Baseball teams are a collective. The impact of a single individual is limited by the format of the sport, the length of the season, the size of the roster. Last year, the Nationals didn’t just survive the departure of their former franchise face in free agency; they won the whole darn thing.
All that said, certain individuals stand out in a crowd, and that leads to this annual conversation about indispensable players -- the guys who will be most responsible for dictating the direction of their respective clubs in 2020. (Here’s last year’s version of this exercise, if you’re interested.)
It’s not enough to just sort last year’s Wins Above Replacement leaders and go from there, because every season is its own entity with its own demands. So some of these picks might look askew to you. Just hear me out … and then debate away. For the most part, we’re only including guys already on the 26-man roster, but in a couple of cases, we are naming prospects who are likely to debut this year.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B
It is true that other Toronto youngsters -- Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. -- outperformed Vladito in a limited sample last season. But wherever the Blue Jays are headed, whatever they become, whenever they return to contention (and that could possibly be this year if it all comes together), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is going to lead the way.
Orioles: Trey Mancini, OF
At a time when the O’s are clearly rebuilding, Trey Mancini stands as the most accomplished everyday player and the guy who fans gravitate toward. Adley Rutschman, the No. 1 overall pick in last June’s Draft and the club’s top prospect is another acceptable answer, though it’s unclear if he will debut this year.
Rays: Blake Snell, LHP
I’ll forever wonder what October 2019, in which the Rays pushed the Astros to Game 5 in the American League Division Series, might have looked like had Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow been at full strength. Glasnow could just as easily be the pick here because he’s a monster in the making, but Snell is more established and best represents the easy-going soul of this squad. The left elbow soreness he’s dealt with in camp is a concern, because rival evaluators point to the pitching potential as the reason the Rays could keep the mighty Yankees honest this year.
Red Sox: Xander Bogaerts, SS
With injuries clouding their pitching picture, Boston’s path to prominence in 2020 would almost certainly have to involve an overpowering offense. While the young Rafael Devers was every bit as brilliant at the plate in '19, in the wake of the Mookie Betts trade, this is Xander Bogaerts’ team. Last year, he had a .939 OPS and finished fifth in the AL Most Valuable Player Award voting.
Yankees: Gerrit Cole, RHP
Gleyber Torres’ upside and importance to the lineup is augmented by the injury issues currently affecting Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. But Gerrit Cole was an obvious candidate for this spot the moment the ink dried on the $324 million contract that calls on him to get the Yanks over the ALCS hump. He’s even more obvious as the choice now that Luis Severino is going to miss all of 2020.
Indians: Francisco Lindor, SS
By virtue of his leadoff lumber, defensive brilliance and overall energy, Francisco Lindor is the heart and soul of this squad. The only question, because of the ticking free-agent clock and finances involved, is whether the Indians will actually dispense of this indispensable piece should the first half of the 2020 season go awry.
Royals: Whit Merrifield, 2B
He plays everywhere, maintains a focused plate presence (new manager Mike Matheny took the bold step of comparing Whit Merrifield to prime-age Albert Pujols just for the way he doesn’t give away at-bats) and plays with a fervor that is a terrific template for the younger members of the Royals to follow as they get acclimated to the big leagues.
Tigers: Casey Mize, RHP
We’re pulling for a Miguel Cabrera comeback, but this team is turning over in a hurry. And it’s likely that, at some point this summer, a rotation spot will be turned over to Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft and MLB Pipeline’s No. 7 overall prospect. The Tigers need this to be the year that Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal provide hope for better days ahead.
Twins: José Berríos, RHP
The addition of Josh Donaldson greatly increases the odds that the Twins will keep pouring on the runs. Still, they need their starting rotation to rise up if they’re going to not only defend their AL Central crown but advance in October. In the current cast, José Berríos’ potential is unmatched. He had a strong 2019 (3.68 ERA, 124 ERA+ in 200 1/3 innings) but seemed to hit a wall in the second half and must learn to push through.
