Every MLB Team's Potential Breakout Star for 2021 Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 11, 2021

Every MLB Team's Potential Breakout Star for 2021 Season

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    Keep an eye on Nate Pearson's fastball...if you can.
    Keep an eye on Nate Pearson's fastball...if you can.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    At some point, the 2021 Major League Baseball season will begin and fans will get to watch Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and all their favorite players again.

    Plus, whatever new stars burst onto the scene.

    We've picked out one potential breakout player for each team in 2021. These are mostly guys who haven't put it all together yet, while some are even still waiting to make their major league debut. What they have in common, though, is underlying talent that could lead them to center stage this season.

    Please note that this list is different from our picks for each team's most promising young building block. Also, don't expect to read about any players whose breakouts have already occurred.

    We'll proceed in alphabetical order by city.

Arizona Diamondbacks: CF Daulton Varsho

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 24

    Unless the Arizona Diamondbacks make some new additions, it'll be up to their incumbents to spearhead a bounce-back season in 2021.

    Among them is Daulton Varsho, who didn't exactly impress in his first taste of major league action in 2020. He played in 37 games and managed just a .653 OPS and 0 rWAR.

    Varsho did, however, begin last year as a fast-rising prospect following his excellent season at Double-A in 2019. He played in 108 games and hit .301/.378/.520 with 18 homers and 21 stolen bases.

    Between his 10.4 walk percentage and 86th percentile speed, Varsho at least showcased his patience and athleticism last year. If he's able to more consistently tap into his power in 2021, Arizona will have a solid two-way center fielder on its hands.

Atlanta: CF Cristian Pache

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 22

    In case you're wondering why we've bypassed Ian Anderson as Atlanta's breakout candidate for 2021, we're thinking that his dominant run through 2020 qualifies as his big break.

    Besides, Cristian Pache is an exciting talent in his own right.

    He was only supposed to be along for the ride after Atlanta called him up last August, but he found himself pressed into action after Adam Duvall got injured in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. He collected four hits in the series, including his first home run.

    Yet Pache, who's our No. 7 prospect, is more likely to make a name for himself with his elite speed and defensive abilities than with his power in 2021. His rookie year could see him steal 30-plus bases and win the first of many Gold Gloves.

Baltimore Orioles: LHP Keegan Akin

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 26

    Super-prospect Adley Rutschman should make his debut for the Baltimore Orioles in 2021, but perhaps later than sooner. First, he has to conquer Double-A.

    In the meantime, the O's can hope for further development among the young players they already have on their major league roster, including young left-hander Keegan Akin.

    He only posted a 4.56 ERA in eight appearances last year, but his six starts yielded a sturdier 4.03 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 22.1 innings.

    That's a lot of strikeouts for a guy who only averaged 91.9 mph on his fastball, which speaks to how well Akin sequenced and commanded his secondary pitches. Even if he doesn't become a No. 1 starter, it's good enough for now that he looks like a potential No. 2 behind John Means.

Boston Red Sox: RHP Tanner Houck

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 25

    Regarding slugger Bobby Dalbec, a couple of things preclude him from being a breakout candidate for 2021.

    For one, it'll be hard for him to top the .959 OPS and eight homers he posted in just 23 games in 2020. For two, the rate at which he struck out (42.4 percent) is a major red flag.

    Tanner Houck, on the other hand, may have just been getting started when he went off for a 0.53 ERA in three starts for the Boston Red Sox down the stretch last season.

    His delivery resembles that of a right-handed Madison Bumgarner, and his sweeping slider has the look of a deadly out pitch. If he can just get his walk rate somewhere below 14.3 percent, he could cement himself as a top-of-the-rotation starter in 2021.

Chicago Cubs: RHP Adbert Alzolay

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 26

    The Chicago Cubs were only flirting with a rebuild earlier in the offseason. But once they traded Yu Darvish, they made rebuilding a full-blown reality.

    On the plus side, Adbert Alzolay could take his place as Chicago's new ace in 2021.

    He didn't take to the majors very well in 2019, wherein he made four appearances and allowed 10 runs in 12.1 innings. Last year was a different story. Though he only made six appearances after getting called up late in the season, he made an impression with a 2.95 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 21.1 innings.

    It helped that he showcased a devastating breaking ball, but just as crucial was the sinker that he developed to complement his four-seamer. Those two pitches, by the way, averaged better than 94 mph.

