.
To this end, it's impossible to ignore the three-time Cy Young Award winner's warts.
Kershaw, 30, must put his recent injury woes behind him. He must also curtail a home run rate that got out of whack in 2018. And while it's not yet worth panicking about, he must now also work on getting his fastball velocity up from his 91.0 mph average on Opening Day.
And that's just for the regular season. Kershaw can certainly help the Dodgers' cause by finally having a consistently dominant postseason when (it's not a matter of if) they get to October. That would also erase the big black spot on his personal resume.
Mind you, Kershaw would get paid the big bucks in free agency no matter what happens this year. A list of bigger question marks begins with...
6. Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays
Josh Donaldson's primary responsibility in 2018 is leading the Toronto Blue Jays back to the postseason.
It won't be easy.
Nobody is going to equate what the Blue Jays have to what's in New York and Boston. Toronto is deeper after loading up on role players (Curtis Granderson, Jaime Garcia, et al.) over the offseason, but its roster is marked more by depth than by many stars.
Among the stars the Blue Jays do have, nobody comes close to Donaldson's importance. As one of the five best hitters in baseball since 2015, he has MVP upside if he can stay healthy. That's not a small "if" for at least three reasons:
- One: injuries limited him to 113 games in 2017
- Two: he's 32 years old
- Three: he's already dealing with a dead arm
Meanwhile, it's no secret that Donaldson also has free-agent value to build.
If he has the kind of year he's capable of, he should get a contract that, while short on years, will be plenty long on dollars. If not, even he may feel the burn of a market that's getting less and less forgiving of older players' flaws.
Somewhere in the same boat is our next player.
5. Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros
While Donaldson was busy winning the American League MVP in 2015, Dallas Keuchel was busy winning the AL Cy Young Award.
It's been somewhat of a rocky road for the sinker-balling lefty since then.
Keuchel pitched through 2016 with a sore shoulder and suffered an ERA regression from 2.48 to 4.55. He got his ERA back down to 2.90 in 2017, but in only 23 starts due to further injury trouble.
Of course, that didn't prevent the Houston Astros from winning their first World Series championship. And with Keuchel set alongside Justin Verlander and new addition Gerrit Cole, their starting rotation is just one reason to believe they can win their second in 2018.
The World Series hangover is tough to shake, however. Should the Astros start dragging their feet because of it, Keuchel will have to do his part to carry the team.
Naturally, any kind of return to his Cy Young form will also help Keuchel's chances of scoring a massive contract on the 2018-2019 market. If he turns in a third straight season marred by injury and/or ineffectiveness instead, teams may look at him and merely see a 31-year-old former ace.
In New York, there's another pitcher with even more to prove.
4. Matt Harvey, New York Mets
Matt Harvey being one of the most coveted pitchers in baseball isn't ancient history.
Despite losing 2014 to Tommy John surgery, he didn't miss a beat returning in 2015 with a 2.71 ERA in the regular season and a 3.04 ERA in the New York Mets' World Series run. After all that, he seemed to be safely back on the track that had made him an All-Star and back in 2013.
Then the last two seasons happened.
A series of health maladies—most notably including surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome—have limited Harvey to 36 appearances since 2016. In those, he's put up a 5.78 ERA and struggled with his fastball velocity and, well, pretty much everything.
Following a spring season that featured improved velocity and 18 strikeouts in 20 innings, Harvey appears to have turned a corner. Having him back would go a long way toward helping the Mets return to contention. It would also resurrect Harvey's market value just in time for his free agency.
Or, Harvey's strong spring could prove a mirage. In that event, the Mets will be down a pitcher and Harvey's once-mighty value will be basically zilch on the open market.
Even still, he may not want to be in the shoes of our No. 3 man.
3. Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
Shohei Ohtani came to the States with the goal of doing his native Japan proud by becoming Major League Baseball's best two-way player since Babe Ruth.
That's one hell of a tall order. And it only got taller in spring training.
Ohtani didn't hit the ground running in his first spring with the Los Angeles Angels. He just plain hit the ground. On the mound, he put up a 27.00 ERA in two Cactus League starts and mostly struggled in other assignments. At the plate, he went 4-for-32 with no extra-base hits.
The 23-year-old's form was about as ugly as those numbers. The good stuff that he flashed as a pitcher was undercut by inconsistent mechanics and poor command. The good eye that he flashed as a hitter was overruled by his lack of answers for the stuff he was seeing.
Nonetheless, the show must go on. Ohtani made the Angels' Opening Day roster and subsequently provided a small ray of hope for his bat with a single off the first pitch he saw. Up next is his pitching debut on Sunday.
These could be merely the first steps of Ohtani's quest toward redemption. Or, they'll be footnotes in a more depressing tale to be written at a later date.
And yet, there are two guys with more pressure on their shoulders.
2. Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
One thing that's not really a factor for Ohtani is money. Indeed, it may not be until he's a free agent in six years.
Between now and then, it sure would help if Manny Machado did his part to reset the market this winter.
To be sure, the 25-year-old has enough on his plate on the meantime.
He must prove that he can be as good at shortstop as he was at third base. He must also bounce back at the plate following a "down" year in 2017. In either event, he needs to carry a Baltimore Orioles team that's an even bigger AL East underdog than Donaldson's Blue Jays. If the Orioles aren't up to it, Machado may find himself having to carry an entirely new team on the other side of the July 31 trade deadline.
And yet, his looming free agency will never not be its own narrative this year.
As a player with a to-die-for combination of talent and youth, Machado could hit the open market and chase a deal worth up to $400 million. You can bet that many of his fellow players will be rooting for him, as a contract like that could help force the free-agent market out of its recent stagnation.
Imagine a version of Machado with even more pressure hanging over him, and you get our No. 1 guy.
1. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
This is it. Bryce Harper's long-awaited and long-talked-about walk year is finally here.
First things first: He has to help get the Washington Nationals where they've been trying to go since drafting Harper at No. 1 overall back in 2010.
Thanks in large part to Harper's rise as an All-Star and an MVP, the Nationals haven't had many problems winning games since he joined the team in 2012. The 25-year-old has averaged a .902 OPS and 25 homers, and they've averaged 92.5 wins and won four NL East titles.
And yet, the franchise's first World Series title remains elusive. The only way that's going to change is if Harper once again realizes his MVP upside and, above all, stays healthy. As good as he's been, neither of these outcomes has ever been guaranteed throughout his career.
If Harper proves equal to these tasks and, ideally, also helps the Nationals win a World Series on his way out the door to the free-agent market, $400 million may be just the starting point for the bidding on his services.
If not, it wouldn't be surprising to see him end up with less than Machado in the end. That would still be a lot of money, but not quite enough to make history or to boost the market for others.