Every MLB Team's Franchise Cornerstone Heading into 2021 Season

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2021

Every MLB Team's Franchise Cornerstone Heading into 2021 Season

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    What does it mean to be a franchise cornerstone?

    Simply put, it's the one player on an MLB roster who the team is counting on to be central to the organization's success for the foreseeable future.

    Whether it's an established star signed to a long-term deal, a young player on the cusp of stardom or a prospect set to make a splash once he finally gets the call, each team has that one player around whom they can comfortably build for the future.

    Our goal was to identify that franchise cornerstone for all 30 MLB teams at the start of the 2021 season.

    In some cases, it was a no-brainer, like Fernando Tatis Jr. with the San Diego Padres and Juan Soto with the Washington Nationals. That was by no means the case for every team, though.

    Based on current production level, future upside, contract status and team outlook, here is every organization's franchise cornerstone.

Arizona Diamondbacks: RHP Zac Gallen

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    There is a strong case to be made for Ketel Marte as the Arizona Diamondbacks' cornerstone player, and the 27-year-old is locked up long-term with a pair of club options on his contract that could keep him in the desert through the 2024 season.

    However, right-hander Zac Gallen is an equally compelling answer.

    The 25-year-old has made 27 starts over the past two seasons, posting a 2.78 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 178 strikeouts in 152 innings, and he finished ninth in National League Cy Young voting last year.

    With a durable 6'2" frame and a well-rounded repertoire that includes a mid-90s fastball, wipeout slider, plus changeup and solid curveball, Gallen fits the profile of a long-term ace.

    The D-backs have him under club control through 2024, and he won't be arbitration-eligible for the first time until after the 2022 season.

Atlanta Braves: RF Ronald Acuna Jr.

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    Young pitchers Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Mike Soroka might be the keys to success for the Atlanta Braves in the years to come, but there is little question who the cornerstone of the franchise is going forward.

    Freddie Freeman fills that role now, and a new contract could keep him around until he's ready to call it quits, but it's only a matter of time before the torch is passed to Ronald Acuna Jr.

    The 23-year-old made a run at a 40/40 season in 2019 and then posted a career-high 155 OPS+ with 14 home runs in 46 games last year to win his second straight Silver Slugger Award.

    Beneath the surface, he made significant strides with his approach at the plate, raising his walk rate from 10.6 to 18.8 percent en route to an elite .406 on-base percentage.

    With a dynamic mix of power and speed and swagger for days, Acuna is already one of the faces of the sport and the franchise cornerstone in Atlanta.

Baltimore Orioles: C Adley Rutschman

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    It makes sense in most cases that a team's cornerstone would be a player who has already proved himself a high-level contributor at the MLB level. However, in some cases, the future face of the franchise and biggest long-term building block clearly resides in the team's minor league system.

    Catcher Adley Rutschman is that player for the Baltimore Orioles, and he has been since the O's selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft.

    Switch-hitting catchers with elite hit tools and plus raw power don't grow on trees. Ever since he hit .411/.575/.751 with 17 home runs during his junior season at Oregon State, it has been easy to buy into the hype.

    The 23-year-old has played in just 37 games as a pro, and the Orioles have no reason to rush him. But all signs point to stardom.

Boston Red Sox: 3B Rafael Devers

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Shortstop Xander Bogaerts saw his name pop up in trade rumors last summer, and while he is signed through 2025 with a vesting option for 2026, there is a chance he could be moved before the end of that deal.

    That leaves third baseman Rafael Devers and outfielder Alex Verdugo as the most obvious franchise cornerstones for a Boston Red Sox team that is at a crossroads following a disappointing 2020 season.

    Devers, 24, hit .311/.361/.555 with 54 doubles, 32 home runs and 115 RBI in 2019. After a slow start to the 2020 season, he rounded into form over the final two months and was once again a force in the middle of the lineup.

    The Red Sox have him under club control through 2023, and he looks like a clear extension candidate to build around while the MLB roster gets younger.

