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A new hope for 30 players in 2021

January 5, 2021

In the spirit of making resolutions and setting goals for 2021, MLB.com's beat reporters recently selected the one player from each team who is most thankful for the new year. Whether it was a matter of struggling with injuries in 2020 or simply having a down year in the abbreviated

In the spirit of making resolutions and setting goals for 2021, MLB.com's beat reporters recently selected the one player from each team who is most thankful for the new year.

Whether it was a matter of struggling with injuries in 2020 or simply having a down year in the abbreviated 60-game season, the players below have their sights set on a better trip around the sun after flipping the calendar to '21.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

BLUE JAYS: Tanner Roark, RHP
The two-year, $24 million deal that Roark signed with the Blue Jays last offseason made sense at the time, as it was expected to give the club a steady veteran to chew through innings. The COVID-19 shutdown and resulting 60-game season saw Toronto shift its pitching strategy, though, with the club instead relying on shorter starts with heavier bullpen usage -- and Roark struggled through the most difficult season of his career. Pitching to a 6.80 ERA over 11 starts while dealing with home run and control issues, Roark never went deeper than five innings, which was uncharacteristic for the self-described “diesel engine” who feels that he grows stronger the deeper he pitches into a game. Roark came to Toronto with a 3.71 ERA and a strong reputation from his first seven seasons, so there’s no player on this roster happier to see the calendar flip to 2021 with a fresh slate.

ORIOLES: Trey Mancini, 1B/OF
Everyone’s world turned upside down in mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic struck in earnest. For Mancini, the disruption was two-fold. The same day baseball shut down due to COVID-19, Mancini, then 27, underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his colon. He spent the rest of the year battling Stage 3 colon cancer, eventually completing six months of chemotherapy treatment. The Orioles’ best player in 2019 and the face of the franchise, Mancini now eyes ‘21 as a redemption year on several levels. He has already resumed baseball activity and is expected to be healthy for Spring Training, with a focus on putting cancer behind him for good. That’s great news for an improving Orioles team that could start turning heads this summer.

RAYS: Austin Meadows, OF
Meadows had a breakout season in 2019, launching a team-leading 33 homers, but the young outfielder had a forgettable ‘20 season. Meadows battled COVID-19 during Summer Camp, which forced him to miss the first three weeks of the season. After returning to the lineup, Meadows was never able to find his timing at the plate, and then a left oblique injury derailed the end of his regular season. Meadows was able to return in time for the postseason, but he hit just .137 in 16 playoff games. A fully healthy Meadows should be a prime bounceback candidate for Tampa Bay in ‘21 and the club is hopeful that he will return to his All-Star form.

RED SOX: Andrew Benintendi, OF
The left fielder was on top of the world in October 2018, making two incredible postseason catches postseason that will live on in Red Sox lore. But over the past two years, not much has gone right for Benintendi, particularly offensively. Nobody looks forward to the coming season more than Benintendi, who had a nightmarish slump to start the ‘20 season (4-for-39, one extra-base hit) and had to live with those numbers as his final stat line due to a strained right ribcage injury that ended his season on Aug. 11. In his last 580 at-bats dating back to the start of the ‘19 season, Benintendi has a disappointing hitting line of .255/.341/.410 with 13 homers and 69 RBIs. At 26 years old and gifted with a sweet swing, it’s hard to believe Benintendi won’t bounce back. The return of Alex Cora should help, as one of the manager’s strengths is getting the most out of young players.

YANKEES: Gary Sánchez, C
The Yankees are confident that Sánchez’s woeful 2020 performance was an aberration, counting on the catcher to return to the form that previously secured him two All-Star selections. Sánchez fought an uphill battle at the plate, unable to reverse his .147 batting average before losing postseason playing time to backup Kyle Higashioka. Despite incorporating a new catching stance intended to augment his pitch framing, Sánchez struggled behind the plate, seeing five passed balls and six errors on his watch in 41 games. Sánchez worked out in Tampa before volunteering to play in the Dominican Winter League, where he aimed to catch up on some of the at-bats he lost during the season. Sánchez hopes that will help clear the deck and allow him to start fresh in the new year.

