Ranking the Top 50 MLB Players for the 2021 SeasonMarch 24, 2021
Ranking the Top 50 MLB Players for the 2021 Season
With only one week left standing between now and Opening Day of the 2021 Major League Baseball season, there's no better time to get reacquainted with the league's very best players.
We're going to count 'em down from No. 50 to No. 1, the latter of which was actually a tough call for the first time in years.
In narrowing down our list, we considered players':
- Track Records: Because the better they've been in the past, the better they figure to be in 2021.
- Potential Downside: Because players have been known to suddenly get worse, particularly if they come with age or injury concerns.
- Potential Upside: Likewise, players have also been known to get better. This tends to happen if they're on the younger side.
We'll begin with some honorable mentions and then get to the list proper, starting with one-sentence blurbs for the bottom 40 players and ending with full slides for the top 10.
- SS Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
- LF Michael Brantley, Houston Astros
- 3B Josh Donaldson, Minnesota Twins
- 1B Paul Goldschmidt, St. Louis Cardinals
- 2B Jeff McNeil, New York Mets
- 1B Matt Olson, Oakland Athletics
- C Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers
- SP Jose Berrios, Minnesota Twins
- SP Max Fried, Atlanta
- SP Zack Greinke, Houston Astros
- SP Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
- RP Liam Hendriks, Chicago White Sox
- SP Dinelson Lamet, San Diego Padres
- SP German Marquez, Colorado Rockies
- SP Zack Wheeler, Philadelphia Phillies
50-41: Zac Gallen-Walker Buehler
50. SP Zac Gallen, Arizona Diamondbacks
Assuming his right forearm injury isn't too serious, he'll be out to build on a resume that already includes a 162 ERA+ over 27 starts since 2019.
49. SP Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers
He was an All-Star in 2019 and even better last year as he racked up a 149 ERA+ and 91 strikeouts over 73.2 innings.
48. C Yasmani Grandal, Chicago White Sox
Even at 32 years old, he's still a good bet for 20-odd home runs, an OPS+ north of 110 and some of the game's best framing work.
47. RF Mike Yastrzemski, San Francisco Giants
With a 137 OPS+ and 31 home runs in 161 games since 2019, Yaz's 30-year-old grandson is a textbook case of a late bloomer.
46. 2B Ozzie Albies, Atlanta
He was one of baseball's top second basemen across 2018 and 2019, and his injury-shortened 2020 campaign ended with him posting an .883 OPS over his last 30 games, per MLB.com's Mark Bowman.
45. SP Kenta Maeda, Minnesota Twins
After serving as a jack-of-all-trades for the Los Angeles Dodgers between 2016 and 2019, he became an ace for the Twins as he put up a 161 ERA+ and stellar peripherals in 2020.
44. SP Lance Lynn, Chicago White Sox
There are flashier pitchers out there, but it's hard to argue with the 140 ERA+ and MLB-high 292.1 innings that he's compiled over the last two seasons.
43. SP Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
His prime—in which he was a top-five Cy Young Award finisher annually between 2013 and 2019—is likely over, yet he at least salvaged a 123 ERA+ and an elite strikeout rate in 2020.
42. SP Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
His changeup is the stuff of GIF legend, and it's paved his way to a 140 ERA+ and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings over the last two seasons.
41. SP Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers
It would be nice if he ate more innings, but his 134 ERA+ and 4.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2018 are but two of many data points that speak to his electric brand of dominance.
40-31: Clayton Kershaw-Aaron Nola
40. SP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
He isn't what he used to be, but now he's finally a World Series champion in addition to a three-time Cy Young Award winner and (for now) baseball's career ERA+ leader.
39. Tim Anderson, Chicago White Sox
His defensive issues and basically nonexistent walk rate have held him back from true superstardom, yet there's plenty to like about his .331 average and 132 OPS+ over the last two seasons.
38. SS Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs
Since he's still only 28 years old, it's that much easier to forgive his lousy 2020 season and assume he'll get back to what he was in 2018 and 2019: a power-hitting and slick-fielding shortstop.
37. RF Michael Conforto, New York Mets
Only he and five other hitters have topped a 120 OPS+ in each of the last four seasons, and 2019 proves that his power potential is in the 30-homer range.
36. RF Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
Injuries have caused him to miss nearly 40 percent of the Yankees' games since 2018, but there's no denying that his all-around upside is about as humongous as his 6'7", 282-pound frame.
35. DH Nelson Cruz, Minnesota Twins
He's racked up a 150 OPS+ and an MLB-high 260 home runs since 2014, so even his looming 41st birthday (July 1) might only slow him down so much.
