Every MLB Team's Most Pleasant Surprise Early in 2021
The 2021 MLB season has been underway for a few weeks now, so enough time has passed and enough games have been played to identify some players who are beginning to put together big seasons.
Whether it's an emerging young player, a candidate for a breakout season or a veteran who is looking like a younger version of himself, each team always has a few early surprises. Here is one player from each team having a surprisingly strong start to the campaign.
Baltimore Orioles: RHP Adam Plutko
Plutko has a new team and new role, and so far it's working out well. The big righty struggled as a starter in Cleveland and was traded to Baltimore in the offseason. He's been working out of the bullpen this season, and the conversion has been successful. Plutko has allowed only two earned runs on seven hits and walked two in 9.2 innings of work (1.86 ERA).
Boston Red Sox: RHP Garrett Whitlock
The Red Sox bullpen was a mess last season, but the entire pitching staff has been a surprising bright spot for Boston this year, helping propel the team to the top of the AL East standings. Whitlock came from the New York Yankees' organization from the Rule 5 draft, and he's thrown 6.1 scoreless innings in three relief appearances this season.
New York Yankees: RHP Darren O'Day
The Yankees have produced a number of surprisingly effective role players over the last few years, like Luke Voit, Gio Urshela and Mike Tauchman. But O'Day is in a category all his own. At 38, the sidewinder continues to get outs. He's made seven appearances with New York this season and allowed just one earned run in 6.0 innings (1.50 ERA).
Tampa Bay Rays: LHP Jeffrey Springs
Springs was part of a disastrous Boston bullpen last season and has a career 5.11 ERA. But he's suddenly transformed into a top middle reliever with the Rays. He has given up only one earned run on six hits over 7.0 innings of work (1.29 ERA). The one thing Springs has always been good about is limiting walks. That trend has continued in Tampa Bay, as he has yet to issue a walk this season.
Toronto Blue Jays: LHP Steven Matz
No one quite knew what to make of Matz's last few seasons. He had two solid seasons with the Mets to start his career, but he's battled injuries and ineffectiveness since 2017. His ERA ballooned to 9.68 last season, and the Mets traded him to Toronto. He's having a bounce-back year with the upstart Blue Jays, however, going 3-0 with a 1.47 ERA.
Chicago White Sox: DH Yermin Mercedes
Eloy Jimenez's offensive production has been missed, but Mercedes is doing his best to help the White Sox fill the void. The rookie DH has been absolutely mashing this month, hitting .415 with four home runs and four doubles. He's scored seven runs and driven in 12, and his 1.173 OPS is the sixth-highest in MLB.
Cleveland: RHP Emmanuel Clase
You might remember Clase's name from the Corey Kluber trade in December 2019. The right-hander came to Cleveland from the Texas Rangers with Delino DeShields Jr. for the two-time Cy Young Award winner. Now, you'll remember him for an absurd 100 mph cutter. The rookie reliever hasn't allowed an earned run in 7.1 innings.
Detroit Tigers: OF Akil Baddoo
The Rule 5 pick has had an absolutely scorching start to his career with the rebuilding Tigers. Baddoo had a 1.443 OPS through his first eight games of the season and hit four home runs. No other American League player has ever had an OPS that high through the first eight games, though it has since come down to .959.
Kansas City Royals: Jakob Junis
Junis has been inconsistent at best over the last two seasons. He's started some and worked in relief, but right now the Royals have him in the rotation, and he's making a case to stay there with a 1.80 ERA in his two starts (1.50 ERA in four appearances overall).
Minnesota Twins: OF Kyle Garlick
There haven't been many surprising performances with this team. The oft-injured Byron Buxton is one of the best hitters in baseball, but we knew he had that kind of potential if he remained healthy. Nelson Cruz is still hitting bombs. Maybe the most pleasant surprise is that Garlick is playing in left field instead of top prospect Alex Kirilloff and that he's playing well enough to remain there for the time being. The utility outfielder is showing what he can do with consistent playing time: .280/.321/.400, three doubles and six runs scored. However, he did just test positive for COVID-19, so he'll be on the shelf for now.
Houston Astros: RHP Luis Garcia
The Astros got a look at Garcia last season, and the results were promising. The 24-year-old Venezuelan didn't look quite as sharp in spring training (five earned runs in 5.2 innings, 7.94 ERA), but he did get the bats swinging with eight strikeouts. He's still getting them swinging: Through 7.2 innings (one start, one relief appearance), Garcia has struck out eight. He has a 2.35 ERA, and his versatility is an asset.
Los Angeles Angels: 1B Jared Walsh
Walsh was never a top prospect in the Angels' system. He was a two-way player who showed some mettle in a shortened season in 2020, clubbing nine homers and finishing with a .971 OPS to earn some AL Rookie of the Year votes. This year, he beat out Albert Pujols for the first base job, and he continues to make the case for more at-bats. Walsh has hit four home runs and has consistently maintained an OPS over 1.000. He owned a 1.133 OPS as of Sunday, the eighth-best in baseball.
Oakland A's: INF Jed Lowrie
Lowrie most recently spent two years with the Mets, unable to play more than a handful of games because of a knee injury. The veteran infielder said the club wouldn't allow him to have surgery in 2020. Now that he's had it, he's returned to his old form in his third stint in Oakland, hitting .333 with two home runs and a .928 OPS. Hitting in the middle of the order, Lowrie has helped key the A's to an eight-game winning streak.
