As Opening Day approaches, we wanted to know who will be the best player in the 2021 MLB season.
To compile MLB’s annual list of the top 100 players, we submitted some of the game’s biggest names to ESPN Baseball’s panel of experts and asked them simply: Which player will be the best in 2021?
In the middle of our list – #50-26 – are seven shortstops, two former Cy Young Award winners whose paths crossed in the 2020 World Series, and an outfielder whose blockbuster free agent was one of the most significant moves of this offseason. For each player, you’ll find the relevant statistic or story below to put their position in context.
On Monday, we have the 100-51 numbers of rising stars like National League Rookie of the Year Devin Williams of the Milwaukee Brewers and a trio of young hitters from Chicago – Luis Robert, Yoan Moncada and Eloy Jimenez – helping to make the White Sox one of the most exciting teams in the American League.
On Wednesday, we conclude the three-part series with a 25-year countdown.
More: Issue No. 100-51 | Who’s Next? (ESPN+) Public 2020
Grade 2020: 94
Why is he here? In his first season with the Blue Jays, Ryu continued to climb the ladder in conversations with major league starters. He scored a 2.69 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 12 starts in 2020 and helped justify the big four-year, $80 million contract Toronto gave the 33-year-old left-hander after an outstanding 2019 campaign in Los Angeles. Much of Toronto’s hope for AL contender status rests on Ryu’s shoulders this season. -Jung Lee
Grade 2020: 32
Why is he here? Torres had an insufferable 2020, especially in defense and his physicality. The 24-year-old, who is looking to regain his place among baseball’s most talked-about young talents, played in just 42 games last year due to a sprained left quadriceps and hamstring, with three home runs, 16 RBIs and nine errors. — Marley Rivera
Grade 2020: 20
Why is he here? After setting a rookie record in 2019 with 53 home runs and becoming an all-time fan favorite, the Polar Bear wasn’t so great in 2020: 16 in 57 games, which he started slow (before warming up with 10 home runs in September). With his best start in 2021, he should be back in the hunt for 50. -David Schoenfield.
Grade 2020: 27
Why is he here? The Red Sox expect Devers to become one of the team’s best hitters as the third baseman enters his fifth major league season. Devers struggled in his first 15 games in 2020, hitting .175, but seemed more adept in his final 41 games, hitting .291. If Boston hopes to make the playoffs, the 24-year-old will have to look bigger than he did in 2019, when he hit .311/.361/.555 with 32 homers and 115 RBI.– Lee.
Grade 2020: 55
Why is he here? Few pitchers have the raw arsenal that Castillo has. He gets so much attention for his shift that people sometimes forget that Castillo also averaged over 97 mph on his quad last season. He has also mastered these instruments. Last season, only five qualifiers had fewer barrels than Castillo, and only three of them had a lower average starting pitching angle. — Bradford Doolittle
Grade 2020: 64
Why is he here? He may not be the MVP candidate he was with the Diamondbacks (two seconds and a third), but he’s still one of the most promising first basemen, hitting .304/.417/.466 in 2020. He has a low strikeout rate in his career, maybe he sacrifices some power for a higher average strikeout rate. — Shoefield
Grade 2020: 21
Why is he here? This season could be one of great pressure for Baez if he does not sign a long-term contract with the team this spring. He is a free agent after this season and should recover from his poor performance in 2020. His inability to walk weighs on him with a thud. On the positive side, his defense almost never suffers when he’s at the plate. — Jesse Rogers.
AP Photo/Tony Dejak
Grade 2020: Not classified. Why it’s there: Abreu has become the heart and soul of the new White Sox, a status he has achieved both through his personality and his performance. And the last one is not to be sneezed at. Abreu won his second RBI crown last season en route to AL MVP honors. He’ll be 34. season with young cornerbacks like Andrew Vaughn and Jake Burger waiting for him in Chicago. But if the aging agitator’s footprint slows the club down, Abreu’s 2020 season suggests he will age gracefully. — Doolittle.