Chicago White Sox: SP Michael Kopech

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 25

    The Chicago White Sox's roster is marked by an ideal balance of young and veteran stars, and there's still more prospects waiting to be mined from their farm system.

    Of the bunch, perhaps none is more intriguing than Michael Kopech.

    Yes, he's still technically a prospect—and our No. 25 prospect, at that—even though he made his major league debut in 2018. He missed all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery and opted out of pitching in 2020.

    Kopech did show last March, however, that he's still capable of pumping 100 mph fastballs. This year figures to be his chance to do so on a consistent basis in the White Sox rotation, which could pave his way to the American League Rookie of the Year.

Cincinnati Reds: C Tyler Stephenson

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 24

    For the Cincinnati Reds to return to the playoffs in 2021, they're going to need more from an offense that posted an MLB-low .212 average and went scoreless in the playoffs last year.

    Tyler Stephenson might help with that.

    For now, he's only slated to share time with Tucker Barnhart at catcher. Since Barnhart is a two-time Gold Glover, the Reds will surely need some convincing before they upend that arrangement.

    To this end, Stephenson could sway them with both his offense and his defense. The latter is well-regarded, while his potential with the former is underscored by his .285 average at Double-A in 2019 and the two home runs he hit in eight games with the Reds in 2020.

Cleveland: SS Andres Gimenez

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 22

    An era came to an end Thursday when Cleveland traded Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco to the New York Mets. Needless to say, that's a bummer for Cleveland fans.

    But hey, at least Cleveland got a promising young shortstop out of it.

    In light of the 86.8 mph he averaged on his batted balls in 2020, Andres Gimenez doesn't have Lindor-ian upside as a 30-homer shortstop. But he could become a Gold Glover at the position as soon as this year, as his agility and hand quickness are reminiscent of Omar Vizquel.

    Gimenez also showcased 93rd percentile speed with the Mets last season, which should at least make him a stolen base threat offensively.

Colorado Rockies: CF Sam Hilliard

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 27

    With consecutive losing seasons in their wake and Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story now appearing in trade rumors, the immediate future of the Colorado Rockies seems grim.

    Maybe Sam Hilliard can do his part to brighten things up. Emphasis on "maybe."

    The center fielder does look like an exciting talent from a couple of perspectives. He's one of the fastest runners in baseball, having achieved 97th percentile sprint speed in 2020. As the 35 home runs he hit at Triple-A in 2019 can attest, he's also a power threat.

    Much depends, though, on him easing out of a swing-and-miss habit that saw him post a 36.8 strikeout percentage in 2020. Only if he does that can he become a star in the majors.

Detroit Tigers: SP Casey Mize

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 24

    With so much talent standing by in their elite farm system, the Detroit Tigers should be coming up in the AL Central over the next few seasons.

    Meanwhile, Casey Mize should become one of Detroit's great young stars, possibly as soon as this season.

    We're hedging a bit because Mize, the 2018 No. 1 draft pick and our No. 9 prospect, didn't exactly live up to the hype last year. The right-hander made seven starts for the Tigers and got knocked around to the tune of a 6.99 ERA.

    Still, the stuff for acehood is there. Mize got his fastball as high as 96.4 mph last season, and his splitter was perhaps even more devastating than advertised. Though it wasn't as much of a factor in 2020, his slider also gets graded (see MLB.com) as a plus pitch.

Houston Astros: CF Myles Straw

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 26

    Sans free agents Michael Brantley and George Springer, the Houston Astros outfield now features two sizable holes next to 2020 breakout star Kyle Tucker.

    Unless, of course, the club is truly counting on Myles Straw to fill the one in center field.

    If nothing else, Straw has the speed for the job. This is, after all, the same guy who swiped 70 bases in the minors just three years ago. This past year, his sprint speed landed him in the 90th percentile.

    In the meantime, Straw also teased an offensive breakthrough by upping both his average launch angle (15.9 degrees) and exit velocity (87.4 mph). With more of that, he may well become a dynamic two-way player for the Astros this season.

Kansas City Royals: LF Franchy Cordero

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 26

    We're big fans of young right-hander Brady Singer, who we think can and will improve on his promising breakthrough last season.

    But since we've already sung his praises elsewhere, we'll take this chance to go back to the Franchy Cordero hype well.

