MLB

30 players with something to prove late in 2021

It may be the dog days of summer, and the frenzy of the Trade Deadline has come and gone. But there is still plenty for MLB’s 30 front offices to do. Whether it’s beginning to sketch out a club’s postseason roster or evaluating the pieces that will be part of an out-of-contention club’s 2022 roster, there are tough decisions to be made.

On the flip side, there are plenty of players that, whether it be a slow start, an injury-hampered season, a looming foray into free agency or lingering questions about their upcoming postseason contributions, have big motivations for the stretch run. Here is one player for each club, selected by MLB.com’s writers, that have something to prove in the season’s last two months.

Blue Jays: RP Brad Hand
Hand was brought in to boost the back end of the Blue Jays’ bullpen alongside Jordan Romano, and the longtime closer will pitch in some major moments down the stretch. The stakes are high for both Hand and the Blue Jays, but he’s coming off some rough outings from July and early August. If Hand gets back to who he’s always been, he’ll be locking down wins in a playoff race and setting himself up as one of the top relief arms on the open market once again, which the Blue Jays will only benefit from.

Orioles: RF Anthony Santander
Several Orioles have something to prove down the stretch, and the stakes are clear: whether they will be part of the team’s long-term plans or not. Santander stands out in that group because of how recently he looked like a building block, after breaking out during the shortened 2020 season. Santander hit 11 homers with an .890 OPS (137 OPS+) in 37 games last season, numbers that pale in comparison from his 2021 production. Slowed by a lingering ankle issue most of the year, Santander entered the weekend with six homers and an 83 OPS+ in 67 games (he also spent a month on the IL due to the ankle injury). The switch-hitter, arbitration eligible for the second time this winter, has long profiled as a trade chip — when he’s producing. He needs to prove first that he is healthy, and second that he is the impact bat he looked like a year ago.

Red Sox: LHP Chris Sale
It’s been a long time coming, but Sale is making his way back to a Major League mound about a year and a half after he underwent Tommy John surgery. The left-hander will make his 2021 debut on Saturday against the Orioles, and the timing couldn’t be better. Boston’s starting pitching has fallen flat recently, and the club lost seven of eight between July 29 and Aug. 6 as a result. But Sale’s numbers in five rehab starts suggest he may be exactly what the Red Sox need to right the ship and reach October. Sale dazzled with a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings across three Minor League levels. He allowed three earned runs on 17 hits and five walks while striking out 35 batters. Sale’s innings and pitch-count limit are still to be determined, but his presence on the mound should make an impact for the Sox moving forward.

Yankees: DH Giancarlo Stanton
While Stanton has not consistently shown his former MVP form since being dealt from the Marlins to the Yankees, he’s still capable of being a difference maker. Stanton has been healthy for the most part this season, but he gets more publicity for his prolonged slumps than for his monster home runs. It doesn’t help that he strikes out too much; entering Monday’s action, Stanton has struck out 106 times in 329 at-bats. If the Yankees want to make the playoffs, Stanton needs to help Aaron Judge carry the team for the final two months of the season.

Rays: SP Shane McClanahan and SP Luis Patiño
Both young starters worked out of the bullpen last October, McClanahan for the Rays and Patiño for the Padres, gaining valuable (albeit lower-leverage) experience on the game’s biggest stage. But if the Rays make it back to the postseason this year, as expected, they’ll be asked to take on much bigger roles. One reason the Rays didn’t sell the farm for a starter at the Trade Deadline was their belief in McClanahan, the 24-year-old lefty with pure power stuff, and Patiño, the 21-year-old righty who has displayed his electric arsenal at times this season.

Tyler Glasnow won’t be back this year or, likely, next season. There is no other clearly established veteran ace on Tampa Bay’s staff. So while there’s no doubt McClanahan and Patiño will play important parts for the Rays in the future, are they ready for the spotlight come October? The Rays are betting on talent over experience. They’ll learn over the next two months if they were right to do so.

Cleveland: INF Andrés Giménez
Any of the Indians’ middle infielders could be listed here. The club needs to learn who will be the permanent duo up the middle in the future and now is the time for Cleveland to start to figure that out.

Giménez got called up to the big league club on Saturday and will spend the majority of the time at second base, while filling in for Amed Rosario at shortstop from time to time. Giménez had a hot spring and seemed to be a lock to be the everyday shortstop moving forward. However, after a rocky start to the year led to his demotion to Triple-A, the Indians need to determine if he’s still on that path. The 22-year-old will need to take advantage of every opportunity he’s given to solidify his spot and beat out the plethora of middle infielders fighting to be on the 40-man roster. And if Giménez heats up the way he did in Arizona, it will be up to Rosario to continue to prove he deserves to keep his job at either middle-infield spot.