Chicago Cubs: CF Ian Happ

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    With Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo all set to reach free agency next winter, Willson Contreras hitting the open market after the 2022 season and Kyle Hendricks a potentially valuable trade chip, it's tough to nail down a franchise cornerstone for the Chicago Cubs.

    Prospects Miguel Amaya, Brennan Davis and Brailyn Marquez all have significant upside, but they also still have a lot to prove in the upper levels of the minors.

    Following a breakout offensive season in 2020, Ian Happ looks like the next cornerstone building block.

    The 26-year-old hit .258/.361/.505 for a 131 OPS+ with 11 doubles and 12 home runs in 231 plate appearances while taking over as the team's starting center fielder.

    For all that's been made of potential extensions with their upcoming free agents, Happ might be the most logical extension candidate on the roster.

Chicago White Sox: CF Luis Robert

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    Despite a late-season slump that likely cost him American League Rookie of the Year honors, Luis Robert still has as bright a future as any young player in the game.

    The 23-year-old signed a six-year, $50 million extension before he made his MLB debut, and that deal includes club options in 2026 and 2027, so he's not going anywhere.

    As long as he can cut down on his strikeouts after whiffing 73 times in 227 plate appearances, Robert can be a five-tool superstar with perennial 30/30 potential at the plate and Gold Glove-caliber defense in the outfield.

    The White Sox are reportedly exploring extensions with ace Lucas Giolito and top prospect Andrew Vaughn, so they deserve a mention in the franchise cornerstone conversation, as well.

Cincinnati Reds: C Tyler Stephenson

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    This may seem like an outside-the-box selection, but there's no clear option for the Cincinnati Reds.

    Pitchers Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo are both trade candidates, veteran Joey Votto is on the downswing of his career, former top prospect Nick Senzel has yet to live up to expectations, and pitching prospect Hunter Greene needs to prove he's healthy and capable of handling a starter's workload.

    So who does that leave?

    Jesse Winker looks like a potential long-term piece. Eugenio Suarez is still just 29 years old. But we're going to tab catcher of the future Tyler Stephenson as the organization's cornerstone piece.

    The No. 11 overall pick in the 2015 draft and one of the top catching prospects in baseball throughout his time in the minors, Stephenson hit .285 with a .372 on-base percentage at Double-A in 2019 while continuing to show advanced receiving skills.

    He went 5-for-17 with two home runs in his first MLB action last year, and it looks like he could start to push Tucker Barnhart for a bigger role in 2021.

Cleveland: RHP Shane Bieber

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    Despite a report from ESPN's Jeff Passan that Cleveland is interested in pursuing an extension with Jose Ramirez, it remains just as likely that the cost-conscious front office adds the superstar third baseman to an ever-growing list of players who were traded.

    That makes right-hander Shane Bieber the more obvious cornerstone pick.

    The 25-year-old is under club control through the 2024 season, and he's fresh off one of the most dominant pitching performances in recent memory.

    In 12 starts, he went 8-1 with a 1.63 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and 122 strikeouts in 77.1 innings as he led the AL in hits allowed per nine innings (5.4) and strikeouts per nine innings (14.2) en route to unanimous AL Cy Young honors.

    With Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco both traded away since last summer, Bieber is now the most important player on the roster, filling the role of staff ace for a young rotation.

Colorado Rockies: RHP German Marquez

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The best answer for the Colorado Rockies might be "no one," but that seemed like a cop-out.

    Outfielder Zac Veen has the upside to be the next face of the franchise after going No. 9 overall in the 2020 draft, but it's hard to anoint him as a cornerstone player when he has yet to make his pro debut.

    Nolan Arenado is gone. Trevor Story has one foot out the door. Charlie Blackmon turns 35 years old in July. Brendan Rodgers can't stay healthy long enough to tap into his vast potential.

    The closest thing the Rockies have to a cornerstone player is right-hander German Marquez.

