Each MLB Team's Biggest Surprise of 2021

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2021

Each MLB Team's Biggest Surprise of 2021

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Was anyone a bigger surprise during the 2021 MLB season than Baltimore Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins?

    That's certainly up for debate, but each team had at least one player who surpassed even the most optimistic expectations over the course of the year.

    Ahead we've highlighted each MLB squad's biggest surprise in 2021.

    For the sake of this discussion, surprise is all about production relative to expectations, and we're focusing solely on the positive side of things. Tomorrow, we'll explore the other end of the spectrum with each team's biggest disappointment of 2021.

    Let's get to it!

AL East

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    Robbie Ray
    Robbie RayDavid Berding/Getty Images

    Baltimore Orioles: CF Cedric Mullins

    A .225/.290/.342 hitter with minus-0.3 WAR in 119 career games in the big leagues entering the year, Mullins was one of baseball's biggest breakout stars in 2021. With a 135 OPS+, 5.7 WAR and the first 30/30 season in Baltimore Orioles history, the 27-year-old now looks like a long-term building block.


    Boston Red Sox: RHP Garrett Whitlock

    Shoutout to free-agent signings Enrique Hernandez (4.9 WAR) and Hunter Renfroe (2.4 WAR), but no one expected a Rule 5 pick to be a key contributor. The fact that Whitlock was plucked from the rival Yankees farm system made his breakthrough performance that much sweeter. The 25-year-old had eight wins, two saves and 15 holds in 46 appearances, posting a 1.96 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 9.9 K/9 in 73.1 innings.


    New York Yankees: LHP Nestor Cortes Jr.

    After spending the 2020 season with the Seattle Mariners, Cortes returned to the Yankees on a minor league deal. The 26-year-old was called up from Triple-A in May and he eventually found his way into the starting rotation at the end of July. The crafty southpaw used a fastball that averaged 90.7 mph and a wide array of offspeed stuff to post a 2.90 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 103 strikeouts in 93 innings while helping to stabilize the starting staff down the stretch.


    Tampa Bay Rays: C Mike Zunino

    In 2019 and 2020, Zunino hit .161/.233/.323 with 13 home runs and a 50 OPS+ in 373 plate appearances, and the Rays declined a $4.5 million option last offseason. He ultimately found his way back to Tampa Bay on a one-year, $3 million deal that included a 2022 club option, and this time it's a lock to be exercised. The 30-year-old posted a 138 OPS+ with 33 home runs and 3.7 WAR in 109 games, earning an All-Star nod in the process. Fellow All-Star Andrew Kittredge deserves a mention here as well.


    Toronto Blue Jays: LHP Robbie Ray

    Ray showed enough down the stretch in 2020 to be worth a one-year, $8 million roll of the dice, but no one could have guessed he would be the AL Cy Young front-runner after he struggled to a 6.62 ERA with 45 walks in 51.2 innings a year ago. The 30-year-old led the AL in ERA (2.84), WHIP (1.05), strikeouts (248) and innings pitched (193.1), and a nine-figure payday likely awaits this winter.

AL Central

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    Akil Baddoo
    Akil BaddooDiamond Images/Getty Images

    Chicago White Sox: LHP Carlos Rodon

    After pitching just 42.1 innings in 2019 and 2020 while battling arm issues, Rodon was non-tendered last offseason. He was eventually re-signed to a one-year, $3 million deal, and he won the No. 5 starter spot during spring training. A no-hitter in his second start of 2021 paved the way for a breakout year, and he finished 13-5 with a 2.37 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 185 strikeouts in 132.2 innings.     


    Cleveland Guardians: RHP Cal Quantrill

    Used as a reliever at the start of the season, Quantrill moved into the starting rotation in June amid a flurry of injuries to the Cleveland rotation. Over the final three months of the year, he went 8-1 with a 2.27 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and a .209 opponents' batting average in 16 starts, and he finished second on the team with 3.9 WAR.


    Detroit Tigers: CF Akil Baddoo

    Baddoo slugged four home runs in his first eight games after playing his way onto the Detroit roster as a Rule 5 pick. The 23-year-old dealt with some ups and downs, but he posted a 113 OPS+ with 40 extra-base hits, 18 steals and 2.1 WAR in 124 games. Catcher Eric Haase also deserves a mention after coming out of nowhere to post a 104 OPS+ with 22 home runs and 1.9 WAR as a 28-year-old rookie.


    Kansas City Royals: SS Nicky Lopez

    Among the 203 players with at least 150 plate appearances during the shortened 2020 season, only Gregory Polanco (44) had a lower OPS+ than Lopez (52). The 26-year-old was the starting shortstop on Opening Day by default as Adalberto Mondesi was sidelined with a strained oblique, and he made the most of what might have been his final opportunity, hitting .300/.365/.378 with 29 extra-base hits, 22 steals and 4.2 WAR.


