Whether it be a big debut for a rookie, an inspirational comeback or season for the history books at the plate or on the mound, or shot caller that makes all of the right moves off of it, there is a potential award winner waiting within every franchise. So, who is the most likely award winner in 2021 for each MLB team?
Even on the heels of a breakout campaign that would have made him an All-Star in any normal year, Gallen remains a dark horse candidate in the NL Cy Young picture. Yet over his first two MLB seasons, Gallen has turned in a 2.78 ERA over his first 27 starts, while holding opponents to a .210 average against and his 2.7 WAR tying for the NL lead among pitchers. The wins may be hard to come by in the desert at times, but Gallen’s performance shouldn’t often be at fault for it.
It’s really just a matter of time until this is a reality. Even on a team with the defending NL MVP, the salacious potential of Acuna continues to make him one of the frontrunners for this award for the next decade, at minimum. A 40/40 season is very much in reach for him at age 23, potentially with an extra 40 (doubles) mixed in too. But don't discount his lineup mate and defending NL MVP Freddie Freeman for being among his prime competition for this honor yet again, however.
After missing 2020 with a fight against colon cancer, Mancini’s return is already one of the most inspirational stories of the year. If he returns to the field with the same bat that saw him hit .291 with 35 homers in 2019, this would be a runaway win as well. He’s the heart and soul of the Orioles and capturing this honor would be a great story amid the franchise’s continued rebuild.
In Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, the Sox have a pair of infield bats that could put up MVP caliber numbers. However, across the diamond, their rookie first baseman could have the clearest path to taking home some hardware. Dalbec turned in impressive .959 OPS, with eight home runs over 23 games. If he reaches the 30-home run level his potential showed, the award could be his.
Although his roster features former MVP and Cy Young winners, as well as a host of Gold Glove earners and contenders, it is Ross that has the most meaningful pathway to taking home some hardware. He enters his second season at the helm in Wrigley with a franchise that is at a crossroads. After a winter of moving out more than they brought in (with potentially more to come), if Ross can pull off a return to the postseason amid it all, he could be a runaway for MOY honors.
Since 2019, Anderson’s .331 average is second-best among all AL hitters. A year after capturing his first Silver Slugger and hitting a scorching .643 in the postseason, Anderson is in place to be the driving force amid one of the AL’s top collections of talent. That said, it should be a highly decorated season on the South Side. Lance Lynn and Luis Giolito will be in the Cy Young picture, Nick Madrigal will push for Rookie of the Year and Jose Abreu will mount a defense of his 2020 AL MVP – with Luis Robert having the talent to be in the picture for it already in year two.
Few hurlers have more natural talent than Castillo, who easily baffles opponents with his high 90s fastball and mind-bending change-up. He has taken the type of steps forward in parts of the last two seasons that only maturity can create, and he looks prone to take the final big step forward entering his fifth season. He has lowered his ERA in each of the last three seasons (3.21 in 2020) while picking up his strikeout rate in the process (11.4 per nine last summer).
One of, if not the, biggest shames of 2020 was that Bieber’s masterpiece of a season didn’t get to play out in full. Because had it been allowed to, we may have seen one of the greatest years in MLB history on the mound. He won the AL Cy Young and capturing the MLB Triple Crown, with eight wins, a 1.63 ERA, and 122 strikeouts over 12 games. He became the fastest pitcher in history to reach 100 strikeouts in a season, requiring just 62.1 innings.
With Nolan Arenado moving on, the spotlight in Colorado shifts completely onto Story, who will not disappoint. He has been the most productive all-around shortstop in the game over the past few seasons, leading the star-studded position in WAR (14.2), hits (415), home runs (83), and total bases (787). With Arenado’s Colorado-wide range in the field moving on, his defensive gifts will be called on more frequently as well, having already led NL shortstops in assists in 2020.
The time is now for the Tigers’ ace of the future, as the 2018 first overall pick made new manager A.J. Hinch’s rotation out of spring training. While he got roughed up in his first taste of the Majors (a 6.99 ERA over 28.1 innings), he also flashed the type of brilliance that made him the top minor league arm in 2019. He struck out seven with no walks in his MLB debut on August 19th and in his fifth career start, he carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, with both outings against the playoff-bound White Sox.
