Major League Baseball’s pandemic-abbreviated 2020 season started on Thursday night with a pair of games. By Friday night, all 30 MLB teams should have played their first game. Meaning three former Parkland College players will get the chance to represent the junior college in Champaign during the next two months. Sports Editor Matt Daniels breaks down the trio:
Kevin Kiermaier | Tampa Bay Rays
The longest-tenured player on the Rays, the 30-year-old is entering his eighth season with the franchise. He’s known more for his defense — and rightly so considering the center fielder has won Gold Gloves in 2015, 2016 and 2019. But he’s coming off a 2019 where he set career-highs in home runs (14) and RBI (55). Still, he only hit .228 last season, but he did manage to play in 129 games after injuries marred his 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons. Kiermaier is still such a valued defender the Rays put him in the outfield all by himself earlier this month during a simulated game at Tropicana Field, leaving manager Kevin Cash wondering about the possibility of using a two-man outfield at times this season. He’s also a threat on the basepaths, needing only 11 more stolen bases to reach 100 for his career. If the Rays want a shot to reach the postseason for the second consecutive year, they’ll need Kiermaier at his best.
Dan Winkler | Chicago Cubs
The reliever is about to enter his first season playing with the team that calls the North Side of Chicago home. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound right-hander has gotten used to Wrigley Field during summer camp workouts earlier this month after he spent the past five seasons coming out of the bullpen for the Atlanta Braves. A fractured right elbow in April 2016 cost Winkler most of that season and also in 2017. But the Effingham native — who underwent Tommy John surgery when he was in the minor leagues — responded with a stellar 2018 that saw him post a 4-0 record and 3.43 earned run average in 69 relief appearances that included 23 holds and two saves. He regressed a bit in 2019, going 3-1 with a 4.98 ERA in 27 appearances, but the 30-year-old Winkler adds a veteran presence to a Cubs bullpen that struggled mightily last season. First-year manager David Ross could likely use Winkler as a bridge to get to closer Craig Kimbrel.
Nick Wittgren | Cleveland Indians
Pitching in an empty Progressive Field might not feel all that different for the 29-year-old reliever. After all, Wittgren spent three seasons pitching for the Miami Marlins from 2016-18, with the Marlins ranking in the bottom four in attendance each of those seasons. But Wittgren is hoping 2020 looks a lot like 2019 from a pitching perspective. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound right-hander went 5-1 with a 2.81 earned run average in 55 appearances — all career-highs — to go along with 12 holds and four saves. Those were the first four saves of his MLB career after filling the role of closer throughout his stay in the minor leagues and at Purdue after he transferred from Parkland. His performance last season should give Cleveland manager Terry Francona confidence to go to Wittgren no matter what the situation dictates. And if Wittgren can deliver those same type of numbers, perhaps that’s enough to get Cleveland back into the playoffs for the fourth time in the last past years.