Spring training games have started, and no matter how weird it is to see innings end with fewer than three outs, or games stop in the sixth or seventh inning, it’s still hard not to get excited about the upcoming regular season.
Here are five players we are very excited to watch in 2021.
Dylan Carlson, Cardinals
Sometimes, you just need to take a breath. Carlson might not have wanted a breath last summer — he was sent back to the Cardinals’ alternate site after posting just a .458 OPS with five RBIs in his first 23 big league games — but the breath was nevertheless necessary. Carlson was brought back up to the big club in early September, and in his 11 starts to the end of the shortened regular season, the switch-hitting rookie posted a .962 OPS with 11 RBIs. In three playoff games against the Padres, Carlson reached base seven times via hit or walk, stole a base and scored a pair of runs batting in the cleanup spot.
And, of course, 14 games is a super-small sample size. But after the struggles of his first 23 games, any positive sample size was welcome.
“Coming back up that second time really opened my eyes to the way the game is played up here,” Carlson said in a Zoom with St. Louis media last week.
He didn’t exceed rookie-classification maximums in 2020, which means he’s still rookie-of-the-year eligible, and Baseball America has him ranked as the No. 9 prospect in all of baseball. With that knowledge and success from the end of the 2020 season under his belt, the player who has been hyped as the club’s best prospect since Albert Pujols — that’s not daunting at all — spent the winter building his physical and mental approach to the sport. His work in the weight room was accented by books recommended by Paul Goldschmidt on the mental approach to the game. “I’m in a real good spot, ready to roll,” he said.
MORE: Seven things we’re excited to watch during spring training games
Jesus Luzardo, A’s
A mainstay in the top 15 of MLB prospect lists heading into the 2019 and 2020 seasons, the lefty has a 3.68 ERA in 71 big league innings. He’s had moments of brilliance — 6 1/3 shutout innings against the Diamondbacks in August 2020 and six shutout innings against the Giants in September (striking out seven both times) — but also less-than-stellar starts. In September outings against the Padres, Mariners and Dodgers, Luzardo gave up 16 hits and 11 runs in 12 1/3 combined innings.
This spring has started well for the 23-year-old, who is ready to meet expectations.
“I feel like that breaking ball that I had was the best I’d ever thrown,” Luzardo told reporters this week, as reported by The Athletic. “It felt really good throughout Double A, Triple A, and then when I got called up in 2019; last year it kind of got away from me. I couldn’t get a good feel for it throughout the year and now it’s back to where it was.”
Well, this could be fun. In his three minor league seasons, by the way, Luzardo had a 2.53 ERA and struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings, despite consistently being much younger than the average players in those leagues.
Jarred Kelenic, Mariners
In his first game of the 2021 spring training season, Kelenic singled, walked and scored the walk-off winning run on a single by Julio Rodriguez. Not a bad debut for a guy who was unwittingly thrust into the spring spotlight after comments by a former team executive. And that game was just a continuation of what Kelenic had already shown in camp.
This is a youngster who hasn’t even played an official big-league game yet — and only a handful above High-A ball, as Jerry DiPoto famously pointed out — but Mets fans are already ruing the day he was traded from NYC to Seattle. Kelenic was the signature piece in the package that went to the Mariners in exchange for All-Star Robinson Cano and otherworldly closer Edwin Diaz in December 2018. Well, the Mets didn’t make the playoffs in 2019 or 2020 and Cano is currently serving his second PED-related suspension, and Diaz was a disaster in 2019 before rebounding with a solid 2020 season.
Kelenic is ranked as the No. 4 prospect in baseball by Baseball America and MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus has him sixth. You can bet Mariners fans will love his “I’m going to bet on myself” attitude.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays
Feels like Vlad Jr. has been a topic of conversation as “the next big thing” so long that it’s impossible to believe he only turns 22 later this month (March 16, to be exact). No, really. That’s it. Twenty. Two. He didn’t rip through the majors at a tender age like Juan Soto, sure, but he’s still an immensely talented youngster with 24 homers already under his belt at the MLB level.
And this year is different. He’s not the lone bright and shining hope. He’s one piece in the Blue Jays puzzle, a puzzle that includes many, many talented players. The Jays brought in veterans such as George Springer and Marcus Semien, among others, to take that “franchise savior” pressure off Guerrero and his former prospect partner, Bo Bichette. This could — should — be the year the Hall of Famer’s son shows us why he could one day join his dad in Cooperstown.
Joe Musgrove, Padres
Yeah, he’s a bit different from the other players on this list. For starters, he’s 28 and he’s entering his sixth big league season, and the others are all younger and have much less experience. So why is he here? One number from his 2020 season stands out like a bright, shining beacon — 12.5 K/9. Yeah. In his first four seasons in the bigs, Musgrove’s K/9 was a solid 8.1, and that jump to 12.5 is really impressive.
So, why the increase? His fastball didn’t gain MPHs. In fact, his average four-seam velocity in 2020 was 93.08, according to Brooks Baseball, down from 94.06 in 2018. He relied much more heavily on his curveball, throwing that on 19.9 percent of all his pitches. His previous career high was 9.0 percent; he barely threw the pitch at all in 2018 (2.6 percent).