With Opening Day right around the corner, we wanted to figure out who will be the best players of the 2021 MLB season.
To create our annual MLB Rank list of the top 100 players in the sport, we presented a panel of ESPN baseball experts with multiple pairings of the biggest names in the game and asked simply, “Which player will be better in 2021?”
The middle portion of our list — Nos. 50-26 — features seven shortstops, a pair of former Cy Young Award winners who crossed paths in the 2020 World Series, and an outfielder whose blockbuster free-agent signing was among this offseason’s most significant moves. Alongside each player below, you’ll find a relevant stat or storyline to put his position on the list into context.
On Monday, we revealed Nos. 100-51, featuring rising stars like reigning National League Rookie of the Year Devin Williams of the Milwaukee Brewers and a trio of young hitters in Chicago — Luis Robert, Yoan Moncada and Eloy Jimenez — who help make the White Sox one of the American League’s most exciting teams.
On Wednesday, we’ll conclude our three-part series with a top 25 countdown.
More: Nos. 100-51 | Who’s next? (ESPN+) | 2020 rankings
2020 rank: 94
Why he’s here: Ryu continued his rise into the conversation of the best starters in the major leagues during his first season with the Blue Jays. He posted a 2.69 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 12 starts in 2020 and helped to justify the hefty four-year, $80 million deal Toronto handed the 33-year-old lefty after a breakout 2019 campaign in L.A.. Much of Toronto’s hope of leaping to contender status in the AL this season lies upon the shoulders of Ryu. — Joon Lee
2020 rank: 32
Why he’s here: Torres had an underwhelming 2020, particularly in terms of defense and his physical conditioning. The 24-year-old, who looks to reclaim his spot among the most talked about young talent in baseball, played only 42 games last year due to a strained left quadriceps and left hamstring, hitting three homers with 16 RBIs, and committing nine errors. — Marly Rivera
2020 rank: 20
Why he’s here: After bashing an all-time rookie record 53 home runs in 2019 and becoming an instant fan favorite, the “Polar Bear” wasn’t quite as prodigious in 2020 with 16 in 57 games as he started slowly (before heating up with 10 home runs in September). With a better start in 2021, look for him to chase 50 again. — David Schoenfield
2020 rank: 27
Why he’s here: The Red Sox expect Devers to be one of the team’s offensive linchpins as the third baseman enters his fifth season in the majors. Devers struggled in his first 15 games of 2020, hitting .175, but looked more to form over the last 41, hitting .291. If Boston hopes to make the playoffs, it will need the 24-year-old to look more like he did in 2019, when he hit .311/.361/.555 with 32 homers and 115 RBIs.– Lee
2020 rank: 55
Why he’s here: Few pitchers have the raw arsenal that Castillo features. He gets so much attention for his changeup, which is one of the game’s bet, that you sometimes forget that last season, Castillo also averaged over 97 mph on his four-seamer. He also commands those tools. Last season, only five qualifiers yielded a lower rate of barrels than Castillo and only three gave up a lower average launch angle. — Bradford Doolittle
2020 rank: 64
Why he’s here: Maybe he’s no longer the MVP candidate he was with the Diamondbacks (two seconds and a third), but he’s still one of the best all-around first basemen and hit .304/.417/.466 in 2020. He had a career-low strikeout rate, perhaps sacrificing some power for a higher batting average. — Schoenfield
2020 rank: 21
Why he’s here: It could be a pressure-filled season for Baez if he doesn’t sign a long-term contract with the team this spring. He’ll be a free agent after this season and should rebound from a horrendous 2020 showing. His inability to take walks puts the onus on him to slug. One positive is his defense almost never suffers when he slumps at the plate. — Jesse Rogers
AP Photo/Tony Dejak
2020 rank: Not ranked Why he’s here: Abreu has become the heart and soul of the emerging White Sox, a status he has reached with his personality every bit as much as his performance. And the latter is nothing to sneeze at. Last season, Abreu won his second straight RBI crown en route to winning the AL MVP award. He’s entering his age-34 season and Chicago has young corner prospects like Andrew Vaughn and Jake Burger waiting in the wings. Yet if the mark of an aging masher is slowing bat speed, Abreu’s 2020 season suggested that is going to age gracefully. — Doolittle
2020 rank: 28
