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Make or break players: National League

Which player on each team is the biggest variable?

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, we took a look at each AL team’s make or break player— the dude who is most likely to either propel them forward or hold them back. Now, it’s time to do the same for the NL.

NL East

Atlanta BravesJosh Donaldson, 3B: While the Braves will rely on several young pitchers at various points this season, it’s their free agency prize who can be the biggest wild card. Donaldson averaged 6.9 fWAR per season from 2013-17, but posted just 1.3 in 2018 as he lost time to injuries. Anything from 1-7 WAR is possible for the season ahead, and that makes a big difference in a tight division.

Miami MarlinsLewis Brinson, CF: Last winter, the Marlins traded away 2017 MVP Giancarlo Stanton, 2018 MVP Christian Yelich, and All-Star Marcell Ozuna. Nearly all the players they received in return underwhelmed, either in the majors or minors.

Brinson was supposed to be the best prospect of the bunch, but he hit just .199/.240/.338 in 406 major league plate appearances. Miami needs him to step up to recoup some return value from their once star-studded outfield.

New York MetsJason Vargas, LHP: Are the Mets... actually good? The question seems preposterous, but they’ve added to their lineup and bullpen aggressively this winter. If they are serious about winning, they’ll need Vargas to improve on his disastrous 2018.

His 5.77 ERA was the seventh worst in MLB (min. 90 innings), however his 4.11 DRA and 91.8 DRA- were actually well above average. If Vargas really was unlucky, as the advanced numbers suggest, the Mets need his results to catch up with his performance.

Philadelphia PhilliesScott Kingery, UI: Prior to the 2018 season, the Phillies locked up top prospect Kingery to a major league extension through 2023 (or longer with options). This was a a considerable risk; he had yet to make his MLB debut. When they did get him on the field, he simply didn’t hit whatsoever. He needs to do much better than a 62 wRC+. Either way, the Phillies will have him kicking around for a long time.

Washington NationalsVictor Robles, CF: It seems impossible in hindsight, but Robles was actually a higher ranked prospect than Juan Soto. If not for injuries that kept him out of action for three months, he might have forced Soto to stay in the minors. OK, probably not; Soto is irrepressibly gifted. Nevertheless, Robles is the reason why the Nationals felt comfortable letting Bryce Harper walk away. It’s time to see what he can do.

NL Central

Chicago CubsYu Darvish, RHP: Darvish was the top pitcher on the free agent market in the 2017-18 offseason. The Cubs nabbed him on a six year, $126 million deal, expecting him to anchor their rotation. Instead, he made just eight starts before elbow problems ended his season in May. He’s still an strikeout machine when healthy, but Chicago would love to see at least 25 starts from him this year.

Cincinnati RedsSonny Gray, RHP: Much has been written about Gray’s struggles with the Yankees last season. Devan Fink, Luis Torres, and Bob Ellis all covered him for Beyond the Box Score. Now that the Reds acquired and extended him to lead them out of their rebuild, he needs to show he’s closer to the 2015 version than his 2018 self.

Milwaukee BrewersJimmy Nelson, RHP: With 4.8 fWAR, Nelson was the most valuable player on the 2017 Brewers, who won 85 games. In September of that year, he ruined all kinds of sinew in his shoulder diving back to first base, and didn’t pitch at all in 2018. So how did the team do without their best player? They won won 96 games, finished with the best record in the NL, and advanced to the NLCS. If Nelson comes back healthy in 2019, watch out.

Pittsburgh PiratesJosh Bell, 1B: There’s nothing wrong with Bell, really. What’s not to like about a 26-year-old switch-hitter with a career 110 wRC+? If he played up-the-middle, he’d be an All-Star. However, listed at 6’4”, 240, Bell is most certainly not an up-the-middle player. In fact, he’s a pretty terrible defensive first baseman, worth -9 DRS and -6.2 UZR/150 last year. That pretty much neutralizes his offense, which is really only average for his position anyway (he ranked 13th out of 24 first basemen in wRC+ in 2018). Either his defense needs to get a lot better, which is unlikely, or he needs to blast more than 12 home runs.

St. Louis CardinalsAlex Reyes, RHP: Man, Tommy John surgery really sucks. Reyes was named the number one overall prospect in baseball by Baseball Prospectus prior to the 2017 season. Then he tore his UCL in Spring Training. He finally made it back to the majors on May 30, throwing four scoreless innings— and then tore another tendon, this time in his lat muscle. The sky is still the limit for this extraordinarily talented young pitcher, but he’ll need to keep his tendons intact.

NL West

Arizona DiamondbacksKetel Marte, 2B/CF?: Last year, the Mariners traded for Dee Gordon and converted him from second base to center field. They figured, he’s a great athlete who is extremely fast, so how bad could he be? (They also knew Robinson Canó would be suspended for 80 games, which the public did not. Whatever.) It turns out that Gordon was actually terrible in the outfield, in spite of his speed. This matters for the Diamondbacks because Marte is listed as their starting center fielder. He’s played 14 major league innings in the outfield, and none since 2015. Maybe it’s fine, but this could end end looking ugly.

Colorado RockiesKyle Freeland, LHP: Freeland is entering his age-26 season, but he’s had something of a roller coaster career. He was the eighth overall pick in 2014, and a consensus top-100 prospect prior to 2015. Then his star faded a little, but he progressed through the minors all the same. He debuted in the majors in 2017, holding down a rotation spot despite a 5.91 DRA. Last year, he popped with 3.3 WARP and 4.2 fWAR. Will the roller coaster trend back down in 2019, or climb even higher?

Los Angeles DodgersAustin Barnes, C: Barnes, a backup catcher/utility infielder behind Yasmani Grandal, now has the starting job. According to StatCorner’s framing numbers, Barnes was the second best receiver in baseball last year with +1.64 calls per game (minimum 2000 pitches caught). However, his wRC+ dropped from 142 in 2017 to 77 in 2018. He still walks a ton (13 percent walk rate), but the .290 slugging percentage won’t cut it. He needs to hit more like the 2017 version— or at least closer to league average— if he wants to keep the starting gig on the back-to-back NL champions.

San Diego PadresLuis Urias, 2B/SS: The Padres finished 66-96 last year, but they could soon blast forward into playoff contention based on their incredibly strong farm system. One of the first reinforcements to arrive is Urias, a middle infielder. He’s not big or powerful, and won’t steal many bases, but he’s as good a bet as anyone to win a batting title someday. He’s a solid shortstop, but he shines at second base. When Fernando Tatis, Jr. ascends, the keystone will be Urias’ permanent home. He could play either in 2019, but it’s his bat that’s really exciting.

San Francisco GiantsDereck Rodriguez, RHP: In six years pitching in the Twins organization, Rodriguez never made it past double-A. The Giants signed him as a minor league free agent, then called him up to the big leagues at the end of May. From then on, he was a stpale in the rotation, though his results varied depending on the metric. His 2.81 ERA was fantastic, his 3.74 FIP was pretty good, but his 5.18 DRA was abysmal. He didn’t generate many strikeouts, so who knows what 2019 will bring.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983