Projecting the Best Player at Every Position for the 2021 MLB Season

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IMarch 10, 2021

Projecting the Best Player at Every Position for the 2021 MLB Season

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Spring baseball is well underway, with Opening Day just over three weeks out.

    It is almost time for the offseason chatter to grind to a halt. The Los Angeles Dodgers are preparing to defend their crown. Fernando Tatis Jr. will try to live up to (or exceed) expectations in Year 1 of his megadeal. Miguel Cabrera will chase 500 home runs and 3,000 hits.

    Every team has its own storyline. A more universal narrative has to do with the guys who define their positions.

    The following is a projection of the best player at every position for the 2021 season. They were chosen based on recent track record as well as year-over-year improvement, among other factors, including upside. We will also name a couple of honorable mentions who merited serious consideration at each spot.

Catcher: Willson Contreras

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Something curious has happened with Chicago Cubs backstop Willson Contreras in recent years, especially as it relates to his defensive acumen.

    Contreras has always had a cannon behind the plate. His 32 percent career caught stealing percentage is 5 percentage points above league average. But his framing skills were lacking. 

    However, the two-time All-Star has made enormous gains in that department. Contreras was worth minus-18.2 framing runs above average in 2018. That number improved in 2019 but was still a subpar minus-8.9 runs above average. But in 2020, Contreras made another massive leap, posting 1.7 framing runs above average. 

    The 28-year-old has made himself into one of the stronger defensive catchers in baseball. Now, Contreras is primed to become the best catcher, period.

    "Willy" hit 24 homers and posted a career-high .888 OPS in 2019. Although his slugging numbers dipped in 2020, Contreras' line-drive rate jumped close to 4 percentage points, and his ground-ball and soft-contact rates both fell. He ranked second among catchers in most hard-hit balls (95 mph or more) and second in max exit velocity.

    Contreras has all the tools to be the best catcher in baseball and has demonstrated tremendous work ethic. He will be energized to have a big year for a Cubs team that will need peak performance from stars to win the National League Central.

    Honorable mentions: J.T. Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal

First Base: Freddie Freeman

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    It would be quite easy to look at Freddie Freeman's selection and think, "Of course; he's the reigning NL MVP." But his excellence goes far beyond that. 

    The Atlanta Braves star has led all first basemen in fWAR in two of the last three seasons. He is a Gold Glover who excels at hitting through the middle of the field. That approach has helped Freeman to over 1,500 hits and a .295 career average in 10-plus seasons.

    It has not stopped him from hitting the ball out of the yard. He mashed a career-high 38 dingers and drove in 121 runs in 2019. Freeman took it up a notch in 2020, hitting .341 with 13 homers, an MLB-high 23 doubles and a 1.102 OPS. 

    The 31-year-old posted a career-high 187 wRC+, also ranking eighth among all qualified hitters in hard-hit percentage. He ranked in the 100th percentile in both expected wOBA and expected batting average, and the 99th percentile in expected slugging.

    Freeman appeared to relish hitting between Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna in the No. 2 hole. It's unclear whether the Braves will have to reconfigure the lineup without the universal designated hitter this season, but Ozuna should still hit behind Freeman to offer protection. 

    It is hard to argue against Freeman's steady excellence. He drives the ball to all fields with good power, rarely strikes out and plays excellent defense. Not to mention, he and the Braves will be hungry to get over the top after coming within a game of the World Series in 2020.

    Honorable mentions: Paul Goldschmidt, Jose Abreu

Second Base: DJ LeMahieu

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    DJ LeMahieu has found a new level of success in New York.

    The 2020 AL batting champion already had a batting title from his Colorado days before signing with the Yankees ahead of the 2019 campaign. But he was more of a doubles and singles hitter. Suffice to say, that has changed drastically in the Bronx.

