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Baseball is a marathon of a sport, and the best teams tend to rise to the top in a 162-game season.
The same can be said about players. While they can go on streaks in such a hot-and-cold sport, the best in the game find a way to be consistently excellent.
Of course, the 2020 season will not be 162 games, and a shortened season could lead to unprecedented parity. It might also see less heralded players put together surprising stat lines.
The stars will still find a way to shine. But some unfamiliar names are likely to be among the league leaders this season and could turn the tide in a number of fantasy baseball leagues as well.
The following players might end up as unlikely statistical leaders in a variety of categories.
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Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays were one of the best teams in baseball in 2019, and they figure to contend for a World Series title in 2020.
But while the rest of MLB saw a massive spike in home runs last year, Tampa Bay lacked that extra “oomph.”
The Rays ranked 11th in the American League in homers in 2019. They sought to fill the power void by signing Tsutsugo, a Japanese slugger with 205 homers in 10 seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball.
While it remains to be seen how Tsutsugo will adapt to MLB pitching, we have seen numerous Japanese stars have success at the plate in MLB, including Shohei Ohtani the past two seasons.
Tsutsugo slugged over .500 and hit at least 28 homers in each of the past four years in Japan. He is just one year removed from a 38-homer campaign in 2018 and should get plenty of at-bats as Tampa Bay’s designated hitter.
Tropicana Field has friendly dimensions for a slugger like Tsutsugo, who has power to all fields. He also benefits from a lack of familiarity in terms of scouting.
Do not be surprised if Tsutsugo makes a big impact in 2020.
Nicholas Castellanos, Cincinnati Reds
Should Castellanos even be considered “unlikely” to lead the league in homers?
Strictly speaking, yes, he should. He has never hit more than 27 homers in a season (last year) and has typically had doubles power.
But HERE’s the thing: Castellanos went nuclear upon moving to the National League Central last season, and he has stayed in the division after signing with the Reds in January.
The former Detroit Tiger had an absurd run with the Chicago Cubs after the North Siders acquired him last July, hitting 16 homers and 21 doubles in 225 plate appearances.
Sure, the ball flies at Wrigley in the summertime. But Great American Ball Park was the eighth-best environment for home runs last year, per ESPN’s Park Factor.
Castellanos should be able to exploit his pull power to the fullest in Cincinnati. He will also be hitting around guys like Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez.
Castellanos could maintain his momentum from the second half of last season.
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Dinelson Lamet, San Diego Padres
Much of the focus in San Diego is on the development of young arms like Chris Paddack, MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patino. Lamet should be thrown into the mix.
The 28-year-old made 14 starts for the Padres last season, going 3-5 with a 4.07 ERA. Decent numbers, though hardly spectacular.
However, Lamet also averaged an eye-popping 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). While it came in a relatively small sample size, he had a higher K/9 than the likes of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.
Lamet’s breaking stuff was practically unhittable in 2019. Opposing hitters batted just .105 against his curveball while also posting a whiff rate of 48.3 percent, per Baseball Savant. The slider had an even higher whiff rate at 51.3 percent.
The key for Lamet will be establishing the fastball. Opponents hit .323 and slugged .624 against his four-seamer last year. But he has good velocity, and if he can work up in the zone, he will set up his other pitches nicely.
Starting pitchers tend to have a later peak than position players. Lamet might be on the cusp of a breakout year.
Robbie Ray, Arizona Diamondbacks
Ray also features an elite strikeout rate. He ranked third among all qualifiers in strikeouts per nine innings last year (12.1).
Moreover, he has averaged at least 12 strikeouts per nine innings in each of the last three seasons. He has elite stuff.
The issue for Ray has been an inability to go deep into ballgames, mostly because of a high walk rate.
However, it seems the 28-year-old left-hander has been making some adjustments to his delivery in the offseason. If summer camp is any indication, Ray is ready to dominate. He had 17 strikeouts and allowed just one hit in 11 innings of work.
Like Lamet, Ray generates a ton of whiffs with his breaking stuff. Unlike Lamet, he also had decent success with the four-seam fastball despite lacking exceptional velocity.
If Ray’s new delivery can solve the command issues, he will go deep into games and could challenge for the strikeout crown. He might even be a dark horse to win the NL Cy Young Award.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Bryan Reynolds, Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t expected to compete in 2020. Nonetheless, there is some intriguing talent on the roster.
Josh Bell had a breakout campaign last year, and young arms like Mitch Keller and Nick Burdi will work toward becoming key cogs in the starting rotation.
But perhaps no player is as interesting as Reynolds.
The 25-year-old’s 2019 campaign probably would have won him the Rookie of the Year Award in most seasons. He slashed .314/.377/.503 with 16 homers, 37 doubles and a 131 OPS+.
The switch-hitter crushes fastballs and was especially dominant against right-handed pitchers, posting a .931 OPS against righties.
It would seem Reynolds benefited from some luck. He had a .387 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) last year, per FanGraphs. He will also have to improve from the right side of the batter’s box.
However, the Vanderbilt product excelled in his first season in the bigs and should be an everyday player this year. He is one to watch for an otherwise lackluster Pirates squad.
Luis Arraez, Minnesota Twins
The “Bomba Squad” set the MLB record for home runs in 2019. Arraez was lacking in the long ball department, but he was a hit machine all the same.
Despite playing just 92 games and making 366 plate appearances, Arraez racked up 109 base knocks. He was one of the only Twins who continued hitting in the playoffs as well, picking up five hits in 11 at-bats during the team’s three-game sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees.
What are the possibilities over the course of a full season?
Unlike Reynolds, Arraez did not benefit from BABIP luck. He batted .334, and his .355 BABIP suggests he earned most of his hits.