Royals: INF/OF Hunter Dozier
After signing a four-year contract extension in the spring, Dozier began 2021 mired in the worst slump of his career. The 29-year-old hit just .174 with eight home runs and 26 RBIs — a far different line than his career year in 2019, when he hit 26 homers and posted an .870 OPS. Dozier admitted recently that the right thumb injury he suffered in the first game of the season affected his swing more than he intended it to, and he took responsibility for not giving it the time it needed to heal. He’s only recently felt like himself at the plate, and while he’s still hitting right around .200 for the season, he’s taken better swings and worked better plate appearances.

The reason the Royals extended Dozier is because they view him as a key piece, both offensively and defensively, to their future, so he’ll be out to prove that value in the final two months of the regular season.

Tigers: 2B Willi Castro
A season that began with Castro as the Tigers’ everyday shortstop heads into the home stretch with Castro’s long-term fit in question. His defense has been an issue at short and second base, and a 300-point drop in his OPS means he isn’t hitting enough to nullify his struggles in the field. With Jonathan Schoop now under contract beyond this season, the Tigers need to figure out if Castro can grow into second base or fits better as a super-utility player.

Twins: OF/DH Brent Rooker
The answer here could also have been “three-fifths of the starting rotation,” highlighting the more consistent opportunity that could lie ahead for rookies Bailey Ober, Griffin Jax and Charlie Barnes, but there’s also an important chance here for Rooker, the former No. 35 overall pick whose defensive limitations could leave him in a difficult place moving forward.

His bat should be able to play at this level — but can it play well enough for him to force himself into the Twins’ future plans, considering he’s limited either to designated hitter or corner outfield? The Twins have indicated that they don’t even consider Rooker to be an option at first base, and considering that Rooker is already 26 and part of a swarm of corner-outfield options on the roster, his bat will need to start producing in the big leagues — and quickly — now that Nelson Cruz is gone.

White Sox: LF/DH Eloy Jiménez
Jiménez doesn’t have anything to prove as far as his offensive ability. When healthy, Jiménez has the potential to be a 40-home run/100-RBI producer as well as a .300 hitter. But Jiménez was a defensive work in progress in left field prior to having surgery to repair a ruptured left pectoral tendon suffered at the end of Spring Training.

He has looked good in left during the handful of games played there since his return, but for a player who has spoken strongly against becoming a full-time or even part-time designated hitter, Jiménez needs to stay healthy and show he belongs in left field for a team with World Series championship aspirations.

Angels: RF Jo Adell
Adell made his highly anticipated debut last season, but the former top prospect struggled in his first taste of the Majors as he was overwhelmed both offensively and defensively. Adell was sent to Triple-A Salt Lake for seasoning this season and saw much better results, as he showed off his immense power at the plate while displaying improved defense. He smacked 23 homers in 79 games at Triple-A and was called up by the Angels on Aug. 2. He’s expected to get regular playing time down the stretch and is out to prove that his rookie struggles aren’t indicative of his true talent.

The Angels would love to count on Adell and fellow top prospect Brandon Marsh in the outfield next year, but now he has to show that he’s made the necessary improvements since last year.

Astros: RHP Jake Odorizzi
Signed to a two-year contract in March, the veteran Odorizzi has been a disappointment. He’s 4-6 with a 4.95 ERA entering Tuesday’s start against the Rockies. He gave up four home runs in three innings of work in the Astros’ 7-5 loss Wednesday in Los Angeles. In his last four starts, he’s allowed eight home runs in 16 1/3 innings, after giving up five homers in 47 1/3 innings in his first 11 games. Odorizzi said he’s been battling mechanical problems all season and will need to get it worked out if he’s going to find his way into the postseason rotation.

Athletics: 3B Matt Chapman
Through the first few months of the season, the A’s chalked up Chapman’s struggles at the plate to rust leftover from offseason hip surgery. At some point, they expected to see him return to his 2019 All-Star form. But the clock is running out on the 2021 regular season, and Chapman has been bumped down to the bottom third of the starting lineup as he continues his pace for a career-worst year on offense. The A’s could probably get into the playoffs with Chapman still not performing at his best. If they’re going to make a deep postseason run, though, they could really use a return to form from their star third baseman.

