Each MLB Team's Best Bang-for-Your-Buck Star in 2021
And yet many players in MLB—heck, maybe even most of them—are actually underpaid by way of all sorts of systems and guardrails that conspire to keep salaries suppressed.
We've highlighted the one player who's giving his team a lopsided amount of bang for its buck in 2021. Many of these players are not yet arbitration-eligible and thus only entitled to the league minimum. Others are outperforming their salaries even though they're making seven figures per year.
We'll go division by division, starting in the American League East and ending in the National League West.
Note: All salaries are adjusted salaries as reported by Spotrac.
American League East
Baltimore Orioles: CF Cedric Mullins
After the retirement of Chris Davis, the Orioles' payroll is now entirely devoid of prohibitive salaries as they press on with their rebuild. Trey Mancini is the team's highest-paid player with a salary of $4.8 million, which is about what New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton makes in a month.
Baltimore's roster largely consists of pre-arbitration-eligible youngsters, of whom All-Star Cedric Mullins is an obvious standout by way of his .314/.376/.535 batting line, 21 home runs and 22 stolen bases. He'll get a significant pay bump eventually, but not until he goes into arbitration for the first time in 2023.
Boston Red Sox: RHP Garrett Whitlock
Contrary to the Orioles, the Red Sox are a deep-pocketed contender whose roster is mostly made up of guys earning seven and eight figures per year. Yet even they have some key pre-arb contributors, including outfielder Alex Verdugo, right-hander Nick Pivetta and, surprisingly, relief ace Garrett Whitlock.
Boston nabbed Whitlock from the Yankees in the Rule 5 draft in December, after which he immediately put himself on the map in spring training. Now he's one of the most valuable relievers in baseball, having put up 1.72 ERA over 57.2 innings. He'll have two more seasons of pre-arbitration-eligibility after this one.
New York Yankees: RHP Jonathan Loaisiga
These are the Yankees we're talking about, so nobody should be shocked that they have nine guys earning eight figures this season. That's not even counting newcomer first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who brought a $16.5 million salary with him when he came over from the Chicago Cubs at the deadline.
But even if the Yankees might be kicking themselves over losing Whitlock to Boston, at least they still have Jonathan Loaisiga in their pen. He's been a largely unsung force as he's racked up a 2.37 ERA over 60.2 innings, thereby setting himself up nicely for a raise in arbitration next year.
Tampa Bay Rays: LF/RF Randy Arozarena
The Rays opened this season with the 26th-highest payroll in MLB, and that's actually a higher position than they're used to occupying on Opening Day. Yet they're still leaning heavily on pre-arb talent, and the leader of that parade in 2021 is the same guy who was leading in October 2020: Randy Arozarena.
He initially struggled to live up to last year's historic postseason run, but he's been hot of late with a .306/.368/.529 line in 54 games since June 3. He'll be eligible for arbitration in 2024, at which point he'll take a big step toward becoming too expensive for the Rays' liking.
Toronto Blue Jays: 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
To give credit where it's very much due, the Blue Jays are offering proof that it's still very much possible to score big in free agency. They invested $176 million in George Springer, Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray over the winter, and all three have come up huge for them in 2021.
There is, however, no question that 22-year-old wunderkind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the team's top star in 2021. All he's done is hit .313/.409/.605 with 35 home runs to put himself squarely in the AL MVP race. With arbitration due up next year, the time seems right for Toronto to extend him.
American League Central
Chicago White Sox: LHP Carlos Rodon
There's a perspective from which the White Sox look like a platonic ideal of a modern contender, in that they have an expensive group of veterans wrapped around a homegrown core. As part of the latter, hurlers Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech and Garrett Crochet are having especially good years on the cheap.
Yet it's hard not to focus on Carlos Rodon here. After non-tendering him in December, the White Sox eventually brought him back for pennies ahead of spring training. He's since twirled a no-hitter and put up a 2.39 ERA in 19 starts, potentially putting himself in line for a $100 million deal in free agency this winter.
Cleveland: RHP Cal Quantrill
In Cleveland is where you'll currently find the lowest payroll in all of MLB. The future Guardians have just $48.7 million worth of salaries on their books, with not one player earning north of $10 million. That's life when a team's strategy involves loading up on cheap labor and hoping for the best.