    LeMahieu hit 26 homers and slugged .518 in 2019. His power stroke was even more refined in 2020. The 32-year-old had a whopping 27 percent home run-to-fly-ball ratio. He made the most of the short porch in right field, with a 43.4 percent opposite-field contact rate.

    How do you get LeMahieu out? He ranked in the 100th percentile in strikeout rate and 99th percentile in whiff rate in 2020. He also ranked in the 86th percentile in average exit velocity and 81st percentile in hard-hit rate while spreading the ball to all fields. 

    Then there's the intrinsic value. LeMahieu might not be the Gold Glove second baseman he once was. But he can still display solid glove work and, more importantly, he plays multiple positions for a team that has desperately needed the versatility.

    The Yankees showed LeMahieu love by handing him a six-year contract in January, and he showed love back by taking an average salary ($15 million) well below his market value. It has been a match made in heaven for both sides and should continue to be fruitful in 2021.

    Honorable Mentions: Jose Altuve, Ozzie Albies

Shortstop: Fernando Tatis Jr.

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Can we stop with the "He hasn't even played the equivalent of a full season" narrative? Fernando Tatis Jr. might be the definitive superstar in baseball.

    Let's start on the defensive side, because Tatis made it clear from the jump he could hit. He ranked 258th among qualifiers in outs above average in 2019. He ranked third among all defenders and first among infielders in that category this past season.

    He was arguably the best defensive shortstop in baseball in 2020.

    On to the hitting pedigree. Tatis ranked first among qualified hitters in hard-hit percentage and hard-hit balls last season. He ranked first in average exit velocity and barrels per plate appearance. 

    Those aren't just meaningless peripherals. They produced results. Tatis hit 17 homers with a .937 OPS and 155 OPS+. That followed a rookie season in which he hit .317 with 22 homers and a .969 OPS in 84 games. 

    Then there's the baserunning. Tatis had 16 stolen bases in his rookie season. He stole 11 more last year. He ranks in the 98th percentile in sprint speed and even tagged up on an infield fly in 2019.

    Shortstop is a top-heavy position with an incredible array of five-tool stars. Tatis tops them all and does not appear close to his ceiling. 

    Honorable Mentions: Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story

Third Base: Anthony Rendon

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Much like shortstop, third base is full of superstar talent. At a glance: Jose Ramirez finished second in the AL MVP voting in 2020, and Manny Machado finished third for the NL equivalent.

    There are superb defenders like Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman as well as excellent veterans such as Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner. Alex Bregman—along with Mike Trout—led the majors in fWAR in 2019.

    But I'm rocking with Los Angeles Angels star Anthony Rendon.

    The 30-year-old had three straight seasons with at least 41 doubles and a .300 average before 2020. He had an OPS of at least .909 in each of the last four seasons. He ranked in the 94th percentile or higher in whiff rate the last four campaigns, and the 91st percentile or higher in strikeout rate in the last two years.

    Rendon has unbelievable bat speed and command of the plate, making him one of the hardest outs in the game. He hits with power to all fields and is usually an excellent fielder. 

    The Houston native ranked in the 79th percentile or higher in outs above average from 2017 to 2019. He regressed in 2020, ranking in the 39th percentile. But it is evident he has the range and instincts to be as good a defender as anyone at the hot corner.

    Rendon has ranked second among all third basemen in fWAR in each of the past two seasons. He's a good bet to lead that category in 2021.

    Honorable Mentions: Jose Ramirez, Alex Bregman

Left Field: Juan Soto

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    OK, this is admittedly cheating. Juan Soto will be playing right field for the Washington Nationals in 2021 after the Nats signed Kyle Schwarber. But he played left in his first few seasons, and it feels impossible to leave him off the list.

    Soto's age-21 season: .351/.490/.695 with 13 homers and an MLB-best 212 OPS+ in 47 games. 

    Perhaps even more impressively, he had to wait multiple weeks to start the campaign because of a COVID-19 test he later said was a false positive.

    Then he set the league on fire.