White Sox: Yasmani Grandal, C
He was the first acquisition of a busy offseason on the South Side for a reason. Yasmani Grandal not only lengthens a burgeoning Sox lineup but, through his game-calling and elite pitch-framing, can significantly impact the performance of a pitching staff in which the big league development of young right-handers Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez will go a long way toward determining whether this club is actually ready to contend.
A’s: Matt Chapman, 3B
A gifted defender (consecutive Platinum Gloves), Matt Chapman elevated to elite offensive standing in the second half of 2018 and kept it going last year to cement himself on the short list of the game’s best overall players. MLB’s most underrated lineup revolves around him.
Angels: Shohei Ohtani, DH/RHP
Overthinking it? Guilty! Because yes, Mike Trout is still on the Angels. But listen: The addition of Anthony Rendon raised this club’s offensive floor and eases some of the pressure on Trout, as could the eventual promotion of Jo Adell. Shohei Ohtani, though, is capable of elite impact both offensively and on the mound, where the Angels have had a continually problematic run of injuries. They desperately need him to make a seamless return to pitching duty in May.
Astros: Justin Verlander, RHP
Hey, we’re all curious to see how the Astros respond to unprecedented scrutiny in 2020. But at the end of the day, the most meaningful change from last year to this year is the departure of Cole and the questions it creates in a rotation fronted by two guys north of 35. An injury and/or regression from a 37-year-old Justin Verlander would set Houston back in a big way.
Mariners: Jarred Kelenic, OF
At the risk of heaping too much on a 20-year-old who has yet to make his Major League debut, Jarred Kelenic, acquired in last year’s Robinson Canó/Edwin Díaz trade and rated as MLB Pipeline’s No. 11 overall prospect, is likely to be a -- or the -- central figure of the next great Mariners team, and his continued development in the first half (and potential in-season callup) will be a central focus in Seattle this season.
Rangers: Joey Gallo, OF
Joey Gallo was on an MVP-level track last season before an oblique injury and a hamate bone fracture intervened. His importance to this lineup was only further emphasized by the Rangers’ inability to land one of the big bats in the Hot Stove market. Texas will go as Gallo goes in 2020.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Ronald Acuña Jr., OF
Freddie Freeman is the leader of this team, and here’s hoping elbow issues don’t hamper him at all in 2020. That said, it is (increasingly) Ronald Acuña Jr.'s league, and we’re just living in it. He quite nearly had a 40-homer, 40-steals season (he fell three steals shy) as a 21-year-old, which is a pretty amazing template to be working off of going into his second full season.
Marlins: Sixto Sanchez, RHP
To their credit, the Marlins have made attempts to improve their competitiveness in 2020. But their focus is still on the future, and nobody in their system commands as much interest as this J.T. Realmuto trade acquisition, who manager Don Mattingly already jokes is a first-name-only type of celebrity (just call him “Sixto”) in Miami. Now, MLB Pipeline’s No. 22 overall prospect just needs to debut in 2020 … and be the guiding light in a rebuild centered largely around pitching.
Mets: Jacob deGrom, RHP
With the gains the Mets have made offensively -- in no small part because of Pete Alonso’s emergence -- preseason projections love this team. But consecutive Cy Young Awards further seal Jacob deGrom's standing as the straw that stirs the drink in Queens. There are other highly capable arms here, but deGrom’s the one to actually reach his elite ceiling and stay up there.
Nationals: Juan Soto, OF
Even I am upset with myself for not selecting Max Scherzer, and this club will continue to rely on its great rotation. But Juan Soto helped the Nats survive and thrive after the Bryce Harper departure, and he’s doubly important now that Anthony Rendon is gone. Soto has a 140 adjusted OPS+ in 1,153 plate appearances through his age-20 season -- a level previously reached at that age (and in that many trips to the plate) only by Hall of Famer Mel Ott.
