It’s not uncommon for pending free agents to arrive on a new team in mid- or late-July looking to make a difference down the stretch and into October before cashing in on the Hot Stove.
In a way, that will still be happening in 2020. With the start of the season delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, players acquired during this past offseason won’t make their debuts in a new uniform until teams begin play July 23-24. For those who signed one-year deals or were acquired via trade with only a year of club control remaining, that means there’s a limited time in which to make an impact before potentially heading elsewhere.
It’s not what anyone had in mind, but there’s still an opportunity for these additions to work out well for both the teams and players. Here then is a look at 10 of the most critical potential cameos in 2020, with an eye toward the postseason races.
Note that this list does not include players who already debuted for their teams last year (Trevor Bauer, Marcus Stroman) or those who re-signed with the same team (Howie Kendrick, Jake Odorizzi). Players subject to 2021 club options (Edwin Encarnación, Corey Kluber, Starling Marte) or with opt-outs after this season (Nick Castellanos) are excluded, but they could wind up one-and-done with their new clubs.
Dodgers: RF Mookie Betts and RP Blake Treinen
The possibility of Betts never wearing Dodger Blue in a real game was an uncomfortable one for L.A. after the club gave up young outfielder Alex Verdugo and two talented prospects to acquire Betts from Boston in February. But the reality is that while the Dodgers would have loved to put one of the game’s elite players in their lineup 150-plus times this year, that bold move was always primarily about October. Even with the 60-game schedule, the Dodgers have MLB’s highest odds of making the playoffs (86%) and winning their division (73%), per FanGraphs. The big question is whether Betts can help the seven-time defending National League West champs finally claim that championship ring before becoming next offseason’s most coveted prize.
Treinen arrived without nearly so much fanfare, signing after the A’s non-tendered him. The righty struggled mightily in 2019 (4.91 ERA) and lost the closer's job, but as recently as 2018, he was a dominant force (0.78 ERA, sixth in AL Cy Young Award voting). Something closer to that version of Treinen would be a huge boon to a Dodgers bullpen that has dealt with its share of issues.
Braves: LF Marcell Ozuna and SP Cole Hamels
Atlanta lost Josh Donaldson after his 37-homer 2019 but filled that void by signing Ozuna to a one-year deal. While Ozuna’s numbers weren’t spectacular over two seasons in St. Louis (106 OPS+), his Statcast metrics show that he remains one of the game’s hardest hitters, and underperformed his expected stats by more than any other regular. If Ozuna’s production falls more in line with his quality of contact in 2020, it could help the Braves hold off a tough NL East field for the third straight year and look for their first playoff series victory since 2001.
While Ozuna subs in for Donaldson, Hamels inherits Dallas Keuchel’s role as Atlanta’s veteran lefty in a talented young rotation, after also inking a one-year deal. The 36-year-old is no longer an ace, but the Braves don’t need him to be. Hamels has posted an ERA+ between 115 and 120 in three consecutive seasons, and more of that sort of stellar pitching just might get the 2008 World Series MVP another shot at ring No. 2.
Mets: SP Rick Porcello and RP Dellin Betances
The 2019 season was highly disappointing for both of these right-handers, but in different ways. Porcello took the ball every fifth day as usual, making at least 32 starts for the fourth straight season. But the 2016 American League Cy Young Award winner watched his ERA skyrocket to a career-high 5.52 as his tenure in Boston came to an end. If Porcello re-establishes himself as at least a dependable mid-rotation starter, it would be big for a Mets staff missing Noah Syndergaard.
Meanwhile, Betances’ 2019 season consisted of only one Major League appearance. It came in September, when he returned from a right shoulder injury and promptly hurt his left Achilles. Before that, Betances threw MLB’s most relief innings from 2014-18, when he was a highly effective strikeout machine. A healthy Betances would take some pressure off Edwin Díaz and be among next offseason’s top available relievers.
Phillies: SS Didi Gregorius
Both Gregorius and the Phillies are hoping to put 2019 behind them. The veteran shortstop mostly struggled at the plate for the Yankees after returning from Tommy John surgery in June, while Philly couldn’t ride a splashy offseason and strong start back to October. The club brought in Joe Girardi to take the helm, and Sir Didi to once again man shortstop for him, looking to return to his above-average offensive production from 2017-18. There’s still time for '20 to turn out better for both parties.
Twins: SP Rich Hill
When Minnesota signed Hill and fellow veteran starter Homer Bailey to one-year contracts, it was with the knowledge that the left-hander was not expected to return from elbow surgery until June. Now, with the season starting in late July, that’s no longer an issue. For the 40-year-old Hill, it’s about quality, not quantity. When he was able to pitch last year, he posted a 2.45 ERA in 13 starts. It just so happens that such a workload represents the ceiling for a pitcher in 2020, when the Twins will be looking to repeat as AL Central champs and make a deep October run.
Indians: 2B César Hernández
It wasn’t a splashy offseason for Cleveland, but the club’s low-risk plays on two non-tendered hitters -- Hernández and slugger Domingo Santana -- still could pay off as the Indians try to return to the playoffs. That all depends on whether Hernández can make an adjustment to rediscover the approach that yielded an 11.6% walk rate and .366 OBP with the Phillies from 2016-18, before his numbers tumbled last year. If so, the switch-hitter can rebuild some value and create more traffic for the big bats in Cleveland’s lineup.
Brewers: SP Brett Anderson
The shortened schedule means Craig Counsell doesn’t have to figure out how to get 162 starts out of his rotation, but Milwaukee is still going to need some starters to step up in what figures to be a highly competitive division race. Anderson is one of the newcomers to that group, along with Josh Lindblom and Eric Lauer, and the Brew Crew will hope he can replicate last year’s sub-4.00 ERA. That will be easier said than done while moving from the spacious Oakland Coliseum to Miller Park.