Every MLB Contender's Secret Weapon in 2021

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 4, 2021

Every MLB Contender's Secret Weapon in 2021

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    Get a load of Steven Duggar.
    Get a load of Steven Duggar.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    With 26 guys on each roster, it's both easy to gain sight of Major League Baseball teams' greatest contributors but also to lose sight of their lesser known yet still valuable players.

    So, we thought we'd do the latter bunch a favor by shining a light on them.

    We've pinpointed the best secret weapon on every contender's roster, plus a few players on non-contenders who are at least deserving of a shoutout. This involved looking beyond teams' name-brand stars for players who, either recently or all season, have been doing yeoman's work in 2021.

    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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    Collin McHugh
    Collin McHughSteve Nesius/Associated Press

    1. Boston Red Sox (52-32): LHP Josh Taylor

    Mainly thanks to the three-headed monster of Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez, the Red Sox offense has done a fine job of covering for the team's inconsistent starting pitching. But the bullpen also deserves its share of credit, as it hasn't just been the Matt Barnes show in 2021.

    In particular, slider maestro Josh Taylor has quietly become one of baseball's most effective relievers by way of 25 straight scoreless appearances since April 30. He's even mastered right-handed batters in this span, holding them to a .088 average with just one extra-base hit.


    2. Tampa Bay Rays (47-36): RHP Collin McHugh

    Though the Rays haven't had the easiest of times on either side of a 24-5 stretch between May 13 and June 14, they're hanging in there because their run prevention is all sorts of good. They're notably excelling on defense, where outfielder Brett Phillips is an overlooked gem.

    Even still, we've gotta give it up for Collin McHugh. After opting out of playing in 2020, the former Houston Astro has emerged from an iffy April to rack up a 0.36 ERA in a swingman role—i.e., his 14 appearances cover 25.1 innings and contain three starts and two games finished—since the start of May.


    3. Toronto Blue Jays (43-38): C Reese McGuire

    As they co-lead MLB with 123 home runs and are scoring 5.2 runs per game, it's all about offense for the Blue Jays. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is leading the way with an MVP-caliber season, though the contributions of Teoscar Hernandez, Marcus Semien and Bo Bichette must not be overlooked.

    For that matter, Reese McGuire has been huge for Toronto/Dunedin/Buffalo of late. He's started 15 times and appeared in 18 overall games since June 11 and has hit .377 in the process. Thus has he brought stability to a catching corps that had been on shaky ground.


    4. New York Yankees (41-40): RHP Nestor Cortes Jr.

    Things are, uh, not going well for the Yankees these days. Their offense is simply too reliant on power for its own good, while their pitching staff is marred by a lack of starting depth beneath Gerrit Cole and a suddenly meltdown-prone Aroldis Chapman.

    But hey, at least Nestor Cortes Jr. has been opening eyes as a multi-inning reliever of late. He's made six appearances since June 4 and turned in a 0.64 ERA and 18 more strikeouts than walks over 14 innings. And as Shohei Ohtani can attest, Cortes has gotten by less with power and more so with craft.


    Non-Contender Shoutout: RHP Tyler Wells, Baltimore Orioles

    Even though Tyler Wells was a veritable punching bag through May, his electric fastball-slider combination gave the impression that maybe he could break out as a shutdown reliever.

    Sure enough, he's coming off a month of June in which he allowed only two runs with 18 strikeouts and no walks in 10 appearances that spanned 14.1 innings. If he stays on that track, the rookie will be a fixture in Baltimore's bullpen for years to come.

American League Central

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    Brian Goodwin
    Brian GoodwinCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    1. Chicago White Sox (49-33): OF Brian Goodwin

    In spite of their standing in first place in the AL Central, it was oddly difficult to pick out the White Sox's secret weapon. Plenty of opportunities for secret weapons have opened up by way of injuries, but those opportunities have most gone unfulfilled as the team's stars have continued to carry the load.

