The 2021 season is nearly upon us, promising not only a full slate of games at the MLB level, but the return of the minor leagues as well. And, even though MLB did their darnedest to try to sap all the fun out of minor league baseball – including abolishing multiple teams, changing rules at every level, changing league names, etc. – the return will allow us prospect hounds to once again get a good look at the game’s next big stars.
As the dynasty content manager here at PitcherList, my bold predictions for this year primarily center around players who are expected to make their major league debuts this season, or at least prospects who should be on your radar in redraft and of course dynasty leagues. I still have a few predictions about non-prospects who I am expecting big things from, and hope to provide some food for thought for both dynasty and redraft fantasy players as you all look ahead to the upcoming season.
A reminder as well, the goal with these predictions is to go bold. Not that vanilla bold you see from other sites, where the predictions have like a 50/50 shot of coming true, but really bold. If I get one of these correct I’ll be happy. But the analysis should provide context for how I believe these players should be treated this season.
1. Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle out-homer Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge
I know it’s somewhat in vogue to dunk on Judge/Stanton for their myriad of injury issues, but I don’t have this prediction on here with that in mind. Certainly injuries have played a huge role in their careers in the Big Apple, and yes, Judge and Stanton have only combined for more than 30 home runs once (in 2018 when they hit a combined 65), but this is more about the power potential that Mancini and Mountcastle have in Camden Yards.
It’s easy to forget about Mancini, who hit 35 home runs in 2019 after hitting 24 home runs in both 2017 and 2018, but he’s back after a very scary bout with colon cancer that cost him the entire 2020 campaign. All reports out of spring training are that he is 100 percent healthy and ready to roll, and Baltimore is slotting him right into their first base role for 2021, pushing embattled slugger Chris Davis to the pine.
Meanwhile, Mountcastle earned his way into a starting role with an incredible debut performance for the O’s in 2020, slashing .333/.386/.493 with five home runs and 23 RBI in 35 games played. He’s been a slugger throughout his minor league career, hitting 27 home runs at Triple-A Norfolk in 2019, and there’s little reason to believe he’s not capable of hitting 30 longballs over a full season in the hitter haven that is not only Camden Yards, but the AL East as a whole.
Of course, the Yankees duo has that same advantage, and a lot more pedigree in the slugging department, which is what makes this prediction a fairly spicy one. Still, a situation where Mancini hits 30 home runs and Mountcastle hits 25 seems entirely plausible – and considering Judge/Stanton have only topped 55 combined home runs once as teammates, maybe this prediction isn’t as bold as it seems!
2. Kyle Tucker finishes as a top-8 fantasy outfielder
I’m addicted to grabbing Kyle Tucker as a late third or fourth round pick this draft season. I believe I have him in all but one league currently, and I’m fully bought in to 2021 being the year the toolsy outfielder finally breaks out for the ‘Stros.
After playing a small role in 2018 and 2019, Tucker finally got a full-time starting role for Dusty Baker’s squad in 2020 – and he made the most of it. The just turned 24-year-old cut his strikeout rate down to 20.2%, increased his walk rate to 7.9% while slashing .268/.325/.512 with nine home runs, eight stolen bases, 42 RBI and a 126 wRC+ in 58 games. Those numbers extrapolated over 162 games would give him 25 home runs, 22 steals, and 117 RBI – production that already puts him among the best outfielders in the game.
Now, with George Springer and Josh Reddick out of the picture, the door is wide open for Tucker to start every single day in right field and potentially hit in the middle of the lineup. Roster Resource currently has him as the No. 7 hitter, but I don’t think it’s hard to imagine a scenario where injuries, ineffectiveness, or just a blast of production from Tucker allow him to move into the heart of the order, where runs and RBI opportunities will be aplenty.
Additionally, Tucker has displayed top notch exit velocities throughout his brief big league career, and while the deadened ball might hamper some of that power potential, there is little reason to doubt his ability to post a 25/25 campaign – with 30/30 even within reach as well.
