1 MLB Player at Each Position Primed to Explode into Stardom in 2021

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 1, 2021

1 MLB Player at Each Position Primed to Explode into Stardom in 2021

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    Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s big breakout awaits.
    Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s big breakout awaits.Associated Press

    With any new Major League Baseball season inevitably comes an influx of fresh star power. So it has always been, and so will it be once again in 2021.

    As for which players might burst into stardom, we have a few guesses.

    We've hand-picked one player at each position who we think has the goods to break out in a major way this season. To some degree or another, all of them are already on a path toward stardom. All they need to do is stay on it, and the potential rewards will include All-Star nods and even major awards.

    All told, we have 12 players to get to.

Catcher: Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Age: 25

    Key 2020 Stats: 37 G, 137 PA, 8 HR, 0 SB, .289 AVG, .401 OBP, .579 SLG, 164 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.5

    The Los Angeles Dodgers' Will Smith had his big coming-out moment last October when he went full Gemini Man and homered off Atlanta's Will Smith in the National League Championship Series.

    But while Smith may be well-known for that, he hasn't gotten his due as one of the best young players in MLB.

    He's played in 91 games since making his debut in May 2019, and all he's done in that span is rack up a catcher-high 146 OPS+ and 23 home runs. The right-handed swinger has done so while primarily feasting on right-handed pitching with a 1.028 OPS, and his offensive peripherals were uniformly above average in 2020.

    Smith has already earned a World Series ring, yet 2021 could be the year that he finds his own acclaim as an All-Star.

    Honorable Mention: Sean Murphy, Oakland Athletics

First Base: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Age: 21

    Key 2020 Stats: 60 G, 243 PA, 9 HR, 1 SB, .262 AVG, .329 OBP, .462 SLG, 115 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 0.6

    Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hasn't been bad for the Toronto Blue Jays, but nor has he lived up to the hype.

    He was widely regarded as baseball's No. 1 prospect when he arrived in April 2019, and his .331/.414/.531 batting line in the minors bolstered his case. But through 183 major league games, he owns a good-not-great .269/.336/.442 slash line.

    Yet the Hall of Famer's son isn't that far off from putting it all together. He's already a quality contact hitter, and last year saw him rank in the 93rd percentile with both his exit velocity and his hard-hit rate. He merely needs to work on elevating the ball more so as to correct his ground-ball habit.

    That should be doable in 2021, and Guerrero might even show off more athleticism at first base after slimming down this winter. If so, he'll have at least an All-Star nod in his sights.

    Honorable Mention: Evan White, Seattle Mariners

Second Base: Jake Cronenworth, San Diego Padres

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Age: 27

    Key 2020 Stats: 54 G, 192 PA, 4 HR, 3 SB, .285 AVG, .354 OBP, .477 SLG, 128 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.6

    When the San Diego Padres pulled off a five-player deal with the Tampa Bay Rays in December 2019, from their perspective it was originally the Tommy Pham trade.

    It might be time to start calling it the Jake Cronenworth trade instead.

    After hitting .334/.429/.520 at Triple-A in 2019, Cronenworth didn't miss a beat as he starred offensively for the Padres in 2020. He also might have underachieved, as Statcast put his xwOBA—based on strikeouts, walks and contact quality—33 points higher than his actual wOBA.

    Though the left-handed-hitting Cronenworth figures to sit against southpaws, he should still get enough reps to chase a potential All-Star nod in 2021. He might even see some time on the mound, where he had a 0.00 ERA in seven appearances in the minors two seasons ago.

    Honorable Mention: Nick Madrigal, Chicago White Sox

Third Base: Ke'Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Age: 24

    Key 2020 Stats: 24 G, 95 PA, 5 HR, 1 SB, .376 AVG, .442 OBP, .682 SLG, 202 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.9

    As a general rule, it's good to beware when a player stands out in a small sample size. So it is with Ke'Bryan Hayes' cup of coffee with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020, which didn't even include 100 plate appearances.

    But in this case, we can't help ourselves.

    Small sample size be damned; Hayes didn't luck into his stellar offensive results in 2020. He balanced 20 strikeouts against nine walks and blistered his batted balls at an average of 92.8 mph. That was Jose Abreu and Josh Donaldson territory.