    Perhaps the only exception to this rule is Brian Goodwin. Tasked with shoring up an outfield that's missing Eloy Jimenez (chest) and Luis Robert (hip), he's been a godsend as he's racked up a .912 OPS and three long balls in 18 games since the White Sox recalled him on June 12.


    2. Cleveland (42-38): RHP Nick Sandlin

    Cleveland was badly in need of an offensive boost through the first two months of the season. Then came slugging first baseman Bobby Bradley, who went off for a .954 OPS and eight home runs in June. Between him, Jose Ramirez and (when healthy) Franmil Reyes, Cleveland now has at least three lineup stalwarts.

    But with all respect to Bradley, Nick Sandlin has been more of a "secret" weapon for Cleveland of late. By way of a deceptive delivery and a sharp slider, he finished June with a 0.82 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 11 innings. It's therefore no longer just James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase carrying the team's bullpen.


    Non-Contender Shoutout: RHP Jose Cisnero, Detroit Tigers

    Amid an otherwise trying season in the Motor City, the Tigers have at least enjoyed some quality pitching from time to time. In their bullpen, specifically, Jose Cisnero has been mowing 'em down of late.

    Ever since May 13, Cisnero boasts a 0.43 ERA with 23 strikeouts, five walks and just 10 hits allowed over 21 innings. Among other things, he can credit his career-best 96.9 mph fastball for his resurgence.

American League West

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    Tony Kemp
    Tony KempJohn Hefti/Associated Press

    1. Houston Astros (51-33): CF Myles Straw

    Don't look now—or, rather, please do look now—but the Astros are once again on track to have an all-time great offense in 2021. Such is life when Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez each have a 139 OPS+ or better.

    More recently, speedy center fielder Myles Straw has joined the fun by hitting .348 over his last 26 games. Factoring in that he's also having a good season defensively, he's doing a better job of filling George Springer's vacated shoes than he's getting credit for.


    2. Oakland Athletics (49-36): 2B Tony Kemp

    The Athletics have been up and down ever since a 13-game win streak back in April, yet they've thus far avoided a total freefall. Slugging first baseman Matt Olson deserves his share of the credit for keeping the boat afloat, as do hurlers Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea.

    Also, how about Tony Kemp? At 5'6", 160 pounds and with little power, he's very much unlike most players in MLB today. Yet he's shown off terrific discipline in racking up a .388 on-base percentage, which is actually in the top 10 for qualified American League hitters.


    3. Seattle Mariners (44-40): OF Jake Fraley

    Given that they've allowed 45 more runs than they've scored, the Mariners are perhaps lucky that they're even in contention at all. But they might just keep it up if their offense continues its June surge, particularly if the main drivers behind that effort stay sharp.

    That means guys like J.P. Crawford and Ty France, but also Jake Fraley. Since returning from a stint in the minors on May 31, he's gotten on base at a .423 clip and hit seven home runs. He'll be even more useful if the Mariners start playing him regularly in left field, where his defense is rating well.


    4. Los Angeles Angels (41-41): LHP Jose Suarez

    Albeit with Mike Trout (calf) still sidelined and the team's starting pitching very much unstable, the Angels are refusing to bow out of the AL West race. It's little secret that Shohei Ohtani's endless power supply is a big reason why, yet the Angels have also benefited from some solid relief work recently.

    For his part, Jose Suarez has aided the effort with a 1.98 ERA in nine appearances over 27.1 innings. He was especially useful in cleaning up (figuratively, that is) after Dylan Bundy in the Angels' 5-3 win over the Yankees on Monday, which has since been followed with the two players exchanging roles.


    Non-Contender Shoutout: RHP Spencer Patton, Texas Rangers

    Though Spencer Patton was a World Series champion with the Chicago Cubs in 2016, he didn't actually participate in that year's playoffs. He then didn't pitch in the majors at all between 2017 and 2020, as he was off twirling for the Yokohama BayStars in Japan.