Why he’s here: Once ranked the top prospect in all of baseball, Bogaerts has lived up to the massive hype that preceded him by becoming one of the best offensive shortstops in baseball and anchoring the Boston lineup in 2020 with a 300/.364/.502 line including 11 homers in 56 games. At 28 years old, Bogaerts finds himself a leader in the Red Sox clubhouse as one of the last centerpieces remaining from the 2018 World Series champion squad. — Lee
41. Bo Bichette, SS, Toronto Blue Jays
2020 rank: 95
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Why he’s here: Seventy-five games into his major league career, Bichette, who just turned 23 this month, has already compiled 44 extra-base hits — just 10 fewer than the record for a player’s first 75 games, set by Joe DiMaggio. He was OPS’ing 1.063 through his first 14 games before sustaining a knee injury last year, then struggled upon returning with the COVID-19-shortened season winding down. A full season of full health could be a lot of fun for Blue Jays fans. — Gonzalez
2020 rank: Not ranked
Why he’s here: The Braves love him so much at the plate, they don’t mind sending him out to left field — at least until the DH returns to the NL. He thrived in 2020 and is likely to do so again simply because he’s one of those professional hitters whose slumps don’t last very long. Plus, the Braves’ lineup is dynamic, meaning he doesn’t have to carry the team at the plate. A big contract received this past winter will allow Ozuna to relax and do what he does best: rake. — Rogers
2020 rank: 66
Why he’s here: We’ve seen glimpses of dominance from the 6-foot-8 right-hander with the upper 90s fastball and wipeout curveball. He had a 1.78 ERA in 12 starts in 2019 and fanned 91 batters in 57⅓ innings in 2020, but hasn’t put it together over a full season and wasn’t great in the 2020 postseason despite the Rays’ World Series run (6.28 ERA). This ranking predicts it all comes together. — Schoenfield
38. Jack Flaherty, SP, St. Louis Cardinals
2020 rank: 22
Why he’s here: Flaherty looked like a statistical doppleganger for peak-level Bob Gibson for much of the 2019 season. So when he morphed into a replacement-level hurler in 2020, it was a bit of a jolt. But the metrics on his stuff looked largely the same from his breakout season, even if the results on it did not. Flaherty still battles his command more than you’d expect from an ace. Still, we’ve seen how good Flaherty is at his best, which is as good as anyone. The Cardinals need that guy to return badly in 2021 in a rotation that otherwise looks more professional than dynamic. — Doolittle
2020 rank: 80
Why he’s here: The only question regarding Darvish in 2021 is the change of scenery as he was traded from the Cubs to the Padres in the offseason. This came just after Darvish had finally achieved a comfort level in Chicago because he was allowed to pitch how he wanted: Backward and slow.
From fantasy to gambling to soothsaying, Passan dons many hats to identify breakout players and teams that will win big in the year ahead.
Jeff Passan’s 2021 predictions
His cutter was a difference-maker in his Cy Young-runner-up 2020 and there’s no reason he won’t go to it again. His last 18 months is the best the baseball world has seen of Darvish in his career. — Rogers
36. Blake Snell, SP, San Diego Padres
2020 rank: 26
Why he’s here: We don’t know if Snell, 28, will ever recapture his 2018 Cy Young form. But what he is regardless — a pitcher who has averaged 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.53 FIP from 2017 to 2020 — is plenty good enough. Opposing hitters barreled 9.8% of Snell’s pitches last season, according to FanGraphs, easily a career high. But we might be able to chalk that up to the randomness of small samples.
Snell still produced a 3.24 ERA in 50 regular-season innings and was cruising against the mighty Dodgers in Game 6 of the World Series before that infamous quick hook. With the Padres, he hopes for the opportunity to consistently pitch deeper into games. — Gonzalez
2020 rank: 46
Why he’s here: Still just 24, Albies was an All-Star in 2018 and the NL hits leader in 2019. His 10.4 WAR since 2018 ranks third among second basemen, even though he missed time in 2020 with a wrist injury. The switch-hitter was improved from the left side in 2020, a sign that he might raise his game to an even higher level. — Schoenfield
2020 rank: 49
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Why he’s here: The 2021 season is a crucial one for Correa, whose status as one of baseball’s super-class of elite shortstops remains intact. Still, as Correa heads into a walk year, his career to date looks like one in which a superstar talent has left some untapped potential on the table. Correa’s performance in the weird 2020 season was his worst yet as his OPS+ dipped to just 92.
