The 30 most intriguing players for the 2021 MLB season

One of the most common complaints from MLB players about the unusual 2020 season was the way it disrupted their timing. It had the same effect on me.

As a result, my favorite column to write every September – identifying the most intriguing player on each of the 30 teams for the upcoming season – fell by the wayside. But as the players well know, it’s important to be able to adapt to the new reality and move forward.

As it turns out, early in spring training is a great time to identify those intriguing players, so better late than never, here they are.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Baltimore: 1B-OF Trey Mancini. He’s cancer-free a year after having a malignant tumor removed from his colon. Now, can he come close to repeating his 35 homers and 97 RBI from 2019?

Boston: SP Nathan Eovaldi. We know he throws hard (average fastball 97.8 mph, third highest among starters in 2020), and his strikeout rate has risen in each of the past three seasons.

Chicago: 3B Yoan Moncada. Write off last year’s poor numbers (.225/.320/.385, zero stolen base attempts) due to COVID-19 fatigue that never went away.

Triston McKenzie missed all of 2019 with a back injury, but made a dazzling first impression in the majors when he debuted in August. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

Cleveland: SP Triston McKenzie. The entire rotation is fascinating, but McKenzie, 23, skipped Class AAA altogether and posted a 42/9 K/BB ratio in 33 1/3 innings.

Detroit: SP Tarik Skubal. Casey Mize and Matt Manning were more heralded, but the lefty Skubal (37 Ks in 32 IP) could crack the rotation first.

Houston: DH Yordan Alvarez. A 23-year-old with bad knees is pretty scary, but that dominant 2019 rookie season is more than enough to dream on – not to mention the Astros want him to play some first base this season.

Kansas City: SS Adalberto Mondesi. One of the few genuine stolen base threats in the game. Just a small uptick in on-base percentage (it was .294 last season) could turn his stat line into one that wins leagues.

Los Angeles: 1B Jared Walsh. Shohei Ohtani is always intriguing (especially after showing flashes of brilliance at the plate AND on the mound this spring), but Walsh’s .970 OPS and dramatic reduction in strikeouts last year could lead to him nudging Albert Pujols aside.

Minnesota: OF Alex Kirilloff. After spending all of 2019 at Class AA, Kirilloff, 23, made his MLB debut during last year’s playoffs. The 2016 first-round pick has the inside track to be the opening-day left fielder.

New York: SPs Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon. They combined for a total of one inning pitched in 2020, but if the shoulder (Kluber) and elbow (Taillon) issues are behind them, they both have ace upside.

Oakland: 3B Matt Chapman. Despite a September shutdown and hip surgery, Chapman still slugged a career-best .535. He looks fully recovered this spring, spurring hopes of a possible 40-homer season.

Seattle: 2B Ty France. Once you see his 2019 stat line at Class AAA El Paso (.399, 27 homers in 296 at-bats), you can’t forget it. After a midseason trade to the Mariners, he’s in line to get regular MLB at-bats for the first time at age 26.

Tampa Bay: OF Randy Arozarena. He can’t be as good as the guy who hit a record 10 home runs in last year’s playoffs, can he? Conceding a hit in batting average, his power and speed aren’t going away.

Texas: OF Leody Taveras. The Rangers want him in the leadoff spot, but he’ll need to improve on last year’s .308 OBP. A great late source of stolen bases.

Toronto: 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr. After he dropped a reported 40 pounds this offseason, expectations are once again skyrocketing. Is this the year he ups his launch angle a few more degrees and takes his game to a new level?

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Arizona: OF-C Daulton Varsho. He doesn’t even have a guaranteed roster spot, but the allure of someone with 20-steal capability and catcher eligibility can be hard to resist.

Atlanta: SP Ian Anderson. The 22-year-old righty was outstanding in his six-start MLB debut (1.95 ERA, 11.4 K/9) and even better in the playoffs (two earned runs in 18 1/3 innings). What will he do for an encore?

Chicago: SS Javier Baez. The two-time All-Star admitted to a lack of focus in the shortened season but says he’s back on track. There’s nowhere to go but up from a .203/.238/.360 slash line.

Cincinnati: SP Tyler Mahle. Lost in the excitement over Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray was Mahle’s quietly impressive season. He had one of the lowest barrel rates of any starting pitcher (3.5%) and struck out 11.3 batters per nine innings.

Colorado: 1B C.J. Cron. A knee injury limited him to 13 games, four homers and a .190 average last season, but the possibility of full-time at-bats in Colorado gives Cron plenty of preseason helium.

Los Angeles: SP Julio Urias. Earning four postseason wins, then a save in the World Series clincher should give the 24-year-old lefty (and fantasy managers) tons of confidence. The skills are there, and finally a rotation spot is too.

Miami: SP Sixto Sanchez. Armed with a fastball that can touch 100 mph, Sanchez, 22, burst on the scene last August with no Triple-A experience and more than held his own. The Marlins will handle him carefully though, so beware of an innings cap.

Milwaukee: 2B Keston Hiura. For someone who’s hit all the way through the minors and in 2019 as a rookie, he can’t be as bad as last season’s .212/.297/.410 slash line. Will switching positions hurt his bounce-back potential on offense?

New York: 1B-OF Dominic Smith. The universal DH helped fuel his huge breakout season (.316/.377/.616). Can the Mets find a way to keep him in the lineup every day?

Alec Bohm earned the Phillies’ starting third-base job by putting up a .881 OPS in 44 games. (Photo: Frank Franklin II, AP)

Philadelphia: 3B Alec Bohm. It seems unreasonable to expect a repeat of his .338 average and .400 OBP as a rookie. But hitting second between Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper sure will help.

Pittsburgh: 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes. Exploded out of the gate in his one-month MLB debut with five homers and a .376 average. But can he succeed with limited talent around him?

San Diego: SP Dinelson Lamet. After a fabulous (2.09 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 12.1 K/9) regular season, Lamet didn’t pitch in the playoffs due to an elbow injury that was dangerously close to being catastrophic. He’s the ultimate boom-or-bust candidate.

San Francisco: C Buster Posey. The former NL MVP last hit above .285 with double-digit homers in 2017. Can he still be a productive catcher at age 33 after opting out last season?

St. Louis: OF Dylan Carlson. The Dexter Fowler trade eliminated his primary obstacle to playing time. Now, the top prospect’s power and speed can shine.

Washington: SP Stephen Strasburg. Nerve issues in his pitching hand ended his 2020 season after only five innings. A rare discounted star if he’s back to full health.

Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner

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