Baseball is finally back! After a long cold winter, it’s time to enjoy America’s pastime. While we’ve all been looking forward to seeing superstars like Francisco Lindor and Nolan Arenado in new cities, enjoying watching pitchers like Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole carve up offenses, and exciting rookies like Ke’Bryan Hayes, 2021 promises to bring us so much more. Let’s examine 20 MLB players who are not currently household names, but very well could be by September.
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The Twins have been waiting for the 26-year-old Berrios to fully break through, as they’ve looked at him like a potential future ace for several years now. In 12 starts last season the righty was consistent, pitching to a 4.00 ERA with a .238 batting average against in 63 innings, but Minnesota feels he’s capable of so much more. It’s going to be challenging for the Twins to hold off the surging White Sox in the AL Central, but if Berrios has a career year their chances will obviously improve.
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Gimenez will very well end up being the most important piece the Indians received from the Mets in the blockbuster trade that sent Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco to Queens. The young shortstop impressed as a rookie in 2020, hitting .263 and reaching base at a .333 clip en route to stealing the starting job away from Amed Rosario–who also came here in the Lindor trade. But Gimenez’s best attribute is easily his defense, where very few infielders can match what he can do with the glove. It’s surely going to take Indians fans a long time to get over Lindor’s departure, but the organization is hopeful that Gimenez can develop into a fan favorite and take a little of the sting out of the deal.
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Robert was hyped as the AL’s version of Ronald Acuna Jr. ahead of his big league debut last summer, and while he didn’t quite produce at that level as a rookie, don’t worry. It’s coming. The 23-year-old possesses an incredible blend of power and speed, and his minor league numbers in 2019 were downright scary. Robert is expected to begin to blossom into the star he’s projected to be in ’21, and he lives up to the hype the White Sox will likely surge into October as a team nobody wants to play.
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The switch-hitting Candelario enjoyed a strong season in 2018 that saw him rack up 50 extra-base hits. The following year did not go well, but he bounced back in a big way in the truncated ’20 campaign and turned in the best season of his career. In 52 games Candelario slashed a strong .297/.369/.503 with seven homers in 185 at-bats. The Tigers are unlikely to be all that good in 2021, and as an affordable player under team control through 2023, this is a player other teams could inquire about in July.
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Fletcher has done a little bit of everything for the Angels since first arriving in the big leagues in 2018, and on a team loaded with big names he’s become one of their more valuable pieces. The Loyola Marymount product has played five different positions for this team, and while he doesn’t boast much power, he’s always a thorn in the side of opposing pitchers. Last season he hit .319 and reached base at a .376 clip, setting the table nicely for guys like Mike Trout, Justin Upton, and Shohei Ohtani. The only real knock on Fletcher’s game is the aforementioned lack of power. In 1091 career at-bats he’s accumulated only 77 extra-base hits. Absolutely any uptick in that department would take his game to the next level and would make him more well known outside of southern California.
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It feels like the Astros have been waiting for Kyle Tucker to fully arrive forever, and they’d better hope 2021 is the year it finally happens. In his first real chance to play regularly a year ago, the 24-year-old did begin to show flashes of being the type of offensive player at the game’s highest level that he was in the minor leagues. In a shade over 200 at-bats, he slashed .268/.325/.512 with nine homers and an impressive 42 RBI. Houston is a team in a little bit of transition, with both George Springer and Josh Reddick no longer here and Carlos Correa primed to hit free agency at season’s end. A breakthrough from Tucker in 2021 would make them feel better about their line-up moving forward.
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Texas acquired big Nate Lowe in an offseason trade with the defending AL Champion Rays, and it just feels like he’s on the verge of cementing himself as a cornerstone piece in Arlington. Playing sporadically for Tampa Bay over the last two years Lowe never really got a chance to establish himself at this level. But he’s going to play every day for the Rangers and they’re counting on him supplying serious left-handed power. This is a guy that crushed 43 homers in 223 minor league games between ’18-’19, and at only 25-years-old it’s fair to think more power could be coming.
