Every player and team always has something to prove, in theory. The reality is some fall under the microscope more often. The Cubs won 95 games last season and manager Joe Maddon might be out of a job by the end of this year. Bryce Harper has $330 million to justify with every swing of the bat. The A’s … well, the A’s rarely have anything to defend.
With that, we asked our staff: Who has the most to prove in 2019?
Tom Verducci: Yu Darvish
It is not very common that a starting pitcher gets elite money and then doesn’t come close to providing value. Yu Darvish has so much to prove in the second year of his deal with the Cubs. He has to prove he’s healthy. He has to prove he can compete on the days when he doesn’t have his “A” stuff. The swing factor on Darvish is so wide—tremendous upside, tremendous downside—that he might just define Chicago’s season.
Stephanie Apstein: Cubs
An impossible World Series won in thrilling fashion after 108 years of disappointment might have earned the Cubs some sort of grace period. But they immediately began discussing a dynasty. That discussion seemed merited: The team would return almost all the same players, with a year more experience. A historic run seemed possible. Instead Chicago won 11 fewer games and made it only as far as Game 5 of the 2017 NLCS. Last year was even worse: The Cubs let a five-game division lead dribble away, lost a Game 163 tiebreaker and lost the wild-card game. Golf in October.
Since that ’16 title, Chicago has a .567 winning percentage—tied for sixth in baseball, but tied with the team that won Game 163, the Brewers. As core stars Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javy Báez age and approach free agency, the window gets tighter. If they are not careful, the Cubs could achieve another impossible reputation: the team that broke the curse and still disappointed.
Emma Baccellieri: Cleveland
Considering that Cleveland’s front office did hardly anything to improve the team this winter, it might not look like has it has much to prove. The lack of offseason action seemed to make its own statement, though: The team didn’t have to fix its outfield, or its bullpen, or its general lack of depth, in order to win the AL Central. That might have been bold, but given the lackluster state of the division, it didn’t necessarily seem wrong. It certainly seemed risky, though, and those risks are now on full display.
Already, in the first two weeks of the season, Cleveland’s flaws have been exposed by injury and underperformance. Of course, there’s still plenty of time for the situation to turn around and for the front office’s bet on its existing roster to end up as successful. The fact that they have to wait and see, though, shows how much they have to prove.
Michael Beller: Braves, A’s and Brewers
I’ll go with last year’s surprise playoff teams. The Braves and A’s came generally out of nowhere to earn postseason berths. The Brewers were expected to be October contenders, but opened eyes by ending the Cubs’ reign in the NL Central and coming within one win of the World Series. Those three all have something to prove, despite last year’s success. Can Oakland get it done again in the top-heavy AL? Is Atlanta’s young core ready to take a step forward in a loaded NL East? Are the Brewers in the middle of a championship window? These three teams may have been the toast of the league last year, but they need to prove that they weren’t one-year wonders.
Jack Dickey: Cubs
A bunch of teams sat out free agency because they reckoned they couldn’t contend in 2019, and a handful of others did the same because their tight-fisted owners, apparently, decided their .500ish teams didn’t need expensive upgrades. But the inaction from the 95-win Cubs—during a winter in which every other NL Central team upgraded—occasioned some head-scratching.
It’s not that management’s decision to return the same roster is indefensible. For one thing, the Cubs’ position-player core is one of the bigs’ best; for another, their roster is already plenty expensive; for another still, many of the team’s recent free-agent moves have backfired. (Though—gulp—Jason Heyward is hitting .323/.421/.613 through the team’s first 10 games.) Nonetheless, when a contender opts not to add to its roster, writers and fans will want to know why, and their queries tend to get louder and more frenzied when said team starts 3-7.
Connor Grossman: Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen
The Mets sent shockwaves throughout the industry by appointing agent Brodie Van Wagenen as the team’s general manager. The franchise has, shall we say, a checkered history. Hiring an inexperienced general manager seemed like the latest punchline for a team that dolls them out better than any. To Van Wagenen’s credit, he brought (read: bought) some star power in a trade with the Mariners to net Robinson Canó and closer Edwin Diaz.
But these surface-level rebuilds haven’t worked out in recent years. Just ask the Marlins, Blue Jays and Padres. How will Van Wagenen navigate the trade deadline depending on the Mets’ contention? Does he have a long-term vision or is he just creating a blip of excitement before the Wilpons close the checkbook again? The fans won’t wait long to find out.
Jon Tayler: Phillies
Here’s the problem that arises when you vow to spend stupid money, then sign a former MVP along with turning your lineup into a Death Star: You’d better win after that. That’s what faces Philadelphia, the offseason champ looking to turn that trick on the field, too—something not a lot of previous winter winners have been able to do. The pressure with Bryce Harper now leading the way will be high, and likely land heaviest on second-year manager Gabe Kapler, who already spent his rookie season facing regular questions as to whether he was the right choice to run the Phillies’ ship.