    Well, now he's back and sitting on a 0.93 ERA after 12 appearances for the Rangers. It's a comeback worthy of a Hollywood film, even if the obvious title for it is already taken.

National League East

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    Seth Lugo
    Seth LugoJulio Cortez/Associated Press

    1. New York Mets (42-36): RHP Seth Lugo

    The Mets don't exactly have a firm grip on the NL East lead at the moment. And yet their best days might be ahead of them, especially if their offense gets going and Jacob deGrom stays healthy and on track for what would be a record-setting ERA.

    In the meantime, the Mets can thank Seth Lugo for the fact that their recent bullpen issues haven't gotten too far out of hand. He has his curveball in fine form and is now working on a 2.77 ERA with 18 strikeouts through 13 innings. That's more like the guy who starred in 2018 and 2019 before struggling in 2020.


    2. Washington Nationals (40-41): RHP Paolo Espino

    Up until he seriously injured his hamstring, the Nationals had been hard to beat ever since Kyle Schwarber started hitting home runs every time up. Juan Soto and Trea Turner have also been hot lately, and Max Scherzer has found unlikely support in the rotation from Joe Ross.

    Yet our eyes are on Paolo Espino, who's done a little bit of everything in the process of compiling a 2.48 ERA over 40 innings. He's opened four games and finished 11 more, all while getting the most out of a fastball-curveball combination that's light on velocity but heavy on movement (see here and here).


    3. Atlanta (40-42): LHP Drew Smyly

    In the wake of three straight NL East titles, Atlanta's season hasn't gone at all as the team had hoped it would. But at least Ronald Acuna Jr. is having an MVP-caliber season, and the team benefited from some strong starting pitching in June.

    On the latter note, it's time to give Drew Smyly his due. He was awful in April and he laid a seven-run dud as recently as May 26, yet he still boasts a solid 3.15 EA over his past 10 starts. He's especially been benefiting from a cutter that's held hitters to a .167 average.


    4. Philadelphia Phillies (39-41): LHP Bailey Falter

    Another year, another case of the Phillies just not having enough. There are too many weak spots in their lineup, while their pitching staff is woefully thin underneath aces Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola. Their bullpen, in particular, is a mess for the second year in a row.

    Bailey Falter is doing what he can, though. Three of his four appearances in June lasted at least three innings, and overall he allowed only two earned runs on six hits and a walk with 13 strikeouts. It's perhaps time for him to move out of piggy-back duty and into a more critical role.


    Non-Contender Shoutout: 2B/3B Jon Berti

    To be fair, the Marlins are only 4.5 games behind the Phillies for fourth place in the NL East. But they just haven't been able to launch, and a likely trade deadline sell-off is now just a few weeks away.

    But as bright spots go, Jon Berti has hit .313 with a .389 OBP over his last 26 games. He's thus on his way to a third straight average-ish offensive season. Between that and his elite speed, the Marlins might want to dangle him in trade talks.

National League Central

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    Jonathan India
    Jonathan IndiaDerrick Tuskan/Associated Press

    1. Milwaukee Brewers (51-33): RHP Jake Cousins

    Folks, the Brewers are looking good. After encountering all sorts of issues in April and May, their offense sprang to life in June even without much help from Christian Yelich. And with aces aplenty in both their rotation and their bullpen, they can pitch as well as any team in the National League.

    Which is to say they didn't really need another dynamic arm, and yet they've found one in Jake Cousins. His first four major league appearances have yielded no runs and 11 strikeouts, all of which have come on an absolutely nasty slider. He, Josh Hader and Devin Williams all in one bullpen hardly seems fair.


    2. Cincinnati Reds (42-40): 2B Jonathan India

    The Reds are hanging in the NL Central race mostly because of their offense, and specifically because of Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker. Between them, they boast a .327/.394/.582 batting line and 35 home runs.