    Cordero put himself on the periphery of stardom when he debuted for the San Diego Padres in 2017. He's never been able to achieve it, however, because he's simply been unable to stay healthy. So it went in 2020, wherein a wrist injury limited him to 16 games for the Kansas City Royals.

    Yet we're not quite ready to give up on the idea of Cordero as a dangerous power/speed threat. Not while he's still averaging north of 90 mph on his batted balls with above-average sprint speed, anyway.

Los Angeles Angels: RHP Griffin Canning

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 25

    The Los Angeles Angels welcomed a new slugger into their midst down the stretch in 2020, when Jared Walsh tore things up with a .971 OPS and nine homers in 32 games.

    But whereas a performance like that is hard to top, Griffin Canning can and should take another step forward in 2021.

    He's already on a path of improvement that saw him lower his ERA from 4.58 in 2019 to 3.99 in 2020. He did his best work amid a strong finish, racking up a 3.14 ERA and 33 strikeouts over his last five starts.

    Canning's secret weapon in that stretch was a new curveball grip that allowed for sharper break. That alone could keep the whiffs coming, each one of which would raise his profile as one of the top starters in the AL West.

Los Angeles Dodgers: 2B Gavin Lux

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 23

    Though they ultimately won their first World Series championship in 32 years, last season did have at least one not-so-silver lining for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    Gavin Lux, who was supposed to break out, decidedly did not break out.

    Lux was Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year in 2019, in which he torched Double-A and Triple-A with a .347/.421/.607 batting line and 26 home runs. Yet his 2020 season went off the rails before it even started. The Dodgers optioned Lux on the eve of Opening Day, and he never really recovered.

    Lux nonetheless has an opportunity to earn an everyday gig at second base for 2021. If he can get into the offensive and defensive grooves that eluded him in 2020, he should find his footing accordingly.

Miami Marlins: LHP Trevor Rogers

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 23

    Despite the success of Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Sixto Sanchez, not every young pitcher the Miami Marlins tried out hit it big in 2020. Specifically, Trevor Rogers didn't.

    Then again, perhaps he should have.

    Though the southpaw pitched to an ugly 6.11 ERA in seven outings, he showed off his talent for swings and misses by striking out 39 of the 130 batters he faced. Indeed, most of his underlying metrics finished in above-average territory.

    Rogers' ERA was partially a case of extraordinary bad luck. Provided his changeup remains in Cole Hamels-like shape in 2021, he should be able to reverse course and become yet another promising young hurler for Miami.

Milwaukee Brewers: 3B Luis Urias

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 24

    The Milwaukee Brewers would have benefited from having Trent Grisham and Zach Davies in 2020, but both were in San Diego by way of a trade.

    The centerpiece of that deal for Milwaukee was Luis Urias, whose chances of becoming a star are...well, less than solid.

    Urias has now played in 124 major league games, yet he's failed to launch offensively in hitting just .226/.315/.320 with six home runs. That's not enough to cut it at any position, much less a power-packed spot like third base.

    In fairness to Urias, it's possible that he was never 100 percent last year after an early coronavirus diagnosis. If he's at full strength this year, perhaps he'll rediscover the form that led him to a .315/.398/.600 line and 19 homers in 73 games at Triple-A in 2019.

Minnesota Twins: OF Alex Kirilloff

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 23

    At least in theory, the Minnesota Twins have an extensive offseason shopping list that includes a new left fielder after the team non-tendered Eddie Rosario.

    Or, that spot could simply go to Alex Kirilloff.

    Kirilloff has yet to play in any regular-season games with the Twins, but he did make his major league debut in the playoffs last year. He went 1-for-4 in Game 2 of the AL Wild Card Series opposite the Astros.

    Though that's not much to go on, Kirilloff's minor league track record more than justifies his place as our No. 24 prospect. Specifically, he hinted at a future as an impact hitter when he went off for a .348/.392/.578 line and 20 home runs at Single-A and High-A in 2018.

New York Mets: INF Luis Guillorme

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 26

    The New York Mets have one of the most star-studded rosters in MLB, complete with both hired guns and homegrown stars.

    They're thus short on true breakout candidates, but we'll put in a good word for Luis Guillorme anyway.

