Ice-Cold MLB Players Already in Danger of Getting Benched

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 3, 2020

Ice-Cold MLB Players Already in Danger of Getting Benched

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    Edwin Diaz is already losing his job as the New York Mets closer.
    Edwin Diaz is already losing his job as the New York Mets closer.Associated Press

    Each game of this year's 60-game season basically counts as three games, so Major League Baseball teams can't be patient with things that aren't working.

    Early in the season though it may be, this very reality ought to have a few players feeling nervous about their job security.

    We've pinpointed nine in particular who are already in danger of being benched. And by "benched," we're referring to any scenario in which a player is knocked from his current role. A closer might become a setup man. A regular might become a platoon hitter. A platoon hitter might be cut loose. And so on.

    These are particularly harrowing times for closers, so we'll begin with four of them and then end with five hitters.

    Note: Stats are current through Sunday, August 2.

Closer: Brad Hand, Cleveland

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Brad Hand wasn't much of a starter for the Miami Marlins early in his career. But after the San Diego Padres selected him off waivers in 2016, they turned him into an All-Star reliever.

    Between 2016 and 2018—the latter of which also saw him traded to Cleveland—Hand averaged 74 appearances and a 2.62 ERA, plus a rate of 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings.

    But after a characteristically dominant first half, Hand stumbled with a 5.40 ERA in the second half of 2019. He's struggling to get back on course in 2020, as he's allowed five runs (four earned) in two and one-third innings.

    At an average of 90.9 mph, Hand's fastball is now almost three miles per hour slower than it was in 2018. Contrary to when he was at his peak, batters are also having a much easier time elevating the ball off him.

    Though Hand already has two saves, Cam Hill and James Karinchak have also gotten chances to close. The latter sure looks like an exciting alternative to Hand if Cleveland manager Terry Francona wants to make a permanent change.

Closer: Wade Davis, Colorado Rockies

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    Louis DeLuca/Associated Press

    At this rate, the Colorado Rockies' experiment with Wade Davis simply can't last much longer.

    The 34-year-old was one of the game's great closers when the Rockies signed him to a three-year, $52 million contract in 2017. He promptly led the National League with 43 saves in 2018, yet he did so with a 4.13 ERA. He followed that with a brutal 8.65 ERA in an injury-shorted 2019 campaign.

    So it goes in 2020. Most recently, Davis allowed two walks, two home runs and four runs in a crushing 8-7 loss to the San Diego Padres on Friday. His average fastball velocity is down 1.6 mph from 2019, which helps explain why he's struck out only one of the 14 total batters he's faced.

    Rockies manager Bud Black hasn't officially removed Davis from ninth-inning duty, but he seemingly left the door open to the possibility with this remark to reporters Friday: "We'll see where this goes."

    After Davis was placed on the injured list with a shoulder strain, Black may have tipped his hand for the future by calling on Jairo Diaz to get the last out of Sunday's win over the Padres.

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Even now, Craig Kimbrel stands out as one of the greatest closers in history.

    His 346 career saves rank 13th on the all-time list. He's also struck out 14.6 batters per nine innings, which is easily the highest rate among right-handers who've pitched 500 innings in the majors.

    Yet the ice beneath Kimbrel's feet was thinning as far back as 2018. He slumped to a 4.57 ERA in the second half, and the Boston Red Sox were basically afraid to use him in the postseason. 

    Kimbrel, 32, subsequently lingered on the free-agent market into June 2019, when the Chicago Cubs finally signed him to a three-year, $43 million deal. He immediately flopped with a 6.53 ERA in 23 appearances down the stretch, and he's already allowed four runs in two appearances this year.

    Though Kimbrel is averaging 96.4 mph on his fastball, he's yet to even draw a swing on his curveball and he's up to 11 home runs allowed in only 22 innings as a Cub. As such, the save opportunity Rowan Wick got Saturday might not be his last.

Closer: Edwin Diaz, New York Mets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    As the closer for the Seattle Mariners, Edwin Diaz was so good in 2018 that he earned votes for both the Cy Young Award and MVP.

    He saved 57 games in 73 appearances that year, and he did so with a 1.96 ERA and 124 strikeouts in 73.1 innings. The New York Mets were surely hoping for more of that when they acquired Diaz and Robinson Cano that December.

    That didn't pan out last season, in which the 26-year-old pitched to a 5.59 ERA in 66 appearances. He still looks lost in 2020, and never more so than when he gave up a hit, two walks and a hit-by-pitch in the span of five batters against the Boston Red Sox on Thursday.

    On the bright side, Diaz's stuff is still in good shape. He's averaging 98.0 mph on his fastball, and he's whiffed 15.5 batters per nine innings as a Met.

