With the 2021 regular season only weeks away, every MLB team continues to make final roster changes as they plan to take their 26-man squads into the battle of a 162-game season. With that in mind, every season there are players across the league with both the potential and expectation to greatly improve their performance, greatly regress or match their productivity from a year ago. Here is a list of eight players: three who need to step up their game, three who will likely regress and two whose 2021 numbers should look similar to their 2019 and 2020 stats.
Breakout: Luis Robert (OF, Chicago White Sox)
The White Sox have two players making this list. Robert is the one who should break out in 2021. Robert’s rookie year was brought down by a very slow September. This brought his numbers down to mediocre and masked the power in his bat, his speed on the bases and his defensive prowess in center field. At just 23 years old, he is one of the many young pieces of Chicago’s nucleus that showed what he can do and now needs to do so for a full season.
Breakdown: Josh Hader (RP, Milwaukee Brewers)
Hader pitched extremely well over his first three seasons — he’s a big lefty closer with an unhittable fastball and slider combo. The problem is that manager Craig Counsell uses Hader quite a bit. As a result of this overuse, Hader could very likely slow down. The heavy workload will likely continue to wear him down and make him ineffective when it counts most.
Breakeven: Tim Anderson (SS, Chicago White Sox)
Here is the second White Sox player. Even though he continues to take very few walks, Anderson has proven over the last two years he can hit for contact as well as anyone. After hitting .258 with a disappointing .697 OPS and 88 OPS+ from 2016-2018, the numbers rose to .331/.871/132 in the last two full seasons. That development carried over into the wild 2020 season, and he has not stopped raking. Add onto that the feistiness and swagger he brings to the White Sox and MLB, and Anderson will likely remain a successful, well-known figure in the 2021 season.
Breakout: Jameson Taillon (SP, New York Yankees)
Few MLB pitchers have had to climb a taller mountain of challenges in life than the Yankees’ new pitcher. After battling cancer and recovering from multiple Tommy John surgeries, Taillon is back and feeling better than ever, which is a good sign for him and his team. He should still possess a mid-90s fastball and multiple breaking pitches. He has the potential to rise up to the No. 2 starter in the Yankees rotation behind Gerrit Cole. Even if that does not happen, if he can stay healthy and give New York 180 innings and 30 starts, that will be a successful, triumphant return.
Breakdown: Tyler Glasnow (SP, Tampa Bay Rays)
As the Tampa Bay Rays continue to break down their roster, Glasnow now owns the title of de-facto No. 1 starter. While he can throw quite the lively fastball, along with a curveball that has insane vertical movement, he cannot always stay healthy or locate his pitches. Those two issues have always left an asterisk by Glasnow’s name, and I do not expect that to get any better now that he is the team’s likely opening-day starter and staff leader.
Breakeven: Freddie Freeman (1B, Atlanta Braves)
The White Sox’s Anderson has played well enough over the last two years, leading to a breakeven for him — Freedie Freeman has done the same for five. The reigning MVP of the National League has batted at least .295, with an OPS of at least .892, in each season going back to 2016 — when he went from great to extraordinary. Freeman may have crossed into his 30s, but his production in recent years has shown no sign of regression. Expect Freeman to continue to lead the Braves’ lineup in 2021.
Breakout: Nolan Arenado (3B, St. Louis Cardinals)
Arenado is no longer a Colorado Rockies player. That should be enough of a reason to peg him for a breakout. His competitiveness and elite level of play were never adequately backed up in Colorado, and Arenado wanted out. Now he’s on a team that is often in the playoff race. With Paul Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong and the rest of their core ready to back him up, Arenado’s awful 2020 will hopefully not continue in 2021.
Breakdown: Trevor Bauer (SP, Los Angeles Dodgers)
If there is one word to describe the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, it is “inconsistency.” In 2018 and 2020, Bauer looked like a top-three pitcher in baseball who deserved all the money he earned and more. However, in 2017, 2019 and every other season in his career, Bauer has looked mediocre at best. He would give up a lot of hits and runs and would not be shy about his frustration. Despite being a part of the best team in baseball, and coming off a great 2020 season, there is too much evidence to suggest Bauer will regress next season.