He’s likely set as a .260-.270 hitter, and his OBP probably won’t be a huge help either even with his improved walk rate last year, but something like 100/30/100/30/.270 is doable if he stays healthy and reaches his full potential this season – and that should put him well within the top 1o fantasy outfielders in the game, and will have him knocking on the door of the second tier guys currently populated by Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger, behind the big four of Soto/Acuna/Betts/Trout.
3. Aaron Civale finishes top three in AL Cy Young voting
Right-hander Aaron Civale is being hailed by many as the next great Cleveland pitching find, along with Zach Plesac and following in the footsteps of Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber. I’m fully bought into 2021 being the year of Civale, rostering him in (nearly) all of my fantasy leagues this year.
Civale finished the 2020 season making 12 starts and posting a 4.74 ERA (4.03 FIP) along with a 1.32 WHIP and a 22.1% strikeout rate – numbers that, frankly, shouldn’t put him anywhere near a Cy Young award.
However, Civale’s numbers are a tad misleading (he gave up eight earned runs in his final start of the season, which ballooned his season numbers) and there are adjustments we’ve seen him make, and could still see him make, that could push him into truly elite territory. And what better organization to be in for a guy who has the tools to be an ace?
Civale started out 2020 doing something nearly unheard of, when he virtually abandoned his bad sinker altogether and threw just his cutter and secondaries. He eventually went away from that strategy and settled in throwing his sinker about 30% of the time, nearly identical to his cutter, but the blueprint was laid down for him to have a ton of success pitching primarily off his offspeed stuff. My colleague Michael Ajeto wrote an article this offseason detailing Civale’s need to even further increase his curveball usage, a la Adam Wainwright, while attacking with his cutter up in the zone.
There’s no guarantee Civale will heed this advice (although as a friend of the site, he’s likely heard it) but there is plenty of reason to be hyper-optimistic about the 25-year-old heading into his third big league season.
We’ve seen Cleveland have plenty of success with less-heralded pitchers turning into stars, and Civale has the tools, baseball IQ, and support to make the changes necessary for him to take that step in 2021.
4. Logan Gilbert wins the AL Rookie of the Year Award
I think a lot of people are willing to believe that the Mariners will have the American League Rookie of the Year winner for the second straight year, but most people expect it to be superstar prospect Jarred Kelenic, joining Kyle Lewis as back-to-back winners – with another outfielder, Julio Rodriguez, potentially joining them in 2022.
While I have little (no?) doubt that Kelenic will be electric as soon as he gets his chance, I wouldn’t be surprised if the top prospect that makes a bigger impact on the big league club right away isn’t an outfielder, but rather right-hander Logan Gilbert.
The M’s have an embarrassment of riches in their farm system, as Gilbert is one of three potentially electric right-handed pitchers who could debut in the next year or so, along with Emerson Hancock and George Kirby. Gilbert is the closest to the big leagues out of the group, however, and there’s a good chance he will get a look with the MLB squad in the early part of the 2021 campaign.
Presently, the Mariners final rotation spot is a competition between Justin Dunn and Nick Margevicius, and while both have shown flashes in the past, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Dunn is converted into a high leverage reliever, thanks to command issues, while Marge fits the bill as a sixth (or in this case seventh) starter and long reliever going forward.
Okay, let’s actually talk about Gilbert. The big right-hander was another beneficiary of Seattle’s new training regimen that has consistently added velocity and movement for all of their young pitching prospects. Gilbert was hitting 97 with a ton of movement over the offseason, and that bump, paired with his potentially 60 grade command and three average-to-plus secondary offerings, could easily make him a high quality No. 2/3 starter – a ceiling he could, in a best case scenario, reach in 2021.