34. 1B Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
Even if he suffers a likely regression from last year's American League MVP-winning performance, he should still be good for 30 home runs and a huge stack of runs batted in.
33. LF Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta
He was perhaps the unluckiest hitter in baseball in 2018 and 2019, so it wasn't that surprising to watch him go off for a 175 OPS+ and an eye-popping batted ball metrics in 2020.
32. SP Yu Darvish, San Diego Padres
Something clicked for him in July 2019, and whatever it was has led him to a 2.40 ERA and an MLB-best 10.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 starts since then.
31. SP Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
He's one of baseball's best pure pitchers, so nobody should be shocked to hear that only he and four others have at least a 130 ERA+ and 650 innings pitched since 2017.
30-21: Lucas Giolito-Nolan Arenado
30. SP Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox
He's compiled a 132 ERA+ and 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings since 2019, yet it still feels like he hasn't fully peaked as a top-of-the-rotation power pitcher.
29. SP Trevor Bauer, Los Angeles Dodgers
The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner had a better expected ERA than even Shane Bieber in 2020, so the Dodgers actually got a fair deal on his three-year, $102 million contract.
28. SP Hyun Jin Ryu, Toronto Blue Jays
He isn't overpowering or an especially prolific workhorse, but there's ultimately no denying that only Jacob deGrom has a better ERA+ over the last three seasons.
27. 2B Brandon Lowe, Tampa Bay Rays
He's the only second baseman with at least a 130 OPS+ and 30 home runs since 2018, and his trendline is heading decidedly up.
26. C J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies
Barring any lingering effects from his broken thumb, this season should see him carry on as the best player at baseball's most important position.
25. SS Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers
He should arguably be ranked higher in the wake of his utterly dominant 2020 campaign, yet his recent injury history raises doubts about his likelihood of making it through a full 162-game season unscathed.
24. SS Trea Turner, Washington Nationals
Already well known for his blazing speed, he turned himself into a second-tier MVP contender in 2020 by racking up the highest OPS+ of any shortstop.
23. SS Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox
He isn't the best defensive shortstop, but he's the most consistent hitter at the position and a low-key excellent baserunner.
22. 3B Matt Chapman, Oakland Athletics
He trailed only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts in rWAR across 2018 and 2019, so he'd surely rank a lot higher if not for concerns relating to the hip surgery he underwent last September.
21. 3B Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals
Though he led all NL position players in rWAR between 2015 and 2019, his relatively low ranking here has to do with his injury-plagued 2020 season and the reality that he no longer has Coors Field to buoy his offense.
20-11: Alex Bregman-Jose Ramirez
20. 3B Alex Bregman, Houston Astros
Even if he's having ongoing trouble with his hamstrings, reverting to his 2019 form, in which he hit 41 homers and co-led MLB in rWAR, remains a distinct possibility in 2021.
19. RF Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies
He's put up a .967 OPS and 30 home runs in 109 games since August 2019, and his peripheral numbers suggested that his 2020 campaign was even better than his MVP-winning effort in 2015.
18. 2B DJ LeMahieu, New York Yankees
Between his .336/.386/.536 batting line and his league-best rate of hard contact per swing since 2019, there are at least two sold arguments for him as the sport's best pure hitter.
17. CF Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
His wildly fluctuating production and recent shoulder surgery are causes for alarm, yet his 2017 (NL Rookie of the Year) and 2019 (NL MVP) seasons speak to his enormous upside.
16. CF George Springer, Toronto Blue Jays
Perhaps this seems like a dramatic over-ranking, but you're ultimately looking at one of baseball's most consistent hitters and all-around productive outfielders.
15. SS Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies
Though he benefits from hitting at Coors Field half the time, he's nonetheless been the most productive shortstop in MLB by way of rWAR over the last three seasons.
14. SS Francisco Lindor, New York Mets
He's been baseball's best shortstop since he debuted in 2015, and he's still only 27 years old. The odds of him putting a difficult 2020 season behind him in 2021 are pretty high.
13. LF Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers
He'll be in trouble in 2021 if last year's strikeout rate carries over, but that's really the only barrier between him and the huge numbers (i.e., a 171 OPS+ and 80 homers) that turned him into a superstar in 2018 and 2019.
12. 3B Anthony Rendon, Los Angeles Angels
He's at .307/.399/.550 since 2017, and the last two seasons have seen him reach an even higher level as he's racked up more walks than strikeouts to go with a 155 OPS+ and 43 long balls.
11. 3B Jose Ramirez, Cleveland
He ranked third among hitters in rWAR across 2017 and 2018 and, following a difficult season in 2019, went right back to dominating en route to a runner-up finish in the AL MVP.
