The 2021 MLB season is just days away now. With that in mind, it’s time to go around the diamond at who can break out at each position. For this exercise, we won’t strictly be looking at rookie-eligible players, but some players who have passed their rookie eligibility but haven’t broken out fully yet. Think post-hype players. Let’s dive into it.
Starting Pitcher: Ian Anderson, Atlanta Braves
The right-hander made his top-notch MLB debut last season. He pitched to a 1.95 ERA, 2.54 FIP, and 1.082 WHIP with 41 strikeouts in 32 1/3 innings in only six starts. Despite just the six starts, Anderson placed seventh in Rookie of the Year voting in the National League. The former third overall pick also dominated in the postseason, allowing just two earned runs in 18 2/3 innings. With the way the Braves rotation worked out last year, Anderson should have a major role in 2021. Anderson was in the 92nd percentile and above in xwOBA(.234) xERA (2.46), xBA (.183), xSLG (.233), and Barrel percentage (1.2%) in 2020 and he looks to sustain similar numbers in a full season. His rookie eligibility is intact, so he will be in the Rookie of the Year race once again.
Ian Anderson is an absolute stud and he doesn’t get enough love from Baseball Twitter. Just wanted to throw that out there. pic.twitter.com/F0asGrhNt5— Jared Carrabis (@Jared_Carrabis) October 7, 2020
Relief Pitcher: Nick Wittgren, Cleveland Indians
James Karinchak is the favorite for the closer role for the Indians this season, but he has been shaky during spring training. Add that to the fact Terry Francona has been reluctant to officially name a closer and that’s where Wittgren comes in. The right-hander consistently displayed the ability to get batters out the past two seasons and has been one of the top guys Francona has trusted. In 80 outings, he has a 7-1 record, 2.99 ERA, and 88 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings. The former Marlin has also been impressive this spring and could get the call for the ninth inning for at least part of the season. The Indians may go with a closer-by-committee with whoever is hot. Wittgren isn’t particularly dominant, but he is consistent. He looks to breakout even farther this season.
Nick Wittgren, Disappearing 87mph Changeup. 👻 pic.twitter.com/3DUk4kBUhE— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 22, 2020
Catcher: Alejandro Kirk, Toronto Blue Jays
The Mexican-born catcher and Blue Jays sixth overall prospect made a solid MLB debut last year. Kirk went 9-for-24 (.375) in the majors after he put up a .918 OPS in the minors. He has been forcing the Jays hands this spring, as Danny Jansen‘s grip on the starting role is loosening by the day. Over 11 games, Kirk has gone 7-for-24 with two homers and six RBI. He has been in a battle with the defensive-first Reese McGuire for the backup spot. McGuire is out of minor league options, but if Kirk keeps it up Toronto may need to cut him loose. If Kirk is the catcher of the future, it is bound to happen eventually anyway.
First Base: Andrew Vaughn, Chicago White Sox
The 2019 third overall pick out of the University of California, Berkeley was one of the most MLB-ready prospects coming out of the draft. He was set to make his debut to start this season as the White Sox designated hitter. But now the ruptured pectoral tendon suffered by Eloy Jimenez which will cause him to miss 5-6 months, Vaughn could see time in left. Chicago gave him a look there on Friday. He has above-average contact skills and power. He will have a solid role in a stacked lineup and the Sox will get him in any way they can.
"Andrew Vaughn demolishes this baseball. Boom."— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 19, 2021
Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. pic.twitter.com/hK1Ir7qy2s
Second Base: Nick Madrigal, Chicago White Sox
In 29 games last year, Madrigal hit .340 with a .745 OPS, 11 RBI, and two stolen bases during his MLB debut. The Oregon State alum stole 35 bases in 2019 and hit .309 in 163 minor league games. He had an elite zone-contact rate at 93.1 percent and just a 6.4 percent strikeout rate. Madrigal has basically no power – eight homers between college and minors – but he makes solid contact and has the speed. He has the potential to compete for a batting title while stealing 20 or more bases. With the up-and-coming White Sox team, he will have plenty of opportunities to make things happen.
Third Base: Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates’ top prospect was very impressive as he made his major league debut last season. Over 24 games, he slashed .376/.442/.682 with five homers and 11 RBI, while being a solid defender at third. Hayes won’t be able to sustain the same level of offensive numbers. But if he can put up any type of offensive production and keep up his solid defense, he will be an exciting player to watch. His rookie eligibility is still intact, and the Texas native will be a Rookie of the Year favorite.
Ke’Bryan Hayes is fun to watch. pic.twitter.com/jEdxpO0J7R— Pirates (@Pirates) March 15, 2021
Shortstop: Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays
The top prospect in all of baseball will be up to make his debut at some point this season. Franco turned 20 at the beginning of this month. Making it up to HIgh-A in 2019, the Dominican native hit .339/.408/.464 with three homers and four steals in 53 games. He didn’t play professionally in 2020 due to the COVID-10 pandemic but was on the Rays’ player pool all season. Franco will have to fight for playing time with Willy Adames and will be starting the season in the minors. He still needs some seasoning but shouldn’t take too long to make his way back up. The Rays may end up trying him out at third to get him in the lineup next to Adames.
Your No. 1 overall prospect, Wander Franco, in action. 😱 pic.twitter.com/Kqd5OvmE0o— MLB (@MLB) March 3, 2021
Outfield: Jo Adell, Los Angeles Angels
Adell made his MLB debut on August 4 last season, but his rookie season did not live up to the hype at all. He had a slash line of .161/.212/.266 with three homers and an awful 41.1 percent strikeout rate over 124 at-bats. Some Angels fans jumped the gun on the youngster this offseason, even going as far as saying to trade him for pitching. But it was far too small of a sample last season and the Angles must be patient. Don’t forget that a 19-year-old Mike Trout struggled in his first stint in the majors as well. I heard that guy was pretty good. Not that Adell will be the next Trout, but with a full spring to work his way up, he will have a better time. When he did make contact last season, he hit it pretty hard. His max exit velocity was 115.5 mph, one of 15 players to hit the ball over 115 mph. If he can learn to not chase pitches and be a free-swinger, he will do big things in 2021.
FIRST BIG LEAGUE HOME RUN FOR JO ADELL!! pic.twitter.com/Xhl7CKSqx5— Jared Carrabis (@Jared_Carrabis) August 30, 2020
Outfield: Dylan Carlson, St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals’ top prospect was another guy who struggled in his debut season last year. But he made improvements down the stretch and was hitting cleanup for St. Louis in the playoffs. Carlson made a lot of quality contact and launched the ball in the air. He had a 28.9 percent hard-hit plus sweet-spot rate, which was fifth in the league behind Freddie Freeman, Matt Chapman, Will Smith, and Corey Seager. The former first-round draft pick will be in contention for the NL Rookie of the Year while being a big reason why the Cards win the NL Pennant this year. Now being in a lineup with Nolan Arenado, who I have winning MVP, will bode very well for Carlson.
🚨 DYLAN CARLSON 🚨 pic.twitter.com/6YjGy6Kz8Y— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) September 19, 2020
Outfield: Hunter Renfroe, Boston Red Sox
On the Tampa Bay Rays last year, Renfroe struggled mightily. A change of scenery could benefit him, as he was solid when he first came up with the San Diego Padres before being sent to Tampa Bay. In each of his first two seasons, he smashed 26 homers and another 33 in 2019. He still had eight homers in 2020, so his power was still there. After a solid spring, it looks like Renfroe will be one of the starting outfielders, splitting time between center and right. With his power, he can use the green monster to his advantage.
Follow Alex Kielar on Twitter @AlexKielar
Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images