Seattle Mariners: RHP Chris Flexen
Flexen was once a top prospect for the Mets, but they rushed his development and put him in some bad spots when he was coming up in 2017 and 2018, and he was unable to find his footing. The 26-year-old spent the 2020 season in the KBO and came back with improved control. Flexen is finally striking out more hitters (14) than he's walking (four), and he's limiting his home runs allowed (one home run in 16.0 innings).
Texas Rangers: 1B/DH Nate Lowe
The former Tampa Bay utility man has four home runs already this season, matching his 2020 total. He helped the Rangers walk it off over the Orioles in the 10th inning Sunday.
Atlanta Braves: LHP Tyler Matzek
The Braves bullpen hasn't been a bright spot this season, but Matzek has been. Since being a first-round pick in 2009, he hasn't been able to stick much in the big leagues, so 7.2 innings without an earned run to start the season is a positive development for the 30-year-old.
Miami Marlins: 2B/SS Jazz Chisholm
Chisholm has been a prospect on the radar for a few years, and he's having a breakout campaign in 2021. He homered off one of Jacob deGrom's 100 mph heaters for one of his three home runs. The 23-year-old Bahamian boasts the ninth-best OPS in MLB (1.126).
New York Mets: OF Brandon Nimmo
The Mets have some elite hitters in their lineup with Francisco Lindor, Michael Conforto and Pete Alonso. But Nimmo has been the best to start the season. His 1.070 OPS is the second-best on the team, he's worked eight walks and scored five runs, and he's hitting lefties and righties. The only other player on the team with a higher OPS? DeGrom, because there is nothing he can't do.
Philadelphia Phillies: RHP Connor Brogdon
The Philadelphia bullpen was the worst in baseball last season. But the team has seen some improvement in this area, and part of that can be attributed to Brogdon, who is currently riding a 6.2-inning scoreless streak.
Washington Nationals: RHP Daniel Hudson
This is another team without any real surprises, but Hudson looks to be turning things around after a lackluster 2020 season. This shouldn't be a surprise, but there are always questions on whether pitchers will bounce back in their 30s, and the 34-year-old Hudson has a 2.25 ERA so far after putting up a 6.10 ERA last season.
Chicago Cubs: RHP Craig Kimbrel
"Craig Kimbrel 2.0" is what the Cubs are calling their closer. Once thought to be on the decline, the 32-year-old has a seven-inning scoreless streak to start the season. This comes after two disappointing seasons for Kimbrel. This is good news for the Cubs, who have two more years and $32 million owed to him (including 2021).
Cincinnati Reds: OF Nick Castellanos
Castellanos has always been a good hitter, but not this good. According to FanGraphs, he has a career 112 wRC+. This season, that's jumped to 166. He's hit five home runs and has a .951 OPS.
Milwaukee Brewers: 1B Daniel Vogelbach
Vogelbach can rake. He showed that ability Sunday in an extra-inning loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, hitting two home runs, including a game-tying two-run shot in the seventh. Manager Craig Counsell seems inclined to give him more at-bats to try to capitalize on his offensive abilities.
Pittsburgh Pirates: UTIL Phillip Evans
Ke'Bryan Hayes went down, and Evans stepped in. Evans, a former Double-A batting title winner with the Mets, has played only 59 major league games, and 14 of them have come this season. He's made the most of his at-bats by hitting .275 with three home runs. Hayes is nearing a return and working out at the Pirates' alternate site, but Evans is showing that he's capable of producing in the big leagues. Evans can play all over the infield, so the club should be able to find somewhere for the utility infielder to play.
St. Louis Cardinals: C Yadier Molina
What's surprising about this team is the inconsistent offense. But that's not pleasant, so Molina producing at age 38 is what we're going with. His 1.022 OPS is impressive, but the most impressive aspect is the remarkable career consistency he's enjoyed as one of the game's best-hitting catchers.
Arizona Diamondbacks: RHP Madison Bumgarner
Bumgarner had a terrible 2020 campaign, and that dismal play continued through his first three starts of the 2021 season, leading to an 11.20 ERA. Pitching coach Matt Herges told him to simplify his approach and pitch based on his feel and instinct. The advice seemed to work because Bumgarner earned his first win of the season Sunday in Washington, limiting the Nationals to one run over five innings. It was a positive development for the team and Bumgarner, who is in the second year of an $85 million contract.
Colorado Rockies: RHP Antonio Senzatela
It's difficult enough to pitch in Coors Field, but the Rockies are in a state of disarray, and trading away Nolan Arenado didn't help matters. Senzatela turned in a good performance against the Mets on Sunday, holding New York to one earned run over six innings. But he received no offensive support and fell to 1-3 on the season. He'll be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dark season for the Rockies.
Los Angeles Dodgers: RHP Kenley Jansen
Jansen's grasp on the closer position has been tenuous over the last few seasons. Now 33 and in the final season of his contract, there is more pressure on him to perform than ever before, and he has risen to the occasion. He's converted three saves this season, one of which took only 10 pitches. His velocity is also back up to the mid-90s, which could help him get a firmer grip on the closer role.
San Diego Padres: RHP Joe Musgrove
San Diego has a new hometown hero. Musgrove, a native of El Cajon, tossed the first no-hitter in franchise history last week. He was honored by the club in an on-field ceremony and gifted a lifetime supply of Ballast Point beer, which might be the biggest prize.
San Francisco Giants: 3B Evan Longoria
The 35-year-old Longoria is playing more like the 25-year-old Longoria once did in Tampa Bay. Now with the Giants, Longoria has four home runs and a .993 OPS.