Every MLB Team's Most Promising Sign of Hope Thus Far in 2021

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 12, 2021

Every MLB Team's Most Promising Sign of Hope Thus Far in 2021

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    The Houston Astros offense looks like the Houston Astros offense again.
    The Houston Astros offense looks like the Houston Astros offense again.Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    The 2021 Major League Baseball season isn't even two weeks old yet, so it's much too soon for any real sense of how teams will fare over the 162-game grind.

    What every team does have, however, is at least one reason to hope.

    We've pinpointed the single most encouraging development of each team's season so far. These mostly cover key players meeting or blowing away expectations, yet there are also a few team-wide performances that demand acknowledgment.

    We'll go division by division, starting in the American League East and ending in the National League West.

American League East

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Baltimore Orioles: Cedric Mullins, Hitting Machine

    As the Orioles wait for the arrival of catcher Adley Rutschman, our No. 7 overall prospect, they can sit back and enjoy the Cedric Mullins Show. He's thus far built on his solid 2020 season by collecting 17 hits in his first 37 at-bats for a .459 average.

    Though that sample size obviously isn't very big, the 26-year-old is underscoring his hot start with personal highs for exit velocity and hard-hit rate. If he can keep those numbers up, he stands to maintain his hot hitting and further cement himself as a building block.

              

    Boston Red Sox: J.D. Martinez Lives

    The Red Sox are off to a strong start with six wins in nine games largely because their pitchers have done an about-face from last season. In particular, their bullpen deserves major props for having allowed just one home run.

    Yet even despite a brief stay on the COVID-19 injured list, there has been no greater bright spot in Boston than J.D. Martinez. In the wake of a brutal 2020 season, he has exit velocity back up and has benefited by way of a .472 average and 12 extra-base hits, including three home runs on Sunday alone.

          

    New York Yankees: Gary Sanchez Is Crushing Again

    Elsewhere on the topic of brutal 2020 seasons, the Yankees got just a .147 average out of slugging catcher Gary Sanchez last season. Come the American League Division Series, he was out of a starting job.

    Fast forward to now, and Sanchez looks determined to redeem himself. He's 8-for-27 with two home runs and nearly as many walks (4) as strikeouts (5), all with a sturdy average of 92.3 mph on his batted balls. More of that would go a long way toward deepening a Yankees lineup that's already plenty deep as is.

             

    Tampa Bay Rays: Tyler Glasnow's New Slider is Legit

    With Blake Snell (trade) and Charlie Morton (free agency) now absent from the equation, it's up to Tyler Glasnow to carry the Rays rotation. That hasn't been a problem so far as he's allowed just one run on five hits and two walks with 15 strikeouts through a dozen innings.

    Notably, Glasnow's brand-new slider has opened eyes as hitters have gone just 2-for-11 against it. Based on that, it might just be the third pitch he's needed to complement his triple-digit fastball and hammer curveball.

            

    Toronto Blue Jays: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Has Found It

    No thanks to George Springer's ongoing injury issues, the Blue Jays offense hasn't yet lived up to its significant potential. But one guy who's more than doing his part is Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who's 11-for-29 with two home runs and eight walks to boost his OBP to a stellar .538.

    In his first two seasons, Guerrero undercut his talents for making contact and generating exit velocity by hitting too many ground balls. By way of a launch angle boost, that hasn't been the case early in 2021. So long as he maintains that boost, he's going to terrify many a pitcher.

American League Central

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Chicago White Sox: Yermin Mercedes Wants in on the Fun

    The last few weeks haven't been terribly kind to the White Sox. They lost slugger Eloy Jimenez for possibly the entire season with a pectoral injury in late March, and they've struggled to fully launch since the season opened April 1.

    Yermin Mercedes, however, has been a revelation. The 28-year-old made headlines by going 8-for-8 at the outset, and he's still hitting .517 with two home runs, one of which was a 485-foot moonshot Thursday. The White Sox will take as much of that as they can get as they wait for other pieces to fall in place.

