Baseball is back!
The road wasn’t a smooth one – the players and owners never actually reached a negotiated agreement – but that’s a story for another day. Today, baseball will be back in our living rooms in a matter of weeks, and that’s cause for celebration.
What has rightfully been cause for skepticism is how baseball is returning. This won’t be a 162-game marathon stretching six full months before reaching a playoff field, but it will rather be a 60-game sprint covering just more than two months. Additionally, the dreaded (or perhaps anticipated) designated hitter has arrived in the National League, among other rumored rule changes.
The risks for a shorter season for the players are obvious. Of course, salaries are prorated, and while that’s fair, it also means that many players have lost millions already this year.
Add onto that the effect that such a season could have on free agency value for a slow starter. Former Brave Josh Donaldson was hitting .243 with a .787 OPS and just 8 home runs – a 21-homer pace for a full season – at his 60-game mark last year. That would’ve made it difficult to pull in the four-year, $92 million contract he landed with the Minnesota Twins after a torrid finish gave Donaldson a .900 OPS and 37 homers on the year.
But how can players – and even managers – benefit from a shorter season? This is not to say that they would necessarily be better off than they would be if the season went the full distance, merely that a 60-game campaign could have unique assets for certain individuals in baseball.
That could be the case for several Braves in key roles for the 2020 season.
Braves Who Could Benefit From This Wacky 2020: Cole Hamels, SP
This one should be relatively obvious, but a shorter campaign could pay big dividends for the veteran lefty. Hamels is just 36, so Father Time hasn’t completely come calling for the four-time All-Star and World Series MVP, but he’s also started at least 27 games in 12 of the last 13 seasons. Coming off an injury-plagued 2019 season, Hamels never really got going this spring after suffering shoulder issues in February.
But never fear, a 60-game season is here, and one that starts in late July to boot! Fans – myself included – had wondered if Hamels’ arm could handle pitching 30 games this season and then taking part in a hopefully deep postseason run. Now, all he’ll need to give is 10 or 12 starts before leading the Braves to another World Series (he said, staring blissfully out of the window).
Braves Who Could Benefit From This Wacky 2020: Austin Riley, 3B
Riley came up like a man possessed in 2019, only to come crashing down as the league adjusted. In his first 20 games, the young slugger hit 9 home runs in just 79 at-bats while posting a .329 batting average and 1.065 OPS. Unfortunately, he only hit 9 homers in the next 60 games while hitting just .185 with a .624 OPS, all while largely playing mostly in the outfield. Since he had played less than 10 professional games in the outfield prior to coming up to the majors in 2019, it’s fair to call that “playing out of position.”
I don’t know that playing in the outfield played a huge role in his struggles, but it couldn’t have helped. This isn’t your church-league softball team; playing outfield in the majors isn’t easy, and it probably required more of his focus than you’d like for a young player whose bat is his most prized tool. With the at-least temporary arrival of the DH in 2020, Manager Brian Snitker will be guaranteed to be able to get Riley into the lineup without having to stretch his defensive abilities. And Riley can hopefully focus on his bat and a defensive position with which he is much more comfortable.
Braves Who Could Benefit From This Wacky 2020: Brian Snitker, Manager
Since we brought Snitker up, let’s talk about how the bonkers 2020 season can help the Braves’ skipper. Snit has led the Braves to back-to-back division titles, but like all managers, his decision-making related to bullpen use and lineup construction have come under scrutiny. Specifically, the failure to get days off for players like Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis late in both of those NL East-winning campaigns could easily be considered contributing factors to early playoff exits.
That shouldn’t be an issue in 2020. This year, Snit will mostly be able to run out his best players as often as they’re healthy because it’s just 60 games. Sure, there will be the long stretches without off-days that might require the occasional breather, but load management can take a back seat this season. Additionally, Snitker won’t be dealing with managing the pitcher’s spot in the order and can only focus on the best matchups on the mound.
Kyle Wright, SP
This one is admittedly dependent on what MLB and the MLBPA decide to do about service time and other roster considerations. But for the sake of the exercise, let’s just operate as though the rules are such that Wright is on the Braves’ roster for most or all of the 2020 season. With no real minor league season, I’d expect that will be the case.
Wright has certainly shown promise despite some up-and-down numbers in brief big-league stints over the last two seasons. This spring, that promise was seemingly coming to fruition as the young righty struck out 15 batters and allowed just 10 base runners in 13⅓ innings. Sure, that’s a small sample size, but Wright was doing everything in his power to lock down a rotation spot.
What would’ve worked against Wright for the 2020 season – at least in terms of a long-term rotation spot – is his inning count. Drafted in 2017, the Vanderbilt product has just two full professional seasons under his belt and only pitched 144 and 132 innings in those seasons. It’s tough to see where Wright could’ve started the season in the rotation and had a shot at the postseason roster, no matter how he pitched, in a full-season situation. But under these conditions, the 24-year-old stands his best chance to do just that.
Ronald Acuña Jr., OF
Let’s be very clear here: Ronald Acuña Jr. is a freak who would’ve thrived under any season conditions this year. Despite a bit of a slump last summer, the Venezuelan phenom very nearly carded a 40-40 season last year with 41 homers and 37 stolen bases, and it still feels like he’s just scratching the surface. Without question, not getting to see just what Acuña could do with another full season in 2020 is one of the biggest baseball-related disappointments in all this.
But Acuña is also still just 22 years old. He’s certainly capable of reaching all the absurd statistical expectations that fans and the media place on him, but there’s really no way for us mere mortals to know how much pressure a place in baseball history can put on a young guy like that. Acuña could have a real chance to just go out and have fun – something he’s also quite adept at – and just see where 60 games takes both him and the Braves.
Thanks for reading “Braves Who Could Benefit From This Wacky 2020”. Find all of our 2019-20 Offseason Analysis here.