1 Player to Watch on Every MLB Team Down the StretchAugust 16, 2021
1 Player to Watch on Every MLB Team Down the Stretch
Roughly half of the teams in Major League Baseball are hoping to win a World Series in a few months, while the other half is just trying to get their fans excited about the 2022 schedule.
Either way, all 30 teams have at least one highly intriguing player to watch over the final seven weeks of the regular season.
How we define "highly intriguing" varies from team to team, of course.
Some are guys who have been surprisingly red hot as of late, and we want to see if it'll continue. Others are All-Stars in a funk who may or may not snap out of it.
There are young players whose teams are hoping to find out if they can build around them for the future, and there are guys who will be free agents in three months, hoping to increase the value of their next contract.
And there are others still who don't fall into any of those buckets.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Statistics are current through the start of play on Sunday, August 15.
Player to Watch: Pavin Smith
To put it lightly, there isn't much to get excited about in Arizona these days.
The Diamondbacks have the worst record in baseball. They traded away their only player with more than 10 home runs (Eduardo Escobar). Ketel Marte might lead the majors in batting average, but he's missed so many games that he won't qualify for a batting title. And while Madison Bumgarner has been hot since the All-Star break, it's hard to get overly excited for a guy finally doing what he's getting paid an average of $17 million per year to do.
But 25-year-old utility man Pavin Smith has been a breath of fresh air as of late, hitting .333 since July 21.
If he continues to hit well, maybe the Diamondbacks commit to Smith as an everyday outfielder for the foreseeable future and decline Kole Calhoun's $9 million club option for 2022 in order to reallocate those funds elsewhere.
Player to Watch: Jorge Soler
Atlanta was extremely active at the trade deadline, dealing for outfielders Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler, as well as relief pitcher Richard Rodriguez.
Though Rodriguez has logged eight scoreless innings in his new threads, the surprising crown jewel of that haul has been Soler thus far.
After mashing 48 home runs in 2019, Soler had a disappointing 2020 campaign in Kansas City, batting .228 with just eight home runs. And up until a couple of weeks ago, 2021 wasn't any better. He was batting .192 and averaging just one home run for every 27.7 trips to the plate, compared to 14.1 in 2019.
The change of scenery was precisely what he needed, though. Soler homered in three of his first seven games with Atlanta and is batting .261 in the first 13 games in his new National League home.
This team looked dead in the water when it lost Ronald Acuna Jr. for the year, but they still might win this division with a rejuvenated Soler.
Player to Watch: Matt Harvey
Many moons ago, Harvey was one of the top pitchers in all of baseball. But then the New York Mets asked him to log more than 200 innings in 2015 on a surgically repaired arm, and he was never the same again.
But could it be that he has turned enough of a corner to intrigue a suitor this winter in free agency?
He's a far cry from the flame-throwing strikeout artist that he was in his youth, but Harvey came out of the All-Star break with some magic, posting a line of 18.1 IP, 10 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 11 K in his final three starts of July.
Granted, those starts were against Kansas City, Washington and Detroit, and all those scoreless innings merely lowered his 2021 ERA to 6.20. Nonetheless, Harvey's unlikely quest to become relevant again is arguably the most interesting thing brewing in Baltimore these days.
Boston Red Sox
Player to Watch: Kyle Schwarber
For about three weeks in June, Schwarber was one of the most entertaining enigmas in recent baseball history. In hopes of snapping him out of his slow start to the season, Nationals manager Davey Martinez made the unorthodox decision to move Schwarber to the leadoff spot. Out of nowhere, he could not stop mashing baseballs, hitting 16 home runs in the span of 18 games.
But aside from briefly popping up in the news when he was traded from Washington to Boston at the deadline, we haven't much heard from Schwarber since the hamstring injury he suffered on July 2.
He's back now, though, and he could be the answer that Boston has been desperately searching for at first base—even though he has never played there before in the majors.
If he can handle that defensive change and resemble the slugger he was in June, it would make a world of difference for the Red Sox.
