Whether it be a turning point in a once-promising career, a return from injury, or the last chance to cash in on a first impression, there is no shortage of make-or-break moments heading into the 2021 MLB season. As baseball returns back to its full slate schedule, which players will make the most of the moments ahead of them? And what teams have the most riding on their respective performances?
For the most part, the Altuve lucked up a year ago, as the conditions kept the wrath of freshly angered fans away from the post-sign stealing scandal Astros. However, it didn’t stop him from having a by far career-worst effort, hitting just .219, nearly 100 points beneath his career average. The former MVP better find a way to turn back the clock this summer, especially with the return of fans to the stands to witness affairs this year.
When Archer was last a Ray in 2018, he was considered among the game’s most promising arms. However, after a disastrous 2.5 years in Pittsburgh, where he went just 6-12 over 33 starts, saw his ERA balloon by over a run, and missed all of 2020 with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, he saw his option not be picked up. He now returns to where his career started what is potentially a chance to save his career and turn back the clock.
As recently as 2018, the former top prospect Bader looked ready to take a star turn at the heart of the St. Louis outfield. And while he has remained exciting with the glove, it’s hard to put his exceptional speed to good use if it is most often seen heading back to the dugout instead of around the bases. Since 2019, he has accounted for just a .210/.319/.384 split and now finds himself entering what could be his last year with an outright slot in the St. Louis outfield. However, his 2021 start will be delayed into at least May after spring training forearm injury.
Few players suffered more from the changes to leveraging video in-game than Baez, who saw his productivity at the plate tailspin in 2020. The free-swinging shortstop hit just .203 and managed just seven walks while seeing his strikeout rate hit a career-worst 31%. Entering his final season before free agency, he’s going to need to revert back to his All-Star form of 2018-19 to fully cash in on the opportunity.
JBJ held the undesirable mantle of being the longest-lasting top free agent of the winter. While his defense will never be in question, his consistencies at the plate (one year of a plus .800 OPS since 2017) likely called for some pause for teams to go too long on a deal for him. His two-year, $24 million pact with Milwaukee gives him an opt-out after 2021, with another strong season likely giving him one last chance at that lucrative, 3+ year deal he’s seeking.
As we have seen countless times throughout the history of the game, Brinson is at that point where the tools need to covert into production on the field. 2020 was a step in the right direction, comparatively, as his .636 OPS was nearly 100 points higher than his previous career-best. However, for a player that was the centerpiece return in the Christian Yelich trade, the returns obviously need to be much higher.
Bryant enters 2021 at arguably more of a crossroads than any other notable player in the game. At 29, he has not yet become the year-in, year-out dominant player he was anticipated to be. In 2020, he hit just .206, and over the last three seasons, his .846 OPS is ninth among all third basemen with 250 games played. That is a cut below where expectations have been established by the MVP start to his career. Entering the final year of his contract and after a winter of trade rumors shadowing him, Bryant needs to reaffirm his place among the top guys in performance, not just name.
Despite a checkered health history, Correa has decided to bet on himself in 2021. The 26-year-old reportedly walked away from a six-year, $120 million extension over the winter, choosing to play out his final season in hopes of becoming an even bigger deal following the season. With some of the eye-popping deals, young talents are getting right now, it’s not a bad plan. However, it could one that falls through if he can’t manage to keep his substantial talents on the field more than the 70% he has suited up on regular-season average in his career.
Royals GM Dayton Moore decided to dial back the clock once in 2020, bringing back his former All-Star closer from KC’s championship days in Greg Holland. It was a low-cost bet that paid out well, with Holland posting a 1.91 ERA and the lowest walk rate of his career. Now the club is doubling down on its retro gambles, bringing back Holland’s former All-Star setup man Davis. This may be more of a project, however, as Davis’ 6.49 ERA since 2018 ranks the worst in all of baseball by relievers with 100 innings pitched over the span. But can Moore’s throwback magic work twice?
Gausman decided to take the Giants up on their offer, by grabbing the qualifying offer and returning as the club’s de facto ace in 2021. If he can repeat his solid 2020 showing (3.62 ERA, 11.9 strikeouts per nine), he could be one of the most sought-after trade chips in the league by contenders. It would also position the 30-year-old to go after an even bigger payday this winter, after an up-and-down start to his once highly promising career.
Following a domestic violence suspension in 2019, a brief retirement claim, and then being put on administrative leave by the MLB in 2020, it's been a rocky road for German, albeit one he brought completely on himself. He can take a big step in rectifying his past and resurrecting his career if he performs as he did in 2019, when he went 18-4, with 153 strikeouts over 143 innings. It could also be a make-or-break year as well, as his list of suitors could be short otherwise if the benefits don’t outweigh the PR baggage he brings.
Okay, let's just be clear: this isn’t the end-all, be-all season for Vlad Jr. After all, he’s only 22-years-old and has been productive for his age in the Majors. However, in the era of the super-phenom, with Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr, Robert Acuna, and Luis Robert, among others, tearing the league up at earlier ages than ever seen before, the expectations are high for Guerrero, who was the most heralded prospect of the entire group. He worked hard on his fitness over the winter and has put on a show throughout spring training. Being attached to high expectations is nothing new for him, but some substantial real-time results will be expected this summer.
