With fingers crossed, baseball is slowly and carefully proceeding toward its goal of 162 games with full attendance normalcy for 2021, and for evaluation and prediction purposes you really have to throw out the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. This is a spring in which everyone is truly starting anew, but we are going to take a bit of a forward leap here and single out the 10 players that bear close watching because of their potential impact on their teams’ chances.
1. Aaron Judge, Yankees: While Yankees manager Aaron Boone is cautiously optimistic that pitchers Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon and (later) Luis Severino will all enjoy sufficient comebacks to stabilize the starting rotation behind Gerrit Cole, it is still imperative for the Yankee offense to perform up to expectations. Judge is still regarded as the main man but neither he nor the Yankees can afford another injury filled season. He’s had only one season of 500 plate appearances, which was 2017 when he led the AL with 52 homers and 120 runs, drove in 114 runs and finished second in MVP voting. If he can come close to that, the Yankees will most likely win the AL East. But if he again misses significant time due to injuries, any long-term contract won’t likely be in the offing.
2. Christian Yelich, Brewers: After agreeing to a nine-year/$215 million extension, Yelich suffered through a miserable 2020 season. Whether it was a matter of trying too hard to live up to the contract, or still feeling some after effects from the broken knee cap he suffered at the end of 2019, Yelich admitted last week: “I thought I was pretty much all around terrible.” By signing Jackie Bradley Jr. to a two-year/$24 million contract, and Kelton Wong to a two-year/$18M deal, while also resisting trade overtures for closer Josh Hader, the Brewers have made a statement that they’re all-in for winning the weak NL Central this year. To do so, they’re going to need Yelich to return to his MVP form.
3. Nolan Arenado, Cardinals: The offensively-challenged Cardinals, who finished last in the majors in homers and 28th in runs scored last year, gave up five players to wrest Arenado and his mammoth contract away from the Rockies. Despite their offensive woes, the Cards finished tied for second in the NL Central last year, and the acquisition of Arenado to provide a much-needed middle-of-the-lineup complement with Paul Goldschmidt, immediately made them favorites to win the division. The pressure will be on him to put up MVP-caliber numbers outside of Coors Field.
4. Shohei Ohtani, Angels: In the first two weeks of spring training, the big buzz coming out of the Angels camp was Ohtani hitting 100 mph throwing batting practice, indicating he is fully recovered from the post-Tommy John surgery elbow issue that ended his 2020 season in July. The Angels have struggled through five straight losing seasons, mostly for the same reason — a dearth of quality starting pitching — and even if Ohtani pitches once a week (as his two-way player plan calls for) he is going to need to pitch like the ace he was before he blew out his elbow in 2018 if they are to end that slump and make the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
5. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Blue Jays: The Blue Jays spent $189 million this winter in an effort to close the gap between themselves and the Rays and Yankees in the AL East, but their starting rotation after Ryu remains an uncertain piecemeal among Steven Matz, Robbie Ray, Tanner Roarke, Ross Stripling, Julian Merryweather and the likely not-ready rookie Nate Pearson. This is why Ryu needs to be an anchor, but as brilliant as he’s pitched, especially in 2019 when he led the AL in ERA, he’s never logged over 200 innings and has a very so-so 4.54 ERA for nine postseason starts. Durability is the issue for Ryu and if the Blue Jays are to have any chance of parlaying all that money they spent into a postseason run, they’re going to need a career season — from start to finish — from their ace.
6. Zack Greinke, Astros: The Astros are wounded; their AL West dominance in serious jeopardy. Justin Verlander is gone for the season with Tommy John surgery, George Springer is gone to Toronto, and now their No. 2 starter Franber Valdez is out indefinitely with a broken finger. Even though they moved quickly to replace Valdez by signing Jake Odorizzi to a two-year deal, they’re still going to need to need Greinke to coax one more ace-like season out of his 37-year-old arm. Certainly Greinke has plenty of personal incentive — he needs 311 more strikeouts for 3,000 (and a guaranteed ticket to Cooperstown) and with two more wins he’ll vault into the top 100 list with 210. He has a chance this year to move further past Hall of Famer John Smoltz (213).
7. Randy Arozarena, Rays: After parting ways with two of their top three starters, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, it would seem the Rays will be hard-pressed to make a return trip to the World Series. But if Arozarena is able to demonstrate over 150-plus games the kind of torrid hitting he did in last year’s postseason (10 homers, 14 RBIs in 36 plate appearances), the Rays, for all their “openers” with the starting pitching, may yet be a force again. Their hitting coach, Chad Mottola, insists the kid is oblivious to pressure and he pretty much singlehandedly got them to the World Series.
8. Luis Robert, White Sox: On the south side of Chicago there is much optimism for the White Sox, having completed their five-year rebuild, to get their 85-year-old board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf to another World Series. A key element for that happening is the 23-year-old five-tool center fielder who’s had the superstar label stamped on him since the day the Sox signed him out of Cuba for a $25 million bonus in 2017. Robert debuted in the majors last year and started out making good on all that promise until suddenly hitting the wall (as in a deluge of breaking balls) in September when he struck out 32 times in 94 plate appearances and hit just one home run, as his average plummeted from .298 to .233. Time will quickly tell if Robert has been able to make the necessary adjustments, but the White Sox need him to be a force in center field if they’re to fulfill their own expectations.
9. Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres: In case you haven’t heard, the Padres and over-aggressive GM A.J. Preller are paying no heed to the Dodgers and going for it all this year. In that regard, no player will be under more scrutiny this season than Tatis, whom Preller locked up for the next 14 years for $340 million. It was a statement that the Padres already believe the 22-year-old Tatis is the best player in baseball and, fair or not, they expect him to lead them to the postseason and beyond — now.
10. Jarred Kelenic, Mariners: This is going to be a most pivotal season for the Seattle Mariners, who have not been to the playoffs in 19 years and are already off to an awful start internally after the slew of idiotic remarks by since-fired CEO Kevin Mather at a rotary club luncheon Feb 5. Most egregious (as far as the rest of MLB was concerned) of Mather’s remarks was his admission the club deliberately kept their top prospect Kelenic in the minors last year to manipulate his service time. Upon arrival in spring training, Kelenic made his displeasure with the M’s abundantly clear, and now with an obvious void in left field you wonder how GM Jerry Dipoto will be able to justify keeping Kelenic in the minors this year. Dipoto did get a break when Kelenic strained his knee this week which will sideline him indefinitely. Since becoming M’s GM in 2015 Dipoto has made well over 100 trades, so far to no avail. It would seem he, above all, needs to start winning and that starts by having your best players on the field.