AL CENTRAL

INDIANS: Oscar Mercado, OF
The Indians saw what Mercado could provide both offensively and defensively during his rookie campaign in 2019, which prompted Tribe president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti to feel confident in saying, “We know it’s in there and we continue to partner with Oscar to try to get him back on that path of being a really good Major League player.” In ‘19, Mercado slashed .269/.318/.443 with 15 homers in 115 games, but he hit a mere .128 with a .348 OPS in 36 games in 2020, resulting in a brief trip to the Tribe’s alternate training site in August. But at the end of the year, Antonetti said Mercado was candid about the pressure he put on himself in the shortened season and he created a plan in order to improve his swing over the winter, which left the Indians optimistic for a bounceback performance in ‘21.

ROYALS: Hunter Dozier, INF/OF
Dozier looked like the Royals' next offensive centerpiece coming off a breakout season in 2019, but couldn't build off of it in ‘20. The slugging corner infielder missed the first couple weeks of the season after being placed on the COVID-19 list. He got off to a slow start at the plate once he returned, fought out of it with a strong midseason run that poked his average over .250 in mid-September, then closed the season with a 7-for-43 slump. His .228 average was 51 points under his ‘19 clip, and he struggled to a .392 slugging percentage and a .736 OPS. The silver lining was a jump in his walk rate that allowed him to post a .344 on-base percentage, nearly matching his ‘19 mark. With a full, healthy season, he should be closer to his breakout form.

TIGERS: Niko Goodrum, INF
Goodrum finally had a chance at an everyday role as a starting shortstop in 2020 after two encouraging seasons in a superutility role -- but everything went wrong. A miserable start at the plate cost him the leadoff spot in the batting order, then an oblique strain at the beginning of September forced him to the injured list and opened the door for Willi Castro to take over at shortstop. Goodrum shifted over to second base once he returned in mid-September, but he went 8-for-45 with 19 strikeouts down the stretch to finish with a .184 average, .598 OPS (62 OPS+) and more than twice as many strikeouts (69) as hits (29). The lone bright spot was that he was a Gold Glove finalist at short despite his abbreviated playing time. Goodrum could be headed back to a utility role, judging by new manager A.J. Hinch's comments, but Hinch has said he can envision Goodrum getting everyday at-bats, similar to the way the skipper used Marwin Gonzalez in Houston.

TWINS: Mitch Garver, C
Garver’s 2019 season was historic -- and that’s not a matter of hyperbole. A late bloomer, the backstop’s second full season saw him mash to a .630 slugging percentage, which would have matched the second highest by a catcher in MLB history had he logged enough at-bats to qualify. He wasn’t close to the same player in ‘20. Garver missed much of the season with an intercostal injury, and even when he was on the field, his mechanics were out of whack, leading to a .167/.247/.264 line in 23 games. Though he was healthy enough for the postseason roster, the Twins gave both playoff starts to rookie Ryan Jeffers, who impressed both offensively and defensively in his debut campaign. Garver has a lot to prove in ‘21. The clock is already ticking, considering it’ll mark his age-30 season, and he’ll also have Jeffers, the club’s No. 6 prospect per MLB Pipeline, pushing for more playing time. There’s no question of Garver’s ability -- the ‘19 Silver Slugger Award winner is still in there somewhere -- but he’ll first have to put a brutal ‘20 behind him.

WHITE SOX: Yoán Moncada, 3B
The switch-hitter put up AL Most Valuable Player-caliber numbers during the 2019 season, posting a slash line of .315/.367/.548 with 25 home runs, 34 doubles, 83 runs scored, 10 stolen bases and 79 RBIs. But Moncada tested positive for COVID-19 during the ‘20 in-take process and later admitted to the media he never really felt back to normal until the last week or two of the abbreviated season. Moncada finished with a .225/.320/.385 hitting line with six home runs, 17 extra-base hits and 24 RBIs over 231 plate appearances. There’s no denying the five-tool talent possessed by Moncada, who has found a defensive home at third base, and a healthy season should mean steady, if not high-end, production for one of the team’s key offensive forces. The 25-year-old enters ’21 simply looking for a return to normalcy.