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Oakland’s Sean Murphy was considered the number one catching prospect in baseball for several years, and while he’s yet to really breakthrough at the game’s highest level I wouldn’t worry quite yet. Catchers often take time to develop, and we’re talking about a guy who’d played only 63 big league games prior to opening day. This will be the 26-year-olds’ first full Major League season, and the Athletics are hoping he will show them he can be their guy behind the dish for years to come.
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The Mariners acquired Ty France as somewhat of an afterthought as part of their big deadline trade with the Padres last summer that was more about bringing in Andres Munoz and Taylor Trammell. But that may ultimately not be what’s remembered about the deal. Since first putting on a Seattle uniform, the 26-year-old France has just not stopped hitting. In 23 games following the trade, he slashed .302/.362/.453. And here’s something that has my attention. After hitting just 11 long balls in parts of two big-league campaigns, France blasted five in only 49 spring training at-bats. If he’s tinkered his swing in a way that will produce more power–a la Justin Turner and others–the Mariners really may have lucked into an important long-term offensive player.
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Riley is probably more well known than most of the players on this list thanks to being part of a team that has been really good lately and participated in a plethora of high-stakes playoff games. But the big right-handed slugger has yet to really put together a full season of productivity. After an initial home run flurry as a rookie in ’19, the 24-year-old fizzled quickly as pitchers began to figure him out. Last year didn’t go much better as in just under 200 at-bats he hit only .239 and struck out 49 times. But the Braves are confident the best is yet to come for their third baseman. Riley was an offensive force at every level of Atlanta’s minor league system, and if he could just put the ball in play with more regularity his advanced metrics suggest he can be that type of player in the big leagues too.
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Fresh off an exciting offseason that saw them drastically reshape their roster, the New York Mets enter 2021 with massive expectations. This offense includes big names like Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil, and Dominic Smith. But what if I told you the guy who could really make this line-up unstoppable is someone that you may not have heard of? Well, listen up. Third baseman JD Davis spent the early portion of his career blocked by veterans in Houston, and after coming to Queens ahead of the ’19 season he quietly showed serious potential. In 410 at-bats Davis hit .307 with 22 homers and 57 RBI, coming up with big hit after big hit for the Mets as they made a late-season push to try to earn a playoff bid. His 2020 campaign was not quite as good, but the Mets have bounced the Cal State Fullerton product back and forth between left field and third base seemingly since he got here. With a permanent home at the hot corner now, it’s reasonable to think Davis can think less about that aspect of his game, and let his natural offensive talent take over.
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The Marlins surprisingly snuck into the expanded postseason a year ago, and they did it squarely on the backs of a young pitching staff that quietly exceeded even the organization’s expectations. Part of that group was righty Pedro Lopez, who while he got overshadowed by the performances of Sandy Alcantara and hotshot prospect Sixto Sanchez, was very good in his own right. In 11 outings Lopez pitched to a 3.61 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP in 57.1 innings. Plenty good enough for a 3rd starter to say the least, and entering 2021 Miami feels he could potentially turn it up another notch.
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The Phillies play in a division that quite possibly will be the most competitive one of the six, but a potential difference-maker that could keep them competitive is young third baseman, Alec Bohm. Heralded as Philadelphia’s top offensive prospect for some time, Bohm made his debut last summer and did not disappoint. In 160 at-bats as a rookie, the big right-handed slugger hit .338 with four homers and 11 doubles, and the Phillies think he’s only getting started. In 125 minor league games in ’19 Bohm slashed .305/.378/.518 with 21 homers, 30 doubles, and 80 RBI. That’s the type of offensive player the organization feels he’ll be for them for a long time, potentially as early as this season.
