Baseball will have a new look in 2020.Last week, Major League Baseball officially unveiled rule changes that will affect the top level for the upcoming season and beyond.For starters, active rosters will expand from their previous 25-man sizes to 26-man for 2020. Of those 26 players, a new maximum of
Baseball will have a new look in 2020.
Last week, Major League Baseball officially unveiled rule changes that will affect the top level for the upcoming season and beyond.
For starters, active rosters will expand from their previous 25-man sizes to 26-man for 2020. Of those 26 players, a new maximum of 13 are allowed to be pitchers. Additionally, doubleheader rosters will similarly expand from 26 players to 27 (including 14 pitchers). While regular-season rosters will expand on Aug. 31 and before, their limits will actually decrease in September in another change. Instead of including any members of the 40-man rosters, September rosters will be limited to 28 players (with another max of 14 pitchers). Clubs can get around some of these roster rules with officially designated two-way players, i.e., those who have started in 20 Major League games as a position player/designated hitter (and gotten at least three plate appearances in those starts) and thrown 20 innings in the Majors in that or the prior season. A two-way player doesn't count toward the max of pitchers.
Other rules were introduced -- including three-batter minimums for pitchers, injured list reinstatement extensions and challenge time reductions -- but the expansion to a 26-man roster is our focus here. As Spring Training games begin Friday across Arizona and Florida, several prospects across baseball will compete for Major League jobs. One extra roster spot could be the difference between making the club and getting sent back to the Minors. It's that big a deal.
This Toolshed breaks down which prospects could reap the biggest benefits of the roster changes coming out of this year's Spring Training:
Brendan McKay, LHP/1B, Rays: McKay might be the game's most famous two-way player not named Shohei Ohtani. Tampa Bay grabbed the former Louisville star with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 Draft and have let him work as a hitter and a pitcher in the three years since. That might be coming to a head soon, however. MLB.com's No. 15 overall prospect reached the Majors in 2019 and was used predominantly on the mound, getting in 49 innings compared to only 11 plate appearances at the plate. After posting a 1.10 ERA with 102 strikeouts over 73 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, it's clear the 24-year-old is ready for a Major League pitching role. However, Tampa Bay doesn't seem fully ready to give up on the concept of McKay hitting, even after he produced just a .629 OPS in the Minors last season. At the Winter Meetings, Rays manager Kevin Cash said, "I think we owe it to Brendan, let's let him hit." If that's the case, it's likely McKay ends up back in Durham to open 2020 to work on his hitting while he gets in his pitching work. Offensive improvement would give him a better chance to get those 20 games in as a position player needed for official two-way status. It also would delay his chances at accruing that many games played. For now, the Rays have put McKay on a five-day pitching schedule, according to MLB.com's Juan Toribio, and that seems to signal a prioritization of his impact on the mound. But this is still Tampa Bay, an organization that has long put an emphasis on versatility. Don't be surprised to see the Rays make the most of the new rules with McKay's two-way potential.
Jared Walsh, 1B/LHP, Angels: Take McKay's profile, flip it, take a bit off the ceiling and you get Walsh. The 26-year-old left-hander showed his bat was ready for a jump to the Majors by hitting 36 homers in only 98 games for Triple-A Salt Lake last season. He also finished with a 161 wRC+ that placed tops among qualified Pacific Coast League hitters. Not bad for a 39th-round pick out of Georgia in 2015. He also has experience on the mound, and 2019 was his biggest season yet in that regard with 13 innings in the Minors and five more in the Majors. That said, Walsh isn't more than an extra arm. His fastball and curveball only grade out as average, and his control can be iffy, as shown by six walks in five frames in the Majors. Going back to that bat, Walsh still has something to prove there this spring as well after hitting just .203 with a .605 OPS and 40.2 percent K rate in the Majors. Still, the Angels, who already employ Ohtani as a two-way player, could get additional roster flexibility by keeping Walsh around. It'll be on him to prove he's worth carrying in both roles, however.
Jake Cronenworth, SS/RHP, Padres: With Tommy Pham going to San Diego and Top-100 prospect Xavier Edwards going the other way, it was easy for Cronenworth to get lost in the shuffle of his December trade from the Rays to the Padres. Yet he's another potential two-way player who could take advantage of the new rules. Cronenworth showed a solid bat for Triple-A Durham, winning the 2019 International League batting title with a .334 average while also placing first with a .429 OBP and third with a .949 OPS. He also featured in seven games as a pitcher, including six as an opener. He didn't allow a run over 7 1/3 innings while striking out nine and walking eight. What's more, Cronenworth has the stuff with a mid-90s fastball, above-average curve and solid cutter to stand out on the hill. Those free-pass numbers could scare San Diego off of letting Cronenworth get his 20 innings needed for the two-way rule, but with Fernando Tatis Jr. blocking his path at shortstop, the two-way designation remains an intriguing option for his first season with San Diego.
