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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Each MLB Team’s Young Player with the Highest Ceiling

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    The Luis Robert Show has only just begun.

    The Luis Robert Show has only just begun.Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    With the 2021 Major League Baseball season underway, all of the game’s most exciting players are now on display for all to see.

    We recommend paying special attention to young guys who haven’t broken all the way out yet. And since every team has at least one such guy, we’ve identified which of your club’s youngsters has the most untapped upside.

    These are guys who are:

  • On the 26-man roster
  • Age-26 or younger
  • Not already stars, a la Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., Gleyber Torres and so on

We’ll break ’em down division by division, starting in the American League East and ending in the National League West.

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    Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

    Vladimir Guerrero Jr.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Baltimore Orioles: 1B Ryan Mountcastle (Age 24)

    As they’re several years into their rebuild, the Orioles’ roster is now unsurprisingly loaded with 20-something players. And more are on the way, including our No. 7 prospect: catcher Adley Rutschman.

    Yet it’s Ryan Mountcastle, our No. 67 prospect, who has the most upside for 2021. He tallied a .333/.386/.492 slash line with five home runs in 35 games last year, mainly courtesy of the club’s best hard-hit rate. With more of that this season, he can make a run at the AL Rookie of the Year.

    Boston Red Sox: CF Alex Verdugo (24)

    Even setting aside Rafael Devers—who made good on his tremendous potential back in 2019—the Red Sox still have a lot to like in the youth department. Bobby Dalbec, for example, has teased potential as a prolific slugger since making his debut last August.

    But don’t forget about Alex Verdugo. His offense has been on an upward trajectory, and in his defensive toolbelt are good jumps and a dangerous arm. After sneaking into the fringes of the AL MVP race in 2020, he has All-Star potential in 2021.

    New York Yankees: LF Clint Frazier (26)

    It doesn’t help us that the Yankees’ 26-man roster mostly consists of veterans who’ve been around the block a few times. For that matter, nor does it help that Gleyber Torres has already been an All-Star twice and that Clint Frazier broke out last year.

    Still, some might be skeptical of Frazier given that he only played in 39 games en route to his 150 OPS+ in 2020. But it’s a good sign that he showed excellent patience and even busted out some opposite-field power. If he can maintain those abilities, all he needs for continued success in 2021 is good health.

    Tampa Bay Rays: LF Randy Arozarena (26)

    It’s arguably cheating to single out Randy Arozarena as the Rays’ most promising youngster. He isn’t exactly obscure after he broke, well, every record in last year’s playoffs.

    It’s nonetheless worth clarifying that Arozarena was the real deal last year. He’s obviously not going to maintain a .333/.406/.745 slash line, but his peripheral stats from 2020 suggest that his true offensive quality was somewhere in the Jose Abreu range. It’ll be an upset if he’s not a Rookie of the Year finalist.

    Toronto Blue Jays: 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (22)

    The Blue Jays have young players beyond Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, but that trio is rightfully front and center in the popular consciousness. All three of them could be All-Stars this year.

    Even if he’s thus far the most unproven of them, Guerrero gets our vote as the most intriguing player of the three. He posted elite marks for strikeout rate and exit velocity in 2020, and he’s now in good shape and coming off a .421 average in spring training. Such things make him a dark-horse MVP candidate.

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    Luis Robert

    Luis RobertEric Risberg/Associated Press

    Chicago White Sox: CF Luis Robert (Age 23)

    In first baseman Andrew Vaughn (No. 13), right-hander Michael Kopech (28), second baseman Nick Madrigal (37) and left-hander Garrett Crochet (82), the White Sox are carrying all four of their best prospects on their 26-man roster.

    But with respect to them, Luis Robert’s ceiling is somewhere in outer space. He won a Gold Glove in 2020 and likely would have won the AL Rookie of the Year if his bat hadn’t gone cold in September. However, the .960 OPS that he had before that slump pretty well underscores his offensive upside.

    Cleveland: RHP Triston McKenzie (23)

    Cleveland’s roster is seemingly nothing but 20-somethings, and at least one of them (Shane Bieber) is already among the game’s brightest stars. If we must pick one player who might also join that inner circle in 2021, we’ll go with Triston McKenzie.