    The 26-year-old is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball, and he's entering the third season of a five-year, $43 million extension that includes a 2024 club option. He has a 4.21 ERA the past four seasons, and while that doesn't jump off the page, it equates to a 119 ERA+ with half of hit starts coming at Coors Field. That steady production and his swing-and-miss stuff (9.2 K/9) make him an extremely valuable player.

    It's possible he is traded before that contract is over if the Rockies blow things up. But for now, he's their building block.

Detroit Tigers: RHP Casey Mize

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Despite the less-than-impressive early returns, Detroit Tigers right-hander Casey Mize was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft for a reason.

    The 23-year-old has been a man among boys in the minors, posting a 2.71 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 123 innings spanning 26 starts, so it was no surprise to see him called up to the big leagues last summer.

    He scuffled to a 6.99 ERA and 1.48 WHIP over 28.1 innings in his debut, and he has struggled with his command this spring en route to an 8.53 ERA with nine walks in 6.1 innings.

    "Baseball has a way of just reminding you pretty quickly on what you got to stay on top of," Mize told reporters. "The biggest thing for me is just count leverage. Just need the count on my side, in my favor, because batting averages against go way down and strikeout percentage goes up, walk rate goes [down] and all that whenever I can get the strike zone early and often."

    He'll likely head back to the minors to begin the 2021 season, but there's still plenty of time for everything to click and his top-of-the-rotation potential to be realized.

Houston Astros: 3B Alex Bregman

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez would be the cornerstone pick for a lot of other teams, and they represent the next wave of homegrown talent emerging for the Houston Astros.

    That said, Alex Bregman is still 26 years old and a year removed from an MVP-caliber performance.

    He hit .296/.423/.592 with 37 doubles, 41 home runs and 112 RBI in 2019, tallying more walks (119) than strikeouts (83) and finishing runner-up to Mike Trout in AL MVP balloting.

    He has four years left on a five-year, $100 million extension, and there's no reason to believe he won't bounce back in a big way from his middling 2020 numbers.

    It's also worth mentioning that he has become a standout defender at third base after starting his career with below-average metrics at the position.

Kansas City Royals: SS Bobby Witt Jr.

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Bobby Witt Jr. has been the talk of Kansas City Royals spring training, hitting .303/.343/.576 with three home runs in 35 plate appearances.

    The 20-year-old has played only 37 professional games, all of which came with the team's rookie ball affiliate after he signed as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft.

    Still, the club has not ruled out including him on the Opening Day roster.

    "You do not want to create an uncomfortable situation for him. So we were careful with our messaging, but he's come in here and just done a tremendous job. He's earned the respect of all his teammates, and now that he's been able to do that, I'm very much open-minded of him being on this team as we break this camp," Royals general manager Dayton Moore told reporters.

    A rare five-tool talent at the shortstop position with the intangibles that often come from having baseball bloodlineshis father won 142 games over a 16-year MLB careerWitt is the type of player capable of making that huge leap to the majors.

    Regardless of when he arrives, he is the future in Kansas City.

Los Angeles Angels: CF Mike Trout

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Angels still owe Mike Trout another $371.2 million over the next 10 years as he plays through a 12-year extension.

    In other words, he's not going anywhere.

    The best player in the sport is on an all-time-great career path with 74.6 WAR already to his credit entering his age-29 season.

    Improved pitching is going to be the key to success for an Angels team that has made the playoffs just once in Trout's 10-year career, but he will undoubtedly be at the center of everything they do for the next decade.

Los Angeles Dodgers: RF Mookie Betts

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    There are a lot of choices for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    Assuming Corey Seager signs a long-term extension and Cody Bellinger follows suit at some point, both could be pointed to as franchise cornerstones, especially considering they are homegrown talents.

    The same is true of Walker Buehler, who has arguably already overtaken Clayton Kershaw as the ace of the staff.

