9 MLB Players Who Will Have the Most Pressure on Them This Season
Spring training is upon us, which means the evaluation period leading up to the 2021 MLB season is underway.
Let's get all the cliches out of the way early. There is a buzz in every clubhouse, and everyone is in the best shape of their lives. One of these days we'll finally hear someone acknowledge they are not in shape coming into spring training, but today is not that day.
Spring training is about finding the right fit at each position. No season is won or lost in February and March, but position battles are, and those will be waged in the coming weeks.
It's tough to know what to expect from anyone this season. The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted baseball, just like it's disrupted every other aspect of our lives.
Still, projection models provide good previews for players. The question is: Will they live up to those forecasts? And what about other factors such as sky-high expectations for stars in big markets or those who might be squeezed out of playing time?
Here are nine players facing pressure-packed seasons.
Yankees 3B/OF Miguel Andujar
Third baseman Miguel Andujar has fallen out of favor with the New York Yankees since his electric rookie season in 2018, when he hit .297 with 27 home runs and an .855 OPS. A shoulder injury derailed his 2019, and last year he spent much of the time at the Yankees' alternate site, getting into only 21 games.
In his absence, Gio Urshela established himself as a good-hitting third baseman. It's a position that requires run production, and Ushela is projected to continue in that vein, with ZiPS tabbing him for a 106 wRC+.
Defense isn't the strength of Andujar or Urshela. But Urshela's limited range is less detrimental than Andujar's porous glove. After two strong seasons, the Yankees are unlikely to reverse course on Urshela and go back to Andujar. They've given Andujar reps in the outfield, so maybe that's his best path to playing every day, especially since Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton can't seem to stay healthy.
Andujar's ZiPS projection includes 498 plate appearances, which doesn't seem to fit with the Yankees lineup, but should he match the .267 average and 17 home runs, he could make a compelling case for himself. It's a crowded infield with Luke Voit at first base, DJ LeMahieu at second base and Gleyber Torres at shortstop.
Andujar, 25, needs a big performance in spring training and beyond. Otherwise, he could be headed to another team, or worse, headed back to the minor leagues.
Cubs 3B Kris Bryant
No surprise here. The 2016 National League MVP is coming off the worst season of his career. Kris Bryant has long been the subject of trade rumors, and he will be a free agent after the 2021 season.
He ascended quickly. He was the college player of the year in 2013, the Minor League Player of the Year in 2014, the NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 and not only won the MVP Award but also helped the Chicago Cubs win the World Series in 2016.
Maybe Bryant has accomplished all he can with Chicago. Last season, he suffered a finger injury hit a dismal .206 with a .644 OPS. He also did little to dispel the notion that he isn't clutch in the postseason with an 0-for-8 performance in an NL Wild Card Series against the upstart Miami Marlins.
However, he's not far removed from his third All-Star season in 2019, so there is no reason to think he won't be able to regain at least some of his old form. ZiPS projects a good but maybe not great year: .252/.347/.460 with 24 home runs and a 110 wRC+.
Bryant has made it known he does not care for critics. He said he wasn't enjoying baseball quite as much as he used to. But like it or not, he will be under a microscope this season, as any MVP entering their age-29 season would be.
Mets 3B J.D. Davis
J.D. Davis was Kris Bryant's counterpart in trade rumors. Any package from the New York Mets to the Cubs would have likely included Davis and a few prospects.
Why, though, would New York look to deal a 27-year-old with a .268 career average? Davis' defense leaves a lot to be desired.
The Mets have struggled to find consistency at third base since 2016, when David Wright's injuries took hold. The club used five players for at least 10 games apiece at that spot in 2017 and then signed Todd Frazier for 2018 and 19. But Frazier never produced at a high level. It brought in Davis as a role player ahead of the 2019 season, and he quickly established himself as a big league hitter.
But in 770 innings at third base, Davis has cost his teams 19 runs and has a minus-3.0 UZR. The Mets have not prioritized defense in years, much to the detriment of their talented pitching staff, though they did make upgrades this offseason.
Fans and the front office alike will scrutinize every move Davis makes at the hot corner this season, all while keeping an eye on the market for Bryant.
Red Sox 3B Rafael Devers
If you're wondering why there are so many third basemen on this list, it's because it's difficult to play third base and play it well in the majors.
Defensive metrics ranked the Boston Red Sox's Rafael Devers as the worst fielder among all third basemen with at least 100 innings last season. He led MLB with 14 errors—five more than the next-highest total.
Some of Devers' struggles can be attributed to an ankle injury. There was also a lack of talent around him. The 24-year-old did still turn in a good season at the plate, but it was not the anticipated follow-up to his breakout 2019 campaign.
The Sox are trying to retool after a down season, and with Alex Cora back in the dugout, there is hope Devers can bounce back. Some of it will hinge on his playing shape. In his first news conference of the season Wednesday, Devers said his conditioning lapsed during the shutdown last year when he went back to the Dominican Republic but that he worked hard to get into shape over the offseason.