Though this hasn't worked out great for Cleveland in 2021, it must like what it's getting from pre-arb guys like Aaron Civale and especially Cal Quantrill. He's logged 102.2 total innings and is on a roll as a starter with a 2.41 ERA in nine outings since July 4. That's a good way to tend toward arbitration in 2023.
Detroit Tigers: RHP Casey Mize
Even though this is yet another rebuilding year for them, the Tigers should get credit for at least trying to field an entertaining team. They aren't good, necessarily, but they're better than they would be without offseason additions like second baseman Jonathan Schoop and outfielder Robbie Grossman.
Detroit's future nonetheless hinges on the kids, of whom Casey Mize has looked the part of a former No. 1 pick in 2021. He's posted a 3.69 ERA over 124.1 innings, which could have him on track for some down-ballot Cy Young votes. If they can, the Tigers should extend him before he reaches arbitration in 2024.
Kansas City Royals: 2B Nicky Lopez
The Royals likewise deserve a tip of the ol' cap for gathering up veterans during the 2020-21 offseason. It's just too bad that it hasn't really worked out, specifically to the extent that their deals with first baseman Carlos Santana and left-hander Mike Minor haven't yielded much on the field.
As far as their homegrown players are concerned, the Royals have a fascinating "star" in Nicky Lopez. He's hit only four homers in 268 career games, including just one this year. Yet he's a .277 hitter with 13 outs above average on defense. Such things could make him a fascinating case study in arbitration in 2023.
Minnesota Twins: 2B/LF Luis Arraez
Alas, the Twins. After winning the AL Central in 2019 and 2020, they opened this year with the second-highest payroll in their history. But all that was for naught as they now find themselves closer to last place than to first place.
But, hey, at least Luis Arraez is still worth watching on a daily basis. Offensively, he's sort of an idealized version of Lopez in that he's similarly powerless but an even better hitter to the tune of a .324 career average. As such, he'll also be an interesting case study when he reaches arbitration after next season.
American League West
Houston Astros: RF Kyle Tucker
With shortstop Carlos Correa and aces Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander (who, of course, is recovering from Tommy John surgery) ticketed for free agency, the future of the Astros looks somewhat murky. It's far from hopeless, though, because the team has a strong contingent of cost-controlled talent.
That includes Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, the latter of whom is living up to his 2020 breakout. He's up to an .853 OPS with 22 homers and 11 steals, all while playing good defense in right field. Like Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman before him, he's an extension candidate ahead of a date with arbitration in 2023.
Los Angeles Angels: DH/RHP Shohei Ohtani
Another year, another disappointing season for the Angels. Yet this one might even be more painful, as the team's struggles surely would have been lessened if its three most expensive players—Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon and Justin Upton—weren't all experiencing lost years due to injuries and/or inconsistency.
Thank goodness for Shohei Ohtani. Even if his $3 million salary is one of the heavier ones on this list, it's frankly a pittance for a player who has 40 home runs as a hitter and a 2.79 ERA as a pitcher. He has another year left on his current deal, after which he's set to enter an all-time fascinating contract drive ahead of free agency in 2024.
Oakland Athletics: C Sean Murphy
At the start of the year, the Athletics' most expensive players were shortstop Elvis Andrus, right fielder Stephen Piscotty and closer Trevor Rosenthal. The latter of those three won't even pitch this year, while the other two have been worth 0.3 and minus-0.6 rWAR, respectively.
Leave it to the A's to keep winning anyway, and it's about time that Sean Murphy got his due for being their rock behind the plate. His .741 OPS isn't much to look at on its own, but it's a solid mark for a catcher who also plays quality defense. He's due for a nice raise in arbitration in 2023.
Seattle Mariners: 1B/2B Ty France
How are the Mariners 10 games over .500 despite also having a minus-42 run differential? In theory, a whole lot of good luck. In practice, though, they're an unusually clutch team that's getting contributions from all sorts of players.
For his part, Ty France is still flying under the radar even though he's a .291/.359/.449 hitter since the start of last season. And this year, he's been as good as they come in the clutch with a .993 OPS and five of his 13 homers in high-leverage spots. Arbitration will call his name for the first time in 2023.