A bout with COVID-19, followed by double knee surgery limited his sophomore season to two games. However, if Alvarez can pick up where he left off in 2019, Comeback Player of the Year could be just the tip of the iceberg of his season. The unanimous Rookie of the Year two seasons ago, despite not debuting until June, Alvarez put on the type of show at the plate that was reminiscent of a young Albert Pujols, with his .655 slugging percentage the highest ever for a first-year hitter with enough games for a batting title.
The Royals find themselves in a comfortably familiar position flying underneath the radar entering 2021. Few GMs were busier than Moore in tinkering with their roster last winter, albeit with most moves not being of the headline variety. But if the additions of Andrew Benintendi, Carlos Santana, Mike Minor, Wade Davis, and Hanser Alberto make the type of upside impact together they could, the Royals could be legitimate party crashers in the AL Central and bring Moore top executive honors for the first time.
Is there any pick that requires less explanation than this one? Entering his 10th season, Trout has won AL MVP three times and never finished outside the top five in voting, with his average placement being second place. And entering 2021, following a season where he hit 17 home runs, posted a .993 OPS, and finished fifth MVP voting, Trout spent the winter working on his swing, after deeming his 2020 a ‘disappointment’. Here is the definition of safe money, folks. Don’t overthink it.
It is no coincidence that the Dodgers broke their 30-year World Series drought on the heels of bringing Betts to town. Arguably the game’s most talented athlete and collection of skills, Betts lost nothing in translation in his switch to the National League, finishing second in MVP voting and leading the circuit with a 3.6 WAR. A second season as the lethal leadoff threat atop the stacked L.A. lineup could see him join Frank Robinson as the only player to ever become the top guy in both leagues.
Sanchez quickly proved why he was the centerpiece return from the Phillies in the J.T. Realmuto deal a few years back. He played a big part in the Marlins' incredible turnaround last season, allowing just five runs over his first six career starts, before authoring five shutout innings in their Wild Card Series-clinching game over the Cubs. His high-end, early-career arsenal gives Miami its most phenom potential since the days of Jose Fernandez.
Throw out his 2020, all of it. After being the National League’s top performer over the past two seasons, Yelich stumbled out the blocks in 2020 and never picked himself up, hitting just .205 with 12 home runs. But the simple fact is he just far too talented and still at the heart of his prime for him to stay down for much longer. Had there been more season, Yelich’s usual light would have eventually shined through. 2021 will be a resumption of where his pre-pandemic form –which averaged 40 homers, a 1.046 OPS, and 100 RBI a year – left off.
Kirilloff is just one of those naturals in the box that just hits wherever he goes. So much so that when he became the first player in the World Series era to make his MLB debut in a postseason game last fall, he got a hit that won’t count on his career total. Kiriloff has hit .317 over his three-season professional career thus far, highlighted by a .348 effort in 2018. He will insert himself into the AL Rookie of the Year race the moment he makes his ‘official’ regular-season debut.
deGrom took home Cy Young honors in back-to-back seasons in 2018 and ’19, before finishing third last summer. In his seven-year career, he has finished outside of the top 10 in voting only twice and won NL Rookie of the Year in one of those seasons. What’s most incredible is that he appears to be only getting better as well, as his velocity has moved into triple-digit range, with no drop off in any of his already confounding arsenal. Scary stuff seems ahead from the Mets undisputed ace.
Since 2018, Cole has never finished outside of the top five in Cy Young voting, posting a 2.71 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 232 strikeouts per year in the time frame. He finished fourth in the voting in his Yankee debut in 2020, finishing in the AL top three for wins (7) and strikeouts (94) while tying for the MLB lead in complete games (2) and shutouts (1). The best pitcher in the game without a Cy Young win yet could be preparing to hand off that title following this season.
2021 is shaping up to be the type of year that the A’s thrive in. They have an MVP candidate in Matt Chapman, boast one of the game’s deepest bullpens, have a plethora of young talent around the diamond and recently lost some of their best players (Marcus Simien, Liam Hendriks) for bigger money elsewhere! This is the type of environment that Bob Melvin has thrived in against the odds during his first decade in A’s dugout, so no reason to think he’ll stop now.
The Phillies’ top prospect had a dominant 2019, posting a 2.03 ERA across three minor league levels. He reached the Majors in 2020 and showed a premium four-pitch arsenal that oozed promise, even though the results didn’t follow immediately (5.92 ERA over six starts). However, considering he has never pitched at the Triple-A level and couldn’t due to the shutdown of the minor leagues, that’s little to worry about. The Phillies will need help in their rotation this summer and Howard could be an instant jolt of life when he reaches it.