    Though he hit .333 last year, that was over only 68 plate appearances spread out over 29 games. Plus, he didn't hit any home runs. His success therefore had much to do with a .463 batting average on balls in play that he can't possibly sustain.

    But in the 110 total games he's played for the Mets, Guillorme has demonstrated good patience with an 11.3 BB%. He also bumped his average exit velocity to 89.8 mph. Albeit strictly against right-handers, he could be an X-factor on the Mets infield this year.

New York Yankees: RHP Clarke Schmidt

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 25

    In addition to reigning batting champion DJ LeMahieu, the New York Yankees' free agents include starters Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ and James Paxton.

    That means there are as many as three openings in the Yankees starting rotation. Though he hasn't yet gotten a firm grasp on one, Clarke Schmidt is surely a candidate for a spot.

    He got a rude awakening in the majors last year, allowing five runs in 6.1 innings. And yet, he's our No. 53 prospect for good reason.

    For one, his fastball sits in the mid-90s. For another, even more important reason, his slider is one of the nastiest pitches possessed by any prospect. It's a hard biter that's going to get him a lot of swings and misses, potentially rendering him an ace as soon as this season.

Oakland Athletics: LHP A.J. Puk

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 26

    If the question is which Oakland Athletics left-hander has the highest upside, the answer can only be Jesus Luzardo.

    But since he's another guy who's already gotten our praise, we'll take this opportunity to remind everyone that fellow southpaw A.J. Puk is a promising hurler in his own right.

    At least, he is when he's healthy. That's something he hasn't been for much of his pro career. Notably, he's had both Tommy John and shoulder surgery.

    Puk is still our No. 76 prospect, however, because his sheer size (6'7", 248 pounds) and electric stuff give him a vaguely Randy Johnson-esque profile. He teased as much in 2019, when he got his fastball up to 100 mph while mixing in a deadly breaking ball.

Philadelphia Phillies: RHP Spencer Howard

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 24

    Though 2020 brought yet another disappointing season for the Philadelphia Phillies, it was some comfort that Alec Bohm came into his own at third base.

    In 2021, it could be Spencer Howard's turn.

    Howard debuted shortly before Bohm last year but had a harder time finding success, as he missed time with shoulder stiffness and ultimately mustered a 5.92 ERA in six outings. 

    Howard did, however, show off a 94.1 mph fastball and a slider with nasty downward action. Because his curveball and changeup also have potential, he indeed has what he needs to establish himself as a force in the NL East this season.

Pittsburgh Pirates: CF Anthony Alford

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 26

    He may only have played in 24 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020, but Ke'Bryan Hayes' superb performance—highlighted by a 1.124 OPS and 1.9 rWAR—was a breakout if there ever was one.

    The Pirates will be hoping for a similar breakthrough from Anthony Alford in 2021.

    Though Alford was a top-100 prospect while he was in the Toronto Blue Jays system between 2016 and 2018, he never really got a chance to stick in the majors. By the time the Pirates nabbed him off waivers last August, he was essentially a reclamation project.

    Alford was energized by the change, collecting a triple and a home run in five games before a broken arm ended his season. More of that plus his 99th percentile speed may yet make him a two-way star in center field.

San Diego Padres: LHP MacKenzie Gore

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 22

    The San Diego Padres returned to the playoffs in 2020 precisely because they had a bunch of players break out. Following trades for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, they now have their sights set on the World Series.

    It'll only be easier to get there if MacKenzie Gore breaks through.

    Many thought his big break would come last season, but he never even appeared in the majors. As he told Dennis Lin of The Athletic, he just never really found any comfort after baseball returned from it long delay.

    Nevertheless, Gore is our No. 6 prospect and easily the best left-hander in the minors. If all goes well this year, he'll be racking up outs in the majors with the help of his plus command and arsenal of four plus pitches.

San Francisco Giants: CF Mauricio Dubon

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 26

    After making his debut in 2020, this is the year Joey Bart could officially supplant Buster Posey as the San Francisco Giants' franchise catcher.

    And yet, dare we say Mauricio Dubon is closer to true stardom.

    Dubon was an infielder when the Giants landed him from the Brewers in 2019, but they shifted him to center field in 2020. He took to it like a natural, racking up four outs above average.

    Though Dubon only mustered a .726 OPS while he was at it, he also boosted his average launch angle (16.7 degrees) and exit velocity (86.2 mph). Further boosts in 2021 would move the needle and turn him into a true two-way threat.