    But in the end, Mookie Betts is the obvious pick as one of the best players on the planet who is one year into a 12-year, $365 million extension and fresh off helping the Dodgers win a World Series title. The 28-year-old is an enviable cornerstone player for an organization loaded with talent.

Miami Marlins: RHP Sixto Sanchez

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Sixto Sanchez has long been hyped as a future ace, dating back to his time as the top prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies farm system, and expectations only grew after he was used as the centerpiece in the J.T. Realmuto blockbuster trade.

    After putting some early arm issues from his time in the minors in the rearview, he made his MLB debut last year shortly after his 22nd birthday.

    He finished 3-2 with a 3.46 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 39 innings to help the Miami Marlins earn a playoff berth, and he tossed five scoreless innings against the Chicago Cubs in the Wild Card Series.

    With a heavy fastball that touches 100 mph, an excellent changeup and a playable curveball, he has the stuff to be a perennial Cy Young winner, provided he can hold up to a starter's workload.

Milwaukee Brewers: LF Christian Yelich

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Christian Yelich is going to be just fine.

    The 29-year-old won NL MVP honors in 2018 and slugged a career-high 44 home runs while winning his second straight batting title in 2019 before a disappointing season last year.

    He hit .205/.356/.430 with 12 home runs in 58 games, tallying just 0.5 WAR on the heels of consecutive 7.0-plus-WAR seasons.

    Beneath those surface-level numbers, he ranked among the MLB leaders in exit velocity (99th percentile) and hard-hit rate (98th percentile), which bodes well for his chances of returning to elite form this coming season.

    The Milwaukee Brewers are banking on as much with eight years left on his nine-year, $215 million contract.

Minnesota Twins: RHP Jose Berrios

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Outfielder Alex Kirilloff was a tempting option here given his vast offensive potential. Max Kepler, Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco and Ryan Jeffers are also potential long-term pieces with varying levels of MLB experience and success.

    However, right-hander Jose Berrios is the piece the Minnesota Twins are most likely to build around going forward.

    Already a two-time All-Star and one of the best young pitchers in baseball, Berrios is still capable of another step forward if he can find a way to miss a few more bats. His 9.7 K/9 in 2020 was a career high, and there is little doubt he has the stuff to be a top-tier strikeout pitcher.

    The Twins were aggressive with early extensions for Kepler and Polanco. Given the organizational struggles to develop starting pitching, it's hard to see how they can afford to let Berrios get away. Consider his inclusion here an assumption a long-term deal will be reached.

New York Mets: RHP Jacob deGrom

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    If Francisco Lindor inks a massive extension at some point between now and Opening Day, he'll immediately become the cornerstone player on the New York Mets roster.

    However, that is far from a foregone conclusion, so for now, we'll go with Jacob deGrom.

    The 32-year-old is the best pitcher on the planet, and with a 2.61 ERA and 150 ERA+ in 1,169.2 career innings, he is laying the groundwork for an all-time-great career.

    He struck out 104 batters in 68 innings last year for a career-high 13.8 K/9, and with less mileage on his arm than most pitchers his age as a result of debuting at age 26, he should be able to pitch at a high level into his late 30s.

    He has three years left on a five-year, $137.5 million contract, and a 2024 club option could make it four.

New York Yankees: RHP Gerrit Cole

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    All due respect to Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu, but the cornerstone of the New York Yankees roster is the pitcher who was handed a record-breaking nine-year, $324 million deal in free agency last winter.

    Gerrit Cole went 7-3 with a 2.84 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 94 strikeouts in 73 innings in his Yankees debut, and he threw the ball extremely well in three postseason starts.

    The Yankees have the potential for a strong starting staff, but it could just as easily devolve into a major weakness if Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon deal with more arm issues or Luis Severino fails to return to form on the other side of Tommy John surgery.

    As a result, Cole can easily be pointed to as the most important player on the roster, and he's the guy the front office will be building around.

Oakland Athletics: 3B Matt Chapman

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Oakland Athletics have not had the best luck with star third basemen.

