Ranking the Top 25 MLB Stars Playing in 2021 Playoffs

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistOctober 6, 2021

Ranking the Top 25 MLB Stars Playing in 2021 Playoffs

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    The 2021 MLB playoffs are here, and while a number of baseball's brightest stars will be watching from home, there will still be plenty of elite talent in action with the 10 teams that punched their tickets to the postseason.

    We set out to count down the 25 best players. They were ranked based on their performances in 2021, their play of late, their playoff experience and what is expected of them over the next few weeks.

    That last part means injured players—such as Max Muncy—or players whose roles are up in the air—such as Carlos Rodon—might not rank as expected despite their impressive regular seasons.

    Let the debate begin!

        

    Note: This list was compiled prior to Tuesday night's AL Wild Card Game and will include players from all 10 teams that earned a spot in the playoff field.

Next 25

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    Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe
    Wander Franco and Brandon LoweEmilee Chinn/Getty Images

    Pitchers

    • SP Anthony DeSclafani, SF
    • SP Nathan Eovaldi, BOS
    • SP Lucas Giolito, CWS
    • RP Jonathan Loaisiga, NYY
    • SP Lance McCullers Jr., HOU
    • SP Charlie Morton, ATL
    • SP Freddy Peralta, MIL
    • SP Carlos Rodon, CWS
    • SP Framber Valdez, HOU
    • SP Adam Wainwright, STL
    • SP Logan Webb, SF

        

    Hitters

    • 1B Jose Abreu, CWS
    • SS Willy Adames, MIL
    • 2B Ozzie Albies, ATL
    • 2B Jose Altuve, HOU
    • DH Yordan Alvarez, HOU
    • SS Tim Anderson, CWS
    • 3B Nolan Arenado, STL
    • LF/RF Randy Arozarena, TB
    • RF Mookie Betts, LAD
    • LF Michael Brantley, HOU
    • SS Wander Franco, TB
    • 2B Brandon Lowe, TB
    • 1B/LF/DH Kyle Schwarber, BOS
    • DH Giancarlo Stanton, NYY

Nos. 25-21

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    Julio Urias
    Julio UriasMichael Owens/Getty Images

    25. CF Luis Robert, Chicago White Sox

    Robert missed 85 games with a strained right hip flexor, but he has picked up right where he left off since returning to action, hitting .350/.389/.622 with 13 doubles and 12 home runs in 43 August and September games. The 24-year-old racked up 3.6 WAR in only 68 games this season and is just hitting his stride.

         

    24. SS Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers

    Another player who missed time this season, Seager spent 65 games on the sideline after suffering a fractured hand in May. The free-agent-to-be still hit .306/.394/.521 with 22 doubles, 16 home runs and 57 RBI in 95 games, and after winning National League Championship Series and World Series MVP honors last year, he is an easy pick to click for the Dodgers.

         

    23. LHP Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers

    The most overpowering reliever in baseball, Hader reached 100 strikeouts for the third time in his career with 102 punchouts in 58.2 innings. The 27-year-old nailed down 34 of 35 save chances with a 1.23 ERA, a 0.84 WHIP and 15.6 strikeouts per nine innings in 60 appearances. With Devin Williams sidelined, he will be counted on even more to anchor the Milwaukee bullpen.

         

    22. 1B Yuli Gurriel, Houston Astros

    Gurriel went 8-for-19 over his final six games to win the American League batting title, hitting .319 to edge Michael Brantley (.311), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (.311) and Tim Anderson (.309). The 37-year-old posted a 131 OPS+ with 31 doubles, 15 home runs, 81 RBI and 83 runs in a 3.7-WAR season, and he has five home runs and 25 RBI in 57 career playoff games.

         

    21. LHP Julio Urias, Los Angeles Dodgers

    Baseball's only 20-game winner this year, Urias finished 20-3 with a 2.96 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP and 195 strikeouts in 185.2 innings, limiting opposing hitters to a .219 average along the way. The 25-year-old tallied four wins and one save in six appearances last postseason, nailing down the final seven outs in the decisive Game 6 of the World Series.

Nos. 20-16

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    Tyler O'Neill
    Tyler O'NeillDilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    20. RHP Lance Lynn, Chicago White Sox

    After finishing fifth and sixth in AL Cy Young Award voting in his two years with the Texas Rangers, Lynn had the best season of his career in his White Sox debut, going 11-6 with a 2.69 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP and 176 strikeouts in 157 innings. The 34-year-old has not started a postseason game since 2014, when he was with the St. Louis Cardinals.

         

    19. RHP Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants

    It's been a breakout season for Gausman, who went 14-6 with a 2.81 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP and 227 strikeouts in 192 innings—just before he reaches free agency after accepting a qualifying offer last offseason. After showing inconsistency during the second half, he finished strong with a pair of quality starts.

         

    18. SS Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox

    One of baseball's elite offensive shortstops, Bogaerts hit .295/.370/.493 for a 127 OPS+ with 34 doubles, 23 home runs, 79 RBI and 90 runs in 144 games. The 29-year-old has also come a long way as a fielder from where he was early in his career.

