Sports

One thing for every MLB fan base to be thankful for in 2021: Championships, star players, prospects and more

Ketel Marte. The Diamondbacks and their fans don’t have a ton to be thankful about these days, as the past two seasons have served as a soft apocalypse of sorts. But Marte has turned himself into a high-quality ballplayer over the last few years. His production, plus his team-friendly contract, could make him an immensely valuable trade chip at some point in the near future. Until then, he’s going to be a joy to watch.   Winning the World Series. What more needs to be written? If your team wins its first championship in more than two decades the way the Braves did — with role players stepping up left and right in place of injured stars —  then you should be thankful for it for at least a couple of years.   Cedric MullinsA year ago this time Mullins looked like a lost cause. Now he is the only 30/30 player in Orioles history, and a potential building block for a team still not yet ready to make the jump from rebuilder to contender. Soon top prospect and catcher Adley Rutschman will arrive, giving the O’s two All-Star caliber up-the-middle players to build around. A quick turnaround. In 2020, the Red Sox were so bad they secured the No. 4 pick in the draft. This year the Red Sox returned to the postseason and advanced to the ALCS. Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can take a step forward, and as far as steps back go, a bad 60-game season is about as painless as it gets. Unexpected contributors. Cubs fans had to say goodbye and farewell to almost every piece of their championship core oveer the summer. It turned out to be a blessing, then, that they had a number of unexpected contributors step up and provide some joy and entertainment down the stretch. It’s to be seen whether or not Patrick Wisdom, Frank Schwindel, and Rafael Ortega can sustain their production heading forward, but without them Chicago’s second half would’ve been a lot tougher to experience.    Luis Robert. A hip injury took a bite out of Robert’s season, but after he returned in August, the 24-year-old authored a .350/.389/.622 batting line with 12 homers in only 43 games. Robert has the talent to be a top-25 player in baseball and all signs point to a monster breakout season in 2022. Jonathan India. This offseason could be a rough one for Reds fans. At least they can take solace in knowing they’ll have the reigning National League Rookie of the Year Award winner hitting balls into the gaps for them again come 2022.   A new beginning. Things did not go well on the field this past season, but 2022 will mark the beginning of a new era of Cleveland baseball. Gone is the offensive imagery of Chief Wahoo and the insensitive team name. The Guardians are the new team in town and it’s a name and a look the franchise can wear proudly.  Coors Field. For one, there’s no such thing as a safe or boring contest if it’s played at Coors Field. For another, Colorado’s success at home (48-33 record) prevented them from posting another miserable season in 2021. Of course, you could argue the Rockies would’ve been better off landing a higher draft pick, but we digress.    Progress. A 77-win season normally isn’t something to brag about, but it represents progress for a Tigers team that had won that many games once in the previous six season. Eduardo Rodriguez has joined Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal in the rotation, top prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene should arrive next year, and Detroit seems poised to add one of the top free agent shortstops this winter. The rebuilder is transitioning into a contender. Justin VerlanderThe Astros were without their ace in 2021 and it might have cost them a World Series title. Verlander quickly re-signed this offseason, however, meaning Houston will have the future Hall of Famer back in the rotation in 2022. Bobby Witt Jr. The Royals are blessed with enviable middle infield talent. Nicky Lopez nearly won the Gold Glove at shortstop this year and Whit Merrifield is a pillar of stability at second. They also have Adalberto Mondesi. Soon Witt Jr., one of the top prospects in the minors, will arrive to give the team even more infield talent, and a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat.  The greatest two-man show on Earth. A calf injury took the starch out of Mike Trout’s season, but he is expected to be healthy to begin spring training, and he’ll team up with AL MVP Shohei Ohtani to give the Angels the most entertaining 1-2 punch in the sport. The pitching needs work (Noah Syndergaard will help, though they need more than just him), but Trout and Ohtani are very fun, and I’m pro-fun. Getting over the hump. Perhaps this is cheating because it’s the same answer we gave last year, but can you even imagine the discourse this winter if the Dodgers had fallen short and then risked losing Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Seager, Kenley Jansen, and others to free agency without a recent World Series ring? Yeesh.   Trevor Rogers‘ fastball. Rogers didn’t win the National League Rookie of the Year Award, but he has a nasty fastball that allowed him to dominate his freshman season. Rogers posted a 2.64 ERA (158 ERA+) and a 3.41 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .222 average against his heater despite a 58 percent usage rate.   