Perhaps more importantly, he is something of a throwback contact hitter. He ranked in the 100th percentile in whiff rate and strikeout rate last year, per Baseball Savant.
Arraez makes a ton of contact, and he does not draw a lot of walks. That’s a decent recipe for hit leaders, particularly considering guys like Ichiro Suzuki had similar formulas in their careers.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Julio Urias, Los Angeles Dodgers
Pitcher wins are outdated as a counting stat, but they can still loom large, especially for fantasy baseball.
Urias might not have the same star power as Walker Buehler or Clayton Kershaw, but he has the chance to be every bit as impactful for the Dodgers.
The 23-year-old has had a very up-and-down career since making his debut in 2016 at the age of 19. Injuries limited Urias to just over 27 innings of MLB work in 2017 and 2018, and he was mostly deployed as a bullpen arm in 2019.
But Urias will be in the rotation in 2020 and could rack up wins for a loaded Dodgers squad.
The left-hander had a 2.49 ERA in nearly 80 innings of work for the Dodgers in 2019. More notably, he averaged 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings while also ranking in the 100th percentile in average exit velocity, per Baseball Savant.
Urias has the power stuff necessary to rack up strikeouts, and he also induces loads of contact. The result could be a whole lot of wins for a Dodgers squad that hopes to get over the hump and win the World Series.
Jesus Luzardo, Oakland Athletics
Another left-hander with plenty of upside on a loaded side, Luzardo is widely expected to be among the most impactful rookies in 2020.
The Athletics called Luzardo up to the majors last September, and he posted a 1.50 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 12 innings of work. He also dominated the Rays in the AL Wild Card Game, throwing three innings of one-hit ball along with four punchouts.
Luzardo has a fastball that reaches the upper 90s, and his sinker beats opposing hitters into the ground. Plus, he peppers hitters with a devastating curveball that falls off the table. Opponents had a 68.4 percent whiff rate against his curve last season, albeit in a small sample size.
There are some unknowns with respect to Luzardo’s physical condition heading into Opening Day, as he tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month. While he said he feels good last week, it’s unclear how the illness may affect his readiness.
That said, the A’s hope to unseat the Houston Astros in the AL West, and they are counting on their top prospect to be an anchor in the rotation.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Garrett Hampson, Colorado Rockies
Hampson’s rookie season did not go as planned. He had a .686 OPS and 66 OPS+ in 327 plate appearances and struggled to get steady playing time.
But Hampson can fly. The 25-year-old recorded the sixth-highest sprint speed in baseball last year and ranked seventh in terms of 90-foot splits. He stole 15 bases and was caught stealing just three times.
There are two pertinent questions for Hampson. The first is whether he can get enough at-bats.
Ryan McMahon and Brendan Rodgers figure to vie for the most playing time at second base, though Hampson could also get some innings in the outfield after Ian Desmond opted out of the season.
The next question is whether Hampson can get on base enough. Steals leaders are not always high OBP guys (see Mallex Smith), but Hampson will need to give himself opportunities to swipe bags, particularly in a platoon role.
Scott Kingery, Philadelphia Phillies
Kingery seems primed to join the league leaders in steals.
The 26-year-old stole 10 bases and was caught just three times during his rookie year in 2018. He then converted 15 of 19 stolen base attempts last season.
Kingery ranked 43rd in sprint speed in 2019, just behind the likes of Mike Trout and Victor Robles. He can move.
Like Hampson, the question might be whether Kingery can generate enough opportunities. One thing of note: Kingery’s OBP jumped 48 points year over year, and he stole five more bases. Perhaps he can be even more prolific if the OBP mark continues to climb.
It is possible new Phillies manager Joe Girardi looks to put things in motion from the jump, and Kingery might also benefit from moving out of the leadoff spot as Andrew McCutchen returns from injury.
The Phillies ranked just eighth in the NL in runs scored and seventh in stolen bases last year and will need to increase productivity across the board. Expect Kingery to be more aggressive on the basepaths.
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Brandon Workman, Boston Red Sox
Let’s start HERE: Workman has the potential to be the most dominant closer in baseball.
The imposing right-hander posted a 1.88 ERA and averaged 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings in close to 72 frames.
Workman does not have a ton of velocity, but he can locate his fastball and cutter in just about any quadrant. The cutter was especially dominant, as opponents had a .077 batting average and 42.4 percent whiff rate against the pitch last season.
The 31-year-old also ranked in the 100th percentile both in barrel percentage and expected slugging, giving up just one homer all season. That is immensely impressive, especially considering Milwaukee Brewers relief ace Josh Hader allowed 15 gophers last year.
Boston struggled to nail down a closer in 2019, but Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke said in February that Workman would serve in that role in 2020.
The Red Sox lack quality arms in the rotation, but an explosive offense should still keep them in games. As a result, they could see plenty of one-run games, in which case Workman will get his save opportunities.
Jose Leclerc, Texas Rangers
Leclerc looked like the next big thing after he posted a 1.56 ERA and 0.85 WHIP in 2018. But he took a step back last year, mostly because of command issues.
The 26-year-old had a 4.33 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 2019 and averaged 5.1 walks per nine innings. He was also removed from the closer role for a time.
But there is reason to buy high on Leclerc in 2020. His strikeout rate is still elite, and he is Texas’ best arm in the later innings. Rangers manager Chris Woodward has mentioned using Leclerc for multiple innings earlier in games, but it would seem he is the best option at the back of the bullpen.
The other reason to be optimistic is Leclerc ranks highly in hard-hit percentage, barrels and whiff rate, and he has one of the better fastball-changeup combinations of any reliever in baseball.
Texas added Corey Kluber and Kyle Gibson in the rotation, and the Rangers will look to become more competitive this season. Leclerc figures to loom large as a guy who can lock it down at the end of games, though the walk rate must improve.