Every year since 2013, I’ve written up a list of players to monitor during the coming baseball season. It’s called the All-MLB.TV Team, because these players are so fun or so interesting that avid baseball fans ought to go out of their way to watch them.
For good or ill, it seems that there will be an MLB season in 2020, and it will likely be the weirdest in the history of the sport. Consider the unprecedented travel and behavioral restrictions teams are enduring in order to try to play safely amid the coronavirus pandemic. The National League is adopting the designated hitter for the first time ever. There will be no minor league baseball this year. MLB teams will start the season with 30-man rosters, the largest ever on Opening Day. Pitchers who ramped up to the original March start date then shut down for three months are now trying to get back to game fitness—so usage and injury patterns will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
And then there’s the 60-game schedule, which is the shortest in MLB history. Teams will play a modified regional slate of games, with clubs playing only four of their 14 intraleague opponents all regular season. For some idea of how radical that is: The Cubs and Braves aren’t scheduled to meet this year, a feat that hasn’t happened since 1873, or three years before the telephone was invented. Any one of these changes would represent a titanic shift; taken in concert, they’re a recipe for utter chaos.
While the unprecedented structure of the season demands attention and examination, it’s important to remember that these changes are necessary because of the pandemic. Players are taking real risk in choosing to play this season, and it seems inappropriately exuberant to celebrate them based on entertainment value alone. Therefore, this year’s All-MLB.TV Team will include players who are not just fun, but important and unpredictable, especially positioned either to shape the shortened season or to be shaped by it. And, at least for this year, the structure of the list will be different: rather than name two players per position, I’ll name one, with a few wild-card selections tacked on at the end to round out the group.
Catcher: J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies
In a position frequently dominated by framing wizards and catch-and-throw guys, the beefy, frequently sleeveless Oklahoman is one of the best hitters and all-around athletes behind the plate. But he’s on this list for three reasons. First, he’s one of the stars of a Phillies team that’s had three big offseasons in a row and still can’t break .500. Another third- or fourth-place finish could make things quite uncomfortable in Philadelphia.
Second, though Realmuto and the Phillies seem to be relatively happy in their partnership, Realmuto has declined to sign a long-term deal out of a well-documented sense of obligation to reset the market for catcher pay. The two sides appeared to be making progress toward such an agreement during spring training, but the four-month transaction freeze stymied momentum, and now that a shortened season and empty stadiums have thrust the game’s economics into a state of uncertainty, it’s likely Realmuto will test free agency next offseason.
Third, a star player in a contract year for a high-variance club is compelling enough, but Realmuto has stated his intention to play every single game this year, which is unheard of for a catcher. Realmuto logged more innings behind the plate last year than any catcher in baseball, and with just 60 games on the schedule, he figures he can still play first base or DH on days when he doesn’t catch. It’s not out of character for catchers with some offensive ability to moonlight as first basemen—Yasmani Grandal made 16 starts at first last year and appeared in 153 games total—but having a catcher appear in literally every single game would be a stunning development.
First Base/DH: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
Vladito made this team last year before he’d played a game in the majors, as he was the most highly anticipated hitting prospect since Bryce Harper. But in 123 games, Guerrero underwhelmed somewhat, posting an OPS+ of just 106—impressive for a 20-year-old rookie, but not exactly the torrid start he’d hoped for. He was outshined not just in production but also entertainment value by teammate Bo Bichette.
This season, Guerrero is moving from third base to first. In the short term, this shift accommodates newcomer Travis Shaw and replaces outgoing first baseman Justin Smoak. In the medium term, it clears a path for 2020 first-rounder Austin Martin, a defensive polymath who could slot in at the hot corner as soon as next season.
It also relieves the defensive burden on Guerrero, who was always a bit of a stretch at third base, and allows him to concentrate on hitting, which he does with a combination of comfort and ferocious power matched by few in baseball. Calling Guerrero’s 2019 season disappointing speaks more to the outrageous expectations he faces than anything else, but it’s reasonable to expect big things from a player this talented.