The big three. It wasn’t long ago the Brewers were relying upon Wade Miley and Jhoulys Chacin to start their big games. Now they have Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta to handle those duties. That’s a massive step up, and one reason why Milwaukee is a threat in the NL Central if they can upgrade their offense.   Jorge Polanco. A lot — a LOT — went wrong for the Twins in 2021. Polanco was not among them. He quietly had a breakout year, hitting .287/.329/.585 with 21 home runs in 70 second-half games. A switch-hitting second baseman who can hit like that and is signed affordably though 2025 is a very nice building block for a team looking to rebound from an ugly season. The looming lockout. The Mets could use a work stoppage to get people to stop talking about how poorly the first year under Steve Cohen’s ownership went.    Aaron Judge. Is it possible for a Yankee to be underrated? Because it feels like Judge is kind of underrated. He is so much more than a power hitter. He hits for average, he always ranks among the league leaders in walk rate, he’s an elite defender in right field, and he’s an above-average baserunner. It’s a skill set you don’t normally see in a 6-foot-7 frame. Judge is a unicorn.   Matt Olson. Look, things aren’t going great for the Athletics right now. They missed the postseason this year, they’re likely to begin a rebuild and trade away core players this winter, and rumblings about relocation are growing louder. That said, A’s fans did get to enjoy Olson becoming a top-tier hitter this season, and that’s not nothing. Better to watch a homegrown player have that huge season in your uniform before trading him for a Godfather package than giving up on him too early and seeing him break out with another team, right? Bryce Harper. We get it; it’s easy to take Harper for granted given his omnipresence over the past decade. But jeez, did he have a massive season. He hit .309/.429/.615 (179 OPS+) with 35 home runs and 100 walks. That’s MVP-caliber stuff, and the exact kind of season the Phillies were hoping to get from Harper when they signed him in 2019.   PNC Park. Maybe this is a copout, but the Pirates continue to play in one of the most beautiful and well-regarded ballparks in the league. It’s just a shame the on-the-field product doesn’t often match the quality of its surroundings.    The outfield. We almost went with Nolan Arenado or the veteran battery of Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina here. Instead, we wanted to show some love to the outfield of Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, and Dylan Carlson. Each of the three is young and each of the three had a quality season in 2021. We’ll see if they can build on it.   Mulligans. The Padres failed to capitalize on their offseason hype, due in large part to myriad injuries to their pitching staff. We think San Diego will deliver next year, regardless of what the team does over the winter. And when the Padres do, expect new skipper Bob Melvin to get a lot of credit for it, even if it’s not necessarily his doing.   Buster Posey’s career. Giants games aren’t going to be the same without Posey behind the dish. But San Francisco’s organization and its fans should take solace in the memories they have from the career of one of the best backstops in recent memory. It’s not common these days for a player as good as Posey to spend his entire professional career with a single team — let alone to do so without there being much in the way of drama or negatives. That’s something to be thankful for in our book.   Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The Mariners finished two games out of a postseason spot this past season and they won 90 games for the first time since 2003. 2003! Seattle has more young talent coming (Julio Rodríguez, most notably) and all indications are they will spend this winter. The postseason drought reached 20 years this season. At long last, Mariners fans can see the path back to October, and they could get there as soon as 2022. Wander Franco. This was the pick even before Franco agreed to a long-term contract extension that could keep him with the franchise for more than a decade. I’m pretty sure Franco is already a top-25 player in baseball. He could be in the top 10 before the end of 2022. Wander’s plate discipline is precocious — he struck out five times in his final 31 games of the season! — and he has every tool in the shed. A franchise player in every way. The promise to spend. It’s just a promise right now, though all signs point to the Rangers being a significant player in free agency this offseason. A top shortstop feels inevitable, and they need pitching too. A lot of it. Ownership is ready to open the wallet and allow the team to be at least respectable in 2022. An emerging powerhouse. If you could buy stock in a baseball team, I would be all-in on the Blue Jays. They have a powerhouse offense led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, a three-deep rotation with Hyun-Jin Ryu, José Berríos, and Alek Manoah, and the financial might to add significant pieces. Toronto was one of the top three teams in the American League the final two months of 2021. In 2022, they’re poised to make the leap into the sport’s upper echelon. October 2019. The Nationals have suffered through two losing seasons since winning the World Series. They’ll probably have to endure a few more before their outlook begins to brighten. None of it can take away the fact that Nationals fans can relive that magical October whenever they want thanks to the miracles of modern technology.  



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