Grade 2020: 28
Why is he here? After taking over the top spot in baseball, Bogaerts lived up to the enormous hype that preceded him. He has become one of the best offensive shortstops in baseball and secured Boston’s lineup in 2020 with a .300/.364/.502 line, including 11 homers in 56 games. At 28 years old, Bogaerts is becoming a leader in the Red Sox’ clubhouse, one of the last pennants on the 2018 World Series championship team. — Lee…
41. Beau Bichette, CC, Toronto Blue Jays
Grade 2020: 95
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Why is he here? In the first 75 games of his major league career, Bichette, who turns 23 this month, has already hit 44 extra-hits, just 10 fewer than the record for a player’s first 75 games, set by Joe DiMaggio. He played with a 1.063 OPS in his first 14 games before suffering a knee injury last year and returning for a shortened KOVID-19 season that ended. A full healthy season can be a lot of fun for Blue Jays fans. — Gonzalez
Grade 2020: Not classified
Why is he here? The Braves like him so much at the plate that they don’t hesitate to send him to left field – at least not until the DH returns to the NL. He thrived in 2020 and likely will again, simply because he’s one of those professional hitters whose lows don’t last very long. Plus, the Braves team is dynamic, meaning he doesn’t have to carry the team behind the plate. The big contract he received last winter allows Ozuna to relax and do what he does best: rake. — Rogers
Grade 2020: 66
Why is he here? We’ve seen glimpses of the 6-foot-6 right-hander’s dominance with a 90-degree fastball and a curveball. He had a 1.78 ERA in 12 starts in 2019 and fired 91 batters in 57⅓ innings in 2020, but he didn’t put up any numbers all season and wasn’t great in the 2020 postseason despite the Rays’ World Series run (6.28 ERA). This assessment predicts that things will go well. — Shoefield
38. Jack Flaherty, S.P., St. Louis Cardinals
Grade 2020: 22
Why is he here? Flaherty looked like a statistical double of top-ranked Bob Gibson for most of the 2019 season. So when he bumped into a spare hydraulic cylinder in 2020, it was a bit of a trial by fire. But the parameters of his game were pretty much the same during his breakthrough season, even if the results were not based on those parameters. Flaherty still struggles with his team, more than you’d expect from an ace. But we’ve seen how good Flaherty is, he’s as good as anyone. The Cardinals desperately need him in 2021 in a rotation that looks more professional than dynamic. — Doolittle.
Grade 2020: 80
Why is he here? The only problem with Darvish in 2021 is the change of scenery, as he was traded from the Cubs to the Padres in the offseason. This was shortly after Darvish finally reached a comfort level in Chicago because he was allowed to throw whatever he wanted: Back it up and slow it down.
From fantasy to play to rest: Passan has a lot of thoughts on runners and teams that will be very successful next year.
Jeff Passan’s predictions for 2021
His cutter was the hallmark of Cy Young’s second place finish in 2020, and there’s no reason why he wouldn’t use it again. The last 18 months have been the best Darvish has had in his baseball career. — Rogers
36. Blake Snell, S.P., San Diego Padres
Grade 2020: 26
Why is he here? It’s unclear if Snell, 28, can ever regain his Cy Young form in 2018. But whoever he is, a pitcher averaging 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.53 FIP from 2017-20 is good enough. According to FanGraphs, Snell threw 9.8% of his innings last season, which is certainly a career high. But perhaps this can be attributed to the randomness of small samples.
Snell still produced a 3.24 ERA in 50 innings during the regular season, and had to deal with the infamous quick hook in Game 6 of the World Series against the mighty Dodgers. With the Padres, he still hopes to go deep into games. — Gonzalez
Grade 2020: 46
Why is he here? Albee is only 24 years old, was an All-Star in 2018 and the NL hits leader in 2019. His 10.4 WAR in 2018 rank him as the third best second baseman, but he will miss time in 2020 with a wrist injury. The switch-hitter improved on the left side in 2020, a sign that he can take his game to an even higher level. — Shoefield
Grade 2020: 49
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Why is he here? The 2021 season is crucial for Correa, whose status as one of the best elite shortstops in baseball remains unchanged. But if Correa does leave, it looks like the superstar talent has left some potential untapped in his career so far. Correa’s performance in the odd 2020 season was the worst, as his OPS+ dropped to just 92.