    Hayes is also perceived as a next-level defensive prospect, even earning a 75 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale for his defense from MLB.com. He therefore has upside as not just an All-Star, but also a Gold Glover and a Rookie of the Year contender in 2021.

    Honorable Mention: Alec Bohm, Philadelphia Phillies

Shortstop: Miguel Rojas, Miami Marlins

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Age: 31

    Key 2020 Stats: 40 G, 143 PA, 4 HR, 5 SB, .304 AVG, .392 OBP, .496 SLG, 141 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.7

    From Francisco Lindor to Trevor Story to Corey Seager to Trea Turner to Tim Anderson and Xander Bogaerts and more, the shortstop position is loaded with established stars. 

    Yet there might be room in those ranks for Miguel Rojas, who's looking like a late-bloomer.

    From 2015 to 2019, Rojas was a steady yet unspectacular shortstop for the Miami Marlins. That changed as he put some impressive offensive numbers next to his name in 2020, notably by pairing an already elite bat-to-ball skill (i.e., a 95th-percentile strikeout rate) with a much-improved walk rate of 11.2 percent.

    Rojas wouldn't seem to have room to grow as a power hitter, but his sheer hitting acumen could point his way to the National League batting title in 2021. In the meantime, he could add to his case for his first All-Star nod by continuing to play solid defense.

    Honorable Mention: Andres Gimenez, Cleveland

Left Field: Randy Arozarena, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Age: 25

    Key 2020 Stats: 23 G, 76 PA, 7 HR, 4 SB, .281 AVG, .382 OBP, .641 SLG, 179 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 0.9

    The numbers above don't even account for Randy Arozarena's historic postseason run for the Tampa Bay Rays, in which he went off for a 1.273 OPS and 10 home runs.

    This allows for an argument that Arozarena is already a star, which...well, fair enough. But for anyone who's not convinced he's there yet, we'll submit that last year's outburst was legit.

    Though there is some swing-and-miss to Arozarena's game—he struck out in a quarter of his plate appearances in 2020—he also proved himself as an exit-velocity maestro at an average of 92.3 mph. That's a key reason he had a .403 xwOBA, including the playoffs. In the regular season, only seven players topped that mark.

    Because he also showcased speed in the 93rd percentile last year, Arozarena has genuine 30-30 potential as an everyday player in 2021. That would make him an MVP contender, let alone a potential All-Star.

    Honorable Mention: Dominic Smith, New York Mets

Center Field: Luis Robert, Chicago White Sox

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    Key 2020 Stats: 53 G, 227 PA, 11 HR, 9 SB, .233 AVG, .302 OBP, .436 SLG, 101 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.8

    Luis Robert immediately cemented himself as one of MLB's premier defenders during his first season with the Chicago White Sox in 2020. He co-led the American League with seven outs above average and won a Gold Glove.

    For a time, Robert was also a standout on offense with a .960 OPS through his first 33 games. But that ship sank in September as he went 11-for-81 with 32 strikeouts.

    Pitchers fed Robert a steady diet of low-and-away breaking pitches, and he struggled to adjust. Yet he's hardly the first hitter to go through such a struggle, and he would hardly be the first to snap out of it with the help of the right mindset and mechanics in 2021.

    If so, Robert will flash his booming power more often, and he'll become a 30-30 threat in addition to a Gold Glove contender. A player like that is an All-Star and perhaps an MVP contender.

    Honorable Mention: Trent Grisham, San Diego Padres

Right Field: Kyle Tucker, Houston Astros

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Age: 24

    Key 2020 Stats: 58 G, 228 PA, 9 HR, 8 SB, .268 AVG, .325 OBP, .512 SLG, 123 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.9

    Kyle Tucker was a greatly hyped prospect when he debuted for the Houston Astros in July 2018, but he failed to hit the ground running and faded into the background.

    Even as he began to realize his potential last year, Tucker never took center stage. Houston featured bigger storylines, beginning with the fallout from the club's cheating scandal and ending with its near-comeback in the American League Championship Series.

    In 2021, there may be no keeping Tucker out of the spotlight. Though he could stand to improve on last year's 7.9 walk percentage, his numbers will be fine so long as he maintains or even boosts peripherals like his 84th-percentile exit velocity.

