MLB On The Record: Meet baseball's 2021 breakout players, according to their GMs

Baseball executives love all their players equally. That’s what they’ll say, anyway. It’s a defensive position, and not without merit. As bosses, presidents of baseball operations and general managers balk at being asked to single out an employee — both because of how it might seem to the others, and the pressure it might put on the chosen one.

Of course, if you give a guy some hardware, it becomes easier to rave about his specific contributions to the club. But when it comes to unheralded talent, the stakes are that much higher. Forecasting a breakout performance is a little more fraught.

Which is why they waffled when, over the past month, I asked two dozen top-ranking executives to name their team’s most underrated player, someone poised to become a household name in the upcoming season.

“It’s like picking among your kids,” deflected James Click, the Astros GM.

“Who can I actually say that about and they won’t be freaked out or annoyed by it?” mused Mets acting general manager Zack Scott.

“I can’t say Shane Bieber?” asked Cleveland president of baseball ops Chris Antonetti about the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner — rhetorically, I think.

Of course, that’s also kind of the whole gig. More than ever, building a better baseball team hinges on an ability to identify unproven — and undervalued — talent. To find the next big thing ahead of the hype; to coax out a level of production beyond conservative predictions.

The exercise is supposed to be fun. Projections based on past performance dominate most preseason coverage. But, best-case scenario, every baseball season is an opportunity to become obsessed with someone you haven’t even heard of yet. And fortunately I did get enough straight answers to give you some options for your next favorite player.

Logan Webb, San Francisco Giants pitcher

Farhan Zaidi, Giants GM: “There's an easy answer right now which is Logan Webb. He's just had a great camp, and you know, with Alex Wood having a little bit of a back issue, although we don't think it's anything serious, he's got a chance to be in the rotation start the season, and again we talked about earlier the importance of creating some long-term solutions for our staff and the way he’s throwing I think he has a chance to really take a big step forward the season.”

Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins, Baltimore Orioles outfielders

Mike Elias, Orioles GM: “I think this year, our two center fielders, Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins, are guys that have had some buzz at one point or another in their careers — both in the minors and in the big leagues. [They] were brought to the big leagues very, very quickly, had some uneven performances the last couple of years, but are both looking great this spring — really healthy, very talented guys.

“I can't tell you one over the other, but they're both guys that we're really excited about. And they both play legit center field and can move around the outfield, so there’s room for both of them. But I think those are our picks to click this year.”

HOUSTON, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 17: Isiah Kiner-Falefa #9 of the Texas Rangers throws out Alex Bregman #2 of the Houston Astros on a soft ground ball to end the third inning at Minute Maid Park on September 17, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Nick Solak, Texas Rangers middle infielders

Chris Young, Rangers GM: “Isiah Kiner-Falefa at shortstop and Nick Solak at second base. Those two kind of represent exactly what we're hoping to achieve. They're both really good players, high makeup guys, just fighters. They aren't afraid of competition, they embrace it, they rise to the challenge. And they kind of embody the culture that we want to create. And I think having those two guys in the middle of the infield, everybody's gonna feed off that.

Going from catcher to the infield, playing third base in the big leagues, [Kiner-Falefa] won a Gold Glove last year at third base, shows you what type of competitor this guy is. He is just the ultimate team guy, not afraid of any challenge and believes in himself and believes in his teammates and makes players around him better … Players look up to him. Players respect him. They know who he is, what he represents. And he has the respect of everybody in the clubhouse.”

Enoli Paredes, Houston Astros relief pitcher

James Click: Astros GM: “It's hard not to smile every time Enoli Paredes is out there on the mound — the kid just has such joy and competitiveness and fire. He did a promotion, when he was in A ball, for a local cannoli place and they have these T-shirts for ‘Enoli’s Cannolis’ and, I mean, his joy is just infectious. And it helps that he has big-league stuff, so he's a lot of fun to watch.”

David Bote, Chicago Cubs utility player

Jed Hoyer, Cubs president of baseball operations: “The guy that people don’t talk about is David Bote, cause he’s been stuck behind [Kris] Bryant. He hits the ball really hard. He plays good defense at third and at second. And, you know, he's a guy that I can easily see, with the right opportunity — which he can earn that, or it could come through injury or whatever — but I do think with the right opportunity, he could totally have a really big year. I wouldn’t be surprised at all. He has all the tools to do that.”

Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher

Ben Cherington, Pirates GM: “On the pitching side, I think Mitch Keller. He’s sort of the quintessential young, talented starting pitcher who’s still trying to figure out how to be a consistent starting pitcher at the major-league level. He’s at a phase that a lot of guys go through where [his] stuff probably was enough to get success in the minor leagues — his stuff is that good — and now he’s facing better hitters and he’s making adjustments to counter that and be a guy that can go out there every five, six days and have success. But just seeing his work and what he’s trying to do to take a step forward is exciting and I certainly hope that he’s a guy that will be a big part of what we’re doing.”

NORTH PORT, FL- MARCH 19: Byron Buxton #25 of the Minnesota Twins runs during a spring training game against the Atlanta Braves on March 19, 2021 at CoolToday Park in North Port, Florida. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
Does Byron Buxton have a new MVP-caliber level to reach if he stays healthy? Twins GM Thad Levine thinks so. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)

Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins center fielder (yes, still a breakout candidate)

Thad Levine, Twins GM: “If Byron Buxton stays healthy all year, I think it's very reasonable to think he's a very strong MVP candidate. He's already availed himself as a Platinum Glove winner, which is a pretty significant award as the best defensive player in this league. Usually that's reserved for infielders because they just have so many more opportunities to impact games than outfielders. So defensively he's without question one of the most dynamic players in the major leagues. He also happens to be a pretty dynamic offensive player. His health has curtailed his overall offensive contribution. If he can marry up health with continued development in his performance, I think we will look back and say, well prior to 2021, he was just scratching the surface of what he could accomplish.”

Ty France, Seattle Mariners infielder

Jerry Dipoto, Mariners GM: “The most underrated, for me, is probably Ty France, who we picked up from San Diego last year. He's sneaky good already and he’s gonna play his 26-year-old season, had a really good year offensively last year. He has not had an opportunity to play regularly defensively because he's played behind Manny Machado and now Kyle Seager, but he can really hit. And my guess is that by the end of this year, somebody's gonna look back like, ‘Wow, wasn't an accident that Ty France raked in 60 games, he can really hit.’ And I suspect that he's going to be a guy that really jumps up and screams for notice.”

Garrett Crochet, Chicago White Sox relief pitcher

Rick Hahn, White Sox GM: “We all got a little taste last year of what Garrett Crochet can do. I know, it was a limited number of innings — both in college and in Chicago — so we're gonna have to be smart about how we manage his usage this year. But I think that over the course of the summer months, he's going to become more widely known and everyone's gonna see what Mike Shirley — our scouting director who was pounding the table for Garrett last summer, despite only four innings of work under his belt — people are gonna see why Mike thought this guy was so special."

Logan Allen, Cleveland pitcher

Chris Antonetti, Cleveland president of baseball operations: “I'll maybe just highlight one pitcher and one position player that have each made a lot of progress over time. Logan Allen, starting pitcher for us, left-handed pitcher, has spent a lot of time investing in his body, his development, his delivery, his pitch mix, and has really turned the corner over the course of the last three to four months and we feel he's ready to make a big impact at the major-league level.”

… and Andrés Giménez, Cleveland shortstop

Antonetti: “Andrés Giménez was a prominent player in a really big trade, but he's made a really great impression, not only with his abilities on the field but just the way he understands the game, putting himself in the right positions defensively, the type of teammate that he is.”

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