A version of this column ran in early March and, my, those were simpler times.
The baseball season, like so much of life, has been dramatically altered by COVID-19. The unprecedented nature of a 60-game schedule taking place during a global pandemic throws most, if not all, analysis out the window.
But because every game in the 2020 schedule will have the importance of 2.7 games in a 162-game schedule, the impact a single player can make on his team’s bottom line is unusually pronounced. Same goes for the impact of a player absence.
So let’s take another look at this list of indispensable players, with a few tweaks due to the changed circumstances. Keep in mind: Simply sorting last year’s Wins Above Replacement leaders does not do the job, because each season is its own entity with its own demands. And that’s more true in 2020 than ever.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 1B
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: John Means, LHP
With the O’s best player, Trey Mancini, expected to miss the 2020 season due to his battle with colon cancer, John Means is all the more meaningful. He had a strong rookie showing in 2019 (3.60 ERA, 131 ERA+) and will have to navigate a particularly precarious schedule against the heavyweights of the AL and NL East.
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 easygoing soul of this squad. He dealt with elbow soreness in the original Spring Training, and the Rays need him at full strength, because -- especially in a shortened season -- they have the pitching to take down the Yankees.
Red Sox: Xander Bogaerts, SS
Given their cloudy pitching picture (Chris Sale is out for the year, after all), Boston’s path to prominence in 2020 would almost certainly need 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 AL Most Valuable Player Award voting.
Yankees: Gerrit Cole, RHP
Gerrit Cole was an obvious candidate for this spot the moment the ink dried on the mega-contract that calls on him to get the Yanks over the ALCS hump. He became an even more obvious choice when Luis Severino had season-ending Tommy John surgery in February.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Indians: Francisco Lindor, SS
By virtue of his buoyant bat, 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 start of the truncated 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
If the Tigers are going to shock the baseball world this season, their system rich in pitching prospects would likely have to contribute to the cause. That includes not just Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft and MLB Pipeline’s No. 7 overall prospect, but also Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal. For now, it’s unclear when or if they’ll make their debuts in 2020.
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 (4.64 ERA after the All-Star break).
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 Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez will go a long way toward determining whether this club is actually ready to contend.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
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: Mike Trout, CF
In the original version of this piece, I boldly put Shohei Ohtani in this spot for 2020, with a nuanced explanation that, because Anthony Rendon’s arrival raises the Halos’ offensive floor and their starting pitching has plenty to prove from both a health and production standpoint, Ohtani’s return to an elite level on the mound (while also batting in the heart of the order on his DH days) is absolutely vital for this ballclub’s competitive hopes. But look, life is too short and our world has enough discord. I don’t need to get the same angry e-mail mail twice. Mike Trout it is! Everybody happy now?
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. The 37-year-old Justin Verlander dealt with a strained lat muscle and had groin surgery in March, but the delay to the season bought him time to heal.
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. It could very well be that he just spends this season in the Mariners’ pool of extra players and doesn’t sniff the big leagues. But he’s had a great Summer Camp to maintain the hope that we see him at some point in the 60-game schedule.
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. He missed the early part of Summer Camp recovering from COVID-19, but he is back now, and Texas will go as Gallo goes in 2020.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Ronald Acuña Jr., OF
It is (increasingly) Ronald Acuña Jr.'s league, and we’re just living in it. He quite nearly had a 40-homer, 40-steal season (he fell three steals shy) as a 21-year-old, which is a pretty amazing template to be working off of going into 2020. OK, so he probably won’t go 40-40 in a 60-game schedule. But darn if he won’t try.
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 Bryce Harper's 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 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.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
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 Christian Yelich, 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. He suffered a shoulder injury in a swimming pool mishap earlier this year, but is expected to be good to go now.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
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. If I were a Dodgers fan, I’d be more concerned if Walker Buehler were to suddenly turn up lame, because, in that scenario (and in the wake of David Price opting out of the season), the rotation would be even more reliant on the older arm of Clayton Kershaw and the still-unproven arm of Julio Urías. Buehler has emerged as the stud of this starting five.
Giants: Evan Longoria, 3B
He’s a ways removed from those wonderful seasons with the Rays. But with Buster Posey having opted out, Evan Longoria is the closest thing a Giants team heavy on platoon options has to a true everyday player. And with this club in a clear transitory state, his influence on the next generation of Giants is important.
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 the Padres look like if that proves to be his norm in a 60-game slate?
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.