    More recently, however, it's arguably Jonathan India who's been Cincinnati's top hitter. Go back to May 13, and he's hitting at a .291 clip with a .417 OBP over 46 games. Among qualified NL hitters, only three have gotten on base more frequently than India since that date.


    3. Chicago Cubs (42-41): LHP Brad Wieck

    As the Brewers offense took off, the Cubs offense promptly took a turn for the worse in June. Particularly with regard to Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, getting the bats back on track will be priority No. 1 for July and beyond.

    Meanwhile, the Cubs can keep counting on their excellent bullpen. Brad Wieck wasn't a major part of that equation initially, but he's become one as he's gradually amassed 13 scoreless appearances. The past six of those have been especially electric, as he's whiffed 15 of the 28 batters he's faced.


    4. St. Louis Cardinals (41-43): 2B Tommy Edman

    The Cardinals have been cold for weeks now, and what production they are getting is mainly coming from cornerstone stars like Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado on offense and Adam Wainwright and Alex Reyes on the mound. So, whether any of their players belong here is subject to debate.

    What nudged our attention toward Tommy Edman, however, is that his season is so much more than his modest .264/.308/.377 batting line. He also has seven outs above average at second base, which ties him for the overall lead at the position.


    Non-Contender Shoutout: RHP Chris Stratton, Pittsburgh Pirates

    The Pirates have had some bright spots this season—looking at you, Bryan Reynolds, Adam Frazier and Richard Rodriguez—but their rebuild still has a ways to go. So between now and July 30, expect several of their core players to be moved in trades.

    To this end, Chris Stratton would be a sneaky-good addition to a contender's bullpen. He can spin the ball with the best of 'em, and he's been hot with a 1.72 ERA over his past 23 appearances.

National League West

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    Jimmy Nelson
    Jimmy NelsonAshley Landis/Associated Press

    1. San Francisco Giants (52-30): CF Steven Duggar

    Even more so than the team's excellent Kevin Gausman-led rotation, it's been the Giants offense that's truly raised eyebrows this season. With Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria having turned back the clock, the Giants have cranked out an MLB-high-tying 123 home runs.

    Yet the best player right now might actually be Steven Duggar. Once billed as the team's future in center field, he now truly looks the part with a .339/.415/.578 line over his last 38 contests. Oh, and he also fields his position well. 


    2. Los Angeles Dodgers (52-31): RHP Jimmy Nelson

    It's been a weird sort of season for the defending champion Dodgers, yet their plus-117 run differential hints that they're still very much the elite force that they were in 2020. And among their many specific silver linings, perhaps the shiniest right now is their bullpen.

    Though closer Kenley Jansen and reborn setup man Joe Kelly should get nods, it's hard to miss Jimmy Nelson. Finally healthy, he's shown off an electric fastball-slider-changeup mix and whiffed 40 batters in only 25 innings. He's also allowed just one earned run in his past 14 appearances.


    3. San Diego Padres (49-36): RHP Austin Adams

    It's once again the Fernando Tatis Jr. show in San Diego, yet the Padres surely aren't lacking for stars around him. Trent Grisham and Jake Cronenworth, for example, remain hugely underrated, while Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Mark Melancon are all pitching beautifully.

    Speaking of pitching beautifully, Austin Adams has also been doing so for a while now with only one earned run allowed in 32 appearances since April 18. His nasty slider is one of the best there is, and there frankly aren't many relievers with underlying metrics as good as his.


    Non-Contender Shoutout: 2B/SS Brendan Rodgers, Colorado Rockies

    With Nolan Arenado already gone and Trevor Story likely to follow him out the door in the coming weeks, the Rockies badly need some in-house success stories.

    For instance, Brendan Rodgers. The former top prospect came into 2021 as a prime post-hype breakout candidate, and breaking out is precisely what he's been doing as he's slashed .318/.392/.565 over his last 26 games.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.