    They signed Eric Chavez to a six-year, $66 million extension, and he ended up averaging just 75 games per year over the life of that contract.

    A decade later, they attempted to sell high on Josh Donaldson, and he promptly won AL MVP honors in his first year with the Toronto Blue Jays.

    What are they going to do with Matt Chapman?

    The slick-fielding, power-hitting third baseman has been one of the most valuable players in baseball from the moment he first stepped onto an MLB field, and he still has three years of club control remaining entering the 2021 season.

    He had consecutive 8.3-WAR seasons in 2018 and 2019, slugging a career-high 36 home runs in 2019 while finishing sixth in AL MVP voting.

    The way the A's cycle through players in an effort to navigate their significant payroll restrictions makes it difficult to call anyone a franchise cornerstone, but Chapman could be the exception whom they commit to with a long-term deal.

Philadelphia Phillies: RF Bryce Harper

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Bryce Harper hit .260/.372/.510 with 36 doubles, 35 home runs and 114 RBI en route to a 4.3-WAR season in his debut with the Philadelphia Phillies.

    Casual fans called him a flop.

    The 28-year-old has seemingly been called overrated his entire career, and signing a 13-year, $330 million contract did nothing to deter the lofty expectations hanging over him.

    With 232 home runs and 33.7 WAR entering his age-28 season, his numbers speak for themselves, and the Phillies title hopes are directly tied to him continuing to live up to that hefty contract.

    That said, don't sleep on third baseman Alec Bohm as a cornerstone in his own right.

Pittsburgh Pirates: 3B Ke'Bryan Hayes

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Every rebuilding team needs that player who provides the fanbase with some reason for hope.

    Ke'Bryan Hayes is that player for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and expectations are sky-high after he led all rookies with 1.9 WAR last season despite playing in only 24 games.

    He hit .376/.442/.682 with 14 extra-base hits in 95 plate appearances while showcasing the defensive skills that made him widely regarded as one of the best defensive players in the minor leagues.

    The 24-year-old has picked up right where he left off this spring, raking to the tune of a .423/.483/.769 line with four doubles, one triple and one home run in 29 trips to the plate.

    Will Pittsburgh have its first NL Rookie of the Year since Jason Bay in 2004?

San Diego Padres: SS Fernando Tatis Jr.

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    The San Diego Padres saw enough from Fernando Tatis Jr. in 143 games the past two seasons to lock him up long-term with a 14-year, $340 million extension.

    That could end up being a bargain.

    The 22-year-old has hit .301/.374/.582 with 24 doubles, 39 home runs, 98 RBI, 111 runs scored and 27 steals in 629 plate appearances, tallying 7.0 WAR in the equivalent of roughly one full MLB season.

    He is also a walking highlight reel at shortstop with one of the strongest arms in baseball.

    Add to all of that his marketability as a superstar on the rise, and you have one of the most obvious franchise cornerstones in the sport.

San Francisco Giants: C Joey Bart

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    A changing of the guard is coming for the San Francisco Giants with Buster Posey, Johnny Cueto, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford all ticketed for free agency at the end of the 2021 season.

    Fans already saw a glimpse of the future last season when Joey Bart was thrust into action at the catcher position following Posey's decision to opt out.

    The 24-year-old hit .233/.288/.320 with seven extra-base hits in 111 plate appearances, but there is ample reason to believe bigger and better things are still to come.

    The No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft is a .284/.343/.532 hitter in 130 career minor league games, and he has shown the hit tool and power to be a middle-of-the-order offensive threat. He's also a polished defensive catcher capable of anchoring what will be a young pitching staff.

    Heliot Ramos and Marco Luciano have higher ceilings, but Bart is a prime cornerstone candidate at the most important position on the diamond.

Seattle Mariners: CF Kyle Lewis

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez are two of baseball's best prospects and potential superstars in the Seattle Mariners outfield for years to come once they arrive on the scene.

    However, until they reach the majors and live up to the hype, it's hard to pick them over reigning AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis in terms of cornerstone standing.