             

    Cleveland: Its Offense Is Beating Expectations

    Despite a characteristically solid effort on the part of Jose Ramirez, Cleveland's offense has generated just a .226 batting average and only two stolen bases thus far. So, there are at least two flaws.

    And yet Cleveland's bats are otherwise doing quite well in the post-Francisco Lindor era. They've notably achieved the trifecta of being low on strikeouts and high on walks and power. That's not an easy act to keep up, but Cleveland will be able to snag the AL Central title if it does.

             

    Detroit Tigers: Akil Baddoo Is Suddenly a Cornerstone

    The Tigers initially emphasized pitching as they sought to rebuild their farm system but pivoted to bats by drafting outfielder Riley Greene with the No. 5 pick in 2019 and third baseman Spencer Torkelson with the No. 1 pick in 2020.

    Yet it's through last year's Rule 5 draft that the Tigers landed their fastest rising star. After teasing a breakout with a red-hot spring, Akil Baddoo is making good with a .313 average and two home runs. He's also hit in the clutch and looked good on defense, thereby giving the Tigers every reason to dream big.

         

    Kansas City Royals: Michael A. Taylor Looks Like A Steal

    Not content to merely wait things out while they rebuild, the Royals did some bargain-bin shopping on the offseason market. Some of their additions haven't yet panned out, but Michael A. Taylor sure has.

    The former Washington National homered in each of Kansas City's first two games and is hitting a cool .370 overall through seven games. Those numbers and his eye-popping 96.3 mph average exit velocity are early signs that his overhauled swing is indeed the right swing for him.

            

    Minnesota Twins: The Byron Buxton That Was Promised

    How have the Twins won five of their first eight games? Give some credit to their starting pitchers, who own an excellent 2.44 ERA.

    But even next to that, it's hard to ignore how brightly Byron Buxton is shining with a .481 average, five homers and four doubles through eight games. Considering that he's also a Gold Glove-caliber defender, he has a straight path to the AL MVP after sneaking into the fringes of the race last year.

American League West

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Houston Astros: Their Big Bats Are Back

    The Astros have won six of their first nine games, and that has everything to do with their absolutely overwhelming offense. They lead the American League in runs and co-lead all of MLB in home runs.

    More specifically, the Astros must be thrilled that this effort is being driven largely by Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel. After slumping to a collective .694 OPS in 2020, they're up to a .960 mark in 2021. With more of that, the AL West crown will remain Houston's to lose.

             

    Los Angeles Angels: Shohei Ohtani Isn't Cooling Down

    The Angels are likewise off to a warm start with six wins in nine games. Predictably, three-time AL MVP Mike Trout has had a big hand in things courtesy of a .414 average and three homers, including one that probably hasn't landed yet.

    At least as encouraging is what the Angels have gotten out of Shohei Ohtani. After starring with both his bat and his arm in spring training, he now boasts a 1.039 OPS and six extra-base hits on offense. Pitching-wise, his first start yielded seven punchouts in 4.2 innings. Health permitting, this is MVP-caliber stuff.

           

    Oakland Athletics: Their Schedule Gets Easier

    Look, there's no point sugarcoating how the A's have started their season. They've lost seven of their 10 games and allowed 32 more runs than they've scored in the process. What's more, their injured list is getting crowded.

    Really, the only silver lining here is that the A's have at least flopped against good competition. They've only played the Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers, both of whom have their sights set on the World Series. From here, it will get easier for Oakland.

            

    Seattle Mariners: Ty France May Be for Real

    The Mariners have experienced both the good and the bad in the early days of the 2021 season. They're 5-4, sure, but they're now even shorter on reliable arms with veteran left-hander James Paxton headed for Tommy John surgery.

    As for the good, how about Ty France? He flew under the radar with a .305/.368/.468 line last year, and now he's following a red-hot spring with 11 hits (including three for extra bases) in his first 34 at-bats of 2021. With each hit, his stature as one of Seattle's pillar players just keeps growing.

          

    Texas Rangers: Nate Lowe Is Flying High

    The Rangers haven't done much to draw attention to themselves, but they must be enthusiastic about some of their individual performances. Joey Gallo, for example, is hot again after struggling through 2020.