    Even after he pitched to an ugly 6.98 ERA in spring training, MLB‘s No. 46 prospect remains tantalizing by way of his rising four-seamer and a bag of secondaries that include a slider, curveball and changeup. Health permitting, he has a path to the AL Rookie of the Year.

    Detroit Tigers: RHP Casey Mize (23)

    The Tigers are yet another team whose roster leans young, but surely the most alluring 20-somethings are the two top prospects in their rotation: right-hander Casey Mize (15) and left-hander Tarik Skubal (27).

    Even after Skubal outpitched Mize during the spring, it’s hard to ignore the latter’s potential as a strikeout artist. He got his fastball up to 99 mph during the spring, and at this point his splitter needs no introduction. All he needs to do is keep the ball in the yard, which…well, fingers crossed.

    Kansas City Royals: RHP Brady Singer (24)

    The Royals’ roster is older than you’d expect from a team that’s now several years into a rebuild, in part because shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and the club’s other top-100 talents are absent from the picture for now.

    Brady Singer, however, has come into 2021 on a high. He ripped off a 1.50 ERA in his last four starts of 2020. With the help of a refined changeup, he kept right on rolling with a 2.65 ERA, 20 strikeouts and five walks in four spring outings. Barring any sudden deviations, that’s an All-Star path.

    Minnesota Twins: RHP Jorge Alcala (25)

    Though the Twins do have some young talents in a roster that skews older, one of them (Jose Berrios) has already been an All-Star and another (Luis Arraez) sort of is what he is.

    Meanwhile in the team’s bullpen, there’s Jorge Alcala. He hit 101 mph on his fastball last season, and he’s coming into this year fresh off a 1.00 ERA in eight spring appearances. As long as he keeps his walks down, he has a realistic chance of fulfilling his goal of becoming a high-leverage reliever.

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    Jesus Luzardo

    Jesus LuzardoAssociated Press

    Houston Astros: RF Kyle Tucker (Age 24)

    Though the Astros employ a handful of longtime veterans such as Zack Greinke, Michael Brantley and Martin Maldonado, it’s actually 20-somethings who make up the bulk of their major league roster. 

    Since we obviously can’t pick Carlos Correa of Yordan Alvarez, we’ll “settle” for Kyle Tucker as the most exciting of the bunch. Formerly an elite prospect, he got his big break in 2020 and made good on it with a sturdy 123 OPS+ and above average metrics in 2020. His next step may well be an All-Star season.

    Los Angeles Angels: RHP Griffin Canning (24)

    It was oh so tempting to use this exercise as yet another excuse to rave about what Shohei Ohtani might do in 2021 now that he’s finally healthy. But since he already has a Rookie of the Year among his accolades, we’re giving the floor to Griffin Canning instead.

    In addition to winning a Gold Glove, Canning found something as he posted a 117 ERA+ in 2020. More specifically, he found a curveball grip that led him to a 3.14 ERA and 33 strikeouts over his last 28.2 innings. More of that would go a long way toward stabilizing the Angels’ six-man rotation.

    Oakland Athletics: LHP Jesus Luzardo (23)

    This space should arguably belong to Oakland’s everyday catcher, Sean Murphy. His first 63 major league games in 2019 and 2020 yielded a 134 OPS+ to go along with solid work behind the plate.

    But if Murphy is a sneaky All-Star candidate, Jesus Luzardo is a sneaky Cy Young Award candidate. Though his results have been hit or miss, there’s lots to like about a fastball that’s touched 100 mph and a breaking ball and changeup that both miss bats.

    Seattle Mariners: 1B Evan White (24)

    The youth movement is in full swing in Seattle, where the Mariners have young talent up and down their 26-man roster. If nothing else, guys like J.P. Crawford, Ty France, Taylor Trammell, Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn deserve a shoutout.

    Evan White, though, already has the distinction of being a Gold Glover after just one season. And while strikeouts sunk his offensive production, he racked up hard contact when he did put the ball in play last year. So if his whiffs go down in 2021, his other numbers will go up accordingly.

    Texas Rangers: RHP Dane Dunning (26)

    The Rangers also have a youth movement going on, and it notably includes at least one intriguing hitter (Nate Lowe), defender (Isiah Kiner-Falefa) and speedster (Leody Taveras).