AL WEST

ANGELS: Shohei Ohtani, DH/RHP
No player in MLB could use a reset button quite like Ohtani. The two-way star struggled to find success in either facet of his game in 2020, batting .190/.291/.366 with seven home runs and 24 RBIs in 44 games while being limited to two starts on the mound before he was shut down with a right forearm strain. Though the arm issues have been a concern over the past few years -- Ohtani also underwent Tommy John surgery in ‘18 that kept him from pitching in ‘19 -- the Angels aren’t ready to convert him to being solely a hitter just yet. During a media session at the Virtual Winter Meetings in December, Angels manager Joe Maddon said the club will likely utilize a six-man rotation again in ‘21 -- and Ohtani is expected to be a member of it. Progressing well in his rehab this offseason, Ohtani should enter Spring Training close to full strength for a shot at redemption next season.

ASTROS: Jose Altuve, 2B
There’s not an Astros player who's sad that 2020 is over, considering the year started with the revelation of the sign-stealing scandal that cost general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch their jobs, led to fines and suspensions for the club and cast a cloud over Houston’s ‘17 World Series championship. Altuve and the Astros followed that up with a subpar regular season that only made matters worse. Altuve, a six-time All-Star and the ‘17 AL MVP Award winner, seemed to feel the burden of the sign-stealing scandal more than anyone, posting a .219/.286/.344 hitting line -- all career lows -- with five homers and 18 RBIs in 48 games. Those were shocking numbers for the three-time batting champion. Like the rest of the team, Altuve somewhat redeemed himself in the postseason by slashing .375/.500/.729 with five homers and 11 RBIs in 13 games to get the Astros within a game of the World Series, but ‘21 represents a chance for Altuve to regroup and rediscover his All-Star form.

ATHLETICS: Matt Chapman, 3B
Chapman entered the 2020 season as a darkhorse MVP candidate following a breakout ‘19 campaign, but his ascension into superstardom was put on hold. After a 36-homer season that earned him the first All-Star selection of his career in ‘19, Chapman battled through injuries in ‘20, hitting just .232 with 10 home runs in 37 games before sustaining a right hip injury that required season-ending surgery. The A’s managed to weather the loss of Chapman well enough to still capture their first AL West title since ‘13, though the absence of his leadership and superb defense was felt deeply in the AL Division Series, when Oakland was eliminated by Houston in four games. Progressing well in rehab in Southern California, Chapman is expected to be fully recovered by Spring Training and the A’s remain confident that their star third baseman can return to his pre-injury form.

MARINERS: Shed Long Jr., 2B
Long is coming off a year in which he suffered a season-ending shin injury and lost his reins on the starting second-base job. After bursting out of the gate in September 2019, Long slashed .171/.242/.291 over 34 games in ’20, with an OPS+ and wRC+ of 50 -- well below the league average of 100. Mariners manager Scott Servais said recently that Dylan Moore’s ‘20 breakout will earn him more playing time in ’21, and the clearest spot is at second base, given that Mitch Haniger is expected to return from a nearly two-year-long injury hiatus in the outfield. Seattle isn’t ready to give up on Long, but he needs a bounceback season more than just about anyone on the 40-man roster.

RANGERS: Willie Calhoun, OF
Of all the Rangers seeking a clean slate in 2021, perhaps no player was happier to see the calendar flip than Calhoun. The outfielder’s ‘20 journey began with a fractured jaw in Spring Training, and things only got worse from there. He strained an oblique muscle toward the end of Summer Camp, and a strained left hamstring later landed him on the injured list for nearly a month. When he returns to the field this year, Calhoun will face another uphill battle -- proving he's more than just a designated hitter, after the club signed David Dahl to play left field. Expectations were high for Calhoun a full year ago, but after a lost season in which he appeared in just 29 games and slashed .190/.260/.491, the outfielder surely is embracing the new year and, he hopes, new opportunities to prove he belongs in the lineup.