    Then there's Nate Lowe. The Rangers had the right idea when they acquired him as an upside play from Tampa Bay, and he's thus far made the most of his everyday duty by blasting three homers and driving in 14 runs. He might just be a star in the making at first base.

National League East

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Atlanta: Its Pitching Has Been on Point

    Atlanta's offense has come around since its three-run stinker in the club's opening sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies. Ronald Acuna Jr., in particular, is teasing an MVP season with a .444 average and nine extra-base hits in as many games.

    Yet contrary to 2020, it's looking like Atlanta's arms will be doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in 2021. They have a 3.62 ERA as a group, with both a high strikeout rate and a low home run rate that signal it's the real deal. Between that and the club's warming offense, another NL East title is well within reach.

             

    Miami Marlins: Sandy Alcantara, Cy Young Award Contender

    Even if one of them was a raw deal, the Marlins have nonetheless suffered six losses in their first eight games. They're simply going to need more from an offense that has hit just three home runs.

    On the plus side, Sandy Alcantara is showing that his superb spring was for real. Through two starts, he's struck out 17 and allowed only six hits, none of which left the park. If he keeps sitting in the 97-98 mph range and mixing in more nasty changeups, he might ride this wave all the way to the NL Cy Young Award.

          

    New York Mets: The 2019 Pete Alonso Might Be Back

    Because their season got off to a late start, the Mets' first impression is very much incomplete. But some of their core players have hit the ground running, including slugging first baseman Pete Alonso.

    Through five games, Alonso boasts a .348 OBP and a superb average of 98.1 mph on 12 batted balls. He thus looks less like the guy who had a modest .817 OPS in 2020 and more like the guy who had a .941 OPS with a rookie record 53 homers in 2019.

         

    Philadelphia Phillies: Their Bullpen Might Actually Be Good Now

    Throughout the 2020 season, few things were harder to watch on a regular basis than the Phillies bullpen. It finished with a 7.06 ERA and easily the lowest win probability added for any group of relievers.

    Now there are some new faces in Philly's bullpen, and its initial results indicate that it will also have a new vibe in 2021. Phillies relievers have a 3.73 ERA overall, yet six relievers who've made at least three appearances apiece are doing even better with a 1.73 mark.

           

    Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg Is Healthy (and Good) Again

    The Nationals also started their season late, yet they have to be thrilled with how Juan Soto and Trea Turner already resemble the dynamic duo that they were in 2020.

    Even better is what the Nats saw from Stephen Strasburg in his opening start against Atlanta. He logged six innings, or one more than he managed throughout all of his injury-marred 2020 season. He also had more zip on his fastball, which helped him strike out eight while allowing just one hit and zero runs.

National League Central

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Chicago Cubs: At Least Kris Bryant Is Hitting

    This is perhaps definitely hyperbole, but one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time is how the Cubs offense has managed to go from one of the league's best to one of its worst in just five years. To wit, they're hitting an MLB-low .167 as a team.

    It's hardly insignificant, however, that Kris Bryant is doing his part to carry Chicago's offense. He may only have seven hits, but four are doubles and two are home runs. He also already has three barrels after mustering just five all of last year. If nothing else, he'll be a primo trade chip if he stays on this track.

             

    Cincinnati Reds: What a Turnaround for Their Offense

    It would be an understatement to say that the Reds offense was merely bad in 2020. It was indeed historically bad, ultimately finishing with the lowest batting average by a team in 110 years.

    Well, now they're hitting .289/.364/.521 as a team. And it's not all Tyler Naquin, as the club's overall offensive effort is being buoyed by one of the league's lowest strikeout rates and its highest power output. Whatever the Reds are paying hitting coach Alan Zinter, it isn't enough.

         

    Milwaukee Brewers: The Burnes and Woodruff Show Is Ongoing

    The Cubs aren't the only team in the NL Central with an underperforming offense. For their part, the Brewers are barely above the Mendoza line with just a collective .202 average.