Over his career, Correa has lost a lot of time to injuries during his slow buildup to free agency. In fact, Correa’s age-21 season in 2016 is the only one in which he has posted a full season’s worth of plate appearances. Few players have more on the line during the coming season than Correa. — Doolittle
33. Tim Anderson, SS, Chicago White Sox
2020 rank: Not ranked
Why he’s here: So dynamic, so charismatic and a throwback at the plate with his high batting average and low walk totals, Anderson is the engine that drives the White Sox by setting up RBI chances for one of the most dangerous middle of the orders in the game. Expect Anderson to vie for another batting title after he hit .322 in 2020 and led the AL with a .335 mark in 2019. — Rogers
2020 rank: 48
Why he’s here: Kershaw was still highly productive despite dwindling fastball velocity, posting a 2.89 ERA and a 4.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 339⅔ innings from 2018 to 2019. Last year, his drawn-out quest to tap back into some lost velocity finally paid off. He averaged 92 mph on his fastball, more than enough to be dominant again. In 89 innings in 2020, including the postseason, Kershaw boasted a 2.43 ERA with 99 strikeouts and 13 walks. He capped it with a long-elusive World Series championship. The rest is all gravy now. — Gonzalez
31. Lucas Giolito, SP, Chicago White Sox
2020 rank: 71
Why he’s here: While Giolito started off his career on a rocky note, looking like one of the game’s worst starting pitchers in 2018 when he posted a 6.13 ERA, he now belongs among baseball’s best after two straight strong seasons atop the White Sox’s rotation. Giolito, 26, He posted a 3.48 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 12 starts in 2020, including a dominant no-hitter against the Pittsburgh PIrates. — Lee
2020 rank: 16
Why he’s here: The 2019 World Series MVP made just two starts in 2020 after undergoing carpal tunnel surgery, but he’s confident the injury (which created numbness in his pitching hand) is behind him. He had one of his best seasons in 2019, leading the NL with 18 wins and 209 innings and finishing fifth in the Cy Young voting. — Schoenfield
2020 rank: 18
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Why he’s here: Chapman languished through most of the shortened season, then underwent season-ending hip surgery in September. Before that, he was on a track to becoming one of the game’s most productive players on both sides of the field. From 2018 to 2019, in his first two full seasons in the big leagues, Chapman posted an .855 OPS and accumulated 29 outs above average, second only to Nolan Arenado among third basemen. — Gonzalez
2020 rank: 37
Why he’s here: Springer will benefit from the hitters around him in a potent Toronto lineup, but he’ll have some pressure to perform after inking a $150 million deal this offseason. He’s not likely to be an MVP candidate, but a consistent performer at the plate who plays strong defense is almost a guarantee assuming he stays healthy. — Rogers
2020 rank: 23
Why he’s here: After an eventful spin around the free-agent bazaar this winter, Realmuto ended up where he started, inking a five-year, $115.5 million deal to remain with the Phillies. The contract reflects Realmuto’s status as the game’s best catcher, the scarcity of full-time backstops in today’s game and the full array of his skills. Realmuto might not be the game’s best catcher in any particular category, but no one else blends such an array of high-level abilities at the position. Realmuto is athletic enough and hits well enough to periodically slide over to first base or DH, as he will surely do more and more as the years wear on and his ability to catch every day starts to wane. — Doolittle
26. Trea Turner, SS, Washington Nationals
2020 rank: 60
Why he’s here: If he plays like he did in the shortened 2020 season, Turner will belong a lot higher than No. 26 on this list. He hit .335/.394/.588 and bashed 12 home runs in 59 games (his career high is 19). As one of the fastest players in the game, Turner has a chance to go 25-25 (home runs and steals) in 2021 and is on the short list of most exciting players in the game. — Schoenfield