    Though Diaz pitched in the seventh inning Sunday, the real test of his status will be how manager Luis Rojas approaches the Mets' next save situation. If he goes to Seth Lugo, Dellin Betances or Jeurys Familia, Diaz may be officially out of a job.

Starting 3B/LF: Austin Riley, Atlanta

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Austin Riley's major league career couldn't have gotten off to a better start.

    Atlanta called him up on May 15 last year, and he promptly went deep in his first start. Through June 4, he had played in 18 games and was sitting on a 1.101 OPS and nine long balls.

    But as they are wont to do, pitchers adjusted to Riley and held him to a .628 OPS the rest of the way. He especially struggled with strikeouts, ultimately whiffing 83 times in his final 221 plate appearances.

    The 23-year-old has only kinda-sorta corrected that issue with 10 strikeouts in his first 29 trips to the plate this season. And while his long home run at Citi Field on July 26 was nice to look at, it also accounts for a third of the hits he has on the young season.

    Riley has gotten five starts at third base and two in left field. If he doesn't heat up, he could be slotted behind Johan Camargo at the former and the trio of Marcell Ozuna, Adam Duvall and Nick Markakis at the latter.

Starting OF: Manuel Margot, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Whenever the Tampa Bay Rays trade for a player, there's always a question of whether they see something in him that others don't.

    Take Manuel Margot, for example. Acquired from San Diego for underrated reliever Emilio Pagan in February, he came to Tampa Bay with a well-earned reputation as an elite defensive outfielder. But as seen in his .695 career OPS, his bat was another story.

    If the Rays were hoping to unlock some potential in said bat, it's not going so well. The 25-year-old has started eight games and appeared in 10 overall, yet his 32 plate appearances have yielded only three hits and two walks.

    That Margot has only struck out four times is commendable, but he can still only hit the ball so hard. His barrel rate (i.e., rate of balls with an ideal combination of launch angle and exit velocity) is typically in the single digits, and he's yet to produce even one this season.

    The Rays need Margot in their outfield for now. But if his bat doesn't get going, he may only be a defensive replacement after Austin Meadows and Randy Arozarena come off the injured list.

Starting 1B: Justin Smoak, Milwaukee Brewers

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    David Banks/Associated Press

    At the moment, the Milwaukee Brewers would simply like to know when they're going to play again. Because of the St. Louis Cardinals' coronavirus outbreak, the Brew Crew has been sitting since Wednesday.

    But at some point, they may have to make a change at first base if Justin Smoak doesn't get going.

    Smoak, 33, does have a home run and a double out of the four hits he's collected in six games. But he's also walked just once and struck out 11 times in 25 trips to the plate.

    This isn't exactly an unexpected development. Smoak is getting up there in years, after all, and it's not as if he came into 2020 hot. After reaching the pinnacle with 38 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2017, he slipped to 25 homers in 2018 and then to 22 homers and only a .748 OPS in 2019.

    What makes his current situation all the more fascinating is the presence of Logan Morrison on Milwaukee's bench. Though he's also fallen off from his own breakout in 2017, he still represents a viable Plan B if Smoak stays cold.

Starting DH/LF: Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    There's something about Hunter Pence in a San Francisco Giants uniform that just feels right. And so far in 2020, he's had a ticket to a surprisingly fun ride.

    Especially after franchise catcher Buster Posey opted out, the Giants looked like the worst team in the National League West coming into the season. But in winning five of their first 10 games, they've shown they can at least be competitive.

    If they want to get better, they might have to remove Pence from the equation entirely.

    The 37-year-old has played in nine games so far, with four starts at designated hitter and two in left field. But even after 28 plate appearances, he has only one hit and one walk.

    Giants manager Gabe Kapler is sticking with Pence for now, but it wouldn't be surprising if the veteran starts seeing action strictly against left-handers. Nor would it be surprising if he were let go in favor of a prospect, such as slugging outfielder Jaylin Davis.

Starting DH: Khris Davis, Oakland Athletics

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    Associated Press

    At his peak, Khris Davis was a barrels machine for the Oakland Athletics.

    Davis tallied an MLB-high 203 of those between 2016 and 2018. Unsurprisingly, he also led the majors with 133 home runs in that span.

    In 2019, however, Davis' usual barrel rate (i.e., between 17.0 and 17.5 percent) was essentially cut in half to 9.8 percent and he hit only 23 home runs. Because he was banged up for much of the year, the A's had to hope that better health would lead to better results in 2020.

    That hasn't been the case. In 23 plate appearances, Davis has collected only one hit and two walks with 10 strikeouts. He's also had only one barrel out of the 11 balls he's put in play.

    Even though Davis is their highest-paid player, the A's have already benched him for a couple of games. If he doesn't snap out of it, their next move might be to relegate him to platoon duty against left-handed pitching.

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