Phillies: J.T. Realmuto, C
It’s a Bryce Harper-led bunch, no doubt. But this is a guy even Harper raves about. As with Grandal (and, for that matter, Ohtani), J.T. Realmuto is the rare player who greatly impacts both the pitching plan and the offensive side of the equation. Realmuto and Grandal are the only catchers with at least 1,000 plate appearances and a wRC+ better than league average over the past two seasons, and Realmuto’s arm strength and framing make him one of the best defensive catchers in the game. Oh, and he’s a free agent next winter, which gives his season an extra element of intrigue.
Brewers: Christian Yelich, OF
Josh Hader occupied this spot last year and arguably could again, given the overall complexion of the Brewers' pitching staff and the reliance on a bullish bullpen. But the losses of Grandal and Mike Moustakas only add to the importance of the 2018 NL MVP. And though the Brewers thrived late in the 2019 regular season without him, something tells me they’d much rather have their newly extended star for the duration of this year's campaign.
Cardinals: Jack Flaherty, RHP
The Cards didn’t tap their full offensive potential last year and might in 2020. But this is still likely to be a pitching-based ballclub, and Jack Flaherty has not taken long to assert himself as a genuine force of nature. His 0.91 ERA in the second half last season pointed the way toward a National League Central crown, and he’ll be the chief navigator again in 2020.
Cubs: Javier Báez, SS
There are plenty of reasons why the Cubs sputtered in September again in 2019, but Javier Báez logging just one plate appearance after Sept. 1 because of a thumb injury was a huge one. They feed off his offense, defense and overall energy.
Pirates: Josh Bell, 1B
It’s no secret the Buccos have a lot of heavy lifting to do before they’re ready to vie for the NL Central crown again. But in the meantime, who doesn’t love watching Josh Bell bash baseballs into the Allegheny? The 27-year-old took a monumental step forward with a .277/.367/.569 slash, 37 homers and 37 doubles in 2019.
Reds: Eugenio Suárez, 3B
As one of the world’s foremost Joey Votto fans, it pains me to admit the offensive focal point of this lineup has shifted across the diamond. But a .912 OPS and 83 homers over the past two seasons at the hot corner from Eugenio Suárez make that shift unmistakable. Will the shoulder injury he suffered in a swimming pool mishap that has prevented him from taking the field so far this spring have a big impact on the Reds’ big hopes?
D-backs: Ketel Marte, 2B
He’s not Arizona’s only Marte anymore after the addition of Starling. But Ketel Marte's breakout to a level worthy of MVP votes last year is the biggest reason this ballclub had a respectable finish even after the Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke trades. The D-backs are hoping the reduced running that comes with his full-time move back to second base from center field eases the burden on his body.
Dodgers: Walker Buehler, RHP
Cody Bellinger is an MVP-caliber asset at whatever position he happens to play on a given day, and Mookie Betts is Mookie Betts. But the presence of one would help account for the absence of another. Were I a Dodgers fan, I’d be more concerned if Walker Buehler were to suddenly turn up lame, because, in that scenario, the rotation would be even more reliant on the older arms of Clayton Kershaw and David Price and the still-unproven arm of Julio Urías. Buehler has emerged as the stud of this starting five.
Giants: Buster Posey, C/1B
His arrival a decade ago ushered in a downright dynastic era for the Giants, and now, he’s one of the last remnants of those runs. Posey is far from the offensive player he once was, but even with catching prospect Joey Bart closing in on the big leagues, he has, at the very least, a viable, valuable role mentoring role in an evolving clubhouse.
Padres: Fernando Tatis Jr., SS
One of the game’s most electric players. That doesn’t mean Fernando Tatis Jr. doesn’t still have a lot to learn with regard to plate approach and refining his defensive game. But he wasted no time living up to his prospect pedigree in an absolute tease of an 84-game sample last year. What will he look like if he can post up for six months? And as a result, what will the Padres look like?
Rockies: Nolan Arenado, 3B
Seven Gold Gloves. Four Silver Sluggers. A fiery demeanor between the lines that others feed off. This is Nolan Arenado's team. For how long? Who knows? But it’s his team right now.