Player to Watch: Patrick Wisdom
The Cubs unloaded Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo at the trade deadline, but it looks like they held onto their most potent slugger.
Wisdom—who hit 31 home runs at the Triple-A level in both 2017 and 2019—has clubbed 18 home runs in just 231 plate appearances this season, which translates to one every 12.8 trips to the plate. While that's not quite as good as Shohei Ohtani's 11.7 rate, it's one heck of a pace for a player that doesn't quite have the same name value as Bryant, Baez and Rizzo.
As of the morning of August 13, these are the 10 players (not in any order) who had the highest slugging percentage among those with at least 200 plate appearances: Ohtani, Fernando Tatis Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., George Springer, Bryce Harper, Joey Votto, Kyle Schwarber, Rafael Devers...and Wisdom.
Not a bad list, and not a bad option for Chicago to build around for the future.
Chicago White Sox
Player to Watch: Luis Robert
Before suffering a complete tear of his right hip flexor in early May and missing more than three months of action, Robert was off to a great start in his "sophomore" season for Chicago.
He only hit one home run through his first 25 games compared to the 11 he had in the process of finishing as first runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year in 2020, but he was hitting .316/.359/.463 while bouncing all over the batting order. If the homers ever resurfaced, he was going to be a top candidate for a spot in the All-Star Game.
Alas, Robert finally returned to action on August 9—two weeks after Eloy Jimenez made his long-anticipated season debut—and now we wait to find out just how deadly this White Sox lineup can become by the time the postseason rolls around.
While the combination of Leury Garcia, Billy Hamilton, Brian Goodwin and Adam Engel did an admirable job in center field while Robert was out, none of them offer the upside and production a healthy Robert adds to an already-potent offense.
Player to Watch: Joey Votto
Nothing like a sudden power surge at the age of nearly 38 to get people talking about you on a daily basis.
Through his first 65 games of the year, Votto was batting .256 with 11 home runs in 268 plate appearances.
Since then, Votto is batting .367 in 107 plate appearances with 15 home runs, nine of which came in a seven-game streak at the end of July.
He does have more than 300 career home runs, so it's not like this came out of nowhere. Even then, Votto only averaged a home run once every 8.3 games played from the beginning of 2018 through mid-July of this year. Now, all of a sudden, he has looked like the perennial MVP candidate he once was.
Because he has been mashing the ball—and because Cincinnati has 29 remaining games against the Pirates (nine), Marlins (seven), Cubs (six), Nationals (four) and Tigers (three)—the Reds are still very much in this postseason race.
Player to Watch: Jose Ramirez
Ramirez has finished top three in the AL MVP vote in three of the past four years, and in the first half of this season, it at least looked like he had an outside shot at extending that run to four out of five years. At the end of June, he was hitting .265/.346/.537 and was on pace for nearly 40 home runs and 110 runs batted in for a team that was 42-35.
Since then, however, the man who hit better than .310 in both 2016 and 2017 has batted just .222 for a team that sometimes seems incapable of stringing together consecutive wins.
But what makes the remaining 45 or so games of Ramirez's season intriguing is that he has a $12 million club option on his contract for 2022, as well as a $14 million club option for 2023.
Cleveland would have to be out of its mind to decline that option, but it would also have to be out of its mind if it isn't at least considering trading him for a big haul this offseason. The size of that return may depend on how well he finishes the year.
Player to Watch: Trevor Story
It's still unfathomable that the Rockies didn't trade away Story at the deadline. Reiterating what has been one of the biggest talking points in Colorado since February, the two-time All-Star is going to become a free agent this winter, and it is highly unlikely he will re-sign with the Rockies.
However, the non-move evidently lit a fire inside of him.
Story was hitting just .240 at the July 30 deadline and was barely even a shell of the guy who had finished top 12 in the NL MVP vote in each of the previous three seasons. In the first 13 games after the deadline, though, Story hit .395 with 10 extra-base hits and a 1.211 OPS.