    In Dane Dunning, the Rangers also got a promising hurler when they shipped Lance Lynn to the White Sox. Even if he lacks an overpowering fastball, that’s just one of five pitches that he throws. Factoring that he also has strong command, his upside is at least that of a mid-rotation hurler.

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    Ian Anderson

    Ian AndersonJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Atlanta: RHP Ian Anderson (Age 22)

    Atlanta’s starting lineup already features two young stars in Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies. If Austin Riley and Cristian Pache, who’s our No. 12 prospect, realize their potential, that number will double in 2021.

    Yet Ian Anderson simply can’t be ignored after what he did in 2020. He displayed a deep arsenal and strong command as he racked up a 1.95 ERA with 41 strikeouts and 14 walks in 32.1 innings. Despite his rough showing in spring training, he’s arguably the leading contender for the NL Rookie of the Year.

    Miami Marlins: RJP Trevor Rogers (23)

    In the person of Sixto Sanchez, the Marlins’ collection of young talent includes our No. 5 prospect and a bona fide fastball god. But alas, he didn’t make the Opening Day roster and the health of his right shoulder is now of some concern.

    At least the Marlins still have Trevor Rogers. Even as he got lit up for a 6.11 ERA in 2020, he displayed a promising fastball-slider combination and an off-the-table changeup. More recently, he was last seen with everything working as he struck out 29 batters in 19 spring innings.

    New York Mets: RHP Miguel Castro (26)

    Though the Mets still have Pete Alonso and Dominic Smith in the 26-and-under bracket, neither is fodder for this list. Alonso was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2019, and Smith actually had a better OPS+ than Freddie Freeman across 2019 and 2020.

    So, we’ll put in a good word for Miguel Castro instead. He only had a 114 ERA+ last season, but he also whiffed 38 batters in 24.2 innings. With a fastball that can touch triple digits and both a slider and changeup in his back pocket, he’ll bring closer stuff to his setup role this year.

    Philadelphia Phillies: 3B Alec Bohm (24)

    There’s slim pickings for young talent on the Phillies’ roster, and Alec Bohm is arguably too accomplished for this exercise after finishing last year as the runner-up for the NL Rookie of the Year.

    Yet dare we say Bohm didn’t get enough credit last year. It was good enough that he hit .338 on the whole but even better that he hit .452 with runners in scoring position and .571 in high leverage. That’s the strongest possible hint of a clutch gene that could further entrench him as a star.

    Washington Nationals: CF Victor Robles (23)

    We’d be remiss if we didn’t at least say hi to possibly the best young hitter baseball has ever known, so…hi, Juan Soto. Love your work. Hope you’re well.

    Otherwise, it’s Victor Robles who the Nationals need to see more from in 2021. And they just might after he had seven batted balls clocked over 100 mph during spring training, or only five fewer than he had all of last season. That’s his ticket for additional power to go with his already formidable speed and defense.

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    Dylan Carlson

    Dylan CarlsonLynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Chicago Cubs: RHP Adbert Alzolay (Age 26)

    After teasing a breakout late in 2019, Ian Happ delivered one in 2020 as he put up a 135 OPS+ and a dozen home runs in 57 games. But unless he can further cut down on his strikeouts, whether he has any additional upside is a good question.

    Adbert Alzolay, meanwhile, hinted last year that he’s onto something. He added a sinker to go with his four-seamer, yet also made his excellent slider his primary pitch. Those things allowed him to strike out 29 batters in 21.1 innings in 2020 and should make him a mainstay in the Cubs rotation this year.

    Cincinnati Reds: RHP Tyler Mahle (26)

    Minus Trevor Bauer (free agency) and currently without Sonny Gray (back injury), the Reds’ starting rotation doesn’t resemble the powerhouse that it was in 2020. But in time, Tyler Mahle might help right the ship.

    Mahle flew under the radar with a 138 ERA+ over 47.2 innings last year, and he actually had a better expected batting average than ace Luis Castillo. With stellar action on his four-seam fastball and a slider and splitter capable of missing bats, he has the upside of a No. 2 starter.