    Lewis hit .262/.364/.437 with 11 home runs while playing a stellar defensive center field in a 1.7 WAR season, and he has the raw power to improve on that middling slugging percentage.

    A case can be made for Evan White here given the long-term extension he signed prior to making his MLB debut, but he still has a lot to prove offensively.

St. Louis Cardinals: 1B Paul Goldschmidt

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    Paul Goldschmidt posted the worst offensive numbers of his career in his St. Louis Cardinals debut in 2019, hitting .260/.346/.476 with 34 home runs, 97 RBI and a career-low 115 OPS+ in 161 games.

    That raised some concerns heading into the first season of a five-year, $130 million extension last year, but he responded by hitting .304/.417/.466 with 2.0 WAR in 58 games to earn some down-ballot NL MVP support.

    Assuming Nolan Arenado opts into his contract, he is no doubt part of this conversation as well, but that can't be assumed until he makes it official.

    Young outfielder Dylan Carlson is also cornerstone material if his minor league success and strong finish to the 2020 season are any indication of what's to come.

Tampa Bay Rays: 2B Brandon Lowe

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Wander Franco is undoubtedly cornerstone material and could be knocking on the door for a spot on the MLB roster by midseason.

    The 20-year-old shortstop has a chance to be a generational talent for a Tampa Bay Rays organization that has a terrific track record of developing pitching but a fairly short list of impact offensive players to come through the pipeline beyond Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford.

    However, there is already a foundational player on the MLB roster in Brandon Lowe.

    In 138 games the last two seasons, Lowe has quietly hit .270/.347/.530 with 31 home runs and 5.0 WAR to anchor a vastly improved offensive attack.

    The 26-year-old is two seasons into a team-friendly six-year, $24 million contract that includes club options for 2025 and 2026, making him a clear building block for Tampa Bay's long-term plans.

Texas Rangers: C Sam Huff

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    Since Ivan Rodriguez made his final Opening Day start behind the plate for the Texas Rangers in 2002, the team has used 11 different starting catchers in the season opener over the last 18 years.

    Sam Huff has a chance to stop the revolving door.

    The 23-year-old has exceeded expectations as a seventh-round pick in the 2016 draft, and he emerged as one of the top catching prospects in baseball in 2019 when he posted an .845 OPS with 28 home runs and 72 RBI in 127 games between Single-A and High-A.

    He got his feet wet in the majors last year with 10 games' worth of action and continued to impress, going 11-for-31 with three doubles and three home runs.

    Jose Trevino and Jonah Heim will hold down the catcher position to start the 2021 season, but it's only a matter of time before Huff is a staple behind the plate in Texas.

Toronto Blue Jays: SS Bo Bichette

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    With a dynamic young offensive core in place, there are several players who could be accurately pointed to as franchise cornerstones for the Toronto Blue Jays.

    Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez all fit the bill, and after signing a six-year, $150 million deal in free agency, George Springer is also now a clear long-term piece of the puzzle despite the fact that he's already 31 years old.

    That said, it's Bo Bichette who appears to have the highest ceiling on the roster.

    The 23-year-old has piled up 44 extra-base hits in 340 career plate appearances, hitting .307/.347/.549 and tallying 3.2 WAR in the process.

    With club control through 2025, he's in it for the long haul in Toronto.

Washington Nationals: LF Juan Soto

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    There were some truly difficult decisions to make with some of the teams on this list.

    This was not one of them.

    Juan Soto might already have a case for being the best offensive player in baseball and doesn't turn 23 years old until October.

    He hit .351/.490/.695 with 14 doubles and 13 home runs in 47 games last season, winning the NL batting title and finishing fifth in NL MVP voting.

    It was a shortened season, but a .490 on-base percentage over 196 plate appearances is still a staggering number, and he figures to be a perennial MVP candidate as the centerpiece of the Washington Nationals.

    Even with team control through the 2024 season, it's never too soon to talk extension.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.