    Childish Bambino is only elevating his play as he ages. He ranked in the 100th percentile in expected wOBA, expected slugging and walk rate in 2020. He ranked in the 99th percentile in barrel rate. That is the mark of a hitting savant, and Soto only turned 22 in October. 

    What Rendon is in terms of approach from the right side of the plate, Soto is from the left side. He has a keen feel for the strike zone and can see the ball deep or turn fastballs around, as evidenced by these two homers against the New York Mets last August.

    Soto instills fear in opponents, as he led the majors with 12 intentional walks in 2020. That's nine more than he had in all of 2019.

    He also has upside defensively, ranking in the 87th percentile in outs above average in 2019 before sliding in 2020. First and foremost, however, the youngster is a generational hitter. 

    Keep an eye on a Christian Yelich bounce-back. His exit velocities, barrel rate and walk rate were all elite last season, though he'll need to cut back on strikeouts. 

    Honorable Mentions: Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna

Center Field: Mike Trout

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The phrase "Mike Trout is the best player in baseball" is well worn. Yet, it feels as though us fans still take his greatness for granted.

    But he certainly doesn't. After he hit .281 with 17 homers with a .993 OPS in 2020, he said he "had a bad year."

    The 29-year-old ranks 81st on the all-time WAR leaderboard, and this season, he should pass Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Ozzie Smith and Joe DiMaggio, to name a few. He is the active career leader in slugging (.582), OPS (1.000) and OPS+ (176).

    OK, so that's the general rundown. What has he done for us lately? Oh, he only won a third MVP award in 2019 after hitting a career-high 45 homers. He also finished second in the AL MVP voting in 2018.

    Pitching to Trout down in the zone is bad news, and going upstairs is playing with fire if pitchers miss their spots. He doesn't miss his pitch often and is fully willing to work counts.

    Some will argue Trout might not be the same all-around guy he once was because of injuries. But he still ranked in the 94th percentile in sprint speed in 2020 and covers tremendous ground in center field.

    The Los Angeles Angels center fielder is the standard-bearer for MLB. It's that simple. Now if only the Halos can get him beyond a brief postseason appearance.

    Honorable Mentions: Cody Bellinger, George Springer

Right Field: Mookie Betts

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    If Trout is the standard-bearer, Mookie Betts is a close second. He even followed Trout's lead by saying his 2020 play was "serviceable."

    Betts finished second in the NL MVP voting in his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, slashing .292/.366/.562 with 16 homers and 10 stolen bases last year. He captured his second World Series ring, hitting a pair of homers and stealing four bases in the Fall Classic.

    The 2018 AL MVP ranks second to Trout in fWAR since 2015—Betts' first full season—nobody else is remotely close. He has a batting title and posted three straight seasons with an OPS of .915 or higher. Betts also ranks second in FanGraphs BsR (base running) metric since 2015.

    But as tremendous as Betts is offensively, he is unparalleled as a defensive right fielder.

    The 28-year-old has won five consecutive Gold Gloves, and his 105 DRS since 2015 absolutely dwarfs all other right fielders. He has made some of the most absurd outfield assists, including this one to drill speedy Arizona Diamondbacks star Ketel Marte, who was trying to leg out a triple. Betts also made a number of phenomenal catches in the NLCS. 

    It is no wonder L.A. was quick to sign Betts to a massive extension shortly after acquiring him from the Boston Red Sox in Feb. 2020. 

    Honorable Mentions: Ronald Acuna Jr., Aaron Judge

Designated Hitter: Yordan Alvarez

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    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

    Let's mix it up a bit.

    Nelson Cruz would get this spot were we to go off recent track record alone. He has slashed .308/.394/.626 with a 168 OPS+ in two seasons with the Minnesota Twins, including a 40-homer campaign. Cruz ranks second to Trout in wRC+ in the last two seasons and third in exit velocity

    But I'm banking on upside with Yordan Alvarez. 