         

    17. LHP Max Fried, Atlanta Braves

    Fried led all qualified pitchers with a 1.74 ERA in 14 starts after the All-Star break, which included a three-hit shutout at the San Diego Padres in his second-to-last outing. The 27-year-old went 14-7 with a 3.04 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP and 158 strikeouts in 165.2 innings, building on a fifth-place finish in NL Cy Young Award voting in 2020.

         

    16. LF Tyler O'Neill, St. Louis Cardinals

    O'Neill hit just .173 with a 70 OPS+ last season, but he was a Top 100 prospect for three years running during his time in the minors and long tantalized with his power potential. It all came together this year, as he posted a 150 OPS+ with 26 doubles and 34 home runs while tallying 12 defensive runs saved. His 6.3 WAR ranked eighth among position players.

Nos. 15-11

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    Rafael Devers
    Rafael DeversBillie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    15. C Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

    After Posey opted out of the 2020 season, the Giants made a concerted effort to keep him fresh this season, starting him in 102 games behind the plate. The 34-year-old hit .304/.390/.499 for a 140 OPS+ with 23 doubles, 18 home runs and 56 RBI in 454 plate appearances, and he threw out 31.1 percent of base stealers. He is still a superstar.

        

    14. 1B Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

    After a slow start, Freeman returned to his 2020 NL MVP form, hitting .332/.407/.520 after the All-Star break to help pick up the slack after Ronald Acuna Jr.'s injury. The 32-year-old went 9-for-25 with three doubles, two home runs and six RBI against the Dodgers in the NLCS last year.

        

    13. RHP Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees

    There may be no player more important to their team's chances of making a deep postseason run than Cole, who has anchored the Yankees rotation amid a flurry of injuries. Despite a rough patch after the All-Star break, he finished with a 3.23 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 243-to-41 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 181.1 innings. The 31-year-old is 8-4 with a 2.68 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 84 career playoff innings.

        

    12. 1B Paul Goldschmidt, St. Louis Cardinals

    Goldschmidt helped lead the Cardinals' torrid late-season charge to the NL's second wild card, hitting .340/.413/.636 with 18 doubles, 14 home runs and 44 RBI over the final two months. The 34-year-old has been clutch all year, hitting .331 in 161 plate appearances with runners in scoring position.

        

    11. 3B Rafael Devers, Boston Red Sox

    It's easy to forget Devers is just 24 years old and still improving. He matched the 132 OPS+ he posted in 2019 this year while tallying 37 doubles, 38 home runs and 113 RBI in 156 games. In the process, he logged a career-high 9.3 percent walk rate while also slashing his strikeout rate by 5.5 percentage points. His defensive shortcomings (-13 DRS, -5.8 UZR/150) are all that kept him out of the top 10.

10. RF Kyle Tucker, Houston Astros

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Most underrated player in 2021?

    There's a strong case to be made for Kyle Tucker, who has emerged as a bona fide star for a team loaded with high-profile names.

    In his first full season in the majors—not counting last year's abbreviated slate—Tucker hit .294/.359/.557 for a 147 OPS+ with 37 doubles, 30 home runs, 92 RBI and 83 runs.

    The 24-year-old was also an asset in right field (11 DRS, 0.5 UZR/150) and swiped 14 bases in 16 attempts, showing one of the more well-rounded games in baseball.

9. SS Brandon Crawford, San Francisco Giants

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Two years ago, it looked like Brandon Crawford was nearing the end of a terrific career with the San Francisco Giants, hitting .228 with a 74 OPS+ in a minus-0.5 WAR season.

    He rebounded last year with a career-high 115 OPS+ in 54 games, but few would have guessed that would pave the way for an MVP-caliber performance in his age-34 season.

    Playing in the final season of a six-year, $75 million contract, he hit .298/.373/.522 for a 141 OPS+ with 30 doubles, 24 home runs, 90 RBI, 79 runs and 11 steals. He also returned to elite form in the field (6 DRS, 3.4 UZR/150) after posting declining metrics over the last few seasons.

    His 6.1 WAR ranked 10th among position players and trailed only Carlos Correa's 7.2, Fernando Tatis Jr.'s 6.6 and Trea Turner's 6.5 among shortstops.

    The Giants rewarded him with a two-year, $32 million extension in August.

8. RF Aaron Judge, New York Yankees

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    After suiting up for just 63 percent of the New York Yankees' games over the past three seasons, Aaron Judge finally stayed healthy—and put together an MVP-caliber season.

    The 29-year-old hit .287/.373/.544 for a 149 OPS+ with 39 home runs in 148 games, providing a stabilizing force in the middle of a lineup that was beset by injuries and inconsistency.

    He has also quietly developed into one of the best right fielders in baseball with 11 DRS and a 5.4 UZR/150 this season, which added to his value in a 5.9-WAR season.

    The Yankees will count on Judge to lead the way alongside the red-hot Giancarlo Stanton. He's performed under the bright lights in the past with an .853 OPS and 11 home runs in 34 career playoff games.

7. 3B Austin Riley, Atlanta Braves

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    Adam Hagy/Getty Images

    Freddie Freeman had a terrific second half, and deadline pickups Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler paid major dividends, but it's hard to imagine where the Atlanta Braves offense would be without Austin Riley.