If he had continued down his previously disappointing trajectory, it was at least feasible the 28-year-old shortstop might sign a one-year deal somewhere for the 2022 season—perhaps even Colorado—in hopes of re-inflating his value before signing a mega-deal. But if he continues down this hotter path, get ready for something even more lucrative than the six-year, $120 million deal Xander Bogaerts signed in March 2019.
Player to Watch: Miguel Cabrera
Cabrera's contract is the gift that keeps on giving Tigers fans a reason to cry. Miggy is making $30 million this year and is still signed for another $32 million in each of the next two seasons.
He was easily worth that type of money in his prime, but this franchise has no hope of turning things around until it is done spending over a third of its budget on a designated hitter who is slugging just .402 since the beginning of 2017.
Might as well at least enjoy that sunk cost now that it's making history, though, right?
Cabrera will hit the 500th home run of his career any day now, and there's an outside chance he could get to 3,000 hits by the end of the year. He's currently 49 hits shy of that plateau with 42 games to go in Detroit's season.
It's been a while since Detroit had anything worth rooting for in September, but this quest could be fun.
Player to Watch: Carlos Correa
On July 3, Correa was batting .300/.401/.534 with 16 home runs.
One month later, both his batting average and on-base percentage had slipped more than 30 points, his slugging percentage had dropped 61 points, and he was still sitting on 16 home runs.
The shortstop did snap out of that funk a bit with home runs on August 4th and 8th, but will he bounce all the way back to that All-Star level of play? If not, it might help leave the door open for Oakland to win the division.
On the plus side, Kendall Graveman has been lights out since coming over from Seattle, giving the Astros 6.1 innings of one-run work out of the bullpen. If he continues to thrive in that setup role, Houston is going to be tough to score against this postseason.
Kansas City Royals
Player to Watch: Daniel Lynch
The Royals took Lynch late in the first round of the 2018 MLB draft, and the left-handed pitcher fared pretty well through his first one-and-a-half seasons in the minors. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out minor league baseball in 2020, but Lynch still managed to make the leap from High-A ball in 2019 straight to the majors in early May of this season.
His initial three-start stint with the big league club went poorly, but he has been much better since getting called back up in late July, going eight shutout innings against the Tigers and winning a road game against the White Sox.
These next six weeks may help the Royals determine whether he should be considered an anchor of the rotation moving forward.
Also worth keeping an eye on: Will Nicky Lopez hit a home run? The last player to finish a season with at least 400 plate appearances and no home runs was Michael Bourn in 2015. Before that, it was Ben Revere in 2012. But Lopez is up to 350 PAs with nary an HR.
Los Angeles Angels
Player to Watch: Shohei Ohtani
While the Angels have five impending free agents who are each making at least $8 million this season, and the return of Mike Trout looms large, there is only one player to watch for on the Angels.
The man. The myth. The legend. The No. 1 player to watch in all of baseball this season.
Shohei Ohtani is still leading the majors in home runs with 39 round-trippers and is well on his way toward joining Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Willie Mays and Brady Anderson as the only members of the 50 HR and 20 SB club. The fact that he's doing it with a sub-3.00 ERA makes the feat that much more ridiculous.
Ohtani is only 27 years old, so there might be more, even better seasons ahead. But make sure to avoid taking this historic year for granted.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Player to Watch: Cody Bellinger
This is pretty much a carbon copy of the Milwaukee Brewers section about Christian Yelich, except for the fact that the Dodgers' former MVP appears to have already started to right the ship.
Bellinger missed nearly two months early in the season with a broken leg and had a .156 batting average 47 games into his season. And when the Dodgers went out and got Trea Turner from the Washington Nationals, it became much more feasible for them to leave Bellinger out of their starting lineup for the postseason had he continued to falter.
In his first eight games after the July 30 deadline, though, Bellinger put together an eight-game hitting streak with four home runs—nearly doubling the number of round-trippers he had hit up until that point.
If he's no longer the weak spot in this lineup, it's getting harder and harder to find one.