    Minnesota Twins: RHP Bailey Ober

    The Twins plummeted to the bottom of the AL Central standings in large part because of a starting rotation that ranked 25th in the majors with a 5.18 ERA. Amid those struggles, Ober was a surprise bright spot. The 26-year-old rookie had a 4.19 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 92.1 innings over 20 starts. Not bad for a 12th-round pick who never ranked inside the organization's top 30 prospects.

AL West

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    Adolis Garcia
    Adolis GarciaTim Warner/Getty Images

    Houston Astros: RHP Luis Garcia

    After serving in a swingman role to open the year, Garcia moved into the rotation full-time at the end of April and put together a rookie season that could garner some AL Rookie of the Year votes. The 24-year-old went 11-8 with a 3.30 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 167 strikeouts in 155.1 innings, and his strong peripheral numbers suggest he should be a long-term member of the Houston rotation.


    Los Angeles Angels: LHP Patrick Sandoval

    It was tempting to put Shohei Ohtani here, but he was a trendy AL MVP pick entering the year. Instead, we'll go with a pitcher in Sandoval who has a bright future in the rotation. The 24-year-old had a 3.62 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 94 strikeouts in 87 innings before a back injury ended his season in August. That represented a major step forward from the 5.33 ERA he logged over 76 innings in 2019 and 2020.


    Oakland Athletics: IF/OF Tony Kemp

    Serving in a super-utility role, Kemp hit .279/.382/.418 with 27 extra-base hits and more walks (52) than strikeouts (51) in 397 plate appearances. His 3.5 WAR trailed only Matt Olson (5.8), Chris Bassitt (3.9) and Frankie Montas (3.6) among all Athletics players. Tip of the cap to Cole Irvin who made 32 starts and had a 4.24 ERA in 178.1 innings.


    Seattle Mariners: 1B Ty France

    The Mariners have no shortage of options, from starter Chris Flexen to reliever Paul Sewald to deadline pickup Abraham Toro. Any of them would have been a fine choice, but France gets the nod with a 4.2-WAR season that ranked seventh among all first basemen. If not for an injury to Evan White, he might not even have been an everyday player, but he hit .291/.368/.445 with 32 doubles, 18 home runs and 73 RBI.


    Texas Rangers: OF Adolis Garcia

    An unlikely All-Star, Garcia turned 28 years old a month before the start of his rookie season in 2021. The former St. Louis Cardinals prospect finished with a 101 OPS+ in 149 games while tallying 26 doubles, 31 home runs, 90 RBI and 16 steals. He struck out a ton (194) and had an ugly on-base percentage (.286), but he was still a 3.8-WAR player for the rebuilding Rangers.

NL East

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    Ranger Suarez
    Ranger SuarezRich Schultz/Getty Images

    Atlanta Braves: 3B Austin Riley

    The No. 22 prospect in baseball in 2019, Riley was expected to be an impact player in the majors. However, after posting a lackluster 86 OPS+ in his first 503 plate appearances in 2019 and 2020, many viewed him as the weak link for the Braves. He now looks like a bona fide star on the rise after hitting .303/.367/.531 with 33 doubles, 33 home runs and 107 RBI in a 6.1-WAR season.


    Miami Marlins: LHP Trevor Rogers

    Selected No. 13 overall in the 2017 draft, Rogers made his MLB debut last year and scuffled to a 6.11 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in seven starts. A strong spring (19 IP, 2.84 ERA, 29 K) won him a rotation spot, and he pitched his way onto the NL All-Star team with a stellar first half. The 23-year-old finished with a 2.64 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 157 strikeouts in 133 innings.


    New York Mets: RHP Tylor Megill

    Megill was the No. 28-ranked prospect in the Mets system at the start of the season. Injuries forced the 6'7" right-hander into a spot in the MLB rotation in June, and he seized the opportunity with a 2.04 ERA over his first seven starts. The 26-year-old eventually leveled off, but he still finished with a 4.52 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 99 strikeouts in 89.2 innings as the unsung hero of the Mets staff.


    Philadelphia Phillies: LHP Ranger Suarez

    There were just five pitchersZack Wheeler (7.6), Walker Buehler (6.7), Robbie Ray (6.7), Max Scherzer (6.0) and Wade Miley (5.7)who had a higher WAR total than Suarez in 2021. The 26-year-old went 8-5 with four saves while posting a 1.36 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 107 strikeouts in 106 innings splitting his time between the bullpen and rotation. All of that added up to a wholly unexpected 5.6-WAR season.