Mariners: 3B Kyle Seager
Seager has been the Mariners’ Iron Man since debuting in 2011, but his time in Seattle could be coming to a close if the team doesn’t pick up his $15 million club option, which seems unlikely given the trajectory of its rebuild. Nonetheless, the 34-year-old Seager is showing that he still has a lot to offer, with 24 homers and unparalleled leadership that has been so vital for the Mariners’ young nucleus. He’s quite vocal about wanting to win before he hangs up his cleats, but there’s a strong chance he’ll need a new team this offseason.

Rangers: OF Adolis García
García set the baseball world ablaze to begin the season, parlaying his 22 first-half home runs into a surprise All-Star appearance and supplying clutch hit after clutch hit. Since the All-Star break, however, García has come crashing down to earth. Entering Sunday, García was slashing .164/.218/.301 with two home runs since returning from Denver. In August and September, García will have to prove his first couple months were more than a flash in the pan.

Braves: RHP Ian Anderson
Anderson was a key to last year’s late-season push, and he’ll have a chance to do the same once he is activated from the injured list. The young hurler needed a chance to rest his shoulder, but he also benefited from the chance to get a breather midway through his first full season as a big leaguer. The Braves should feel good about Charlie Morton and Max Fried as their top two starters. Drew Smyly has also been effective. But he and Morton have wobbled beyond the fifth. So, a refreshed and seasoned Anderson could prove to be the most influential player for Atlanta down the stretch. His ability to duplicate last year’s success will take pressure off Kyle Muller and Touki Toussaint, who are both attempting to earn a lasting spot within the rotation.

Marlins: C Jorge Alfaro
Alfaro, the backstop the Marlins received along with Sixto Sánchez for J.T. Realmuto, has struggled offensively and defensively each of the past two seasons. The organization acquired two young catchers at the Trade Deadline, including Alex Jackson, and started Alfaro in left field for the first time in his career last week. The writing could be on the wall for Alfaro, who has something to prove with two years of arbitration eligibility left. In his first game back behind the plate on Thursday, he knocked a go-ahead RBI single to help the Marlins take three of four vs. the Mets.

Mets: OF Michael Conforto
No Mets player has more to prove over the final eight weeks of the season than Conforto, who has much to gain both personally and within the context of the team.

Coming off the best pro-rata season of his career, Conforto needed only to duplicate his success over 162 games to cash in as a free agent this winter. Instead, Conforto batted .199 over his first 73 games while losing significant time to a hamstring strain. But Conforto has shown recent signs of emerging from his freeze, making the next eight weeks pivotal for him on a personal level. If he succeeds, it will also make the Mets’ playoff aspirations far more realistic.

Phillies: RHP Ian Kennedy
Kennedy, one of the Phillies’ primary acquisitions before the Trade Deadline, assumed the closer role upon his arrival in Philadelphia. The 36-year-old has been solid all season for the Rangers and Phillies, but he’ll turn 37 this winter and might be looking at another one-year contract. Kennedy has 18 saves with a 3.44 ERA this season, so even if a team isn’t in need of a closer, he could cement his status as a desirable late-inning option with a strong finish. The free-agent market for relievers is deep but not particularly strong this offseason, giving Kennedy a chance to land with a contender if he can perform well down the stretch.

Nationals: 3B Carter Kieboom
Kieboom, the Nationals’ 2016 first-round pick, has had a bumpy road to the Majors. During his initial 11-game stint in ’19 and disappointing ’20 season, the former top prospect struggled both defensively and at the plate. Kieboom missed a chance to make the ‘21 Opening Day roster at third base — a position manager Dave Martinez said was his to lose. Washington has invested in its farm system, doubling down on its hope that Kieboom is a key part of the organization moving forward. Since the club became a seller at the Trade Deadline, the third baseman has been on an offensive tear while playing every day.

While it is all but certain that Kieboom will make the Opening Day roster next season, it’s imperative to know if his recent success in the batter’s box is a fluke or a sign of what’s to come.

Brewers: LF Christian Yelich
Yelich’s seven-year contract extension kicks in beginning in 2022, so he has nothing to prove on the contractual front. But for the sake of Yelich and a Brewers team that invested in him on the doorstep of the coronavirus pandemic, it would be a relief to see him return to being an offensive force following his 11-day absence on the COVID-19 injured list. Yelich’s .380 on-base percentage entering Sunday means he’s still contributing, but the Brewers need him to do damage, and Yelich hasn’t done that consistently since 2019. His .365 slugging percentage is the lowest by far of his career. No one is more frustrated than Yelich himself.

Cardinals: SS Paul DeJong
There have been few more perplexing seasons on the Cardinals this year than DeJong’s. He homered twice in the second game of the season but has struggled to find consistent footing since. He carried with him a .169 batting average into the start of July and has taken some modest steps forward since, but he’s also lost some playing time to Edmundo Sosa.