Player to Watch: Lewis Brinson
Brinson was all over the news last week amid a controversy over whether a fan shouted a racial slur or a mascot's name, but the Marlins center fielder is also playing better than ever before as of late.
From 2017-20, the former first-round draft pick was triple-slashing .189/.242/.304. Among the 416 players who made at least 500 plate appearances during that window, he had the third-worst FanGraphs WAR as well as the third-worst slugging percentage. Things weren't looking much better during the first half of this season, either.
Since August 2, though, Brinson has hit .386/.438/.773 with four home runs.
It won't make a difference in the standings, and he's under team control through the 2024 season, so it won't have an impact there. However, it's nice to see a guy finally figure things out in his fifth season. And if you're the full-season fantasy baseball type, his final six weeks might help you identify a late-round sleeper pick for 2022.
Player to Watch: Christian Yelich
While it's still a little too early to declare the Brewers as the 2021 NL Central champions, things have certainly been trending in that direction for quite some time. And as they make their way toward what will be a fourth consecutive postseason appearance, we're all left to wonder what their former NL MVP will be able to muster in October.
Yelich led the National League in batting average in both 2018 and 2019, but he simply has not been the same since suffering a broken kneecap in September of that latter season. Yelich hit .205 last year, missed a bunch of games in April and May of this season with a back injury and has barely been hitting .200 since then.
Can he turn things around? If not, would Milwaukee seriously consider benching their $215 million man for the playoffs or at least drop him down the lineup if he continues to sputter for another six weeks?
Player to Watch: Michael Pineda
It's more than a little surprising that Minnesota didn't move Pineda before the trade deadline, considering they did manage to unload Nelson Cruz, Jose Berrios, Hansel Robles and J.A. Happ.
Perhaps they just ran out of time while swinging all those other deals.
Or maybe they plan on trying to bring him back for one more season while they wait for highly touted prospects Simeon Woods Richardson, Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran to prove that they are ready to take the reins as the next generation of this rotation.
Either way, how Pineda pitches—and, perhaps more importantly, if he can stay healthy—the rest of the season will go a long way toward determining his value on the open market this winter.
New York Mets
Player to Watch: Noah Syndergaard
Thor hasn't pitched since September 2019. He underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2020 and is still trying to work his way back from that procedure, suffering several setbacks in his rehab process.
At this point, it looks like if he does return this season, it would be as a relief pitcher, if only because the season would probably be over by the time he builds up the strength and the stamina to pitch five or more innings at a time.
But what a difference he could still make in a Mets bullpen that has been mediocre at best but far from great. Every little bit counts in an NL East race that seems destined to come right down to the wire. A few dominant seventh inning appearances could be the difference between making the playoffs and golfing in October.
New York Yankees
Player to Watch: Joey Gallo
Before the All-Star break, Gallo was one of the best hitters in the league. His batting average of .232 was nothing special, but a .402 on-base percentage at a 162-game pace of 47 home runs? Pretty hard to argue with that.
It made him an All-Star, and doing it at a reasonable salary of $6.2 million on one of the worst teams in the league made him a coveted and gettable commodity at the trade deadline.
Since the All-Star break, though, it's been a much different story. From July 15 through August 14, Gallo batted .136/.269/.341 with just four home runs, though two of those dingers did come on Saturday's game against the White Sox.
Suffice it to say, the Yankees haven't been getting what they paid for, and their hopes of battling back to reach the postseason won't be as strong if he doesn't turn things back around soon.
Player to Watch: Starling Marte
Marte was having an impressive season with Miami, but he has been running wild and swinging a hot bat since getting traded to Oakland.
Through his first 14 games with the A's, Marte batted .397 with six extra-base hits and 10 stolen bases.
If he can even maintain 75 percent of that level of excellence the rest of the way, not only would it be fantastic news for a team battling for the AL West title, but it would be glorious news for Marte's future bank account.
This season marks the end of the eight-year, $53 million deal Marte signed in 2014, which ended up being quite the bargain for the quartet of teams he's played for through the duration of the contract. Even though he'll turn 33 this October, the soon-to-be free agent is having the best season of his career.