Of course, Gilbert didn’t throw in games last year, remaining with the team at the alternate training site, which means he has only thrown just under 150 innings in his pro career, with only 50 of them coming at the Double-A level. I have no doubt he will make his big league debut in 2021, and he’ll be among my top stash candidates this year, but his ability to win the Rookie of the Year award will be more about his debut timeline (something we know the Mariners might mess with after former CEO Kevin Mather’s comments last month) as well as his ability to immediately put his newfound velocity on display against big league hitting.
5. Matt Manning finishes the season as Detroit’s best starter
Considering the general lack of talent in Detroit’s big league rotation as it stands, this prediction may not look all that bold. However, Manning not only has to outpitch the five guys currently slated to start the season in the Opening Day rotation, he’ll have to step over fellow dynamic pitching prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, which will be a more difficult task.
Detroit is expected to head into the regular season with a rotation of Matthew Boyd, Michael Fulmer, Spencer Turnbull, Julio Teheran, and Jose Urena. Skubal, Mize, Daniel Norris and even Derek Holland are in that mix as well, and while that is a lot of pitchers, it’s not exactly a group of fantasy baseball stars. In fact, Nick’s latest iteration of The List only has two of Detroit’s starters on the list, Boyd and Turnbull, who come in at No. 82 and 83, respectively.
Note: Skubal was informed he made the Opening Day roster as this was going to print, likely as an injury replacement for Turnbull.
While plenty of Detroit pitchers could move up and down the list as the season goes on, I believe Manning will be the guy to own by the end of the 2021 campaign.
Mize and Skubal both made their big league debuts last year, while Manning was left at the team’s alternate training site and eventually shelved with a slight forearm injury – a precautionary move that clearly is not still an issue for the 6’6 right-hander. Manning is also my pick to be the best of the trio long-term, but I also don’t think it’s crazy he finishes the season as the most sought after pitcher on Detroit’s entire roster.
The 2016 first round pick flat-out dominated Double-A hitters in 2019, posting a 2.56 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP with a 28.1% strikeout rate for Erie. He looked more polished than both Mize and Skubal at that level, despite his age, and will head into 2021 in his age 23 season. Manning’s fastball gets up into the high-90’s and earned a 60 grade from Fangraphs, while his curveball (60) and changeup (55) look like plus offerings as well. Command is a bit of a concern, although it’s gotten better as he’s risen through the system and still gets a 55-grade future value.
Built like a small forward, Manning’s size, mechanics, stuff, and growing command make him among my favorite pitching prospects in all of baseball, and my highest-ranked among those who have yet to make their major league debut. I think he has the tools to be a true ace, although a more realistic outcome is a very high-end No. 2 starter. Those ceilings probably don’t show up until 2022 at the earliest, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on more fantasy rosters at the end of the 2021 campaign than any other pitcher Detroit has currently on their team.
6. Daniel Lynch finishes the season as Kansas City’s best starter
Like the last prediction, but spicier. The Royals actually have a pretty solid rotation top-to-bottom, unlike the Tigers, with a few veterans (Mike Minor, Danny Duffy, Brad Keller) buoyed by young up-and-comers in Brady Singer and Kris Bubic. Toss in Jakob Junis, Ervin Santana, and fellow prospect Jackson Kowar and you can see how it’s a tall order to even expect Daniel Lynch to pitch a lot of innings in Kansas City this year, never mind finish tops among this group.
I want to clarify quickly that, much like my prediction with Manning, I don’t think Lynch will have the best overall season among Kansas City’s starters – he won’t throw enough innings for that – but by late September, Lynch will be the most sought after starter on that team for fantasy purposes.
The 24-year-old left-hander was the 34th overall selection out of Virginia in the 2018 draft. He threw 78.1 innings at High-A in 2019, posting a 3.10 ERA (3.00 FIP) along with a 1.26 WHIP and a 23.5% strikeout rate. However, his stuff exploded in the Arizona Fall League, with improved command of his changeup and a newfound cutter that grades as a 50 pushing him up the rankings.