10. 3B Manny Machado, San Diego Padres
Key 2020 Stats: 60 G, 254 PA, 16 HR, 6 SB, .304 AVG, .370 OBP, .580 SLG, 158 OPS+
2020 WAR: 3.1
The cool thing about Manny Machado is that even in his down years, he's still one of the better players in Major League Baseball.
To wit, consider his 2017 season with the Baltimore Orioles and his first season with the San Diego Padres in 2019. Though his OPS+ ended up at 108 and 110, respectively, that was still solidly in above-average territory. What's more, he topped 30 home runs both years.
The best version of Machado, meanwhile, first appeared in 2015 and 2016 and has also come out in 2018 and 2020. He was indeed never better than he was in the latter, which saw him post career highs for average, on-base and slugging while playing a good third base.
Factoring in his age and unparalleled durability over the last six seasons, Machado is one of the league's safer bets for an MVP-caliber season in 2021.
9. SP Shane Bieber, Cleveland
Key 2020 Stats: 12 G, 12 GS, 77.1 IP, 46 H (7 HR), 21 BB, 122 K, 1.63 ERA, 281 ERA+
2020 WAR: 3.2
Even as Shane Bieber debuted to a modest 4.55 ERA for Cleveland in 2018, the obligatory "yeah, but..." was that his 5.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio underscored his top-of-the-rotation potential.
Three years later, he's arguably the best pitcher in the American League.
After breaking out as an All-Star in 2019, Bieber was nigh unhittable on his way to winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2020. His assortment of swing-and-miss offerings was his ticket to the highest "single-season" strikeout rate in history, not to mention the lowest opponents' OPS since Pedro Martinez in 2000.
If there's a catch here, it's that five of Bieber's seven Central-based opponents from last year had squarely below-average offenses. But even if that advantage won't be available to him in 2021, he's still a virtual lock to end up back in the Junior Circuit's Cy Young Award race.
8. SP Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees
Key 2020 Stats: 12 G, 12 GS, 73.0 IP, 53 H (14 HR), 17 BB, 94 K, 2.84 ERA, 151 ERA+
2020 WAR: 2.2
As great as Shane Bieber has been over the last two seasons, at least one thing gives Gerrit Cole a leg up on his fellow American League ace: He's been doing it for three seasons.
After going from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Houston Astros, Cole fully unlocked his high-octane arsenal and benefited accordingly in 2018 and especially in 2019. The latter season featured an AL-best 2.50 ERA, not to mention the most strikeouts (326) in a season since 2002.
Upon signing a nine-year, $324 million contract with the New York Yankees, Cole didn't make the best first impression in 2020. But once he teamed up with old friend Kyle Higashioka in September, he looked more like himself as he racked up a 1.79 ERA and 64 strikeouts over his next 45.1 innings.
If there's more where that came from, Cole might actually win an overdue Cy Young Award in 2021.
7. 1B Freddie Freeman, Atlanta
Key 2020 Stats: 60 G, 262 PA, 13 HR, 2 SB, .341 AVG, .462 OBP, .640 SLG, 186 OPS+
2020 WAR: 3.2
When Freddie Freeman is at the plate, Atlanta can rest easy, knowing its fate is temporarily in the hands of one of baseball's most consistently great hitters.
Freeman first emerged as a pretty good hitter in 2011 and 2012 but has become something else entirely in the process of racking up a .302/.394/.526 slash line over his last eight seasons. He's topped a 130 OPS+ each year, which is something about which only he and Mike Trout can boast.
Yet Freeman truly outdid himself en route to winning the NL MVP award last season. His peripheral metrics—i.e., exit velocity, hard-hit rate and xwOBA—featured personal highs pretty much across the board, and he ultimately trailed only Juan Soto in OPS+.
A hard act to follow? Well, sure. But lest anyone doubt Freeman's ability to do so, please refer back to the aforementioned notes on his consistency.
6. SP Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
Key 2020 Stats: 12 G, 12 GS, 68.0 IP, 47 H (7 HR), 18 BB, 104 K, 2.38 ERA, 178 ERA+
2020 WAR: 2.6
Jacob deGrom debuted as the NL Rookie of the Year for the New York Mets in 2014 and settled in as a very good and occasionally great pitcher between 2015 and 2017.
Because those were the last seasons of his 20s, they should have marked the end of his prime years. In actuality, they were a mere warm-up.
All deGrom has done over the last three seasons is compile a 188 ERA+, 628 strikeouts and easily more rWAR than any other pitcher. He won the NL Cy Young Award in 2018 and 2019 and nearly made it three straight in 2020 on the strength of his NL-high pile of strikeouts.