It’s not that the Stanton and Judge combo has been bad for the Yankees, it just that it has been on display together anywhere near enough. Headed into the abbreviated 2020 season, they had only appeared in 36% of their possible games together on a Yankee lineup card. However, when the two hulking sluggers are together, the results are frightening and undeniable. With big money time nearing for Judge and the already sky-high cost of doing business with Stanton, it's time for these twin towers to put their show on display simultaneously with some real regularity.
Just a few years ago, it would have seemed a ridiculous question to wonder if Kimbrel would be a shoo-in for closer on any roster. However, Kimbrel’s tenure in Chicago has been disastrous thus far, as he has worked to a 6.00 ERA and converted under 80% of his save opportunities. It is a huge fall off for a guy who owned the highest save percentage in MLB history prior to 2018, at 90.7%. At 33, it could be the decisive season for his future as a closer in 2021.
Once tabbed as the Cardinals' arm of the future, entering the final guaranteed season of his contract, Martinez has fallen towards the back end of his own rotation. He hasn’t started more than 20 games since 2017 and posted a -1.2 WAR via an 0-3 record and 9.90 ERA in 2020. With a rash of injuries and young, unproven arms around him, a retro performance from Martinez would go a long way in shoring up the Cardinals and his future in 2021.
Entering 2020, Moncada seemed primed for the type of full-fledged breakout that had been eagerly anticipated for the former No. 1 overall prospect. In 2019, he posted a .915 OPS, with 25 home runs and 34 doubles, making good on his dazzling array skill set. However, in 2020 he saw his OPS fall off a cliff, dropping over 200 points, with his already sketchy defense falling suit. Following the loss of Eloy Jimenez for the year, the Sox need Moncada to live up to his full potential and stay there, finally.
The clock may begin ticking soon on how long the Angels play the balancing act game with the Ohtani’s unique, elite-level dual-threat talents. Ohtani will return to the mound in 2021 after rebounding from Tommy John surgery in 2020, but that is always an unpredictable situation. Likewise, he hit only .190 in 2020 with seven home runs in 2020 while continuing to contribute at the plate while working his way back to the mound. There may come a decisive day soon where the Angels decide it is better to go all-in with the 26-year-old and maximize their return.
Although he worked only four innings before being succumbing to an elbow injury in 2020, young hurlers with Osuna’s resume don’t usually sit on the open market for long as he has, hurt or not. However, the combination of Tommy John surgery and the cloud of his domestic abuse suspension from 2019 override his accomplishments on the mound. Osuna will need to make the most of his next opportunity – whenever and wherever it comes.
After a two-year stop in the Bronx, Paxton returns to Seattle for the 2021 season on a one-year, prove-it deal. After winning a career-best 15 games in 2019, he struggled to a 6.64 ERA in 2020, a season interrupted by surgery to remove a cyst in the spring. But if the former Seattle ace can reclaim his form, he could open himself up to the type of big-money contract he seemed destined to claim just a few years ago.
Pederson finally has a chance to show he’s more than just a slugger that has to be hidden against southpaws. He has never hit over .249 in his career but keeps his OPS at a respectable .806 for his career, due to 26% of his career hits going over the fence. His new home in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field should suit his skill set well – especially if he makes the most of his newfound chance to hit against lefties, against who he only owns a .191 career average.
The future Hall of Famer returns to the only franchise he has ever known at a crossroads. At age 33, he is returning to the field after opting-out of the 2020 campaign, but also coming back in the final guaranteed year of the $167 million extension he signed in 2013. Even with a strong comeback season, the presence of both time and top prospect Joey Bart are pushing on the Giants’ legend’s back. Can he pull together a vintage campaign to make the decision a harder one than it seems?
Just a few years ago, Ray was one of the most sought-after southpaws in the game. Between 2016-2019, only Chris Sale had more Ks among left-handed starters than Ray’s 836. But over the past two years, his sketchy control equaled an inability to keep runs off the board, with his ERA ballooning to 6.62 between Arizona and Toronto last year. It resulted in Ray having to sign a one-year deal worth $1.4 million less than he made a year ago. Can he turn back the clock to prove he’s still worth frontline dollars in 2021?
At this point, Sanchez has more than proven that he should not be behind the plate for a Major League team. He has led the AL in catching errors and passed balls in three of the last four seasons and few teams show much hesitancy on run against him either. The thunder in his bat used to somewhat offset his defensive losses, however, after turning in south of .200 and OPS, south of .700 for the second time in three seasons, even that isn’t there to balance things out anymore. Sanchez is rapidly approaching lost cause status in the Bronx.
Schwarber continues to be a man out of place in the DH-less National League. And while that may not be an issue for much longer beyond 2021, he still needs to prove that even his bat up to standards for everyday considerations. He hit just .188 last year, prompting the Cubs to cut ties ahead of his age 28 season. The Nationals picked him up on an upside one-year deal, hoping he rediscovers the power stroke that saw him hit 38 homers in 2019. But with his defensive limitations, the trial may not last long if his bat doesn’t carry his weight.
Despite the generational returns from Mike Trout, the Angels' failure to approach the postseason has come due to an underwhelming, well, everything else. The ghost of Albert Pujols aside, no player on the Halos have earned more during the Trout era than Upton, who has taken home over $100 million since joining the club in 2017. Yet over that span, Upton has hit just .239 and failed to become the necessary supporting bat to uplift the Angels. With the presence of Anthony Rendon and Shohei Ohtani now, the weight he has to carry is even lower, so the time is now or never for Upton to play his part in the band.
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.