    After Riley posted a lackluster 86 OPS+ with eight home runs and 27 RBI as Atlanta's everyday third baseman in 2020, more than a few fans on the B/R app called for the Braves to find an upgrade.

    Instead, they stuck by the former top prospect. He rewarded them by hitting .303/.367/.531 with 33 doubles, 33 home runs and 107 RBI in a 6.1-WAR season.

    From when Ronald Acuna Jr. suffered a torn ACL on July 10 through the end of the regular season, Riley hit .329/.372/.591 with 19 home runs and 65 RBI in 73 games.

6. RHP Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    This year's poster boy for why pitchers' win-loss records mean less than nothing, Brandon Woodruff went 9-10 despite posting a 2.56 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and 211 strikeouts in 179.1 innings as one of the most dominant starters in baseball.

    He was one of just eight pitchers to record 20 quality starts, and he allowed more than three earned runs just four times in 30 starts.

    The 28-year-old was a key arm for the Brewers during their playoff run in 2018, and he started the NL Wild Card Game in 2019 and Game 2 of a Wild Card Series last year, so he has plenty of playoff experience.

    He'll team with Corbin Burnes to form the best starting pitching tandem in the playoffs.

5. SS Carlos Correa, Houston Astros

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Carlos Correa picked a perfect time for the best season of his career.

    The 27-year-old is set to reach free agency for the first time this offseason, and he'll do it on the heels of a season in which he led all position players with 7.2 WAR while silencing skeptics about his injury history by playing 148 games.

    He hit .279/.366/.485 with 34 doubles, a career-high 26 home runs, 92 RBI and 104 runs to earn his second All-Star selection. He also provided Gold Glove Award-caliber defense, leading all shortstops with 21 DRS.

    No stranger to the postseason, Correa is a .270/.338/.531 hitter with 17 home runs and 50 RBI in 63 playoff games.

4. RHP Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Walker Buehler led the majors with 27 quality starts in 33 outings this year, serving as a model of consistency atop the Dodgers starting rotation.

    The 27-year-old chewed through a career-high 207.2 innings, going 16-4 with a 2.47 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 212-to-52 strikeout-to-walk ratio while limiting opposing hitters to a .199 average and .586 OPS.

    He allowed three hits and one run while striking out 11 in five innings against the Brewers in his final regular-season tune-up, and he had a 3.14 ERA and 1.05 WHIP with 85 strikeouts over 80.1 innings in 13 starts against teams with winning records.

    Buehler threw a gem in Game 3 of the World Series last year, and he'll look to further amplify his reputation with another strong postseason.

3. RHP Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers

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    John Fisher/Getty Images

    Corbin Burnes began the year by setting an MLB record with 58 strikeouts before he issued his first walk, and that set the tone for a season in which he emerged as one of the most overpowering pitchers in baseball.

    It's hard to believe he is just two years removed from struggling to an 8.82 ERA in 49 innings, but he turned a corner last year with a 2.11 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 59.2 innings.

    This year, he led the majors in ERA (2.43), FIP (1.63), strikeouts per nine innings (12.6) and strikeouts per walk (6.9). He racked up 234 punchouts against just 34 walks in 167 innings.

    He threw eight no-hit innings at Cleveland on Sept. 11, and he had eight games with at least 10 strikeouts this year. The NL Cy Young race is wide-open, and he might be the co-favorite alongside Max Scherzer.

2. RHP Max Scherzer, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    With his combination of postseason experience and elite performance, Max Scherzer has a strong case for the title of best pitcher in baseball.

    The 37-year-old could win his fourth Cy Young Award and become just the second pitcher to win it with three different teams after going 15-4 with a 2.46 ERA, a 0.86 WHIP and 236 strikeouts in 179.1 innings.

    While he was edged for the NL ERA title by Corbin Burnes (2.43) and the strikeout title by Zack Wheeler (247), he led the majors in WHIP and opponents' batting average (.185)—and finished on a high note following a midseason trade to the Dodgers.

    In 11 starts with L.A., he went 7-0 with a 1.98 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and an 89-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 68.1 innings.

    Throw in his 3.38 ERA in 112 career postseason innings, and he's a worthy choice as the top pitcher here.

1. 2B Trea Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    There is not much Trea Turner can't do on a baseball field.

    Make contact: He led the majors with a .328 average and 195 hits while posting a strikeout rate of just 17 percent.

    Hit for power: He launched a career-high 28 home runs, and his .536 slugging percentage ranked 15th.

    Run the bases: His 32 stolen bases led the NL and ranked third in baseball behind Starling Marte's 47 and Whit Merrifield's 40. He was caught just five times.

    Play defense: He graded out as an above-average shortstop (1 DRS, 4.5 UZR/150) and made a seamless transition to second base (3 DRS, 0.6 UZR/150) after joining the Dodgers prior to the trade deadline.

    With Shohei Ohtani, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Juan Soto, Bryce Harper, Fernando Tatis Jr. and several other standout performers missing the postseason, Turner is the best all-around player left standing.

       

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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