Velocity became deGrom's defining trademark as he threw 111 more fastballs of at least 98 mph than any other pitcher in 2020. Since he's literally not slowing down so far this spring, the list of reasons to doubt him going into 2021 is basically empty.
5. SS Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres
Key 2020 Stats: 59 G, 257 PA, 17 HR, 11 SB, .277 AVG, .366 OBP, .571 SLG, 155 OPS+
2020 WAR: 2.8
Because he has only 143 major league games under his belt, it's arguably too soon to anoint Fernando Tatis Jr. as one of the five best players in all of MLB.
Then again, he's now worth $340 million for a reason.
Well, two reasons if you want to get technical.
For one, the offensive numbers he's posted through his first two seasons are unlike any other shortstop who came before him. For two, he positioned himself as an elite offensive (i.e., 97th-percentile xwOBA) and defensive (i.e., nine outs above average) performer in 2020.
Barring any surprise deviations, the path before Tatis is one that should lead him to numerous National League All-Star teams and potentially multiple MVP awards. This year, he's practically a shoo-in for the former, and he'll almost certainly be a leading contender for the latter.
4. RF Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta
Key 2020 Stats: 46 G, 202 PA, 14 HR, 8 SB, .250 AVG, .406 OBP, .581 SLG, 155 OPS+
2020 WAR: 2.3
If you take Fernando Tatis Jr. and reimagine him with an extra year of major league experience and a much smaller contract, you basically get Ronald Acuna Jr.
Acuna announced his presence with Atlanta by winning NL Rookie of the Year in 2018, and he didn't miss a beat as a sophomore in 2019. Indeed, he put himself in the thick of the MVP race by just missing a rare 40-40 season.
By all rights, the wrist injury Acuna played through in 2020 should have halted his progress. But it didn't as he boosted his OBP with an elite walk rate while also maintaining his superb power (i.e., 99th-percentile hard-hit rate) and speed (i.e., 96th-percentile sprint).
If Acuna can have a year like that with his health at less than 100 percent, the opposition should be terrified of what a healthy version might do in 2021.
3. RF Juan Soto, Washington Nationals
Key 2020 Stats: 47 G, 196 PA, 13 HR, 6 SB, .351 AVG, .490 OBP, .695 SLG, 212 OPS+
2020 WAR: 2.3
Alas, Juan Soto isn't as athletic as his similarly young counterparts in San Diego and Atlanta. He might never win a Gold Glove, much less appear anywhere near the top of any stolen base leaderboard.
But he can hit. Goodness, can he hit.
Major League Baseball has been around since 1876, yet Soto is the only hitter in all that time who's bested a 140 OPS+ in his age-19, -20 and -21 seasons. And even if he never tops his extraordinary 2020 campaign, it certainly bodes well for him that his walk-to-strikeout ratio and exit velocity are on the upswing.
This is to say Soto doesn't necessarily need to be as athletic as Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ronald Acuna Jr. in order to contend for the NL MVP in 2021. The Washington Nationals star might simply hit his way to the darn thing.
2. RF Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers
Key 2020 Stats: 55 G, 246 PA, 16 HR, 10 SB, .292 AVG, .366 OBP, .562 SLG, 149 OPS+
2020 WAR: 3.6
Even if he isn't the "best" player in Major League Baseball, Mookie Betts is the obvious pick for the "most complete" player in the league.
Since he started playing right field full-time in 2016, Betts leads everyone in both defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating. What's more, he's also been the game's most productive baserunner in this span.
Initially, Betts was merely a good hitter between 2014 and 2017. That's changed as he's posted a .314/.405/.576 line with a 157 OPS+ since 2018. At least among the few hitters who've taken at least 1,500 plate appearances over the last three years, that latter figure tops the charts.
Look, we all know which player is keeping Betts from the No. 1 spot on this list. But if nothing else, the Los Angeles Dodgers should be proud they have the No. 1 player in the National League in their midst.
1. CF Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Key 2020 Stats: 53 G, 241 PA, 17 HR, 1 SB, .281 AVG, .390 OBP, .603 SLG, 168 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.9
Though he put on a show as a rookie in 2012, Mike Trout frankly isn't a good center fielder at this stage of his career. To boot, his best stolen base years will likely remain firmly in his past.
Nevertheless, putting the Los Angeles Angels superstar anywhere below the No. 1 spot on this list would be tantamount to trolling.
Even after last year's shortened season, Trout is still third on the all-time list for rWAR through the age of 28. He likewise already has more seasons of at least a 165 OPS+ than even legendary teammate Albert Pujols. The most recent of those happened just last year even though he actually underperformed his peripherals.
So even if Trout can't quite do it all, he's safe as the "Best Player in Baseball" as long as he keeps providing all-time offensive production from one of the game's most important positions.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.