    By far the best thing the Brewers have going for them, though, is their one-two punch of Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes. The two right-handers have showcased all sorts of nasty stuff as they've compiled a 1.54 ERA with 33 strikeouts and two walks through 23.1 innings. That'll play.

        

    Pittsburgh Pirates: They Might Have Something in Phillip Evans

    The Pirates lost 93 games in 2019 and a league-high 41 games in 2020, so it's no great surprise that they've already sunk like a stone to the bottom of the NL Central. Not having super-rookie Ke'Bryan Hayes (wrist) definitely doesn't help.

    But keep an eye on Phillip Evans. He hit .359 in an 11-game cameo last year and has kept it up by going 11-for-28 with three long balls this year. Since he's struck out only twice and hit the ball at an average of 95.1 mph, there's an air of believability about the 28-year-old's budding breakout.

           

    St. Louis Cardinals: Nolan Arenado Doesn't Need Coors Field

    Early though it may be, it's already apparent that the Cardinals will need to go shopping for pitching on this summer's trade market. Jack Flaherty hasn't recovered from last year's reality check, and the lack of depth beneath him is all too evident right now.

    The Cards are nonetheless 5-4 in part because Nolan Arenado has been everything they could have hoped for. He's specifically proving he doesn't need Coors Field, as he's already 12-for-36 with two home runs. With more of that plus his Gold Glove-winning defense, he might finally win an overdue MVP award.

National League West

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Arizona Diamondbacks: When Healthy, Ketel Marte Was Raking Again

    With six losses in 10 games, the Diamondbacks are struggling to climb the ranks of the National League West after finishing in last place in 2020.

    But before he landed on the injured list with a hamstring ailment, Ketel Marte was positively scorching through six games. The 2019 All-Star was 12-for-26 with two home runs, or exactly as many as he hit through all of 2020. The Diamondbacks will gladly take more of that when he's healthy again.

          

    Colorado Rockies: Ryan McMahon Is Ably Filling Arenado's Shoes

    The Rockies haven't exactly been good so far, but also not totally without merit. Their starting rotation has allowed only three home runs thus far, and their everyday third baseman is doing a shockingly good job of spelling Nolan Arenado.

    His name is Ryan McMahon, and he's thus far 12-for-37 with five home runs. Three of those long balls came in one game, and he's even looked good defensively (see here and here) at the hot corner. These are good things to know in case anyone is ever asked to define the term "Arenado-ian."

             

    Los Angeles Dodgers: Everybody Is Hitting

    Please try to contain your surprise, but the Dodgers currently sit atop the NL West after winning eight of their first 10 games. If they stay there, they'll collect their ninth straight division title at the end of the year.

    As they did in 2020, they're winning games largely on the strength of their offense. They trail only the Reds in OPS+, and it's not all thanks to one, two or even three guys. They have seven hitters who've posted at least a 125 OPS+ over at least 20 plate appearances, which is more than even the Reds.

         

    San Diego Padres: Their Bullpen Is Looking Better Than Expected

    Not everything has gone right for the Padres so far in 2021—alas, poor Fernando Tatis Jr.—but they've nonetheless carried over the good vibes of 2020 as they've won six of nine. Especially deserving of a shoutout is Joe Musgrove, who pitched the franchise's first-ever no-hitter Friday.

    Not to be overlooked, however, is the excellent work that San Diego's bullpen is doing. Padres relievers lead the majors with a 0.84 ERA and the NL with a 5.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Considering that relief pitching wasn't expected to be one of this club's strengths, this is quite the important development.

        

    San Francisco Giants: Their Starters Aren't Giving Up Much

    This is where we could talk about Buster Posey, who returned from last year's opt-out to go deep in each of the Giants' first two games. Or maybe fellow veteran Evan Longoria, who has three homers in his own right.

    Yet we can't help but notice that the Giants' starting rotation thus far has a 2.32 ERA with only two home runs allowed. The catch is that Giants starters aren't striking many guys out. But in light of Oracle Park's big dimensions and the way in which the new ball is suppressing home runs, that may not be their doom.

           

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.