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Four players nobody’s thinking who could upend MLB’s competitive landscape this year

MLB, shohai ohtani
Courtesy of Sportsnaut.com

Think all that free agent spending in MLB on all that starting pitching this winter gave us a reliable road map for what to expect on the drives to September and October this year?

Think again.

Because at least four difference makers still lie in the weeds waiting for the chance to completely upend the competitive landscape at any moment between now and the end of the summer.

No doubt about the impact moves we’ve already seen since the end of last season:

  • The New York Mets replaced Jacob deGrom and Taijuan Walker with Justin Verlander and Kodai Senga on their 101-win, $355 million roster.
  • Not to be outdone, the American League-favorite New York Yankees added Carlos Rodón to Gerrit Cole at the front end of their rotation, while the playoff-minded Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies picked off deGrom and Walker in free agency.
  • And the World Series champs in Houston backfilled the loss of Verlander from an ample group of young arms without — they believe — missing a competitive beat.

But beware these four most intriguing pitchers with the chance to impact opponents’ best-laid plans this year:

The Prospect: Andrew Painter

MLB
Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The National League-champion Phillies are rightfully confident in a rotation that includes three All-Stars and their best pitcher in last year’s postseason, Ranger Suárez.

But many in the organization believe the 19-year-old Andrew Painter has the ceiling to be better than any of them. And if that starts this year, after an eye-popping three-level tour of the system last year, then he not only can become just the fifth teenager to pitch in the majors in the last 30 years but perhaps even make enough noise they’ll hear it from Queens to Atlanta to Southern California.

The injury X-factor: Kyle Hendricks

MLB
Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs spent more than $300 million — including $87 million on starters Jameson Taillon and Drew Smyly — to improve a 74-win belly-dragger in the NL Central. It bought them all of a 77.5-wins over/under line in Las Vegas and an only slightly-better ZIPS projection of 78 wins.

So what can change that significantly enough to give them a snowball’s chance of chasing down the Cardinals and Brewers in the NL Central.


Gordon Wittenmyer, MLB expert and former beat writer for NBC Sports Chicago and the Chicago Sun-Times. Get Gordon’s latest Sportsnaut Exclusive today!


A big-game pitcher who once beat Clayton Kershaw for a pennant, pitched brilliantly in a Game 7 start for the World Series championship of a century and who made the last three Opening Day starts for the Cubs.

 It’s a big if considering a capsular tear in his shoulder has sidelined him since June, but Hendricks is throwing again and if he returns by, say, mid-May (as he hopes), it could be the key to the Cubs’ season and seismic to the division race.

The trade chip of all trade chips: Shohei Ohtani

shohei ohtani
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

If the Los Angeles Angels can’t get an extension done with the MVP-Cy Young dual threat (and recent comments by his agent makes that look unlikely), and if they fall out of contention in the first half (as is their general habit), then it’ll take just two words to describe the July feeding frenzy of trade talks:

Holy. Crap.

You thought it took a haul for the San Diego Padres to land Juan Soto last year? Even two months of Ohtani before he hits free agency could change the outlook of an entire league’s landscape — if not the month of October.

The 10-foot-pole guy: Trevor Bauer

trevor bauer
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

If the immediate aftermath of his release from the Los Angeles Dodgers is any indication, Trevor Bauer is too hot for most (all?) teams to touch from a PR standpoint, maybe even a personal-tolerance standpoint, following a record-length suspension under the league’s and union’s joint domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy.

But he’s eligible again after more than a year on the restricted list, and the Dodgers are paying the 2020 Cy Young winner’s salary (minus the major-league minimum required for anyone signing him).

If somebody figures out a way to make a signing work in the clubhouse and among the fan base, the baseball effect could be as outsized as it might be immediate.

Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.

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