Second Base: Nick Madrigal, Chicago White Sox
The White Sox have some financial incentive to screw with Madrigal’s service time and leave him at satellite camp to open the season. But if they don’t, the 2018 no. 4 pick will immediately have the best bat-to-ball skills of any player in MLB. Last year, across three minor league levels, Madrigal struck out 16 times in 532 plate appearances. In three seasons at Oregon State, where he won a national championship in 2018, he struck out just 37 times in 707 plate appearances.
Madrigal is better at putting the ball in play than any player since Ichiro, and if he gets called up early enough, that ability could win the diminutive rookie a batting title in his first trip around the league.
Shortstop: Fernando Tatís, San Diego Padres
Almost every MLB team has a starting shortstop whose playing style and personality range from “interesting” to “an absolute riot.” Nevertheless, Andrelton Simmons has owned this position on this list for the past seven years. Simmons is better with a glove in his hand—more graceful, more creative, more capable of expanding the realm of the possible with a single throw—than any baseball player of the past 25 years.
This year, though, I’m replacing Simmons with Tatís. This is happening for three reasons. The first is that Tatís has a lot to prove in 2020. Last year, Pete Alonso was a deserving near-unanimous NL Rookie of the Year. But when Tatís was on the field (injuries limited him to 84 games) he was substantially better: Despite playing a more demanding defensive position in a tougher park, Tatís outslugged the Mets first baseman in 2019. If he can stay on the field, Tatís has no-doubt MVP potential. At this point, Simmons is a known quantity, while Tatís is a work in progress.
The second reason is that Tatís is an absolutely fearless base runner. In an increasingly station-to-station game, Tatís will just haul ass until he scores, makes an out, or sees that someone else is already using the next bag.
Third, Tatís has reverse Altuve syndrome. We expect fast guys and good defensive middle infielders to be small. Tatís’s father, a corner infielder who frequently hit cleanup behind Mark McGwire, was just 5-foot-11. Tatís fils, by contrast, is listed at 6-foot-3 and looks even taller, with shoulders broad enough to make it impossible to buy suits off the rack. The first time I saw Tatís in person, I wanted to send his game film to my colleague Danny Kelly to see how he profiled as a 3-4 outside linebacker. In a position filled to overflowing with exciting players, Tatís stands above the rest.
Third Base: Alex Bregman, Houston Astros
Bregman is the reigning AL MVP runner-up, a third baseman who plays like a shortstop, a hitter who knocked 41 home runs last year while walking 36 more times than he struck out, and a 26-year-old who’s added 100 points of OPS to his batting line with each full season in the majors. Bregman is also a natural showman, an inveterate trash talker, and acutely aware he’s in the entertainment business.
But at some point, people are going to remember all that sign-stealing business from this winter, and the baseball-watching world will recall that the best player on the best team in the American League is also the biggest heel on the most hateable team in the American League. There probably won’t be any fans in the stands this season, but this unholy hybrid of Albert Pujols and Aaron Craft could still get booed by an empty building.
Outfield: Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers
Betts is the consensus second-best position player in the game. He combines speed, defense, and power in a fashion few players in history have ever exhibited. Moreover, he changed leagues and coasts this past winter in one of the most astonishing trade sagas of the past decade, leaving him to play alongside the reigning NL MVP (Cody Bellinger) on the heavy NL pennant favorite for one year before inviting the biggest free agent payday in baseball history. If the Dodgers had been able to play 162 games this season, they could have launched a serious challenge to the all-time wins record. Now that they’re playing only 60, every inning will take on even greater significance for Betts.
Outfield: Luis Robert, Chicago White Sox
Luis Robert hits bombs even when he’s falling. pic.twitter.com/GVRkj42FZd— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) July 11, 2020
What is power? Power is losing your balance mid-swing and falling over but still hitting the ball out to center field. Robert, who signed a six-year contract this offseason, will break camp with the White Sox, a potential playoff team that’s stocked with young talent. And the five-tool center fielder is foremost among Chicago’s arsenal of impressive rookies.
But for the Sox to break their 11-year playoff drought, they have to come out of the gate hot. And that’s not always a guarantee: As a rookie in 2016, Bregman went hitless in his first five big league games, and went 2-for-42 in his first 10. If Robert gets off to a start like that, he’ll have oh-fer’d about 15 percent of his season and probably left the White Sox with a serious uphill climb. It’s a lot of pressure for a 22-year-old rookie, but such is life under the 2020 schedule.