DeJong is under team control through 2025 after signing a historic extension before the 2018 season, which makes his turnaround all-the-more important for the club. But could it also make him a candidate for an offseason change of scenery?

Cubs: OF Ian Happ
In the wake of a frenzied Trade Deadline in which they sent core pieces to other clubs, the Cubs are currently in a two-month evaluation process for 2022 and beyond. Happ is entering his prime years (‘22 will be his age-27 campaign) and is under club control for two more seasons, but Chicago will need to weigh his rising cost against his sporadic production. Happ was a breakout player in the abbreviated 60-game season in ‘20 (.866 OPS and 133 OPS+), but has slid backward this year (.621 OPS and 70 OPS+ through 99 games).

Last winter, Happ took the Cubs to arbitration and won his case ($4.1 million). His salary will still be affordable in ‘22 (especially with only slightly more than $40 million in guaranteed salary on the books right now), but the Cubs have been unafraid of tough business decisions lately. Chicago non-tendered Kyle Schwarber last offseason, as an example beyond the string of trades. A strong push down the stretch by Happ would help his cause for remaining a firm part of the team’s future plans.

Reds: 3B Mike Moustakas
Moustakas returned Friday after he missed 68 games on the injured list with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Before he went down in May, the veteran lefty hitter was batting only .241 with four homers, and that came after he missed time with injuries during a subpar 2020 season — the first year of his four-year, $64 million contract. Moustakas, who replaced the benched Eugenio Suárez in the lineup at third base, came back strong on Friday with three doubles in a win over the Pirates and is often viewed as a clubhouse leader and motivator. With the surging Reds in a pennant race, they will be looking to Moustakas’ experience to help lead them.

Pirates: RHP Mitch Keller
Keller was the Pirates’ No. 1 prospect as recently as 2019, but his Major League tenure has begun in tough fashion. Through his first 30 starts with the Pirates from 2019-21 — a full season’s worth of starts — he owns a 6.38 ERA. He was optioned to Triple-A in June, worked there deep into July on simplifying his game and returned to the big league club with a pair of four-run outings. The Pirates’ top pitching prospects are still a step or two away from the Majors, so Keller will be given time to figure it out and reach his potential as a mid-rotation starter.

D-backs: C/OF Daulton Varsho
Varsho, one of the D-backs’ best prospects, got his feet wet in the big leagues during 2020, and as this season has worn on, he’s been putting together much better at-bats. With Carson Kelly seemingly entrenched behind the plate, Varsho has seen time in both center and left, where he has shown the ability to be, at worst, average with the potential to be very good. If he continues to improve at the plate, he could make a strong case that he is someone the D-backs can pencil in as a starter somewhere for the 2022 season.

Dodgers: OF Cody Bellinger
Bellinger has struggled mightily at the plate this season, easily posting the worst numbers of his career. The 2019 NL MVP is providing value while playing an elite center field, but his glove might not outweigh his lack of production at the plate. With Trea Turner now in the mix, the Dodgers are going to have plenty of moving parts as they set out their lineups. In order for Bellinger to get consistent playing time, he’ll have to prove he can post much better numbers at the plate.

Giants: INF Tommy La Stella
La Stella was the Giants’ biggest signing of the offseason, as his three-year, $18.75 million deal was the longest guaranteed contract awarded by the club under president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. Still, La Stella has seen limited action with the Giants thus far after missing three months with a hamstring strain and a thumb fracture. He was finally activated off the injured list at Arizona last week, giving him an opportunity to show that he can be an integral piece of San Francisco’s relentless lineup down the stretch.

Padres: LHP Blake Snell
The Padres sought a starting pitcher at the Trade Deadline and came up empty. The rotation still could get a lift if Snell starts to resemble his Rays self rather than the pitcher who has struggled to throw strikes in San Diego. Of the 115 pitchers with at least 15 starts in 2021, entering the weekend, Snell ranked 112th with a first-pitch strike rate of 55.3%, and he averaged the most pitches per inning, 19.1.

Rockies: 2B Brendan Rodgers
This season has been a breakout. Rodgers entered this week on a 14-game hit streak, and he appears to have solidified the No. 2 spot in the Rockies’ order. He has a compact swing that gives him pull power and, more importantly, has a chance to be productive on the road. Defensively, he is playing second, and he has seen time at short. Whether it’s one or the other, he has flashed some athletic plays but needs to be consistent pitch to pitch. If the Rockies are smart, they will seek upgrades around the field. But with their payroll, they will have to depend on Rodgers becoming a star if they are to quickly become contenders.


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