    The 2019 AL Rookie of the Year put up gaudy numbers in his debut, hitting .313 with 27 homers, a 1.067 OPS and 173 OPS+ in 87 games. Alvarez ranked in the 94th percentile or higher in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and walk rate in 2019. He also ranked in the 98th percentile in barrel rate. 

    Nearly one-third of Alvarez's fly balls left the yard in 2019. He excelled at staying through the middle of the field and turning it loose with prodigious pull power. The aforementioned walk rate is elite for someone just dipping his toes into MLB waters. 

    Alvarez missed nearly all of 2020 after undergoing surgery on both knees last summer. Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle reported the team is being patient with his timeline, though Alvarez himself said he is feeling strong.

    Houston needs the 23-year-old to be a major run producer, especially with George Springer no longer setting the tone at the top of the order. Let's see what he can do during a full season. 

    Honorable Mention: Nelson Cruz, J.D. Martinez

Starting Pitcher: Jacob deGrom

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    When you have nicknames like "deGrominator" and "deGOAT," you're doing something right.

    It's too difficult to say any starting pitcher will be better than Jacob deGrom in 2021. The New York Mets ace won back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019. He finished third in 2020 but posted a career-high 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

    Nobody has matched deGrom's consistent dominance. He ranks first among all starters in fWAR since 2018, by nearly a three-win margin. In 2020, deGrom ranked in the 98th percentile in whiff rate and added revolutions to his four-seamer and breaking stuff.

    For as nasty as deGrom's fastball-slider combination is, his changeup might be his best pitch. Opponents hit just .163 with a 42.9 percent whiff rate against it in 2020. It averages 91.4 mph, which is just enough off the fastball to be deceptive but still gets on hitters before dropping off the map. More importantly, it sets up the slider's opposite break, and he can pull it out at any time.

    Watch this ridiculous inning deGrom had against the Rays last September. He threw the fastball to every quadrant, especially the outer edge. Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe thought a fastball was coming on the third pitch of his at-bat, only for deGrom to drop a disgusting slider. He went right back to the fastball thereafter. 

    As Mets manager Luis Rojas said at the start of camp, deGrom is already hitting 99 mph. That's terrifying.

    Honorable Mention: Shane Bieber, Gerrit Cole

Relief Pitcher: Devin Williams

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Speaking of changeups...Devin Williams, everyone! 

    The Milwaukee Brewers right-hander won the Trevor Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year and Rookie of the Year Awards in 2020, posting a 0.33 ERA and striking out 53 hitters in 27.0 innings. His ERA+ was a laughable 1,375. 

    Williams' "Airbender" changeup is the best pitch in baseball. It netted the fourth-highest whiff rate (but with greater usage than Nos. 1-3) of any pitch, and a 9.5 percent hard-hit rate. Opponents had the lowest slugging percentage (.032) against it. 

    Seriously, just look at this thing. He back-doors lefties and front-doors righties with his change, also allowing it to fall off the table at the knees. Watch what Williams does to White Sox star rookie Luis Robert in that video. He basically moves the changeup both ways, with Robert looking helpless. 

    That changeup helped Williams rank in the 100th percentile in xwOBA, xSLG and whiff rate. He complements the devastating off-speed offering with a four-seam fastball that averaged 96.4 mph. The 26-year-old had excellent success with that pitch as well, netting a 40 percent whiff rate. 

    There are some tremendous relievers worthy of consideration. Williams' teammate, Josh Hader, is still as dangerous a left-handed weapon as there is. Liam Hendriks has been an overpowering force in the last two seasons, and James Karinchak had the same K/9 (17.7) as Williams in 2020.

    Still, Williams' ability to deploy the changeup at any time and induce soft contact while also racking up the punchouts could well make him the best reliever in baseball again in 2021. 

    Honorable Mention: Liam Hendriks, James Karinchak


    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, FanGraphs or Baseball Savant, unless otherwise noted.