7 Young MLB Players Trending Toward Becoming Superstars in 2021

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 15, 2021

7 Young MLB Players Trending Toward Becoming Superstars in 2021

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    Keep an eye on Eloy Jimenez.
    Keep an eye on Eloy Jimenez.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Guys such as Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Jacob deGrom don't necessarily need to move over, but they will need to make room for a fresh crop of Major League Baseball superstars in 2021.

    Any number of players could make that leap, but we wanted to highlight seven on the young side of the spectrum. These are guys who:

    • Will be 25 or younger in 2021
    • Already have at least two MLB seasons under their belts
    • Are making measurable progress toward greatness
    • Aren't already established superstars, such as Juan Soto or Fernando Tatis Jr.

    In short, these are guys who are both youthful and on the cusp. Let's give them their due credit in alphabetical order.

SP Zac Gallen, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Age: 25

    Key 2020 Stats: 12 G, 12 GS, 72.0 IP, 55 H, 9 HR, 25 BB, 82 K, 2.75 ERA, 167 ERA+

    2020 WAR: 2.7

    Zac Gallen wasn't seen as an elite prospect when the Miami Marlins called him up in 2019, so perhaps it's no wonder that they sold high on him while he was sitting on a 2.72 ERA after seven starts.

    Well, now he boasts a 2.78 ERA (i.e., a 162 ERA+) through 27 outings after his second season with the Arizona Diamondbacks. And he's only getting better.

    Last year saw Gallen finish in the 73rd percentile with both his strikeout rate and his exit velocity. That's to say he was hard to hit in more ways than one, which ultimately speaks to his two primary talents: he lives on the edge of the zone and gets good movement on his four-seamer, cutter and changeup.

    Assuming those skills and his health hold strong in 2021, Gallen should net his first All-Star selection and perhaps even make a run at the National League Cy Young Award.

CF Trent Grisham, San Diego Padres

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    Derrick Tuskan/Associated Press

    Age: 24

    Key 2020 Stats: 59 G, 252 PA, 10 HR, 10 SB, .251 AVG, .352 OBP, .456 SLG, 122 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 2.4

    Trent Grisham didn't make a great first impression with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2019, slashing .231/.328/.410 in 51 regular-season games and then making a killer error in the playoffs.

    Enter the San Diego Padres, who traded for Grisham in November 2019. And their faith in him paid off as he starred on both sides of the ball in 2020.

    Defensively, Grisham got the best jumps of any outfielder en route to seven outs above average and a Gold Glove. At the plate, a sturdy .830 OPS against right-handers and above-average metrics—i.e., a barrel rate in the 84th percentile—made him one of the league's more productive center fielders.

    At the least, Grisham could be a 20-20 guy and a Gold Glover once again in 2021. Given that he hit 32 home runs in 148 total games between the minors and majors in 2019, he might even have 30-homer potential.

1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Age: 22 (on Tuesday)

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

    2020 WAR: 0.6

    After arriving as the No. 1 prospect in baseball, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. disappointed in his rookie season for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2019. And in 2020, his batting average and his on-base percentage decreased.

    A 29-point gain in slugging, however, was key in boosting Guerrero's OPS by 19 points. And that gain didn't come out of nowhere, as he dramatically improved both his exit velocity (from 89.4 to 92.5 mph) and his hard-hit rate (38.7 to 50.8 percent).

    Guerrero's next improvement must be to his launch angle, lest he hit over half his batted balls on the ground again. That's hardly an insurmountable task, especially knowing that he made strides in the right direction late in 2020.

    Factoring in how he's in much better shape than he has been in prior seasons, the signs point toward Guerrero finally realizing his potential as an All-Star and maybe even a batting title contender in 2021.

LF Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Age: 24

    Key 2020 Stats: 55 G, 226 PA, 14 HR, 0 SB, .296 AVG, .332 OBP, .559 SLG, 140 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 1.4

    Like they would do with Luis Robert a year later, the Chicago White Sox preempted Eloy Jimenez's major league debut with a six-year contract extension in March 2019.

    It took him a while to find his footing as he hit just .237/.289/.456 through 95 games. But then he ended 2019 by winning the American League Rookie of the Month for September, and he kept on raking in 2020.

    Altogether, Jimenez is a .319/.355/.604 hitter with 23 home runs over his last 82 games. As evidenced by his 98th percentile barrel and hard-hit rates in 2020, he hits the ball as hard as anyone. If that remains the case in 2021, he should make a run at his first 40-homer season.

    The scary thought is what Jimenez will become if he cuts down on strikeouts, draws more walks or simply hits more fly balls. Just one of those improvements could elevate him to a whole other level.

RF Kyle Tucker, Houston Astros

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    Michael Wyke/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

    As he was one of baseball's elite prospects at the time, there was a good deal of fanfare when the Houston Astros called Kyle Tucker up in July 2018. Alas, it died down as he went just 9-for-64 in 28 games.

    If you've had Tucker off your radar since then, you've missed out.

    He's played in 80 games since Houston called him back up in September 2019, and in these he's hit a solid .268/.323/.518 with 13 home runs and 13 stolen bases. His offensive metrics were above average pretty much across the board in 2020. To wit, he even had the best exit velocity of any Astros regular.

    Albeit as a primary left fielder, Tucker was also a Gold Glove finalist in 2020. If that defensive quality follows him to right field, 2021 should see him make another run at a Gold Glove while also chasing a 20-20 or even a 30-30 campaign offensively.

CF Alex Verdugo, Boston Red Sox

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Age: 24

    Key 2020 Stats: 53 G, 221 PA, 6 HR, 4 SB, .308 AVG, .367 OBP, .478 SLG, 126 OPS+

    2020 WAR: 2.2

    Alex Verdugo is probably never going to be Mookie Betts, but the Boston Red Sox should be enthused about how his career is progressing.

    Since he debuted for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017, Verdugo's single-season OPS+ has gone from 44 to 93 to 114 to 126. And while there's some evidence that he dramatically overachieved in 2020, it bodes well that A) he's proved he can hit lefties and B) he has the opposite-field stroke for Fenway Park.

    After he performed well in right field in 2020, the Red Sox are gambling that Verdugo can hack it as an everyday center fielder. Yet his quick reactions should play well there, and he has more than enough arm for the position.

    At best, Verdugo might only have 20-homer power. But if he hits over .300 with a hefty collection of doubles and standout defense in center field, he'll nonetheless have All-Star potential in 2021.

SP 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, 3.27 ERA, 130 ERA+

    2020 WAR: 1.0

    In context of the 2.49 ERA that he had posted over 79.2 innings for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2019, it might seem like Julio Urias took a step back in 2020.

    Yet his '20 campaign looks much different when his postseason performances are factored in. All told, he logged 78 innings and pitched to a 2.65 ERA with 52 more strikeouts than walks.

    Urias averaged 94.2 mph on his fastball and achieved the 13th-best average spin rate of any pitcher who threw at least 750 pitches last season. Particularly deadly was his nasty curveball, against which batters went just 10-for-65 throughout the whole year.

    Of course, Urias hasn't even averaged five innings per start at his best, and it doesn't sound like the Dodgers are lengthening his leash in 2021. But even if he pitches so many as 150 innings, his utter dominance might be enough for All-Star consideration.

          

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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