He won't get another eight-year deal, but at his current level of play, it wouldn't be a surprise if he signs a four-year deal for close to $15 million per year this winter.
Player to Watch: Bryce Harper
At the All-Star break, the battle for NL MVP seemed to be a toss-up between Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jacob deGrom. Both of those stars have now spent enough time on the IL throughout the season that it's fair to wonder if there might be a healthier player worthy of that MVP honor.
In Harper's case, he hasn't been that much healthier. He missed four games at the intersection of April and May and 10 more when May crossed over into June. Since the All-Star break, though, he's been healthy and on fire, boasting a 1.200 OPS in the first 28 games of the second half of the season.
To sweeten the pot, the Phillies have ridden Harper's streak, storming into first place in the NL East, thereby garnering extra attention for the various end-of-season awards. If Harper continues to shine, the Phillies might get a chance to compete in October, and he might get the second MVP trophy of his career.
Player to Watch: Ke'Bryan Hayes
Hayes was one of the top preseason candidates for NL Rookie of the Year. In just 95 plate appearances last season, he hit .376 with five home runs and a total of 14 extra-base hits.
In just the second game of this season, though, he suffered a wrist injury that kept him out of action for the next two months. And though he has played in almost every game since then, Hayes hasn't been anywhere near as potent at the dish, batting .250 and hitting the same number of home runs as last season in nearly three times as many plate appearances.
There's no real pressure on him to turn a corner this season. The Pirates are awful, and Hayes doesn't even hit arbitration until 2024, let alone free agency until 2027. But if they're going to become relevant again any time soon, he needs to be a building block of that rebuild. It would be nice if he could at least finish 2021 on a high note.
San Francisco Giants
Player to Watch: Logan Webb
Way back in March, I wrote a "1 Hot-Take Prediction for Every MLB Team" piece, in which I selected Logan Webb to have a breakout year for the Giants.
Early on in the season, that prediction looked like one of the worst of the bunch. By Cinco De Mayo, Webb had a 5.34 ERA and seemed to be one or two more duds away from a trip down to the Sacramento River Cats.
Since then, however, Webb has quietly been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.
Among starting pitchers, only Jacob deGrom (1.42) has a lower ERA than Webb (1.53) since May 5. So, yeah, I'm going to officially claim that as one of my few successful hot-take predictions.
San Diego Padres
Player to Watch: Blake Snell
The Padres went all-in on improving their starting rotation this past offseason, trading for each of Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell in a three-week span.
Musgrove and Darvish have been more than adequate, but Snell has lagged well behind the other two. He had just two quality starts before the All-Star break and entered August with an unsightly 5.44 ERA. And after three consecutive years with a BB/9 rate below 3.4, he was sitting at 5.98 BB/9.
Better late than never, though, right?
In his first three starts of August, Snell went 17 innings, allowing just three runs with 25 strikeouts. His eight walks in those games are still a legitimate concern, but that's the strikeout rate and ERA the Padres traded away four players to acquire. They need him to continue pitching well if they expect to hold off the Reds for a playoff spot, let alone make a run at the Giants in the NL West.
Player to Watch: Yusei Kikuchi
The Mariners have a difficult decision to make about Kikuchi this offseason. In what's one of the most unique contract clauses you'll ever see, Seattle has a club option of keeping Kikuchi through 2025 on a four-year, $66 million extension. If they decline that option, Kikuchi then has a one-year player option for $13 million in 2022.
Heading into this season, it seemed like a no-brainer that Seattle would decline its option and Kikuchi would accept his, as he had an ERA worse than 5.00 in each of his first two seasons with the Mariners. But he has had an impressive 2021 campaign thus far and just might be worth investing in as the possible Opening Day starter for the foreseeable future.
What Seattle decides to do may well depend on how Kikuchi pitches down the stretch. And if he's lights out for his remaining 10 or so starts, there's still a chance the Mariners sneak into the playoffs for the first time in two decades.
