While the 2020 season was tough on everyone, it had to be especially difficult for players trying to acclimate to new situations.
The nine players below fall into the latter bucket. Their teams are counting on them to make significant improvements during Year 2 of their contracts.
Madison Bumgarner, LHP, D-backs
Contract: 5 years, $85 million
Pitching with dramatically reduced velocity, Bumgarner had trouble missing bats and avoiding hard contact in 2020. The left-hander had one of the lowest whiff rates and highest barrel rates in the Majors, a combination that contributed to a 6.48 ERA in 41 2/3 innings. The D-backs are going to need Bumgarner to rediscover some of his past glory to have any chance of competing with the powerhouse Dodgers and Padres in 2021, especially with ace Zac Gallen going down with a fractured forearm.
Nick Castellanos, OF, Reds
Contract: 4 years, $64 million with a 2024 mutual option
Castellanos was an early MVP candidate in the truncated 2020 season, posting a .272 average with nine homers, 20 RBIs and a 1.043 OPS in his first 22 games. But the slugger faded down the stretch and finished the season with a .225/.298/.486 slash line, while the Reds ranked 28th in MLB in runs per game (4.05). Castellanos’ 95th-percentile barrel rate, 92nd-percentile expected slugging percentage and 84th-percentile xwOBA suggest he is capable of much more with the bat.
Corey Dickerson, OF, Marlins
Contract: 2 years, $17.5 million
While Miami made a surprising postseason appearance in 2020, its pythagorean record was five wins worse than its actual record due to a -41 run differential. The Marlins’ pitching should be better in 2021, but they’ll need more from their offense if they are going to hang around in a competitive National League East. Miami signed outfielder Adam Duvall, but the team’s offensive personnel hasn’t changed much otherwise, placing the onus on veterans such as Dickerson to be better. After posting a 121 OPS+ from 2014-19, he finished with a 94 OPS+ last season, as his sweet-spot rate dropped by 16.7 percentage points from ’19 to ’20.
Josh Donaldson, 3B, Twins
Contract: 4 years, $92 million with a 2024 team option
Donaldson’s decision to take a one-year “pillow” contract with the Braves after an injury-plagued 2018 season paid off when his strong showing with Atlanta led to a four-year, $92 million deal with Minnesota. Donaldson actually recorded a better OPS+ in 2020 (131) than he did the previous year (126), but he missed nearly a month with a right calf strain and played just 28 games. While the White Sox have positioned themselves as the favorites in the American League Central, a healthy season from Donaldson could help the Twins hold off Chicago and win their third straight division crown.
Kyle Gibson, RHP, Rangers
Contract: 3 years, $28 million
A year after signing veteran innings eater Lance Lynn to a three-year, $30 million contract and watching him blossom into an ace in 2019, the Rangers tried to pull off a similar move by bringing in Gibson on a three-year contract. Gibson finished second on the club in innings (67 1/3) last season, but his ERA was 5.35, and his expected ERA was even worse (5.70). An improved performance from the 33-year-old likely wouldn’t be enough to help the Rangers contend for a playoff spot, but at least Gibson could turn himself into a more attractive trade chip for the club this summer.
Josh Lindblom, RHP, Brewers
Contract: 3 years, $9.125 million
Lindblom’s return from a three-year stint in the Korea Baseball Organization resulted in a 5.16 ERA with Milwaukee, but the right-hander’s underlying metrics -- including a 3.87 FIP and a 4.10 xERA -- suggest he was unlucky. Lindblom’s barrel, hard-hit and whiff rates all ranked in the 70th percentile or better. Even if he begins 2021 in the Brewers’ bullpen, the club is expecting him to shoulder a sizable workload.
Mike Moustakas, 2B/3B, Reds
Contract: 4 years, $64 million with 2024 team option
Moustakas’ final numbers -- eight homers and a 108 OPS+ in 44 games -- weren’t terrible, but he crammed a good deal of his production into the final week. The veteran slugger went 8-for-23 with three homers and four doubles in his last six games, increasing his OPS by 94 points in that span. Like Castellanos, the Reds are relying on Moustakas to provide more offensive consistency in 2021.
Tanner Roark, RHP, Blue Jays
Contract: 2 years, $24 million
The Blue Jays signed three free-agent pitchers to multiyear contracts after the 2019 season. The first year of Hyun Jin Ryu’s four-year, $80 million deal was a major success, but Shun Yamaguchi and Roark both struggled. Yamaguchi was released in February, but Roark is still here, and his ability to provide quality innings at the back of Toronto’s rotation could be important for a team that has a lot of uncertainty behind Ryu. Before recording a 6.80 ERA in 2020, the 34-year-old righty had a 4.46 ERA (99 ERA+) from ’17-19.
Will Smith, LHP, Braves
Contract: 3 years, $40 million with a 2023 team option
Signed to a three-year deal after an All-Star season with the Giants, Smith tested positive for COVID-19 during Summer Camp and made just one appearance in the team’s first 19 games a year ago. Once he returned, the left-hander recorded a sparkling 0.94 WHIP with a 10.1 K/9 rate, but seven of the 11 hits he allowed left the park, resulting in a 4.50 ERA. He also served up a go-ahead three-run blast to Dodgers catcher Will Smith in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series. With Mark Melancon and Shane Greene gone, Atlanta needs Smith to return to form in 2021.