Sometimes, seasons just go sideways on you. Mike Trout once hit .220 in a season. (Sure, his first season, and in only 135 plate appearances, but still.) Maybe you suffered some nagging injuries. Maybe you had some off-the-field concerns. Maybe it was just one of those years when all the luck went against you. It doesn’t mean your career is over. One year can just be that: one year.
At least, that’s what this list of onetime stars who fell on hard times in 2020 are hoping. These are players who once stood atop this sport but came crashing down to earth in '19. They’re not just desperate to get their careers back in track in '20; they’ve got teams absolutely relying on them to do so.
Here’s betting these five have plenty of arrows left in their quivers. Here’s betting they leave 2019 long in their rearview mirror.
1. Khris Davis, OF, A’s
One of the most remarkable streaks in all of baseball history ended last year. Khris Davis, the prodigious slugger for the A’s, hit only .220. That’s not particularly remarkable in and of itself -- and we probably shouldn’t be messing around with batting average anyway -- except for what had happened every single season from 2015-18: Davis had hit exactly .247. That is nearly impossible to do even if you are trying.
But the downward tilt for Davis had little to do with his batting average. His OBP fell nearly 30 points, and his power, the thing he always had going for him, ran away from him: He only hit 23 homers, less than half of what he’d hit the season before. In a year when power was at an all-time high, he had 43 fewer extra-base hits than he’d had the year before.
He might not reach the 48-homer highs of 2018, and he has had a bit of a calf injury to start camp, but it’s difficult to imagine him not bouncing back somewhat this year. He is, after all, only 32 years old: This is supposed to still be his prime. Teammate Matt Chapman says if Davis bounces back, the A’s will win the American League West. Davis absolutely has the skills to make it happen.
2. Edwin Díaz, RHP, Mets
There isn’t a ton of logic to what happened to Edwin Díaz in 2019. He went from being the most dominant closer in baseball, notching 57 saves with a 1.96 ERA at the age of 24 in Seattle, to being an absolute disaster in New York, putting up a stunning 5.59 ERA and giving up nearly a hit an inning.
His arm seemed to be fine in 2019, and he claims it was more an issue with his mechanics. All told, it’s not like his stuff went away; his 39.0% strikeout rate was still top five among qualified closers.
Of course, his walk and home runs rate went up, but he can still strike people out, and that’s an excellent place to start. The Mets are a competitive team this year, far more competitive than what Díaz had in Seattle, and they’ll need him to at least be an average closer. He’s only 25 years old, so it’s not like his talent went away. Diaz is as good a bet to bounce back as anyone on this list.
3. Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Cubs
One positive for Craig Kimbrel in 2020 has already happened: He’s out throwing and running and playing in Spring Training. That he has appeared at all, rather than waiting around for someone to call him or his agent, is an excellent sign. We can all argue whether or not Kimbrel’s long layoff (he didn’t sign until June) was the primary reason for his '19 struggles or just a contributing factor, but clearly something was up: He gave up the most home runs (9) he’d ever given up in his entire career despite only throwing 20 2/3 innings. It was bizarre to witness.
There were signs that Kimbrel had been slowing a bit even in 2018, but he was still an effective closer. That hasn’t vanished, and with a full Spring Training and a team that is paying him big money to be a stabilizing force in the bullpen, he’ll have every opportunity to resemble the top-shelf closer we saw for most of the last decade.
4. Justin Upton, LF, Angels
Justin Upton was brought to Anaheim to give Trout more protection in the lineup, and it’s a telling sign of his 2019 that they had to go out and get Anthony Rendon to do the same thing this offseason. Upton, who has been a consistent and underrated offensive force for more than a decade, struggled with injuries last year but wasn’t particularly effective when he did play. The power was there, 12 homers in 63 games, but everything else went haywire, and he put up career lows in all categories.
Upton says his knee is fine for 2020, and, even better, he’s no longer being counted on to be Trout’s primary protection. “I’ll be the guy that nobody’s worried about, which is fun,” he has said. He still has two more years under contract with the Angels, and they are key years, for him, for Trout, for the Angels in total. This is the best lineup he has played in since coming to Anaheim. If he’s truly healthy, it’s all set up for him.
5. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
It is a cruel irony that, after years of Joey Votto being brilliant, the best thing the Reds had going on, the year he finally got some support from his pitching staff was the year he stopped hitting. It was downright bizarre to watch Votto in 2019. This Hall of Fame-caliber hitter seemed to lose his hit tool entirely, with his OBP dropping 60 full points (and 100 points from '17) and his walks dropping at a crazy rate. Tellingly, the man who was intentionally walked 20 times in '17 only got two in '19.
Votto typically has more walks than strikeouts, but in 2019, he had 47 more K's than walks, a crazy number that couldn’t possibly repeat itself. Votto might not be the superstar he once was. But this is still a guy who led the National League in OBP seven times, including three years in a row from 2016-18. He has plenty of thunder in that lineup around him, and a team that, at last, is gearing up to win right now. Votto could be one of the key players in the National League. Vintage Votto might just get Cincinnati to the postseason.