MLB Make-or-Break Candidates for 2019

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 20: Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers poses for a portrait during photo day at Camelback Ranch on February 20, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

Major League Baseball is back. The commercials tell us that history will be made, that dreams will come true, and that hearts will be broken. The reality is that the last one happens 29 times, and the first two only once.

2019 Make-or-Break Candidates

Tampa Bay

The Tampa Bay Rays won 90 games last year and finished dead last in the American League in attendance. The Baltimore Orioles won 47 games, yet they outdrew the Rays by 400,000 fans.

MLB has had a difficult time finding its footing in Florida. The only team with worse attendance than the Rays was the Miami Marlins who have been a mess since 2003. Perhaps even more concerning, the Rays saw their record improve by 10 wins in 2018 while their attendance fell by roughly 1,200 fans a game.

The city says that it wants to keep the team. MLB says the Rays will get a new stadium. Everyone wants Florida baseball to work, but with Montreal, Portland, and Mexico City desperate for a team, at some point, the fans have to show up. No one faults Marlins fans for not watching last year’s mess. But the Rays were good, young, and competitive – and nobody showed up to see it. If that happens again, it’s a real problem.

Nick Senzel

There’s no point in kicking a man when he is down, but Nick Senzel has been the future for the Cincinnati Reds for several seasons. He was the future at second base, then he got hurt and Scooter Gennett emerged. He tried out shortstop, then he got hurt and Jose Peraza took the job. Eugenio Suarez took the third base job and ran with it.

So Senzel spent this spring playing the outfield. He hit well, as he usually does, but got sent down anyway where he promptly got hurt – again. At some point, Senzel is going to have to prove he can stay healthy and take a job by force. If he comes back from this injury and has a strong, healthy year, the problem is solved. Any other outcome and Senzel risks being labeled injury-prone. The talent is there, but he’s got to stay healthy for that to matter.

Javier Baez

If you play fantasy baseball, you have probably read multiple opinions on Baez by now. If you do not, they can be summed up easily: Baez is an amazing athlete who hits the ball incredibly hard, but he really needs to learn to take a walk and not strike out so much.

Pundits focus on either his amazing ability to barrel up baseballs or his amazing ability to swing at (and often miss) baseballs. Depending on their own personal biases, Baez is either headed for a monster season or a monster decline. Basically, Baez is an incredibly polarizing talent that no one knows anything about.

Barring injury, Baez will shut up one side or the other this year. Either his free-swinging ways will cost him, or his instincts and talent will carry him. If he can reproduce last season, he will be a superstar. There are a lot of strikeouts in the way of that though, with very few walks to fall back on. Was he lucky, or is he good? The 2019 season will go a long way to sorting that out.

Bryce Harper

It seems strange to write this about Harper, considering his mega-contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. But it must be said: Bryce has a lot to prove. He’s a 26-year-old with an MVP award already under his belt, and that is it.

Aside from Harper’s magical 2015 season, he has been a good baseball player which is nothing to be ashamed of. But the hype, combined with his 2015 MVP season, told the world that he could be so much more. The talent is there for Harper to be great, not just for this time but for all times. He is being paid like he is one of the greatest there has ever been, but it has been a full three seasons since has played like it.

He’s 26. Time remains to stake his claim to baseball history. But the narrative gets murkier with every passing year. 2019 is a big year for Harper. Can he reclaim his place among baseball’s elite, or will the Hall of Fame arc slip further away?

Clayton Kershaw

There is no tarnishing of his legacy. Kershaw has been one of the best to ever throw a ball. He is a Hall of Famer, no matter how the rest of his career goes.

He is also injured, after also being injured last year, and dealing with declining velocity and strikeout numbers. Make-or-break is probably the wrong term for Kershaw. He has already had a Hall of Fame career. But can he get the ring while he is still great? Is he more Pedro Martinez, who burned so brightly and then burned out? Or can he do it for decades like Greg Maddux, Nolan Ryan, and Randy Johnson? Is he a shooting star that this generation had the pleasure to witness for a brief while? Or can he turn back time and re-establish himself at the top?

Rob Manfred

The Commissioner is determined to “fix” baseball. There is a lot of pushback on many of his policies and ideas. Maybe baseball does not even need fixing.

Whether baseball needs the overhaul or not, tensions with the players union are high. Free agency has turned difficult for even high-profile players. Pitch clocks, mound visit restrictions, roster size changes, and minor league pay scale concerns are all coming to a head.

No commissioner looks good at the head of a league on strike, but with tensions rising, that seems an increasing possibility. This season will go a long way in determining how Manfred is remembered and reveal a lot about his conflict resolution skills and agenda. He seems to be on the owners’ side of things more often than not, but that too can change.

Bullpens

This coincides with Rob Manfred. One of the proposed rule changes for 2020 is a three-batter minimum for pitching changes.

Will teams shy away from using an opener, knowing that if he gets lit up they might have to use two pitchers just to get to their starter? What is the future of the left-handed specialist, or the right-handed sidearmer? With the rise of Andrew Miller, Josh Hader, and Archie Bradley, length has been the trend in relief the last few years. Specialists have been on their way out. Does the proposed 26th man actually revive the specialist, or do these changes kill the Randy Choate roll for all time?

As Bob Dylan would say, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” The winds of Opening Day are here, carrying fascinating new questions for a new season, where anything can happen. Well, almost anything. Sorry, Orioles and Marlins fans – it probably will not be your year. Happy baseball!

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