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The Pirates drafted righty Mitch Keller #64 overall out of high school in 2014 with the idea that he could develop into a potential frontline starter for them. His minor league journey was long but he built an impressive resume coming up through Pittsburgh’s system, and expectations were understandably high when he finally debuted in May of ’19. And then they quickly came crashing down. Keller totally flopped in his first cup of coffee, finishing with an unsightly 7.13 ERA in 11 rookie starts. But he rebounded nicely both on the mound and mentally a year ago, and began to show the potential the Bucs still feel he has. In five starts his 2.91 ERA was much more in line with his minor league mark, and heading into ’21 Pittsburgh really needs him to develop even further.
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The Cardinals seem to be a trendy pick to come out of the NL Central, but that should for sure not be a foregone conclusion. The Brewers and Cubs would have something to say about that, and this division should honestly be an exciting three-team race all season. The weakest part of St. Louis’ roster on paper is surely their outfield, where the Redbirds lack any semblance of an established presence. But one man, in particular, could change that narrative in a hurry. Right-handed slugger Tyler O’Neill has disappointingly hit only 21 homers with a .228 batting average in parts of his first three Major League seasons. But this is a guy who hit 140 homers with a .271/.343/.529 slash line during his minor league career. If he can even come close to blossoming into that type of hitter in St. Louis this line-up will be exponentially deeper.
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Jesse Winker has quietly been a valuable member of the Reds offensive line-up for some time now, but it’s also worth noting that injuries have prevented him from ever participating in more than 113 regular-season games. Despite that, as a lifetime .280 hitter who gets on base regularly and has a little pop, Winker has the tools to be one of the better starting outfielders in the National League. If he can stay off the injured list in 2021 it’s likely the rest of the league will start to see that for themselves.
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The inability of Dodgers’ second baseman Gavin Lux to break through at the big league level thus far is a little stunning. We’re talking about someone who hit .324 and .347 in his last two minor league seasons, with OBP’s over .399 in both years. He showed power, discipline, and an above-average contact rate at every level of LA’s system. So why hasn’t it translated to the big leagues? That’s probably the biggest question on a Dodgers team that is otherwise loaded with talent and primed to make a run at back-to-back titles. It’s potentially worth pointing out that Lux swung the bat very well in spring training, and National League rivals that plan to overtake Los Angeles in ’21 had better hope he doesn’t translate that to the regular season.
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Colorado’s second baseman Ryan McMahon’s career can thus far be summed up like this. A few seasons of sporadic playing time and inconsistent performance, sandwiching one fully healthy and quite productive offensive campaign. In 2019 McMahon’s 24 homers and 83 RBI made him one of the better players at his position in the NL. But prior to that and in the truncated 2020 campaign, he didn’t come even close to that level of production. On a Rockies team that already no longer has Nolan Arenado, and with Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon likely following him out the door soon, this line-up is going to soon experience a changing of the guard. If McMahon can be a consistent offensive force it will go a long way towards answering some questions for them moving forward.
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Entering 2021 young Josh Rojas has participated in only 58 contests at the Major League level. And while his performance in those games has been somewhat uninspiring, the Diamondbacks are unconcerned. In his last full minor league season in ’19 Rojas slashed .332/.418/.606 with 23 homers and 83 RBI. To go along with 33 stolen bases. This is a player who possesses a unique skill set and has the positional versatility to play all over the diamond. He’s going to be an important part of Arizona’s team for a long time, and look for him to begin to announce himself to the league this season.
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San Diego starting pitcher Chris Paddack has already enjoyed success in the big leagues. His impressive rookie season in 2019 earned him some Rookie of the Year consideration, and was it not for the power show Pete Alonso was putting on for the Mets he may have had more momentum towards winning the award. Last season unfortunately was a disappointment for the righty, and now he’s become a bit of an afterthought with the Padres adding Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, and Joe Musgrove to their starting five over the winter. But don’t forget about Paddack. His stuff is still electric and with significantly less pressure on him now than in years past, this could easily end up becoming his coming out party.
Justin Mears is a freelance sports writer from Long Beach Island, NJ. Enjoys being frustrated by the Mets and Cowboys, reading Linwood Barclay novels, and being yelled at by his toddler son. Follow him on twitter @justinwmears.