Lynch’s biggest issue is with strikeouts, as his stuff profiles like a power pitcher but he hasn’t quite turned that into a ton of bat-missing. Of course, we haven’t seen him in game action in a while, so there’s a good chance the improved stuff he flashed in the fall of 2019 will result in an increased strikeout rate in 2021, which could make him a quick riser up to the big league level.
This prediction is no doubt going to be tough to accomplish, with many of Kansas City’s arms already squarely planted on The List, but Lynch has as much upside as all of them, and if his tinkering was as successful as it seemed when we last saw him, he could be a big breakout star in 2021.
7. Gregory Soto finishes the season as a top-10 closer
At this point, it’s unclear who will be getting saves in the Detroit bullpen. Incumbent Joe Jimenez is still around, hailed as the closer of the future back in 2017. Of course, his 17 saves over the past four years, along with a 5.65 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and 8.3% walk rate suggest he’s not the man for the job, or at least should be given ample competition.
Bryan Garcia held the job briefly down the stretch last year, and while his 1.66 ERA last year in 21.2 innings is worth noting, he also posted nearly as many walks (10) as strikeouts (12) and his overall 12.9% strikeout rate is just not going to get it done. His strikeout numbers in the minors were much better, so I wouldn’t rule him out of this competition just yet, but I think he’s a very underwhelming option if he does get the keys to the ninth inning – as would veteran options like Buck Farmer and Jose Cisnero.
The only option that really intrigues me is Gregory Soto, a 26-year-old flame-throwing left-hander, who got off to a scorching hot start out of the bullpen last year before coming back down to earth as the season went on – finishing with a 4.30 ERA (3.76 FIP) and a 1.26 WHIP and 29.6% strikeout rate.
Soto possesses a hard sinker that ran up to 100 miles per hour last year, as well as a slider that is now sitting at 88 on the gun. He abandoned his crappy changeup and settled in as a two pitch pitcher, with that slider proving to be a strong weapon – posting a 36.5% o-swing rate and a 30(!)% swinging strike rate.
Command is the issue here, and it is a big one. Soto walked guys at a 13.3% clip last year, and has had issues with walks at every single stop throughout his minor league career, both as a starter and a reliever. There’s little reason to believe his command will dramatically improve, unfortunately, which likely caps his overall potential and could make it tough for Detroit to keep him in the closer role.
That’s what makes this prediction a bold one, as Soto would need to overcome the walk issues and take over the closing role on day one to have a chance at being a top-10 guy by season’s end. It could happen, however, thanks to his strikeout prowess and the lack of appealing options around him. I’m making Soto a priority target near the ends of most drafts, and suggest him as a compelling target in all formats – particularly those that count holds or K/9. If he’s still on your waiver wire and you need a speculative closer, this is among the best options you’ll find.
8. Austin Riley is a top-75 fantasy asset in 2021
As of this writing, Austin Riley’s ADP is just outside the top-200 in most fantasy formats – meaning fantasy players who roster Riley will be thrilled if this prediction even comes close to true.
I’ll give you a cliff notes version of why he could be a prime breakout candidate in 2021, but our own Chad Young wrote up a much more detailed piece about Riley that I strongly suggest you read.
Riley’s primary issue at the big league level has been strikeouts, but it’s worth noting he saw a massive decrease in that area in 2020, dropping his rate from 36.4% in 2019 to just 23.8% in 2020. Of course, those were both small samples (80 and 51 games, respectively) but it’s still worth noting as it was literally the biggest improvement across the league, and it was paired with his 2.4% increase in walk rate as well.
Riley’s improved plate discipline came with a decrease in his power output, unfortunately, as his ISO dropped from .245 in 2019 to .176 in 2020, resulting in just eight home runs in his 206 plate appearances. However, he still posted above-average Statcast numbers, with a hard hit rate of 42.9% and an average exit velocity at 89.4 miles per hour.
