Predicting Each MLB Team's Most Valuable Player in 2021
Love them or hate them, advanced metrics like Wins Above Replacement (WAR) are here to stay in today's MLB conversation.
The start of each new MLB season brings with it a wave of forward-looking prediction content, but rather than picking the award winners or the postseason matchups, we've decided to lean into the advanced metric side of things by predicting who will lead each team in WAR during the 2021 season.
For a team like the Los Angeles Angels (Mike Trout) the choice was easy, but most clubs had at least a handful of viable options.
There will always be the unexpected breakout that throws a wrench into things, like Ketel Marte in 2019 or Mike Yastrzemski in 2020, but what follows is our best guess at each MLB team's WAR leader in 2021.
Off we go.
Baltimore Orioles: SP John Means
The de facto ace of the rebuilding Orioles, Means was a 4.8-WAR player as a rookie in 2019 while finishing second in American League Rookie of the Year voting and earning an All-Star nod. The left-hander is off to a great start this year and he'll continue to thrive as long as hitters flail at his terrific changeup.
Boston Red Sox: SS Xander Bogaerts
Bogaerts may never be a Gold Glove shortstop, but now that his defensive metrics are no longer a drain on his overall value he's the smart pick to lead the Red Sox in WAR in 2021. The 28-year-old is hitting .301/.372/.532 with a 136 OPS+ since the start of the 2018 season.
New York Yankees: 2B DJ LeMahieu
After re-upping on a six-year, $90 million deal during the offseason, LeMahieu is poised to once again lead a potent Yankees offensive attack. The 32-year-old has racked up 8.6 WAR the past two seasons, a total that ranks in the top 10 among all position players during that stretch. He can just flat-out hit.
Tampa Bay Rays: SP Tyler Glasnow
With a fastball that touches triple digits and a curveball that ranks among the best offspeed pitches in the game, Glasnow's stuff stacks up to any pitcher in baseball. He'll be asked to lead the staff with Blake Snell and Charlie Morton out of the picture, and he's off to a great start with just five hits and one earned run allowed while striking out 15 in 12 innings over his first two starts.
Toronto Blue Jays: SS Bo Bichette
Through his first 82 games at the MLB level, Bichette has crushed 47 extra-base hits while hitting .302/.341/.543 and tallying 3.5 WAR. It's easy to envision him being an MVP-caliber shortstop if those numbers hold up over a full season—and he's given every indication that they will.
Chicago White Sox: CF Luis Robert
On center field defense alone, Robert might be a 2-WAR player in 2021. The 23-year-old is still prone to the occasional error, but that didn't stop him from tallying eight DRS during the 2020 season. Even if he battles a high strikeout rate, a 20/20 season might be his floor with 30/30 potential if he can make a few adjustments.
Cleveland: 3B Jose Ramirez
Despite the fact that he no longer has Francisco Lindor hitting behind him in the Cleveland lineup, Ramirez was still my pick to win AL MVP honors this year. The 28-year-old already has a pair of 7-WAR seasons on his resume, and he has finished in the top three in MVP balloting three times in the past four years. He's streaky, but the end result is generally elite-level production.
Detroit Tigers: LF Robbie Grossman
The Tigers were a tough one. Willi Castro was propped up by an absurd .448 BABIP last year, Jeimer Candelario lacks defensive value and Akil Baddoo has a long way to go before he's a proven producer. With elite on-base ability (9 BB in 25 PA) and a sneaky mix of power and speed, Grossman could be a 3-WAR player in an everyday role. That might be enough to lead the Tigers.
Kansas City Royals: C Salvador Perez
After missing the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, Perez came back rejuvenated last year. He hit .333/.353/.633 with 12 doubles and 11 home runs in 37 games, and the advanced metrics backed up his stellar surface-level production. Somehow still only 30 years old, Perez remains one of the game's best catchers.
Minnesota Twins: CF Byron Buxton
I've drunk the Buxton Kool-Aid countless times before and been burned, but I'm in full chug mode once again thanks to his red-hot start. The former top prospect posted a 126 OPS+ with 13 home runs in 39 games last year, and he's 8-for-19 with three doubles and four home runs through his first six games in 2021. His elite defense also provides a nice foundation for whatever he does offensively.
Houston Astros: 3B Alex Bregman
A down 2020 season and the cloud of the sign-stealing scandal can make it easy to forget that Bregman is really, really good at baseball. He hit .296/.423/.592 with 37 doubles, 41 home runs and more walks (119) than strikeouts (83) in an 8.9-WAR season in 2019. He could absolutely lead the majors in WAR in 2021.
Los Angeles Angels: CF Mike Trout
Anthony Rendon is capable of giving Trout a run for his money in the WAR department. Still, the smart money remains on the guy who has already climbed to No. 81 on the all-time list with 74.8 WAR at the start of his 11th MLB season.
Oakland Athletics: CF Ramon Laureano
With a dynamic mix of power, speed and defense, Laureano is an extremely valuable player. He posted a 130 OPS+ with 24 home runs and 13 steals in 123 games in 2019 en route to a 3.5-WAR season and he still has some upside entering his age-26 season. Can he unseat Matt Chapman as Oakland's perennial WAR leader?
Seattle Mariners: RF Mitch Haniger
One gruesome injury and two lost seasons later, it's easy to forget that Haniger had a 6.5-WAR season in 2018 when he hit .285/.366/.493 with 38 doubles, 26 home runs and 93 RBI to earn a spot on the AL All-Star team. He's back healthy and hitting atop a Seattle lineup that has some serious sleeper potential.
Texas Rangers: SP Dane Dunning
This prediction was made with the assumption that Joey Gallo is going to be moved to a contender before the 2021 season is over. After a strong Rangers debut, Dunning has now gone 3-0 with a 3.69 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 41 strikeouts in 39 innings over his first eight MLB starts dating back to last year. The 26-year-old could be the ace of the staff by season's end.