    By way of his three outs above average, Tucker was also one of last year's top defenders in left field. If those skills translate to right field, he'll be one of the more well-rounded players at the position in 2021.

    Honorable Mention: Jared Walsh, Los Angeles Angels

Designated Hitter: Rowdy Tellez, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Age: 25

    Key 2020 Stats: 35 G, 127 PA, 8 HR, 0 SB, .283 AVG, .346 OBP, .540 SLG, 139 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 0.6

    Because the universal designated hitter is looking like a no-go for 2021, we're left with slim pickings for our breakout candidate for the position.

    Thank goodness for Rowdy Tellez.

    There's never been much question about his power, as some of his home runs have been absolute moonshots. But especially after he finished a 111-game stint with Toronto in 2019 with a .293 OBP, there was a question of whether he could maintain enough consistency to hack it as a major league regular.

    Albeit in a small sample size, he took a big step toward answering that question in 2020 by cutting his strikeout rate nearly in half to 15.7 percent while also boosting his walk rate to 8.7 percent. With more of that, he could find his way to 30 homers and a respectable OBP in 2021.

    Honorable Mention: Willie Calhoun, Texas Rangers

Right-Handed Starter: Ian Anderson, Atlanta

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Age: 22

    Key 2020 Stats: 6 G, 6 GS, 32.1 IP, 41 K, 14 BB, 1 HR, 246 ERA+

    2020 WAR: 1.3

    What Arozarena was to the position-player pool in 2020, Ian Anderson was to that of starting pitchers.

    That is, his impressive performance for Atlanta didn't stop at the regular season. He kept right on dominating into October, allowing only two earned runs in four starts. All told, he had a 1.59 ERA in 10 outings last year.

    Anderson's fastball, changeup and curveball are all above average, and he's already pretty well mastered the arts of sequencing and location. That's how he was so hard to hit last year, as his 51 innings yielded 65 strikeouts and only three barrels (batted balls hit with an ideal combination of launch angle and exit velocity).

    If Anderson keeps that up, he'll be an All-Star candidate and perhaps the leading contender for the NL Rookie of the Year in 2021.

    Honorable Mention: Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers

Left-Handed Starter: Julio Urias, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Age: 24

    Key 2020 Stats: 11 G, 10 GS, 55.0 IP, 45 K, 18 BB, 5 HR, 130 ERA+

    2020 WAR: 1.0

    Julio Urias is another player who followed a strong regular season with a dominant postseason in 2020. He had a 1.17 ERA in six appearances, the last of which saw him get the final out of the World Series.

    Stuffwise, Urias has the goods to evolve in 2021. He sits in the mid-90s with his fastball, and no pitcher got more horizontal run on his curveball last season. Hence how he racked up a hard-hit rate in the 91st percentile.

    The real question is if Urias can consistently go more than five innings at a time. The Dodgers have more or less kept him from doing so, in part because he has a surgically repaired shoulder and in part because he traditionally doesn't do well his third time through the order.

    If the Dodgers let him go longer and he responds well to it, Urias' stuff could bring him All-Star recognition.

    Honorable Mention: Jesus Luzardo, Oakland Athletics

Closer: James Karinchak, Cleveland

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Age: 25

    Key 2020 Stats: 27 G, 27.0 IP, 53 K, 16 BB, 1 HR, 173 ERA+

    2020 WAR: 0.6

    In the short term, the post-Lindor landscape ahead of Cleveland looks bleak. But the club at least has some good pitching, up to and including in the ninth inning with James Karinchak.

    Though he was a setup man for veteran closer Brad Hand, Karinchak was Cleveland's best reliever last season. He faced 109 batters and struck out 53 of them, which went a long way toward his finishing with the fourth-best xwOBA out of qualified hurlers.

    Karinchak got his fastball up to 97.4 mph last year, but there was more to his heater than its velocity. It also exploded through the strike zone with rising action nearly worthy of Trevor Bauer's high-spin heater.

    Add in a deceptive delivery and a sharp curveball, and Karinchak has all the makings of an All-Star-caliber closer.

    Honorable Mention: Jonathan Hernandez, Texas Rangers


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.