Riley could conceivably keep his plate discipline gains while tapping into more power, or at least a comparable power output to his abridged 2019 campaign, which could result in a 90/35/90 type of campaign, albeit with a .240 average and .310 OBP representing close to the best-case scenario. Still, those numbers would be welcome in the tail end of 10 and 12-teamers, and he’s well worth the gamble now that he appears to have the third base job completely locked down in Atlanta.
9. Jonathan India wins NL Rookie of the Year, goes for 20/20
I’ve kept your attention this long, so let’s hope I don’t lose it here. The latest out of Cincinnati is that longtime third baseman Eugenio Suarez may take over the regular shortstop duties once the season rolls around, freeing up veteran Mike Moustakas to play third base and leaving the second base position open for someone to step into an every day role.
That someone could certainly be veteran Dee Strange-Gordon, it could be 26-year-old prospect Max Schrock, or it could be Jonathan India, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft who is rocketing up 2021 draft boards after a really strong performance in spring training has him on the fringes of making the big league roster right out of camp.
India was hailed as a complete, quick-to-the-big-leagues type hitter when he joined the Reds in 2018, and although he suffered a nagging wrist injury that impacted his performance in 2019, he still managed to hit 11 home runs and swipe 11 bags across 121 games split between High-A and Double-A.
Reports out of the team’s alternate site in 2020 were very positive about India, particularly regarding his hit tool which has improved, although his exit velocities are, at least according to Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs, middling at best.
So there’s little doubt that 20/20 is the top end of India’s fantasy contributions, and expecting him to get there in year one when he has not even locked down an every day role (or even played above Double-A) is probably a little too ambitious. However, the skills are there for him to contribute in both the power and speed categories, and if he does end up getting the primary second base role, he should be a nice pickup in deeper fantasy leagues and could play his way into mixed league territory with a nice lineup around him and a ballpark that is particularly friendly to right-handed hitters.
10. Jackson Rutledge is a top-40 prospect in 2022
My bold prediction article last year featured Nationals prospect Jackson Rutledge as well, and while my prediction that he would throw meaningful innings down the stretch in 2020 didn’t come true, I’m still a huge believer in his overall skillset and believe he’s about to have a major breakout campaign in 2021.
Rutledge was Washington’s first round pick in 2019, and the hulking (6’8) right-hander has a fastball that sits in the high-90’s and frequently touches triple digits, along with a slider that gets a rare 65 grade from Fangraphs and a curveball (55) and changeup (50) that both get plus future grades.
He’s only thrown 37.1 professional innings, although reports out of the alternate training site in 2020 were very positive about his development.
There’s some relief risk here thanks to his size, command issues and lack of a viable third pitch, but I’m a believer that he will come out and dominate up and down the farm in 2021 – putting him among the top 50 prospects in all of baseball, and potentially one of the five best pitching prospects in the game, assuming we see graduations from a handful of players in front of him.
He’ll likely have little to no relevance in redraft formats, but I’m all-in on grabbing him in dynasty startups wherever possible, and think he’s worth trying to snatch away from opposing teams who may be impatient with the young prospect.
Photos Wikipedia Common/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)
Hey Andy, good read. Since you’re the Dynasty Content Manager, I have a dynasty question that is slightly off-subject. Curious of your thoughts about Adrian Morejon’s long-term future. Health and consistency (lack of focus?) seem to be his biggest hurdles. Also, curious about Connor Brogdon’s long-term future in the pen. His minor league stats look very impressive. Thanks
Mountcastle played for Norfolk, not Rochester.
Good catch – I’ll edit now.
No worries– as a lifelong O’s fan who went to college in Rochester, I have finally fulfilled my purpose.
As an owner of Civale, Gilbert and Lynch, I approve this message.
There ya go! I don’t have any shares of Lynch, sadly, but I’ll be trying to change that soon.