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

BRAVES: Will Smith, LHP
Smith posted a 4.50 ERA over 18 regular-season appearances and then surrendered the three-run homer to Dodgers catcher Will Smith that led to Los Angeles’ comeback win in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series. Now, Atlanta’s Smith will attempt to be the dominant lefty reliever that the Braves envisioned when they gave him a three-year, $39 million deal last winter. He limited opponents to a .165 batting average and .233 on-base percentage over 22 innings (including the postseason), but eight of the 13 hits he surrendered were home runs. His flyball/home run ratio rose from 6.5 percent in 2018 to 20.4 percent in ‘19 and then to a career-high 33.3 percent last year. Some of his long-ball struggles were a product of an inconsistent slider, which may have been influenced by the fact that he missed all of Summer Camp and the regular season’s first two weeks while on the COVID-19 list. He will now attempt to bounce back from this maddening season while likely serving as Atlanta’s top high-leverage reliever in ‘21.

MARLINS: Jorge Alfaro, C
Alfaro, who showed flashes (18 homers, 95 wRC+) during his first season with the Marlins in 2019 after being part of the J.T. Realmuto trade, never could get going in '20. It started in Spring Training when he strained his left oblique, then continued during the first month of the season when he missed time with COVID-19. Upon his return, Alfaro slashed .226/.280/.344 with a .624 OPS in 31 games. Contact continued to be an issue, as he struck out 36 times in 100 plate appearances. Behind the dish, Alfaro's caught-stealing percentage dropped from 33 to 20, and his 41.3 percent strike rate was last among catchers (min. 500 pitches called), according to Statcast. Come the postseason, the Marlins elected to use Chad Wallach as the starting backstop, prioritizing defense. Alfaro will welcome a fresh start in '21 to prove he's still the organization's everyday catcher.

METS: Dellin Betances, RHP
The Mets’ signing of Betances away from the Yankees last offseason seemed like a coup, at least until the longtime relief ace began struggling with his velocity in Spring Training. At the time, Betances explained his mid-90s cap as the product of nearly a full year off due to right shoulder problems and a partial left Achilles tear. But the velocity did not return during Summer Camp or once the regular season began. Instead, Betances posted a 6.10 ERA before landing on the injured list in late August due to a right lat strain, which he said had been bothering him for weeks. Betances briefly returned at the end of the season to give up three more runs, finishing with a 7.71 ERA -- but he's still got a chance at redemption. He exercised his $6.8 million player option after the season, ensuring he will again be a prominent part of the Mets’ bullpen in 2021. Now 33, Betances isn’t looking to revert to his old All-Star form so much as he is trying to prove he can still be a useful reliever.

NATIONALS: Stephen Strasburg, RHP
Strasburg entered the 2020 season looking to ride the momentum of becoming the first pitcher to go 5-0 in the postseason and being named the ‘19 World Series MVP. Instead, he tossed a total of 83 pitches over five innings. The righty’s 11th season was cut short when he underwent surgery for carpal tunnel neuritis in his throwing hand. He was 0-1 with a 10.80 ERA in two starts, the second of which came on Aug. 14 when Strasburg walked off the mound after just two-thirds of an inning. He was ultimately shut down for the year. The Nationals are confident Strasburg will be ready for Spring Training, and the team will need him -- along with Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin -- to help anchor a starting rotation that has vacancies at the Nos. 4 and 5 spots.

PHILLIES: Scott Kingery, INF
Remember the excitement when Kingery signed a six-year, $24 million contract in March 2018, before he played a single inning in the big leagues? Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan since. First, Kingery got bounced around the infield and outfield his first two seasons, which took a toll on his body. Second, a trip to the COVID-19 list cost him time before camp reopened last July. Kingery was supposed to be the team’s everyday second baseman in ‘20, taking another step forward after posting a .788 OPS (101 OPS+) in ‘19. Instead, he slashed .159/.228/.283. It puts the Phillies in a bind as they consider their options up the middle with Didi Gregorius hitting free agency. If Kingery can turn the page and get on track, it would be a tremendous boost for the Phillies, both offensively and defensively.