    Milwaukee Brewers: RHP Corbin Burnes (26)

    Offensively speaking, the Brewers must have enjoyed the .935 OPS that Keston Hiura posted in spring training. Yet he also struck out 17 times against only three walks, so he’s perhaps not out of the woods after following a breakout 2019 season with hard times in 2020.

    Pitching-wise, Corbin Burnes is a different story. He put up a 1.65 ERA with 64 strikeouts in 43.2 innings over eight starts to finish 2020. His cutter, in particular, was downright unhittable. And after flirting with a no-hitter in his season debut, it looks like he’s in for more of the same in 2021.

    Pittsburgh Pirates: RHP Mitch Keller (25)

    By all rights, this spot belongs to third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes after he followed his brilliant debut in 2020 with a home run on Opening Day. But alas, he landed on the injured list with wrist inflammation Sunday.

    As the Pirates wait for him to return, they’ll hope for Mitch Keller to turn a corner. Though he’s certainly had more highs and lows since he debuted in 2019, any pitcher who can sit in the mid-90s with his heater while also putting good spin on his curveball deserves some optimism.

    St. Louis Cardinals: CF Dylan Carlson (22)

    Meanwhile in St. Louis, the Cardinals have one guy who’s capable of stealing the NL Rookie of the Year from Hayes. His name is Dylan Carlson, and his stock is rising fast.

    After initially struggling in the majors, Carlson finished last year strong by going 10-for-35 with seven extra-base hits in his last 11 games. He opened this season as our No. 14 prospect and promptly homered on Opening Day. In all, he looks like the Cardinals’ next great homegrown star.

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    Gavin Lux

    Gavin LuxRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Arizona Diamondbacks: RF Pavin Smith (25)

    Though the Diamondbacks are one of relatively few teams with as many as four top-100 prospects in their system, none of those four are in the big leagues right now. But in Pavin Smith, they have at least one interesting rookie in their midst.

    Smith has racked up nearly as many walks (143) as strikeouts (150) in the minors. His power has been less impressive, but he may have rounded a corner as he averaged a sturdy 92.3 mph on his tracked batted balls during spring training. He thus might stick around even after Kole Calhoun (knee) returns.

    Colorado Rockies: LHP Ben Bowden (26)

    The Rockies were all set to give Brendan Rodgers his big break in the wake of the Nolan Arenado trade, but then the injury bug bit him again. He’s likely to miss the first couple weeks of the season with a hamstring strain.

    Otherwise, German Marquez is too accomplished for this exercise, and it’s not certain that Antonio Senzatela has any untapped upside. So we’ll go off the radar for a look at Ben Bowden. As someone who struck out 13.1 batters per nine innings in the minors, he’s a potential late-inning reliever in the majors.

    Los Angeles Dodgers: 2B Gavin Lux (23)

    It’s not fair that we only get to geek out over one of the Dodgers’ young players. They have a ton of them, and their collective upside is through the proverbial roof.

    But of the bunch, Gavin Lux is especially deserving of some love. He was a forgotten man in 2020, but before that he was Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year for 2019. And by hitting .314 in spring training and promptly starring in the Dodgers’ opening series, he may be back on an All-Star track.

    San Diego Padres: LHP Adrian Morejon (22)

    Though Fernando Tatis Jr. is still only 22 years old, nobody should need to be convinced of his upside at this point. But just in case, we’ll point to how the Padres deemed said upside worthy of a $340 million contract.

    Apart from him, Adrian Morejon stands out. He only had a 90 ERA+ last year, but that was with just four walks and 25 strikeouts in 19.1 innings. His fastball was up to 99 mph, and his changeup was eminently GIF-able. Even if he doesn’t stick in San Diego’s stacked rotation, he’s a potential weapon as a multi-inning reliever.

    San Francisco Giants: SP Logan Webb (24)

    The Giants have taken a relatively slow-and-steady approach to rebuilding, yet they have two top-100 prospects—catcher Joey Bart (25) and outfielder Heliot Ramos (30)—who could be seen in the majors this year.

    In the meantime, the Giants may have something in Logan Webb. He only has an 80 ERA+ through 99.1 career innings, but he’s fresh off a 0.53 ERA with 22 strikeouts and only two walks as he threw more sliders and changeups for strikes during the spring. He could be a sneaky All-Star candidate.

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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