Correa has lost a lot of time in his career to injury while slowly progressing in free agency. In fact, Correa’s 2016 season, in which he turned 21, was the only season in which he notched a full season of floor appearances. Few players will have more on the line next season than Correa. — Doolittle.
33. Tim Anderson, CC, Chicago White Sox
Grade 2020: Not classified
Why is he here? Anderson is so dynamic, so charismatic, and with his high averages and low walks, he is the engine of the White Sox, creating RBI opportunities on one of the most dangerous middle lines in the game. Expect Anderson to contend for a batting title again after hitting .322 in 2020 and leading the AL with a .335 mark in 2019. — Rogers
Grade 2020: 48
Why is he here? Kershaw has remained highly productive despite the drop in his fastball rate, with a 2.89 ERA and 4.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 339⅔ innings from 2018 to 2019. Last year, his long quest to regain his lost speed finally paid off. His fastball averaged 92 mph, more than enough to be dominant again. In 89 innings in 2020, including the postseason, Kershaw had a 2.43 ERA with 99 strikeouts and 13 walks. He crowned it all with a world championship. The rest is just gravy. — Gonzalez
31. Lucas Jolito, S.P., Chicago White Sox
Grade 2020: 71
Why is he here? While Giolito started his career on a rocky road and was considered one of the worst starting pitchers in 2018 with a 6.13 ERA, he is now one of the best in baseball after two solid seasons at the top of the White Sox rotation. Diolito, 26, recorded a 3.48 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 12 starts in 2020, including a dominant no-hitter against the Pittsburgh PIRATES. — Lee…
Grade 2020: 16
Why is he here? The 2019 World Series MVP has made just two starts in 2020 after undergoing wrist surgery, but he’s confident the injury (which caused numbness in his hand) is behind him. He had one of his best seasons in 2019, leading the NL with 18 wins and 209 innings pitched and finishing fifth in the Cy Young voting. — Shoefield
Grade 2020: 18
A guide to opening MLB in 2021 and beyond. History
Why is he here? Chapman languished for most of the shortened season before undergoing hip surgery in September. Before that, he was on his way to becoming one of the most productive players on both sides of the ball. From 2018 to 2019, in his first two full seasons in the major leagues, Chapman posted an OPS of .855 and collected 29 above-average outs, second only to Nolan Arenado among third basemen. — Gonzalez
Grade 2020: 37
Why is he here? Springer will benefit from having players around him on Toronto’s team, but he will have some pressure to perform after signing a $150 million contract this season. It’s unlikely he becomes an MVP candidate, but a consistent player at the plate who plays solid defense is almost a guarantee, assuming he stays healthy. — Rogers
Grade 2020: 23
Why is he here? After an eventful turn at the free agent bazaar this winter, Realmuto went back to the drawing board by signing a five-year, $115.5 million contract to remain with the Phillies. The contract reflects Realmuto’s status as a top receiver, his lack of full-time playing time in the current game and his full range of skills. Realmuto may not be the best show in the game in any category, but no one else combines such high-end skills in this position. Realmuto is athletic enough and hits well enough to slide to first base or first base from time to time, which he will likely do more and more as the years go by and his catching skills decline. — Doolittle.
26. Tria Turner, SS, Washington National
Grade 2020: 60
Why is he here? If he plays like he did in the 2020 season shortened by lockouts, Turner will be much higher than 26th on this list. He hit .335/.394/.588 with 12 home runs in 59 games (his highest career total is 19). Turner is one of the fastest players in the game and has a chance to go 25-25 (home runs and steals) in 2021 and is on the short list of the most exciting players in the game. — Shoefield
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