NL CENTRAL

BREWERS: Christian Yelich OF
A quiet Summer Camp bled into a 1-for-27, 12-strikeout start to the regular season, and the compacted schedule meant there just wasn’t enough time for Yelich to recover. The final results weren’t that bad -- his .430 slugging percentage was within two points of Yelich’s production as a Miami Marlin, before he was traded to Milwaukee and became a league MVP, and his .356 on-base percentage was 10 points shy of NL MVP Award contenders Mookie Betts and Fernando Tatis Jr. But that adds up to a .786 OPS for Yelich, way off the standard he set in 2018 (1.000) and ‘19 (1.100), and not the way he wanted to begin a franchise-record-shattering contract extension. Manager Craig Counsell says there is no doubt that ‘21 will be better for Yelich, and Statcast offers plenty of support for that claim. Even in his disappointing year, Yelich ranked in the 88th percentile in expected wOBA, the 98th percentile in hard-hit percentage and the 99th percentile in exit velocity.

CARDINALS: Matt Carpenter, 3B
Since signing a contract extension early in the 2019 season, Carpenter has had two straight years of below-average performance: He hit .226 in ‘19 and a measly .186 across 169 plate appearances in ‘20. Carpenter slugged .314 and posted a .640 OPS in the shortened season, each the lowest of his career. The abbreviated campaign didn’t allow him to get into any sort of rhythm at all, but the performance was another step in a troubling trend for the 35-year-old. Carpenter might be the starting third baseman on Opening Day depending on how the rest of the Cardinals' offseason goes, but if he doesn’t turn things around, his job will once again be in jeopardy. He is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, and a bounceback season would allow him to finish his Cardinals career on a high note -- and help restore some faith to the club’s offense.

CUBS: Kris Bryant, 3B
One of the first decisions manager David Ross made after taking the helm last year was to name Bryant his new leadoff hitter. Ross was intrigued by the blend of power, patience and baserunning that Bryant could bring to ignite the offense. Then, Bryant labored through an injury-riddled 2020 campaign. He hit just .206/.293/.351 with four homers and 11 RBIs while playing in 34 of Chicago’s 60 games. Bryant dealt with a back issue at the end of Summer Camp, sprained his left wrist and left ring finger on a dive attempt in August and tweaked his right oblique in September. The third baseman also dealt with a left elbow issue at times. Bryant was never at full strength, which hurt a Cubs lineup that went quiet down the stretch. His tough season came after hitting .282/.382/.521 with 31 homers, 35 doubles and a 132 OPS+ in an All-Star showing in ‘19. Bryant did finish on a good note, belting a grand slam on Sept. 26 and going 3-for-8 with two homers and six RBIs in his final two regular-season games. But then he went 0-for-8 in the postseason and has been the subject of trade rumors all offseason, as the Cubs try to balance winning now with building for the future.

PIRATES: Bryan Reynolds, OF
Here are Reynolds' year-by-year averages dating back to his freshman season at Vanderbilt, excluding some brief appearances in the Arizona Fall League (2018) and Triple-A ('19) as well as short-season play: .338, .318, .330, .312, .302, .314, .189. One of those just doesn’t belong. So even if Reynolds doesn’t return all the way to his 4.1 WAR form of 2019, the switch-hitting outfielder is a far better hitter than his ‘20 slash line of .189/.275/.357 would suggest. The 25-year-old admitted near the end of the year that he put too much pressure on himself at the plate, believing the shortened schedule wouldn’t give him time to slump. “And so, I had one the whole season instead,” Reynolds said. Whether he’s playing left or center field, Reynolds remains an important young player for the rebuilding Pirates as they move forward. Considering his track record, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if Reynolds bounces back and performs like the Pirates’ best player with a fresh start and a full season in ‘21.

REDS: Eugenio Suárez, 3B
On the heels of his historic 49-homer season in 2019, Suárez appeared poised for another big year before an accident at home changed the trajectory of his ‘20 campaign. While playing with his three-year-old daughter in January, Suárez fell in the shallow end of his swimming pool and injured his right shoulder. He needed surgery to remove loose cartilage and would have missed the original Opening Day. The COVID-19 shutdown gave Suárez more rehab time, but he still struggled to a .202/.312/.470 hitting line, though he added 15 homers, 38 RBIs and a 102 OPS+ (down from 132 in ‘19). Like many, Suárez could not see his family while playing and it weighed on him as his wife was expecting their second child. He started the season 0-for-16 and hit just .185 over his first 34 games. A stronger September -- one that included being there for a healthy birth of another daughter -- saw Suárez hit eight homers in his final 23 games to help get Cincinnati into the postseason. Suárez is already an unquestioned leader in the clubhouse, but a healthy offseason without rehab has the Reds feeling like he could put a tough ‘20 season behind him quickly.

