The MLB season is a marathon, not a sprint. We hear it a lot. And generally, the early steps of a marathon aren’t terribly important. But for these players, they are.
A lot of money was handed out late in the offseason. One player in particular who received a lot of that money is under a lot of pressure to make a good first impression. Other players, meanwhile, have to live up to some brash comments. And at least one veteran player may well be playing for his career.
While the MLB season is quite long, a good early impression is important for some players. In 2019, these stars need to start well.
Bryce Harper, right fielder, Philadelphia Phillies
Both Harper and Manny Machado are charged with trying to make a good first impression with a team after signing a massive deal. But Machado is in a fairly laid-back market. And even when the San Diego Padres are good, they don’t tend to draw a lot of national attention, particularly early in the year.
Harper doesn’t have that luxury. Philadelphia’s rabid fans are lined up for Harper. And a very active offseason tells us that the Phillies are trying hard to compete in what figures to be a really good division. Harper will have a lot of time to do great things in Philadelphia. But slumping out of the gate — especially if the Phillies struggle at the same time — would be a rotten first impression.
Troy Tulowitzki, shortstop, New York Yankees
DJ LeMahieu, a two-time All-Star, lingers as a super utility man for the Yankees. Didi Gregorius, meanwhile, will be returning from injury some time around midseason. Either man can take Tulowitzki’s job. Technically, that applies to any infielder. But the Yankees seem to love Luke Voit. Gleyber Torres is going nowhere. Miguel Andujar could be traded. But even if that happened, his job as a starter would be secure on his new team.
Tulowitzki is another story. He’s always battled the injury prone label. Now he’s 34 and worse, missed all of last season. He was given a gift when he was not only signed, but signed to a contender. But this contender has, at least, a good Plan B and Plan C. If he struggles early and loses his starting role, Tulo’s days in MLB could be numbered.
Yu Darvish, starting pitcher, Chicago Cubs
Given how good the Milwaukee Brewers are and that the NL Central is probably MLB’s best top-to-bottom division, Chicago will need to be better than it was last year if it’s going to make the playoffs again. A better performance from the starting rotation would help that cause. Darvish could spearhead that.
And really, it’s vital that he does. Darvish missed most of his first year with Chicago in 2018. When on the hill, he was ineffective, posting a 4.95 ERA and 1.43 WHIP over eight outings. After that, the last thing anyone wants would be a slow start in 2019. The earlier Darvish thrives, the sooner he can show the Cubs, their fans, and himself, that 2018 was nothing more than a minor bump in the road.
Josh Reddick, right fielder, Houston Astros
We can really lump Reddick and Michael Brantley into one here. And the reason for that is, quite simply, Kyle Tucker. Tucker tore up Minor League pitching in 2018, hitting .332/.400/.590 with 24 home runs in 407 at-bats. He didn’t break camp with the Astros. But it’s only a matter of time before he’s up. And when Tucker does come up, he’s going to be getting everyday at-bats.
The good news is that the Astros are World Series contenders. So, as long as Reddick and Brantley are playing well, they won’t be replaced just to make room for the new guy. But if either starts slow, it won’t take long before Houston makes room for Tucker.
Victor Robles, center fielder, Washington Nationals
While we can’t say that the Nationals didn’t try to retain Harper, they really do much beyond the initial bid. That decision was possible, in no small part, because of Robles. That puts Robles, who is one of baseball’s top prospects, under a tight microscope.
Normally, teams can be patient with a struggling rookie. But if Robles is struggling and Harper is thriving (for a division rival, no less), then the pressure is even more amplified. Robles’ Minor League career tells us that he’ll be up for the task. He was a solid .300/.392/.457 hitter in the minors. The sooner he shows that form in Washington, the better off he’ll be.
Matt Harvey, starting pitcher, Los Angeles Angels
Harvey put up a 4.50 ERA and 1.250 WHIP with the Cincinnati Reds in 2018. While those numbers aren’t going to make us reserve a spot in Cooperstown for him, they were light-years better than the 7.00 ERA and 1.556 WHIP he had with the New York Mets before they got rid of him.
Harvey was one of the Halos’ biggest offseason acquisitions. If he continues to improve on what he did in Cincinnati, he can really be an anchor for a pitching staff that desperately needs one. But remember, Harvey fell out of favor with the Mets and their fans. And he had some equity built up in New York. He doesn’t have that with the Angels. If he starts slow, don’t expect a lot of patience.
Josh Donaldson, third baseman, Atlanta Braves
While not quite as drastic, Donaldson is in a similar boat to Tulowitzki. He played in only 52 games last year and 113 in 2017. He’s also playing in a place where he’s got no equity built up. Donaldson’s best days were with the Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays. That doesn’t mean much to the people in Atlanta. On top of that, Donaldson was not exactly humble when talking about what he can bring to Atlanta.
As if that wasn’t enough, Johan Camargo, who had a very nice year for the Braves in 2018, sits behind Donaldson on the depth chart and occupies the utility role (similar to LeMahieu in New York). On top of that, fellow third baseman Austin Riley is one of Atlanta’s top prospects and is pretty close to MLB ready. So, if Donaldson starts slow, he can very quickly find himself on the bench.
Buster Posey, catcher, San Francisco Giants
Coming off of an injury, a good start is always important. Posey also has star prospect Joey Bart coming up behind him. And while the general feeling is that Bart won’t hit the majors until September, at the earliest, that can change. The Giants don’t usually worry about service time manipulation, something Posey himself benefited from.
If Bart continues to tear up Minor League pitching and the San Francisco offense struggles, there will be plenty of calls for Bart to come up. A slow start won’t cost Posey his job. But there’s more pressure on him than we’ve ever seen in the past.
Noah Syndergaard, starting pitcher, New York Mets
In the days leading up to the season, Syndergaard criticized the Mets for moving slowly on a Jacob deGrom extension and for training in Syracuse right before the regular season. Now, deGrom has since signed an extension (which Syndergaard was pleased with) and Thor even made good with the people of Syracuse. But even if his criticisms were fair (which, for the record, they were), the spotlight is now on him.
Fans will generally put up with an outspoken player if he performs. But if he struggles, it’s a different story. Normally, we wouldn’t consider putting Syndergaard on a list like this. He’s done more than enough for the franchise for the fans to put up with a bad start. But with these comments fresh on everyone’s mind, Syndergaard has a target on his back. If he pitches well early, it goes away. If not, the target grows. And the validity of his complaints will do nothing to shrink it.
Jose Ramirez, third baseman, Cleveland Indians
Ramirez suffered an injury late in spring. Fortunately, disaster was averted there and he’s good to go for the season. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Francisco Lindor is going to miss the early weeks of the season.
Ramirez is one of baseballs best players. He’s not fighting for his job. But with Lindor on the shelf, Cleveland is really going to rely on Ramirez to carry the offense. Basically everyone experiences some kind of slump in the season. For Ramirez, that can’t come in the early weeks.