José De León, RHP, Reds: No, De Leon won't be a two-way player (at least any time soon), but he could still find himself to be the beneficiary of the two-way designation. The Reds allowed Michael Lorenzen to play two ways as a right-handed reliever and an outfielder last season, giving him more time at the latter as the season wound to an end. It's likely he'll reach official two-way status at some point in 2020, and that leaves room for the Reds to add another arm to their bullpen. Enter De Leon, who was traded from the Rays in November to clear a 40-man spot. The 27-year-old was one of the most promising right-handed arms in the Minors before injuries (most notably Tommy John surgery in 2018) set him back. He was solid for Durham in 2019 with a 3.51 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings and with an average fastball, average slider and plus change, he should be a consideration for a return to the Majors, where he made three appearances in 2019. Having Lorenzen's likely two-way status coming only helps his chances.
Carter Kieboom, INF, Nationals: Back to top prospects. It's no secret the No. 21 overall prospect is being considered by the defending World Series champions for the open third-base job following the free-agent departure of Anthony Rendon. That would, of course, be a starting role. Otherwise, it would make more sense for Washington to send Kieboom back to Triple-A Fresno where he can get regular at-bats. So how does an expanded roster affect the 22-year-old? Well, the Nats haven't sat on their hands this offseason, bringing back veteran infielders Asdrúbal Cabrera and Howie Kendrick and factoring free agent Starlin Castro into the mix. In the old system, it might have been harder to keep Kieboom in the Majors with the older players commanding to be on the roster in some way. With the expansions, it's easier to allow Cabrera and Kendrick, in particular, to get looks at multiple spots on the dirt while Kieboom gets comfortable at the hot corner. With the 22-year-old's plus hit tool and solid power, his ceiling is high enough to provide plenty of impact there.
Anthony Alford, OF, Blue Jays: There's no getting around it. Alford is out of options heading into 2020, meaning he'll have to be put on waivers if he doesn't stick on the Major League roster. That's a rough hurdle for any player on the fringes of a roster, but it becomes a little easier to clear with the rosters jumping to include 26 players. Injuries and offensive struggles (like his .519 OPS in the Majors last season) have made it difficult for Alford to get more time in Toronto before 2020, but his plus speed and ability to cover plenty of ground on defense would be assets to the back end of the Blue Jays roster. With three other pinch-hit options off the bench, it's easier for Toronto to carry Alford as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement extraordinaire and keep him off the waiver wire. An improved offensive showing this spring would strengthen that case.
Jorge Mateo, INF, Athletics: Much of what was just said about Alford applies to Mateo. The 24-year-old enters spring out of options, despite never playing in the Majors, and faces an uphill battle for an open second-base job with Tony Kemp, Franklin Barreto, and Sheldon Neuse. (Chad Pinder and Rule 5 pick Vimael Machin also have chances there.) He's also a right-handed bat trying to make a roster full of them. That's the bad news. The good news is Mateo is coming off a season in which he set career highs with 19 homers, 62 extra-base hits and an .834 OPS, albeit in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. The better news is that Mateo's speed ranks among the best in the game, and he could provide Oakland with value as a plus-plus burner off the bench, something that couldn't be said of the other second-base candidates. Either way, another roster opening only helps Mateo's case, considering how close he'd cut it to being on the usual 25-man roster. Even if it's not with the A's, his overall skill set would offer him a chance to stick with another club that doesn't have the same infield logjam.
Zack Collins, C/1B, White Sox: Chicago already had James McCann on its roster coming off his All-Star season in 2019. Then the club added the biggest free-agent catcher on the market in Yasmani Grandal on a four-year deal. Under previous roster limits, it would be really tough to carry three catchers. The new rules make it a little easier for the Sox to bring back Collins after he got 102 plate appearances with the big club last season. Of course, it's helps even more that Collins also has experience at first base, where he's capable of relieving the re-signed Jose Abreu. With Collins coming off an 18-homer, .951 OPS season at Triple-A, Chicago should want his left-handed bat as an option off the bench along with his catcher's and first baseman's mitts. The expansion to 26 makes that case easier.
Mauricio Dubón, INF/OF, Giants: Dubon seemed to have San Francisco's second-base job to himself going into the offseason after he batted .279/.312/.434 in 28 games with the big club last season following a deadline trade from the Brewers. However, the Giants have since added Gold Glove winner Yolmer Sanchez and the resurgent Wilmer Flores on Minor and Major League deals respectively. Dubon, who ended 2019 as the Giants' No. 8 prospect, could be an above-average hitter from the right side with above-average speed, but he'll need to show both tools are Major League ready this spring if he's going to win the job over those two. (Infielder Donovan Solano also lurks as an option at the keystone.) If he can't, Dubon still could find his way onto the roster because of his experience at shortstop and his expected looks in center field this spring. That type of super-utility role has value on any roster, no matter the size, so it'll be on Dubon to show he's capable of filling it in the Cactus League if the Bay Area truly does await him next.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.