Seattle Mariners: 1B Evan White

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 25

    The Seattle Mariners saw into their future in 2020 as AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis and other youngsters led the charge to a respectable 27-33 record.

    Another of those youngsters was Evan White, whose rookie year was a mixed bag.

    Billed as a future Gold Glove winner as he was coming up through the minors, White indeed earned his first Gold Glove with his work at first base. But on the other side of the ball, he hit just .176/.252/.346 with a 41.6 percent strikeout rate.

    The good news, however, is that White had a 95th percentile hard-hit rate when he was able to put the ball in play. He could therefore take the AL by storm if he cuts back on strikeouts in 2021.

St. Louis Cardinals: RHP Alex Reyes

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    Scott Kane/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 26

    With their offense in need of a spark, the St. Louis Cardinals must hope that top prospect Dylan Carlson will break out in 2021.

    But since we've already said our piece on him, we'll shine a light on Alex Reyes instead.

    The fact that he can still be singled out as a breakout candidate says a lot about how badly his trajectory derailed after he debuted in 2016. He missed a lot of time with injuries and didn't do much to speak of when he was healthy.

    Yet Reyes seemed to finally find a comfort zone as a reliever in 2020. He got his fastball up to 101 mph and snapped off same nasty curveballs. If he can get his walk rate below 16.3 percent, he could become the NL's next great closer this year.

Tampa Bay Rays: RHP Luis Patino

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 21

    After going to the World Series in 2020, the Tampa Bay Rays are now looking at something of a retooling phase following their trade of Blake Snell.

    That trade did, however, bring an ace-in-waiting back to Tampa Bay: Luis Patino.

    He posted mixed results in his debut for the Padres last year, making 11 appearances and putting up a 5.19 ERA. Yet he did strike out 21 batters in 17.1 innings, mainly with a fastball that topped 100 mph.

    With a sharp slider and a hard changeup also at his disposal, Patino has enough weapons to be our No. 18 prospect for now and a potential co-ace alongside Tyler Glasnow as soon as this season.

Texas Rangers: 1B Nate Lowe

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 25

    Following a 22-38 season that landed them at the bottom of the American League, the Texas Rangers don't have much choice but to rebuild. Hence their recent trade of Lance Lynn to the Chicago White Sox.

    Not long after that, though, the Rangers also made a sneaky upside play with a deal for Nate Lowe.

    Lowe put himself on the prospect map in 2018, in which he posted a .416 OBP with 27 home runs in 130 games across three minor league levels. He also hit reasonably well in 71 games with the Rays across 2019 and 2020, compiling a .770 OPS and 11 homers with a solid 44.8 hard-hit percentage.

    Lowe now figures to get more consistent playing time with the Rangers, which could result in his realizing his upside as a patient, powerful first baseman.

Toronto Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson

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    Tommy Gilligan/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 24

    The Toronto Blue Jays' playoff push in 2020 was largely the result of their young lineup beginning to realize its enormous potential.

    What the Jays need now is a young anchor for their rotation, which they hope will be Nate Pearson.

    After lighting up spring training, Pearson arrived in the majors last July amid sky-high hopes. But thanks to a flexor strain in his elbow, he fell short of said hopes as he pitched to a 6.00 ERA in five appearances. 

    On the plus side, Pearson's electric arm was on full display as he was getting his fastball up to 102 mph after he came off the injured list in September. That's the biggest reason why he's our No. 14 prospect, not to mention an AL Rookie of the Year candidate for 2021.

Washington Nationals: RHP Tanner Rainey

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    2021 Age: 28

    Even as they fell from World Series champions in 2019 to a 26-34 afterthought in 2020, the latter season wasn't without silver linings for the Washington Nationals.

    For instance, there was the excellence of Juan Soto and Trea Turner on offense and the under-the-radar rise of Tanner Rainey as a late-inning force.

    Though Rainey was plenty capable of lighting up the radar gun, his '19 season was marred by a 17.8 BB% and a good-not-great 3.91 ERA.

    But in 2020, he cut his walk rate to 9.3 percent while continuing to throw in the high-90s with a devastating slider. Though a flexor strain ended his season early, he nonetheless teased a future as a lights-out closer in finishing with a 42.7 K% and 2.66 ERA.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.


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