Texas Rangers: CF Adolis Garcia
Given that they're 36 games under .500, there frankly aren't many kind things to say about this year's Rangers. The best thing they have going for them right now is a farm system that checked in at No. 11 in Baseball America's midseason rankings.
Ideally, Adolis Garcia will still be playing at a star level when Texas' system starts bearing fruit. He's cooled off quite a bit since peaking with a .942 OPS and 16 homers on May 26, yet his power and speed (and glove) still make him a dynamic threat on a daily basis. He won't be arbitration-eligible until 2024.
National League East
Atlanta: 3B Austin Riley
By the club's usual standards, Atlanta is sparing no expense in its pursuit of a fourth straight NL East title and what would be the team's first World Series berth since 1999. It opened the year with a franchise-record $131.4 million payroll, which has since grown to $147.4 million.
But in the person of Austin Riley, it's actually one of Atlanta's cheapest players who's emerged as perhaps the team's best player as he's posted a .908 OPS with 26 home runs in 2021. As it did with Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta could look to extend Riley before he reaches arbitration in 2023.
Miami Marlins: LHP Trevor Rogers
The Marlins have yet to truly open up their checkbook ever since ownership of the team passed from Jeffrey Loria to Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter in 2017. But those days may be coming, as some of the young stars the Marlins have in place will require extensions in the near future.
Take Trevor Rogers, for example. Though he hasn't pitched since July 31 due to stints on the family medical emergency and restricted lists, he had previously been enjoying an All-Star season marked by a 2.45 ERA over 110 innings. The Marlins could look to lock him up before he reaches arbitration in 2024.
New York Mets: 1B Pete Alonso
The New York Mets have the third-highest payroll in baseball under first-year owner Steve Cohen. So even if it makes for all sorts of bad optics, his public outrage over the team's poor play is at least understandable. The team's offense, in particular, has been cold for a while now.
Just as long as nobody blames Pete Alonso for that. The 2019 NL Rookie of the Year has an .829 OPS asnd 26 homers overall, with 15 of those blasts coming since June 28. It's a nice bounceback after he struggled in 2020, so he's absolutely an extension candidate ahead of his first go-around with arbitration next year.
Philadelphia Phillies: LHP Ranger Suarez
The Phillies are sort of the National League's answer to the Angels, in that they just haven't been able to get over the hump even after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on free agents in recent winters. They just don't have enough depth, especially on the mound.
To that end, though, Ranger Suarez has tried to be a one-man narrative-buster as he's racked up a 1.47 ERA over 55 innings as a starter and reliever. And since he didn't get called up until May 9, the Phillies don't even owe him a full salary. If he keeps pitching well, he'll get his due in arbitration after 2022.
Washington Nationals: RF Juan Soto
Frankly, the key question here is who's even left on the Nationals? After trading Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Jon Lester and Daniel Hudson ahead of the trade deadline, their roster is alarmingly devoid of impact talent as they careen toward their worst season since 2010.
Thank goodness for Juan Soto. Even if he isn't necessarily cheap at this point, he ought to be getting a lot more for the .304/.443/.517 line he's given the Nats this season. He's an extension candidate in theory, but the state of the team could have him that much more determined to reach free agency after 2024.
National League Central
Chicago Cubs: INF/OF Patrick Wisdom
Like with the Nationals, the Cubs are drifting through the remainder of the season with a skeleton crew's worth of talent after offloading Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Craig Kimbrel and a handful of others ahead of the trade deadline. What's left is...not great.
However, the Cubs have gotten and still are getting more than they bargained for out of Patrick Wisdom when they called him up on May 25. He's hit 18 home runs to go with his .845 OPS. Though he turns 30 on August 27, he can still eye an arbitration payday after 2023.
Cincinnati Reds: 2B Jonathan India
The Reds have an interesting sort of roster construction this year. Though they're still not a high-payroll team, 40 percent of what they're spending in 2021 is going to just three guys. This was only ever going to work if the team's cost-controlled players picked up more than their share of the slack.
It's mostly so far, so good on that front in no small part because Jonathan India has been a revelation as a rookie. He got off to a slow start, sure, but he's one of only four players with an OBP of at least .410 since he moved into the leadoff spot on June 5. The Reds should already be considering an extension for him.