    Washington Nationals: RHP Paolo Espino

    A 10th-round pick all the way back in 2006, Espino finally broke through in his age-34 season. Used as a reliever early in the season and a starter after the All-Star break, he finished fourth on the team with 109.2 innings pitched while posting a 4.27 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and a 92-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

NL Central

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    Frank Schwindel
    Frank SchwindelJustin Casterline/Getty Images

    Chicago Cubs: 1B Frank Schwindel

    Tasked with replacing franchise icon Anthony Rizzo at first base, Schwindel made his Cubs debut on July 30 and hit .342/.389/.613 with 19 doubles, 13 home runs and 40 RBI in 56 games. The team's fire sale created opportunities for a number of unheralded players, and both Patrick Wisdom (117 OPS+, 28 HR, 2.3 WAR) and Rafael Ortega (120 OPS+, 27 XBH, 1.9 WAR) also deserve a mention.


    Cincinnati Reds: LHP Wade Miley

    In his first 10 MLB seasons, Miley accumulated 10.3 WAR in 1,418 innings of work pitching for seven different teams. In 2021, his 5.7 WAR ranked fourth among all NL pitchers as he went 12-7 with a 3.37 ERA in 163 innings. He threw a no-hitter on May 7, and tamed hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark with a 3.45 ERA in 14 starts at home.


    Milwaukee Brewers: SS Willy Adames

    A May 21 trade between Milwaukee and Tampa Bay proved to be a turning point for both Adames and the Brewers. The shortstop was hitting just .191 at the time of the trade and the team had a 21-23 record. He went on to bat .285/.366/.521 with 26 doubles, 20 home runs and 3.5 WAR in 99 games, and the Brew Crew went 74-44 the rest of the way to win the NL Central title.


    Pittsburgh Pirates: RHP David Bednar

    Acquired from the Padres in the three-team deal that sent Joe Musgrove to San Diego, Bednar had gaudy strikeout numbers in the minors, but he had not yet found success at the MLB level with a 6.75 ERA in 17 appearances in 2019 and 2020. By season's end, he was the best pitcher on the Pittsburgh staff, posting a 2.23 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 11.4 K/9 with three saves and 13 holds in 61 appearances.


    St. Louis Cardinals: SS Edmundo Sosa

    While a 6.3-WAR season from Tyler O'Neill was certainly surprising, the former top prospects had shown plenty of potential during his time in the minors. It was a far bigger surprise to see Sosawho was the team's No. 28 prospect at the start of the yearplay his way into the starting shortstop job. He logged a 106 OPS+ and had stellar defensive metrics (8 DRS) en route to a 3.2-WAR rookie season.

NL West

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    Tyler Gilbert
    Tyler GilbertRalph Freso/Getty Images

    Arizona Diamondbacks: LHP Tyler Gilbert

    Gilbert made his MLB debut on Aug. 3 with a scoreless inning of relief, and after two more appearances out of the bullpen, he was tasked with his first MLB start on Aug. 14 in which he promptly no-hit the San Diego Padres. The 27-year-old finished with a 3.15 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 40 innings, and he should get a long look for a rotation spot next spring.


    Colorado Rockies: 1B C.J. Cron

    Cron has always been a solid source of right-handed power, but he was a more complete offensive player in 2021. The 31-year-old hit .281/.375/.530 for a 130 OPS+ with 31 doubles, 28 home runs and 92 RBI for a career-high 3.4 WAR. After settling for a minor league deal last offseason, he inked a two-year, $14.5 million extension with the Rockies on Oct. 5.


    Los Angeles Dodgers: RHP Phil Bickford

    This was a coin toss between Bickford (56 G, 10 HLD, 2.50 ERA, 10.5 K/9) and Alex Vesia (41 G, 10 HLD, 2.25 ERA, 12.2 K/9) who both filled crucial spots in the Dodgers bullpen. Vesia was acquired as part of the trade that sent Dylan Floro to Miami, while Bickford was plucked from the scrapheap as a waiver claim, so the 2015 first-round pick gets the nod as the more unlikely contributor.


    San Diego Padres: RHP Nabil Crismatt

    Injuries caused the Padres to dig deep into their organizational pitching depth, and Crismatt was one of the unexpected standouts who emerged as a result. The 26-year-old worked 81.1 innings out of the bullpen, a total that ranked second to Chad Green (83.2) among all relievers. He had a 3.76 ERA and recorded more than three outs in 29 of his 45 appearances.


    San Francisco Giants: SS Brandon Crawford

    Few things were more surprising in 2021 than Crawford putting together an MVP-caliber season at the age of 34 and after years of diminished production. He hit .298/.373/.522 for a 141 OPS+ with 30 doubles, 24 home runs and 90 RBI in the best offensive season of his career, and his 6.1 WAR was fourth among shortstops. The offensive contributions of LaMonte Wade Jr. and Darin Ruf are worth a mention as well.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.


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