NL WEST

D-BACKS: Eduardo Escobar, 3B
Escobar had a season to remember in 2019, when he led the NL with 10 triples, smacked 35 home runs and drove in 118 runs. While it might have been unrealistic to expect him to duplicate those power numbers even if ‘20 had been a full season, no one in the D-backs organization expected Escobar’s performance to drop off as dramatically as it did. The 32-year-old posted a .212/.270/.335 slash line last year and his usual stellar defense at third was absent, as well. D-backs manager Torey Lovullo said that Escobar reported to Summer Camp a little heavier than the team would have liked, but his struggles continued even when he lost that weight. Escobar is well-liked in the clubhouse for his positivity and leadership and he is also respected for his work ethic. Teammates, as well as general manager Mike Hazen, have confidently predicted that Escobar will bounce back in ‘21.

DODGERS: Max Muncy, INF
Muncy has a World Series ring to show for his nine-year journey in professional baseball. He also batted .318 in that World Series with a .944 OPS. In truth, there isn’t a single returning Dodger who wants to forget 2020. But Muncy sure seems like the type of player who could put his ‘20 regular season struggles in the rearview mirror in ‘21. In 58 games last season, Muncy batted .190 with a .720 OPS -- both well below his career averages. That’s simply not indicative of the smart, selective hitter Muncy is. Considering some of Muncy’s peripherals -- his walk rate and his chase rate were still excellent -- it’s possible Muncy would’ve set those poor numbers right had the season lasted a full 162 games. But maybe that’s what ‘21 is for.

GIANTS: Johnny Cueto, RHP
Cueto disappointed in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, recording a career-high 5.40 ERA over 12 starts in 2020, which ranked as the second-worst mark among qualified starters in the Majors. He will turn 35 next month, but the Giants are confident that Cueto will bounce back and help anchor the top of the rotation alongside Kevin Gausman. The veteran pitcher routinely draws praise for his work ethic and he requested permission to pitch in winter ball to log more innings this offseason, though those plans ultimately fell through because San Francisco didn't want to risk injury or overuse. Still, Cueto has continued to document his rigorous workouts on social media, and he should be motivated to improve as he enters the final guaranteed year of his six-year, $130 million contract.

PADRES: Tommy Pham, OF
The Pham trade worked out beautifully for the Padres in 2020 -- just not necessarily because of Pham. Jake Cronenworth, believed at the time to be a throw-in in the deal, broke out as one of the sport’s top rookies and now looks like a mainstay in the Padres’ infield. Pham, meanwhile, never found his groove due to a spate of injuries. He batted .211 with a .624 OPS, playing just 31 of the team’s 60 games. After the season, Pham was the victim of a scary stabbing incident that required surgery. Pham has fully recovered from that wound, and the Padres clearly believe he is capable of a turnaround at the plate. If so, the San Diego offense looks like one of the most fearsome in the sport.

ROCKIES: Scott Oberg, RHP
The Rockies’ 2020 was forgettable, but Oberg has the top rib from his right side -- three inches, preserved in formaldehyde -- to serve as a reminder that his year was rougher than his team’s. Oberg was one of the Majors’ most productive relievers before blood clots in his right arm shortened his ‘19 season. It was the second time in his career that he had dealt with the clotting. Hoping the problem was behind him, Oberg was throwing a live batting practice at Coors Field on Aug. 2 when the condition flared again. Oberg didn’t pitch all season, and underwent thoracic outlet surgery in September. The rest of us flipped the calendar a few days ago, but does Nov. 30 -- the day Oberg posted an Instagram video of him beginning to throw again -- count as his New Year’s Day? “You can call it anything you want, but for me it was like, ’OK, this is the right step, this is where I wanted to get to, I’m on time, I didn’t have any setbacks.’ Things are going according to plan. I feel good. And it’s the next chapter.”