Few players remain from Boston's 2018 World Series team, so Devers is a key part of the future. The club is facing pressure to get back to winning this season, so by extension, the pressure falls on Devers as well.
Mets CF Brandon Nimmo
Much like Rafael Devers, Brandon Nimmo was one of the worst players at his position defensively last season. The Mets, as they tend to do, tried to punch above their weight with Nimmo in center field when he has the range and the defensive acumen of a left fielder.
Nimmo has cost the Mets 14 runs since 2017 in center field and has a career UZR of -9.6. Contrast that with his defense in left field, where he has saved five runs and has a 3.0 UZR.
The Mets made a few minor moves to bolster their outfield depth in recent weeks, acquiring Albert Almora Jr. and Kevin Pillar. They also traded for outfield prospect Khalil Lee since they didn't have any top-rated outfield prospects at the high levels of their farm system, but it's unclear how they plan to use everyone.
They also have to find a way to get Dominic Smith at-bats, and that could mean platooning him in left field with Nimmo, but considering they both bat left-handed, that doesn't make a ton of sense. A center field platoon probably is more logical. More often than not, playing time tends to work itself out through injuries and effectiveness, but Nimmo, the Mets' first overall pick in 2011, has been trying to prove he deserves to play every day since 2017.
Now, he has to prove he can play every day in center field.
Astros CF Myles Straw
If you've never heard of Myles Straw it's because he was playing behind one of the best center fielders in baseball on a contending team. The Houston Astros are looking to the 5'10" outfielder to replace George Springer this season, which is no easy task considering just how much Springer contributed on the field and his immense popularity in Houston.
Straw has different attributes than Springer, a power-hitting center fielder. He's fast and runs the bases well, so he'll need to get on base and establish himself as a leadoff hitter. That's his best route to a full-time big league job, because a player who lacks power tends to hit into a lot of outs when the ball goes in the air.
Once he's on base, he's a threat. He swiped 70 bags alone in 2018 in the minor leagues, and he had a .394 minor league on-base percentage, so all signs point to him being effective in the leadoff spot. In the major leagues, he has Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Michael Brantley hitting behind him.
But he'll always be The Guy Who Replaced George Springer, and that's not an easy role to fill.
Cleveland SS Amed Rosario
Similar to Myles Straw, the former Mets shortstop will be in the shadow of one of the best in the game. Amed Rosario was a key piece of the Francisco Lindor trade, so fair or unfair, he's going to be under a microscope.
To make matters worse, he'll need to beat out his former Mets teammate, Andres Gimenez, for the starting role in Cleveland, setting up an awkward position battle. Gimenez was also part of the return for Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, and he's considered a legit prospect.
Rosario was once considered a big-time prospect as well, and he's been a productive player, but not the star some thought he was destined to be. He never developed plate discipline at the major league level, as he's walked only 67 times in 1,564 plate appearances.
He has great defensive range and a knack for making the tough plays look easy, but his defense was spotty when it came to the routine plays. This has been consistent with scouting reports from when he was in the minor leagues, so his desire to get better defensively has been called into question at times.
If he's looking to show that he has improved those areas of his game, now is the time.
Rays RF Randy Arozarena
The star of the 2020 postseason has almost as many postseason plate appearances (91) as regular-season appearances at the major league level (99). With a sample size that small, some will wonder if Randy Arozarena is capable of an October encore or if he was just a flash-in-the-pan talent who captured some playoff magic.
But the Rays are taking a cautious approach. They don't want to put him in a position where he will fail to live up to those lofty expectations. And those projections are pretty lofty: ZiPS projects him to slash .262/.339/.475 with 21 home runs and a 117 wRC+.
Last fall, Arozarena rose to fame with his big hits and his big dance moves. The Rays want their 25-year-old Cuban prospect to continue to be himself, on and off the field. More personality is better for the marketability of baseball, but if he doesn't put up the same numbers, then that personality will be overshadowed.
Arozarena doesn't have to be an otherworldly hitter like he was in the postseason. If he can establish himself as a quality major league hitter, he'll be just fine.
Dodgers CL Kenley Jansen
Kenley Jansen is almost synonymous with the Los Angeles Dodgers at this point. He's spent his entire career in the Southland, and many can't hear Tupac's "California Love" without conjuring images of Jansen running out from the bullpen.
But it wasn't Jansen on the mound to close out the Rays in the World Series last fall. It was Julio Urias.
Jansen's grip on that role has not been as tight as it used to be. The Curacao native is now 33, and while overall his numbers have consistently been good, he's had some shaky stretches over the last few seasons.
The Dodgers are loaded at every position and the bullpen is no different, so they have options should Jansen falter. In his first Zoom press conference of spring training, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Jansen deserves to be the closer after the way he finished last season. But what happens if he struggles to get hitters out for a few weeks? Or a month?
What happens if the Milwaukee Brewers decide to make Josh Hader available? Would the Dodgers be enticed to grab another elite player? They're already over the luxury tax, so what're a few more dollars added to that tax bill?
Jansen is the Dodgers closer as they attempt to defend their World Series championship, but it's unclear how long of a leash the club has given him.