St. Louis Cardinals
Player to Watch: Genesis Cabrera
It's a little weird to single out a middle reliever as a player to watch on a team that still has a faint playoff pulse, but Cabrera has been on some kind of tear lately.
Dating back to July 10, the lefty has logged 12.2 scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and five walks with 14 strikeouts. He had a 4.05 ERA for the Cardinals until that point, but he has been money for them in the sixth and seventh innings for more than a month.
St. Louis has a huge opportunity to gain some ground on Milwaukee with a three-game home series against the Brewers this week, followed immediately by nine consecutive games against Pittsburgh and Detroit.
If Cabrera keeps putting up zeroes in those middle innings and the Cards are able to win at least nine of their next 12 games, things will get mighty interesting heading into September.
Tampa Bay Rays
Player to Watch: Louis Head
The most head-scratching move leading up to the July 30 trade deadline was Tampa Bay shipping closer Diego Castillo to the Mariners for JT Chargois and Austin Shenton—a mediocre middle reliever and a prospect who plays third base. It's the type of move you would expect to see from a team with no hope of reaching the postseason.
Tampa Bay definitely does not fit that description, and they are now forced to run a four-team race for the AL East crown without anything close to an established ninth-inning guy.
Could 31-year-old rookie Louis Head possibly fill that void? The Rays have yet to use him in high-leverage situations, but he just had a streak of 18.0 scoreless innings snapped over the weekend. He averaged one strikeout per inning during that time, quickly emerging as one of Tampa Bay's top relief options.
Player to Watch: Adolis Garcia
Texas is a train wreck that has not scored six or more runs in a game since July 6. The Rangers also traded away all of their noteworthy impending free agents, so there's nothing left to watch on that front either.
Aside from maybe keeping an eye on how Spencer Howard fares in the rotation, the only intriguing thing left about this team is whether it will produce the American League Rookie of the Year.
A month or so ago, Garcia was the clear choice for that award. However, while Tampa Bay's Randy Arozarena caught fire, Garcia went into a deep freeze, hitting .165 with just three home runs in his first 26 games after the All-Star break. At this point, it looks like a three-horse race between those two outfielders and Houston pitcher Luis Garcia.
If Adolis Garcia can pull it off, it would be the first time a Ranger won one of the three major awards (ROY, MVP, Cy Young) since 2010, when Josh Hamilton was named AL MVP and Neftali Felix was named AL ROY.
Toronto Blue Jays
Player to Watch: George Springer
Few players have been hotter than Springer has been since the All-Star break.
After injuries kept him from barely seeing the field during the first half of the year, the Blue Jays' center fielder has mashed 11 home runs and 11 doubles since mid-July, boosting his batting average by roughly 90 points and his slugging percentage by more than 200 points.
And where Springer goes, Toronto's offense follows.
The Blue Jays played 28 games from July 18 through August 14. Springer went hitless in nine of those games, in which the Blue Jays failed to score more than three runs in any of the games.
Conversely, there were 16 games where he reached base multiple times, and Toronto scored at least four runs in all but one of those contests. Ipso facto, Toronto's playoff push depends upon its $150 million leadoff hitter staying hot.
For their sake, here's hoping the ankle injury he suffered on Sunday is nothing major.
Player to Watch: Josiah Gray
If the Nationals had to trade two of the best players in the National League to the Dodgers in Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, at least it's looking like they got something good in return.
In his three starts with the Nationals, Gray went 16.0 innings, accruing an 18-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio and allowing just five earned runs. In the middle of those three starts, he racked up 10 strikeouts.
The 23-year-old, along with catcher Keibert Ruiz, was one of the two highly touted prospects that Washington got in the trade, and it's hard to argue with his production thus far.
In that same vein of looking toward the future, fans in D.C. are also keeping a close eye on Luis Garcia. The 21-year-old middle infielder had played sparingly before trading away both Turner and Josh Harrison, but Garcia has been an everyday starter since then. It would be nice to figure out in one way or the other if he could be the primary second baseman for years to come.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference, unless otherwise noted.