Outfield: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. is a more exciting player, but it feels pretty safe to count on him to be spectacular in every sense of the word. Judge, however, has quietly struggled to stay healthy since his record-breaking rookie year. He’s missed 110 games over the past two seasons, and was primed to sit out the first couple months of the 2020 season with a rib injury until the whole league shut down. Now, the biggest and hardest-hitting outfielder in baseball history is ready for action.
Starting Pitcher: Corey Kluber, Texas Rangers
Kluber was only healthy enough to make seven starts in 2019, and in those starts he allowed 23 earned runs in 35 2/3 innings. But just one season before, Kluber finished third in Cy Young voting, his fourth podium finish (including two wins) in five years. It was only four years ago that Kluber put Cleveland on his back and carried the team to within an inning of a World Series title. When he’s healthy, Kluber combines quantity and quality like few pitchers in the game.
If he can return to anything approaching his previous form, he’ll lead a Rangers rotation that includes Lance Lynn and Mike Minor—both Cy Young vote getters in 2019—plus newcomer Kyle Gibson. That’s suddenly a pretty scary group. Not quite as good as Houston’s on paper, but with Gerrit Cole gone and the 60-game schedule serving as a fire hose for unexpected results, Kluber could swing the AL West race.
Relief Pitcher: Diego Castillo, Tampa Bay Rays
Last year’s Rays pitching staff was one of the best top to bottom, thanks in large part to its depth. Castillo was neither the most effective nor the most famous pitcher in Tampa Bay’s bullpen, but he was a high-velocity, high-volume reliever who saved eight games and started six more as an opener. Plus, in Game 4 of the ALDS, he mowed through the vaunted Astros lineup.
Castillo’s fastball sits in the upper 90s with ferocious arm-side movement, and when he reaches into his quiver for a breaking ball, he can loop a slider in and out of the zone to tease right-handed hitters and tie up lefties. But more than his repertoire or numbers, I love Castillo’s mound presence. I don’t want my relief ace to have inch-perfect command, like Mariano Rivera, or textbook mechanics, like Jonathan Papelbon. I want a gourd-shaped dude with socks up to his kneecaps and hair spilling out the back of his cap, flinging absolute filth from an upright, herky-jerky delivery. Precision is overrated.
Two-Way Player: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
Like Judge, Ohtani would not have been fully healthy for Opening Day had the season started in late March, but he should be ready to go by the end of July. Three years into his career, Ohtani is no longer a novelty act, but it’s easy to forget that he’s made only 10 big league starts. Every Ohtani appearance is a must-watch just because there’s no player on Earth quite like him. But like Tatís, he has to show that he can be spectacular not just in flashes, but over an entire MLB season.
Obligatory Fast Guy: Adalberto Mondesi, Kansas City Royals
I’m not sure there’s a player in MLB who spends less of his time standing still or walking than Mondesi. He played just 102 games in 2019, but still tied for the MLB lead in triples (10) and finished second in stolen base attempts (50), while walking just 19 times in 443 plate appearances. Zack Greinke has a higher career walk rate as a hitter than Mondesi does.
Electrifying Pitcher Who Ought to Be More Famous: Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
Sonny Gray is going to be Cincinnati’s Opening Day starter, and Trevor Bauer is the biggest name in the rotation, but Castillo is the best pitcher on a Reds team that could be surprisingly feisty this season. The skinny 6-foot-2 right-hander can run his lively fastball up to 99 miles per hour, but his out pitch is a gorgeous upper-80s changeup with nearly a foot of arm-side run.
In the internet age, market size is less of an obstacle to stardom than at any point in baseball history, but it still matters. The only reason Castillo isn’t as famous as, say, Walker Buehler (who’s an excellent pitcher), is that Buehler plays in Los Angeles for a team that’s in the NLCS every year, while Castillo plays in Cincinnati for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013. If the Reds are competitive this year, Castillo will be a big reason why—and he’ll become a household name as a result.