No rookie will be looked towards to mean more for their team’s success in 2021 than Hayes. In his first full MLB campaign, he’ll be looked at to be the top guy for the Bucs, who spent another winter stripping away its top assets. But based on his eye-popping debut last season, where he hit .376 over 24 games, with 43% of his hits going for extra bases and winning NL Rookie of the Month in September (his only month in the Majors), the expectations are in line with Hayes’ early returns.
Preller spent the winter locked in on building on San Diego’s breakout of 2020 and narrowing the gap with their World Champion divisional rivals in Los Angeles. And it is safe to say he was very successful in doing so. He retooled the Padres’ pitching staff with former Cy Young winner Blake Snell and last year’s NL runner-up, Yu Darvish, all while not trading away a top-five prospect from his treasure of minor talent. Meanwhile, the depth additions of Joe Musgrove, Mark Melancon, and Keone Kela are the type of underrated, yet significant adds that could make the most of the pair of MVP contenders in Fernando Tatis Jr and Manny Machado.
Posey opted out of the penultimate guaranteed year of his Giants contract in 2020. He is now potentially nearing the end of his road with the franchise he has led to three World Series titles, with his $22 million salary in 2022 tied to a $3 million buyout for the Giants. It currently seems unlikely they would pick that up for a 34-year-old catcher with hip issues. However, Posey has been an All-Star as recently as 2018, so never count out what the .302 career hitter could put together to at least complicate matters this summer.
The Cardinals have been gradually clearing the path for Carlson to take over in the outfield over the past two years, via not resigning Marcell Ozuna after 2019 and trading Dexter Fowler last winter. The time is now for the five-tool, 22-year-old to ascend to the throne that has been awaiting him since he was named the organization’s Minor Leaguer of the Year in 2019. A switch-hitter who can play anywhere in the outfield, with similar flexibility throughout the lineup, his success is a vital part of the Cardinals seizing the moment amid a lackluster NL Central field.
In a crowded group of first-year talents in the American League, Kelenic could be the best of the bunch. He hit 23 home runs, stole 20 bases, and scored 80 runs across three levels in his first full pro season in 2019. He reaffirmed those expectations by hitting .300 (6-for-20) with a pair of homers in his first spring training this year. While he will open the year in the minors, something he was very vocal about as well this spring, if Kelenic lives up to expectations, he could make Seattle the first AL team to feature back-to-back Rookies of the Year since the Oakland A’s in 2004-05.
Although it will be his historic postseason showing that sets the table for big expectations this year, it should be noted that he was putting in work leading up to October last year as well. If his regular and postseason campaigns are combined, Arozarena hit .341 with 17 HR over 143 plate appearances. Add in the fact the year before he hit .344 as a minor leaguer in the Cardinals system in 2019, and there is plenty of track record to suggest that a continued star turn is ahead for the 25-year-old dynamo.
The 26-year-old righty was sent south by the White Sox in exchange for Lance Lynn over the winter and has a very clear opportunity ahead of him now. The rebuilding Rangers have one of the less talented rotations in the game and could provide plenty of opportunities for Dunning, who went 2-0 while averaging a strikeout per inning in Chicago last year. He would be a wild card to capture the honors, but the volume of work could be on his side.
After inking a six-year, $150 million pact in Toronto, Springer has transitioned from being one of the stars in Houston to be the lead guy with the Blue Jays. He is now the established star and finishing piece amid an immensely talented –but young— roster. His speed/power combo skill set fits right at home in his new surroundings and if he can return to the All-Star level that saw him hit 39 home runs in just 122 games. As always, his health (which is already an issue) will be the make-or-break part of living up to this potential.
In 2020, Soto became the youngest player to win an NL batting title, building on a prodigious start to his career that has made associating his name with those of Ted Williams and Barry Bonds not seem more like fact than hyperbole. If the next step forward looks anything close to in tune with the strides he’s already taken, how about joining Mel Ott back in 1929 as the only player 22 or younger to hit .300 with 40 home runs, while driving in 100 runs and walking 100 times in a season? That’s certainly MVP quality work and easily within reach for Soto.
Matt Whitener is St. Louis-based writer, radio host and 12-6 curveball enthusiast. He has been covering Major League Baseball since 2010, and dabbles in WWE, NBA and other odd jobs as well. Follow Matt on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.