Atlanta Braves: RF Ronald Acuna Jr.
Freddie Freeman is more than capable of defending his team WAR crown and NL MVP honors, but it's hard not to love the strides that Acuna has made in his short MLB career. The 23-year-old raised his walk rate 8.2 percent last year, and he's swinging a hot bat right out of the gates in 2021. He also may be better suited for right field defensively.
Miami Marlins: SP Sandy Alcantara
Despite his electric stuff, Alcantara has posted a rather pedestrian 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings over the past three seasons since joining the Marlins. The 25-year-old has punched out 17 batters through 12 innings in his first two starts this year and missing more bats is his ticket to emerging as a bona fide, top-tier starting pitcher.
New York Mets: SP Jacob deGrom
While it's easy to get swept up in the Francisco Lindor hype, it was actually deGrom who posted a higher WAR total in 2018 (9.9 vs. 7.2), 2019 (8.0 vs. 4.8) and 2020 (2.7 vs. 1.2). He's the best pitcher on the planet right now, and he was dealing right out of the gate with six scoreless innings of three-hit, seven-strikeout ball on Monday.
Philadelphia Phillies: C J.T. Realmuto
It took a five-year, $115.5 million deal to keep Realmuto in a Phillies uniform. The back end of that contract could be a bit dicey, but it's short-term money well spent on the consensus best catcher in baseball. The 30-year-old had three straight 4-WAR seasons prior to the shortened 2020 campaign and his two-way ability makes him a near lock for more of the same.
Washington Nationals: SS Trea Turner
Turner showed previously untapped power last season when he posted a career-high .588 slugging percentage and launched 12 home runs in 59 games. The 27-year-old has already popped two homers in his first three games, lending some credence to the idea that those power gains might be the real deal. If he can make a run at 30 homers along with a .300 average and 30-plus steals he'll give Juan Soto a serious run for the highest WAR on the team.
Chicago Cubs: 3B Kris Bryant
Bryant has opened the year like a man out to prove the critics wrong following an offseason of trade rumors and skepticism. He currently sports a 172 OPS+ with three doubles and two home runs in seven games. At his peak, he was a 7.3-WAR player, and he was worth 4.5 WAR as recently as 2019. If he can avoid injury, a 5-WAR season is totally doable.
Cincinnati Reds: SP Luis Castillo
Pitching in the shadow of NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer, Castillo quietly made some measurable gains to his walk rate (-1.9 percent) and strikeout rate (+1.6 percent) last season while posting a 3.21 ERA with 89 strikeouts in 70 innings. After a rocky first start, he tossed seven shutout innings on Wednesday—and his lethal changeup already looks to be in midseason form.
Milwaukee Brewers: SP Corbin Burnes
With 12 strikeouts in his first 30 plate appearances after logging an ugly 30.8 percent strikeout rate a year ago, it's looking less and less likely Christian Yelich is going to return to his MVP form any time soon. That makes Burnes, who has a 1.88 ERA and a staggering 108 strikeouts in 72 innings since the start of last season, a worthy choice to be the team's likely WAR leader.
Pittsburgh Pirates: 3B Ke'Bryan Hayes
First things first, Hayes needs to get back onto the field as he's currently sidelined with a left wrist injury. The 24-year-old led the Pirates and all MLB rookies with 1.9 WAR in only 24 games last season. With an advanced hit tool, plus power and Gold Glove-caliber defense at third base, he's hands down the best player on the Pittsburgh roster.
St. Louis Cardinals: 3B Nolan Arenado
Can Arenado continue to produce at an elite level away from Coors Field? It's a fair question considering his career OPS is nearly 200 points lower on the road, but we saw DJ LeMahieu thrive in New York after posting similarly dramatic splits during his time in Colorado. With his power and glovework at third base, he's still more than capable of the fifth 6-WAR season of his career.
Arizona Diamondbacks: CF Ketel Marte
One of the breakout stars of 2019 when he posted a 148 OPS+ with 36 doubles and 32 home runs, Marte exploded out of the gates with a 12-for-26 start that included four doubles and two home runs before landing on the injured list with a strained hamstring. Despite that, the 27-year-old remains the obvious pick for the D-backs.
Colorado Rockies: SS Trevor Story
If the Rockies were smart, they'd pull the trigger on trading Story at the deadline before losing him in free agency next winter. That means he'll almost certainly be sticking around. With a rare mix of power and speed that resulted in consecutive 30-homer, 20-steal seasons in 2018 and 2019, Story already has a 6.2-WAR season and a 7.0-WAR season on his resume. With Arenado gone, this is a no-brainer pick.
Los Angeles Dodgers: RF Mookie Betts
With 44.0 WAR since the start of 2015, Betts trails only Mike Trout (47.2) among all position players with a sizable lead over Max Scherzer (36.0), Nolan Arenado (34.5) and Jacob deGrom (34.0) who round out the top five. The Dodgers have no shortage of viable candidates, but Betts is the obvious choice.
San Diego Padres: 3B Manny Machado
He may have avoided surgery, but Fernando Tatis Jr. is still going to miss significant time with his shoulder injury and there's no guarantee it won't be a nagging issue this season. Regardless, it was Machado (3.2), not Tatis (2.8), who led the team in WAR a year ago.
San Francisco Giants: SP Kevin Gausman
With a 3.62 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 59.2 innings, Gausman turned a one-year, $9 million contract last season into an $18.9 million qualifying offer for 2021. The 30-year-old is pitching for a big, multi-year payday next offseason and he's off to a great start with just two earned runs allowed in 13.2 innings over his first two starts. A top-10 finish in NL Cy Young voting is not out of the realm of possibility.