Milwaukee Brewers: RHP Corbin Burnes
With 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich mired in yet another down year in the second season of a $215 million contract, the Brewers perhaps have no right leading the NL Central. Yet they are, and they mostly owe that to an absurdly talented trio of starting pitchers.
With respect to Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes is arguably the best of the three. He's pitched to a 2.13 ERA with 152 more strikeouts than walks over 127 innings, putting him firmly in the NL Cy Young Award race. With arbitration due up in 2022, he'll be a prime extension candidate this winter.
Pittsburgh Pirates: CF Bryan Reynolds
As their rebuild continues to trudge along, the Pirates are operating with the lowest payroll in the National League and now that much less talent after moving Adam Frazier, Richard Rodriguez and other players ahead of the trade deadline. In short, it's bleak.
Bryan Reynolds, though, has been a bright spot as he's hit .306/.388/.530 with 21 home runs. There was interest in him as well during trade season, but obviously not enough for the Pirates to give in. If they like him that much, they should consider extending him and building around him over the long haul.
St. Louis Cardinals: LF Tyler O'Neill
After arguably beginning the season as the favorites to win the NL Central, it's become clear as the year has gone along that the Cardinals just don't have enough. Most notably including Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez, there's just too much dead weight on their payroll.
If only the Cards had more guys like Tyler O'Neill. Already a Gold Glove-winning left fielder, he's now proving he can thrive offensively in spite of his prolific whiff habit. He has an .860 OPS and 21 home runs. Just in time for his first year of arbitration eligibility in 2022.
National League West
Arizona Diamondbacks: INF/OF Josh Rojas
There's a simple explanation for why the Diamondbacks are such a bad team: They don't have good players. Their guys have combined for just 8.8 wins above replacement overall, with right-hander Merrill Kelly claiming the team lead with a modest mark of 2.3 WAR.
Though Kelly is a good value guy in his own right, he's no Josh Rojas. He's quietly put up a sturdy .287/.370/.467 line and 11 home runs while playing all over the infield and outfield. Even if he isn't necessarily star material, a super-utility type like him should do well in arbitration come 2022.
Colorado Rockies: 1B C.J. Cron
The Rockies are yet another bad team in the NL West, but at least they have a handful of guys worth watching on a regular basis. German Marquez is maybe the best pitcher they've ever had, and two-time All-Star shortstop Trevor Story has finally come around with a 1.111 OPS in August.
The Rockies are also benefiting from one of the best minor league signings of the 2020-21 offseason. C.J. Cron not only made the team out of spring training, but he has since been one of its best players as he's gone off for an .896 OPS and 21 home runs. A much better payday should await him in free agency this winter.
Los Angeles Dodgers: C Will Smith
The Dodgers' payroll is the largest in MLB by about $64 million, yet there's an argument to be made that it's not actually big-salaried stars like Mookie Betts, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner who make them go. Their engine might more so run on their homegrown, cost-controlled talents.
Take Will Smith, for example. Albeit in small sample sizes, he teased that he could become one of baseball's great catchers in 2019 and 2020. Now he's firmly in that camp by way of an .863 OPS and 18 home runs. The Dodgers don't typically do extensions, but Smith is quickly becoming a candidate for one.
San Diego Padres: 2B/SS Jake Cronenworth
Contrary to the Dodgers, the Padres are a high-payroll team whose success is very much defined by their big-ticket stars. Those include NL MVP front-runner Fernando Tatis Jr., plus fellow infielder Manny Machado and front-line starters Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove.
As far as the little guys go, Jake Cronenworth is proving that his 2020 breakout was the real deal. He has an .844 OPS and 18 home runs, all while logging substantial time at three infield positions. As a late-bloomer who isn't arbitration-eligible until 2023, San Diego should have a good chance of locking him up.
San Francisco Giants: RHP Logan Webb
Even though most of their payroll is taken up by 30-something veterans like Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria and Johnny Cueto, the Giants are succeeding in 2021 precisely because those guys are showing they still have plenty left in the tank.
Out of the team's homegrown contingent, though, Logan Webb is probably the most overlooked star in baseball right now. He wasn't great to start the year, but he's put up a 1.64 ERA in 11 starts since May 11. With those aforementioned veterans not long for the team's books, the Giants will soon have that much more flexibility to entertain an extension for Webb.